Types of Metaphysics

Is Descriptive Metaphysics Possible?



Strawson draws his famous distinction between two types of metaphysics in these words: “Descriptive metaphysics is content to describe the actual structure of our thought about the world, revisionary metaphysics is concerned to produce a better structure”. This formulation raises puzzling questions. One might have thought that descriptive metaphysics (hereafter DM) aims to describe the actual structure of the world, since that is generally the aim of metaphysics (or ontology); but Strawson inserts the words “our thought about”—so that DM is describing the “structure of our thought”. Thought is an attribute of persons, a psychological attribute. So DM is concerned to describe an aspect of human psychology, notthe world outside of human psychology. Our thought is about the world (what else could it be about?), but DM focuses on thought itself, not the world it purports to be about.

Two questions now arise: (a) why is DM construed to be about human psychology? and (b) what is meant by the “structure of thought”? With respect to (a), the natural objection will be that DM, so characterized, is not a type of metaphysics (a general philosophical theory of reality) but a type of psychology (a description of human thought). DM would therefore be wrongly so called: it is not a general description of the world (a metaphysics) but a general description of the human mind. Maybe answering question (b) can help with this objection, depending on what is meant by the “structure” of thought. It is hard to know what Strawson intends by this word, given that “structure” is usually opposed to “content”. Presumably he does not mean the logical form or grammatical structure of thoughts, since that will not bear on what the subject matter of thought is. Nor can he mean some sort of psychological theory of thought—such as an imagistic theory, or a language of thought theory, or a division into conscious and unconscious thought. If he had written “language” and not “thought” into his definition of DM, we might have naturally taken his talk of “structure” that way—as grammatical or logical structure—but that is hardly the right basis for metaphysics. No, Strawson must mean by “structure” content—what it is that we think. He uses “structure” to mean something like “general” or “basic”, not “local” or “particular”. DM is not about our thoughts concerning weasels and warblers but about our thoughts concerning material bodies in general, as well as space, time, persons, events, causation, and such other typical metaphysical topics. So his idea is that DM describes what we think—the content of it—in very general or basic terms. It will tell us, for example, that people think there are material bodies in space and time, and also persons, with events occurring, and causal relations between the events. It will not tell us that there aresuch things, just that people thinkthere are. As Strawson modestly says, DM is “content to describe the actual structure of our thought about the world”—content to say what we in fact think, without trying to discover what is objectively the case (he could have written “content merelyto describe the actual structure of our thought”).

But that project is not, properly speaking, metaphysics, which should endeavor to tell us what isthe case, not merely what we habitually taketo be the case. What Strawson calls “descriptive metaphysics” is simply not a type of metaphysics—it is a type of psychology or anthropology. It might be pursued using standard psychological or anthropological methods: surveys, experiments, even brain science. It would try to discover what it is that people universally think about reality at a basic level. That task has no logical bearing on what is really the case—it is just the attempt to find out what humans in fact believe. Psychologists do investigate this kind of question: they seek the genetically fixed basic concepts and beliefs that humans share; and they find that concepts like material body, person, space, time, causation, andanimalshow up everywhere. But they don’t take themselves to be doing metaphysics (that’s a job for philosophers), just empirical psychology. To be doing metaphysics one would need to claim (at least) that such beliefs are true: but that is to go beyond merely describing what beliefs people have, and hence beyond what DM, as defined by Strawson, is intended to achieve. His aim, as he clearly states, is the modest one of merely describing human thought.

The problem with this formulation can be brought out by considering other areas in which the Strawsonian distinction might be applied: what about the idea of descriptive ethics, or descriptive philosophy of mind, or descriptive logic? In those cases the project would be to describe the “actual structure of our thought” about value, mind, and logical validity: what do we in fact think about these various areas? No doubt such a subject could be pursued, and it might turn up something of value, but it would not be a type of ethics, or philosophy of mind, or logic. It would tell us what people think in these areas, but not what is true in them; and surely, as philosophers, we want to know what is true about value, mind, and logic—not merely what people thinkis true. For they might be quite wrong, and anyway that is not our proper subject matter—we are interested in the thing itself not in people’s beliefs about it. What would we think if someone proposed a new type of physics called “descriptive physics”, the job of which is to describe what people think about the physical world? We might regard this as an interesting venture in anthropology, but we would not suppose that they had identified a new type ofphysics—which concerns what is true of the physical world, not what people think is true. What they think is often false or incomplete, and anyway physical belief is not our proper subject matter—the physical world is.

The upshot is that the concept of “descriptive metaphysics”, as defined by Strawson, is a confused and misbegotten concept: it seems to denote a type of metaphysics, but it does not, being really a misleading label for a type of psychology or anthropology. Maybe this type of psychology would be of interest to philosophers if it engaged in some substantial conceptual analysis, but it would still be psychology unless it claimed that our conceptual scheme (another phrase of Strawson’s) actually reflects the way reality objectively is. Only then would we ascend to the level of metaphysics: but then we would be doing much more than modestly and contentedly describing “the structure of our thought”. And some reason would have to be given for supposing that what we think istrue, as opposed to other metaphysical views that might be proposed. Actively endorsing our conceptual scheme carries much greater intellectual commitment than merely describing what it contains. After all, people often believe a load of rubbish.

This brings us to “revisionary metaphysics”: does that concept fare any better upon close examination? Of course, all metaphysical systems are revisionary in one sense—they are rivals of each other and aim to supplant the opposing system. But Strawson obviously means revisionary with respect to the metaphysics of common sense—that system of belief that he thinks will be revealed by “descriptive metaphysics”. That is, he supposes that some metaphysical systems contradict the metaphysical beliefs held, explicitly or implicitly, by ordinary people; and if so, these systems are to be called “revisionary metaphysics”. Strawson cites Aristotle and Kant as examples of non-revisionary metaphysicians, and Leibniz and Berkeley as revisionary metaphysicians. So some philosophers endorse the metaphysics of the ordinary person and some reject it, according to Strawson.

All this is highly problematic. First, it is exceedingly unclear whether a given philosopher’s metaphysical system really contradicts common sense: Berkeley notoriously insists that he is at one with common sense, merely differing from its materialist interpreters; and Leibniz might say the same of his system—that nothing in what we actually believe in common sense is really inconsistent with the Monadology. Where does Plato fall? Didn’t he think he was in conformity with common sense, since the existence of universals is taken to be implicit in our ordinary language and thought? Universals are not taken to be alien imports from outside, but to be woven into our ordinary practices. What about David Lewis’s modal realism? What about Hume’s view of causation and the self? Is Descartes’ dualism inconsistent with common sense? I can’t think of a single clear case of a metaphysical system that flatly contradicts ordinary belief, and is taken by its proponents so to do. Indeed, such systems often derive their support from evidence drawn from withinour ordinary beliefs and commitments: they are offered as interpretationsof common sense, and hence are sensitive to how we spontaneously speak and think. Surely metaphysicians characteristically oppose othermetaphysicians, while hoping not to violate basic assumptions of common sense. If they preserve nothingof ordinary belief, they have no leg to stand on, and hence have no claim on our credence. They might jettison a part of common sense, but they cannot realistically reject the whole thing—and in practice they never do. So it is difficult to see who might count as a hard-core revisionary metaphysician in Strawson’s sense.

Strawson makes a fundamental error in the way he sets up the contrast he is aiming to capture: he supposes that our ordinary thought actually contains substantial metaphysical commitments or theories. But it doesn’t: it merely commits us to various kinds of entities, properties, and relations. Thus, as he says, we believe in bodies, space, time, persons, events, causal relations, colors, shapes, and so on. But those are not metaphysicalcommitments; they are merely the commonsense things that metaphysics tries to provide theories of. We ordinarily believe in tables, chairs, and other bodies, but the metaphysician tries to tell us what the natureof these things is, which is clearly a further question. Are they mind-independent entities or are they possibilities of perception? Are they reducible to their atomic components? What is their precise relation to space and to events? We ordinarily believe in persons, but what exactly isa person—a body, a brain, a soul, a connected sequence of mental states, or an ontological primitive? We ordinarily believe in space and time, but are space and time absolute or relative, finite or infinite, continuous or granular? We ordinarily believe in events, but are they a separate ontological category or can they be reduced to objects, properties, and times? We ordinarily believe in causation, but how is causation to be analyzed–by means of necessity, counterfactuals, or constant conjunction? We ordinarily believe that objects have colors and shapes, but are these qualities objective or subjective? In all these cases the metaphysician is discussing something accepted by common sense; he is not arguing withcommon sense—not usually anyway. He is explaining common sense not seeking to revise it.

The mistake is to suppose that our ordinary thought contains actual metaphysical theses—as that everything is mental, or everything is material, or abstract objects exist, or causation can be defined counterfactually, or objects are mind-independently colored. Then a metaphysical system could be genuinely revisionary of what we ordinarily believe about the world. But what we have are ordinary beliefs about ordinary things that are up for metaphysical interpretation and theory. Strawson appears to suppose that a commitment to ordinary things is already a type of metaphysics, but it isn’t—it is just the subject matter of metaphysics. That is precisely why metaphysicians can plausibly claim to be in conformity with common sense, because common sense is not committed with respect to the usual range of metaphysical positions (say, materialism versus idealism). Common sense underdeterminesmetaphysics, in the sense that it is not committed to any specific metaphysical system—merely to the entities such systems seek to explain or analyze.  Strawson may well be right that bodies, persons, space, time, and so on, are indispensable commitments of our conceptual scheme: but such things are the topicsof metaphysics not the resultsof metaphysics. If someone were to assert outright that there are no bodies, persons, space or time, etc, but only lumps of floating ectoplasm, then he would certainly be revising common sense. But no actual metaphysical system in the history of philosophy ever maintains such crazy things—for what conceivable ground could one have for asserting such a proposition? Such systems claim, rather, to say what these generally acknowledged things are (what their nature is), without trying to deny their existence or replace them with a brand new set of objects and properties.

The idea of revisionary metaphysics, as Strawson understands the concept, is therefore entirely toothless and quite irrelevant to the metaphysical disputes that have occupied the history of philosophy. It is simply not a useful or well-defined notion. Nor, as we have seen, is the notion of descriptive metaphysics useful or well defined. So what isthe right conception of metaphysics? The answer is easy: it is the attempt to describe the general structure of the world. This is not the same as the attempt to describe the general structure of our thoughtabout the world; nor is it committed to supposing that metaphysics, so conceived, might contradict common sense. It might, wisely, be completely neutral as to whether it is consistent with common sense, holding that common sense is simply not metaphysically opinionated; or it might strive to demonstrate consonance with common sense. But what it actually aims to do is just to discover what is true of reality, without particularly caring one way or the other about its relation to common sense belief. It certainly will not see itself as being “content to describe the actual structure of our thought”, but will seek instead to assert truths about reality outside of thought—claiming, say, that the world is completely material. We might call this, just to have a label, “veridical metaphysics”—truth-seeking metaphysics. It fits neither of Strawson’s categories, and is really the only kind of metaphysics there is. This subject is the analogue of ethics or epistemology or philosophy of mind or physics or geography. None of these disciplines could call themselves “descriptive X” or “revisionary X” in Strawson’s sense: they are neither descriptive of what people think nor intentionally revisionary of what people think—they simply seek to discover the truth about their domain of interest. Whether that truth contradicts common sense, or supports it, is of no interest to them, since their aim is simply to describe (and possibly explain) reality as it is.

None of this is to deny that the metaphysician may (or must) appeal to common sense in coming up with his theories: that is a question of methodology or evidence. What it does deny is that we can definemetaphysics as describing what people think (or “the structure of our thought”). That’s not what it is about—its subject matter, its domain of interest. Typically, a metaphysician will develop a theory of reality by appealing to the way we naturally think or talk about it–for example, theories about modality; but he does not suppose that his topicis human thought—his topic is the nature of necessity itself. If Strawson had said that the descriptive metaphysician aims to describe the general structure of the world by appeal to the structure of our thoughts about it, then he would have defined an intelligible and useful concept; his mistake was expressly to limit DM to what humans think, i.e. a psychological matter, without regard to the truth about the world. Perhaps at some level that is what he really meant, but it is certainly not what he said. And the point is not trivial, because the project I just defined is precisely the one that would draw the fire of positivists and other skeptics about metaphysics: for how, they would ask, can we ever verify such speculative claims about the general structure of reality, and how can common sense belief ever be evidence for what is true of the objective mind-independent world? Strawson’s project, by contrast, has the look of something not open to such objections, since it limits itself to verifiable matters concerning what humans believe: it is perfectly empirical, verifiable, and even scientific. We just have to find out what people in fact believe—we don’t have to engage in unverifiable abstract speculations about reality.

The trouble is that this innocuous project is simply not a kind of metaphysics; so Strawson has done nothingto rehabilitate traditional (or even non-traditional) metaphysics. He is talking about something else entirely. He is talking, in effect, about folk psychology, not about the fundamental nature of reality. It is ironic that he is often celebrated for bringing metaphysics back into philosophy, after its banishment by the positivists and ordinary language philosophers. If he did have such an influence, it was contrary to his official doctrines and words. It might be thought that he smuggled metaphysics (the veridical kind) back in under the guise of something else entirely: he described it as merely reporting what people think, but in fact he was talking about the genuine article—thus allowing philosophers to go back to what they enjoyed with a clear conscience. The idea of descriptive metaphysics made real metaphysics seem acceptable to people, but they misunderstood what Strawson actually said, and then proceeded to carry on where they had left off. Real metaphysics came back, but only by disguising itself as Strawson’s modest and empirically verifiable “descriptive metaphysics”.

Strawson makes two basic mistakes, which lead him into the misconceived distinction I have criticized. The first is to suppose that common sense (“our conceptual scheme,” “the structure of our thought”) contains a determinate metaphysics that might compete with standard metaphysical systems—such as the view that bodies are possibilities of sensation (phenomenalism), or that persons are a primitive ontological category (Strawson’s own metaphysical position), or that space and time are absolute and mind-independent, or that causation is a matter of constant conjunction, or that events are logical constructions from objects, properties, and times. If it did contain such a determinate metaphysics, it would be obviously inconsistent with a variety of metaphysical theories: but that appears not to be so. Common sense is just not that specific and metaphysically sophisticated. It accepts the existence of various things, but it ventures no opinion on their ultimate nature. The second mistake is to conflate describing our conceptual scheme with endorsing it; or rather, not to keep these as separate as they need to be kept. It is one thing to say what we think; it is quite another to declare what we think to be true. So even if common sense contained a determinate metaphysics, capable of clashing with typical metaphysical systems, that would not show that its metaphysics was correct. To reach the latter conclusion one would need substantial further argument, going well beyond the official business of DM. These assumptions are what would be needed to show that so-called descriptive metaphysics was really a kind of metaphysics (when supplemented with the veridicality claim), and to show that revisionary metaphysics had something to get its teeth into in attempting to revise common sense metaphysics. As it is, neither assumption holds up under examination. The conclusion, then, is that DM is not possible (as a type of metaphysics) and that RM is ill defined. All we have are different (veridical-type) metaphysical systems, proposed by theoretical philosophers, clashing with each other—just as things were before Strawson introduced his influential but misconceived distinction.

The right thing to say is that all metaphysics is descriptive (of reality) andrevisionary (of other metaphysics). No metaphysics is merely descriptive of our thought, that being part of psychology, anthropology, or possibly philosophy of mind. How much metaphysics can plausibly be read into common sense is at best moot. We are committed to various kinds of entities and properties, to be sure, but whether these commitments reach the level of metaphysics proper is dubious at best—substantial theory construction and interpretation is required before we can move from common sense commitments to real metaphysics. It is highly implausible to claim that common sense selects one metaphysical system over other competing metaphysical systems. What Strawson calls “the structure of our thought” (whatever exactly that might be) does not yield a unique and recognizable metaphysical system. Nor is it credible to suppose that common sense is fixed and impermeable to outside supplementation or even revision. Clearly, science has entered common sense at various points, changing it quite fundamentally: the theory of evolution, the extent of the universe, the nature of motion, gravity, electricity, etc. These additions have altered our common sense views of force and causation, of the nature of matter, of how animals came to exist, and so on. Our common sense views of animals and material bodies have changed substantially as a result of biology and physics. Our conceptual scheme is not as conservative and static as Strawson sometimes suggests, though at a very abstract level it has been stable for many thousands of years. His picture appears to be that our ordinary thoughts provide the last word on general questions about reality, but that is far too sanguine a view of what ordinary thought comprises. Also, defending such a view would require doing something quite different from the job Strawson assigns to descriptive metaphysics. It would require a systematic evaluation of ordinary thought, not merely recording what we do in point of fact think. I have said nothing about how such an evaluation might proceed or where it might lead; my point has been just to distinguish it sharply from the project Strawson labels “descriptive metaphysics”.  That project is entirely descriptive, not evaluative.

Let me make a final point about epistemology. If we try to generalize Strawson’ distinction to epistemology, the picture changes because of the role of skepticism. Skepticism can quite legitimately be described as “revisionary epistemology” because it clearly contradicts many of our ordinary beliefs about knowledge and justification: we think we know and can justify a great many things that the skeptic says we cannot know and justify. Our common sense epistemology is quite firmly committed, and so skepticism can easily be seen to fly in its face. So we should have no objection to calling skepticism “revisionary epistemology”. What about “descriptive epistemology”? It is a perfectly feasible enterprise: find out what we ordinarily believe about questions of knowledge and justification. This may be worthwhile and interesting, but again it would be a non sequitur to move from such information to claims about what really isknown or justified—and the skeptic would obviously contest such a move. All this is quite above board and sensible; in particular, we can read a clear epistemology into our ordinary beliefs, so that skepticism can be seen to clash with common sense. It isn’t that common sense is indeterminate with respect to whether we know ordinary facts about the external environment.

I suspect this model was influencing Strawson and his followers, with revisionary metaphysics playing the role of skepticism. That would explain why he set the issues up as he did. But the analogy is imperfect, because the alleged clash between common sense and specific metaphysical views is either unclear or non-existent. Metaphysical theories are offered as theories of the world that may or may not fit with common sense, and which are sometimes justified by appeal to common sense belief (or possibly by science, or direct metaphysical insight); but skepticism is offered expressly as a criticismof common sense, and hence as explicitly revisionary. If you are a philosopher who has little time for skepticism, you will be inclined to go with the epistemological opinions of common sense—as in fact Strawson was himself. This may then color your views about metaphysical theories, which you will see as skeptical with regard to common sense metaphysics. But the cases are crucially dissimilar, and the conceptual apparatus used to deal with one (epistemology) will not carry over smoothly to the other (metaphysics). If so, Strawson’s distinction between descriptive and revisionary metaphysics owes its origin to a misplaced obsession with skepticism.[1]



[1]For the record, Peter Strawson was my teacher and friend, and I had (and have) great admiration for him as a philosopher. Individualsis a brilliant book.

7 replies
  1. jgkess@cfl.rr.com
    jgkess@cfl.rr.com says:

    In physics, as in all proper science, experimental discovery alters (or does not) prior “theory”. Subsequent “theory” alters (or does not) subsequent experimental paradigms. Modes of argument are deductive, inductive, or abductive. These are the only known reliable kinds of explanation (sorry, Dialecticians). Metaphysics has no proprietary kinds of argument or evidence. Thought experiments about the elasticity of concepts, e.g. necessity, are just meta-psychology. I realize that your excellent essay is on Strawson,, here, whom I revere as well, but the drift of the piece seems a defense of metaphysics as an autonomously useful or edifying branch of human inquiry. Quine, among others, might disagree. You didn’t mention Wittgenstein’s, “Tractatus” here.

  2. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    Your piece is very clear. There is still the question as to how much reflecting on the structure of thought can inform metaphysics (as opposed to being taken as a definition of it).

    To develop knowledge we engage with the world, and this knowledge comprises both a conceptual aspect (call them decisive abstract general relations) as well as specific propositions or ‘facts’ expresssed in terms of these concepts. By reflecting not so much on the specific facts, but on the ‘shape’ and ‘dynamics’ – or structure – of our concepts and thoughts, what do we learn about the world? And if we learn something, can this type of thing be learnt in any other way (ie without reflecting on the structure of thought – maybe we have to add a critical piece – the structure of thought in the context of how it arose from interacting with the world)?

    Let me give an example. Most physical laws are expressed as specific differential or integral equations. These are facts. But they can only be expressed in the language of Calculus. So suppose I want to understand what it is about reality that Calculus is allowing us to see (ie that without Calculus or an equivalent we couldn’t explore or discover). How can I do this without reflecting on the structure of thought- specifically the relevant concepts (and their relationships) that comprise the essence of Calculus?

  3. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    I’ll spell out my question a little more to check I understand what you are saying, and to ask hopefully a clearer question.

    Let A = the logical aspects of the general categories of reality (ie metaphysics).

    Let B = the logical aspects of the general categories of thought. I take this to be the “structure of thought”. (Does the study of this have a name? Maybe this is what Hegel was in reality attempting with his study of what he called Objective Logic – though as an idealist he mistook it for A.)

    Really, I am asking about the relationship between A and B.

    Presumably some features of A are reflected in B – innately, through culture, and through an individual engaging with and thinking about reality. Let’s denote this process A -> B. (Obviously not all of A will be reflected in B.)

    I take your point that it is unhelpful, and perhaps dangerous, to conflate A and B.

    My question is whether there is a way to study A other than through studying B in the context of how it arose, ie in the context of A -> B.

    If not, then it makes clear why people may have conflated A and B.

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      Yes, you study A directly not via its mental representation in B. You don’t study the reality by turning to the psychology. The same point can be made about the “liguistic turn”. Of course, you use your concepts.


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