Hot Air Note:
In the Best Way Possible
17 June 2014

¶ A few years ago, a profile in The New Yorker inspired the Editor to buy a couple of books by Derek Parfit. The books, which were extremely voluminous, just plain fat really, were opened, and perused carefully for several pages. Coma ensued. The books were put away. Reverently — but far away. Now an apostate analytic philosopher has confirmed our sneaking suspicions. At 3 Quarks Daily, Grace Boey interviews her former teacher, NYU professor Peter Unger, author of Empty Ideas: A Critique of Analytic Philosophy.

It’s fun, of course, it’s a lot of fun doing it. Logic puzzles, language puzzles, so on and so forth. For some people there’s fun in chess, in far more people there’s a lot of fun in bridge, for others there’s a lot of fun in constructing or solving very difficult crossword puzzles. And then for lots of people there’s fun in doing philosophy.

With a certain proviso, philosophy is an enjoyable form of literature, at least for people of a certain training and temperament. The proviso is that a fair amount of it contains special symbols instead of words, so that it looks like some sort of scientific thing, almost like an equation. Mathematics, symbolic logic, so on and so forth. So philosophers put that in, and give themselves the impression that they’re doing things ‘ohhh, so scientifically’ that they need the math. All this makes it much less enjoyable to me. I don’t like reading that stuff. But insofar as we can get over all of that useless and pretentious writing, it’s an enjoyable sort of literature, if they take the time to make it reader-friendly.

Take Derek Parfit’s book, Reasons and Persons. It’s in four parts. The first part is not enjoyable to read, because he talks about a lot of theories which he labels with letters. You can’t keep it straight, you need a scorecard next to the page. But the other three parts don’t have that, and they’re tremendously enjoyable to read — at least for some people who have some training in philosophy, and have the temperament for it. It’s wonderful stuff, fascinating stuff.

Reasons and Persons is extremely enjoyable. But does Parfit ever discover anything? No, not at all. Does he ever make credible, interesting new statements about concrete reality? No, not even close. But it’s very enjoyable literature for very many people.

It’s not surprising that Boey asks Unger (who is 72), “I hope you don’t mind me saying this, in fact I actually mean it in the best way possible, if that’s possible — I feel like you’ve just taken a big crap on everything you’ve done before.” To which Unger replies, “Certainly on most of what I’ve done. If that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes.”

See, going back to Wittgenstein — he had his two periods. In his early period he wrote the Tractatus, which is supposed to be one of the five classics of twentieth century analytic philosophy. His second period was — it’s all crap on Tractatus. All that stuff I did as a young man is nonsense. This is it — I have to start anew, and what I now say is, you can’t do any of that stuff. You can’t do any of what people have thought of as philosophy. You just can’t do it, it doesn’t amount to anything. When you do it, it’s all puffery, puffery gone awry. So Wittgenstein did that. But then he couldn’t stop doing the puffery!

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