Scientism, Quietism and Continental Philosophy

Peter Unger was recently interviewed about his new book that critiques Analytic Philosophy, and in the interview he says a lot of things that plenty of Continental Philosophers would not disagree with. But his response is not to turn to Continental philosophy – not at all. Even Bertrand Russell is, in essence, too “Continental” in tone for Unger. He quotes Russell contemplating the value of philosophy as not something that seeks answers, because the questions of philosophy cannot be determinately answered, but rather as expanding the intellectual imagination, and then dismisses this as “nonsense.”

Unger’s reasoning seems to be that a test could be done to check how creative or dogmatic a person is, which presumably means that we could check whether studying philosophy does or does not enrich our intellectual imagination. This misses the point on two levels – we don’t do such tests so his argument is moot to start with, but more important, the idea is that those who grasp the value of philosophy will be affected by definition; those who don’t are misunderstanding its purpose.

We owe the word to Socrates, who distinguished between sophists, those who merely argue for the sake of it, and philosophers, lovers of wisdom. Socrates famously tells the story of his realization that the Oracle at Delphi may not have been wrong in proclaiming him the wisest man in Athens when he defines what it really means to be wise. He knows that he knows nothing while the other men think they have answers. To believe oneself to have things more figured out than everyone else – as Unger, it’s worth noting, repeatedly does – is a form of egotism disappointing to see in a mind meant to be devoted to the nature of being. One man’s capacities may exceed another’s when we are comparing everyday activities but when the ability at issue is the comprehension of the infinite, the significance is surely reduced. All our lives are short in comparison to the age of the universe.

Unger does mention the Ancients – he says “He [Kit Fine] has no more idea of what he’s doing than Aristotle did, and in Aristotle’s day there was an excuse: nobody knew anything”. This attitude shows his commitment to the scientistic point of view. He states at the outset of the interview that the goal of philosophy is to “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.” Of course, a phrase like “and so on” may mislead, but it certainly does not sound as if Unger has any interest in questions of meaning or human experience. His dismissal of Ancient investigations as hopeless is particularly telling, though. What does it mean to claim that they “knew nothing”? In some ways, they were more aware of much that we’ve since forgotten – the rotation of the seasons, the placement of the stars, the behavior of animals or the preparation of foods that were common knowledge are now specialized or in some cases, just unavailable (e.g., consider light pollution in regards to the night sky). Being industrialized has increased technology but technology is not equivalent to knowledge – it’s just one form of knowledge.

Analytic philosophers who discover (after already becoming philosophers) that philosophy is not a form of science often propose that the answer is to give up philosophy altogether – turn out the lights and go home. Doing this as a book in the genre tends to seem a bit hypocritical, but then, the Analytic thinkers who do give it up will only have the chance to make the argument at cocktail parties. More worth addressing is the fact that Unger avoids mentioning the Continental approach at all. He suggests that philosophy may be “literature” for some, but what this means is unclear (beyond its implying a general worthlessness). From outside the Analytic tradition, philosophy is not the same as literature, but it’s the not the same as science either. It has its own category, as the exploration and contextualization of our place in the world.

As Emerson said, each age must write its own books. The wisdom of the past cannot be genetically infused into the next generation. Information is handed down, but true understanding has to be struggled through again and again, and grasped within each particular culture or time.

One last thought: The writer of the interview might think I’m recommending meditation and enlightenment, per the bookstore mentioned at the end of her piece. While I’m not, I think it’s worth bringing up that there are plenty of books in Western philosophy stores that are just as silly as those self-help texts look (was there one about Plato and a Platypus recently?), and Eastern texts that are worthwhile. Unger defines it as all the same in value (“nothing much”) while different in type (“this” vs “that”) whereas I would say it is the difference in value which is paramount; the types may blend together and overlap given that the subject is so great.

  1. While I appreciate both approaches I tend to draw nearer to continental philosophy rather than that of analytical. I would think that it greatly depends on the personality of the person on what they prefer. I am an idealist and so have a harder time working with the approach of absolutes that some analytical philosophers may take. While science can provide many things that seem to be evidence for one thing or another, they are, if they will admit it or not, open to the possibility of the evidence being proven otherwise. So even evidence is questionable. My main beef with analytical philosophy is how those within Christian institutes will use and abuse it to justify their beliefs and to somehow prove the existence of God. While I like answers from time to time, I enjoy the mystery, the fun of searching and excitement of the question.

    Good post and great thoughts.

  2. Kevin Henderson

    Good post. I was educated as philosopher, but now am a physicist. I still consider much of what I read and understand from the world as originating as a philosophical concept. Just today I read a piece in PNAS about how decisions that people make are mapped well to what quantum theory would predict. I do not consider the origin of such investigations as being scientific, rather philosophical. There may, one day be a scientific explanation which proves choices are traceable to fundamental physics, and that is likely the case, but it is creative philosophical speculations which are typically the impetus for such ideas, not science. Science helps establish the method by which we solve speculations.

  3. David Keith Johnson

    Ontology and epistemology seem basic to scientific query and process. These philosophical pursuits suggest that neither existence nor knowledge are susceptible to anything like absolute proof, and to some degree must be taken on faith. Doesn’t such insight save us from the arrogance that steals into our hearts with every dazzling scientific insight: with the deep penetration of the vastness of the Universe, with the relentless reduction of sub atomic analysis and theory? I am not a specialist in either discipline, but it seems to me that a scientist who dismisses the utility of philosophy is cutting the legs out from under himself.

  4. Tienzen (Jeh-Tween) Gong

    “… His dismissal of Ancient investigations as hopeless is particularly telling, though. What does it mean to claim that they “knew nothing”? … Unger defines it as all the same in value (“nothing much”) while different in type (“this” vs “that”) …”

    Excellent post and very interesting.

    A new translation of (《論 語》 Confucius — the Analects; at http://www.chineselanguageforums.com/chinese-idioms/confucius-the-analects-a-new-translation-t2062.html ) might be able to give your readers a firsthand look the ‘ancient thought of the East’.

  5. Tienzen (Jeh-Tween) Gong

    “Analytic philosophers who discover (after already becoming philosophers) that philosophy is not a form of science often propose that the answer is to give up philosophy altogether – turn out the lights and go home.”

    Recently many blogs discussed the issue of ‘the value of philosophy’. While I am definitely not the one for scientism, I do see some problems in philosophy, that is, lacking the ‘discipline’ in giving out the ‘-ism’. I am using the solipsism as one example.

    Solipsism has, at least, two points:
    One, only one’s own mind is sure to exist.
    Two, knowledge of anything outside one’s own mind is unsure; the external world and other minds cannot be known, and might not exist outside the mind.

    Then, as a metaphysical position, solipsism goes further to the conclusion that the world and other minds do not exist.

    The key issue here is about the definitions of a few key words (exist, mind, knowledge and outside).
    a. Does the ‘body’ of my ‘mind’ exist?
    b. While the ‘other’ minds cannot be known, do the other minds exist?
    c. While the other minds can be parts of my mind, are there bodies (houses for the other minds) outside of my mind as real objects?

    All these questions are positively answered when one solipsist ‘seeks’ the help from a doctor for his illness.
    1. In addition to his mind, he does have a body (got sick).
    2. In addition to his existent, there is an object (the doctor) outside of his existent.
    3. In addition to his ‘knowledge’, he is asking the help from a ‘knowledge’ outside of his own. And, this outside ‘knowledge’ knows about ‘his’ body and mind while his own knowledge on his own body and mind is useless at this occasion.

    When one tries to counter the solipsism with an ‘external world hypothesis’ or any other-isms, those hypotheses can of course be rejected by the solipsists. But, can solipsists reject their own framework? Does the above description show that solipsism is not defendable? Is there any chance of convincing a solipsist that solipsism is not defendable? I don’t think so because there is a type of argument that is able to swallow all these questions. It is not really an argument but is a meta-argument (the chicken/duck logic).

    Chicken says: gaga
    Duck says: yaya
    Then, there are two possible outcomes for this chicken/duck argument.

    (1) For every chicken (gaga), there is always a response of duck (yaya). Therefore, Gaga = yaya
    (2) For every chicken (gaga), I always have a duck (yaya). Therefore, your gaga is wrong.

    For solipsism, it has many gaga.
    Gaga 1: my mind exist, and no one cannot deny that.
    Gaga 2: at least one part of my mind cannot be known by anything but my mind, and no one can deny this.
    Gaga 3: ‘you’ (everyone) can be a part of my mind, and I know this for sure in my mind.
    Gaga … n: …

    As all my gaga (1, 2, … n, …) are solidly true, I have a solid ground to stand on, that is, I can deny all your yaya (whatever they are) without in any kind of danger.

    Indeed, solipsism cannot be defeated with any ‘external’ doctrine but it cannot survive its own bullets as this chicken/duck logic is not a genuine argument. Of course, it can still be held as a personal ‘position’ and belief as an ‘allowance’, allowed to be in the category of ‘wrong’.

    Skepticism by definition is a challenge to a previously established-ism. So, the skepticism must point out some problems of those previous-isms. At least, the offer from skepticism cannot be out-rightly wrong. If the solipsism is a challenge to the ‘laws’ of physics, it is out-rightly wrong. If it is held as a personal stupid opinion, it is definitely allowed. If philosophy as a ‘discipline’ cannot make this kind of distinction, it is indeed without much value.

    Really, I have no problem with the solipsism as it is a total nonsense and carrying no weight at all. But, there are many other-isms using the same gaga/yaya logic to blocking genuine knowledge. Philosophy should rise up to weed them out.

  6. Miranda wrote: “The wisdom of the past cannot be genetically infused into the next generation. Information is handed down, but true understanding has to be struggled through again and again, and grasped within each particular culture or time.”

    Well, that begs any number of questions. Claims of wisdom, understanding and indeed ‘grasping’ are little more than assertions. Philosophy has tended – like the organised religions – to claim or assert these ‘benefits’ of itself since the outset. But it can be argued that, since the Enlightenment in western thought, science and the true knowledge it generates (that which withstands potentially destructive testing and is observer/opinion independent) has been delivering on many topics previously only available to philosphical introspection. Furthermore, it has set and answered a great many questons ‘never dreamed of in your philisophy, Horatio’.

    The challenge to modern philosophy is to show that it really has methods that work reliably – i.e. as found for scientific knowledge. Can philosophy generate insights that are capable of challenge (by suitable methods) and are observer/opinion independen? There is precious little sign of consensus on all the ‘big questions’ amongst philosophers. That so much of philosophy is routinely described ad hominem (X said, Y argued, Z discussed) reveals a major intrinsic weakness. Thus, David Keith Johnson (above) claiming that “a scientist who dismisses the utility of philosophy is cutting the legs out from under himself” must demonstrate the validity of that claim of ‘utility’ for philosophy. Does it work? has is produced any ‘answers’ – even provisionally valid ones, as science routinely does?

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