Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Unlocking the mysterious attraction of metaphysics

Metaphysics has once again become a key subject in philosophy. Indeed, it could well be attracting more sustained attention from the philosophical community than anything else. I must confess that I didn't even notice this until relatively recently. And then, I was simply left wondering "How did all this happen behind my back?". It's not that I believe the positivists succeeded in cutting off metaphysical thinking (i.e. the vestiges of it that survived Hume's critique and Kant's abortive 'purified by reason' version) at its roots long ago. It's rather that, since hanging out with pragmatists, I have had little practical use for the term "metaphysics". Whenever I see it deployed, either it seems to constitute the equivalent of a blank space in the relevant sentence or there seem to be better plainer speaking terms readily available - so it usually cries out to be replaced by one of them.
Consider Eric Olson's otherwise rather nifty book What Are We? Here are the opening sentences: "This is a book about a question: What are we? That is, what are we, metaphysically speaking? What are our most general and fundamental features? What is our most basic metaphysical nature?" Olson goes on to say that he is not going to try to define "the daunting phrases here" (e.g. 'our most basic metaphysical nature'), but will instead "give their meaning by example". However, it strikes me that the rest of the book can be made good sense of without referring back to these phrases or invoking their components. "Metaphysics" and "metaphysical", in particular,seem to be redundant throughout.
I guess I will say more about why I am suspicious of the current metaphysics growth industry in other posts (clue: it is far too often linked with insidious realism). For the moment, I just want to speculate that metaphysics has become so attractive again because it is such an effective enabler of philosophical fantasies - especially those that conjure up special powers of discernment regarding matters of ultimate concern and correspondingly special areas of inquiry (e.g. fundamental ontology). Yesterday, for example, I was reading Kit Fine's 'What is metaphysics?' and even though that paper seems to deal with the question in the clear-cut, reasonable way one expects given the author, it struck me that it can be read as one long philosophical fantasy (more about that later as well, perhaps).

1 comment:

  1. Hello Alan,

    I recently got to know of you from an article I revisited in Philosophy Now (2003), Corporate Crises.

    I am an admirer of corporations, thought not a blind one. I am also a follower of pragmatism and metaphysics. Some consider the two at odds with each other. Not me.

    Anyway, I am looking forward to your book Pragmatism.

    David Airth