While there is progress in philosophy, what counts as philosophical progress is, I think, very different from what counts as progress in math and the sciences. There is no need for working mathematicians and scientists to know the history of their fields in order to contribute to 'state of the art' research, for most branches of most of the natural sciences build on theories that have been empirically confirmed, and mathematics builds on proofs known to be true, and so the present of these fields is what is most important to the researcher who wishes to contribute to ongoing work in those fields. Because, in contrast, philosophy consists in advancing arguments in favor of theses that cannot be resolved by appeal to facts or known with certainty, the history of philosophy is part of its present in a way that the history of (most of) the natural sciences and of mathematics is not part of their present. Not only is there a standing possibility in philosophy that some repressed historical view might go 'live' again and actually be drawn on in work in contemporary philosophy, since an important part of philosophy consists in posing, rather than resolving, questions, attention to the history of philosophy can lead philosophers to see new ways of posing questions of current concern and different questions to raise, as well as offering to them solutions to problems of current interest. To my mind, one important respect--there are others, of course--in which philosophy, despite the pretensions of certain of its practitioners over the centuries, differs from the natural sciences and mathematics, is that philosophy historically is a way to do philosophy, whereas one cannot 'do' mathematics or natural science historically. This is one important respect in which philosophy is, to my mind, a humanistic discipline, because its past is so inextricably bound up with its present. (To be sure, many philosophers have no interest in philosophy's history, and they need not, although I myself am inclined to think that all philosophers would benefit from some acquaintance with those aspects of philosophy's past relevant to their work. But this may simply reflect the prejudice of someone who works primarily in the history of philosophy.)
I think the sort of language you are complaining about does incorporate the human characteristics you mention at the end, it is just that the argument goes that we act within a context defined by the basic power relationships in our culture, and the norms which have been created as a result. This seems plausible to me. In a culture in which men and women are not free to flirt with each other the notion of flirting would take on an entirely different character, as a subversive act, perhaps. Who can flirt with whom, how they go about it, where it degenerates into something objectionable or even illegal, are all reflections of basic social rules. Lust and greed are certainly important, but they operate within parameters defined by more general relationships between people, or so it is argued, and this is not to suggest that there is no interaction between individuals. It is just that that sort of interaction is affected strongly by interaction between social groups.
I am interacting with you now by responding to your question, and that is an interaction between individuals. But since I am using the institution of a common language and the medium provided by the askphilosophers institution I am acting within and through a social group.
Why mention the Holocaust example specifically? Any worries about the "certainty" of historical knowledge would equally apply to every single piece of historical knowledge. Of course, what makes the Holocaust example stand out is that it does get challenged -- by people who have typically deeper agendas -- so perhaps what you should be asking is this: whenever you read about any historical event, and whenever you find people challenging conventional historical events, can you distinguish what is driven by "agenda" and what is driven by actual consideration of the available "facts"? (An excellent general book on the subject is the recent book "Voodoo Histories", which is a study of various conspiracy theories (including Holocaust denial and others), trying to articulate how/when people with agendas choose to selectively apply ordinary standards of reason and evidence ......)
One more thought: if you are interested in twentieth century analytic philosophy, Scott Soames' two-volume history provides clear and reasonably reliable interpretations of the history of some of the movements within that tradition.
Even though Soames does not provide a full or completely satisfactory history of analytic philosophy--his central narrative focuses narrowly on those treatments of the analytic/synthetic, necessary/contingent, and apriori/aposteriori distinctions that are most closely connected to Saul Kripke's celebrated work in Naming and Necessity, and the emphasis he places on the historical significance of Kripke's achievements creates some some significant gaps and oversimplifications--these texts are extremely engaging and reading them can be a good way to gain sophisticated introductory knowledge about some vital figures in recent philosophical history:
Soames, Scott, Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century, Volume 1: The Dawn of Analysis. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003) http://books.google.com/books?id=sS_lToqtGrIC&pgis=1.
Soames, Scott, Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century, Volume 2: The Age of Meaning. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005) http://books.google.com/books?id=M5umcZlECGQC&pgis=1.
Of the three histories listed so far, my assessment is that Russell's is the least reliable (but most fun to read), Kenny's is the most reliable and employs the best historiography (and so is the best elementary introduction to many Western philosophical traditions), and Soames offers the most sophisticated discussion of a much more limited range of figures and themes.
There is a number of different issues here. Let me comment on just one of them. We may indeed wonder how people, in certain situations, can come to act in appalling ways. The question as asked perhaps suggests that arm-chair philosophy might help in understanding this. But not so. This "how come?" question is an empirical one. What is needed is e.g. a knowledge of empirical work in social psychology, such as the Milgram experiment, which explored the willingness of subjects to inflict (apparent) suffering at the behest of an authoritative figure. The results of such work are highly alarming but also, I take it, highly salient for the historian. For they suggest something of the ready possibility of authority structures that might facilitate widespread evil behaviour. We can oh-so-easily be led to do terrible things.
Thank you for your question. I can't hope to answer it at all comprehensively. Instead I'll try to give a smattering of highlights, and some pointers as to where you might look to learn more. Among the questions that philosophers tried to answer at this time were: '
What is it to be virtuous, and can virtue be taught?
What is the soul, and does it survive the destruction of the body?
What is the best organization for a society to follow in order to be just?
What, at the most fundamental level, is the physical world made of? (Proffered answers included fire, water, and atoms.)
In what sense, if any, might the future be "real"?
There are lots of others. For a rewarding discussion that puts philosophical inquiry into a broader social and historical context, I would strongly suggest the classic _The Greeks_ by H.D. Kitto. Once you've gone through that, you can't go wrong by looking at some dialogues by Plato, in which the author purports to report various discussions his teacher Socrates had with his friends before being put to death by his fellow Athenians. See for instance Plato's _Five Dialogues_, translated by J. Cooper, and published by Hackett Publishing Co.
I think you raise one of the strongest objections possible to relativism, one so strong that it renders relativism impossible to formulate in that way (i.e., "All truths are relative"). But I do warn you that things get stickier as your get into relativistic theories. What makes them compelling? Here are a couple of general strategies that I've run across.
1. Negative Proof: Negatively, non-relativistic theories of truth seem, at least in the view of many, to have irresolveable problems of their own, arguably greater problems. So, if non-relativistic theories can't be right, some kind of relativism must be correct.
2. Positive Proof: Positively but indirectly, relativism seems (1) to answer serveral questions about the way the meaning of language and the designation "true" is determined and correlatively (2) it seems to be the consequence of investigations into matters concerning topics like whether a body of evidence can determine only one conclusion (answer: no), whether a word can have a single, clear, univocal meaning (nope), whether hypotheses are testable individually (no again), and whether any unique sentence or set of sentences can represent independent reality (no way). Then, of course, there seems to be the facts of sociology and history that exhibit countless and forever changing truth-claims.
3. Shown, Not Said. Some who are influenced by Wittgenstein, might argue that something like relativism can be "shown" by certain manipulations of language usages and certain investigations into the way language works, but it can't be proven. So, if you don't see the relativism, look again, look harder.
4. Biting the Bullet. Some might just embrace the idea that relativism is relative, too. Of course, that would seem to make it impossible for the relativist to criticize absolutists or to assert that absolutism is wrong (after all the absolutists might just say that, "well, absolutism is true for me or for my society, and that's supposed to be enough for you"). But watch it here. The relativist might then try to bring the absolutist to change her or his mind and accept relativism--but NOT by maintaining that relativism is "true" (where there can only be one truth or perhaps where truth is thought somehow to depict "the way things are") but by maintaing that relativism seems to be morally or politically preferable, that it seems more felicitous, the best explanation for our present social purposes, that it seems to work better, that it yields more pleasant consequences, that it produces more agreement, etc.
So, while you're right that relativism of the form you describe hoists itself on its own petard (as Schick & Vaugh like to say) and therefore is self-defeating, don't assume that all relativists would formulate their positions in just that way--at least not without a fuss.
I agree with Peter that one need to specify exact criteria for progressbefore making the sort of assessment that you describe. All suchcritiera and assessments will be controversial because our knowledge ofourselves and our histories is limited and controversial, but this byno way means that producing and rationally defending such assessmentsis worthless -- on the contrary, they can be extremely useful andinteresting.
Thepolitical theorist George Kateb provides an interesting--andfascinating--example of how to assess human progress in the modern age.In his recent collection of essays. Patriotism and Other Mistakes(Yale University Press, 2006), Kateb assesses human progresses on thebasis of a richly sophistcated conception of human and argues that theUnited States Constitution represents a significant achievement in thesupport of human dignity, which he defines (again, in a richlysophisticated and fascinating way) in terms of rights-basedindividualism. While Kateb's criteria for progress and assessments arecertainly "qualified" in some of the senses that Peter has described,they are also impressive scholarly achievementsthat provide meaningful insight and information.
Kateb'sdiscussion about ways in which current domestic and foreign policiesand actions of the United States jeporadize this progress is alsoinstructive: human progress is contingent, both in the sense thatwhever progress has occurred need not have occurred and in the sensethat progress we have atained we can lose. So, although I am not at allskeptical about the possibility of crafting useful assessments of humanprogress, I am skeptical that there is a single, inevitable, univocalstory to be told about human progress: there are many possible storiesto be told, with many twists and reversals, and no easy lessons ormorals about human progress simpliciter. So, conceptions of humanprogress as inevitably following one secure path (as, for example, inthe political philosophies of Hegel and Marx and as in some religous texts) aren't plausible.
Why do you think inquiry into what happened in the past is anydifferent from inquiry about what's happening on the other side of theMoon? In both cases, we lack direct access to the facts. We must makeinferences, based on many assumptions, from what we do observe to whatactually was (or is) the case. Do you think history is differentbecause there's something different about the past? (We could inprinciple visit the other side of the Moon, but we simply cannot --barring time travel -- visit the past.) Or do you think history isdifferent because it focuses on the actions of people, and some kind ofdistortion always infects our reasoning about people that does not leadus astray in our inquiries into the natural world?
I'm not sure what you're presuming until you say what "biased" means. Do you believe that contemporary physics is biased? If not, then what is it about historical research that makes it impossible for historians to attain the same degree of rigor and truth that physicists do? And if so, then what would inquiry have to look like in order for it to be "unbiased"?