How philosophy does not make progress. A note on Scott Soames’ new book

Every now and then, philosophers like to discuss whether philosophy makes progress. Although the notion of progress is problematic, I often find these discussions rewarding, for they bring out how varied our understandings actually are. For me, “progress” is a term qualifying interaction, e.g. between interlocutors. In this sense, a conversation can be progressive in that it becomes more refined. And insofar as philosophy can be seen as a form of conversation, it certainly allows for progress. I don’t particularly care whether the progressive elements lie more in the problems or answers or in the methods of tackling them. After all, it depends on what the interlocutors make of them. On Twitter, Michael Schmitz recently suggested that the impact of philosophical ideas on other fields (sciences, arts, politics) might make for an interesting measure of progress, and I wondered whether there are histories of philosophy that put such impact centre stage. When studying linguistics, for instance, I was struck how often Wittgenstein would be named as an inspiration, but my question of how exactly the interaction between linguists and philosophers went remained unanswered. While I have no doubts that there are crucial interactions between philosophy and other fields, I think the precise relation between them would be an intriguing topic for historical research: What was the impact of philosophy, perhaps decisive in the foundation of disciplines, policies or other developments? More than once, Scott Soames’ new book The World Philosophy Made: From Plato to the Digital Age was mentioned as an example for this kind of history. So I began to read. In what follows, I don’t want to present a thorough review. Rather I want to point out in what ways this book is an exemplar of the kind of book that might block progress.

The book does indeed set out from what I’d call an interactionist account of progress. In the introduction, Soames notes that “this book is about the contributions philosophers have made, and continue to make, to our civilization.” (xi) On Daily Nous and elsewhere, Soames’ book has already been noted for its intriguing view on progress:

Philosophers help by giving us new concepts, reinterpreting old truths, and reconceptualizing questions to expand their solution spaces. Sometimes philosophers do this when sciences are born, but they also do it as disciplines mature. As science advances, there is more, not less, for philosophy to do.” (ibid.)

Given the subtitle of the book, it’s clear that we should not expect a very detailed account of such interactions. Fair enough, it might be a start. However, we know that the notion of philosophy might have changed since Plato. Trying to depict any interaction between philosophers and other fields requires an idea of how to identify agents of different fields, doesn’t it? Soames loses no ink over demarcating philosophy from other endeavours. There are no remarks on the shaping of disciplines or even on research on such developments. For instance, the chapter on the “science of language” begins with Chomsky, whose work is deemed as crucial for the empirical study of natural language (133). Is he to be seen as a linguist or a philosopher? We are not told. What did he draw on? Who cares? Not a single word about the Neogrammarians in the nineteenth century; nothing about the early and later works of Bloomfield or the relations of linguistics and warfare in the early twentieth century. Soames is known for history of analytic philosophy and work in the philosophy of language, but one gets the impression that Soames merely works from the top of his head when drawing distinctions or picking his heroes, even in his area of specialisation. To his credit, I should note that he was “initially not inclined to” write this book (ix). Rather he portrays himself as having been persuaded by his editor at Princeton University Press.

Of course, I was particularly curious what Soames would make of medieval philosophy, for in this case we have numerous assumptions and prejudices about the relation between, for instance philosophy and theology. The schematic “timeline” at the end of the introduction notes three stages in medieval philosophy: Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, the “revival of the Aristotelian study of nature” and “Ockham’s razor”. The chapter itself is called “A Truce between Faith and Reason” and also mentions Augustine, Avicenna, Averroes, Albert the Great, Bonaventure, Roger Bacon and Duns Scotus – a serious expansion of the canon relied on! Despite these honourable mentions, it’s clear that Aquinas is the hero of the chapter. Without any questions Soames repeats the story of the “grand synthesis” (39) between faith and reason, Augustine and Aristotle, that the Neothomists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have handed down to us. If you follow the sparse footnotes (409-410) you will find that, besides Aquinas himself, Copleston’s history (1946-1975) is the true source of erudition. And why bother with any later scholarship?

But what is Soames’ verdict? In his own words, the “genius of the High Christian Middle Ages – its foremost contribution to the world philosophy made – was in finding a way to give Greek philosophy a second chance …” (21-22) This might indeed pass as a witty remark. After all, medieval philosophy is known as a set of commentary traditions, and the talk of a “second chance” – isn’t it just? But substantially, what acclaim do you receive, if I note that what you do best is give voice to someone else’s thoughts? Similarly great are the achievements of individual men (yes, what else?). Albert the Great’s “most lasting contribution was his influence on his brilliant student Thomas Aquinas.” Of course, the Editio Coloniensis, the critical edition of Albert’s works comprises roughly 50 percent, but Soames can already assess the lasting influence of this work.

These assertions of the traditional canon are so lame that even challenging them can by now count as canonical. As the résumé of his chapter makes clear (39), he merely repeats a teleological narrative of philosophy as striving towards a rational autonomy designed to foster the development of the sciences. Soames writes: “… as time wore on, philosophy asserted its natural critical autonomy, the synthesis [of faith and reason, M.L.] eroded, and philosophers created the intellectual space they needed to begin laying the foundations for the spectacular growth of mathematics and natural sciences that was to come.” (39, italics mine) I italicised parts of the text that indicate the familiar teleological reasoning driving this well worn idea. It’s a story of decline and growth, and its hero or rather heroine is philosophia, endowed with natural properties that come to flourish in the course of history. It’s a story with agents and detractors, of destination towards the fate that we have come to now.

It’s 2019, and we see a major academic publisher disseminating a piece of work, admittedly reluctantly composed by someone who is not a specialist, who grounds at least part of his work on no research, who does not pause to question the categories and descriptions he applies. You might object that this is not “scholarship” but intended for a larger audience. If so, what kind of audience is this? An audience that needs to be told that Plato was a philosopher or that Bach had interest in organ music? Does that audience not deserve to be served state of the art research? Or at least something based on research of the last thirty years? Or, if that would be asking too much, something that highlights caveats or open questions in the introduction?

I’ve read too many books to ignore the fact that Soames’ book is not the only exemplar of this kind of work. Nor is it a special problem that Soames publicly endorses the politics of Trump.  Indeed, there are many books by famous philosophers who get to share their sometimes ideosyncratic views in an unquestioning manner with a major publishing house. The problem is not just that some of the chapters might be outdated. Given that the actual question of the project behind this book is rather interesting, this publication will represent the state of the art on this issue for years to come. Aspiring scholars wanting to engage with this kind of project will have to reference this work and discuss it, thereby perpetuating the impact of unquestioned teleological bullshit.

2 thoughts on “How philosophy does not make progress. A note on Scott Soames’ new book

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s