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” ideas. In the distant past, thinkers put forward arguments whereby “if what they said was true then reality was one way. If it was untrue then it was another way” he told me. “They were sticking their necks out.”
But then philosophy turned away from that—away from the big questions which had preoccupied the greatest minds for millennia.
“Unger laid into the state of the discipline, pausing occasionally to laugh at his more controversial points”
This change became most evident in the mid-twentieth century in a sub-discipline called “ordinary language philosophy” based in the UK, Unger said. The focus turned to highly technical analysis of linguistic puzzles: “philosophers got involved with thinking about little more than words and concepts,” he complained. Somehow, it was agreed that they “should steer clear of views about the nature of concrete reality” altogether.
The discipline, he believes, got stuck—and remains so. “Despite some contrary appearances, it remains true that… the questions most exercising mainstream philosophers are questions that turn, quite entirely, upon whether or not certain conceptual connections hold, or certain semantic relations obtain, between certain words, or certain concepts, and certain other words, or concepts,” Unger writes in Empty Ideas. A sentence which gives a fair sense of how tedious he finds this trend.
This sort of abstract, linguistic study has a wide reach. When I ask what fields of philosophy most suffer from such a limited approach, Unger replied, “certainly metaphysics, and also the most metaphysical-seeming parts of philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and epistemology.” In other words, most “analytic philosophy”—which is philosophy based upon mathematical logic, and includes the clear majority of work being produced today. But it is not limited to this: “Virtually no concretely substantial ideas are offered by prominent philosophers when writing in other areas of the subject.”
Unger is not the only philosopher to level these accusations. Earlier this year world-leading philosopher of mind Daniel Dennett told me most modern philosophers spend their time “adopting hyper-abstract semi-formalism, and thrashing away on that in terms that nobody else understands.” Nor is disappointment with the field the preserve of just today’s academics. There’s one particularly well-known example of a philosopher turning against the discipline.
“It’s very famous that Wittgenstein had two periods—the early Wittgenstein, and the late Wittgenstein,” said Unger. “In the later period he’s really not thinking much of philosophy and says we should stop doing it, and the best thing we can hope for is for therapists to get philosophers to stop.” Unger cackled after finishing the sentence.
However grand Unger’s philosophical company, the field is unlikely to change any time soon. Philosophers are set in their ways. They will practice the philosophy they have been trained in. “There’s something of a vested interest but it’s more like… some ritualistic thing people are accustomed to, and so they like to keep doing it.”
Does Unger despair? Not exactly. While modern philosophy isn’t saying anything “concretely substantial,” Unger stressed that it is worth reading if it’s enjoyable—in fact, “enjoyable” is the word he uses to describe the works of Derek Parfit and Saul Kripke, two great philosophers who worked in the 1980s, the former mostly in personal identity and ethics, the latter mostly in logic, philosophy of language and metaphysics. Both have published seminal works in their respective fields.
And there’s the crux. I disagree with Unger (at least I think I do) when it comes to the state of modern philosophy. For starters, I wonder whether his condition that the majority of philosophers should stick to the “concretely substantial” is a little too strict. Certainly, some great philosophers have made their names by making grand claims about the fundamental nature of the world around us.
But aren’t some philosophical claims, while not “concretely substantial,” significant in a different way? What about arguments like “We should all try to donate more to charity”? They don’t tell us that the physical world is different from what we thought. But they do seem to be telling us something that matters. And this sort of claim is made frequently by philosophy professors today. Perhaps most notably Peter Singer, whom I spoke to last year.
So, even if in his book Unger is right, and most philosophers really are wasting their time, all is not lost. There is something to cling to. Despite all the techy conceptual analysis—or maybe because of it—philosophy is damn good fun. And in the hands of Singer and a few others, it may be a force for good as well.