Philosophy is a Bunch of Empty Ideas: Interview with Peter Unger

by Grace Boey

41Has1Vo4HLPhilosophy: you either get it or you don't. The field has its passionate defenders, but according to its critics, philosophy is irrelevant, unproductive, and right at the height of the ivory towers. And now, the philosophy-bashing camp can count a proud defector from the other side: Peter Unger, Professor of Philosophy at New York University, has come out against the field in his latest book, Empty Ideas: A Critique of Analytic Philosophy.

Unger has written extensively over the course of his career on various philosophical topics, and his best-known writings include Ignorance: A Case for Scepticism (1975) and Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence (1995). As a no-holds-barred critique of mainstream analytic philosophy, Empty Ideas is a continuation of Unger's signature provocative style.

As a former student of his, I spoke to Unger in late May about Empty Ideas, his thoughts on the value of philosophy, Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, David Lewis, and the difference between philosophy, crystal healing and self-help (the answer: nothing that important).

Photo2Hi, Peter. To start things off, could you say a bit about your book Empty Ideas, and what it’s about?

Philosophers easily get the idea that somehow or other, just by considering things about the world that they already know, they can write up deep stories which are true, or pretty nearly true, about how it is with the world. By that I especially mean the world of things that includes themselves, and everything that’s spatio-temporally related to them, or anything that has a causal effect on anything else, and so on. They think they can tell a deep story about how it is that all of this stuff really hangs together, that’s much deeper, more enlightening and more comprehensive than anything that any scientist can do.

And so philosophers proceed to write up these stories, and they’re under the impression that they’re saying something new and interesting about how it is about the world, when in fact this is all an illusion. To say new and interesting things about the world — and that’s very hard, things of any generality I mean, or even anything interesting — you really have to engage with a lot of science. And very few philosophers do any of that, at least in any relevant way.

So, these so-called deep stories are the empty ideas, or what your book calls ‘concretely empty ideas’, that don’t affect concrete reality.

Right. What philosophers are in search of — and they don’t realize this — is generalizations that aren’t open to any conceivable possible counterexample, however far-fetched. These counter-instances don’t have to be at all realistic. So they put forth these offerings. Almost always, these offerings fail, and colleagues come up with counter-instances. When they don’t fail, they turn out to be trivial. Virtually all of them are analytically correct, though philosophers don’t realize it.

Generally, though, they’re mostly incorrect offerings, with counterexamples, and it keeps changing and keeps changing, until everyone becomes bored with the topic, and then they go on to something else. It’s not as though anything ever gets established, except for very trivial things, nor is it that anything ever gets refuted. Rather, things become old hat and fashions change. But this general way of doing things hasn’t changed. In about seventy or eighty years, as far as I can tell, in terms of mainstream English-speaking philosophy.

That leads me to my next question. In Empty Ideas, your attack on certain leading figures in metaphysics is pretty—

It’s not just metaphysics, it’s pretty much everything. I’m just concentrating on certain issues. Mostly metaphysics, also some epistemology, a fair amount of philosophy of mind and philosophy of language – what with the semantic externalism and all this business. I don’t really go into it, but it all goes down into these nonsensical so-called theories of reference and all that stuff — which itself isn’t anything deep, it’s just about how people use certain words. That isn’t analytic, but it’s relatively superficial.

To me, all this sort of stuff is parochial, or trivial. People who are signing up for philosophy don’t think they’re going to end up with this kind of stuff. They want to learn something about the ‘ultimate nature of reality’, and their position in relation to it. And when you’re doing philosophy, you don’t have a prayer of offering even anything close to a correct or even intelligible answer to any of these questions.

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.

But you didn’t stop.

Neither did Wittgenstein. He kept scribbling away! What stopped him from doing that was terminal cancer. Only cancer had that desired effect. But it also had some other undesired effects — namely, ending his life. (Laughter)

Even though Wittgeinstein is perhaps the most widely admired philosopher of the twentieth century, at least amongst mainstream philosophy, nobody really pays attention to his main conclusion: you can’t really do anything when you do this stuff, you should stop it. He basically said you should try to be a therapist for young people who are starting out in philosophy, to get them away from the field and turn them into something more useful. No more of of this fruitless, self-deluding endeavor. So really, what I’m doing is detailing some of that.

Do you think people are going to follow your advice and stop philosophizing?

No, of course not. No more than I think that people are all of a sudden going to stop it from being the case that many thousands of children needlessly die in Africa everyday. That’ll go on for another century or so, probably.

Why do you think all these people all these brilliant people keep pouring all their energy into these questions?

I’m not a psychologist. I don’t have any diagnosis.

Going back to my unfinished question: you’ve taken on quite a few very big, respected names and big ideas in Empty Ideas. David Lewis, Hilary Putnam, Saul Kripke, and so on. Your book is basically a systematic, chapter-by-chapter takedown of these big names and ideas. How do you think people and fellow philosophers will respond to these attacks?

I have no idea how people will respond to it. I haven’t showed it to too many people so far. I showed it to David Chalmers, who takes it pretty seriously, and he seems to think most of it’s right. And also Tim Maudlin, whose comments show up on the last part of the book. He thinks pretty much all of it’s right, and he takes it seriously.

Tim Maudlin’s already done a similar sort of thing within himself, so that most of the time when he’s doing philosophy, he’s also doing theoretical physics. So he has a chance to do something like an amalgam of physics and metaphysics. It’s not pure philosophy, it’s very adulterated philosophy. It’s not the sort of thing where you make claims of the sort where any imaginable far-fetched scenario would count as a counterexample against it. Rather, if it’s too far-fetched, it’s irrelevant to what they’re doing.

As I say in Empty Ideas, there are very few people capable of doing work like that, at the level Tim Maudlin does it. Maybe — at any given time — five or four in the world. To do it at an adequate level, maybe another fifteen, and it’s quite a step down for the other fifteen. That’s about it. Slow but humdrum.

So I guess the rest of us philosophers have much dimmer prospects than these twenty people.

People with a lot of philosophical training, and something like a philosophical bend to their mind, can do productive work in areas where you don’t have to be a mathematical whiz, or learn up the frontiers of theoretical physics. For example, some young people help up with empirical linguistics, and they should be doing it a hundred times as much. I say something about that in the book. Something which I don’t discuss in the book is — they could do seriously helpful work in experimental psychology.

Speaking of experimental psychology, I understand that this is something you’ve recently been trying to do.

Yes, I’ve just started doing that now. We’ve sketched out certain experiments to be run. Even the best psychologists, when they get into areas that have to do with human evaluative judgments – let along human moral responses or judgments — they make a mess of things. Even a psychologist as good as Daniel Kahneman, who’s one of the best. He’s probably one of the half-dozen best of the last forty years or so. You’re somewhat aware of his work, about how human reasoning is strange in ways? Thinking Fast and Slow is his bestseller. It’s a five-part book. When Kahneman gets to the fifth part, and gets into things about judgments of pleasure and pain — mainly pain — he completely messes it up.

So some some experiments which I’ll do will just be to straighten this whole thing out. I can do psychology, as can other people who are trained in philosophy, about things like what’s really going on with our judgments about what a desirable life is, or even how much pain we’ve had or something like that, far better than the best psychologist like Daniel Kahneman, who hasn’t been trained up in philosophy. It may be because I’m smarter than him. But there’s probably more to it than just that.

Do you think philosophical training plays any part at all in philosophers being better at these things, if they are?

I don’t know. The only real way to find out is to test randomized groups of people. You pay people a hundred thousand dollars, give them a free education, and randomly assign them to go through this free PhD program in either philosophy or psychology, and see what happens. It may just be a selection effect — philosophical training may have nothing to do with it. This is complete speculation. This is something you can always test — whether it’s a completely a selection effect, whether it’s really completely a treatment effect, or whether it’s a mix — and if it’s so, what the percentages are.

My guess is that about a tenth of it is explained as a treatment effect, and nine tenths of it is just a selection effect. That would be my guess. It’s almost all selection effect. It has a very small, barely noticeable, but noticeable, treatment effect.

I’d like to think that philosophical education isn’t that useless in actually increasing students’ critical thinking skills.

This is something testable, it’s got nothing to do with what you’d like to think. Going into this, do you know the difference between the selection effect and the treatment effect?

Yes, I do.

This is the most basic thing in social science, and it has been for the last twenty years. Not to make this confusion. Trained social scientists are doing it less and less, but other people like you keep doing it all the time. People who ‘like to think … oh I like to think taking a lot of philosophy courses makes you better at certain kinds of critical thinking’ and stuff like that.

It’s just blowing smoke. You have got to have a randomized trial, and give the people incentives, people who’d be interested. I was interested, as an undergraduate, in both experimental psychology — which I took a lot of, more than enough to graduate with a major — and also philosophy. And philosophy gripped me, unfortunately.

Well, I shouldn’t say unfortunately. I had a good time. I had a lot of fun doing philosophy. I didn’t make any discoveries, unlike a classmate of mine who went into experimental psychology, but I had a better time than him. He retired — actually he became a dean at Penn, and went into administration when he was, like, 62. He was already bored with making psychological discoveries, and he completely retired when he was, maybe, 68 or 70. And I’m still having a lot of fun, messing around with this garbage at 72, and expect to do so until I’m 80. At which point I probably won’t be able to hear, or see, or type, or whatever it is. If — I hope — I’m still above the grass.

Yes, philosophy is fun. This might be a good or bad thing, but one view might be that the value of most philosophy is simply the fact that it’s fun.

It’s 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.

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.

Take Derek Parfit’s book, Reasons and Persons. It’s in four parts. The first part is not enjoyable to read, because he talks about a lot of theories which he labels with letters. You can’t keep it straight, you need a scorecard next to the page. But the other three parts don’t have that, and they’re tremendously enjoyable to read — at least for some people who have some training in philosophy, and have the temperament for it. It’s wonderful stuff, fascinating stuff.

Reasons and Persons is extremely enjoyable. But does Parfit ever discover anything? No, not at all. Does he ever make credible, interesting new statements about concrete reality? No, not even close. But it’s very enjoyable literature for very many people.

Back to Empty Ideas, I guess you think people should just face up to that, instead of thinking that they’re doing something very important, or deep.

Probably. That’s what Wittgenstein concluded. I’m just not holding myself to be something like a quasi-mystical genius that he was supposed to have been. I’m just an ordinary schlub, who happens to have more perspective on things than other mainstream philosophers.

And I’m smarter than almost all of them. A few of my colleagues are smarter than I am. But except for Tim Maudlin, they all have much less perspective than I do, and some of them none at all. They have no idea what they’re doing, or very little idea of what they’re doing, or distorted ideas of what they’re doing.

One of them who’s much smarter than me is Kit Fine. His office is right over there next to mine. I discuss him in one of the chapters of Empty Ideas. He has no more idea of what he’s doing than Aristotle did, and in Aristotle’s day there was an excuse: nobody knew anything. Nowadays it’s less of an excuse.

Why did you suddenly decide now to write Empty Ideas?

Well, it wasn’t so suddenly. It gradually grew upon me. I sort of knew it without wanting to fully know it when I was writing my previous book, All the Power in the World, which has a lot of speculative philosophy. And then after that, I said, okay, now I’m going to address what’s unconsciously, or half-consciously, been popping up during those years. Those years being from about 1998 to 2005, when I wrote All the Power in the World.

So this thing started with me in 1998, and now it’s 2014. I don’t think that’s very sudden. I started writing this book in the fall of 2005. It germinated from 1998 to 2005. I was having ideas about it, but I wasn’t writing it down on paper. That didn’t start until the second half of 2005. But even so, that’s a while ago.

Alright. I asked this because Empty Ideas came so late into your career. I hope you don’t mind me saying this, in fact I actually mean it in the best way possible, if that’s possible — I feel like you’ve just taken a big crap on everything you’ve done before.

Certainly on most of what I’ve done. If that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes.

See, going back to Wittgenstein — he had his two periods. In his early period he wrote the Tractatus, which is supposed to be one of the five classics of twentieth century analytic philosophy. His second period was — it’s all crap on Tractatus. All that stuff I did as a young man is nonsense. This is it — I have to start anew, and what I now say is, you can’t do any of that stuff. You can’t do any of what people have thought of as philosophy. You just can’t do it, it doesn’t amount to anything. When you do it, it’s all puffery, puffery gone awry. So Wittgenstein did that. But then he couldn’t stop doing the puffery!

Let’s go to Bertrand Russell. He was one of the few philosophers to win a Nobel Prize in literature. But it is literature! Russell wrote some short stories that were not well-received — he got it for his philosophical writing, as well as his writing on social affairs, which was quasi-philosophical. He was writing in favor of peace, pre-marital living together, all this sort of stuff. Progressive education.

This quote is from a small book that Bertrand Russell wrote, from 1912, which is still used as a textbook today: a little book called The Problems of Philosophy. He talks here about the value of philosophy:

Thus, to sum up our discussion of the value of philosophy; Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves. Because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all that because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.

The second part, after the ‘above all’ seems like complete nonsense. What the heck does all that mean? It’s mystical nonsense, no? This from one of the two founders of modern logic, second only to Gottlob Frege in laying down the foundations of symbolic and mathematical logic.

Let’s go to the first part, before the ‘above all’. He says that these questions, and not questions about, say, chemistry, or ornothology, enlarge your conception of what is possible. I hardly even know what that means. But he goes on and says things which are less hard to understand, like, it enriches your intellectual imagination. And a second thing it does, which I take to be distinct, is it diminishes your dogmatic assurance.

These are things that can be tested for, as I said before! Whether it’s a treatment effect, or a selection effect. There are tests for how creative people are, or how dogmatic they are. You test them, at the end, the day after they graduate. And you see whether this is true.

Bertrand Russell never even bothers to think about whether, or what, these things might have to do with any test you can give to human people, or what’s going on. It’s so full of nonsense, the guy was always full of nonsense. He read up on relativity theory, but you would think he would think of some psychological testing that had some bearing on the smoke he was blowing. He never gave it a thought.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about the book, or anything in general?

As I’ve said, I’ve had a lot of fun doing philosophy. I’m glad I got into the field just to have a good time. As far as I can tell, out of the three smartest guys in my class — I wasn’t one of them, although I was very smart — two of them became theoretical physicists. But the third went into philosophy — David Lewis, who is by far the most influential philosopher over the last fifty years. No one else comes close.

David Lewis never discovered anything. It’s all hot air! Except for this thing — it’s not hot air, but it’s gratuitous speculation — about the plura-verse and the mutually isolated worlds. It’s fun to think about for a week, but after that, I mean, come on. The guy kept going at it for thirty years. Out of his mind, right? Brilliant guy.

Have you seen the study about the elite general citation? No?

(From a computer, Peter accesses the blog of Kieran Healy, professor of sociology at Duke University. The two blog articles referenced are A Co-Citation Network for Philosophy and Lewis and the Women.)

This study has a lot of errors in it, but the general thrust is correct. What Healy did was to take the four most prestigious philosophy journals — Philosophical Review, Journal of Philosophy, Nous and Mind. He took all of the articles and reviews published in them, over a period of twenty years ending with the year 2013. Then he looked at which works those journals cited — what was being cited in these really prestigious places, the top of the field.

So, this is how it turned out. It is fair to say that the past twenty years in our four journals has been dominated by two philosophers: Saul Kripke and David Lewis. I discuss both of them at length in Empty Ideas. You see, I’m not going after small fish. These guys are considered the smartest and biggest by everybody else who’s anywhere near the top.

As can be seen in the network diagram (reproduced below, from A Co-Citation Network for Philosophy), Kripke’s Naming and Necessity and Lewis’s On the Plurality of Worlds are the connected twin centers of the co-citation network. Naming and Necessity has 180 elite citations, and Plurality has 131.


(Unger reads off the first table from Lewis and the Women)—

Here’s a table of the twenty most cited works, preserving ties so we have slightly more than twenty items. Healy comments on this:

The usual way that a scholar comes to influence their field is quite simply by writing a book or article that everyone wants to talk about. It must be discussed directly, or one must explain why talking about it in more detail can be avoided. Either way, you have to cite it. Hardly anyone writes something like this in their career, of course. Those few who do usually do not write more than one thing that has this effect on a field.

Naming and Necessity is the most influential single item of this type in the data. On the Plurality of Worlds is the only work that comes close to it (and is the only other item with more than 100 cites). So Kripke’s influence is of the usual kind, mostly through a single work.

Lewis is not like this. Writing a book with the impact of On the Plurality of Worlds is more than enough to make one absolutely central to one’s field. But even so, focusing on Plurality alone would radically underestimate Lewis’s influence on the philosophical conversation in our journals over the past twenty years. Look at the Top 20 table above. Naming and Necessity, Word and Object, Reasons and Persons, A Theory of Justice, The Conscious Mind, and The Varieties of Reference are all very important books. These works have had a very large—in some cases, a defining—effect on their subfields, and often beyond. Tim Williamson and Donald Davidson are unusual in that each of them has two items in the top 20. Lewis has six items in the top twenty. He has thirteen items in the top one hundred. In the complete dataset of 526 items—the basis of the co-citation graph —thirty three are by Lewis. And he shows up all over the graph, too, not just in his main area of metaphysics.

There’s Lewis — second, five, nine, sixteen, eighteen … eighty-two … and by contrast, here’s Kripke. A pigeon compared to Lewis! After Naming and Necessity, Kripke’s second entry is number 53, and then he falls to 195 and 324, and that’s it, he’s off. He has four things in the top 500. I have four or five things in the top 500. (Laughter) Well, who cares. They’re all nonsense anyway, including mine. Then Kealy has something about women in the data. Nineteen items in the data are written by women, or 3.6 percent. By comparison, 6.3 percent of the items are written by David Lewis.

So, you get the picture with David Lewis. It’s almost like Noam Chomsky with linguistics — the big enchilada. And he never said anything! Except for this stuff about the mutually isolated worlds. All the rest of it is just attempts to come up with analytic sentences. 95 percent of which failed, and 5 percent of which — so what? They’re just analytic sentences.

I should have known better as an undergraduate, with David Lewis in our sophomore year. We read Philosophical Investigations, twice over with yellow markers. We knew, but didn’t want to know. So we puffed around, and churned out a lot of pages.

Before we wrap up, I have one more comment to make. When I was reading Empty Ideas, it did seem like a much more detailed version of what lots of non-philosophers think about the field. I think many of them would appreciate this book.

It’s what all non-philosophers think. Except — those like this guy on a plane flight with my friend James Van Cleve, a philosopher at USC. Jim introduces himself as a philosopher, and the guy said — oh really? What are some of your sayings? (Laughter) Sayings!

That is pretty funny. Some of my friends who aren’t familiar with the field have asked me if I’ve learned to meditate in philosophy grad school, and if I’ve got any ‘insights’ to tell them.

Especially bookstores. You go to most bookstores and there will be a section called ‘metaphysics’. And it’s all about this meditation stuff, crystal healing, some stuff or other from the orient…

I was at Daytona Beach in Florida recently, and I was pretty excited to see this big store sign that said ‘Books and Metaphysics’. So I went in, thinking that would be a philosophy bookstore, but of course it wasn’t. Half of it was filled with trashy books, and the other half was filled with crystal healing stones and Buddha statues.


And in lots of libraries, I’ve noticed that the philosophy books are interspersed with all sorts of self-help or motivational books, which I find a little sad.

What’s sad about it?

Well, I find it sad that people think that this stuff is what philosophers study.

Why is that sad? What harm does it do?

I suppose if you take pride in your work and what you do, you would be upset if people had a completely wrong impression of it.

If I’m right, there really hasn’t been much going on. So you really shouldn’t be that much proud of it anyhow, and it’s not that much of a loss that people have the wrong idea as to what’s been going on. People think that philosophy is this sort of ‘nothing much’, when it really should be that sort of ‘nothing much’. I don’t see any great harm in that difference.

* * *

This conversation was edited for length and clarity.