We've sketched out certain experiments to be run. Even the best psychologists, when they get into areas that have to do with human evaluative judgments - let along human moral responses or judgments — they make a mess of things. Even a psychologist as good as Daniel Kahneman, who's one of the best. He's probably one of the half-dozen best of the last forty years or so….
So some some [sic] experiments which I'll do will just be to straighten this whole thing out. I can do psychology, as can other people who are trained in philosophy, about things like what's really going on with our judgments about what a desirable life is, or even how much pain we've had or something like that, far better than the best psychologist like Daniel Kahneman, who hasn't been trained up in philosophy. It may be because I'm smarter than him. But there's probably more to it than just that. Peter Unger.[HT Brian Leiter]
Peter Unger exhibits an obsession with smartness; 'smart' and its cognates are repeated like a mantra through the interview. He also has a minor obsession with ranking relative smartness not just within philosophy (e.g., he says elsewhere in the interview, "I'm smarter than almost all of them. A few of my colleagues are smarter than I am,") but also within a discipline like psychology (see above 'one of the half-dozen best of the last forty years or so'), and across disciplines ("the three smartest guys in my class — I wasn't one of them, although I was very smart — two of them became theoretical physicists. But the third went into philosophy — David Lewis"). There is a hint (offered as "complete speculation") that such smartness is ultimately just something we naturally come with--a pleasing delusion not uncommon among successful people.
Unger is remarkably confident that his proposed experiments will "just" straighten things out in another field. After twenty years in the philosophy and history of science, I have learned that getting experiments to work is a non-trivial skill; getting experiments to show something in systematic and robust (that is durable) fashion is a further skill; getting experiments to straighten out a field is an astounding feat. People earn immortal fame with that. For, one of the key capacities of experiments is to generate surprise both in pleasing and less pleasing ways. Of course, sometimes an outsider can make a genuine contribution to another field, but that's pretty rare and for good reason. So, I wish Unger well, but I have a sneaky suspicion he is exhibiting not just over-confidence, but a kind of comical hubris not uncommon among, well, smart people that are used to thinking of themselves as smart. This is not to deny that philosophers can't sometimes help improve other fields of inquiry. Unlike Unger, I don't think this is due to the number of smart folk that have joined philosophy. Rather, other fields like psychology and economics sometimes engage in philosophy, and the members of those fields do not have a comparative advantage at doing philosophy over the experts that do (that is, professional philosophers).
But let's focus on what Unger says about philosophy. He teaches at the most admired department in the profession, after all, and he has a distinguished career in our field (which includes one of my favorite books, Ignorance: A Case for Scepticism). He writes dismissively of Russell's "quasi-philosophical" writing, "He was writing in favor of peace, pre-marital living together, all this sort of stuff. Progressive education."
I don't mean to be sarcastic, but what's wrong with peace? I love reading and teaching Nietzsche; maybe it's because I have a child and care about his future, but when self-described smart older men start to diss peace (and pre-marital living together), I have to wonder, perhaps it's time for a nice retirement package?
Let's look at Unger's more detailed criticism of Russell. Unger writes,
[Russell] talks here about the value of philosophy:
Thus, to sum up our discussion of the value of philosophy; Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves. Because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all that because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good. [The Problems of Philosophy]
The second part, after the 'above all' seems like complete nonsense. What the heck does all that mean? It's mystical nonsense, no? This from one of the two founders of modern logic, second only to Gottlob Frege in laying down the foundations of symbolic and mathematical logic.
Let's go to the first part, before the 'above all'. He says that these questions, and not questions about, say, chemistry, or ornothology, enlarge your conception of what is possible. I hardly even know what that means. But he goes on and says things which are less hard to understand, like, it enriches your intellectual imagination. And a second thing it does, which I take to be distinct, is it diminishes your dogmatic assurance.
As it happens Russell is not speaking "nonsense" after "above all." It is only nonsense to somebody who pretends to be utterly ignorant of the history of philosophy. I had never noticed this before, but Russell is describing, even giving -- a somewhat self-serving -- operational definition of greatness of soul (or magnanimity). Russell identifies the good of one's mind with knowledge of the universe. Platonists and Spinozists have always thought so, too. Perhaps it starts to sound mystical at the very end, but -- even if potentially mystical -- it is not silly to think that there are conditions under which knowledge of X become a certain kind of assimilation with X. If one holds a metaphysical identity theory of truth this result follows trivially. It is surprising to see Russell making this claim, because while he greatly values Spinoza, he tends to reject Spinoza's account of our "relation to the world."
Unger claims that he "hardly even know[s] what" Russell "means" when Russell claims that philosophical questions "enlarge what is possible." It's emblematic for the debased philosophical culture that Unger calls his own that he is incapable of even trying to understand Russell here. (It would be cheeky to call Unger pusillanimous.) So, first, Russell claims that scientific answers are never definitive. This is just an embrace of thoroughgoing fallabilism (something Unger recognizes, after all). Given that Russell wrote these lines (1912) before Einstein had completed his general theory of relativity and the quantum theory was on the horizon, these remarks are admirably prescient, especially if we remind ourselves that most folk thought that physics was basically complete at the time.
Second, Russell, claims that philosophy is not in the business of offering answers. But rather philosophy is in the business of asking certain questions. Clearly, this is not Unger's view, which vacillates between Wittgensteinian therapy and attempting to "say new and interesting things about the world." I return to this below.
Third, what's so strange about enlarging one's "conception of what is possible?" Now, Unger misrepresents Russell's position in a subtle way. Russell does not deny that questions about chemistry or ornithology can also enlarge one's conception of what is possible. (Russell certainly does not deny that it is worth knowing science.) Rather, Russell is offering a defense of what philosophy (and questions about chemistry, or ornithology can also be philosophical) can contribute; Russell's answer is philosophy can change our conception of what is possible. Now, as it happens I agree with Russell's answer, although I have come to think his means (asking questions followed by logical analysis) can only be of limited fertility. But there is nothing incomprehensible about thinking that philosophy can change how we conceive of what is possible. All it requires is that (a) one can change how we conceive of what is possible, and (b) that philosophy can generate some such change. This is really not rocket-science.
Let's stipulate that science offers a plausible base-line conception of what is possible. One way to understand Russell's task for philosophy is to encourage us to pursue questions that may lead to improved science and, thereby, changed conceptions of what is possible. This is not the only way that philosophy can chance our conception of what is possible, but I have discussed some of those elsewhere (recall also philosophical prophecy). After all, plenty of human activities are not characterized by science, yet it might be worth asking philosophical questions about them and, thereby, change how we view what is possible about them.
While Unger has, it seems, limited respect for particular scientists (recall his comments on Kahneman) he is very respectful of the utility of science for philosophy:
To say new and interesting things about the world — and that's very hard, things of any generality I mean, or even anything interesting — you really have to engage with a lot of science. And very few philosophers do any of that, at least in any relevant way.
This may be a generational issue or -- to echo another phrase Unger likes a lot -- a selection bias, but among the philosophers I know, lots engage a lot of science. Anyway, I happen to agree that it's very hard to say "anything interesting" about "the world," and that it can help to engage with a lot of science.
But why should we let Unger identify philosophy with "things of any generality?" Now, I do not deny that this view of philosophy has a distinguished pedigree (going back to Aristotle, I suppose). But note that if you think that philosophy ought to change what is conceived to be possible, it's fine to let philosophy be identified with questions of more limited generality.*
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.
Unger thinks he is "smarter than" most of us. At one point during his distinguished career Unger wrote a problematic book that seemed to engage in enduring, significant questions about our obligations: Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence.
Perhaps it's because I am a son of a one-time-stateless refugee, but I think our obligations are very important. Even so, I have always been hesitant about engaging with this book or to encourage others to do so because of the enduring suspicion 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. (I never met the man, for all I know he has no social intelligence whatsoever.) In reading and re-reading the interview, I note that the best defense Unger finds for philosophy is that it can "be fun" and "enjoyable" to people with a certain "training and temperament."
It may not be as important as peace, after all, but it would be foolish to come out against fun--other people's or my own. So, two cheers for philosophical fun!
You may wish to know why I care what Unger says.
Here's why: Unger declares not once, but twice during the interview that he "knew, but didn't want to know" that Wittgenstein was right about philosophy. Yet, despite this, he went on "churning" out the papers. Unger does not say what this entails about the institution of professional philosophy with its incentives and privileges for those that don't want to know; the silencing-mechanisms of his doubts and, more significantly, those that dare to doubt; the ways in which nay-sayers are marginalized; or the many ways in which those that wish to turn philosophy from a fun game to -- let me say something ridiculous -- its possible calling are ridiculed.
Unger is at the pinnacle of our profession, and (call me, not-so-smart) one wonders how much more he didn't want to know about in the institution of philosophy--the pervasive harassment, the bullying, the patterns of exclusion, the sexism, the ridiculing of alternative approaches to philosophy, the ways in which the philosophical haves manage to speak to each other and glide over the rest of us, etc. So, let's grant all the Peter Ungers of the world this much: maybe he knew, but didn't want to know? Kahneman teaches us to consider this an endowment effect.
But maybe the way Unger presents himself is just meant to improve book-sales, while he has secretly been improving the profession behind the scenes one tactical move at a time. If so, I apologize to him and all such Ungers out there. After all, if he can make a solid buck on tearing down philosophy, and give that buck away to nobler causes who am I to kvetch?
*Regular readers might think that I am disingenuous. After all I am a kind of fellow-traveller with Unger in his criticism of the method of counterexample.