Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Philosophy, Metaphilosophy, Metaphysics

“Metaphysics” is an overworked word that gets people into trouble, particularly pragmatists. There are so many ways of defining metaphysics, like epistemology, that Rorty has remarked that we should just leave it alone, that it is undefinable. While true, philosophical conversation would be a good deal harder since everybody still insists on using it, even Rorty. Given that Pirsig defines his philosophy as a “metaphysics” and Rorty defines metaphysics as the most basic philosophical wrong turn, I’ve often been asked how the two are supposed to hang together, as I’ve claimed they can. My answer is typically that Pirsig’s definition of “metaphysics” is basically the same as what Rorty and pragmatists would define “philosophy”: a really big, general view of things. Rorty’s use of metaphysics, however, is more narrow than that, basically commensurate with the way Heidegger defined it: Platonism. Maybe not Plato himself, but the whole line of footnotes that extend from him. In what follows, I’d first like to offer definitions (in the form of questions) of my title characters and suggest the ways in which I see them hanging together.

1) Metaphilosophy: What way of life are we going to follow?

2) Philosophy: How do things, in the broadest sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest sense of the term?

3) Metaphysics: How do things really hang together?

The first is taken from Pierre Hadot (in, for instance, What is Ancient Philosophy?), which is a use that rhymes quite well with Wittgenstein. Each form of life uses certain vocabularies with which they make sense of the world. So while doing philosophy (stolen from Wilfrid Sellars), we try and develop a vocabulary with which we try and get the rest of our vocabularies (scientific, moral, religious, literary, political, etc.) to hang together. Doing metaphilosophy involves a conversation about which form of life is better, which kind of philosophical vocabulary we should be using to get our other vocabularies to hang together. One way of describing metaphysics, then, is as a particular kind of philosophical vocabulary, a kind of philosophy that tries to force metaphilosophical consequences by an outside source. By bit by bit hammering down how things really hang together, the choice of what form of life we are going to be is taken away from us, determined instead by something other than us (e.g., Reality or God).

In the sense of these terms, most propounded philosophies by philosophers are a tangle of metaphilosophical and philosophical theses, though most philosophers in the past (and present for that matter) take their meta- theses for granted and disentangling them is a bit of a chore. What Rorty shunts under the name “pragmatism” is mostly just metaphilosophical theses, though from time to time he’ll be inconsistent (in the sense that pragmatism is only the name for a metaphilosophical stance, which historically it hasn’t only been) and attribute a philosophical thesis to pragmatism. But with the above distinctions in hand, it is fairly easy to distinguish Rorty’s meta- from philosophical theses (with the realization, then, that he spends most of his time doing metaphilosophy).

Doing philosophy can sometimes vault us up into metaphilosophy. Philosophy can have metaphilosophical consequences, or rather, some philosophies won’t be appropriate for some forms of life. This isn’t so much because of any “metaphysical hammering,” but because the two are more like on a continuum, there isn’t a hard and fast distinction between the two (which is why philosophers like Stanley Cavell say that there isn’t any such thing as metaphilosophy). Sometimes when doing philosophy you are forced into a discussion about what form of life we want to be. This happens when, for instance, there isn’t anywhere else for the conversation to go, when a straight out argument isn’t going to work because both sides seem to be begging the question over each other. What distinguishes metaphysical philosophy from nonmetaphysical philosophy is that metaphysics tries to get things hammered down by something else, e.g. Reality or Facts, whereas in nonmetaphysical philosophy the only thing doing any hammering are people.

What I'm trying to get a distinction between is the view that “there is a way things are” and “there is a way things really are.” The way pragmatists see philosophy is as taking common sense and finding something wrong with it. Common sense, as ways in which we make our way about the world, entails a way things are. That's what it is. A rock is a rock exactly because it is a rock and not a book of philosophy or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. What the metaphysicians have taken to be philosophy is the correction of common sense by getting at the way the things really are. What fully pragmatized thought tries to do is change common sense by offering us better ways of thinking how things are.

So, if I, as a (hopefully) fully pragmatized philosopher, am to be identified as a materialist (as in thinking that corpuscularianism is a good way of thinking about what science does), or a nominalist (as in thinking that, if there is distinction between universals and particulars, it can only be made within a language and not between language (universals) and non-language (particulars)), or a Darwinian (as in thinking that humans are simply one more species of animal doing its best), it is not because I think that any of those ways entail a way things really are (or rather, the way things really are entails them), but that they entail a way things are, in that I act and behave and think as if those things are the way they are--because that's what common sense is: “the way I act and behave and think.”

What metaphysicians think is that our common sense can be corrected by the way things really are, that the ways we act, behave, and think can be changed by ascertaining the way things really are in the world. Pragmatists only think that the ways we act, behave, and think can be changed by alternative ways of acting, behaving, and thinking and that the “ascertainment of the really real” is a wheel that plays no part in the system. It’s not that the metaphysicians aren’t motivated in their redescriptions by their belief that their redescription is closer to the way things really are, but I’m suggesting that there’s no difference between redescriptions offered by metaphysicians who think that they finally have it and by pragmatists who think that this is just one more potentially better alternative to try out. So by an act of Ockham’s Razor, we’d like to cut out the wheel spinning all by itself.

So in practice there is often no difference between what a metaphysician and a poet does: they offer redescriptions of our language to expand the space of reasons, to expand what we can talk about and direct our attention towards what we should talk about. We can offer a distinction between two different kinds of metaphysicians to be more detailed: speculative and empirical (see the beginning of "Do Analysts and Metaphysicians Disagree?"). Speculative metaphysicians proceed by offering gigantic redescriptions of their subject and eventually tack on the claim “this is how things really are.” Empirical metaphysicians proceed by making an inquiry into a suitably large and fundamental topic like “Truth” or “Reality” or “Language” and, when finished with such an inquiry, suppose they’ve found out something essential about their subject. But on both sides these are tack-ons. For instance, sociobiologists like E. O. Wilson and Steven Pinker think that their work in biology or the brain or language say something about the large, important sounding topic philosophers have called “Human Nature” and that finding out the way we are will tell us something about what we should do. Pragmatists think that not only is the notion of “Human Nature” too metaphysical to tell us anything useful, but that how we are or have been will never do more than give us a starting point or possibly guidance towards what we should do or become.

Particularly with empirical metaphysicians, the difference in practice between metaphysicians and non- is that metaphysicians will tend to waste time and effort trying to make an impossible establishment of essence, of how things really are rather than sufficing with making the case that this is the way things should be. Pragmatists side with the Romantics in thinking that the human species is an infinitely malleable creature. Platonists believe that there is an essential way we are and it is by distorting this essence that bad things happen, like injustice. Neo-Romantics like pragmatists, however, think we can toss the representational notion of “distortion” and still be able tell the difference between better and worse and change are practices to make things better.

The choice between Romanticism and Platonism is the major struggle in metaphilosophy. One of the particular battles is over whether pragmatists can be Romantics and still hope for the same things Platonists hope for, like the end of injustice. Platonists don’t think they can. Pragmatists think that shared hopes about the end of injustice and the particular possibilities opened up by redescriptions are more important than the Platonist tack-on. But Platonists think that without the tack-on you cannot have the hope or the redescriptions. So for philosophers, the last major site of battle is over Platonism, though nothing else seems to hang in the balance. Platonists think everything hangs, pragmatists think nothing hangs, but at the end of the day they both have the same hopes and dreams. Pragmatists think this bodes well for them, for it at least foists the burden of proof on Platonists. 2500 years of having the burden of proof and being driven further and further back has marginalized Platonic philosophy (i.e. academic philosophy) from the rest of society. The more society gets on well enough and improves itself without having what Platonists think it requires, the more pragmatists think this suggests that Platonism is a scholastic endeavor that adds little to society. Pragmatists would like to end the scholasticism and get on with something else. Rather than harassing everyone else about how they are living in bad faith, nonmetaphysical philosophers would at least be able to add some small measure of perspective to their compatriots work in other areas.


  1. AnonymousJuly 03, 2006

    Hi Matt,

    It looks to me like what you are saying is that I cannot do philosophy. That is, I think that the way that things hang together is better described by Plato or Aristotle than by, say, Sellars. So even if I avoid saying "that's how things really are", but do say "the natural is an expression of the supernatural", am I doing philosophy or metaphysics? According to Heideggerian "metaphysics is Platonism" I am doing metaphysics, but according to your distinction (the use of "really") I am not. That is, I think Plato is (more or less) right and you think he is wrong. That is a metaphysical difference, not a difference between philosophy and metaphysics.

    The way it looks to me is that what you and Rorty are doing here is just ruling out of court any idealist- or religious-based philosophizing. Which looks to me like staking out a metaphysical position.

    The same goes if you identify metaphysics as making an appearance/reality distinction. Plato's philosophizing (and mine) is to posit such a distinction. And I would say that quantum physics is also positing such a distinction.

    Your comment that 2500 years of no apparent progress as evidence for the futility of metaphysics can also be questioned. First, can one say that in 2500 years art has "progressed", and if not, is that a reason to put down art? But mainly I would consider the possibility that there was progress from Plato to Aquinas, but that the whole modern era, starting with the emergence of nominalism in the 14th century, has been one of philosophical decline, that it is a philosophical Dark Age. Again, I would say that this amounts to different metaphysical positions, and not that one is "metaphysical" and one is not.

  2. Hey Scott, how's it going?

    I'm not sure I am saying you're not doing philosophy. On the one hand, I think you can say that Plato or Aristotle are better than Sellars and Quine, though not in the way that they propound certain expressions, like tendencies to tack on italicized reallys. And on the other, I'm not sure I said metaphysics isn't a kind of philosophy. I think it is a kind of philosophy and disagreement about how we do philosophy bumps us up to metaphilosophy. I'm not sure Rorty is ruling out of court "idealist- or religious-based philosophizing" so much as he is suggesting, as we all must, that some kinds of philosophy are better than others.

    You may have recognized this post as coming out of conversation with you a year and a half ago. I thought it was one of the more interesting formulations I had attempted in trying to get a handle on you. As it stands, I'm not sure it does very well and we are still stuck in the same place, but it's as far as I've gotten (aside from our more recent rehash earlier this year).

    So: 1) I'm not sure why pragmatists are metaphysicians. 2) I'm not sure why religion is necessarily metaphysical. 3) I'm not sure why quantum physics need be metaphysical (or could possibly decide such issues). And 4), what an appearance/reality distinction is besides saying "that's how things really are." It seems to me disjoining the latter phrase from the former distinction makes the former even less useful than I already see it.

    But you are right about the evidence of history being debatable. There are many possible interpretations. Heidegger and Rorty offer the same basic dialectical history of philosophy, and yet draw two different conclusions: Heidegger thinks we've been in a state of decline towards pragmatism since Plato, Rorty thinks landing in the lap of pragmatism is a sign of finally and fortuitously shrugging off Plato.

    And then there's the kind of neo-Thomism you kind of invoked--Descartes' love of the New Science marked the beginning of the Dark Ages. Often when I converse with you I'm reminded of Rorty's admiration for Alasdair MacIntyre. Neo-Thomism is hardly a widespread position, and yet MacIntyre is one of the most eloquent and impressive philosophers around.

    I consider you and Sam to be the most interesting conversational partners I have, partly because I don't always predict very well what will come out of your mouths. Sam's Wittgensteinian Anglicanism is interesting and so is...whatever it is one might call you. Like I said, I don't have a very good handle on you.

    I can't figure out if what you are saying is preposterous, or indeed much closer to home to make the conversation interesting. Your penchant for rejecting labels and commonplace philosophical rules reminds me of what it must be like for other people to talk to me. While most of what I say strikes people as totally counterintuitive, I look positively conservative next to you sometimes. But then, that's just the problem--I can't tell whether you're far more radical than me, or so reactionary you look radical. You might be the Pat Buchanan of my philosophical world--so far to the right that you pop up on the left sometimes.

    I guess what confuses me just is your attachment to the appearance/reality distinction. For instance, your use of "metaphysical" to describe some of the stances pragmatists take seems to me to make either all assertive sentences inherently metaphysical and/or make "metaphysics" completely vegetarian, pretty well something that doesn't make much sense in debating over--like whether to assert sentences or not.

    I don't know. I haven't quite figured out how to move the conversation forward.

  3. AnonymousJuly 04, 2006

    Well, the way I think to move the conversation forward is, as you mention in the original post, to distinguish between "pragmatism" and the metaphysical position(s) held by Rorty. So first, by "metaphysical position" I mean some general idea about the general shape of the way things are. Thus I consider Darwinism and nominalism to be elements within a metaphysical position which could be called physicalism.

    Then, by 'pragmatism', what I mean is the rejection that there is an absolute set of criteria against which a metaphysical position can be measured, and a rejection of an infallible method for ascertaining or justifying a metaphysical position (or any other philosophical effort -- by the way I just read MacIntyre's After Virtue and agree it's a great book.)

    Now the way I see it, this view of pragmatism has nothing to do with positing an appearance/reality distinction. And, but you've already mentioned it, there is no reason an idealist or religionist cannot be a pragmatist.

    The way I see it, a religionist posits an appearance/reality distinction by saying (in the Christian version) that we are subject to Original Sin. This means not only that we have a propensity to sin, but also that as far as our reasoning goes, we must be pragmatists. That is, God has absolute knowledge, but we don't, and so our best attitude toward our own knowledge is one of irony. Hence the apophatic tradition. But that is no excuse for nihilism, just as pragmatism for a physicalist does not imply nihilism. So the religionist pragmatist does differ from the secular pragmatist in that the former has hope of redemption.

    By the way, God (or Emptiness, or whatever) can escape being an absolute criterion because it is the source of all criteria. That is, this notion of the Ultimate is, in being formless, not something that one can measure any form against.

    Further, one can be more specific about the appearance/reality distinction. Here's where I borrow from Barfield. What he says is that the way we currently perceive natural objects is contingent, that 3000 years ago perception of natural objects was quite different, and that the change can be traced through a historical look at changes in ideas, language, art, and so forth. The upshot is that then (original participation) the spiritual was perceived "on the other side" of objects, hence Aquinas' statement that "the natural object is established between two intelligences" had at one time an empirical validity that, by the time of modernism it no longer has. Hence, Cartesian mechanism and 19th century materialism became metaphysical options only because of this change. And so, the second fall into our current Dark Age. (By the way, neo-Thomism, or its more recent Radical Orthodoxy does not seem to take this Barfieldian thesis into account, and if it did would make a big difference. I think it also makes a difference to MacIntyre's thesis, because along with the change in nature there is a change in the person, but all that's another story.)

    Well, maybe you would agree with Barfield, and maybe not, but the point is that what he is describing is an appearance/reality distinction. The way natural objects appear to us -- as "just there" -- is an appearance, while the reality is that what we perceive is just an outer form of something with an intrinsic meaning. Further, that intrinsic meaning is recoverable, and I assume that some mystics have recovered it.

    Anyway, I hope this answers your (4) question ('And 4), what an appearance/reality distinction is besides saying "that's how things really are."'), and why I see a rejection of appearance/reality distinctions as itself a metaphysical position. That is, I think your distinction between "the way things are" and "the way things really are" doesn't hold up. Plato said "there are eternal, unchanging Ideas in addition to that which appears to our senses". Quantum physics say "in addition to what appears to our senses there are goings-on that can never appear to our senses but are to some extent describable with mathematics." I see both of these as simply positing an appearance/reality distinction. But I would agree that there are issues here that I have not addressed. Perhaps it would be better to refer to an "overt reality/covert reality" distinction. But on the other hand, "overt reality" is just what is meant by "appearance". And, if one agrees with Barfield or Plato, there is a sense in which what appears is not the full reality.

    To respond to your other questions:

    "1) I'm not sure why pragmatists are metaphysicians."

    Because only a nihilist doesn't have some notion of what is real, that if someone is philosophical enough to call him- or herself a pragmatist, one is aware of various metaphysical positions and has adopted one. I suppose there could be a true agnostic, but in my experience such people operate as if physicalism were true.

    "2) I'm not sure why religion is necessarily metaphysical."

    One can practice religion without being philosophical, so I would say that one can't be a theologian (or Buddhist philosopher, etc.) without having some metaphysical position. Now one could argue this, especially a Madhyamika Buddhist whose expressed position is to "have no views". But I would respond that Nagarjuna's purpose is soteriological, and that implies some kind of acknowledgment that the unsaved are in a state of ignorance, which is the Buddhist version of Original Sin.

    "3) I'm not sure why quantum physics need be metaphysical (or could possibly decide such issues)."

    One can be a quantum physicist without being metaphysical. But all answers to the quantum measurement problem (why the photon shows up here and not there) are metaphysical positions. (See my last go-round with DMB in MD for more.)

    I don't know if this helps you get a handle on my thinking. It is different, but not original with me. Mostly it comes from Barfield and Merrell-Wolff, with help from Robert Magliola and (from secondary sources) Nishida (the logic of contradictory identity business, though that can also be found in Barfield's adoption of Coleridge's polarity.)

  4. Yeah, I just don't understand the kind of distinctions you're holding in place or positions you're occupying. When you say, "by 'metaphysical position' I mean some general idea about the general shape of the way things are," I shrug my shoulders and say, sure, people who suggest general ways of hanging things together are metaphysicians then, though I'd prefer to call them philosophers.

    But when you say, "I see a rejection of appearance/reality distinctions as itself a metaphysical position. That is, I think your distinction between 'the way things are' and 'the way things really are' doesn't hold up," I have to confess I don't understand how that hooks up to the above. If you're suggesting that there's no difference between having or leaving out the italicized "really", then I'm still not sure how that makes your "metaphysics" different from my "philosophy", other than take away a rhetorical handle that Rorty uses to grab his philosophical enemies. You can go ahead and take it away, but I'm not sure that makes any difference for our rejection of the appearance/reality distinction. Sure, on your view its a metaphysical position, but our rejection is no longer a rejection of metaphysics, it would be something more like a rejection of "metaphysics-plus".

    I'm suspicious, however, of your use of Barfield. I have Barfield's book, but I haven't read it. It sounds from your description, however, as if Barfield isn't just tracing the change in our linguistic manners, which I can get behind, but is also taking a side, the ancients' side. It is one thing to suggest that our language has changed (which would change our perception), but its quite another to say that their way of describing themselves was the correct way (according to reality itself). You can take that position, but its an arguable position in contention with post-Enlightenment common sense. You know that, but what I don't get is how citing Barfield helps. Supplying a narrative makes your story more coherent, but it doesn't help decide which way of perceiving things or talking about things is better. It's like citing the Bible to an atheist and saying that that narrative proves God exists because we used to talk to Him. It doesn't help. Even if I accept Barfield's narrative, I'd read it differently.

    That makes me suspicious because it sounds like your saying that there's a real appearance/reality distinction that reality itself forces upon us, and that pragmatists can only self-deceptively escape. Such a position begs the question, and simply bumps us up to the metaphilosophical level where we talk about why we'd want to follow Barfield or MacIntyre rather than Rorty. I don't think reality, or physics, is going to "tell" us how to decide the issue because whatever reality says will be heard differently depending on which philosophical common sense you are using--which is exactly why pragmatists suggest that using the metaphor of reality speaking to us should just be dropped.

    And then there's your reliance on the senses to erect the appearance/reality distinction ("Plato said 'there are eternal, unchanging Ideas in addition to that which appears to our senses'. Quantum physics say 'in addition to what appears to our senses there are goings-on that can never appear to our senses but are to some extent describable with mathematics.'). I don't see the appearance/reality distinction having anything to do with senses. If that's how your reinflating the distinction, then I have to confess not to really see how its something worth arguing about--yeah, there's lots of stuff that doesn't appear to our senses.

  5. AnonymousJuly 05, 2006

    Yes, the two statements don't hook up well, so let me start over. What I object to is a phrase like "pragmatists don't like metaphysics" and the apparently related "pragmatists reject appearance/reality distinctions". Now you refer to Rorty's philosophical enemies, and what I assume you are alluding to is his arguments with people like Searle and Nagel, who are also physicalists but who, as Rorty sees it, contain lingering traces of Platonism, that they are making A/R distinctions. Now within that milieu, I think Rorty's arguments make sense, but that means that the second phrase should be "physicalist pragmatists reject appearance/reality distinctions", while the first is "I (Rorty) think that the metaphysical question is settled: physicalism is true. But as a pragmatist, I think it is useless to try to argue for its truth in Kantian ways, that the old epistemological dualisms can be ignored.". But I am not in that milieu, and what I am saying is that idealist pragmatists *do* make appearance/reality distinctions. At least I do. And that some of the dualisms can only be ignored if one is a physicalist.

    So now I am confused when you say "You can go ahead and take it [the italicized "really"] away, but I'm not sure that makes any difference for our rejection of the appearance/reality distinction. Sure, on your view its a metaphysical position, but our rejection is no longer a rejection of metaphysics, it would be something more like a rejection of "metaphysics-plus"."

    I guess all I am saying is that I prefer the traditional meaning of 'metaphysics' as that subset of philosophy that deals with ontology. If my ontology includes the supernatural, and yours doesn't, these are just two different metaphysical positions, one with an A/R distinction and one without. So what I am saying is that when you and Rorty argue against Platonism you are doing so because -- well, because you are not Platonists, not because you are pragmatists. Hence within the physicalist milieu it makes perfect sense to ward off appearance/reality distinctions. But in conversations between this milieu and those outside it (like me), A/R distinctions are what the argument is all about. That is, my ontology includes one, yours doesn't, so between you and me it is a metaphysical disagreement, not a disagreement between pragmatism and non-pragmatism. So I don't see how calling it a rejection of "metaphysics-plus" makes sense. You are rejecting my metaphysics not simply because it has an A/R distinction in it, but because you see no need for any A/R distinction in making adequate sense of everything. And I reject your metaphysics not simply because it doesn't have an A/R distinction, but because I think without the particular one that I make, one cannot make sense of everything. So now the question is, where in your list does this disagreement belong? I say it belongs within 'metaphysics', which is a branch of philosophy. But if I understand what you are saying, you think it belongs in 'metaphilosophy'. I think we are on the same side metaphilosophically, in that we do not think that there is some independent standard according to which our metaphysical disagreement can be refereed. That is, I posit that there is a supernatural level to reality. I can give arguments for it. But I am not claiming that, say, any "truly rational" person is compelled to accept my arguments, or that it can be proved from some set of self-evident first principles. It is just that I think it is the best theory so far.

    On Barfield, I think you're misunderstanding what I getting at. It is not a case of "there's a real appearance/reality distinction that reality itself forces upon us", nor am I saying "and that pragmatists can only self-deceptively escape." Firstly, it is physicalists that escape it, not pragmatists. (Calling that escaping "self-deceptive", though would of course beg the question). A pragmatist might accept it or reject it, while a physicalist must reject it. But let me unpack the first clause. Of course "force" is too strong -- Barfield's case is not airtight. So what he is saying is "Here's some data (language changes, etc.) which if you interpret it as I do, then not only does it provide additional arguments over why physicalism is wrong, but also shows why physicalism became credible in the first place." But of course he was not a physicalist when he made his interpretations, and I was not a physicalist when I read them and agreed with him. So I am not saying "if you read this book and are intellectually capable and honest you can't possibly remain a physicalist", but I would say that a physicalist should be aware of this argument. Most likely you will, after reading it, remain a physicalist, because your physicalism will lead you, as you say, to not accept his interpretation. But who knows.

    So now maybe I can explain what I am objecting to in the addition of the "really". All that one gets from Barfield is that IF one is aware of the data that he points out and IF one interprets it as he does, THEN one will accept that there is an A/R distinction to be made and one will reject physicalism (if one hasn't already). Formally, this is the same (though, admittedly, not as convincing) as if one says that IF one is aware of the fossil record and IF one rejects a "God put them there to test the faithful" interpretation THEN one will accept an evolutionary view and reject a literal reading of Genesis. Thus, Barfield's position is no more about "reality forcing itself upon us" as any other theory. It is simply being aware of some new data and what one makes of it.

    On your last paragraph, I'm not sure how to respond. I didn't intend to say that A/R distinctions are only about the sensory versus non-sensory, though I admit it does look that way. My A/R distinction is that the way modernists think about nature as "just there", and so could once have existed without the presence of perceiving beings, is a false appearance -- one that I once held to be the case. Instead, now I think that what we call nature is really a communication between intelligences. Now to back that up requires a lot of metaphysical work, but this is not the place for it. What I would say, though, is my use of the word "really" is no different from, say, an Einsteinian saying to a Newtonian "what is apparently to you a force acting on object is really space being curved, which changes the "straight line" that the object is following". Hence, to be more careful, in both cases, the word "really" should be replaced with something like "is, according to my ontology or theory, better thought of as". In any case, I say that my ontology contains an A/R distinction because IF my inferences are true THEN reality is different from how it appears to me.

  6. Yeah, I still don't know. According to my definitions, you're not doing metaphysics, are you? If you were, and I'm not, then our dispute wouldn't be a metaphysical dispute according to my definitions.

    But a lot of this has revolved around not just our different understandings of what "doing metaphysics" entails, but also what "nominalism" and "physicalism" are. I've never quite figured out how your usage of the terms hooks up with my usages. I've been going around the block with DMB on physicalism for years until recently when, all of sudden, we found out that what I was saying wasn't all that disreputable after all. The kind of physicalism that pragmatists take is non-reductive--it basically just says that physics and the natural sciences have been really good at what they're doing, so let them do their thing and use the results they achieve. I can't imagine how anyone in this day and age isn't a physicalist in this sense. The pragmatist part is just the non-reductive part, and that just says that the discourse of science isn't any more or less important in a philosophical sense than that of poetry, ethics, politics, religion, or motorcycle maintenance.

    So when you bring up ontology, my instinct is to take what Quine called the "semantic ascent". As a matter of methodology, all we can ever do is talk about stuff when we are talking. And the pragmatist ring to ontology is that our ontology is as big as our vocabulary--which isn't that philosophically interesting. I get the idea that you do think such a thing is philosophically interesting and you call it "nominalism". I think its one of the metaphilosophical positions I inhabit and half the time, because as you say we seem to be very similar at times in certain areas, you look like a nominalist, too.

    But, I don't know. I'm out of interesting ideas.

  7. AnonymousJuly 11, 2006

    By 'physicalist' I mean someone who thinks that when there is anything, there are atoms, photons, etc. involved as well. By 'non-reductive physicalist' I mean somone who thinks that it is a bad idea to think, for example, that one could substitute into a discussion of consciousness a vocabulary of atoms, etc. As far as I can see, this is the same thing that Rorty meant when he uses these terms in his Nonreductive Physicalism essay. And it is different from just saying that physics is good at what it does. Furthermore, your meaning of 'physicalist' is not useful, since, as you say, according to it we're all physicalists. But Rorty's meaning is useful. It is a handy term to distinguish between those who are likely to accept Darwinism and those who are likely not to, those who deny life after death and those who are likely to accept it, and so forth. That is, a physicalist and a non-physicalist using Rorty's meaning have different ideas about how things hang together.

    And another useful term for noting that the physicalist and non-physicalist have different ideas is that they have different metaphysical ideas, to distinguish this sort of difference from having different moral theories, from having different ideas on the nature of science, and so forth.

    By 'nominalist' I mean someone who thinks the vocabulary of 'concept', 'idea', 'language', and 'intellect' applies only to a human activity. By 'non-nominalist' I mean someone who thinks the vocabulary applies to non-human reality as well. But I will admit that clarifying this requires more work (there are different ways to be a non-nominalist). Yet here too, I believe I am using the word in the same way that Rorty uses it when he describes himself as a nominalist. I describe myself as a non-nominalist, and again I think the phrase "metaphysical difference" usefully applies.

    I'm not getting what you mean by "semantic ascent". Both the theist's and the secularist's vocabulary can include "God", and I would say that questions about God are philosophically interesting. So I would suspect that not finding them philosophically interesting is, once again, confusing "pragmatists say" with "physicalist pragmatists say". But, as I say, I am probably misunderstanding. Nevertheless it is that confusion (as I see it) that I am trying to tease apart here. That is, I think that your definition of 'metaphysics' just doesn't work unless you assume that all parties to a philosophical conversation are physicalists (in my sense of the word).

  8. AnonymousJuly 11, 2006

    Not to be rude but,
    this is why philosophy is useless. This is nothing but an argument of what the definitions of particular words mean to particular individuals. Is there really that much of insecurity in people over unseen differences in the way we see things? Why not make things easier on yourselves and argure why one likes the flavor of vanilla and the other chocolate, or why you like blue and the other gray? It's seems simple enough, and considering how much less a complex problem it presents itself as and soon realizing you'll never have the answer - how much more complex is the question of metaphysics? Which, has no recognizable flavor. Metaphysics is no different, truth, reality, no different then vanilla - your pallet has a certain value for it, it defines it in a certain way. You never question someone elses value for food or color, you never re-taste a food you don't like simply to make sure because another disagrees, its self evident to you. This is much akin do a debate over what makes a great "fine wine", personally, I like it out of he box, new and cheap - to the expert, I know nothing about wine. In the end there is nothing to know other then the view out my own window to the world..... What is behind all these words?

  9. I think Scott and I would agree that there is a difference between taste in vanilla and, say, taste in who you are going to kill. And as long as there are differences like these, then talk about these differences is a little more important than talking about the differences between chocolate and vanilla.

    The arguments between Scott and I often simply seem to be scrimmages over definitions, but that's because we are very similar in some ways and very different in others. It produces a sometimes pedantic conversation. But we just need to get clear about what we are saying to each other.

  10. AnonymousJuly 11, 2006

    But that's just it, what are you saying? You can't (can't for rhetorical purposes) simply put degree's or varying levels of severity upon "taste" in things, that's just relativism, and furthers the agenda of conversation in such a way that makes it seem meaningfull, or, we're really taling about something now. You see the difference in taste between chocolate and vanilla as being insignificant only because it appears to you in life in such a mundane way, your used to it, it's just as mysterious. With your response, your simply stating what you prefer for dinner.
    Again I apologize if I'm sounding rude here.

  11. From my perspective, the only kind of person who would think that putting up pragmatic degrees of importance is a sign of relativism is the kind of person who thinks there is something more than our pragmatic efforts in the world--something like absolute truth, or something else big and universal and immutable.

    Because if one didn't think that absolute things like that were available for inspection, then one wouldn't get upset by making pragmatic distinctions between one's taste in foods and one's taste in cultural traits.

  12. AnonymousJuly 12, 2006

    however, if there are,or it is here stated that there be pragmatic degrees of importance - then they're either stated on a relative basis, or an objective one, which of course would suggest we're all meant to see it the same way. That however is certainly not the case.

  13. Well, there are no "objective pragmatic degrees of importance" because that would defeat the purpose of being a pragmatist--dissolving the contrast between objectivity and subjectivity into a continuum of intersubjectivity.

    Pragmatic degrees of importance are determined pragmatically, just like everything else.

  14. AnonymousJuly 13, 2006

    But it is relative, which was actually off base for me to say. A matter of perspective would have been more appropriate, as you say, "From my perspective". Which gets back to my point that it's all a matter of "taste", or "standard", or "value" (for the Pirsig fan), which is of course only a matter of perspective (that isn't a fare way to put it though). I guess I tend to like your philisophic view, (of course, otherwise I wouldn't find myself here), but it has always seemed to me there's something deeper going on then the philosophy/words themselves. For example, what was you favorite food before you tasted it, akin to the buddhist saying, "what was your name before you were born", or Pirsig's example, was there gravity before Newton discovered it? All these things are there, it seems we simply come up with ways of talking about them (that is we always intuit them). So, what are we/you talking about, what are you trying to talk about? Science always speaks of something specific, where philosophy is always quite nebulous, that is it's never certain about what it's ever trying to say - although it comes of to the contrary. I would suggest that it's less, talk about the nature of "truth", whatever that is, and more talk about the nature one's self. But, to what extent. Philosophy never seems to progress, science does, I mean in so far as I can fly, and drive a car - but the statement, "Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more seriously reflection concentrates upon them, the starry heaven above me and the moral law within me.", is not so much about discovering what's "out there", as it is, what's in here. So I read through your esays and peoples responses and I don't see problems persay being solved as much as I see psychological issues being delt with. The real problem seems more of an insecurity. It seems we objectify philosophy/metaphysics, as if it's a new toy to a child and in the end it misdirects the true nature of the problem - that is, the issue isn't this strange globe here in front of me, its the one on your shoulders. You don't address alcoholism by studying the liquor, or obiesety by looking into the nature of food.... Necessaraly. I tend to think the philisophical approach is misdirected from it's true center, because it always starts somewhere out there. Perhaps it's in trying to find the truth that is for eveybody, so here I fit in, and trying to find the truth for myself. Who cares what that guy likes for breakfast, to himself one should be fully convinced of what he likes and doesn't like - that's all the truth one will ever know. Everything else, that's someone elses reality, and though it may be just as true and may perhaps add on to something more absolute, it makes a man ever more insane... But I guess all great men are born out from seads of imbalance......


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