Philosophy For The Fun Of It

In an interview about his forthcoming book, Empty Ideas: A Critique of Analytic Philosophy, Peter Unger sighs over the pretensions his field, arguing that “when you’re doing philosophy, you don’t have a prayer of offering even anything close to a correct or even intelligible answer” to the big questions of metaphysics, epistemology, and the like. So why pursue it? He maintains that “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.