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Problem solving. The Philosophy Portal.











Problem solving


Scientists often reach provisional agreement solutions to problems central to their disciplines, whereas philosophers do not. Although philosophy has been practiced by outstanding intellects for over two thousand years, philosophers have not reached agreement, provisional or otherwise, on the solution or dissolution of any central philosophical problem by philosophical methods. What about philosophy’s future? Until about 1970, philosophers were generally optimistic. Some pinned their hopes on revolution in methodology, others on reform of practice. The case for gradual reform still finds articulate advocates in philosophers like Michael Dummett and Timothy Williamson, but many philosophers today suspect that perennial disagreement may be inescapable. I consider three explanations for the inescapability of perennial disagreement—Richard Rorty’s relativism, Colin McGinn’s skepticism, and Nicholas Rescher’s pluralism—and find each wanting. I argue that a better explanation is the resistance of philosophers to commit, as scientists do, to formulating testable theories and collecting data to help decide between competing theories. I close by proposing that experimental philosophy, a movement still in its infancy, holds the promise of reuniting philosophy with science and moving philosophers closer to agreement on the solution of its central problems.

The question of the scope of human knowledge has been a longstanding preoccupation of philosophy. And that question has always had a special intensity where philosophical knowledge itself is concerned. A certain anxiety about the nature and possibility of such knowledge is endemic to the subject. The suspicion is that, in trying to do philosophy, we run up against the limits of our understanding in some deep way. Ignorance seems the natural condition of philosophical endeavour, contributing both to the charm and the frustration of the discipline (if that is the right word). Thus a tenacious tradition, cutting across the usual division between empiricists and rationalists, accepts (i) that there are nontrivial limits to our epistemic capacities and (ii) that these limits stem, at least in part, from the internal organisation of the knowing mind - its constitutive structure - as distinct from limits that result from our contingent position in the world. It is not merely that we are a tiny speck in a vast cosmos; that speck also has its own specific cognitive orientation, its own distinctive architecture. The human mind conforms to certain principles in forming concepts and beliefs and theories, originally given, and these constrain the range of knowledge to which we have access. We cannot get beyond the specific kinds of data and modes of inference that characterise our knowledge- acquiring systems - however paltry these may be. The question has been, not whether this is correct as a general thesis, but rather what the operative principles are, and where their limits fall. How limited are we, and what explains the extent and quality of our limits? Can we, indeed, come to understand the workings of our own epistemic capacities? Hence the enquiries of Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, Peirce, Russell, and many others.