Department of Philosophy
5 Washington Place
New York, NY 10003
Office Hours: Thursday, 6:20–7pm
D.Phil. 1966 (philosophy), Oxford
B.A. 1962 (philosophy), Swarthmore College.
Peter Unger, Professor of Philosophy, has written extensively in epistemology, ethics, metaphysics and the philosophy of mind. He has had fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Guggenheim Foundation. He is the author of Ignorance: A Case for Scepticism (Oxford, 1975 and 2002); Philosophical Relativity (Blackwell and Minnesota, 1984; Oxford 2002); Identity, Consciousness and Value (Oxford, 1990); Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence (Oxford, 1996); and All the Power in the World (Oxford, 1996). Twenty-two of his previously published papers are contained in a two-volume collection comprising his Philosophical Papers, Volume 1 (Oxford, 2006) and his Philosophical Papers, Volume 2 (Oxford, 2006). Currently, his research interests are mainly in metaphilosophy and metaphysics, while his current teaching interests are mainly in metaphysics, ethics and metaphilosophy.
Primarily a work in metaphilosophy, but also containing a lot of metaphysical material, as well as swatches about philosophy of language and philosophy of mind, his most recent book is Empty Ideas, currently in press with the OUP, and scheduled to come forth from Oxford in 2014.
Written for use by the OUP, here is the abstract for that almost entirely negative, and, perhaps, quite devastating, book:
EMPTY IDEAS — Book Abstract and Sample of Back Cover Copy
During the middle of the twentieth century, philosophers generally agreed that, by contrast with the natural sciences, philosophy should offer no substantial thoughts about the general nature of concrete reality. Typically, leading philosophers were concerned with little more than the semantics of our ordinary words. An illustrative example: Our word “perceives” differs semantically from our word “believes” in that, in this following way, the first word is to be used more strictly than second: While someone may be correct in saying “I believe there’s a table before me” whether or not there is a table before her, she will be correct in saying “I perceive there’s a table before me” only if there is a table there. Though this thought is a perfectly parochial idea, not the least bit deep in any notable respect; still, whether or not it’s correct does make a difference to how things are with concrete reality. So, though it is trivial, we may say that it’s a concretely substantial idea. Correlative with each such parochial concretely substantial idea, there will be an analytic or conceptual thought, as with thought that someone may believe there’s a table before her whether or not there is one, but she will perceive there’s a table before her only if there is a table there. Never making any difference as to how things are with concrete reality, those thoughts are concretely empty ideas.
Among academic philosophers, it is widely assumed that, since about 1970, things have changed a great deal, with the recent offering of an impressive variety of concretely substantial thoughts that are far from being just parochial ideas. Currently, many assume this for the semantic and content externalism championed by Hilary Putnam and Donald Davidson, and for various essentialist thoughts offered by Saul Kripke, and for many ideas advanced by David Lewis, and so on. Against that assumption, this book argues that, with the exception of Lewis’s thesis of a plurality of concrete worlds, and with hardly any other exceptions, all these offerings are concretely empty ideas, typical of virtually everything that’s been influential in recent mainstream philosophy. So, except when offering perfectly parochial ideas, mainstream philosophy still offers hardly anything except for just so many concretely empty ideas
After taking the reader through a greatly encompassing canvass of possible positions regarding various concretely substantial matters that are far from being just parochial issues, the book concludes by suggesting that, at least anytime soon, philosophers who aren’t also scientists won’t offer any wide-ranging concretely substantial ideas that are any very credible propositions, clearly more credible than there denials. With that being so, the main suggestion of our study may be this one: Insofar as they attempt to offer any credible concretely substantial thoughts, philosophers should be content with offering ideas that are quite as parochial as those much in focus during the middle of the twentieth century or, at most, only a bit less parochial than that.
“The Survival of the Sentient”
, Philosophical Perspectives, Vol. 14, 2000.
“Free Will and Scientificalism”
, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 65, 2002.
“The Mental Problems of the Many”
, a (slightly) more polished draft will appear in
Oxford Studies in Metaphysics
, Vol. 1, edited by Dean Zimmerman, 2004.