Empty Ideas

Empty Ideas January 20, 2015

The TLS reviewer of Peter Unger’s Empty Ideas is not much impressed with Unger’s critique of analytic philosophy. According to Unger, “Contemporary analytic metaphysicians see themselves as theorizing boldly and systematically about the deepest and most general nature of reality. In Peter Unger’s view, they are deluded: far from resuming pre-Kantian metaphysics in the grand old style, they do little more than play with words. Their ideas are mostly empty.”

What makes an idea “empty” in Unger’s sense? Not a lack of meaning or truth but a lack of “interest.” According to the reviewer, “substantial” ideas are contingent, ideas or truths that might have been otherwise: “for an idea to be ‘empty’ is just for it to be non-contingent: either necessary or impossible.” Thus, Unger’s thesis: “analytic philosophy yields almost no ‘concretely substantial ideas’: that is, contingent information about concrete reality.”

Is that a problem? It wouldn’t seem so: “many ideas of blatant philosophical interest will be ‘concretely empty.’ Abbreviate ‘being that has, of necessity, all these attributes: omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence, concreteness, and so existence’ as ‘god.’ Then the idea that there is a god is non-contingent and so concretely empty, because it’s not contingent whether something is necessary. But a philosopher who tells us whether there is a god is doing metaphysics in the grand old style.”

In the end, the reviewer thinks Unger’s use of empty is “an advertising trick”: “It’s like a competitor who defines ‘empty’ as ‘containing nothing but brand X fruit juice’ and then puts up posters warning that cartons of brand X fruit Juice are empty.”

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