Recent History

Over on Certain Doubts, Jon Kvanvig posed the following question

[W]hat are the three most important developments in epistemology over the last quarter century?

Jon framed that as a party-question, and it’s one party-question we could ask. But here at TAR we set out sights even more abstractly. As in questions like

What are the three most important developments in philosophy over the last quarter century?

Perhaps that’s a reasonable question to ask, but even I think it’s a little broad. So what about instead.

[W]hat are the three most important developments in metaphysics&epistemology (broadly construed to include mind and language) over the last quarter century?

I actually have reasons for asking, as well as (weakly held) opinions on what some of the answers should be. But I might follow Jon’s lead and hold off on saying these until there’s a bit of a discussion thread going.

10 Replies to “Recent History”

  1. 1. we’ve seriously upgraded the quality of work being done in the philosophy of time (especially the metaphysics of time).

    2. we’ve had ordinary language philosophy return on steroids and try to force its way back into serious discussion. If that’s too cryptic for some people, it’s a way of expressing disapproval of some (*not all*) of the ways that linguistics and linguistic analysis are being used in metaphysical and epistemologogical debates.

    3. we’ve considerably broadened out the range of serious central topics in epistemology.

  2. I stuck to metaphysics and epistemology in that first post. Let me add one more for philosophy of mind (Brian – if I’m not allowed to add one more then cancel #3 in my first post).

    4. In philosophy of mind, work on 2 of the three main topics of the past 25 years (mental content, mental causation and consciousness) has been especially rigorous and fruitful. And not all work on consciousness has been bad.

  3. Metaphysics:

    1. Ontologists use of mereology, ala Peter Simons in Parts.

    2. The work done on supervenience.

  4. This is probably just my San Diego roots showing, but connectionist philosophy of mind would be in the top ten— although perhaps not the top three.

  5. I agree with Fritz that one of the most important developments (at least in the past ten years) is the development of more systematic ways of evaluating philosophical positions against the background of their linguistic commitments. But of course I strongly decry his implied negative connotation (even though Fritz gave me an out with his ‘but some of my best friends do this’ caveat 😉 ).

    However, I wouldn’t call it ordinary language philosophy, for two reasons. First, since the way ordinary language philosophers looked at language was haphazard and uninformed, it was likely simply to reflect the investigator’s philosophical prejudices. Secondly, among those who have urged that linguistic commitments be taken seriously, there is no thought that all philosophical questions could be resolved by appeal to language. Semantics can tell us the commitments of a certain kind of discourse, but it can’t tell us whether we ought to incur those commitments.

    I view the development of more sophisticated inquiry into the linguistic commitments of a view (when it does have such commitments — not all philosophical positions do) as part of a broader recognition that philosophy is better when it is constrained by something.

    When someone propounds a certain doctrine about Ps, and it turns out upon semantic investigation that the doctrine would make most of our ordinary P-talk false, then that is a cost of that doctrine. The cost can be made up by benefits elsewhere. But if there is such a cost, then the person prounding that doctrine cannot claim as a virtue of her theory that it cleaves to common sense about Ps. This is where attention to language pays off — as a way to be more exact and rigorous about what the commitments of common sense are.

    Such considerations are part of a broader set of considerations that exist to evaluate a philosophical position. There are others, some empirical (e.g. appeal to other sciences), some not (logic, maybe phenomenology). But I worry about philosophy when it spins freely of all ways to evaluate it. It’s a very positive development when methodologies arise to evaluate our claims, and this should balance out the fact that it forces us to work harder (in this paragraph I’m echoing an important unpublished paper by Tim Williamson).

    On another front, I think one of the most important contributions of the last twenty-five years has been the spectacular work on conditionals and counterfactuals (not that we’ve reached any definitive conclusions, except that certain attractive views can’t be right).

  6. Oops, in the last paragraph, I guess I should have said the last 30-35 years…boy, time flies…

  7. Jason makes a good pick pointing to work on conditionals and counterfactuals. I left that one off because it was off to a very strong start by the time Brian’s window arrived (I see that Jason notes this now in his followup post).

    And I also agree with Jason that the current lingsuistics/philosophy partnership isn’t ordinary language. It’s “ordinary language on steroids” and I mean the analogy to athletics to be taken pretty tightly — there are pros and cons to getting on steroids! Jason is correct that the systematic/scientific study of language is of course more relevant to central philsophical issues than “ordinary language” is. When used as one tool among many (as Jason describes above) I doubt anyone will disagree with the relevance of rigorous work on language to many philosophical issues. Jason gives one clear example of how this can and does go up above. The extreme that I know I am not alone in worrying about is attempting to settle debates in M&E solely or primarily by appeal to semantic considerations. (let’s review: relevant data, yes, the way to end or take control of a debate, no).

    I assume it’s ok if philosophical inquiry is constrained by, uh, rational insight when the linguists are on vacation?

    Hugs to all my language friends (hey, I love language too).

  8. I’m not sure I know what you mean by “rational insight”, Fritz. There are a couple very lengthy metaphysical works by Hegel that operate self-consciously on rational insight. Is that the kind of thing you mean? The arguments there turn out to be rather difficult to evaluate.

    The way I would understand “rational insight”, is that it involves, when making a claim, ensuring that it coheres with science, common sense, and logic.

  9. If I ever turn to the Hegelian version of “rational insight” do request a mental competency hearing for me my friend. Coherence (suitably understood) with the rest of what we know and/or rationally believe is good enough for me — and for you too I’m sure. We’re on the same page here and that’s a good thing. Sophisticated insights about language (especially semantics I suppose) will be one part of the relevant evidence base but no more than one part of it.

  10. I think just the fact that people are doing metaphysics again and that’s it central rather than peripheral is largely due to the research program begun a little more than 25 years ago but really developed during the last 25 years. I don’t know how you could do such a list and not include the mere doing of metaphysics.

    The development of four-dimensionalism seems extremely important to me, as does the clarification of the views of vagueness we now have. Maybe Kripke’s work on essentialism is too old, but the impact that has had on the last 25 years of metaphysics seems too important not to wonder whether the results of that should go on the list. Is Field’s post-Quinean nominalism new enough? That’s a big deal also, I’d say.

    In epistemology, I think the development of various sorts of externalism and contextualism have changed the whole scene. I’m not sure others will agree, but I think the defenses by Plantinga and others of belief in God (not the arguments for God’s existence but the defenses of rationality of belief) have revolutionized philosophy of religion enough to consider it for such a list.

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