For Metaphysics



Metaphysics and Philosophy




In the Epilogue to my book The Character of Mind(1982), entitled “The Place of the Philosophy of Mind”, I wrote: “It would be misguided to infer from the points we have been making that the philosophy of mind is the most basic area of philosophy: probably no part of philosophy can claim that title (except, though trivially, metaphysics).” I will reflect on that parenthesis: Why did I say that metaphysics is trivially (obviously, undeniably) the most basic area of philosophy?

The word “metaphysics” can mean several things, but the meaning that best captures its use in mainstream academic philosophy is “the study of the main kinds of things that there are, and of their interrelations”. If the world is the totality of facts, then metaphysics aims to provide an inventory of these facts, or of the main types of these facts, and to describe or explain how they are related to each other. Thus “metaphysics” is more or less synonymous with “ontology”—the study of being. Slightly more ambitiously, we could say that metaphysics attempts to analyzethe various types of facts—to delve into their essential nature—and to provide a theoryof how the facts are related. It is thus very broad and all encompassing, unlike special branches of philosophy like philosophy of language or ethics. It covers not just this or that part of reality but the whole of it.

It is difficult to see how there could be any objection to metaphysics as so characterized. The various branches of knowledge all seek to identify what exists and to describe its nature (atoms, molecules, organisms, persons, societies, etc); metaphysics just proceeds at a more general and abstract level. Don’t facts come in different types with systematic interrelations between them? If so, can’t we try to say what these are? Of course, there may be bad metaphysics, but how can there not be metaphysics of somesort? The correct metaphysics might be irreducibly pluralist and non-explanatory—there are hugely many kinds of fact and there are no general principles linking them—but that is still metaphysics (to be contrasted with various kinds of monism or dualism). If there is such a thing as what there is (and how could there not be?), there must be truths about what there is, and these truths might be knowable.

Yet metaphysics has been questioned, and is often regarded as an optional part of philosophy—as if we could stop doing it and leave most of the subject intact. On the contrary, metaphysics is indispensable and pervasive—it is the air that philosophy breathes. It isphilosophy. Even the most vehemently anti-metaphysical philosophy is really metaphysics, though just of a different type from other kinds of metaphysics. Consider logical positivism: it declares itself to be against metaphysics—but is it? It subscribes to two central metaphysical theses: (a) that necessity is the same as analyticity, and (b) that meaningfulness consists in verifiability. These are metaphysical theses about the natureof necessity and meaning: they are not pieces of empirical science, verifiable by experiment and experience, and they are rivals to other metaphysical theses about necessity and meaning (truth in all possible worlds, truth conditional theories of meaning). Similarly with such positivist doctrines as emotivism in ethics or instrumentalism in the sciences: these are ontological doctrines, on a par with other ontological doctrines. In the same way a general scientism is a species of metaphysics: the only kinds of facts there are, and the only acceptable theories of those facts, are those discoverable by the empirical sciences. Such a doctrine is not the result of scientific investigation, to be justified by observation and experiment; it is a metaphysical claim about the general content and structure of reality. It is as much a metaphysical doctrine as theistic idealism (though it may be a superior metaphysical doctrine—or not, as the case may be). Positivism and scientism purport to be against alltypes of metaphysics, but in fact they are opposing one type to others (rightly or wrongly). They thus contradict themselves, revealing the unavoidability of metaphysics. Even to say that reality is not susceptible to a metaphysical theory is to say something metaphysical—though of a negative nature.

Nearly all of traditional philosophy is overtly metaphysical in one way or another: from Plato and Aristotle onwards (Spinoza, Descartes, Leibniz, Hume, Locke, Berkeley, Kant, the German idealists and materialists, Hegel, Moore, Russell, early Wittgenstein, Ryle, Quine, Kripke, Strawson, Lewis, Husserl, Sartre, et al). It might be thought there is one clear exception: ordinary language philosophy and the later Wittgenstein—surely theywereboth against metaphysics and also not guilty of engaging in it covertly. But this is wrong: they were doing metaphysics too, though in their own style. They were doing it by paying special attention to ordinary language, not by logic or science or pure metaphysical intuition. They had views about persons, knowledge, intention, sensation, causation, truth, free will, mathematics, ethics, and so on. It is just that they derived these views (or purported to) from an examination of ordinary language. Moreover, they held metaphysical views about meaning: that meaning is use; that not all speech acts are assertions; that the meaning of an utterance can be split into an illocutionary force and a locutionary meaning. None of this is empirical science or history or art criticism: it is theorizing about what is at a very general level. They also held various negative metaphysical opinions: that logical atomism is erroneous, that perception does not involve sense-data, that physical objects are not constructions from experience, that necessity is not in the world, and so on. They didn’t reject metaphysics as such; they just rejected older metaphysical views they didn’t like. Their overall metaphysical position, broadly speaking, was to endorse common sense (not merely describe it, as with “descriptive metaphysics”), and they tended towards ontological pluralism. They distrusted grand unifying systems such as materialism and idealism; their metaphysics emphasized distinctions and variety. Perhaps we could say that they preferred metaphysical modesty–but a modest metaphysician is still a metaphysician. Indeed, their overarching metaphysical position—itself quite ambitious–was that reality does not conform to simple categories and dichotomies. Theirs was a metaphysics of the Many not the One (or even the Two): they held to “multiplicity metaphysics”.

So metaphysics is pervasive, even when officially repudiated, but is it basic? Is it triviallybasic? What about the idea that metaphysics is, or should be, based on philosophy of language? Doesn’t that make the study of language basic? Actually, no, it doesn’t. First, we have to know that language exists, and one can imagine metaphysical views according to which it does not (it’s all an illusion that we ever say anything). Even granting that ontological doctrine, we have to assume that language is meaningful: but according to some metaphysical views meaning is indeterminate, or a creature of darkness, or simply unreal. How could we base metaphysics on language if the whole idea of meaning is shot through with confusion and error? So we would need to combat the eliminative metaphysics of meaning with a metaphysics that finds meaning to be in good order. But now, even once we have got meaning off the ground, there are different metaphysical views about the nature of meaning: Platonism (Frege), psychologism (Grice), behaviorism (Quine), and others. We also need to have some sort of theory of meaning in place, say a truth conditions theory or a verification conditions theory: but these are substantive (and controversial) metaphysical claims about the nature of meaning. We need a metaphysics of meaning before we can use meaning to deliver metaphysical results beyond language. We can’t deduce a metaphysics of time or material reality or mind from considerations about meaning without having some prior view about the nature of meaning. We need to know what kind of thing meaning is.

It is the same with philosophy of mind: we need a metaphysics of mind before we can hope to use considerations from philosophy of mind to adjudicate metaphysical questions, say about ethics or modality. We need to know that minds exist to begin with, what their contents are, and how these contents should be analyzed: specifically, we need a theory of concepts. But this will involve us in the metaphysics of mind: what it contains, the nature of what it contains, the relations between these contents and other things (notably objects outside the mind). We can’t make a given branch of philosophy, either philosophy of mind or philosophy of language, anterior to metaphysics because that branch is itself a type of metaphysics, or essentially includes metaphysics. How could an analysis of concepts be the basisof metaphysics in general, given that there are different metaphysical theories about concepts? If someone tried to make ethics into the basis of metaphysics, they would face the question of what theory of ethics they subscribed to—which would require some sort of meta-ethics. But meta-ethics just is the metaphysics of morality, so we cannot hope to find in ethics a standpoint outside of metaphysics for pursuing metaphysics. Similarly for language and mind.

Metaphysics has always been with us, it has never gone away, and it will always be with us as long as philosophy exists. Even when officially shunned it operates in the background—indeed, it powers its own supposed repudiation. Different kinds of metaphysics wax and wane, and different methods are proposed (science, conceptual analysis, ordinary language, formal logic), but metaphysics is inescapable. Some views may seem more extravagant than others, metaphysically, but even the least extravagant views are still recognizably metaphysical (e.g., there are only sense data, there are only electromagnetic fields, there are only texts). Even someone who believes in nothing but his own current experience is a metaphysician, just a very abstemious one. And for such a thinker his negative metaphysical views are apt to be quite wide-ranging. So, yes, metaphysics is the most basic area of philosophy, trivially so.


Colin McGinn

7 replies
  1. says:

    That’s good stuff. Until now I could never quite grasp what the philosopher, Jaegwon Kim, was getting at in his endless talk about “supervenience”—about how one level of explanation relates to another, either above or below it. Have I got this right?

  2. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    You have defined elsewhere that philosophy is about logical reality – so philosophy entails the exploration and discovery of the logical aspects of reality. Given your definition here of metaphysics, it does not seem to follow that metaphysics is by definition a subset of philosophy. We could for instance study the things that there are, their essential nature and their inter-relations (ie engage in metaphysics) via story telling, or via experiments, or via mathematics, or even non-conceptually as an artist or via yogic disciplines.

    It may well turn out that the inter-relation of things is best understood through its logical manifestation, but that would have to be demonstrated empirically.

    Or is there a (logical!) reason to think that the study of the essential nature of things and their inter-relations only manifests logically?

  3. says:

    But there is no getting at, “the general categories of reality”, absent experiment, —else we are at the mercy of evolved conceptual biases. “Logical investigations” proceed from premises. Premises must always be questioned, not least when they purport to be about reality.

  4. says:

    For me, personally, yes. I’m currently working on them! Though, as Dr. Johnson once said, “If only I had better pencils”.


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