By definition, philosophy is for white men

Peter Unger did a softball interview with a former student to promote his new book and gaze in wonder upon his own intelligence. Eric Schliesser dealt with the interview as a whole, so I’ll focus less on his staggering arrogance and more on his ridiculously narrow understanding of what philosophy is, and how damaging such an understanding can be.

Unger’s preening self-flattery reaches its climax when he trashes Bertrand Russell and Russell’s Problems of Philosophy. I’ll start there because it lets me make a funny joke about how Unger himself represents a great number of the problems of philosophy.

Unger embodies the tendencies of philosophers both to consider themselves experts on everything about which they are aware, and—as Schliesser points out—to intentionally fail to understand that which is not convenient. But as obnoxious as those tendencies are, they’re less dangerous than his implicit attempt to actually shrink the boundaries of philosophy as a field of study:

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.

Schliesser flags this quote, and registers his concern that Unger can speak so dismissively of Russell’s advocacy for peace. But he doesn’t explicitly connect it to the other claims that Unger makes about what philosophy is. Earlier in the interview Unger praises Tim Maudlin’s approach to the philosophy of physics, and says that

most of the time when [Maudlin is] 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.

Unger’s suggesting to us that the sort of philosophy that Tim Maudlin does, which incorporates a lot of science, isn’t really philosophy. It’s “adulterated philosophy,” just like Russell’s social philosophy is “quasi-philosophy.” The more that philosophy connects with empirical science, or with social justice, the less philosophical Unger considers it to be. This isn’t surprising if you take Unger at his word, early on in the interview, about what he thinks of when he thinks of “philosophy.” He tells the interviewer that his book, Empty Ideas, isn’t just an attack on metaphysics:

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.

It’s ambiguous, but given his later comments on what is and isn’t philosophical, I think what he’s saying here is that metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of language are everything there is to philosophy. In other words, Unger thinks that these subfields—which are often called the “core” of analytic philosophy—actually constitute philosophy as a whole. Anything beyond their borders is not philosophy, by definition.

This way of looking at Unger’s comments fits with his praise of the later Wittgenstein:

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 [crapping] on [the] 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.

Whether or not what Wittgenstein and Unger “have thought of as philosophy” is nonsense (it’s not), philosophy encompasses far more than the analytic “core” that Unger has to thank for his career. But by pretending that all there is to philosophy is the “empty” but “fun” sort of stuff he’s spent his life doing, Unger sends the message that philosophy isn’t, and can never be, anything more than an idle sort of occupation for those who have nothing better to do. Philosophy can’t liberate, according to Unger; philosophy can’t be a means by which the marginalized and oppressed can come to a better understanding of power, nor a means by which to resist that power.

Eric Schliesser points out that Unger also describes philosophy as essentially concerned with generality. In challenging this, he makes the same point:

Why would anybody wish to pursue questions of more limited generality? Well, if you are interested in battling particular injustices, improving particular societies, understanding particular set of lived experiences, in characterizing the nature(s) of the science(s), finding vocabularies that allow one to theorize, say, a class of oppressions, etc.

Schliesser says he always suspected that

Unger was really one of those people who sees philosophy as a mere game of puzzle-solving with the benefits of a pleasant life-style to the lucky few who know how to advance in the institutional game of professional philosophy and that know how to position themselves by saying in clever ways that others speak nonsense.

And this explains why, even though Unger dismisses his own field as useless, he doesn’t call for the dissolution of Philosophy departments, or at least resign so that NYU doesn’t waste any more money on his salary. Philosophy does have a point: to keep people like Peter Unger in positions of power, so that they may prevent it becoming a tool by which we can criticize that power.


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