2 March, 2015Issue 27.4Philosophy

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In Praise of Emptiness

Alec Siantonas


Peter Unger
Empty Ideas: A Critique of Analytic Philosophy
Oxford University Press, 2014
£29.99 (hardback)
272 pages
ISBN: 9780199330812

By his own lights, Peter Unger has written a book that is full of empty ideas. There are even a few “concretely substantial” ideas, as he calls them. In the main, however, his most interesting ideas are among the empty ones, and that is no accident. The book’s central—but far from its most interesting—idea is that analytic philosophy has largely been trading in empty ideas. This is the substance of the “critique of analytic philosophy” alluded to in the subtitle.

We’ll start with concrete reality. For Unger, concrete reality is roughly the totality of objects possessing causal powers. An electron has the power to repel other electrons, so it’s part of concrete reality; should I possess an immaterial soul with the power to think, that would be part of concrete reality too. An idea is concretely empty if it fails to say anything specific about the way concrete reality is; if it does not imply, for instance, that these particles are repelling rather than attracting each other. Here’s a great idea: any review over 1500 words long is a review-essay. Plausibly, all the concrete objects in the world are arranged in just the same way and possess just the same powers whether such things are review essays or not. No difference in concrete reality is at stake. So my great idea is empty, according to Unger.

Unger thinks that almost every idea advanced by an analytic philosopher is empty: that’s his critique. He spends most of the book examining popular debates within analytic philosophy, revealing the emptiness of the various positions defended therein. He concludes that the discipline is in bad shape indeed. Apart from the analytic insiders whom this book challenges directly, I expect that Unger would describe his ideal reader as a working scientist with little patience for semantic games. The scientists are doing real intellectual work, that is, proposing and assessing concretely substantial ideas, ideas with some import for concrete reality. Analytic philosophers are, as our phantom scientist has always suspected, just playing semantic games. Note that Unger almost certainly would not describe his ideal reader as a working humanist with a keen sense of the contingency of all our modes of thought. This phantom humanist, I’m sure, has her own suspicions about analytic philosophy, but she would probably find Unger’s appeal to concrete reality just as suspect.

I will have a little to say to the phantom humanist later. For now, I voice the suspicions of an analytic insider about Unger’s appeal to concrete reality. There seems to be a mismatch between the way Unger defines “concrete reality” and the use to which he wants to put it. Consider, for example, the question of whether there are composite objects: whether there is, for instance, such a thing as the table in addition to the particles which (supposedly) compose the table. Unger’s NYU colleague, Cian Dorr, denies that there are composite objects. For Unger, this is an empty idea, and plenty of philosophers would sympathise with him here. The problem is that it’s unclear why this idea is an empty one according to Unger’s own account of emptiness. He explicitly includes all material objects “whether simple or not” as constituents of concrete reality. So it seems that Dorr’s idea does have implications for concrete reality after all: it specifies that it lacks some concrete objects, such as tables.

Unger would no doubt say that the only genuine difference in concrete reality is between the case where there are fundamental physical particles arranged “table-wise”, as Dorr would say, and the case where there are not. This is plausible. Given that there are particles so arranged, the further question that so vexes analytic metaphysicians—whether there are tables in addition to the particles—does seem comparatively empty. Still, the question of what makes for such a genuine difference is left open. Assuming that some fix for this problem can be found, however, let’s say we accept Unger’s concrete reality. Once we do so, Unger’s main contention is irresistible. Yes, by Unger’s criterion, most analytic philosophy is empty.

What is easier to resist is the moral that Unger draws from this. For all the care taken to demonstrate the emptiness of various analytic ideas, Unger pays little attention to a rather crucial question: just what is so bad about emptiness? Consider one of the book’s most important case studies, on the question of personal identity. Here, Unger is notably coy. He says that most of the ideas that analytic philosophers have offered about the persistence of persons over time are empty, but he stops short of saying that these are equally empty ideas about my persistence. He has wriggle room here because he denies that I am essentially a person. A general principle about the persistence of persons, therefore, would not have any implications about my persistence. Still, most analytic philosophers have thought of themselves as being essentially persons, and if I were to read, say, Bernard Williams’ ‘The Self and the Future’ without thinking about what would happen to me in the scenarios described, I would have missed the point entirely. So if I start thinking through analytic ideas about the persistence of persons, I’m likely to apply those ideas to my own case. And if those are empty ideas about the persistence of persons, they’re presumably empty ideas about my persistence, too.

My interest in the future, however, is not exhausted by interest in the future of Unger’s concrete reality. I’m crucially interested in my future. I don’t just want to know the way that concrete reality will be; I want to know where, if anywhere, I will be within concrete reality. Moreover, I am not entirely selfish: I am interested in minds in general, in meaning, knowledge, value. This, then, is how I would resist Unger’s pessimism. Instead of specifying how it is with concrete reality, analytic philosophy tries to identify where, within a fixed concrete reality, certain important phenomena are to be found. This, though strictly empty, remains a thoroughly worthwhile pursuit.

No doubt Unger would object that all this is parochial inquiry into our words and concepts: semantic game-playing. But I use “phenomena” advisedly. There is a concept of precipitation, just as there is a concept of knowledge; knowledge is a phenomenon, no less than precipitation is a phenomenon. The onus is on Unger to explain why philosophers’ talk of knowledge is any more parochial than meteorologists’ talk of precipitation. Presumably, he would fall back on emptiness: when the meteorologist makes a claim about rain, she’s specifying how things are with the concrete reality of the atmosphere. Epistemological claims don’t have concrete consequences in the same way. That appears to be the salient difference.

Be that as it may, we’ve gone round in a circle: nothing illuminating has yet been said about what’s wrong with emptiness. Knowledge, meaning, value (not to mention you and me): these aren’t entirely trivial phenomena. It is worth seeking a theoretical account of such phenomena even if this does not involve delineating ways concrete reality might be. Recall, by contrast, my idea that any book review over 1500 words long is a review essay. Indeed that idea seems trivial, unworthy of serious comment: but that is simply explained by the fact that the review essay is not an important phenomenon (though the more general phenomenon of book reviewing is important!), and not by the emptiness of the idea itself. Emptiness, I submit, is not the flaw that Unger takes it to be.

It’s telling that Unger himself is not content merely to identify various philosophical ideas as empty: he also tries time and again to identify incorrect empty ideas, and to replace them with correct empty ideas. In his discussions of the metaphysics of material objects, these attempts are rather weak. He helps himself to large and controversial assumptions without pausing to consider the rationale of his intellectual opponents. In other areas, however, he provides new and powerful insights. His argument that we are immaterial souls is an inspired piece of philosophical reasoning. Fascinating too are his reflections on the nature of thought, particularly his objections to the view that what we can think about is rigidly determined by our past. The suggestions here demand further reflection, as part of the often “empty” but consistently rewarding process of investigating the phenomena of meaning and thought.

None of this is to say, of course, that analytic philosophy is entirely wonderful, or that it more perfectly participates in the Platonic Form of Enquiry than other disciplines. Merely that Unger’s specific critique is misguided, though welcome in the probing questions it asks of the discipline. One such question is why mainstream analytic philosophy has such scant success in capturing the interest of outsiders. I suspect the main reason is rather a boring one: namely, that analytic philosophy is boring. At least, I can see how someone less enamoured than I am with the practice of analytic philosophy would be bored by its products. Much of it is small-scale, highly specialised, and dauntingly technical. It is, in this respect, like much science.

A brief word on this aspect of the discipline, which I fear the phantom humanist we met above may misunderstand. The fact is that you don’t need to be a Nietzsche or a Wittgenstein—or even a Williams or a Williamson—to make a valuable philosophical contribution. By this I do not mean to insist that every paper in every mainline analytic journal really is a valuable philosophical contribution. Mine is the more limited point that you don’t need to come up with a brilliant idea of your own to be able to comment on the viability of others’ ideas, and that, with the right training, many people can produce useful such comments. Thus the modest, collaborative, and even to some extent the specialised scientific model is quite appropriate for philosophy.

Analytic philosophy is boring and it is empty (at least if you accept Unger’s framework). But on balance, neither of these are serious defects. It’s not a defect that it’s boring: there is a great deal worth saying in philosophy, and it’s unrealistic to expect that everything be said with due care and still sound sexy. It’s not a defect that it’s empty: there are important questions to be asked even once we’ve agreed on what Unger’s concrete reality is like. And this particular book has plenty of ideas, empty and otherwise, that deserve comment.

Alec Siantonas is reading for the BPhil at Oriel College, Oxford.