What’s big in philosophy today?

Matthew McKeever
9 min readOct 19, 2018

I have two goals here: to explain what was big in philosophy in the last third of the twentieth-century, which the most accessible histories of philosophy don’t do, to explain (what I think) is big now, and along the way suggest a theory as to the sort of progress philosophy makes.

Metaphysic’s is back baby. It’s good again. Awoouu (wolf Howl)

In one of the first classes of my undergrad philosophy degree, a professor asked us what we thought was big in philosophy, and those of us who were already philosophy nerds answered smugly: logical positivism in analytic philosophy and phenomenology in continental philosophy

We smug nerds were about seventy years out of date: while that answer would have been accurate then, in 2007 it was very wrong.

It’s understandable, though: the recent history of the discipline isn’t to be found in Bertrand Russell or F.J. Copleston’s histories of philosophy, which are by far the most available. And it’s not just an oversight of those books: at least in analytic philosophy, the big changes came around 1970s, given which it’s unsurprising that its history hasn’t yet been made available in a widely accessible format (both books mentioned were published in the 1940s. An exhaustive and scholarly history is available, in a multi-volume work by Scott Soames, but both price and difficulty make it inaccessible to the everyday reader.)

So here, incredibly quickly, is that history:

Around the 1900s, in reaction to unconstrained metaphysical theorising, Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore came along and brought logical rigour and commonsense to philosophy. At the heart of their thinking was the simple thought that words reached out and made direct contact with reality. From this simple starting point, with the help of formal logic, great strides were made: most notably in Russell’s theory of descriptions, and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, which respectively used logical realism to make a commonsensical and a not-so-commensical metaphysical picture of reality.

This, arguably, forms the first movement of the history of 20th century philosophy: a sort of realism inspired by logic which reaches it apogee in the Tractatus.

But the Tractatus also bore the seeds of the second phase: one of Wittgenstein’s projects was not only to say a bunch of stuff about reality, but also to say what couldn’t be said about reality, and his conclusion was that lots couldn’t: ethics, aesthetics, religion, and maybe even the metaphysics that he himself was producing was perhaps nonsense.

This idea was taken up enthusiastically by the next movement, the logical positivists. They developed Wittgenstein’s idea about the limits of language, and emphasised it while downplaying his metaphysical work. They produced their verifiability theory of meaning according to which what a sentence or utterance means is just what it takes to show it to be true or false.

On this basis, they felt confident to declare philosophy over and done with: many of its big questions (does God exist? Is the world mind-dependent? What is good?) don’t have verification conditions and so are meaningless. The key thing to note here is that we can view a pattern of action and reaction: the robust metaphysical instincts of Russell are now tamped down by a scepticism about its possibility.

Ayer was both a logical positivist and the subject of the best book cover ever

So far, so familiar. What’s less known is the next step. The story turns, as it did early with Russell, with the introduction of a new type of logic. A central concern of metaphysics has been about concepts such as essence and necessity. Open up Aristotle, or Descartes, or Spinoza, and you’ll read about things’ essential natures, or about how everything that happens does so as a matter of necessity.

What happened around the 1960s was that logic developed so as to be able to think about these topics rigorously: the work of — most notably — Saul Kripke showed how to model statements involving possibility and necessity, and philosophers thus became able to re-pose an attempt to answer some of the central speculative questions of philosophy.

Do, as a matter of metaphysics (rather than science, which is another question), other universes than ours exist? Is every object part of some other object (your knuckle is part of your thumb, and your thumb is part of your hand, and your hand is part of your arm, and your arm is part of your torso, and your torso is part of you … can we always go on forever?) Do the past and the future exist? Could a table built from a bit of wood have been built from another similar bit of wood?

These are all questions that have been and are still discussed by contemporary philosophers: indeed, they are part of mainstream philosophical discourse. If you flick through a recent edition of a philosophy journal, you will read articles about them, and proposing a smart new take on one of these questions will get you, maybe, a publication in a good journal like Mind, the journal that published Russell and then the logical positivist Ayer (among many others).

Let me take one example in a bit more detail, so you don’t have to wade through a journal article. We exist through time: we persist, to use the jargon. I existed yesterday and I exist now. What’s the deal with that? What is it for an object to persist through time?

There are two main schools of thought on this. On one, an object exists through time like it exists through space: by having parts existing at different times. A temporal part of me existed yesterday and a different part exists today; I am all those parts together, just like my body is my hand and foot and torso etc. stuck together.

On the other view, this isn’t so. Rather, when an object exists through times it exists completely at each time. Again an analogy is helpful: blueness exists in multiple places. On my shirt, on the cup on my desk, and so on. But it’s not like a part of blueness exists there and a part here: rather, it exists completely at each of those places. So when it comes to time: I exist completely at each time at which I’m located.

Note that this is enough to make a positivist have conniptions. There is nothing to tell these two views apart, empirically: no way to verify either view. They are both, as far we can can tell, coherent pictures of how reality might be, but that’s it. While the positivist would say it’s a meaningless debate, philosophers, including yours truly, argue back and forth as to which one is correct.

(And there are arguments in favour of each one. I don’t want to go into these too much: you could check out a paper I wrote (especially pp4–7) on the topic if you’re interested.)

The point is, after a period when it was out of favour, when the positivists were big, metaphysics is now again a mainstream topic of philosophical attention. And when you attend to the history of philosophy, this pattern seems to repeat: thus we see more sceptically-minded philosophers react to more metaphysically speculative theorists. From a certain vantage point, it can seem like a sea-saw: now, with Plato and Spinoza, grand metaphysical theorizing is in, now with Aristotle and Hume philosophers are more anchored in reality. But this encourages the question: what accounts for these swings, this oscillation that seems to mark philosophy’s history?

Just like dogs on the cover of this book, metaphysics is now present, now absent from the history of philosophy

The Social Turn

I will try to answer this in a second, but for now I want to tell you the next bit of the story of philosophy. And it’s here that I get more speculative and uncertain. But I think that the next period of philosophy’s history, after logical atomism, logical positivism, and the new metaphysics, is upon is. And it is what is sometimes called social philosophy.

Recently, philosophers have started caring about the world, and bringing technical tools and theories in logic, the philosophy of language, and metaphysics, to bear on questions of moral, political, and social import.

This needs some qualification. Philosophers have always cared about these things: the discipline of applied ethics, concerned with practical questions like abortion, animal rights, and the environment, among much, much else, has been a peripheral but important part of philosophy for decades. What has changed recently is the approach and the centrality. Now people who formerly would have spent their time on knotty questions of logic and metaphysics ask instead how pornography works, or how propaganda renders us less able to participate in a democratic society.

In a second I’ll give an illustration, but for now I want to make the point that it seems like this is another swing of the metaphysical/anti-metaphysical pendulum. While metaphysics is still big, my prediction is that it will wane and this latter, more socially-orientated philosophy, will become central, and that its doing so is just a repetition of one of the history of philosophy’s most venerable patterns.

But let’s consider an illustration: pornography. Starting in the 1990s, feminist philosophers like Rae Langton, Caroline West, and Jennifer Hornsby, have put forward ingenious theories about the nature of pornography using tools from linguistics and philosophy of language.

Here’s one key claim. Consider this famous (at least to analytic philosophers) sentence:

The king of France is bald

Is it true or false? Well, it’s hard to say, isn’t it? It doesn’t really seem either true or false, because there is no king of France. But if there was a king, then we could say if it was true or false. That’s to say, it seems like the sentence presupposes that there is a king of France: without assuming that there is, it doesn’t really make sense, or at least isn’t truth-evaluable.

Presupposition is a central feature of sophisticated theories of language, and has been the subject of much sensitive, often very technical, work in formal semantic and philosophy of language.

Langton claims that the notion of presupposition can be used to shed light on pornography. In particular, consider pornography that features women being mistreated. The woman might attempt to call for help, show signs of disapproval, but also might, at the same time and perhaps despite herself, appear to be enjoying the way she is being treated. This, the story goes, is puzzling for the audience: the woman appears to be saying no, to be trying to extricate herself from the situation, but perhaps she is doing so half-heartedly. That’s puzzling, and hard to understand. And so we try to make sense of it by seeing if we can assume something that will rationalise her behaviour. And so we can: if we presuppose that in saying no, showing signs of disapproval, etc. she is actually saying yes to the sexual encounter, we can explain her behaviour. That is, if we presuppose that in the pornography, no means yes, we can make sense of her behaviour, and so we do — to make it make sense, we make the presupposition (this is known as presupposition accommodation, and is again much studied in the literature). The key point is that this, and much work like it, uses theoretical tools from other, more technical areas of philosophy, to shed light on important questions like women’s inability to say — or men’s refusal to hear — ‘no’ to sexual encounters (if boys are brought up watching pornography, then they are constantly presupposing ‘no’ means yes, and unless they are very careful about distinguishing fiction from fantasy, this might lead them to behave as if it were true in real life).

Recall a question I left dangling: what is it that accounts for the swings in philosophy now towards, now away from metaphysical theorizing? Why does philosophy not proceed onwards simply accruing new knowledge as (one might think) science does? Why is there not progress in philosophy, and if there isn’t, what determines how philosophy evolves?

I think the answer is simply: boredom. People get bored doing the same thing, asking the same questions, and so turn to new ones. The logical realists got bored and positivism arose; the positivists got bored and the new metaphysics arose. Unpenned in by (many) new empirical discoveries to constrain theorising, philosophy’s progress is to a large extent just determined by its practitioners desire for novelty, in roughly the same way one could argue that literature and art’s progress is a function of the desire for novelty. Philosophy is more like art than science in this respect. (If this sounds unbelievable to you, I would be quite confident that many working philosophers would recognise this — it’s a very familar feature of professional philosophy that a given topic arises, becomes huge for a while, and then is just forgotten about. I’m just suggesting it happens on a very large scale.)

But this leads me end on a concern. I think much of this work in what I called social philosophy is very good and I am glad that it’s a central concern of philosophers. But if I’m correct that it’s the most recent instantiation of a pendulum set in motion by boredom, then we should expect the pendulum to swing back, eventually, and to swing away from such work. And that’s not good if we think that work is valuable.

I don’t have anything good to say about that. Maybe I’m wrong, and philosophy has finally turned a corner, and from now social philosophy will be first philosophy. But I kind of doubt it, if the history of the discipline is anything to go by.