The Atlantic has a great interview with philosopher and novelist Rebecca Goldstein, which among other things discusses the relevance and importance of philosophy as a discipline (Goldstein is well known for promoting the benefits of philosophy to moral progress and advancing the human condition).
I recommend reading the whole interview hyperlinked above, but the following excerpt most stood out to me. It addresses the rather common claim that philosophy has not changed or progressed much throughout history.
There’s the claim that the only progress made is in posing problems that scientists can answer. That philosophy never has the means to answer problems—it’s just biding its time till the scientists arrive on the scene. You hear this quite often. There is, among some scientists, a real anti-philosophical bias. The sense that philosophy will eventually disappear. But there’s a lot of philosophical progress, it’s just a progress that’s very hard to see. It’s very hard to see because we see with it. We incorporate philosophical progress into our own way of viewing the world. Plato would be constantly surprised by what we know. And not only what we know scientifically, or by our technology, but what we know ethically. We take a lot for granted. It’s obvious to us, for example, that individual’s ethical truths are equally important. Things like class and gender and religion and ethnicity don’t matter insofar as individual rights go. That would never have occurred to him. He makes an argument in The Republic that you need to treat all Greeks in the same way. It never occurs to him that you would treat barbarians (non-Greeks) the same way.
It’s amazing how long it takes us, but we do make progress. And it’s usually philosophical arguments that first introduce the very outlandish idea that we need to extend rights. And it takes more, it takes a movement, and activism, and emotions, to affect real social change. It starts with an argument, but then it becomes obvious. The tracks of philosophy’s work are erased because it becomes intuitively obvious. The arguments against slavery, against cruel and unusual punishment, against unjust wars, against treating children cruelly—these all took arguments.
It is interesting to see how many arguments, claims, and philosophical concerns of today have existed throughout history, going as far back as the Ancient Greeks (and no doubt other civilizations for which we have no records). Many of the issues and considerations we struggle with are timeless and inherently human in nature, but that does not mean we do not progress in both how we think about these things and what we do about it.
Improving our moral framework and understanding of the world are each continuous and long-term projects, and once we see the bigger picture and take the long view, we come to better appreciate why philosophical discussion and inquiry are so vital in the grand scheme of things.
What are your thoughts?