No really, what is metaphysics?

by Dave Maier

Last month in this space I discussed physicist Lawrence Krauss's suggestion that in advancing certain cosmological theories (concerning the early universe, dark matter, dark energy, and so on) he had thereby put to rest the age-old philosophical question “why is there something rather than nothing?”. I agreed for the most part with those who think Krauss misunderstands the question if he thinks a physical theory – any physical theory – can answer or dispel it. There were a lot of interesting comments on the post (go read them), but I think people were sometimes talking past each other. Some of the confusion and/or disagreement concerns the concept of metaphysics, so that's today's topic.

We often see “metaphysics” or “metaphysical” used as a term of abuse. (I myself use it this way sometimes.) But not all such abuse amounts to the same thing. What exactly is metaphysics “in the bad sense”? And why is there also a “good” (or at least not necessarily bad) sense of the term as well? How does the latter devolve into the former, and how can we avoid such a thing? Or must we part ways with “metaphysics” entirely, leaving only a “bad” sense of the term?

MetaphysicsA good place to start is the entry on “Metaphysics” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Its author might give us critics pause, since if there is such a thing as metaphysical Kool-aid, Peter van Inwagen has drunk as deeply of that toxic draught as any philosopher alive. However, except for the perfunctoriness of its final section, which grudingly examines (or at least mentions) the question “Is Metaphysics Possible?”, most of the article is perfectly uncontroversial, as is appropriate given the venue (really, check it out for a good introduction). Metaphysics has always been part of philosophy, whether in the ancient form of a “science of being as such”, or the modern welter of rather more specific questions about causation, modality, personal identity, mind and body, space and time, and so on.

Naturally this does not mean that such things must be unobjectionable. Maybe philosophy first barked wrongly up a single ancient tree (The Tree of Being?), turning in the modern period to bark equally wrongly up a number of related trees, and maybe what we should do now is cut out such barking altogether. But as van Inwagen points out, to say that the ancient “science” (as pursued, for example, in Aristotle's Metaphysics) was wrong-headed because there are no things that do not change is itself a “metaphysical” assertion in the modern sense; and the same is often true of contemporary dismissals of “metaphysics” broadly construed.

On the other hand, the Catch-22 nature of this defense of metaphysics, if that's what it is, should arouse our suspicions. It sounds like a “gotcha,” like the blithe, infuriating assertion that “it takes a lot of faith to be an atheist.” Indeed, it's the broader cultural spat between science and religion which provides a lot of the heat and lack of light (dark energy?) for most discussions of “metaphysics.” We have to detach, or at least locate, the latter discussion to see it properly – if not to resolve it, at least to see who the players are.


Most people wouldn't even use the word “metaphysics” at all if not attacking or defending religion or science. If physics is the soberly empirical and quantitative study of the natural world, then “meta-physics” seems to go beyond it, into a timeless realm of “meaning,” or spirituality, or the supernatural (but see van Inwagen on the actual derivation of the word). On this picture the battle lines fall naturally into place. On one side we have the modern scientist, scrupulously granting existence only to that which can be verified by rigorous experiment, and conversely skeptical of what he sees as mystical mist. For example, the concept of “force” dates back to the ancients, but only with the advent of modern quantitative methods has it gained scientific respectability. We can verify that force = mass x acceleration, it seems, in physics class (with springs and whatnot). We can do no such thing for angels, or gods, or “being,” or essences, or moral values for that matter. Even if we cannot thereby rule out their existence, we put the burden of proof, or at least explanation, on those who talk about such things. To do otherwise is to indulge in fantasy, wishful thinking, superstition, or scholastic sophistry about angels and pins.

On the other side we have the traditional metaphysician. Google cannot confirm (maybe it was in a paper-type book with pages and everything), but I remember once reading a right-wing takedown of some modern folly which attributed the behavior or attitude in question to the target's being, as the author caustically put it, “unencumbered by metaphysics.” I always think of that phrase in this context. The thought is that in abandoning the eternal verities, or at least the traditional inquiry into same, “enlightened” secular types thereby give up traditional constraints on their actions. Those taking the modern, Cartesian turn pride themselves on their “rationality,” but their conception of reason is weak tea when compared to the rich intellectual tradition reaching back to Plato. Turning away from the logos, they restrict their focus to merely material, contingent, temporal things, and presume to call this “knowledge”.

This narrow epistemological focus, again, has a moral dimension as well. If you believe only in what you can see, and in nothing “transcendent,” then it is natural that you would reject the teleological thinking implicit in morality (not to mention revealed religion), and concentrate on the here-and-now, using your vaunted “rationality” in purely instrumental/pragmatic rather than theoretical/metaphysical ways. This puts not only truth but also morality on shaky ground. Even if such people do occasionally indulge in altruistic behavior, they can't have any real reason to do so, since they have cut away all metaphysical support. (This makes me think our writer may be Chesterton – the author also of “Pragmatism is a matter of human needs, and one of the first of human needs is to be something more than a pragmatist.” Ooh, snap!)

All this is most unenlightening. If “metaphysics” is just culturally tendentious, warmed-over Platonism then I'm not any more interested in its “rationalist” negation than in it itself. However, we need not choose between these extremes, as there are other conceptions of “metaphysics” on offer. Heidegger, for example, explicitly ties his criticism of modern instrumental rationality (“technology”) to the distinction between the “ontic” discoveries made by science and the “ontological” inquiry into being he himself centers on the traditional metaphysical question of “why there is something rather than nothing” (thanks to Gabe for bringing this up in comments last time). But Heidegger's post-phenomenological “metaphysics” is equally critical of the Platonic tradition. Dasein may, like the Platonic logos, be essentially teleological, but in other ways the two are directly opposed, albeit in ways I am not competent to discuss.

Outside all-encompassing metaphysical systems like these (as well as the suffocating science-vs-religion context) we continue to see inquiry into particular issues like causation and modality, although as van Inwagen points out, it's less clear here what common property makes these inquiries “metaphysical”. Some of this inquiry continues a tradition of post-positivist analytic metaphysics, following Saul Kripke and David Lewis. This metaphysics is generally systematic, but also displays its roots in 20th-century linguistic analysis as opposed to traditional metaphysics. There's even a revival of metaphysics and “speculative thought” in Continental circles, which we'll have to take a look at sometime as well.

Still, we need not abandon a general critique of “metaphysics”, even if it's not the traditional Enlightenment take on the matter. Or, put another way, we may agree with some of Heidegger's counter-criticism of modernity without signing on to his own metaphysical project. In fact the beginning of this line of thought can be found in Kant. Kant of course has his own systematic project, but let's put that aside to consider his “critical turn”. It is not metaphysics per se that Kant criticizes, but a specific type of error he sees as characteristic of traditional (“pre-critical”) metaphysics and not effectively countered by the Humean turn to naturalism and skepticism. Here let's look at a couple of famous expressions of that criticism, and connect that idea with a surprisingly similiar sentiment in Wittgenstein. (Some of the following is lifted from a 2008 post on this topic at my own blog.)

In the first sentence of the preface to the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant famously complains that “[h]uman reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer” [Avii]. That latter part echoes the Humean skeptical critique (in the sense in which Kant accepts it); but the first part introduces our theme: that the metaphysical urge is a temptation arising naturally, or seemingly naturally, from the everyday use of our cognitive faculties. In another famous passage, Kant's image suggests the nature of this temptation:

The light dove, cleaving the air in her free flight, and feeling its resistance, might imagine that its flight would still be easier in empty space. [Introduction, A5/B8]

Twitter_logo_blueI like this line. Kant goes on to explain his own conception of metaphysics as synthetic a priori, but let's stop here to examine the image itself. As things are normally, doves can fly perfectly well. But flying involves air resistance, which our dove experiences as a hindrance. Yet that very hindrance, or what causes it, is paradoxically what makes forward progress possible in the first place. To wish it gone thus makes no sense; without it there could be no such thing as flying. But that's hard to remember when the wind is buffeting you in the face.

Kant says there that this is why Plato left the world of the senses for “the empty space of the pure understanding.” However, we need not cash out the image that way (even while continuing to see Platonism as characteristically dovelike). Wittgenstein uses a remarkably similar image in Philosophical Investigations (§107). To see the context let's back up to §94 (translation modified):

“A proposition is a remarkable thing!” Here we have in a nutshell the subliming of our whole account of logic. The tendency to assume a pure intermediary between the propositional signs and the facts. Or even to try to purify, to sublime, the signs themselves.[…]

The first quarter or so of Philosophical Investigations is often regarded as preliminary throat-clearing, in which the mature Wittgenstein criticizes his former self, clearing the rubble away before getting on to his real arguments, about rule-following, “private” language, aspect-seeing, and other topics in mind and language. But “clearing the rubble” (as in §118) is how Wittgenstein describes his entire project, not just its unavoidable preliminaries. These earlier sections are in fact not mere preliminaries, but instead the beating heart of the book. The later sections, while important, are where Wittgenstein unpacks what he has already said and applies it to particular cases (themselves carefully chosen to reinforce the earlier points about language – that is, not merely applications of a supposedly already established general principle).

In fact, Wittgenstein mentions his former self only rarely. Yet it is true that that philosopher comes in for some pointed criticism here. Putting aside, if we can, the vexed question of whether the rejected view is a) false or b) nonsensical (and the equally vexed question of how exactly the criticized author of the Tractatus would himself regard these words!), let's see how Wittgenstein characterizes the “illusion” which tempts us here (§97):

[Thought's] essence, logic, presents an order, in fact the a priori order of the world: that is, the order of possibilities, which must be common to both world and thought. But this order, it seems, must be utterly simple. It is prior to all experience, must run through all experience; no empirical cloudiness or uncertainty can be allowed to affect it.——It must rather be of the purest crystal. But this crystal does not appear as an abstraction; but as something concrete, indeed, as the most concrete, as it were the hardest thing there is (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus No. 5.5563).

Just so you don't have to look it up, 5.5563 reads:

In fact, all the propositions of our everyday language, just as they stand, are in perfect logical order.—That utterly simple thing, which we have to formulate here, is not a likeness of the truth, but the truth itself in its entirety.

(Our problems are not abstract, but perhaps the most concrete that there are.)

That first sentence states something that the later Wittgenstein as well is concerned to stress [e.g. PI §98] – but he draws from it a quite different moral: not that in order to account for this everyday order we must posit [what he later calls, farther on in PI §97] a single ideal “super-order,” but instead that when we are “dazzled by the ideal” in this way, we “therefore fail to see the actual [i.e. varied] use of the word [e.g.] “game” correctly.” (§100).

This sets up (as I've bolded below) the famous image I wanted to mention as an interesting comparison to Kant's, in §107:

The more narrowly we examine actual language [searching for the elusive ideal order], the sharper becomes the conflict between it and our requirement. (For the crystalline purity of logic was, of course, not a result of investigation: it was a requirement [impressed upon us, Wittgenstein believes, by our having “predicate[d] of the thing what lies in the method of representation” (§104) – a remarkably Kantian turn of phrase in its own right].) The conflict becomes intolerable; the requirement is now in danger of becoming empty.—We have got onto slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!

We Wittgenstein fans have all seen that last injunction many times, but rarely, I think, with its proper force. In any case, to bring out the Kantian connection here we might just as well say “We want to fly: so we need wind resistance. Back to the dense air!”

What's striking here is that Wittgenstein and Kant hit upon such similar images in talking about what might seem to be rather different things – the necessity of synthetic a priori metaphysics on the one hand, and of an anti-“metaphysical” “therapy” on the other. What they have in common, I take it, is that the error, the temptation, which they both aim to combat is so ingrained in our ways of talking and thinking that it manifests itself whenever we look to obtain a reflective perspective on them, and is for that very reason not something we can simply dismiss as mistaken. But that doesn't mean that it is obvious where or when we have allowed the temptation to mislead us, which we must determine (Wittgenstein says elsewhere) on a case-by-case basis.

If this is right, we can't hope for a “refutation of metaphysics” and must live with the metaphysical itch; nor can we even grit our teeth stoically and refuse to scratch. The trick is to find the right spot at which to say “okay, now you're talking nonsense” – and this, Wittgenstein believes, is what makes philosophy so very difficult.

Merry Christmas everybody! And happy everything else too!