Philosophy

Peter Unger, Raymond Geuss, and internal criticism of academic philosophy

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In an earlier post criticizing the decadent state of academic philosophy today, and in particular the kind of mindless linguistic puzzle-playing that is celebrated each year in The Philosopher’s Annual, I mentioned that there are a few lonely voices within the academic philosophy community who have recently spoken out against the forms of intellectual blindness that I described. As two examples, I mentioned Peter Unger and Raymond Geuss. More on their recent books below.

But first, I should also note that there are several professional philosophers who have, over the years, published exegeses of the later Wittgenstein that could and should have been understood as devastating critiques of the way most academic philosophy is done today. Robert Fogelin and the great G.P. Baker (in his later writings) are two names that come to mind. There have also been a number of professional philosophers who offered deeply critical views of various aspects of academic philosophy — without attacking contemporary problem-solving methodologies as globally and resolutely as a “therapeutic” Wittgensteinian might do. Richard Rorty, for example, began his career as a mildly optimistic observer of “the linguistic turn” in philosophy, became disillusioned with more or less the entire project of modern epistemology in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, and eventually criticized the truth-discovering pretensions of most philosophy since Plato by emphasizing the relativity of all philosophical problems to the contingent vocabularies in which the problems are stated. Appropriately, Rorty ended his career in a comparative literature department, leaving the puzzle-playing philosophers to themselves.

For the most part, however, I suspect that young people today who are interested in philosophy, skeptical, and might become internal critics of misguided philosophical methods are dissuaded from becoming philosophy professors in the first place. A friend who was considering applying to graduate school in philosophy once told me that a professor described what the graduate programs are looking for as follows: they want someone who will be able to “push the ball forward.” The professors want to know that their graduate students will engage with the professors’ problems in a productive way, participating in the same problem-solving methods that the professors use — for example, clarifying puzzles by drawing creative new distinctions involving obscure and highly technical philosophical concepts.

Needless to say, if this is the requirement for becoming a professional philosopher, then quite a few kinds of philosophers need not apply. Such as philosophers who ask questions and resist asserting answers, or philosophers who view the adoption of dogmatic philosophical positions as arbitrary and pointless. Oddly enough, any philosopher with the perspicuity to understand the futility of the puzzle-playing philosophers’ methods will probably struggle to be heard and understood in an American philosophy department today, much less employed. In effect, a kind of blindered credulousness is now a prerequisite for entering and rising in a field that is ostensibly defined by its commitment to unrelenting critical inquiry.

As a result, when most academic philosophers hear the occasional criticism of their methods, it probably comes from the outside. They can comfort themselves by looking around at their colleagues and saying: none of the philosophers I know believes that. They may mistake their institutional insulation from criticism for a kind of hard-won rational consensus. They may ignore the lengthy processes of selection and self-selection that weeded out nearly all voices of methodological dissent.

It is because of these processes of consensus-formation and consensus-enforcement that the rare dissenters like Unger and Geuss are so remarkable. For the remainder of this post, I will simply quote their words.

Raymond Geuss, offering a kind of phenomenological account of his experience of contemporary academic philosophy, from his book A World Without Why:

[T]he experience I have of my everyday work environment is of a conformist, claustrophobic, and repressive verbal universe, a penitential domain of reason-mongering in which hyperactivity in detail — the endlessly repeated shouts of “why,” the rebuttals, calls for “evidence,” qualifications, and quibbles — stands in stark contrast to the immobility and self-referentiality of the structure as a whole. I suffer from recurrent bouts of nausea in the face of this densely woven tissue of “arguments,” most of which are nothing but blinds for something else altogether, generally something unsavoury; and I feel an urgent need to exit from it altogether.

Peter Unger, discussing his recent book, Empty Ideas: A Critique of Analytic Philosophy:

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.

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.

Even though Wittgenstein 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.

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One thought on “Peter Unger, Raymond Geuss, and internal criticism of academic philosophy

  1. Pingback: Philosophy “in the doldrums” | Against the Logicians

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