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On the methods and subject matter of metaphysics


To: Simon K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: On the methods and subject matter of metaphysics
Date: 17th April 2009 10:46

Dear Simon,

Thank you for your email of 1 April, with your first essay for the Pathways 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 a knowledgeable essay, which gives a fairly accurate account of the philosophical specialization, 'metaphysics' as it would be studied by any undergraduate in a department of philosophy following a broadly analytical tradition. This is reinforced by your references to M. Loux and Van Inwagen. The answer would possibly have been different (although there would be some overlaps) for, say, an undergraduate in a department where process philosophy (Whitehead) or Thomism (at a Catholic University) was the dominant tradition, or, say, in France or Germany where Heideggerian phenomenological ontology was considered the paradigm of metaphysics.

All traditions agree that 'the nature of existence' or 'the nature of reality' are questions which the metaphysician studies, but there is considerable disagreement about the problems which fall under these headings and the philosophical methods which are considered appropriate.

On the question of 'method', you emphasize the difference between metaphysics and science; you could have equally emphasized the difference between philosophy and science. But what (if anything) is special about the methods of metaphysics, as *contrasted* with philosophy generally? An analytic philosopher would say, 'none'. The method of conceptual analysis works as well in the subject area of metaphysics as elsewhere.

This is where I have serious reservations. As you will discover in working through the program, I don't have any allegiances to any particular tradition. Although trained as an analytic philosopher, I am acutely aware of the limitations of the analytic approach when applied to the question of defining reality (defining truth, defining existence). Students in former days who cut their teeth on Hegel and Bradley arguably had a better, more open view. (Russell was a Hegelian in his youth.)

(I was lucky to have studied metaphysics under D.W. Hamlyn at Birkbeck who got us reading Kant and Bradley.)

You describe ontology as 'one of [the] many sub-disciplines' of metaphysics. An analytic philosopher today would consider, e.g. Donald Davidson's analysis of action statements as requiring an ontology of events as a contribution to ontology as well as being a contribution to the philosophy of mind. The idea here is that the best (indeed only) approach to ontology is via the philosophy of language: an ontology is what you are committed to in taking a particular approach to the analysis of a given form of discourse.

Another example would be the analysis of counterfactual statements by David Lewis, which requires an ontology of possible worlds, conceived as differing from the actual world only in a perspectival sense.

The debate between realism and anti-realist views of truth, according to British philosopher Michael Dummett, is a debate between rival conceptions of a theory of meaning; between a theory of meaning which regards truth as the central notion, and one which makes verification or 'criteria' central (as in Wittgenstein's later philosophy).

As I said, my view of all this is non-committal. I don't accept Dummett's claim that there is no 'direct' route (i.e. a route bypassing the theory of meaning) to metaphysical conclusions. Which is not to say that the philosophy of language is irrelevant. Rather, we have to tackle each problem as it comes up with the best tools we can.

Aristotle is the paradigm ontologist, categorizing the different ways in which one might use the term 'be'. A substance 'is' in a different way from its accidents. Form 'is' in a different way from matter. Davidson and Lewis are arguably working in the same tradition. However, there seems to be a broader question still, which I term 'defining reality', which is not about the 'correct' list of categories, whether e.g. events or possible worlds are 'real' or 'constructed' but rather concerns our conception of what it is for anything to 'exist' or for any statement to be 'true'.

That is why I would doubly endorse the remark you quote from Aristotle at the end of your essay. Even within metaphysics, as you have indicated, there are sub-disciplines which study particular problems and issues which broadly come under the classification of 'the nature of being'. However, there is also a foundational question, a question about the 'ultimate' nature of reality, which arguably comes before this. That is what we are pursuing in this program.

All the best,