The Empty Ideas of Philosophy By Chris Knight

     As I have said in other articles, I studied philosophy at a mid-level US university in the 1980s, failing badly in second year, primarily because of my Christian approach to problems. Ethics was the topic that led to me withdrawing, but I found all of the topics, like the theory of knowledge, somewhat insane. The type of philosophy done at Anglo-American universities is called “analytic philosophy” and it basically applies mathematical logic and the sciences to solve traditional problems. It also has something of a toolkit of its own, various methods and tricks (linguistic analysis), but I never mastered them. While researching something else I came across a book by leading US philosopher Peter Unger: who published his Empty Ideas: A Critique of Analytic Philosophy in 2014. I have not read the book, and probably would fall asleep trying to read it, but I found a revealing interview. Here are some of the best bits: 

“Philosophers easily get the idea that somehow or other, just by considering things about the world that they already know, they can write up deep stories which are true, or pretty nearly true, about how it is with the world. By that I especially mean the world of things that includes themselves, and everything that’s spatio-temporally related to them, or anything that has a causal effect on anything else, and so on. They think they can tell a deep story about how it is that all of this stuff really hangs together, that’s much deeper, more enlightening and more comprehensive than anything that any scientist can do.

And so philosophers proceed to write up these stories, and they’re under the impression that they’re saying something new and interesting about how it is about the world, when in fact this is all an illusion. To say new and interesting things about the world — and that’s very hard, things of any generality I mean, or even anything interesting — you really have to engage with a lot of science. And very few philosophers do any of that, at least in any relevant way. So, these so-called deep stories are the empty ideas, or what your book calls ‘concretely empty ideas’, that don’t affect concrete reality.

Right. What philosophers are in search of — and they don’t realize this — is generalizations that aren’t open to any conceivable possible counterexample, however far-fetched. These counter-instances don’t have to be at all realistic. So they put forth these offerings. Almost always, these offerings fail, and colleagues come up with counter-instances. When they don’t fail, they turn out to be trivial. Virtually all of them are analytically correct, though philosophers don’t realize it. Generally, though, they’re mostly incorrect offerings, with counterexamples, and it keeps changing and keeps changing, until everyone becomes bored with the topic, and then they go on to something else. It’s not as though anything ever gets established, except for very trivial things, nor is it that anything ever gets refuted. Rather, things become old hat and fashions change. But this general way of doing things hasn’t changed. In about seventy or eighty years, as far as I can tell, in terms of mainstream English-speaking philosophy.”

     I think that Unger is right. Merely sitting in a chair and coming up with “just so” stories that sound plausible is not doing anything substantial. There needs to be the full backing of the complete canon of human knowledge, including all the sciences, to get a holistic picture of the truth. Too much of modern academia is just scholasticism, repeating the politically correct mantras of the ruling paradigm. It is significant that no philosopher ever contributes to debates were a politically incorrect stand is taken. They are all too scared of losing their jobs to be modern Socrates.



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Saturday, 13 August 2022