On my interview with Peter Unger, and the value of Philosophy

by Grace Boey

Home_picTwo weeks ago, 3 Quarks Daily ran an interview I did with Peter Unger, professor of philosophy at New York University. The candid conversation touched on several things, including Peter’s newest book Empty Ideas, and the value of philosophy. The piece caused quite a stir within the philosophical community, and generated a significant amount of online commentary — from sources more and less academic alike.

The aim of this follow-up piece is twofold. First, judging from some of the commentary, a brief clarification’s in order regarding the scope and nature of the book and interview (though Peter does much of that himself in his own piece today). Second, the interview has provoked a healthy online debate on the value of philosophical education and philosophy in general; as a young person just starting out in the field, I aim to add a little to this discussion.

About that interview…

One aim of the interview was, of course, for Peter and I to discuss his book. As the conversation turned out, the interview ended up covering a great deal of interesting things — but not representing the many specific and subtle arguments Peter makes in Empty Ideas. A better description of the interview might be that some of it makes for part of a terribly informal prologue (or epilogue) to the book. I encourage interested readers to take a look at Peter’s guest column today on 3 Quarks Daily — A Taste of Some Empty Ideas — to get a better feel of, and engage with, the book.

Next: much of the internet commentary invoked the value of philosophical fields such as moral and social philosophy. While I think this is a great debate, which I'll address shortly, it’s important to note the scope of Peter’s general critique: that is, mainstream Anglophone analytic philosophy. As he expresses in Empty Ideas, normative domains are off the hook:

I do not mean to say much about what’s been going on lately in absolutely every area of terribly respectable philosophical activity. To help you appreciate the range of my argumentation, I say that it’s aimed at what’s recently and currently regarded as analytic philosophy’s core: Certainly metaphysics, and also the most general and metaphysical-seeming parts of, or aspects of, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and epistemology. By contrast, my argumentation won’t concern anything that’s deeply normative, or fully evaluative, or anything of the ilk.

On the value of philosophy

Now that that's been taken care of: one debate that the interview addressed obliquely, or at any rate happened to spark off online, was about the value (or non-value) of philosophical study in general. My own reflections, as someone who's just graduated with an MA in philosophy, will be a take on this issue. As a young person just starting out, should I quit while I still can, or should I stay? Will I have anything to offer if I choose the latter?

Let me start by attempting to define philosophy. Doing this, accurately and succinctly to someone who doesn't know what it is, is a tricky task. With the multitude of philosophical subfields, many of which have become highly specialized, it's quite possible to follow goings-on in some areas while remaining largely ignorant of what's happening in others.

But as far as I can tell, what pretty much all these subfields have in common is this: they seek to question, clarify and cohere our assumptions and concepts behind things. Moral philosophy, for example, questions the assumptions behind our moral judgments; epistemology questions the assumptions behind what we think of as knowledge. At least in this sense, philosophy constitutes a practice of critical thinking that's distinct from the various kinds of content that have traditionally filled it out. And this is why there exists the potential for there to be the philosophy of pretty much anything — whenever we critically question fundamental assumptions about our beliefs, our activities, and the world around us, we are in the business of doing philosophy.

Now, there are always going to be debates over potentially-useful things or practices have indeed been applied to a valuable, justified end. Though debates of value in science and philosophy probably aren't completely analogous, charges of misapplication happen with the scientific method too — remember the great duck penis controversy? In a similar way, one might argue that the things academic philosophers think about are at best an unfortunate waste of time, or at worst a serious misuse of valuable university funds.

I'm the last person to rush to defend the value of all philosophy as currently practiced, if the number of why-are-we-doing-this moments I've had in philosophy classes is any indicator. In fact, in a very frustrated final paper for the graduate metaphysics course I took under Professor Unger, I wrote mostly about how I (thought I rightfully) found a large chunk of what we'd read over the semester uninteresting, and how I'd like to spend my time on bioethics instead. (Needless to say, Peter did not give me an A for that metaphysics course).

Renowned philosopher John Searle, in a great interview conducted by fellow philosopher Tim Crane, admits that current Anglophone philosophy is in 'terrible shape' because philosophers have 'lost sight of the questions'. But here is his advice for young philosophers just starting out:

Well, my advice would be to take questions that genuinely worry you. Take questions that really keep you awake at nights, and work on them with passion. I think what we try to do is bully the graduate students. The graduate students suffer worse than the undergraduates. We bully the graduate students into thinking that they have to accept our conception of what is a legitimate philosophical problem, so very few of them come with their own philosophical problems. They get an inventory of problems that they get from their professors. My bet would be to follow your own passion. That would be my advice. That’s what I did.

I find myself heartened by this advice. Though I've found myself yawning over large portions of metaphysics, there are subfields of philosophy I indeed find extremely fruitful, and philosophical questions that keep me up at night. Ethics — especially normative and applied ethics — is an example, though some of this may not be perceived as being particularly prestigious in the mainstream philosophical community. The works of classic heavyweights like John Rawls, Peter Singer, John Stuart Mill and the like have made profound differences to the way I live my life and treat others. I deeply respect the work done by philosophers and academics such as Larry Temkin, Joseph Raz and Michael Maniates. I believe good things can come out of these fields for others — especially if philosophers put in the effort to make themselves heard. And with an increasing portion of society enrolling in higher education, I don't think it's implausible to think it'll become easier for academia to influence society.

Beyond traditionally-defined academic subfields of philosophy, and outside academia altogether, I find it hard to believe that anyone could deny the value of critical thinking — or the 'philosophical method'. The practice of philosophy is a skill that can be honed by individuals, for the good of themselves and society. A philosophy PhD, MA or BA is, for sure, not for most people — but everyone can benefit from a well-conducted philosophy class or two. Philosophy keeps us on our toes, sharpens our beliefs and informs our worldviews. It surely has the potential to profoundly influence what we do with the rest of our time, and how we do it. Learning to think critically has a ripple effect.

It is with a mix of motivations that I hope to pursue a PhD in philosophy, and eventually work in academia. Some of these reasons are selfish, and some are not. First: I strive to do fruitful research and writing. Second: I hope to impart critical thinking skills to students, and I think universities are a good place to influence minds at critical junctures. Third, and this is entirely for myself: I just so happen love teaching, thinking about the things I get to think about in philosophy, and writing too. Though I know academia's not always that rosy, and that I have my own personal limitations to face up to, I believe I have a decent chance of doing alright by these agendas.

Maybe I'm still being a little too naive. Should I make it as an academic, perhaps I'll eventually lose sight of these goals, and become one of those professors who yaps away purely to stoke her own ego. Or maybe I'll become jaded enough to plunge right back into finance, the field I left some years ago in order to pursue philosophy. Or, perhaps I'll eventually do as my old professor Pete has opted to do: devote the bulk of my time and energy to collaborating with younger scholars on scientific research, in the hopes of making more difference in another field before I go (though, I suspect it won't be experimental moral psychology for me). Who knows what will happen?

Still, I don't intend to let the possibility of jadedness dash my current hopes for a fulfilling and fruitful career. The struggle against disappointment and the adjustment of expectations are things almost everyone experiences across career fields. So until someone, say, coughs up a couple million dollars to prove that the benefits of philosophy are really just a selection effect, I’m going to assume that people like me — who are nowhere near the top twenty — can have a treatment effect on others.