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.