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Metaphysics - its methods and subject matter


To: Ochieng O.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Metaphysics - its methods and subject matter
Date: 31 May 2001 07:43

Dear Ochieng,

Thank you for your e-mail of 21 May, with your first essay for the Metaphysics program, on the topic 'Metaphysics: Its Methods and Subject Matter'.

This is a good essay.

It is fair to say that you have really only tackled the second part of this question: the subject matter of metaphysics. You say very little to indicate the methods of metaphysics. What resources does the metaphysician have for investigating and answering the questions which form the subject matter for metaphysical inquiry? Intuition? Discourse with God? Magic spells? If we accept that there are aspects of the world in which we find ourselves which provoke a sense of metaphysical wonder, what is the proper way of satisfying or dealing with that sense of wonder? Where do we go from there?

Obviously, I don't expect you to be in a position at this early stage to give a clear answer to that question! I am merely indicating the ground that still lies ahead of us.

On the question of subject matter, you do offer some rather curious examples: 'Is the sun really hot?' 'Do the angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees?' I can see what you are trying to do. You are looking for examples of propositions which are taken as axiomatic in other fields of inquiry. The idea that 'being hot' is an absolute property was rejected by the first physicist to conceive of the idea of a temperature scale. Compared to a supernova, the sun is not 'hot'. In non-Euclidean geometry the angles of a triangle do not add up to 180 degrees. Whether the geometry of space is Euclidean or not is a question for physics rather than metaphysics.

It is important to stress that the metaphysician seeks *knowledge*. Though 'each thinking person,' as you say, 'is a philosopher in his own right', yet the thoughts of each of these 'thinking persons' aim for something that has universal significance. Truth, if it should be found, is truth for you as well as for me. If each can only discover his own subjective truth, then we should indeed be in a position where no communication is possible with regard to the questions of metaphysics. If such an individual were to say to me, 'Reality for me is XYZ' I should not even be able to make sense of his *words*. Far from being able to evaluate the truth of 'Reality is XYZ', I should not even be in a position to determine the conditions under which 'Reality is XYZ' *would* be true, irrespective of whether or not that statement is true.

I am assuming here a principle from the philosophy of language: that the meaning of a statement is its 'truth conditions', i.e. the conditions under which it would be true. For example, to understand the meaning of, 'Snow is green' is to know under what circumstances it would be true to say that snow is green.

Now, your discussion of the privacy of experience and the difficulties of interpreting an individual's linguistic communications is relevant here. It is one of the *results* of metaphysical inquiry, I would argue, that we learn to see what is wrong with the naive idea that when you and I look up at a clear sky, each of us has something inside our heads that the other can never know, 'what colour "blue" is for you'. Perhaps I can say something about this now. You tell me that you know what colour "blue" is for you. But do you really? Suppose I were to ask you, 'Do you know what colour "blue" was for you a minute ago? You say, 'Yes, of course, it was the same!' But how do you know this? Aren't you just guessing? After all, if the colour in your head did change from what it was a minute ago, but your memory conveniently ignored the change, then the effect would be the same!

I found the story of Jagno strange, and also very moving.

As you will discover, or perhaps you suspect already, the problem of language is very much tied in to the question of 'private experience'. The argument I gave a moment ago is a version of a famous argument given by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in his book 'Philosophical Investigations'. Just to get you thinking, here is the paragraph where he describes a thought experiment with a certain sensation 'S':
Let us imagine the following case. I want to keep a diary about the recurrence of a certain sensation. To this end I associate it with the sign "S" and write this sign in a calendar for every day on which I have the sensation. – I will remark first of all that a definition of the sign cannot be formulated. – But still I can give myself a kind of ostensive definition. – How? Can I point to the sensation? Not in the ordinary sense. But I speak, or write the sign down, and at the same time I concentrate my attention on the sensation – and so, as it were, point to it inwardly. – But what is this ceremony for? for that is all it seems to be! A definition surely serves to establish the meaning of a sign. – Well, that is done precisely by the concentrating of my attention; for in this way I impress on myself the connexion between the sign and the sensation. – But "I impress it on myself" can only mean: this process brings it about that I remember the connexion *right* in the future. But in the present case I have no criterion of correctness. One would like to say: whatever is going to seem right to me is right. And that only means that here we can’t talk about 'right'.

L. Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations 3rd edn, G.E.M. Anscombe (tr.), Blackwell Oxford 1967, Part I, §258.

You give an interesting illustration of the problem of language and communication in the story of the knights and the knaves. I do wonder, however, exactly what this story shows. You say, 'If I ask the liar the same question, he gives me the same answer I got from the person who told me the truth, and yet, his answer is false.' You seem to find this paradoxical. But is it? We have to distinguish the *content* of what is said, from the *intention* of the speaker in saying it. The statement, 'The knave would show the red door' has the same content, the same truth conditions, regardless of whether it is uttered by a knight or a knave, regardless of whether it is uttered with the intention of telling the truth, or telling a falsehood. Normally, when you converse with someone, you assume that they intend to tell the truth. The information you extract from what they say is equivalent to the content of the words they utter. However, in a situation where you are doubtful whether you are being told the truth or not, or where you expect to be told lies, then the information you extract from what they say will be the result of an *inference*. And that is precisely the case in the story of the knights and the knaves.

Sorry this letter is so long! Well done.

All the best,