The PhilPapers survey

It seems like this should get mentioned on this blog: a major survey of the philosophical views of professional philosophers, philosophy PhDs, grad students, and even undergrads.

The PhilPapers survey raises issues about expertise, consensus, and progress in philosophy.  Among target faculty surveyed, most of the questions proved to be controversial.  81.6% of target faculty accept or lean toward non-skeptical realism about the external world.  But none of the other responses to any of the other questions broke past the 80% mark, and in many cases the target faculty appear to be pretty much evenly split between two or three different responses to various questions.

Does this mean that philosophers aren’t making any progress and aren’t solving any problems?  Not necessarily.

The survey seems designed to find philosophers’ views about some of the currently most interesting and controversial issues.  Maybe you could find large-scale agreement among philosophers if you were looking for it.  For example, it seems to me that most philosophers would agree that the JTB analysis of knowledge is unsatisfactory, and most would agree that ontological arguments for the existence of God are not rationally compelling.  But of course these are just negative results; and I’m not sure whether there are any really interesting positive philosophical assertions that are really widely accepted.  But maybe that’s okay.  Maybe, at least for the moment, the best philosophy (as a whole discipline) can do is to painstakingly eliminate initially plausible possibilities.  Maybe, for the time being, philosophy’s main product is to undermine attractive ideas — and to show that “broken arguments” are broken.  This might not be such a pessimistic view of philosophy.  Exposing misconceptions can clear the way to bigger and better things — and is often worth doing even when it doesn’t lead to anything grander.

£1.99 - small Disagreement as Evidence: The Epistemology of Controversy
By David Christensen, Brown University (August 2009)
Philosophy Compass

2 thoughts on “The PhilPapers survey”

  1. I am generally suspicious of any standard which tries to measure philosophy’s “progress” via the problems philosophy has “solved” or the “products” it has produced.

    The economic overtones of such language should be enough to make anyone suspicious, but I also think that the practice of philosophy can actually lead a person towards a better life, regardless of whether or not it solves perennial meta-questions.

  2. Hey Nicholas,

    I don’t know whether economic overtones are grounds for suspicion. They would be if philosophy were an idle hobby, but in fact there are thousands of professional philosophers who are paid pretty well for their work, and in many cases these people are state employees. Given this, it seems worth asking whether the public value of pro philosophy exceeds its cost. This value could come from reaching consensus and solving problems, but it might also come from teaching students, preserving insights, asking questions… Of course, it might turn out that pro philosophy ought to be kept around even if it cannot be justified in such cost-benefit terms. But the case for pro philosophy would be more convincing to more people if this cost-benefit analysis turns out to be favorable. But then again, I believe the cost-benefit analysis is favorable to philosophy. Maybe if I thought otherwise, I’d change my tune.

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