An American Skeptic

Cool! Around the end of this (calendar) year, Oxford UP should be coming out with An American Skeptic Collects His Wits, a collection of philophical papers by Peter Unger. Included will be all of Peter’s classic epistemology papers (as is relevant to this blog), but also his other notable papers, including the philosophical essay with many people’s favorite title: “I Do Not Exist.”

Now, my efforts here may be futile, since, if one of Unger’s key theses is correct (see e.g., his “There Are No Ordinary Things”), there are no tables. Nevertheless, I will endeavor to paste his table of contents here, below the fold. Also below the fold should be Unger’s Preface, which I can only describe as an Ungerized cross between James Carville and the back cover of Boston’s first album (“Listen to the record!”):


1. A Defense of Skepticism
2. An Analysis of Factual Knowledge
3. An Argument for Skepticism
4. Skepticism and Nihilism
5. Two Types of Scepticism
6. The Mystery of the Physical and the Matter of Qualities

7. The Uniqueness in Causation
8. Impotence and Causal Determinism
9. Free Will and Scientiphicalism

10. There Are No Ordinary Things
11. I Do Not Exist
12. Why There Are No People

13. The Problem of the Many
14. The Mental Problems of the Many

15. From a Book Symposium on Identity, Consciousness and Value:
Precis of the Book, Reply to Sydney Shoemaker, Reply to Peter Strawson, Reply to Richard Swinburne, Reply to Stephen White
16. The Survival of the Sentient

17. From a Book Symposium on Living High and Letting Die:
Precis of the Book, Reply to Fred Feldman, Reply to Brad Hooker, Reply to Thomas Pogge, Reply to Peter Singer

18. The Cone Model of Knowledge
19. Contextual Analysis in Ethics

20. The Causal Theory of Reference
21. Toward A Psychology of Common Sense
22. Minimizing Arbitrariness: Toward a Metaphysics of Infinitely Many Isolated Concrete Worlds


Just over a month ago, I finally finished my magnum opus – well, my Really Big Book, anyway – a tome whose creation had been consuming me for eight very full years. With my so recently having relinquished any very vital connection with All the Power in the World, it’s now hard, for me, to engage in substantial philosophical writing. But, that’s hardly the whole story. Even years before completing that book, I decided I wouldn’t try to supply this collection, already on the drawing boards, with any intellectually ambitious Introduction – even if that might be much in vogue nowadays, as it just might possibly be. At all events, and for each of several individually sufficient reasons, in this large volume’s many pages, one thing you won’t find is any Introduction – none that’s intellectually ambitious and, of course, none that’s just so much perfectly pedestrian padding. (As James Carville might say, if he’d been advising me, “It’s the papers, stupid!” Or, as I’ve given the Democrats a fair sum of cash, over the years, while nary a cent to the Real Protector of the Powerful’s Privileges, maybe he’d leave out the “stupid.” Or, maybe he wouldn’t leave it out; I don’t know.)

Nor will you find, in this big collection’s pages, anything else that might be taken to be some new substantial philosophical effort, not previously published. For one thing, I’m leaving each of the published pieces collected in this volume perfectly intact, just as it first appeared (though I allow that the book’s publisher, the Oxford University Press, may see fit to correct however many typographical errors some Oxford editors might find in the original publications.) For another thing, you won’t find any newly considered comments offered, more philosophical than typographical, aimed at expressing my present views – or my later views, anyway – on questions addressed in any of the published papers I’ve selected for reprinting here. (For that matter, you won’t find any newly considered comments, either, on any other philosophical issues.) As I see things, there’s bound to be little point in any of that: On the one hand, if the collected papers grab you, and they serve to stimulate some disturbingly enjoyable thinking on your part, you’d do better to press on with your own responsive thoughts than to learn still more about what I might have to say. And, on the other hand, if the papers don’t grab you – not even some few among the twenty-some selected – well, there’d be nothing I could do to improve matters much – by what? – by my heaping yet more words on a reader so very disinclined to respond, in any happily active way, to such sentences as I’m disposed to produce? Not likely. (“It’s the papers, stupid!”)

But, look; let’s be optimistic, here. You’re a reasonably well-educated reader, I’m thinking, and a reasonably open-mined book-buyer, I’m hoping – though, probably not festooned with a philosophy Ph.D. So, most likely, you’re thinking that, as this volume comprises just so many papers produced by a mainstream worker in core analytic philosophy, its contents are apt to be quite like those in each of just so many other such collections, pretty much all of them published by academic presses – just as this present volume so obviously is – and almost all of them pretty similar to almost all the others. Most likely, your related thoughts are a lot like this, even if not nearly so specific or detailed as in my rendering: Except for a few hundred other analytically minded metaphysicians, or epistemologists, or philosophers of language, or philosophical logicians, and so on – likely less than two thousand souls all told – there’s scarcely anyone likely to find much enjoyable stimulation in anything even remotely like such apparently arid essays. Well, as you may be somewhat surprised to learn, I agree with this thinking of yours – there’s not absolute and complete agreement, mind you, but, as more often happens among us human beings, there’s agreement on the whole. In fact, on the whole, I may have even a dimmer view of the general situation than you do. Well, what’s so optimistic about that, you’re thinking?

Nothing; nothing at all. But, as may well be, I’ll remind you, the general situation isn’t all that’s to be reckoned with. Happily for me, and maybe for you, too, the papers in this collection were all written by a very different sort of analytic metaphysician, and epistemologist, and so on. Just so, this book contains papers that, with almost every one of them, go smack against the grain of all that apparently evident uniformity, and all that apparent aridity. In matters epistemological, I’m a radical skeptic, gosh-darned-it – leastways, most of the time I am. In matters metaphysical, I’m a self-styled nihilistic philosopher – very often, at least, that’s my happily radical view. And so it goes. In the words of that delightfully wise cultural critic, Steve Martin, I’m a wild and crazy guy – not absolutely always, mind you, but, very much of the time, that’s me.

For most browsers in any big Borders, say, or in any large Barnes and Noble store, just take a look at, say, “A Defense of Skepticism” (paper number 1 here) and “Skepticism and Nihilism” (4). Right there, you’ll find far more enjoyable stimulation, I’m sure, than in any of the dozens upon dozens of mainstream collections that, quite understandably, indeed, you won’t give even so much as the time of day.

Equally, this holds true with, and for, most browsers on the Web-pages of, say, Or, to give those surfing folks about equal space here, I’ll say this: They’ll find far more to enjoy in, say, just the readily readable “I Do Not Exist” (11) and, right after that, its more thoroughly exploratory companion, “Why There Are No People,” (12) – far more than in the aforesaid analytically-oriented essay collections. I say far more to enjoy, and I mean just that. (Heck, if the difference was anything much less than that, most sensible book-buyers oughtn’t give this present collection, either, so much as the time of day.)
Moving right along, here’s another duo from my book’s main menu, also far more interesting, I think, to just ever so many book-buying people: “The Mystery of the Physical and the Matter of Qualities” and “Free Will and Scientiphicalism.” Well, enough of this already; by now, you’ve gotten my point, I’m sure.

Well, even if it’s just a rhetorical device, now, I’ll again ask this question: Is there reason for you to be optimistic here, about what you’ll find in this voluminous volume? And, of course, now you know that question’s happily emphatic answer: Heck, yeah! You’ll have much more than enough reason to become happily embroiled in quite a lot of what’s in An American Skeptic Collects His Wits, in a couple of hundred pages’ worth, at least and, maybe, even twice that much.

Beyond what’s in this volume’s reprinted papers, I’ll supply you, in what’s between this book’s front cover and its back, hardly anything more than just this: First, a couple of numbered lists of the twenty-two published items selected for this large collection and, second, this unusually breezy Preface that, right now, you’re so happily reading. (“It’s the papers, stupid!”)

Even while this little prefatory production’s meant to comprise mostly prose that’s remarkably entertaining, it’s also meant to serve some several more serious purposes. While those purposes are pretty serious, there’s nothing very profound, let me tell you, in any of that: Indeed, far from concerning anything that’s deeply philosophical, the points the Preface has yet to cover lie along such sensibly superficial lines as these: Beyond making some serious use of the two lists lately mentioned, including what may be some legally necessary use, I’ll supply you, in this Preface, with a smidgeon of authorial autobiography, and also a bit of practical advice for prospective readers, and – what the heck – to top all that off, I’ll provide some blatant advertising for much other published work of mine, specifically, for all my self-standing book-length philosophical productions.

First, the smidgeon of authorial autobiography: Though I’d never have guessed it when first I wrote philosophy for publication, it’s turned out that I’m more of a book-writer than a paper-writer – though, as I trust this book makes plain, I’m a pretty considerable paper-writer, too. In retrospect, insofar as it’s been papers that I’ve been writing, many of them turned out to be studies for books, or ancestors of books, or something of the kind. But, even so, many haven’t ever been anything much like that and, most likely, they never will be. This is reflected, pretty well, I think, in what’s been selected for appearance in the present collection: While eight of this volume’s papers may be rightly regarded as seeds of longer and later published works, almost twice that number, fully fourteen selections, can’t be regarded as being, in that way, anything like so seminal. So, for your hard-earned money – or for your library’s donated money – I’ve given you a nice mix here, I think. It’s sort of a happy sampler, I’ll suggest, with quite a nice variety of Ungerian offerings.

From that bit of authorial storytelling, I segue to remark on the two lists I’ve mentioned, each differently presenting all twenty-two of this volume’s reprinted publications. One is a list efficiently labeled Contents – what, in the old days, we Bronx boys used to call a “Table of Contents.” Just a bit more lengthily, the other is a list I’ve provided a happily accurate alliterative appellation, Provenance of Papers. First, I’ll remark on the Provenance list, and then I’ll comment on the (Table of) Contents. (“It’s the papers, stupid!”)

Well, my Provenance supplies bibliographic information for each of the original publications represented in An American Skeptic Collects His Wits. I’m not sure how useful that may be for you. But, for me, it certainly serves a very useful purpose: In one fell swoop, I hereby thank all the relevant entities duly associated with each and every one of the twenty-two pieces listed therein, including the past and present editors of the various volumes and journals listed, their past and present publishers, and even whatever conglomerates may have, at one time or another, acquired various rights, originally held by the original publishers, I take it, regarding the reprinting of the listed pieces. So, that’s it, guys, or corporations, or whatever “you” may be – you’re all thanked now, every last one of you – especially the sticklers at Kluwer Academic Publishers. All of you – and not just the legalistic-looking folks at Kluwer – should feel very much appreciated, by me, who very much appreciates, in fact, your cooperation in this present project. (And, in the bright light of this clearly expressed appreciation, all your lawyers should find fulfilling work to do elsewhere, far away from me and my family.)

Now, I comment on the book’s (Table of) Contents: In this happily useful listing, I’ve grouped the reprinted papers – including some papery reprinted Book Symposium material – into eight numbered Parts, as I’ve delightfully labeled these comfortable segments. With some six of these Parts, there’s cleverly embedded in the segment’s well-chosen title, the title of one of my five already-existing, self-standing, and solely-authored books. In each and every instance there are, you can be sure, several good reasons for that. But, for my money, at least, the most operative reason is, in each and every instance, just this: All five of these self-standing works – the volumes with the cleverly embedded titles – they’re all currently (2006) available for purchase and, what’s more, they’re all readily available from this present volume’s worldwide publisher, the Oxford University Press. (“It’s the papers, stupid!”)

Now, think about this, for a minute: If you like what’s in any given one of these six Parts, or even just some of what’s there, then there’s a good chance, I’ll bet, that you’ll like the book whose title is embedded in that Part’s title. Makes sense; doesn’t it?

OK. So, then what?

Here’s where I offer sound advice to prospective readers: In your “institutional” library – using that word for want of another that’s better – you should, I’ll suggest, go have a gander at the book (pretend there’s just one) whose embedded title helped provide a heading for the shorter writing, or writings, you’ve just so greatly enjoyed. As I just said, and as makes perfect sense, there’s a good chance you’ll like what you see there – in the relevant book-length work – even if your seeing involves a fair bit of reading. And, if you do like what you see, and you read – well, then, you should (try to) take the tantalizing volume out of your library – providing, of course, that it’s perfectly legal for you to do that. After some several days of actively living with the legally borrowed volume, it may be very possible, I’ll venture to guess, that you’ll still like the production you’ve been perusing. Now, if you’ll still be quite enthralled with this book that you’ve been reading, well, then you’ll be happy that I’ve bothered to include, in this breezy Preface, some slickly effective advertisements for my book-length writing. Anyway, at least by my lights, it’s high time we encounter my Preface’s advertising section. (“It’s the papers, stupid!”)

Except for the very poorest among us, it’s quite easy to acquire, perfectly legally, a copy of any of my books, leastways any of them that’s available as a paperback. For, among other convenient sources for the books I’ve authored, each is very readily available through the OUP’s Web-page, whose address is, at the time of this prefatory writing, this Web-address: Now, once you’re on this main OUP Web-page, you’ll then have to click around there, it’s true, to get onto a page where one of my books is featured, or where there’s featured more than one. But, for most well-educated Americans not yet on Medicare, that’s a piece of cake. Or, as we perennial dieters prefer to say, it’s a stroll in the park.
At least as long as I’m still active at NYU, which has already been as long as some thirty-five years or so, there’ll be something even easier for you to do. And, in the bargain, it’s not any more costly, in any way at all. Here it is, in black and white (and, just maybe, in red and blue, too): Go right to my own NYU Web-page at: There you’ll find, for each of my OUP books, a clickable underlined title. For example, and placing first things first, you should find a colorful clickable line that looks a whole lot this: Ignorance: A Case for Scepticism By clicking on that, you’ll be delivered to an OUP Web-page where that very book – Peter Unger’s Ignorance (Oxford, 1975 and 2002) – is featured. Well, once you’re there, electronically speaking, it’s a cinch to buy that stand-alone slice of Ungeriana. And, with my old Ignorance currently available as a paperback, it’s not any very costly proposition, either.

(Even as last book’s go last, on my NYU Web-page, further along on that electronic page of mine, you should find such a clickable line for this present volume, that is, for An American Skeptic Collects His Wits. That colorful clickable line looks, of course, a whole lot like this: An American Skeptic Collects His Wits: Collected Philosophical Papers By clicking on that, you’ll be delivered to another OUP Web-page, one where this very book is featured, and where it’s a cinch to buy, for your nice book collection. Unless you’re heavily subsidized, or you’re independently quite wealthy, at first (2006) this might be almost as costly to do as it’s easy. But, with the passage of just some very few years, this book, too, will be produced in a widely available, and a widely affordable, paperback edition. By that time, anyway – in 2007 perhaps, exactly when, I don’t know – anyhow, around that time, even this handsome volume may be purchased, for your nice book collection, not only very easily, but also pretty inexpensively.) (“It’s the papers, stupid!”)

Heck, if you’re reading these words just a few years after I wrote them, you may easily be able to feast, for years and years, on a veritable banquet of my published philosophical food for thought, the whole shebang priced pretty reasonably: With a dozen or so well-placed clicks, you’ll be able to acquire, for your nice book collection, much more than just some several of the philosophy books I’ll have sent out into the world. Very easily, but not very expensively, you’ll be able to acquire a complete set of the books that feature nothing but Peter Unger’s philosophical writing! (Well, it will be complete as of the date of your acquisition. Who knows what more the still further future may bring?) Each of the six volumes, I’ve certainly specified to the OUP, by now, maybe some six times over, should be precisely the same trim size as all the others – same height, and same width, but, of course, not the same depth, or thickness. What’s more, the paper cover of each book will then look, most especially right where there’s the book’s spine, just so terribly like all the other books – though, of course, not precisely alike. (Hell’s bells, and just for one thing each book’s title will look quite different from that of any other book. What do you want, for goodness sakes, that each book’s title should look the same? That would be perfectly absurd!) But, while the lined-up spines won’t look precisely alike, they’ll look plenty pretty enough: Each book’s spine will have, as its visually dominant feature, the same clean white background as will be gracing all its companion volumes. And, with all six the very same trim size, there’ll be a clean white line formed not only by the bottoms of these six books – to be placed, I’d recommend, on a clean white shelf – but, quite as well, there’ll be a clean white line formed to the tops of the books, as well. Think about that, for a minute. Very clean, very slick, very nice – almost perfectly exquisite will be that avidly awaited set of Ungeriana. Heck, with such a nice slick look as that, I’ll bet even your interior designer will give you a big thumbs up. Indeed, with a few friendly words from you, no doubt, by then a most happily satisfied customer, he (or she) might order his (or her) own set, to grace his (or her) own den, or study or, just maybe, grand foyer. (“It’s the papers, stupid!”)

As I’m vividly imagining, by this point you’ve had quite enough of what’s fast becoming a Preface both crassly and crudely commercial. So, I’ll now call it quits, with a much more public spirited remark: Even if you never buy any of my works, please do return all your borrowed library books, whomever may have written them. It’s the right thing to do; and, you’ll feel better for it. Heck, it’s about as easy as eating a hotdog, and it’s nowhere near as fattening.

New York P. K. U.
February 2005

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