Most philosophers no longer tell us anything meaningful about the world at all. When he argued this in 2014, Peter Unger caused quite the controversy. And now he's backby Alex Dean / December 28, 2017 / Leave a comment
If you’ve studied philosophy you’ve probably been told, at one point or another, that you’re wasting your time.
But while it’s common to hear this from, say, a sceptical uncle looking over your shoulder at your UCAS form, it’s not often you hear it from another philosopher—let alone a leading professor. That’s why Peter Unger is so interesting.
Now 75, Unger teaches philosophy at New York University and boasts an impressive CV. He studied under two all-time greats at Oxford—PF Strawson and AJ Ayer—and has gone on to author eight books, all the while making landmark contributions in metaphysics, epistemology (the study of knowledge), philosophy of mind and ethics. His arguments on the “trolley problem,” a thought experiment designed to test our intuitions about intervention in life and death situations, are taught to undergraduates the world over.
But if his successes place him at the heart of the philosophical establishment, his most recent book proves his spirit is anything but.
In Empty Ideas, first published in 2014, Unger explained that he had gradually come to view philosophy with a deep pessimism. Having worked in it for decades, he believed the subject had taken the wrong turn, with the result that most modern philosophers fail to say anything meaningful about the world at all. An interview with science and philosophy website Three Quarks Daily—in which Unger said much of modern philosophy is “parochial” or “trivial”—drew wide attention to his argument and wound up more than a few academics. In the end, both Unger and his interviewer felt they had to pen further pieces explaining themselves.
Empty Ideas has just been published in paperback, meaning those same battles are about to be dredged up all over again. One evening in early October I called Unger up, wondering whether he stuck by it all. The voice that answered had a heavy New York accent of the kind I had only heard in films—at times I had to ask him to repeat himself. We spoke for a couple of hours and it quickly became clear that his view had not softened. He laid into the state of the discipline, pausing occasionally to laugh at his more controversial points. He knew he was getting himself into trouble.
Unger’s main argument in the book is that philosophers don’t put forward “concretely substantial”…