Kitcher addresses philosophy of progress in arts, sciences

Columbia University professor of philosophy Philip Kitcher delivered a lecture on Sept. 29 in the Doty Recital Hall about the philosophical implications surrounding progress, as viewed in the sciences compared to the arts. Geneseo’s chapter of Phi Beta Kappa hosts one distinguished speaker annually to give a presentation on a topic pertaining to their field of study. Professor of mathematics and the president of Geneseo’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter Doug Lee Baldwin introduced Kitcher.

“I’m particularly happy with this year’s speaker,” he said. “He is the John Dewey professor of philosophy, he received his PhD from Princeton in 1974 and he is the author of a great many books … titles range from things like Science in a Democratic Society to The Ethical Project to Life after Faith.”

Kitcher began the lecture by establishing his objective in developing an understanding of the varying definitions of progress.

“I want to try to do something to save what seems to me to be an endangered concept,” he said. “Lots of people are very dubious about [progress]. They think that when people talk about progress, it’s often an excuse for patting themselves on the back by saying how far we’ve come from the savage or the barbarian days of the past. They think that it falsely assumes that there’s a direction to history.”

The main contentions of Kitcher’s talk were based on the disparate notions of progress in the sciences as opposed to in the arts.

“Many people would say that the knowledge that physicists have today is greater or better than what physicists had in the past,” Kitcher said. “They assume, very generally … that there is a state of perfect knowledge that the sciences aims toward.”

Kitcher argued that instead of looking toward science to find the truth about nature—which he deemed absurd—he believes that scientific growth transpires when it is used to benefit the most number of people.

“I wanted to say that scientific progress is embedded in society,” he said. “Scientific progress occurs when it is done for the social good.”

In regard to the arts, Kitcher said that people typically see a lack in progress by offering a hypothetical example.

“Let’s ask a concrete question: Does the music of 2015 make progress over the music of 1905?” he said. “Many people would be inclined to say, ‘No! Nothing composed in 2015 rivals Debussy’s ‘La mer’ or Schoenberg’s ‘String Quartet [No. 1],’ both composed in 1905.’”

People mischaracterize progress in the arts because they don’t believe that there has been any tangible progress. This causes people to perceive the sciences as progressing forward while the arts are not, according to Kitcher.

“The state of science at a time consists in a set of resources, propositions, instruments, et cetera that are available for use by the people of that time,” Kitcher said. “The state of art during a time period is a system at work looking at the art produced during that time period. It’s not about what’s available, but what is produced.”

Biochemistry major senior Adam Wegman said he was concerned with some aspects of Kitcher’s argument.

“He says that a lot of people think that we’re no longer making progress or that progress is a silly idea,” Wegman said. “I wasn’t even aware that that was a prevailing notion. So I was suspecting a straw man, but I guess I shouldn’t have.”

Philosophy major senior Jessica Heppler said she has had to challenge the typical notion of progress that Kitcher spoke of when justifying her study of philosophy.

“When I go home, I often have to justify why I’m studying philosophy, or my friends who are studying art history have to justify to other people constantly why they’re studying that … My personal intuition is that that’s just a misguided question to ask,” she said. “I think that a lot of what professor Kitcher was arguing was confirming that and showing that there are different ways to understand progress and to understand the purpose of something beyond its most concrete and most immediate utility.”