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Is philosophy a bunch of empty ideas?
June 23, 2014 9:26 PM   Subscribe

An interview with Peter Unger, Professor of Philosophy at NYU, regarding his new book, Empty Ideas: A Critique of Analytic Philosophy: "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."
posted by bookman117 (113 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

 
Comments on this at Brian Leiter's blog (which is widely read among analytic philosophers, and has some very influential philosophers commenting on Unger's view).
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:34 PM on June 23 [4 favorites]


Obligatory History of the World clip
posted by XMLicious at 9:45 PM on June 23 [2 favorites]


I am a mathematican who sometimes reads papers in analytic philosophy, usually in formal epistemology. My typical encounter with a philosophy paper runs something like this.

1. The question this paper asks either doesn't make sense or it's vacuous.
2. No, OK, now I see that there's some content to the question, and it's easy.
3. No, wait, the second page of the paper explains what's wrong with my easy answer; now I see that this problem is kind of hard, and I'm impressed with their solution.
4. OK, no, actually, this problem is so hard that I don't think the paper's solution is really satisfactory, but I'm still impressed, because I can't do any better myself.
5. (optional) Refuse to accept that I can't do any better myself, spend a week thinking about the problem, then give up. Remain impressed.
posted by escabeche at 10:00 PM on June 23 [46 favorites]


From the comments at Brian Leiter's blog:
It's a bit rich, isn't it? I mean, the guy has led a charmed professional life, in one of the cushiest philosophy gigs you can get and now, suddenly, philosophy's a load of BS?
It certainly feels like an embittered old man is just rubbing our noses in how he got away with something for so long... And at this point, it's hard to reflect on any academic position without mentally footnoting it with "in a profession in which economic and sexual exploitation of graduate students and adjuncts is rife while possessing its own special get-out-of-jail-free card, tenure".
posted by fatbird at 10:00 PM on June 23 [2 favorites]


If philosophy weren't a bunch of empty ideas, then where would religion be able to store its shit?
posted by oneswellfoop at 10:03 PM on June 23 [4 favorites]


Can somebody just write up the full list of people Unger says he's smarter than in this interview? I had to stop when I got to Daniel Kahneman.
posted by escabeche at 10:07 PM on June 23 [7 favorites]


Philosophers discover things all the time, it's just that once they do, people no longer consider it philosophy, but science, or math.

In some fields, I don't think it's at all clear where the line is that divides it from philosophy -- formal logic, abstract math like category theory, theoretical computer science, psychology, etc.

His denigration of using symbols and formalism in philosophy is completely wrong-headed, because the creation and use of those symbols is what brings fields from philosophy to science and math, eventually.
posted by empath at 10:09 PM on June 23 [9 favorites]




"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."

So not only philosophy is a waste of time, so is art?
posted by Phatty Lumpkin at 10:10 PM on June 23 [3 favorites]


empath:

Something can be thought of there. Why can't it be said that the work of philosophers to discover and/or create new fields of study? The greatest fields of study seem to have been created by philosophers, and the field of philosophy seems to have arisen from the mere thought of people.
posted by curuinor at 10:12 PM on June 23


I got my undergrad in philosophy, and in my senior year I fell into the bad crowd - linguists. I also read Wittgenstein and Rorty. Lucky for me I listened and decided not to continue that path. It wasn't lost time, however, as I feel the methodologies I learned have served me well in other endeavors. Philosophy's value is not in its conclusions, but in the fact it gives space for students to ask the big questions independent of profit motives or politics.

To argue the fact that it's fundamentally useless sort of misses the point.
posted by elwoodwiles at 10:13 PM on June 23 [12 favorites]


Wittgenstein was an intelligent guy, but he knew almost nothing about philosophy - by which I mean he didn't make any effort to rigorously read philosophy - so it's hard to take his conclusions about philosophy seriously unless one sort of squints and tries to flatten philosophy into something much less substantial. Sometimes people come into it seeing philosophy as something not very substantial in the first place. Those people are likely to find a kindred spirit in Wittgenstein; and they'll be right, as far as their understanding of philosophy goes. But it makes almost no sense to call Wittgenstein a "philosopher" - unless you remove the essential political and social element of philosophy and just reduce it to mean "someone who thinks about things." I imagine Wittgenstein would have been befuddled to hear himself so referred to, not because it was something he'd rejected but because it was something he never pretended to.

This guy, though - well, he's no Wittgenstein.
posted by koeselitz at 10:42 PM on June 23 [4 favorites]


Philosophers discover things all the time, it's just that once they do, people no longer consider it philosophy, but science, or math.

Can you cite some concrete examples of this?

In some fields, I don't think it's at all clear where the line is that divides it from philosophy

In science, I would suggest that the dividing line is: have you created a hypothesis that leads to testable predictions? In math, I would suggest that the dividing line is: have you created a proof which is internally consistent and verifiable via formal logic? In this sense I have a hard time separating math from philosophy, to me they feel different but I don't know how to express that difference more clearly.
posted by sophist at 11:01 PM on June 23 [2 favorites]


Philosophy's value is not in its conclusions, but in the fact it gives space for students to ask the big questions independent of profit motives or politics.

The study of philosophy is also in large part the study of argumentation, problem-solving, and organized thought, and that's at least as valuable as any philosophical content one encounters.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:01 PM on June 23 [9 favorites]


sophist: "In science, I would suggest that the dividing line is: have you created a hypothesis that leads to testable predictions? In math, I would suggest that the dividing line is: have you created a proof which is internally consistent and verifiable via formal logic?"

Yep. In other words, science makes the unexamined assumption that hypotheses can be tested by repetitive observation; math makes the unexamined assumption that formal logic can be used to construct proofs which have the character of mathematical truth. All the philosophical sciences like physics, biology, and math are based on these unexamined assumptions as their starting point. Philosophy is the thing that examines their assumptions.
posted by koeselitz at 11:08 PM on June 23 [17 favorites]


In science, I would suggest that the dividing line is: have you created a hypothesis that leads to testable predictions?

There is an awful lot of theoretical physics that is being done which is not likely to be testable in our lifetimes.

It's also quite plausible to imagine an Einstein coming up with a theory of relativity that wouldn't have been testable for quite some time given a slightly more primitive state of technology.
posted by empath at 11:14 PM on June 23 [1 favorite]


sophist: Can you cite some concrete examples of this?

Welp, for a start, the entire works of Galileo, Newton, Leibniz...most of the scientists of the 16th and 17th century. None of them would have self-described as a scientist — the word "scientist" wasn't even coined until the mid-1800s, roughly a hundred years after Newton's death. They were natural philosophers, and the work they did drew directly upon the philosophical traditions of their day.

In science, I would suggest that the dividing line is: have you created a hypothesis that leads to testable predictions?

Testability in general, and falsifiability in particular, are not really good measures for what is or is not science. (And I say this as a scientist.) A hypothesis can't be tested in isolation; the outcome of any test you perform could still be consistent with your hypothesis if you're willing to relax other assumptions about the world. People saw Saturn was wobbling funny. Either Newton's gravity was wrong — or there was another planet out there. Once they found Uranus, the whole cycle repeated over the next century — and there's Neptune. So when they noticed Mercury was behaving strangely, they figured hey, maybe there's another planet really close in to the sun....and nope, Newtonian gravity turned out to be wrong.

Judgement calls like this — the tradeoff between one part of our understanding of nature and another — are at the core of science. These are, fundamentally, exercises in finding logically coherent alternatives and choosing among them. If that's not a philosophical exercise, I don't know what is.

In math, I would suggest that the dividing line is: have you created a proof which is internally consistent and verifiable via formal logic?

So you're saying that Gödel's incompleteness theorems are not philosophy?
posted by freelanceastro at 11:23 PM on June 23 [6 favorites]


If you really think philosophy is futile, you should go and play football, not write a philosophical analysis of the problem.
posted by Segundus at 11:24 PM on June 23 [2 favorites]


For me, formal logic is where philosophy, math and computer science intersect. The thing that really crystallized this belief for me was talking to other students in my metalogic class; I learned that while I was taking PHIL341, the person on my right was taking MATH341 and the one on my left was taking CPSC341.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 11:25 PM on June 23 [4 favorites]


If you really think philosophy is futile, you should go and play football, not write a philosophical analysis of the problem.

These are not mutually exclusive activities.
posted by Celsius1414 at 11:26 PM on June 23 [2 favorites]


So you're saying that Gödel's incompleteness theorems are not philosophy?

"Now that I've decided that the correct label for things I find useful is not philosophy, philosophy is useless!"
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:27 PM on June 23 [4 favorites]


If you really think philosophy is futile, you should go and play football, not write a philosophical analysis of the problem.

When the seagulls follow the trawler...
posted by cromagnon at 11:34 PM on June 23 [2 favorites]


I got nothing from that interview that I would consider profound. All I know is that I frequently thank my lucky stars that I stumbled into philosophy as an undergrad because between the effort I expended then (combined with the effort I expended on history and historiography at the same time) has served me well over the past 30 years.

If the past is remembrance, and the future is expectation, then the now is all about being able to craft hypotheses (of varying rigor) so one can get there from here.

So, it's not that I don't care about what this fellow says, I just find it a bit irrelevant and marginal to living a well-examined life.
posted by CincyBlues at 11:45 PM on June 23 [2 favorites]


Philosophy's value is not in its conclusions, but in the fact it gives space for students to ask the big questions independent of profit motives or politics.

To argue the fact that it's fundamentally useless sort of misses the point.


In fairness, he repeatedly addresses precisely that point in this interview, saying that it's not philosophy or philosophical education that gives space for this, but rather selection effects.
posted by tkfu at 11:45 PM on June 23 [1 favorite]


Testability in general, and falsifiability in particular, are not really good measures for what is or is not science.

And there's all kind of questions about what exactly a measurement is, and so on.
posted by empath at 11:49 PM on June 23


Foundational mathematics/Formal Logic (to which Gödel's incompleteness theorem is a major contribution) is the bit of mathematics which most closely abuts philosophy, but to my mind (until very recently active in logic research) the difference between philosophical and mathematical work in this field is clear: if we take a particularsystem of logic/set theory and then prove some property of it, we are doing mathematics. If, instead, we are discussing non-formal consequences of those results, or if we are trying to decide which logic/foundation of mathematics is "right", we are doing philosophy. Hence, Gödel's incompleteness theorem is a mathematical result. This is not to say that it isn't important to philosophy, or to say that the the philosophical foundational questions aren't alsointeresting.
posted by Omission at 11:52 PM on June 23 [7 favorites]


When you are late in your academic career, I think it is common to harbor a sneaking suspicion that your discipline is mostly bullshit. (Or is it just me ...)
posted by Crotalus at 11:56 PM on June 23 [4 favorites]


Wittgenstein was an intelligent guy, but he knew almost nothing about philosophy - by which I mean he didn't make any effort to rigorously read philosophy

Wat
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:59 PM on June 23 [2 favorites]


...if we take a particular system of logic/set theory and then prove some property of it, we are doing mathematics.

So when Bertrand Russell came up with his barber paradox, he was doing mathematics, and not philosophy? At all?

At what point are you no longer doing work that is relevant to a field, and are instead doing work in that field?
posted by freelanceastro at 11:59 PM on June 23


If, instead, we are discussing non-formal consequences of those results, or if we are trying to decide which logic/foundation of mathematics is "right", we are doing philosophy.

So the debate on whether or not to use the Axiom of Choice -- philosophy or math?
posted by empath at 12:04 AM on June 24


Wittgenstein considered almost all previous philosophy to be worthless. He did not read it "twice over with yellow markers" before he decided this, though. I think he liked Schopenhauer, at least.
posted by thelonius at 12:35 AM on June 24


I'm just amazed that someone was able to break Betteridge's law of headlines.
posted by koolkat at 12:45 AM on June 24


So when Bertrand Russell came up with his barber paradox, he was doing mathematics, and not philosophy? At all?

It destroyed Frege's conceptual apparatus for showing that mathematics is reducible to logic. IIRC, Frege assumed that any property can define a set, which is what the paradox refutes. Frege's work attempts to answer the question of what the basis of mathematics is, which seems to me to be pretty much a philosophical question. Especially since (I think) most mathematicians aren't interested in it anymore.

A friend tells a story about taking a logic class at a liberal arts college. Halfway through the first class, one of the students, a philosophy major, stood up, exclaimed with contempt "This is a MATH class!" and walked out.
posted by thelonius at 12:46 AM on June 24 [2 favorites]


Analytic philosophy gets physics-envy because in self-defining as analytic philosopher he had little idea of what philosophy is or could be about in the first place. News at eleven.

Simple refutation: where philosophy has pushed back against dichotomies such as the mind/body problem, in efforts to go beyond rigid or unproductive dualisms/ oppositions in our thinking; this is not just today, but goes back to Schopenhauer and further to Spinoza. Today's SCIENCE is still trying to catch up with such challenges to our rigid paradigms.

Many philosophers have also been productive scientists; one neat example is Stumpf (who, unlike this joker, did not confuse the need to make philosophy concrete with a demand to negate the entire philosophical enterprise).
posted by rudster at 12:54 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]


It seems like the central claim he's making could be refuted or supported with some evidence. Is it the case that analytic philosophers generally discuss a topic without progress toward any consensus for a while until they're bored then give up and move on to something else that seems more interesting? Or can we point to some questions where there's a consensus that progress has been made? Can contemporary philosophers point to recent papers and say, "So-and-so demonstrated X," confident that other philosophers will generally agree that so-and-so demonstrated X?
posted by straight at 12:55 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: Wittgenstein was an intelligent guy, but he knew almost nothing about philosophy
posted by Segundus at 12:56 AM on June 24 [4 favorites]


Man, he could tickle those ivories, though.
posted by Segundus at 12:58 AM on June 24


Frege's work attempts to answer the question of what the basis of mathematics is, which seems to me to be pretty much a philosophical question. Especially since (I think) most mathematicians aren't interested in it anymore.

Definitely is still being worked on.
posted by empath at 1:08 AM on June 24 [2 favorites]


Wittgenstein thought philosophy was not worthy of study; he advised many of his students at Cambridge to take up other things, like gardening. On a deep reading of some of Wittgenstein, and some of the excellent biographies, it appears that Wittgenstein may have approached philosophy to find conclusive answers to his own problems. He was "thinking to almost literally 'save his life' " This is my best guess.

Remember, Wittgenstein grew up in one of the wealthiest families in Europe (he gave most of his money away); he was of Jewish blood in a Christianized family; he was homosexual in a time of extreme sexual repression; he was a major depressive (it ran in his family; three brothers committed suicide); he most certainly suffered from an oppressive, intellectual OCD; he contemplated suicide many times.

Wittgenstein very often framed his analyses around religious questions; he was grappling with something; he was looking, obsessively, for answers. Wittgenstein read Tolstoy's Gospels while in Italian captivity during WWI (he was majorly depressed and decided to join the ambulance corps at the front, tempting fate). Wittgenstein dedicated the Tractatus to David Pincet, his collaborator and lover (killed in WWI). The day after Russell met Wittgenstein, the former said that Wittgenstein was the most unusual and powerful mind that he had ever met - that, from Bertrand Russell! Wittgenstein designed and built a home for his sister that is still considered a marvel of period architecture, balance, and obsessive perfection.

I bring this up to say that Unger fairly gets Wittgenstein's *first* idea, from the Tractatus - i.e. that beyond what philosophers can do to create an exacting language to describe reality, beyond that language there lie questions that are beyond analysis, beyond philosophy.

Wittgenstein grew into second period of thought that somewhat refuted the first; he discovered that one can create a language game - an agreed-on understanding - about various things that are both within and *beyond* the language of analysis. This stretches his final conclusion of the Tractatus, to some degree.

Then, not long after Wittgenstein is diagnosed with prostate cancer, he enters a third phase, one that carries on about certainty and doubt

I think Unger is right on about certain things, but I think he stopped short of Wittgenstein's project - which wasn't really a "project" at all. Wittgenstein was trying to "figure things out"; it just so happened that his mode of thinking resonated with the kinds of interminable analysis that academic philosophers are famous (or infamous) for.

Wittgenstein was trying to find a way out of very complex personal conundrums; thinking was a way for him to get beyond his personal devils. Sometimes, after a lecture in his stripped down room at Cambridge (see photo at bottom), he would attend a movie - he loved Westerns; he would sit in the very front row so as to be overcome with the images flickering before him, to help jolt him into another realm, to help him forget.

What I'm getting at is that Unger is one of many who have essentially footnoted Wittgenstein, who essentially killed academic philosophy as a discipline, but it's taken about 40 years foro academic philosophy departments to figure this out. Philosophy is not dead, but it *could* grow and thrive, the way Wittgenstein's thought continued to grow, and thrive. Philosophy needs to make a turn.

One thing for sure, Wittgenstein is one of the most spectacular minds that I have ever encountered. His ideas and thoughts often come out as spectacular jewels of insight - *new* jewels that we've not seen before but whose beauty we immediately perceive, like Michelangelo "seeing" the figure within the rock he is about to sculpt. Man, what a MIND!!
posted by Vibrissae at 1:10 AM on June 24 [20 favorites]


There's this trick philosophers use, you see... whenever somebody asks something like "what's the use of philosophy?", they'll immediately go: "That's a Philosophical Question LOL!"

I kinda like them for doing that annoying thing.

Probably because I'm one of them.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 1:21 AM on June 24 [5 favorites]


I have no idea whether this guy makes any sense, but it sure is annoying, that thing he does about evaluating who are the smartest guys in a field. And putting himself among them.
posted by zompist at 1:26 AM on June 24 [2 favorites]


It's also quite plausible to imagine an Einstein coming up with a theory of relativity that wouldn't have been testable for quite some time given a slightly more primitive state of technology.

Whether a theory is testable is independent of whether technology exists to set up a proper experiment.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 1:31 AM on June 24 [3 favorites]


I got my undergrad in philosophy, and in my senior year I fell into the bad crowd - linguists.

I want my membership in the bad crowd to come with a leather jacket, slicked back hair, and a hangout spot in the alley behind the building.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 1:45 AM on June 24


I took philosophy of language classes at the same time I was taking linguistics classes. This was not a wise decision.
posted by alltomorrowsparties at 2:17 AM on June 24 [2 favorites]


Alan Watts:
I have sometimes thought that all philosophical disputes could be reduced to an argument between the partisans of 'prickles' and the partisans of 'goo.' The prickly people are tough-minded, rigorous, and precise, and like to stress differences and divisions between things. They prefer particles to waves, and discontinuity to continuity. The gooey people are tender-minded romanticists who love wide generalizations and grand syntheses. They stress the underlying unities, and are inclined to pantheism and mysticism. Waves suit them much better than particles as the ultimate constituents of matter, and discontinuities jar their teeth like a compressed-air drill. Prickly philosophers consider the gooey ones rather disgusting — undisciplined, vague dreamers who slide over hard facts like an intellectual slime which threatens to engulf the whole universe in an ‘undifferentiated aesthetic continuum’ (courtesy of Professor F.S.C. Northrop). But gooey philosophers think of their prickly colleagues as animated skeletons that rattle and click without any flesh or vital juices, as dry and dessicated mechanisms bereft of all finer feelings. Either party would be hopelessly lost without the other, because there would be nothing to argue about, no one would know what his position was, and the whole course of philosophy would come to an end.

As things now stand in the world of academic philosophy, the prickly people have had the upper hand in both England and the United States for some years. With their penchant for linguistic analysis, mathematical logic, and scientific empiricism, they have aligned philosophy with the mystique of science, have begun to transform the philosopher’s library or mountain retreat into something nearer to a laboratory, and, as William Earle said, would come to work in white coats if they thought they could get away with it. The professional journals are now as satisfactorily unreadable as treatises on mathematical physics, and the points at issue as minute as any animalcule in the biologist’s microscope. But their sweeping victory over the gooey people has almost abolished philosophy as a discipline, for we are close to the point where departments of philosophy will close their offices and shift the remaining members of their faculties to the departments of mathematics and linguistics.

Historically, this is probably the extreme point of that swing of the intellectual pendulum which brought into fashion the Fully Automatic Model of the universe, of the age of analysis and specialization when we lost our vision of the universe in the overwhelming complexity of its details. But by a process which C.G. Jung called ‘enantiodromia,’ the attainment of any extreme position is the point where it begins to turn into its own opposite — a process that can be dreary and repetitious without the realization that opposite extremes are polar, and that poles need each other. There are no prickles without goo, and no goo without prickles.
In a way it seems like Ungar is just hyper-prickly. So, um, what about Nietzsche? The first chapter of Beyond Good and Evil ("On the Prejudices of Philosophers") seems like an obvious reference point.
What provokes one to look at all philosophers half suspiciously, half mockingly, is not that one discovers again and again how innocent they are - how often and how easily they make mistakes and go astray; in short, their childishness and childlikeness - but that they are not honest enough in their work, although they make a lot of virtuous noise when the problem of truthfulness is touched even remotely. They all pose as if they had discovered and reached their real opinions through the self-development cold, pure, divinely unconcerned dialectic (as opposed to the mystics of every rank, who are more honest and doltish - and talk of "inspiration"); while at bottom it is an assumption, a hunch, indeed a kind of "inspiration" - most often a desire of the heart that has been filtered and made abstract - that they defend with reasons they have sought after the fact. They are all advocates who resent that name, and for the most part even wily spokesmen for their prejudices which they baptize "truths" - and very far from having the courage of the conscience that admits this, precisely this, to itself; very far from having the good taste of the courage which also lets this be known, whether to warn an enemy or friend, or, from exuberance, to mock itself.

[...]

At home, or at least having been guests, in many countries of the spirit; having escaped again and again from the musty agreeable nooks into which preference and prejudice, youth, origin, the accidents of people and books or even exhaustion from wandering seemed to have banished us; full of malice against the lures of dependence that lie hidden in honors, or money, or offices, or enthusiasms of the senses; grateful even to need and vacillating sickness because they always rid us from some rule and its "prejudice," grateful to god, devil, sheep, and worm in us; curious to a vice, investigators to the point of cruelty, with uninhibited fingers for the unfathomable, with teeth and stomachs for the most indigestible, ready for every feat that requires a sense of acuteness and acute senses, ready for every venture, thanks to an excess of "free will," with fore- and back-souls into whose ultimate intentions nobody can look so easily, with fore- and backgrounds which no foot is likely to explore to the end; concealed under cloaks of light, conquerors even if we look like heirs and prodigals, arrangers and collectors from morning till late, misers of our riches and our crammed drawers, economical in learning and forgetting, inventive in schemas, occasionally proud of tables of categories, occasionally pedants, occasionally night owls of work even in broad daylight; yes, when it is necessary even scarecrows - and today it is necessary; namely, insofar as we are born, sworn, jealous friends of solitude, of our own most profound, most midnightly, most middaily solitude: that is the type of man we are, we free spirits! And perhaps you have something of this, too, you that are coming? you new philosophers
posted by mbrock at 2:21 AM on June 24 [2 favorites]


I think Unger's best point is that now's a great time to sic some healthy scientific skepticism and empiricism at philosophy. He's not very diplomatic, but the literal content of the interview makes clear that he doesn't completely reject (academic) analytic philosophy, but rather wants to happen to the field the noise weeded out from the signal, using e.g. methods of psychological research.
posted by polymodus at 2:39 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]


Unger: "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."

This whole argument sort of misses the role that philosophy plays in determining what we consider PRODUCTIVE. If you look closely at a lot of science, its just nonsense as well. In what sense is it "useful" or productive for someone to spend years studying the lifecyle of some random beetles or say the differences in the gaps between words in different languages (that's science). A lot of it is entirely un"productive".

Even curing diseases has a certain pointlessness about it. People live longer.... to do what exactly? To see how Game of Thrones finishes?
posted by mary8nne at 2:59 AM on June 24 [4 favorites]


Even curing diseases has a certain pointlessness about it.

.
posted by Wolof at 3:23 AM on June 24


Even curing diseases has a certain pointlessness about it. People live longer.... to do what exactly? To see how Game of Thrones finishes?

Anti-natalism.
posted by empath at 3:28 AM on June 24


When the first half of that split season 5 of Breaking Bad ended, I remember thinking one day, what if I die before the second half airs?
posted by thelonius at 3:31 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]


I think Unger has a point on modern analytic philosophy. It was supposed to make thought clear and accessible and rigorous, but instead what wound up happening is that professional philosophy became a game of pursuing these weird edge cases and counter-examples to hypothetical examples. And metaphysics is probably the best example of this futility, i.e., the whole free will debate that is focused on a narrow set of ideas, none of which are useful or provable.
posted by graymouser at 3:40 AM on June 24


Wittgenstein, who essentially killed academic philosophy as a discipline,


Not even close...though had his later thought been right, I suppose he might have...


but it's taken about 40 years for academic philosophy departments to figure this out.


Rather: most of us don't think the later LW was right. (Well, actually: most philosophers don't study Wittgenstein at all, or not enough to really understand him nor meaningfully either agree or disagree with him...) But many of us understand him...we just don't buy his view.

Which is not to say I don't think he's interesting. I think he's really interesting. Not, you know, the greatest philosopher of the last hundred years or anything (e.g., he's no Peirce)...but he's damn good.

Philosophy is not dead, but it *could* grow and thrive, the way Wittgenstein's thought continued to grow, and thrive.

Well, again, many of us think that LW represents a dead end, so we'd disagree with that that's how to grow and thrive...

Philosophy needs to make a turn.


Maybe...maybe even probably...but not in a Wittgensteinian direction.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 4:07 AM on June 24 [4 favorites]


I'm good enough, smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!


(Oh, and it was David Pinsent that the Tractatus was dedicated to.)
posted by wittgenstein at 4:32 AM on June 24 [2 favorites]


Even curing diseases has a certain pointlessness about it. People live longer.... to do what exactly? To see how Game of Thrones finishes?

Well in the case of at least one person it might be to tell us how Game of Thrones finishes.
posted by localroger at 4:51 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]


So the debate on whether or not to use the Axiom of Choice -- philosophy or math?

This is actually lots of questions in one:

"Should I use the Axiom of Choice to prove this theorem": a mathematical question asked by a mathematician: using the axiom of choice will typically male a proof easier to find, but it makes some mathematicians feel a little queasy because it makes the result fundamentally nonconstructive. Usually what this means is that a proof using Choice gets written down and then later the mathematician (or someone else) looks for a proof without Choice.

"Is the Axiom of Choice a consistent way of reasoning": this is a philosophical question with concrete instances in mathematics, because it depends on what other axioms one uses. The famous result that both choice and its negation are consistent with Zermelo-Frankel Set theory is a mathematical result.

"Should the Axiom of Choice be part of Mathematical reasoning/is the Axiom of Choice true/in what sense are consequences of the Axiom of Choice true": these are, to my mind, philosophical questions.
posted by Omission at 4:55 AM on June 24 [2 favorites]


Philosophers discover things all the time, it's just that once they do, people no longer consider it philosophy, but science, or math.

Could someone here list any examples of this from the past 100 years or so? You know, actual philosophy yielding hard scientific results.
posted by DarkForest at 5:36 AM on June 24


"Now that I've decided that the correct label for things I find useful is not philosophy, philosophy is useless!"

This is a bit specious. We call what Newton, Galileo, etc. did "philosophy", but people doing what they did now would be called "scientists." We call Russell a 'philosopher', but most of the stuff where he's actually contributing to science is basically math, not epistomology.

I reamain unconvinced that analytic philsophy has anything much to offer anymore. It's basically an abstruse academic blood-sport. AI research has made tremendous strides since it struggled out from under the burden of philosophy.
posted by lodurr at 5:47 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]


Could someone here list any examples of this from the past 100 years or so?

Off the top of my head: Russell & Whitehead; Turing; probably others. You could object that I'm talking about math, not philosophy, and you would arguably be mostly right. I think the larger point is that those 'discovered things' are in areas where we don't call it 'philosophy' anymore, and for good reasons, mostly having to do with standards of inquiry, evidence, etc.

I went to a seminar once, given by a philosopher & thinker I respected a great deal (John Schumacher from RPI, fwiw). In the seminar he presented a thought experiment, and in the question time, a physicist in the audience started to vigorously interrogate the concept of teh thought experiment. He wanted to know things like how you defined the boundary conditions, what constituted evidence, whether your hypothesis was falsifiable, etc. I was inside the bubble at that point, so I felt like he was missing teh point of thought experiments, but having since become quite disillusioned with analytic philosophy's intensely competitive culture and having realized that the power of your rhetoric has much more weight than the real world impact of your ideas, I now think he had a point.
posted by lodurr at 5:58 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]


I want my membership in the bad crowd to come with a leather jacket, slicked back hair, and a hangout spot in the alley behind the building.

This comment caused me to realize that one of the philosophy professors at my liberal arts college probably rode a motorcycle during part of the year and that's why I remember occasionally seeing her in a heavy leather jacket, which didn't otherwise seem to align with her normal style of dress.
posted by XMLicious at 6:00 AM on June 24


guys, the book is called Empty Ideas: A Critique of Analytic Philosophy

Analytic Philosophy being the key phrase here. He's not saying all Philosophy is BS, just Analytic Philosophy.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 6:01 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]


I reamain unconvinced that analytic philsophy has anything much to offer anymore. It's basically an abstruse academic blood-sport.

That's one of the best explanations I've seen of where analytic philosophy has failed. Other streams of philosophy have their faults, but they generally provide a useful (if not 100% accurate) framework for thinking about the world. Analytic philosophy has done nothing but get mired down in debates that are sort of a back-and-forth war of position where a lot of words are used, but at the end of it everything is more or less where it was before.
posted by graymouser at 6:07 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]


Russell & Whitehead; Turing;

What they did was math for sure. You could claim that the Turing Test was a sort of philosophy, but the real work Turing did was in math. Sometimes it seems that philosophy tries to lay claim to all intellectual efforts.
posted by DarkForest at 6:08 AM on June 24


concept of teh thought experiment.

God knows scientists never use them.
posted by empath at 6:10 AM on June 24 [2 favorites]


FTFI:

"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."
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 6:39 AM on June 24


That guy came across as insufferable. Joking about terminal cancer and children starving in Africa is not something one can do unless they are as comic genius as Robin Williams or somebody like that. However there was one spectacular gem linked in that interview I had never seen:

A co-citation network for philosophy.

(I couldn't be bothered to scan for Ungar. The main nodes are David Lewis and Saul Kripke.)
posted by bukvich at 6:58 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]


guys, the book is called Empty Ideas: A Critique of Analytic Philosophy

Analytic Philosophy being the key phrase here. He's not saying all Philosophy is BS, just Analytic Philosophy.


This is definitely not the case. Unger is criticizing parts of analytic philosophy, but not the whole field itself. It would be completely absurd for him to raze analytic philosophy with the implication that the rest of philosophy (continental philosophy) was somehow in any better of a position.
posted by SollosQ at 7:08 AM on June 24 [2 favorites]


Here's a comment by David Chalmers, a big name in the field for those on the outside: http://i.imgur.com/XWggCg4.jpg

There's really not anything to have a discussion about since we don't actually know the content of Unger's book yet. Which is unfortunate since it appears the book is available via Kindle. I'm tempted to put down the money to read it, but I should really be working on my master's thesis right now.
posted by SollosQ at 7:18 AM on June 24 [3 favorites]


I can't say I found Reasons & Persons enjoyable, though it was certainly challenging. It's certainly been influential (whether they're aware of it or not) on a lot of people here. And I think it's also a great illustration of both the strengths and limitations of analytic philosophy. He spends the length of a long book trying to figure out how you can meaningfully describe a 'person' as a distinct entity that continues through time; and the position he eventually arrives at, while arguably useful in a future world where matter transporters are feasible, actually has ethical ramifications that are kind of monstrous by conventional standards.

Which is the main thing that I keep coming back to with analytic philosophy: it discards human knowledge about being human in preference to reasoning about being a person. It assumes that thinking about knowledge is somehow analogous to science, and that we should pay as much and as close attention to the results of analytic philosophy as we should to, say, brain science. And all that without really attending to the fact that it's made a continuous stream of assumptions that are mostly ungrounded in empirical reality to get to its positions.
posted by lodurr at 7:36 AM on June 24


mary8nne: "Even curing diseases has a certain pointlessness about it. People live longer.... to do what exactly? To see how Game of Thrones finishes?"

This is the best comment so far in this thread, because it gets at the ultimate emptiness of Wittgenstein's critique. There is much confusion nowadays about what philosophy is because a lot of people have attempted to cram it into the inane framework of the modernized university by defining it down into a discipline. But philosophy is not a discipline. Philosophy is a way of life. It is the way of life characterized by the methodical and rational search for the best life, the life most worth living, the most desirable life. In searching for the best life, philosophy has to deal with a lot of essential questions that are not merely academic questions, but rather the very opposite of merely academic questions, because they are about the very stuff of life: what is good? What is a good life? What is a bad life? Is the good life different for different people? While I'm trying to live a happy life, should I try to help others live a happy life? If so, how?

As we can see by the trajectory of the questions philosophy asks, it is a way of life that is at its heart political. This is why the ancients and the medievals - by which I mean chiefly the Muslims, who were the greatest medieval philosophers, and most especially al-Farabi, who surpasses all other philosophers we know about stretching back to Aristotle - saw political philosophy as the truest manifestation of philosophy, as philosophy at work in the world. Unfortunately this important point has been lost, but it held sway for many years, even as the ancient philosophical way of life have way to the project of enlightenment, which was in its own way a philosophical practice but which was characterized by a downplaying of philosophy as a way of life in itself. Machiavelli, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, even Kant and Hegel saw their projects as being political; but gradually they had less of a political character than a political component, which component eventually was downplayed, to the point where, by the time of Wittgenstein, it was seen as subsidiary, and philosophy was at most just an academic discipline.

But if we return to the ancient and medieval conception of philosophy as a political way of life - as a way of living among humans so as to live the best life for oneself and to help others live the best life for them - then we see that philosophy really is prior to all other studies, and not merely in the sense of providing an ontological foundation for them (as I argued above.) Should I become a scientist? Philosophy is what answers that question. Would it make me happy? What makes me happy? Is what makes me happy good - is that what would make that way of life worth living? Should I be a teacher? Should I get married, have children? Should I remain single and thrust myself into the life of a community instead? There are so many lives that can be lived; which will I choose?

Some people nowadays like to pretend that the answers to these questions are obvious. The last major philosopher to understand how essential they are to philosophy was Nietzsche, an eminently misunderstood and misunderstandable writer who sought to recapitulate the ancients on modernity but got carried away in the project.

Even still, we have to ask these questions about ourselves. And as long as we ask about what the best life is, philosophy ought to have a place.
posted by koeselitz at 7:47 AM on June 24 [10 favorites]


SollosQ: "It would be completely absurd for him to raze analytic philosophy with the implication that the rest of philosophy (continental philosophy) was somehow in any better of a position."

I totally agree, but I wanted to point out that glossing "the rest of philosophy" as "continental philosophy" is also completely absurd.
posted by koeselitz at 7:52 AM on June 24


Should I become a scientist? Philosophy is what answers that question. Would it make me happy? What makes me happy? Is what makes me happy good - is that what would make that way of life worth living? Should I be a teacher? Should I get married, have children? Should I remain single and thrust myself into the life of a community instead? There are so many lives that can be lived; which will I choose?

These questions are answered by "philosophy" in the most general of terms -- the terms that set it as an equal to religion or worldview. If we relied on Analytic Philosophy for the answers to these questions, we'd doom the species to extinction.
posted by lodurr at 7:56 AM on June 24


It would be completely absurd for him to raze analytic philosophy with the implication that the rest of philosophy (continental philosophy) was somehow in any better of a position.

As Chalmers mentioned and Koeslitz alludes to above, I think it is ethics that Unger is primarily exempting from his criticism, rather than continental philosophy. I'd be willing to bet many scientists and others who believe philosophy is mostly valueless do value Peter Singer's work and the like.
posted by Golden Eternity at 8:08 AM on June 24


A lot of what we call computer science and math today came from philosophy. If you track the evolution from the Cybernetics of the 1950s (which embraced anthropology, psychology, information theory, ecology...) to modern Systems Science (mostly the study of corporate management and software design), you see a broad and philosophical endeavor turning into essentially an engineering discipline (that still has a glint of something bigger in its eye).
posted by idiopath at 8:50 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]


These questions are answered by "philosophy" in the most general of terms -- the terms that set it as an equal to religion or worldview. If we relied on Analytic Philosophy for the answers to these questions, we'd doom the species to extinction.

You don't have to be a biologist to decide it's a good idea to get your kids vaccinated, but you're relying on the work of biologists. Most of us don't create our own worldview from first principles. We probably all have some ideas, values, and opinions which guide our decision-making that owe something to the work of philosophers (and probably theologians).
posted by straight at 8:50 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]


Could someone here list any examples of this from the past 100 years or so? You know, actual philosophy yielding hard scientific results.

I am going to attempt to answer this question straight-on in a second, but first I want to note that it is problematic precisely because the nature and scope of philosophy is what's up for grabs. One way to approach the problem is to focus on the academic homes of the people doing the relevant work, which is mostly the way I'm going here. But one might easily argue that despite the fact that a person self-identifies as a philosopher and works in a philosophy department, the person is really a mathematician, a physicist, a psychologist, or whatever. Okay, with that caveat, on to a straight answer.

Clark Glymour, Peter Spirtes, Richard Scheines, Kevin Kelly, David Danks, and their students have made steady, serious contributions to a large number of sciences, and especially social and biological sciences, in virtue of their work on causation over the last thirty-some years. Along the way, they have certainly worked closely with mathematicians, statisticians, computer scientists, psychologists, and economists. And one could argue that their work really belongs to one or another of those fields. But the way I read them is as working in philosophy of science, primarily with a concern about scientific methodology. Anyway, for a sense of the work and its impact, you should take a look at Causation, Prediction, and Search and some of the 4,000 pieces citing it.

A bunch of philosophers of physics have been working in the last few years on a collection of interesting problems that at least seem to matter to (some) physicists, including the arrow of time (see Huw Price, Tim Maudlin, David Albert, and John Earman, especially) and the nature of holes in spacetime (see a brief introductory note (pdf) on the topic from my friend Bryan Roberts). Last year, my seriously smart friend Balazs Gyenis defended a dissertation on well-posedness and physical possibility (pdf), which ends up having consequences for a long-standing debate about how to characterize the laws of nature.

Although I think the contribution here is small, a bunch of philosophers (including me) have fairly recently been doing experimental work -- mostly resembling experimental psychology or cognitive science -- to try to get a better handle on philosophical questions about free will, phenomenal consciousness, semantics, intentional action, knowledge, ethics, and so on. See work by Stephen Stich, Josh Knobe, Edouard Machery, Jonathan Weinberg, Justin Sytsma, and many, many others. Another related place to look if you want to see philosophers making contributions to current science is the part of cognitive science sometimes called "Thinking and Reasoning." Take a look, for example, at the Oxford Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning and you will see lots of philosophers who matter to cognitive scientists working on induction, concepts and categorization, causation, counterfactuals, explanation, analogy and relational reasoning, and related topics.

Then there is the oddly derided (both by Unger and by Searle in a recent interview) work in formal epistemology, decision theory, and statistics by philosophers over the last fifty or a hundred years.

Anyway, those are just a few areas that I happen to know something about. My guess is that there are many more examples out there to find.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 9:04 AM on June 24 [16 favorites]


... that owe something to the work of philosophers (and probably theologians).

It probably borders on a universal that students in intro to philosophy classes (at least in the US) get a mini-lecture about the differences between "philosophy" and "Philosophy." Big-'P' philosophy was supposed to be different, more rigourous. It was the stuff that sourced back to the Greeks, the stuff we were going to be taught in that class.

It had very little relation to the 'philosophy' that people used to guide their lives.

Now it's true that a lot of the particular ways things are done owe a lot to the work of philosophers, through indirect vectors; but comparing that to biology doesn't really wash. By the time the ethics of Aristotle filter down to us via the Church, the situation is not unlike someone using quantum theory to justify homeopathy.
posted by lodurr at 9:06 AM on June 24


Should I become a scientist? Philosophy is what answers that question. Would it make me happy? What makes me happy? Is what makes me happy good - is that what would make that way of life worth living? Should I be a teacher? Should I get married, have children? Should I remain single and thrust myself into the life of a community instead? There are so many lives that can be lived; which will I choose?
And this leads naturally to the premise of a philosophical essay I shall soon be completing, preliminarily entitled "Nobody Has Any Fucking Clue", to be published as part of my Human Life Is Ridiculous and Mostly Horrible. Although my editor has recommended that I "just do 20 minutes of cardio every day and try writing about something else," this project is what I'm passionate about, and I think it will truly make a dent in the ethical-philosophical discourse.
posted by mbrock at 9:13 AM on June 24 [3 favorites]


Jonathan Livengood-

This is really far out of my wheelhouse, but it seems your comment kinda proves Unger's point? To answer the question, 'what good is philosophy' your evidence amounts to contributions from people directly on problems that relate to science. My take from the Unger interview and the discussion at Leiter's blog is that Unger's project essentially boils town to: David Lewis is the most cited philosopher of the 20th century, but what did he discover?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:24 AM on June 24


As an undergrad, I was truly Wittgenstein obsessed, in the wanna Cambridge acolyte kind of way (I still love Wittgenstein so, so very much, but I no longer make such a thing of it). I used to have like pictures of the guy taped to all my notebooks and stuff, truth tables written everywhere, like a crazed boy band fan or something (why yes, I was insufferable). Anyway, I was taking a class with the great Phillip Kitcher and he asks me one morning why I had like all these pictures of Wittgenstein everywhere and why I was always talking about him. "I think he got closer than anyone else," is what I said. And Kitcher says in his amazingly stodgy way, "Funny, I think he said exactly nothing at all."

I only share that anecdote because it summarizes nicely pretty much every conversation I've ever had about Wittgenstein. And love him or hate him, that is quite the legacy.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:27 AM on June 24


MisantropicPainforest: he wasn't answering "what good is philosophy", he was answering "Could someone here list any examples of this from the past 100 years or so? You know, actual philosophy yielding hard scientific results."
posted by idiopath at 9:36 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]


David Lewis is the most cited philosopher of the 20th century, but what did he discover?

Ah, yes, I see that I didn't connect the dots enough. One reason that David Lewis is the most cited and most important (I think) philosopher of the past fifty years is that he made contributions to most of the areas that I mentioned in my list ... and many, many others.

Lewis' analysis of causation is at the heart of a bunch of improved accounts of causation, including the one favored by Glymour, et al. (which also includes me). And that is true, I think, despite the fact that the account I like rejects "analysis" or "analytical reduction" as a good way to go for studying causation and hence rejects the major motivation for Lewis' work on causation. (Glymour has an interesting paper from the 80s arguing that the dominant strain of causal inference in statistics -- Rubin's model -- adopts David Lewis' theory of causation and ought to use his semantics explicitly.)

Similar things could be said for Lewis' work on (causal) decision theory, modality and laws of nature, time, and so on.

But again, part of the problem, I think, is in my caveat. I adopted the language implicit in what I took to be the challenge: show me places where philosophical work leads to or affects serious work in science. My own take on it is that everyone or almost everyone who gets a PhD is a philosopher. It is just that after 2500 years, philosophy has become too big and too variegated to be nicely housed in a single academic department. We needed something more like a whole university.

From my perspective, Unger is saying something that isn't even false.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 9:37 AM on June 24 [5 favorites]


Sometimes reading philosophy journals these days is like reading Notes on Obscure Points Made by David Lewis. Someone should have pulled Lewis aside a few decades ago and been like, dude, you need to chill.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:39 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]


Go watch more trains, David!
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 9:41 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]


so the work that David Lewis did is akin to, say, the work of methodologists in the social sciences? For example, methdologists don't really 'discover' anything, but they do clarify what can and cannot be inferred from the data, or create models that may have various applications. Is that kinda sorta right?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:48 AM on June 24


Also could a non-philosopher pick up a book by David Lewis and read and understand it?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:48 AM on June 24


On the first question, yes and no. I think Lewis took himself to be doing a hell of a lot more than that. But I think it is a fair way to read much of what he writes, and I tend to think that the bolder claims that metaphysicians make do more to hide the value of their work than to elucidate it.

On the second question, I find Lewis amazingly clear and enjoyable to read. But I'm not sure I can really tell anymore what is easily understandable outside of philosophy and what is not. I didn't read any Lewis until I had already nearly finished an undergraduate degree, and I didn't understand his work until much later. Maybe I still don't.

Some of his stuff is certainly going to be very challenging without some background (I'm thinking his book Counterfactuals here). It's challenging even to professionals! But I think the main thing that philosophical training gives you is motivation for the questions, which can look very peculiar to an outsider. (See point one of escabeche's comment from the beginning of the thread.)

Lewis did most of his work in journal articles, though. So, the place to really get started with his thinking is in collections of his philosophical papers.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 10:05 AM on June 24


Now it's true that a lot of the particular ways things are done owe a lot to the work of philosophers, through indirect vectors; but comparing that to biology doesn't really wash. By the time the ethics of Aristotle filter down to us via the Church, the situation is not unlike someone using quantum theory to justify homeopathy.

Well, again I'm too ignorant to name examples, but I'd be really surprised if some of the language and categories we use to talk about contemporary moral debates (regarding things like abortion, social welfare, feminism, racism, end-of-life issues, etc.) owes nothing to philosophy that's a lot more recent than Aristotle.
posted by straight at 12:39 PM on June 24


most of us don't think the later LW was right. (Well, actually: most philosophers don't study Wittgenstein at all, or not enough to really understand him nor meaningfully either agree or disagree with him...) But many of us understand him...we just don't buy his view.

Which is not to say I don't think he's interesting. I think he's really interesting. Not, you know, the greatest philosopher of the last hundred years or anything (e.g., he's no Peirce)...but he's damn good


This is a telling comment, especially the first part - i.e. "most of us don't think the later LW was right". Wittgenstein was always an outsider, looking for personal answers. Much has been written about Wittgenstein's religious points of view and his personal thrust and mark on philosophy. From my reading of contemporary analytic philosophy (and a good bit of Continental philosophy), it's pretty clear that most of it IS a "language game", something that Wittgenstein acceded to during his second turn.

Sure, one might say that various things have been accomplished by analytic philosophers, but most of the advance has been *inside* the particular language game called analytic philosophy. I suppose that works for analytic philosophers, but it doesn't contribute much else.

As far as Philosophy taking a Wittgensteinian turn, it's too bad it didn't. Why? Because most of analytic philosophy has been a colossal waste of time, with exception for the analytic types who have been paid by their universities to muddle through its nonsensical propositions.

One thing for sure, Wittgenstein brought a passion to, and put a personal stamp on, philosophy that few others have - and he did it *without wanting to do so*. Wittgenstein wasn't looking for followers; he was looking to open up thought - something that appears to be anathema in the world of analytic philosophy, with its buttoned-down style and mistaken formalism.

Academic philosophers - especially the analytic types - like to say that Wittgenstein got it wrong - ironically, that is part of their language game! They're still stuck in Wittgenstein's fly bottle, not able to find their way out.
posted by Vibrissae at 12:52 PM on June 24


I can't say that I studied the Tractatus in detail, but it seemed to me that Wittgenstein does not deign to make arguments for his ideas: he just presents them and expects that you will now see things as he does. The book begins like "The world is everything that is the case" and "The world is made of facts, not of things". OK.....how does he know that? Suppose I say, no, the world is made of things, not facts. How could he convince me otherwise? I therefore find it hard to praise the later Wittgenstein for abandoning these views, since, as far as I can tell, I've been given no reason to believe them in the first place.
posted by thelonius at 1:46 PM on June 24


... but I'd be really surprised if some of the language and categories we use to talk about contemporary moral debates (regarding things like abortion, social welfare, feminism, racism, end-of-life issues, etc.) owes nothing to philosophy that's a lot more recent than Aristotle.

What's owed to whom and why isn't a simple question IMO. I've come to believe that the apparent intellectual history of a movement is seldom the true one. People claim influences that are other than their real influences.

For example, you could craft a law with reference to great moral philosophers; but it's going to be voted on by failed lawyers who were elected by religious believers and enforced by police who get their morality from the general ethos.

Put another way: how we talk about it is not necessarily what we do with it.
posted by lodurr at 1:49 PM on June 24 [1 favorite]


Philosophy is a way of life. It is the way of life characterized by the methodical and rational search for the best life, the life most worth living, the most desirable life. In searching for the best life, philosophy has to deal with a lot of essential questions that are not merely academic questions, but rather the very opposite of merely academic questions, because they are about the very stuff of life: what is good? What is a good life? What is a bad life? Is the good life different for different people? While I'm trying to live a happy life, should I try to help others live a happy life? If so, how?

Philosophical inquiry extends beyond the purview of the normative. It's ok if you think that normative philosophy is privileged, but this declaration about what gets to be called 'philosophy' threatens to bog us down in just the kind of argument about the meanings of words that I'm sure you'd like to avoid.

Also could a non-philosopher pick up a book by David Lewis and read and understand it?

I think "On the Plurality of Worlds" is pretty accessible.
posted by Kwine at 2:01 PM on June 24 [1 favorite]


Kwine: "Philosophical inquiry extends beyond the purview of the normative. It's ok if you think that normative philosophy is privileged, but this declaration about what gets to be called 'philosophy' threatens to bog us down in just the kind of argument about the meanings of words that I'm sure you'd like to avoid."

I could get into how intellectually bankrupt the idea of "normativity" is - it's really a bullshit dismissal - but I'll just say this: I didn't say philosophy only dealt with the moral. The question "what is a good life?" necessarily implies the question "is it a morally good life, or is there a difference between morally good and good for me in particular?"
posted by koeselitz at 2:33 PM on June 24


Also - "extends beyond"? Or is it maybe "sometimes doesn't rise to the level of"?
posted by koeselitz at 2:36 PM on June 24


Yikes. Ok, good luck out there.
posted by Kwine at 2:43 PM on June 24


This is why I'm in political science instead of philosophy departments, Kwine - because you can't actually read Aristotle or St Thomas or Al-Farabi honestly in a philosophy department anymore. People react like you did - suggesting that philosophy that doesn't conform to their catchphrases and fit into their categories of "continental" and "analytic" is silly and not worth doing. Also, the field is rife with sexism, which only makes it easier to turn one's back on.
posted by koeselitz at 2:50 PM on June 24


I could get into how intellectually bankrupt the idea of "normativity" is - it's really a bullshit dismissal

I'd like to hear more about this, in part because it seems like you mean something different by "normative" than I would have expected. (I would have said, for example, that the word "good" is normative. And hence, while there is likely a distinction between "morally good" and "good for me," both are normative.)
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 2:52 PM on June 24


So why use a term with a definition most people - even in academia - might not be aware of? And why respond to people who talk about things by applying weird categories which you have not defined onto what they've said, merely in order to dismiss it?

I hate to agree with Wittgenstein - really I do - but if the "language game" shoe fits...
posted by koeselitz at 2:55 PM on June 24


(For what it's worth, I took "normative" to mean "valuational" in the Weberian sense, in the way that philosophy has followed social science in the past century in trying to be "value-free." That's a dead end, as far as I can tell, but even the question about whether it is useful or not is obscured when we use words like "normative" as though they have an objective meaning that isn't attached to a polemical project.)
posted by koeselitz at 2:58 PM on June 24


So why use a term with a definition most people - even in academia - might not be aware of?

Err ... As far as I can tell, the word "normative" is being used by Kwine in its dictionary-definition form. So not a sense any different from the widely-accepted one. I mean, take a look at how dictionary.com defines the word.

But in any event, I didn't think there was any dismissal there. Just a statement that philosophy is about more than the so-called normative sciences: aesthetics, ethics, and logic. There is also, for example, phenomenology and metaphysics, both of which at least claim to be descriptive, rather than normative.

And, seriously, I'm just curious how you intend to use the word "normative." I don't, myself, care to make a normative (prescriptive) claim about how the word ought to be used. I just don't want us to talk past one another because we're not using a word in the same way.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 3:03 PM on June 24 [2 favorites]


Okay ... now I'm really confused about what the disagreement amounts to here.

It looks to me like Kwine is just saying that there's more to philosophy than thinking about the good life. And, especially, more to philosophy than making claims about what one ought to do. Do you mean to be disputing that?
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 3:07 PM on June 24 [1 favorite]


I didn't make any claim about that initially, which is why I've been a bit befuddled about Kwine's response.

Al-Farabi notes in "Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle" that Aristotle discovered that even the things not useful for human life are pleasurable for the philosophical person merely for their own sake. But as is clear from this formulation, she pursues them because they are pleasurable, which is a benefit. It's merely that they aren't necessarily pleasurable for anyone else.

I hope that helps get at my position on this. I think even here philosophy is caught up with the good - but in a way that perhaps makes it clear that it has a depth and breadth that "extends beyond" the basic political questions at its heart.
posted by koeselitz at 3:14 PM on June 24


Wittgenstein wasn't looking for followers...

They're still stuck in Wittgenstein's fly bottle, not able to find their way out.


Looks like Wittgenstein got his followers nonetheless.
posted by SollosQ at 3:25 PM on June 24 [1 favorite]


Most of the confusion about terms and ideas in this thread was something that Wittgenstein was trying to cure. He's still ahead of his time. I get a kick out of how the Tractatus was supposed to be a way out of the limits of language, but the people it was aimed at co-opted it into their oeuvre to drive the "analytic school(s)" forward. No wonder Wittgenstein quit academic philosophy for a while!

thelonius:"Suppose I say, no, the world is made of things, not facts"

Then you would remain trapped in the fly bottle of language that Wittgenstein was (at that time) trying to escape from. Wittgenstein, btw, DOES make good arguments for his position in the Tractatus. In fact, his arguments and propositions were so powerful they blew the lid off of 2000 years of speculation in the discipline. The Tractatus was to philosophy what Einstein's Relativity discovery was to physics.
posted by Vibrissae at 3:25 PM on June 24


Looks like Wittgenstein got his followers nonetheless

Another jealous analytic philosopher, no doubt.
posted by Vibrissae at 5:37 PM on June 24


Why would a "jealous analytic philosopher" say that all analytic philosophers who oppose Wittgenstein are his "followers" in the sense that they remain stuck at a prior point in his development?

Also, just a note - dismissing two thousand years of thought is almost always a mistake. It could be that you and Wittgenstein know with certitude that billions of people are idiots. We should at least keep in mind the possibility, however, that that would be too dismissive.
posted by koeselitz at 5:52 PM on June 24


me: "Wittgenstein was an intelligent guy, but he knew almost nothing about philosophy - by which I mean he didn't make any effort to rigorously read philosophy"

Lutoslawski: "Wat"

Wittgenstein himself was quite open about this - he insisted that he had never tried to read Aristotle or Hegel, for example.
posted by koeselitz at 5:58 PM on June 24 [1 favorite]


Vibrasaee, I am aware of it's impact. It's also likely that I failed to appreciate all its subtleties ( I read it about 15 years ago, I think).

According to the Tractatus, as I understand it, logical language, the part of language that makes sense, works because its structure copies the structure of reality, with some kind of actual, real, atomic logical facts corresponding to the ps and qs of propositional logic. (This is a strangely metaphysical thing for the Vienna Circle to accept, but it seems, they did). I'm just not persuaded that there are enough reasons given, outside of wanting to purify philosophy of metaphysics, to think that this is the way that things are.
posted by thelonius at 6:52 PM on June 24


Why would a "jealous analytic philosopher" say that all analytic philosophers who oppose Wittgenstein are his "followers" in the sense that they remain stuck at a prior point in his development?

Nobody said that.

dismissing two thousand years of thought is almost always a mistake. It could be that you and Wittgenstein know with certitude that billions of people are idiots. We should at least keep in mind the possibility, however, that that would be too dismissive.

Wittgenstein didn't dismiss two thousand years of a certain kind of thought; he dismissed the idea (via the Tractatus) that one could use that certain kind of thought (being academic or formal philosophy) to discern things like "beauty", "truth", "the good", etc.

Obviously, Wittgenstein struck a chord with academic philosophers in the UK and America and Vienna, wouldn't you agree?
posted by Vibrissae at 10:08 PM on June 24


According to the Tractatus, as I understand it, logical language, the part of language that makes sense, works because its structure copies the structure of reality, with some kind of actual, real, atomic logical facts corresponding to the ps and qs of propositional logic. (This is a strangely metaphysical thing for the Vienna Circle to accept, but it seems, they did). I'm just not persuaded that there are enough reasons given, outside of wanting to purify philosophy of metaphysics, to think that this is the way that things are.

Right, and Wittgenstein himself came to a similar conclusion in his later work. What I like about Wittgenstein is that he left the world open to wonder. I don't want to get all hagiographic, because Wittgenstein was a problematic dude in many ways, too. Nevertheless, I still think that he's still ahead of his time re: academic philosophy as taught in the UK and American academic scene.
posted by Vibrissae at 10:12 PM on June 24


Vobrissae: "Nobody said that."

Maybe go back and read what you were responding so haughtily to.

"Nevertheless, I still think that he's still ahead of his time re: academic philosophy as taught in the UK and American academic scene."

Well, at least we can agree on that. It was probably unfair to bring up philosophy as it was understood before Machiavelli, since both Wittgenstein and the modern philosophers ("analytic" and "continental") ignore it wholly.
posted by koeselitz at 11:20 PM on June 24


Maybe go back and read what you were responding so haughtily to

Nobody said that. Perhaps your re-read of my post is the cure?
posted by Vibrissae at 11:37 AM on June 25


And do not the ideas voiced in Wittgenstein's most recent work--his Philosophical Investigations, which have won over the minds of so many present-day Anglo-American philosophers--throw the door wide open to irrationalism? We are referring to logical conventionalism and the theory of "language games". After all, in his view, logic is no reflection of the relations between phenomena of the real world. Just as sensory cognition has, with the Machists, lost all connection with objective reality, with the Wittgensteinians this link has also lost any rational and logical cognition. To them, the laws of logical thinking are independent of the objective laws of being, are not conditioned by the latter, and are not necessary norms of thinking that make possible a conceptual reflection of being through cognition. They are conventional, arbitrary, and the result of agreement, just like the laws of chess, which do not in any way depend on the structure of the figures. Here, scientific thinking is regarded as thinking according to certain rules, as a "language game", while some forms of consciousness follow quite different rules of the game. From this point of view it would be totally erroneous to judge of a religious language game proceeding from the rules of any scientific game. The theologists would be only too pleased to grasp at this kind of exemption of religious mysticism from any scientific criticism as "logically unjustified and inaccessible". What we have before us is a new variant that permits philosophy being used as a handmaiden of theology. Inasmuch as ethics, aesthetics and politics are also withdrawn from the purview of scientific cognition, each of them obeying the special rules of its own "language game", philosophy's sphere of activity is "expanded" -- it is ready to serve any form of irrationalism that is placed on a par with a "logical game".--Bernard Bykhovsky / "Escalation of Unreason". In Contemporary East European Marxism By Edward D'Angelo (John Benjamins, 1982), p. 175.
If you are looking for a vivid contrast to what has been described as "the gray and windowless prisons of prose of Heidegger, Sartre, Wittgenstein," ("A Note on Constantin Brunner." In Arsenal: Surrealist Subversion Spring 1976: 102-103), try their older contemporary, Constantin Brunner.
posted by No Robots at 1:23 PM on June 25


"…the general orientation of philosophy comes into question, for it is not enough to say that philosophy is at the origin of the sciences and that it was their mother; rather, now that they are grown up and well established, we must ask why their is still philosophy, in what respect science is not sufficient. Philosophy has only ever responded to such a question in two ways, doubtless because there are only two possible responses. One says that science gives us a knowledge of things, that it is therefore in a certain relation with them, and philosophy can renounce its rivalry with science, can leave things to science and present itself solely in a critical manner, as a reflection on this knowledge of things. On the contrary view, philosophy seeks to establish, or rather restore, an other relationship to things, and therefore an other knowledge, a knowledge and a relationship that precisely science hides from us, of which it deprives us, because it allows us only to conclude and to infer without ever presenting, giving to us the thing in itself." Deleuze, "Bergson, 1859-1941" in Desert Islands and Other Texts: 1953-1974.
posted by whyareyouatriangle at 5:09 PM on June 29


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