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Metaphysics: its methods and subject matter


To: Kathleen C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Metaphysics: its methods and subject matter
Date: 29 September 2005 11:03

Dear Kay,

Thank you for your email of 18 September, with your first essay for the Metaphysics program, in response to the question, 'What is metaphysics? Is there anything special about the methods of metaphysics or about its subject matter? Illustrate your answer with one example of a metaphysical problem or controversy.'

This is an excellent piece of work. I am so glad that you are reading D.W. Hamlyn's 'Metaphysics' - his book has clearly helped you focus in a way which you would not have been able to do relying on my notes alone.

'Metaphysics... seeks what applies to any conscious beings in any world they consider real, even though the experience of finding reality real could be quite different for conscious beings in worlds with different natural circumstances.' - This is interesting, because of its deliberate vagueness and open-endedness. In the Critique of Pure Reason, after describing our human 'forms of intuition' as spatial and temporal, Kant leaves open the question whether there might be creatures who experienced reality through forms of intuition different from ours, even though we (necessarily - because we are bound by our own forms of intuition) lack the capacity to imagine what such experience would be like.

I remember Hamlyn making this point in a Metaphysics lecture when I was doing my BA. For me it was one of those weird, scary moments when you know that a door has been opened and yet there is no way to see what is on the other side of that door. All you know is that it is something indescribable and unimaginable.

It is sad that there are so few opportunities these days for philosophy students to have that experience.

Your conclusion, however, is that 'metaphysics seeks a general principle of the apprehension of reality, but not Reality, with a capital 'R'.' In other words, what we term 'reality' is always and necessarily local, parochial. What, then, of the grand project of 'defining Reality' (with a capital 'R')?

As I have tried to show in various ways, one has to make that extra step, even though you have every reason to believe that what you are seeking to do is impossible: to look through the door, get above the mundane world, take in the whole of Reality (capital 'R') not just a part of it. So, for me, the crucial arguments are those which revolve around this very attempt, even if the attempt is ultimately doomed to failure.

As to the methods of metaphysics, I agree up to a point that none is peculiar to metaphysics. However, as you will see later on in the program, I am prepared to use, or at least attempt methods of argument (which loosely come under Hamlyn's heading 'dialectical proof') whose validity is not cut and dried. So an additional element of judgement is involved, an appeal to 'intelligibility' which cannot be further justified.

Here's a schematic account of what I mean. Let's say that in investigating a certain problem - say the problem of idealism as illustrated by Berkeley's theory - you find that you have reached a point where two mutually contradictory theories seem equally defensible, but where there appears no possible way, in principle, of deciding between one view and the other. Then my conclusion is that BOTH theories must be wrong.

In claiming this I am taking the lead from Kant in the Antinomies of Pure Reason in part II of the Critique of Pure Reason). Kant already has his 'theory', he has already reached the conclusion he wants to reach in the first part of the Critique. So his treatment of the Antinomies (e.g. 'The world has a beginning in time' vs 'The world has no beginning in time') is merely a diagnosis, an interpretation which helps illustrate the theory.

However, I am prepared to go one step further and use my (alleged) antinomy as the premise in an argument whose conclusion is the rejection of the (alleged) assumption which leads to the antinomy. - When you reach that argument you will have to judge for yourself whether you think it is valid or not.

One statement which you make for which you do not offer any support is, 'It is difficult to accept the position that Berkeley gives God in his philosophy.' Why, exactly? Because it is difficult to believe in God? or because Berkeley makes his 'God' work too hard? Or is it rather that we are the one's - the finite spirits - which it is hardest to find room for in Berkeley's 'world inside God's mind'?

You conclude that it is 'unlikely that there will ever be definitive answers'. After 33 years of study (the Hamlyn lecture I referred to was back in my 4th year) I am glad to report that I am not yet prepared to accept this.

All the best,