by Peter Unger

6a00d8341c562c53ef01a3fd1ee20f970bOn June 16th, an interview of me appeared on this site that, initially, was supposed to be largely concerned with what’s in my brand new book, Empty Ideas, to be published officially, by the Oxford University Press, on July 14th. Well, as actually happened, most of the discussion ended up being about other things, providing little idea as to what’s actually in the book itself, and what it might mean for the importance of – or the unimportance of – a very great deal of mainstream analytic philosophy. In this brief piece, I’d like to do something to help rectify that.

First off, I should tell readers that Amazon.com has done a pretty good job with the first swatches of the book: there, you can see what looks to be more than 40 of the book’s first 56 pages. In just a few moments, the relevance of that will be made quite striking.

A central thesis of the book, perhaps its most central thesis, is this: Contrary to what has been supposed by Anglophone academic philosophers, during the last five decades, there has been offered hardly any new thoughts whose truth, or whose untruth, makes or means any difference as to how anything ever is as concern concrete reality, except for ever so many perfectly parochial thoughts, ideas about nothing much more than which words are used by which people, and how various of these people use these words of theirs — and nothing any deeper than that. (And, if it be required that the newly offered non-parochial thoughts be credible idea – at least more credible than their negations, or their denials, then what’s been relevantly placed on offer, in all these years, goes from hardly anything to nothing at all.) Rather, even while brilliant thinkers have offered thoughts meant to cut lots of concrete mustard, what’s been newly placed on offer, with any credibility, are just so many thoughts empty of import for concrete reality, that is, just so many concretely empty ideas. And, each of these concretely empty ideas owes its emptiness to its being analytic, in a useful sense of that term, so, what’s more, each of the offered thoughts are thoughts that, at least when correct, are just so many analytically empty ideas, each on a par with, in that way, the thought that someone can remember her old college days only if she went to college.

All that is spelled out, at least pretty well, I think, in pages of the book that Amazon offers for your free inspection, especially in the freely available pages comprising almost all of chapter 1.

(And, should those pages leave you a little shy of a firm grasp of what I mean to convey, your grasp should be pretty firm, indeed, if you also read the next pages Amazon provides freely, pages comprising most of chapter 2 of Empty Ideas. For good measure, on Amazon you’ll also get, for free, a good running start on what’s in chapter 3 of the book.) As is my hope, many of those reading these words, will jump over thereright now – and get a good look at that material, doing that before proceeding with any more of this present short piece.

In line with all that material, and at all events, in the rest of this brief piece, I’ll aim to add just a bit more, providing some central material from the next chapter in the book, chapter 4. While this won’t do anything even remotely close to giving an adequate idea of all that goes on in Empty Ideas, a book comprising 9 dense chapters, it may well, I think, convey the flavor of what goes on in about half the book.

Well, as best I can tell, the single most influential work in recent analytic philosophy – in at least the last half-century of mainstream philosophy – is Saul Kripke’s Naming and Necessity. In chapter 4 of Empty Ideas, I discuss what’s meant to be a paradigmatic case of ‘deep worldly thoughts’ in Saul’s celebrated book — thoughts concerned not just with our use of names and other linguistic items, but rather with how things are with concrete matters that clearly transcend the reach of merely linguistic and semantic issues.

Toward that end, I first cite, and I then discuss at some length, a passage from the book — one that’s been read, time and time again, by almost all analytic philosophers, along with ever so many of their students:

In the case of this table, we may not know what block of wood the table came from. Now could this table have been made from a completely different block of wood, or even of water cleverly hardened into ice — water taken from the Thames River? We could conceivably discover that, contrary to what we now think, this table is indeed made of ice from the river. But let us suppose that it is not. Then, though we can imagine making a table out of another block of wood or even from ice, identical in appearance with this one, and though we could have put it in this very position in the room, it seems to me that this is not to imagine this table as made of wood or ice, but rather it is to imagine another table, resembling this one in all external details, made of another block of wood, or even of ice. [1]

Now, as many have noted, there are quite a few counter-examples to Kripke’s claim about the table and the block of wood, even if none is very devastating to the central thrust of what Saul was trying to place on offer. At any rate, for the sake of argument, let’s grant that the following more modest idea is correct: If something is that very table that Saul was indicating, then it absolutely must be something that, when it first existed, contained at least some of the matter that Saul’s indicated table itself first contained during its earliest moments.

Supposing that’s true, what are we to make of it? Does it provide any deep insight into the nature of tables — whatever that might be? Or does it signify some impressively fundamental feature of that particular table, as deeply worldly as can be?

In my discussion of the matter, I argue that nothing at all like that is in the works. Rather, if that (conditional) thought holds true — that ‘if-then’ thought — then it’s merely just another analytic truth, or a correct analytically empty idea. There are various lines of argument to that deflationary end. Here I’ll present — accompanied by a visual aid — the one that I’m guessing people will find most enjoyable to contemplate.

First, let’s get a handle on what philosophers take to be the persistence conditions for various sorts of individual things, most often contemplating quite ordinary individuals, like tables and chairs, rocks and stones, and so on. Often, these persistence conditions concern the matter constituting the ordinary individual in focus. Perhaps the most familiar case of this sort, at least among philosophers, is the case of the Ship of Theseus, an example whose origins go back to antiquity. Here’s a happily simple formulation of that case, which will hopefully allow readers to grasp things both rapidly and firmly:

Let’s suppose that a certain ship is entirely composed of 1000 wooden planks, each plank being precisely like all the others. Now, suppose that each day, the original ship loses one of its original 1000 planks, and with each time the lost plank being replaced by a new precise duplicate of it. And finally, in order for us to avoid problems raised by the likes of the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, let’s suppose that each original plank is nuked shortly after its extraction from the original ship, its matter never available again for ship construction.

As many people would conclude, the resulting ship — the ship that’s there after more than three eventful years — is the same ship as the original ship, even though none of its original matter serves to constitute the ship that is now there before us. As regards the loss of its original matter, then, we may say that in a certain way, the persistence conditions of a ship are, as concerns its constituting matter, lax or lenient conditions. And, of course, just as it is with ships, so it also is with tables.

With that as background, even many who are quite innocent of philosophy should be well able to understand this swatch from Empty Ideas:

Correlative with the word “table”, I’ll now introduce a new word, “shmable.” Through my establishing the appropriate conventions for its doing so, with this new word we’ll latch onto a concept that, in many respects, is quite the same as the concept of a table. But, in certain respects, the concept of a shmable is very different from that ordinary concept. As I stipulate, in these following two respects the concept of a shmable differs from the concept of a table.

First, as concerns its requisite origination conditions, the concept of a shmable is rather more lax than (what we’ve supposed for) the concept of a table: As concerns whether a certain shmable currently exists, let it be one Sam, it makes no difference what matter was doing what when Sam first existed. As long as there was enough matter nicely enough arranged, and providing that there’s a nicely gradual transition from the shmable’s originating matter to how things are right now with Sam materially, with Sam now having just the matter that, in fact, it does now have, Sam certainly will have existed at the beginning of the transition, just as certainly as it exists right now.

Second, as concerns its requisite persistence conditions, the concept of a shmable is rather stricter than (what we’ve supposed for) the concept of a table: Unlike a table, a shmable can lose only a tiny bit of the matter constituting the individual. When there’s a very gradual changeover of the matter composing a shmable I’m confronting, then, after even just a certain small amount of that shmable’s matter is lost, that very shmable, [Sam itself] will cease to exist (leaving it open, in this discussion, whether at some still much later time, the shmable might again exist.) [2]

I’m pretty sure most readers are doing well at getting the hang of what’s going on here, and quite a few may anticipate what’s coming up next. Along with our ordinary concept of a table, and our non-ordinary concept of a shmable, it will be no surprise that we may also latch onto these two other concepts, allowing us — as it’s sometimes said — to box the compass here. With that said, it’s high time for me to display another swatch, and visual aid, from Empty Ideas:

One of the two concepts, which we latch onto with the new word strable, will be a concept with strict conditions of both our currently considered kinds: Strables must satisfy pretty strict origination conditions and they also must satisfy pretty strict persistence conditions. The other further concept has lenient conditions of both our currently considered kinds. We’ll latch onto this concept with the new word “lable,” whose initial “l” matches those of “lax” and “lenient”: Our newly noticed lables satisfy pretty lax origination conditions and they also satisfy pretty lenient persistence conditions.

For quite a few readers, it may be helpfully handy to have all four terms properly placed, each relative to the others, via a very simple and visually vivid table. Arbitrarily, I’ll have the vertical columns for this table representing the noted persistence conditions of the concepts – with one column for the ideas with strict p-conditions and with the other for the ideas with lax p-conditions. And, I’ll have the horizontal rows representing the noted origination conditions – with one row for the ideas with strict o-conditions and with the other for the ideas with lax o-conditions:


Of course, tables are no more realistic, or fundamental, than are strables, shmables or lables. [3]

As you may now readily agree, I trust, the Kripkean thought that a given table must be first made of at least some of the matter of which it actually is made, well — that’s on all fours with the Quasi-Kripkean thought that a given strable can’t possibly lose all of the matter that it now has and yet still exist, and the parallel Quasi-Kripkean thought about any given shmable.

Quite fully, they’re all concretely empty ideas, whose emptiness owes to their analyticity. Or, they’re all analytically empty ideas. And, as I show in my book, so it is with pretty much all else that’s in the core of mainstream analytic philosophy.

Peter Unger is a professor of philosophy at New York University.

[1] Naming and Necessity, pages 113-14.
[2] Empty Ideas, page 88.
[3] Empty Ideas, page 90.