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.

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