Unger on Philosophy

Philosophers struggle with an intellectual/academic/disciplinary version of low self-esteem.  A recent victim is Peter Unger, who recently gives an interview-cum-advertisement for his latest book in philosophy, the central thesis of which is that philosophy is at best an enjoyable diversion and at worst an utter waste of time.  (We’re to assume, I suppose, that the philosophical work done by Unger in his book falls into the former and not the latter category.) Here are some highlights from Unger’s interview (http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2014/06/philosophy-is-a-bunch-of-empty-ideas-interview-with-peter-unger.html):

It’s [philosophy] fun, of course, it’s a lot of fun doing it. Logic puzzles, language puzzles, so on and so forth. For some people there’s fun in chess, in far more people there’s a lot of fun in bridge, for others there’s a lot of fun in constructing or solving very difficult crossword puzzles. And then for lots of people there’s fun in doing philosophy.

In a way, all I’m doing is detailing things that were already said aphoristically by Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations. I read it twice over in the sixties, pretty soon after it came out, when I was an undergraduate. I believed it all — well, sort of. I knew, but I didn’t want to know, and so it just went on. And basically what Philosophical Investigations says is that when you’re doing philosophy, you’re not going to find out anything. You find out some trivial things, you’ll be under the delusion that you’re doing a great deal, but what you should do is stop and do something more productive.

With a certain proviso, philosophy is an enjoyable form of literature, at least for people of a certain training and temperament. The proviso is that a fair amount of it contains special symbols instead of words, so that it looks like some sort of scientific thing, almost like an equation. Mathematics, symbolic logic, so on and so forth. So philosophers put that in, and give themselves the impression that they’re doing things ‘ohhh, so scientifically’ that they need the math. All this makes it much less enjoyable to me. I don’t like reading that stuff. But insofar as we can get over all of that useless and pretentious writing, it’s an enjoyable sort of literature, if they take the time to make it reader-friendly.

We’ve heard these complaints before, of course–philosophy is mere puzzle-solving, philosophy is literature-pretending-to-be-something-else, philosophy is bullshit.  What should we make of them?

Let’s begin with Unger’s claim, which he attributes to Wittgenstein, that “when you’re doing philosophy, you’re not going to find out anything.”  On one straightforward interpretation this claim is just obviously false.  In my years of studying philosophy, I’ve found out a great deal–more than I could possibly relate in a blog post–and I’m not even a particularly bright or talented student of the subject!  For example, here’s a short list of things I’ve ‘found out’ by studying and doing philosophy (I try to give one philosophical discovery from each of the main philosophical subdivisions):

*The nature of experience is to some extent conditioned by the nature of the experiencer.

*Certainty is not evidence.

*Causal responsibility for X is not alone sufficient to establish moral responsibility for X.

*The idea that people should be free to do what they want provided they do not harm others faces serious difficulties.

*Ordinary aesthetic judgments have both an ‘objective’ and a ‘subjective’ dimension.

Each of these were, believe it or not, very exciting discoveries.  There have of course been many more in the course of my nearly twenty years in philosophy.  I now enjoy helping new students to the subject discover these things for themselves.

But this isn’t what Unger means when he says that you won’t find out anything doing philosophy!  Ok, but then what does he mean–that doing philosophy won’t deliver the kind of knowledge that the physical sciences deliver?  That’s true, but so what?  Philosophy isn’t a physical science, and so the philosopher should hardly be embarrassed by the fact that no amount of philosophical reflection will reveal, say, the molecular composition of physical objects. Imagine a similar charge from the philosopher’s point of view: Silly scientists!  All their theorizing and data gathering and experiments and they can’t even tell us whether we directly perceive objects or, rather, only sense-data caused by objects!


As for the idea that philosophy is really just ‘literature,’ I’m really not sure what to say because I’m not sure what Unger and others really mean to claim.  It’s possible, I think, that they are using ‘literature’ as a synonym for ‘make-believe’ or ‘fiction’–so calling philosophy a form of ‘literature’ is a snarky way of saying that philosophy is ‘made-up.’ But of course on the one hand philosophy is not ‘made up.’  My philosophical work might be totally wrong, and might bear less of a relation to reality than a fictional story–but anyway I didn’t just make it all up.  I tried to explain X as well as I could, in light of my beliefs about the way X is.  The activity was constrained by the world in a way in which ‘make believe’ is not.  So on one interpretation of the philosophy-is-disguised-literature claim, Unger is being unfair to philosophy.  If he thinks most philosophers are wildly wrong, let him demonstrate as much–but getting reality wrong is not tantamount to ‘telling stories’  or ‘making things up.’  On the other hand, the claim seems unfair to literature, which, after all, one could argue is itself a mode of inquiry, capable of yielding a kind of knowledge about ourselves and the world.  I don’t want to go too far here, but it’s hardly new or crazy to suggest that fiction can deliver truth and understanding.  In short: if Unger thinks he impugns philosophy’s epistemic credentials by calling it a form of ‘literature,’ he’s mistaken.  That would require some argument–some philosophical argument.

But evidently Unger doesn’t think much of that.



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3 Responses to Unger on Philosophy

  1. Josh says:

    So as a way of maybe defending what Unger’s saying a bit (though I generally agree with you) –

    He might be saying something morel like – philosophy doesn’t provide a unique path for the discovery of the sorts of truths you claim to have learned from philosophy, and its focus on logical precision may blind us that. The sorts of truths you mention are also discover-able from literature, just in different (less logically precise) ways. And so I don’t think what he means by “literature” is “make-believe.”

    I think he just means philosophy is on a continuum with other sorts of humanistic texts (i.e., Dubliners, about which I just wrote a blog that yours bumped off the lead spot 🙂 ). One of the great achievements of a story like “a Painful Case” is to show the relative difficulty in the articulation of a concept like “blame,” and the possibility that a focus on blame might blind one from other forms of culpability that are less immediately articulated. In the story, a well-off single man has a brief affair with a married woman who he suspects is unstable. He breaks off the affair and it upsets her. A few years later, he sees an article about her suicide, and is profoundly confused and disheartened

    The story is, of course, much better written than this summary. But that’s part of the point I’m making. Philosophy can look at such a situation as a test-case for a definition of blame, and decide whether or not the woman’s suicide was in any way the man’s fault. What the story can do is give voice to a kind of ambiguity in experience by getting beyond an abstract description of the situation and bringing such a situation to life in our imaginations.

    Now that’s not the same as a philosophically precise argument about what blame is, or who deserves it. And I’m not trying to say that either the philosophical or the literary approach to articulation of such a problem is better or worse, but what Unger’s citation of Wittgenstein might be meant to do is question the the distinction between a story like “A Painful Case” and my analytic-philosophical account of what blame is/where it is properly applied.

    Long story short – he may have just been saying these things were more differences in degree than some philosophers believe.

    But like I said – I agree with you that one can learn from philosophy. But can one learn uniquely from philosophy? I’m less sure.

  2. David says:

    Whether philosophy provides access to truths unavailable by other means is an interesting question, but I doubt whether this is what Unger means to deny (except insofar as he denies that philosophy provides access to any sort of truth at all). After all, if the point is that philosophical truth is accessible by other means, why conclude that we would be better off not doing philosophy? The fact that I can learn about ‘blame’ from Joyce just as well as Scanlon is not itself a reason to disparage Scanlon.

    I think you’re probably giving Unger too much credit, Josh. If you read the interview you’ll see that he does not express his critique of philosophy in the form of a modest rebuke of the philosopher’s pretensions to having unique access to truth, but rather the philosopher’s assumption that her inquiries have anything at all to do with truth, knowledge, etc.

    Sorry about bumping your post. 🙂

  3. Nates says:

    It’s an obnoxious interview. And a lame reading of Wittgenstein.

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