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Mailbag Monday: Philosophical Revolutions

Mailbag Monday: A weekly segment that covers readers’ questions and concerns about all things Philosophy, Bro, and Philosophy Bro that don’t quite fit anywhere else. Send your questions to with ‘Mailbag Monday’ in the subject line.

George writes,

Yeaux Breaux,I’ve been reading “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by Thomas Kuhn recently (which I highly recommend by the way, he made up the word “paradigm” I mean how badass is that). Anyways, it got me thinking: have there been recent revolutions in philosophical thought recently? Do new ideas ever invalidate old ones, or do they just add to this huge ever-growing cluster of philosophical thought? Do philosophers’ set of intellectual tools change over time, and what kind of things have metaphilosophers had to say about this kind of stuff? I don’t feel like writing more questions to thoroughly cover the breadth of my mental void, but take this wherever you can.

Bro, I’m picking up what you’re putting down. Kuhn is indeed a badass, and Structure is a great read. I’m on board here, and it’s a fucking interesting question. So let’s do this.

The short answers are “yes, yes, all the time”. The middle of the 20th century was a huge period for revolutions in philosophy; bros were throwing conceptual haymakers left and right. Political philosophy, metaphysics, epistemology, no subject was safe.
For much of the century in political philosophy, everyone was like, “Uh, democracy? Yeah, I guess… it maximizes utility somehow? Hmm.” And then John Rawls rode through in '71 and was all, “NOPE. Democracy is fair! Fairness is justice! We all have equal rights to certain liberties! Inequality should benefit the least well off! Equality should be in opportunity, not possession! RAWLS, OUT!” and left everyone reeling. A Theory of Justice was like Christmas come early for embattled Kantians fighting off the utilitarian hordes, if for Christmas every year Santa punched J.S. Mill in the face. It was a revolutionaryarticulation of how a political system should be ordered, and it changed not only political philosophy but also moral philosophy for good. Even the second most revolutionary idea of that century in political philosophy, the anarcho-capitalism articulated in Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia, was just a long, drawn-out response to Rawls. Crazy.

Then back in '63, you had Edmund Gettier, who just completely blew up epistemology. You can read more about that revolution here, but a brief sketch: bro wrote a single three-page paper that overturned literallymillennia of thinking. It’s literally the only thing he’s ever published. What an asshole. What a brilliant asshole.

And of course, there’s the granddaddy of philosophical revolutions, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who caused not one but two furious uproars in philosophy. First, he wrote the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which was based on notes he took during WWI. He wasn’t at a desk job, either. Bro was on the frontline with the Austrian military, fighting against the Russians for fuckssake, where he won a bunch of medals for bravery, and that whole time he was like, “Hmm… I wonder what the relationship between language and the world is. WAIT I’VE GOT IT.” Cambridge gave him a Ph.D. for the Tractatus and he told G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell they didn’t understand his work and that’s okay. Maybe that doesn’t mean anything to you, but Moore and Russell are huge fucking deals. You don’t just tell them, don’t worry about it guys, unless, apparently, you’re Wittgenstein. Meanwhile, the logical positivist movement sprouted up around theTractatus, taking seriously the idea that if you can’t verify the truth of a proposition in the world, that proposition is meaningless. Wittgenstein was a force to be reckoned with, by all accounts, and it was going to take an incredible mind to overturn what he’s come up with.

So then, along came Ludwig fucking Wittgenstein to tell that Wittgenstein asshole what’s up. Wittgenstein wrote about three million words after the Tractatus, though he didn’t publish any more books. After his death, his unpublished works were discovered, and set off an entirely different revolution in philosophy, the breadth of which I wish I had space to cover here. The flagship work of it all, Philosophical Investigations, devastated the idea that we could understand language through a simple logical framework, and hinted at just how many philosophical arguments arise out of simple linguistic disputes. (Spoiler alert:So many.) Some have found the Investigations convincing enough to leave philosophy; those of us still doing it post-Investigations have to take very seriously the idea that because people are messy things, philosophy is not as neat as we’d like it to be.

Nor do these examples exhaust all the revolutions that occurred in philosophy in the 20th century. Quine had a whole lot to say about how metaphysics can and should work, for example; Popper brought a whole new perspective to philosophy of science.  Sometimes, new ideas do indeed invalidate old ones; the starkest example is the aforementioned logical positivism, which relied on the verification criterion: if you can’t verify it, it’s meaningless. Which, of course, is problematic, because you can’t verify that statement. Oh shit! But the intuitions behind it, to thoroughly reduce philosophy to the most meaningful elements of the world, is so appealing it had a lot of sway for a long time. Then you’ve got Gettier, who of course did away pretty much completely with the idea of the sufficiency of Justified True Belief. If you go further back, you’ve got Kant subjecting ontological arguments to the pretty devastating critique of 'being’ as a property, and Hume put the hurt on any philosophy that relies on causal powers to work. However, because we don’t have the sort of strong evidence we can rely on like the hard sciences that Kuhn discussed in his book, an idea that has been overturned isn’t necessarily out forever, and often philosophers will attempt to partially recover useful ideas from the past - in fact, Rawls' Theory of Justice was a reworking of Kantian morality, and Alvin Plantinga, among others, has worked to find ways around Kant’s critique of ontological arguments. We’re constantly wrestling with what exactly we have in our toolkit, and this is just in the Western, analytic tradition. In the Continental tradition, Hegel’s process of the dialectic has been incredibly influential as a way to understand shit. So yeah, our toolbox is always expanding, but never without a fight.

We’re also constantly drawing new distinctions in order to clarify problems and to give new approaches to interesting questions. Kant’s critique of ontological arguments consisted in, for the first time ever, drawing a distinction between properties of things and properties of properties; he said we had all missed that 'being’ is the latter, and that was the mistake that led to the ontological argument.

So, there’s a sketch, bro. Plenty of ideas - utilitarian justifications of democracy, logical positivism, Justified True Belief, and so on - gain the sort of entrenchment Kuhn warns the hard sciences of, and it takes revolutionary minds with fresh ideas to overturn them. Happens all the time in philosophy, maybemore often because of the whole thing about “no data needed”.

Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions did away with the idea that science proceeds in a neat, orderly fashion of advancement one experiment at a time.

A Theory of Justice is the book that changed the landscape of political philosophy forever. Justice as Fairness: A Restatement is Rawls’ response to criticisms of his original theory.

You can read Gettier’s original paper online: Is Justified True Belief Knowledge? Seriously, it’s so short it hurts.

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is also surprisingly short, but it is probably the densest philosophical text there is, and I don’t recommend it for first-timers. Or, really, anyone who isn’t seriously dedicatedto logic or the history of philosophy. Philosophical Investigations is much more readable and, indeed, almost poetic. But don’t be fooled; the ideas are as densely packed as ever. They’re worth the effort to get to, but it's so much effort. So much effort, in fact, the text has so far rebuffed all of my attempts to summarize them. Let that sink in. So far, the text is too dense for me to summarize. I’m just saying. Tread lightly and respectfully.

David Hume's "Of the Different Species of Philosophy:" A Summary

Thomas Aquinas' "Summa Theologica, Q2, Article 3: Whether God Exists" Or, The Five Ways: A Summary