Thursday, May 29, 2008

What Is Metaphysics?

Here are two definitions of metaphysics:

1) Metaphysics is the general framework, or understanding, or set of assumptions, that people unconsciously (with various degrees of self-consciousness) interpret, or see, or live in the world. As an activity, it is the attempt to make the unconscious self-conscious and in some cases modify (this activity is also known in some circles as “philosophy”).

2) Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that attempts to display the basic, universal, ahistorical underpinnings of reality (this activity is also sometimes known in some circles as “Platonism,” and in a few circles the acronymic “SOM”).

The above are designed for one purpose—to elaborate my position on “metaphysics,” which is Janus-faced because I have two philosophical parents. Mom (Pirsig) likes the word “metaphysics” and uses it freely to describe his philosophy. Dad (Rorty) doesn’t like the word “metaphysics,” generally because it causes headaches, and occasionally uses it to describe what he’s critiquing. What to do?

Well, it turns out that if you look closely, they are generally using two different definitions of what “metaphysics” is. With these two definitions we can split philosophers up into four groups:

A) Philosophers who like definition (1) and do definition (1).
B) Philosophers who like definition (1) and do definition (2).
C) Philosophers who like definition (2) and do definition (1).
D) Philosophers who like definition (2) and do definition (2).

Exemplars of each type:

A) Pirsig
B) Logical postivists
C) Rorty
D) Plato

The first side of the classifications, who likes which definition, is intended to display which definition of “metaphysics” people are wont to use when they are doing philosophy. The second, who does which, is intended to display—whether or not they understand themselves as doing so—which kind of metaphysics they were enacting. Hence: Pirsig likes and does the first definition and Rorty likes the second, but does the first. This happens because people who like the second definition fall into two categories: 1) unabashed Platonists/SOMists who fight against pragmatists/Pirsigians (D, above) and 2) pragmatists/Pirsigians who use “metaphysics” as the handle on which to grasp their enemy, Platonists/SOMists (C, above). Pirsig doesn’t use the word for that purpose, but I understand his purpose and so don’t get too upset what he uses the word neutrally and Rorty uses it pejoratively. (Also note the logical positivists, who thought they’d swept aside metaphysics, but were later shown to be enacting Plato’s involutions just as assuredly.)

At any rate, classifying stuff, slicing and dicing data, can be fun, but it must always be for some purpose—there is no neutrally motivated cut of the analytic knife (“neutral motivation” being in this context something of an oxymoron). Mine was to move Pirsig and Rorty together, but some questions arise as too how close that can be, and to how useful metaphysics(1) is in capturing the field of metaphysicians who aren’t Platonists. For, surely, metaphysics isn’t a turn inward, a personal investigation as metaphysics(1) seems to imply, but rather is about reality, as metaphysics(2) says. This objector may be quite noncommittal about Platonism, but they are interested in displaying the basic features of reality, not our minds or interpretive structure (or some other clever arrangement of words conveying the same thing). They are interested in creating a linguistic model of reality, much as physics creates a mathematical model of reality. These take seriously the etymological roots of “metaphysics,” noting that, alright, physics can do its thing, but metaphysicians still have to come in and mop up by noting, roughly, what makes physics possible—the structure of reality that escapes the mathematical models of physics.

This thought still seems to run in two different directions at once: in “mopping up,” does the metaphysician describe the basic structure of reality lurking behind the math, or do they describe the interrelation between physics and the rest of the world, or even, the interrelation between the disciplines that describe the world (which includes such “disciplines” as our regular effort at getting by day to day, i.e. “common sense”). After all, isn’t what escapes physics the stuff that chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology, etc., do? Isn’t that why other disciplines got set up in the first place?

The fear of floating down the path laid out by metaphysics(1), an investigation into the ways in which we understand the world, is roughly the fear of subjectivism and of losing touch with the world. On the one hand, can we really lay out the basic model of reality by turning inward to the way that we, I, understand my relation to the world? Wouldn’t that just lay bare, simply and only, my relation to the world, leaving dark how everybody else deals with it, let alone how reality actually is? And there we have the other hand: if we just tinker and toy with our understanding of reality, doesn’t that still leave us the question of how our understanding relates to reality, and the question of how reality is (as opposed to how we understand it)?

The fear of losing touch with the world specifically arises with the snide comment: “You seem to want to talk about how we talk about reality, but I want to talk about reality.” This is often punctuated by referencing, for example, the difference between tigers and talking about tigers. When confronted by a ravenous Bengal, wouldn’t it be better to know about tigers, rather than how National Geographic talks about tigers? While on the one hand, there is a very obvious difference between tigers and talk about tigers (one is a tiger, the other is talk) that no one is denying, on the other hand, consider for a moment the fact that, if you actually did know quite a bit about how National Geographic and other professionals talk about tigers, you would also, concurrently, know a lot about tigers—how couldn’t you? Is it possible to somehow learn a lot about the activities of zoologists without learning anything about what they study?

What I want to suggest is that the fear of losing touch with reality because we are focused on something other than reality, how we talk about or our understanding of reality, shouldn’t be all that strong a fear because, under normal circumstances, the two will almost always dovetail. The reason for this is, in fact, the same reason for why the subjectivist fear is misplaced also. The fear of subjectivism arises because we take Descartes’ fear of solipsism too seriously. The fact of the matter is, though, that none of us are isolated monads floating in this soup called “Reality.” There are, in fact, quite a few of us monads floating in the soup and we’ve learned how to communicate with each other about our hopes and dreams, and more importantly for this little dissertation, how we are getting on in the soup. As we communicate with each other, coordinate our actions and the like, if what I believed about reality didn’t coordinate in large measure with what the other person believed about reality, then the communication would fail entirely. Random anomalous communication might be taken to be mistakes (like malaprops), but more systematic anomalies might be taken to be different languages, with attendant “difficulties in translation” for persistent anomalies (like English’s difficulty with the Greek aretê). However, more significant mismeasure between people might be labeled “insanity” and tremendous discontinuity is likely to be referred to as “noise.”

This is the conclusion that was reached by Donald Davidson in his work on philosophy of language, and its coordination with communication and truth. Davidson concluded that most of anyone’s beliefs must be true for communication to work—though that still leaves us in the dark about which ones are the true ones, let alone the problem of figuring out, with significant mismeasure, which person the crazy one. But Davidson’s conclusion does help dispel the Cartesian fear of solipsism—as long as communication works, we have as much certainty as we need that there is not only an External World, but also Other Minds.

So: we can investigate our understanding of reality and not fear subjectivism because it is our understanding we are investigating, most of our beliefs having been engendered by the community we grew up in, and we need not fear losing our grip on reality because this community’s understanding is its reality, in the sense, a very Darwinian one, that an understanding of the world that is around after all this time is one that works, and one that works must be one that largely teaches people how the world is.

A non-Platonist may still have some objection to metaphysics(1). After all, is not Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality more appropriately seen as a model of reality and not simply an understanding through which we see the world? Isn’t it a splicing of reality with Phædrus’ analytic knife, not just a splicing of our assumptions? The feeling behind this objection is that, yeah, investigating the way we individuals function in the world is good, but we also need an ontology, an investigation into how reality is apart from us. “You can show how reality, on the one side, and our experience of reality, on the other, must converge all you want, I think you can still talk about both of them separately and doing so will give us slightly different pieces of knowledge of the world.”

Ontology, study of the reality half of the experience/reality equation, is roughly the study of being, and it is often seen as the investigation into different kinds of being, or existence. Reading a random selection of writings on this topic over the course of the last 2,500 years will get you, not just different answers, but different kinds of answers. The metaphysical imagination has, however, been reigned in over the years, as some of its early speculations, say, in suggesting that water or fire was the root of all existence, were a little wild, indeed. In trying to circumvent all the speculative, metaphysical nonsense of preceding generations, Kant said that, rather than explain what kinds of existence there were (rather more poorly than other disciplines like the New Science), philosophy needed to show what was needed for existence to exist: what are the underpinnings, the structure that shapes the way this house exists?

There are a few problems with transcendental philosophy, but the broad thought—what has to exist for us to be able to do all of the things we are doing—is largely something that can, and should, be done. There is an infinite regress problem that arises, though, if you aren’t careful: unless a Pirsigian, for instance, is going to posit a non-physical kind of existence—which is a dangerous proposition—when somebody asks you what kind of existence the DQ/SQ split has, one of the few routes people feel comfortable anymore with is “it has the existence of a metaphysical proposition,” i.e. it’s something stated by people (which is Pirsig’s answer with “Western ghosts”). This, it is true, creates a circle that some people think is damaging—people need to exist for metaphysics to exist, which needs to exist for physics to exist, which needs to exist for people to exist—but pragmatists think that the circle becomes damaging and silly in equal measure: only by taking it too seriously. Part of what the word “universe” means is “that which would exist whether people do or not” and the only sense in which the universe is dependent on people is the sense in which “universe” is a word, and only people use words.

In the end, we are driven back to the Davidsonian outlook I described earlier: what we say about reality must converge with reality because there is no way we would keep saying these things if they weren’t useful, if they didn’t work, if they got reality drastically wrong. If what I said about the tiger got the tiger wrong, that way of speaking about tigers wouldn’t last. If I said, “tigers are cute and nice and love to play with me,” then I would likely get eaten upon meeting a tiger, and eventually everybody who believed that would get eaten, and thus nobody would be left thinking that about tigers. Forms of life, in Wittgenstein’s sense, evolve just as readily as biological life.

Some recalcitrant might still object, though, that just because a model of reality works doesn’t mean it is the right model, the correct model of reality. Shouldn’t we be searching for this model? Isn’t that what physics does? Since physics searches for the correct model of physical reality, shouldn’t metaphysics search for the correct model of reality in general?

The motivation behind “metaphysics,” under all definitions, but in particular those who want something more reality driven than my potted definition of metaphysics(1), is that there is more to the world, reality, and life than science. We need models of reality that display what this “more” is. This is all well and good, but the analogy with what science still displays the two sides of metaphysics, Platonic and non-Platonic. If metaphysics, like physics, is both a proliferation of hypotheses, of models, of how reality works and a winnowing of better ones, and we are willing to say with Davidson that these models do tell us how reality is, this doesn’t mean that our better and better models get closer to how reality is actually apart from our descriptions, how it should correctly be modeled. Not just Pirsig’s youthful fear of infinitely proliferating theories gets the Platonist here: how does the scientist, or metaphysician, know that he’s found the correct model, as opposed to the best one so far?

The origin of metaphysics, we say following Aristotle, was in trying to explain how reality was, like “water” (Thales) or “fire” (Anaximander) or “One” (Parmenides). The Greeks started to offer models of how reality worked. As some of the cosmologists got better and better at explaining how the “stuff” of the world worked, Plato said grandly that they were merely Giants, and that we should instead hope to be Gods. Plato saw clearly the rising tide of what we now call “science” and staked out quickly that there is more to the world than what it can tell us.

The trouble with Platonism—Plato worked out through history—is that it reduced to, not a set of hypotheses, but a method with which to tell the difference between the right ones and the wrong ones. And since philosophy—the original inquiry—kept spinning out different disciplines that worked out according to their own particular methods the difference between a good and a bad hypothesis, philosophy had to look for a job that it could do. Platonism, distinguished carefully from philosophy/metaphysics(1), settled on looking for the way to tell the difference between a hypothesis that worked (which is what a non-philosophy discipline will tell you) and a hypothesis that is correct—a certification procedure that has itself nothing to do with, say, what physics, psychology, or history does.

And this is, ultimately, the difference between Platonism and metaphysics(1). Metaphysics seeks to investigate our models of reality because they don’t always work the greatest. For instance, some philosophers have thought that Plato was wrong, that all we need are Giants, science, physics (call some of them "logical positivists"). We have learned, however, through experimentation and the testing of models, that Plato was probably right that there was more in the world than what science can describe. But the heart of a pragmatist philosophy of science is, roughly, “Of course, there’s more in this world than what science can describe because we still need more descriptions than scientific ones.” As long as there’s an audience for baseball, there will be a need for more than physics.

Platonism wants more, however. They want to know why and how these models are correct, as opposed to just the best ones available. This aim at correctness is what Pirsig and Rorty both want to deny. Pirsig's journey in ZMM was from the contemporary Subject/Object dilemma to the more deeply rooted problem of dialectic, “the parvenu.” SOM is paradigmatic of modern (post-Cartesian) philosophy, but it has first been infected by the larger problem of the Platonic search for basic, universal, ahistorical underpinnings to reality-as-such, a search that, given the production of individual disciplines of inquiry into how stuff in reality works (physics, psychology, history, etc.), will naturally give way to the production of a method—the dialectic. This is Pirsig's enemy in ZMM, and it is an enemy that is multifaceted in intellectual history.

Some Pirsigians think that materialism is the pernicious enemy that Pirsig was fighting with his philosophy. They believe that the growth of science was the growth of SOM, and both were the growth of our alienation from technology and, ultimately, our world. There are subtle connections between science, technology, SOM and alienation, but I don’t think Pirsig ever quite reduced SOM to what science does—SOM is an add-on to an otherwise wonderful tool called “science.”

In my view, one very general way to recapitulate the movement of ZMM is 1) Pirsig got caught in problems in the philosophy of science: what is a scientific theory? His solution was to say that a theory is a ghost generated by our evaluation of reality. 2) Pirsig got caught on the horns of the S/O Dilemma: if we have an evaluative relationship to reality, is the value in the subject or in the object? Pirsig's solution was to wonder how everything got split into subject and objects in the first place. 3) Pirsig trails the source to Plato: Plato thought there was a method, dialectic, that could detect Truth wherever it was. Pirsig sided with the Sophists who thought that Truth was an interplay of opinions, i.e. evaluations, between people.

It is the movement from (2) to (3)—or rather, history’s movement from Plato to Galileo’s science—that Pirsig leaves relatively obscure, and it hasn’t helped interpretations of him. With regard to the question of how the activity of science and the philosophical outlook of SOM relate, I would distinguish between two modern manifestations of what I’ve been calling “Platonism”: 1) scientific materialism and 2) Kantian realism. The first is the idea that science is a) the only route to Truth and b) everything can be reduced to physical descriptions. The second is the idea that a) Truth needs a foundation and b) both the mind and the world can only exist because of the other.

The Platonic common denominator of both scientific materialism and Kantian realism are contained in the (a) clauses. I would suggest that the (a) clauses can safely be detached from the (b) clauses, and that doing so eliminates the pernicious enemy Pirsig found in Plato and leaves us with two rather boring propositions. On the one hand, the first (b) clause: everything can be reduced to physical descriptions. Some may recoil, but I would pause and suggest that everything can be reduced to physical descriptions, but we also need more than just these physical descriptions to describe our world. (On reductionism generally, see my “Parable of the Reductionist”.) A metaphysical proposition can be reduced to the physical description of the breath leaving my lungs or the chemical properties of ink or the electrical properties of computer hardware, but doing so wouldn’t tell us anything about what the metaphysical proposition means and so we still would need metaphysical descriptions. The first (b) clause reduces to a bland physicalism which basically says, “Science is great, but we need more than physics to talk about what we want to talk about. Science isn’t the only Truth.” And the second (b) clause reduces to the tidy little transcendental circle I talked about earlier: people need to exist for language to exist, language needs to exist for physics to exist, physics needs to exist for people to exist.

I think the ultimate lesson to be drawn from this discussion is that it is difficult to answer the lead question: what is metaphysics? It is difficult because there have been many historical understandings of what the activity is and how it should be done. Any answer has to deal with a number of objections from slightly different understandings. The route with which I have dealt with the problem of what we are doing when we do philosophy/metaphysics is the route of finding a common enemy—it is a problem-oriented understanding of philosophical discourse. Every language has their own word for “tiger,” but somehow both the English and the French are able to deal with tigers—for the most part. Though I think there is an analogy between natural languages and the idiosyncratic philosophical jargons every particular philosopher develops in isolation from every other philosopher, I do not think everybody must be talking about the same exact thing. Davidson points towards this truth—most of our beliefs must be true, not all of them. This means that Cartesian skepticism is lame, but it does not mean that inquiry into better and better beliefs, better models of reality, must stop, or is pointless.

Philosophical discourse makes progress by assessing how individual jargons deal with the problems of reality. This problem-oriented understanding of philosophy and metaphysics allows us to see that, while Pirsig, Rorty, and Plato all talk differently, there are certain things that can be intertranslated well—and things that cannot. I have named a root that is untranslatable into the languages of Pirsig and Rorty—though they between them speak differently of it—Platonism. Seeing this root well, I think, is a precondition for understanding what more can and cannot be translated between the two, and this general process goes for philosophers generally.


  1. My first reaction in reading this was to try to figure out where I would fit in your scheme, but it is difficult. On further reading, I think one problem is that I am a Platonist, in the sense of having a metaphysical position more like Plato's than, say, Aristotle's, Descartes', or Pirsig's, but this is a radically different metaphysical position from those held by those who you are referring to as modern Platonists. So I would prefer some other word be used instead of "Platonist" for those who fall into category (D). Anyway, I would say that I end up in category (D) after starting in category (A). Let me trace this out:

    As a proper child of the Enlightenment, I rejected Authority, and as one with philosophical tendencies, try to figure out reality through what I assume is given, which is to say, I start in category (A). I conclude, like Pirsig, and for the same reason, that the logical positivists are wrong, but unlike Pirsig, I do not see the root of the error to be SOM, in the strict sense of a metaphysics (2). This is because I understand subject/object duality to be a true description of "the general framework, or understanding, or set of assumptions, that people unconsciously (with various degrees of self-consciousness) interpret, or see, or live in the world", which is to say, your definition of metaphysics(1). Our getting along in the world, our language, depends on S/O duality, for example, in our assumption that we are free to not commit crimes. Pirsig falsely claims to be doing metaphysics (1) in rejecting S/O duality (his claims to be empirical, for instance, don't hold up). Rather, as I see it, he is appealing to Authority, namely a certain brand of mystical philosophy, as exemplified by people like Alan Watts and Northrop. He believes that SOM is an intellectual product that hides the underlying reality, while I believe that SOM is a true expression of our pre-intellectual experience. What I learned from Barfield, however, is that this S/O pre-intellectual experience is only a stage in human development, hence SOM as metaphysics (2) is wrong, and so is our metaphysics (1).

    Now most all post-Cartesian metaphysicists consider S/O dualism unworkable as a metaphysical theory. One way out was naturalism, another was various forms of idealism. But in both cases they were working under the assumption of an appearance/reality distinction. The appearance is S/O duality, but that can't be true, so the reality is something different. Now we have Rorty, who is a naturalist, but denies that he is a metaphysician (2). Well, that is correct insofar as he does not attempt to find an ahistorical justification for his metaphysical position, but I see no way he can claim that he does not hold an ahistorical metaphysical position. It is strictly an assumption that, for example, language has a strictly naturalist origin. In other words, I see him as resting on the work (the naturalist branch of the Enlightenment project) that did metaphysics (2), and so it is disingenuous to now claim that he just does metaphysics (1). And, of course, I see it as disingenuous to think that he is not making an appearance/reality distinction.

    In sum, I don't think anyone does metaphysics (1). The only thing that has changed in the post-modern attitude is an acknowledgment that doing metaphysics (2) from a strictly rational and empirical foundation is unworkable. Instead, those of us who think about metaphysical questions simply work under different Authorities. Pirsig under a Romantic mysticism, Rorty under naturalism, me under a Wolffian/Steinerian mysticism. The rational and empirical still have vital roles to play, since we each use them to argue for our preference of Authority -- we just all accept that that there isn't some independent court of appeal to back up our assumptions (well, this might not be quite true of Pirsig).

    As far as stating the difference between me on the one hand and Pirsig and Rorty on the other, is that while we can all agree that the way we wield the analytical knife has consequences for the way we interpret reality, I would add that that knife is also wielded supernaturally to create any sort of reality. That is, I am not a nominalist, and they are. But again, I see this as a difference in positions arrived at in doing metaphysics (2), not because they do metaphysics (1) and I do (2).

  2. I think it's pretty easy to see you as a Platonist according to the little definitions I laid out. I've been singing the same song for years, and this is just one more version. The ease is that Platonists think everyone is, whether they know it or not, doing metaphysics(2).

    I, on the other hand, think all Platonists are doing is metaphysics(1), but with the little added hitch of ahistoricalness, etc.

    That's why we can all talk to each other, no matter really our self-understanding, because there does seem to be a common thing, just different self-understandings. Which is why I prefer talking about self-images and such.

  3. AnonymousJune 05, 2008

    What comes to my mind here is spectator philosophy vs. participant philosophy.

    1.) Participant
    2.) Spectator

    A.) This person plays football. He's a team player.
    B.)This guy used to play football, but now offers up opinions next to Jimmy Johnson on Fox Sunday. On the other hand, he's your typical Monday morning quarterback who played peewee when he was 10, but now is too fat and dehidrated from the 12 pack he's been drinkin on to even mow the lawn.
    C.)This guy drops a perfect pass that's right on the numbers, then procedes to tell you what you did wrong in throwing the ball.
    D.) This guy is the head coach. He's an idealist. If you all exectute, the play should go for 5 yards.

    - andrew


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