Archive for category Metaphysics

Karl Barth’s Failure by Matthew Rose | Articles | First Things

 But we are living through the unraveling of the Christian metaphysic, which began with a rejection of classical theism, proceeded to abolish purpose from the material world, and is now eliminating the rational and moral nature of man. In order to recognize this metaphysical demolition for what it is—one can scarcely repair what one misunderstands—Christians are no more helped by Barth than by theological liberalism. Both collude with secular reason in denying our capacity to attain knowledge of the highest things. We will be immeasurably better served by recognizing, as John Paul II wrote in Fides et Ratio, that our “crisis of meaning” stems from failing to defend the ability of reason to know “the ultimate and overarching meaning of life.”

Read more from this thoughtful essay on Barth: Karl Barth’s Failure by Matthew Rose | Articles | First Things.


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Another one of those things

Here’s another one of those things I need to keep in mind but which you don’t:

Formal ontologists must constantly be on their guard against simplistic attempts to read ontological distinctions out of syntactical ones. Ontology, properly understood, is not merely the shadow of syntax. Syntax has no doubt evolved in a way that is partially sensitive to ontological distinctions, but is influenced by many other factors which make it an unreliable guide to ontology.

–the late E. J. Lowe, The Four Category Ontology

Well, on second thought, maybe you do need to keep this in mind. When I say that this is one of those things you need to keep in mind, it doesn’t necessarily mean there is a thing that corresponds to that which you ought to keep in mind, despite my claim’s making perfect sense and being reasonably debatable. That is a trick of syntax, of language.

Maybe you could put it this way: you don’t need to believe (in) everything you think. Even an atheist might say “God bless you” if you sneeze, a perfectly polite thing to say, but you can’t catch him in a contradiction thereby. You can’t say, “Ah, see! You do believe in God!” The sign in my front yard, “All trespassers will be shot,” does not entail any actual bloodletting, or even any trespassers, for that matter. In fact, if my sign does the trick, there won’t be any trespassers.

I guess I’m just one of those guys who is afraid of making commitments…ontological commitments, that is.

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On the relevance of metaphysics

Philosopher L.A. Paul:

[M]etaphysics works by developing a very wide range of models of these features of reality. This range is much wider than you normally see in the sciences, and we use this wide range of different models to enrich our capacity to understand the world in very different or competing ways. The idea is that by doing this we can gain a special sort of understanding of the world . Each different angle that each metaphysical model explores gives us a new way to think of that part of reality, and thus a new way to understand it. By thinking of the project of metaphysics as modeling different ways to think about the world, instead of thinking of it like the scientific project where the objective is arguably to get a unified picture of the world or a single true model of reality, we get a sense of how the main goal of philosophy, especially metaphysics, is the development of a kind of wisdom about ways the world might be. What I mean by this is that while there’s often a lot of derisive talk about science superseding philosophy as it gets a better and better picture of the world, the history of both fields shows much more exchange—e.g., while philosophy learns from the empirical discoveries and physical theory of science, science has often taken advantage of philosophy’s commitment to rigorously working out seemingly weird models of how the world might be.

Fabadooza, indeed!

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A VERY short dialogue on metaphysics

What Dale Jacquette “overheard” can be found here.

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A basic insight on metaphysics

From James Chastek at Just Thomism:

Metaphysics cannot have first principles, i.e. things it takes for granted as true from which it reasons. This does not mean that nothing is self-evident or that there is no basis for things, but it does mean raising the question whether there is any such thing. On this account, there are two modes of science: those that are never perfectly self-reflective or self-aware, but simply take things for granted that are invisible to them (mathematics, natural science) and whatever inquiry is perfectly self-reflective, such that it can even see and raise questions about its foundations. This is why those of a metaphysical bent can get so frustrated by mathematicians and scientists, who simply cannot do what they do without taking principles for granted that they are more or less oblivious to. The pay-off for this absence of self-reflection is great power, exact knowledge, and progressive advances in the discipline. But the metaphysician will always be bothered by a certain sense that there is a forgetfulness of the most important things in science and mathematics, just as the scientist and mathematician will always be bothered by the inability of metaphysical inquiries (philosophy, philosophy of mind, etc.) to make definitive and widely accepted advances in knowledge.

If we are ever going to make some sense of the recent discussions of the relation between science and religion, on the one hand, and science and philosophy, on the other, we are going to have to sharpen our philosophical skills. Many times proponents of one side or the other in these debates will make statements that they purport to be “scientific,” when in fact they are metaphysical.  In a similar way, sometimes a claim will be dismissed as “just philosophical” when in fact it is a claim that can be investigated via the methodologies of science. And in all cases there may be some things that must be taken “on faith,” so to speak, of certain enterprises are to get off the ground.

Chastek’s point above has a long history. The best place to begin thinking this through is at the beginning.  And that beginning was more than 2500 years ago in Greece, at the time of the so-called “presocratic” philosophers.  It is interesting to note when an era is defined or given a proper name.  The “middle ages,” for instance, designates a time between the classical era and the modern period, and this designation leaves the impression that not much was going on during this transitional period (by the way, this “transitional period” lasted over 1000 years, from about 400 A.D. to 1500 A.D. Fat chance nothing happened).  In this case, the “presocratic” philosophers derive their name from Socrates (469-399 B.C.), and the thinker who generally gets pride of place for being “first” in the lineage of Western philosophers is Thales of Miletus, whose dates are given as 624-547 B.C., about 150 years give or take, before Socrates.  There were many others, among them Anaximenes, Pythagorias, Democritus, Xenophanes, Empedocles, Parmenides, Zeno, et. al., and they produced insights that in one form or another are still with us today (however greatly elaborated). So calling Thales and these other thinkers “presocratics” is a little like calling Civil War generals Grant and Lee “preschwarzkopfians” after General Norman Schwarzkopf of “Gulf War I” fame. (Or “pre-Petraeusians” or something like that, before General David Petraeus.)

In Thales’ day, it was a general idea of the public that everything that exists is made up of just four basic elements:  fire, air, earth, and water.  What I mean by a general idea is something like a background notion.  This proposition that everything is ultimately made of fire, air, earth, or water was not something that I would imagine most people thought about on a daily basis.  The idea was just “there” in the atmosphere, so to speak, much like if you were to stop and ask people on the street today what everything is made of they would likely reply “atoms” or maybe “matter”–but they don’t go on and on about it as a rule.  It is like the “question” to the “answer” on the game show Jeopardy: Answer:  “Everything is made of it.”  Question: “What are fire, air, earth, and water?”  (or “What are atoms?”)  Unless you are on the game show, the issue doesn’t usually come up.  You need to know about the four elements to understand why Thales in particular (and philosophers in general) can be seen to be a bit weird.  Instead of resting content with the four elements as the fundament of all that is, Thales asked himself a strange question:  But what are the four elements made up of?  Maybe you had a similar experience in Catechism class or Sunday school when, being a bit of a philosopher yourself, you asked, after being told that “God made everything”:  But who made God?  It’s just not asked!  Once you get to God, that’s it.  That’s the end of the line.  Well, it was something like that for Thales to ask about what the four elements were made of.  In fact, his question is an instance one of the pre-eminent philosophical questions:  What is it really?  “What is it?”  “Well, it is something made up of fire, air, earth, or water.”  “Yes, but what is it really? What are the elements that make up this thing made up of?”

We can see immediately that there is something about the philosophical project that is at odds with the received opinions of the many, with the common sense of the polis or the community.  In some ways, even before the explicit philosophical question, there was already a tension, let’s call it, between appearance and reality.  There appear to be many things, but the reality is that all of those many things are made up of just the four elements.  And Thales takes this a step further and says that to the common sense there are just the four elements, but in reality there is but one thing that underlies them all. What makes him think that there is one thing behind the many and to wonder about it is a good question.

What was that one thing that was at the root of the many things that appeared to be?  For Thales, the answer is water.  For Thales, the four elements were essentially manifestations of just one element.  Now how did Thales come to this conclusion?  He made some observations:  he noticed that water could take on the form of the other elements.  When water was very cold, it was hard, solid, like earth.  When water was whipped up and became misty, it hung in the atmosphere like air.  And when it was very excited, it could burn just like fire.  Thales could test this hypothesis, couldn’t he?  He could try to see if he could get, say, fire into a liquid state or air into a solid state.  To him, it appeared that only water was malleable enough to take on the forms of the other elements.  And this inference leads to another of the principal philosophical questions:  Why?

There followed on after Thales a string of thinkers who pondered the same question.  Anaximines, for instance, drew the conclusion that air (breath–pneuma) was the root of all that is by conducting an experiment of sorts.  You can try it, too:  Purse your lips like you would do to whistle, and then blow some air against the palm of you hand.  What is the general temperature?  It is cool…like water (and, if it were even colder, like earth).  Now, open your mouth wide like you are going to say “aaahhh” for the doctor and blow on the palm of your hand.  What is the general temperature now?  It is warm, like fire (okay, a not very hot fire, but still…).  Via this experiment, Anaximenes determined that the reason why the basic common sense elements can take their various forms was due to the processes of “condensation” and “rarefaction.”  In fact, Anaximenes discovered an insight that is still with us today, namely that quantitative change can result in qualitative change, a principle still fundamental to sciences as diverse as physics and sociology. It is interesting to note here that, for Thales and Axaximenes, the foundational elements and the processes that accounted for them were “physical” or “natural.”  It would be going much too far to claim that these presocratics had a sophisticated theory about all this–including what might be meant by terms like “physical” or “natural”–these are really anachronisms.  But you can see this point more clearly if you contrast the views of Thales and Anaximenes with that of another presocratic thinker, Anaximander.

Anaximander was much more radical in his thinking.  He reasoned that the four common elements had to be made up of something other than one of the four basic elements, for how could water be fire or air be earth?  In the end, he thought, all things would have returned to water unless there were something like “opposition” preventing it.   It had to be the case that there is something prior to the elements that, when acted upon in certain ways, manifested itself as this or that element.  Anaximander called that from which the elements were derived apeiron, the “unlimited” or the “indefinite” or the “boundless indeterminate.”  The “force,” if that is the right word, he named “injustice,” or strife that is the clash of opposites.  This is a very interesting and important attempt to answer the questions, what are things really? and why? The solutions of Thales and Anaximenes were derived from the “observable” world.  We have to put that term “observable” in the scare-quotes because, of course, they never primarily observed fire, air, earth, and water; rather, they observed houses and trees and ships and grape vines and mountains, other Greeks and lots of things besides.   But their solutions derived from the observable world in taking water or air as the root element and the basis of all there is.  Anaximander’s solution strayed from the “observable” world, even with the allowances we have made for that term.  For how would one ever observe something indefinite or unlimited or boundless?  Even if you were to look out in the distance and observe an object that you could not identify (which would be, in that sense, “indefinite”) it would hardly be unlimited or boundless.  It–whatever it is–would be bound at least by the background in which it is observed.  Otherwise, it would so completely blend with or blot out everything else that you could not observe it at all.  So while in some sense air or water is a “thing” or a “something,” the apeiron really is no specific thing, no thing at all, even nothing.  Even though Anaximander reasons starting from the observables, and even though he seeks a simple explanation, reducing the many observables to one basis (monism), his solution is no longer “natural” or “physical” but now “meta-physical.”  I will leave aside all the things we should say about this term “metaphysical”, but for the moment I am just remarking that on Anaximander’s way of understanding reality, there is no possible observable that could be at the basis of all things.  Instead, a force of some kind must be at work on “something” that is not yet any thing until the force works on it.  And when it does, then things begin to manifest (and not the apeiron).

Now that’s a deep idea but it is reasonable given what was thought at the time.  The philosophical–really, the proto-scientific–issue was a question of the deep-structure of reality.  Anaximander reasoned that the naturalistic answers that had been proposed were not satisfying, indeed, that they could not ever satisfy the question.  You could forever ask what the next proposed solution really was and why it was purportedly able to ground everything else.  You say the four elements are really water…but what is water really and why does it sometimes manifest itself as air and other times as fire or earth?  Anaximander was thinking that you could never hit bottom if you keep trying to gain a “naturalistic” or “physical” basis (remember: we can’t take these terms too seriously at this point…they are undefined by these thinkers and at this point in time) for nature or physis.  “Something” outside of things had to be the ground of things (again with the scarequotes, but you see how hard it is to talk about apeiron).

If I may return to what I think I heard in Sunday school again, there is an analogy here.  We were taught that everything that is was created by God (we, I have to admit, did not talk about how God might have done this and whether there might be a conflict with science).  But if we were to ask, as I am quite sure I must have, “but who created God,” we would be told that the question really doesn’t make sense.  God is not a thing like all other things.  Every actual thing is limited in some way (you can tell where one thing leaves off and another starts up).  But God is unlimited, both in space and in time.  God is everywhere and always.  But “something” (see what I mean about the analogy…?) that is everywhere is nowhere in particular, and “something” that was and is and is to come is no-when in particular, and so is not just some thing, not just something, but otherwise, and therefore very hard to talk about in a way that captures what “it” is really.

So we can see two alternative sorts of problems.  If you want to be a “naturalist” like Thales or Anaximines, then you will face the problem of the infinite regress of questioning:  but what is that made of and why?  If you want to be a “metaphysician” like Anaximander (or perhaps like a Sunday school teacher) then you have a technique for avoiding the infinite regress, but you will also find it very hard to say anything definite. (This is the reason why idolatry is the premiere sin, upon which, ultimately, all others rest, and why it is so hard to avoid committing)  What can you say definitively about the “indefinite”?  Which way is right?  Which way do you lean?  Even at this point, we can  begin to see the battle lines forming for the evolution vs. intelligent design debate that won’t take place for a couple of millennia. When the evolutionists propose only natural causes, those that hold to ID find the answer unsatisfying–the fundamental question remains:  but how did it all get here?  But if the proponents of ID have to rely on the supernatural to explain things, then those who hold to naturalistic explanations have a good point when they complain that the ID proponents are not saying anything definite or observable or provable or even meaningful.

And this is the reason science and religion usually win out over metaphysics. We have always wanted to understand ourselves and the world around us, but not mainly just because we can. I think we mainly want to understand ourselves and the world around us so that we can do things, so that we can get what we want. Techne – knowing how – is always bound up with nous – knowing what is. Since the advent of modern science, technology has been moving full speed ahead. But there is also our desire know know why things are the way they are and what that means for us, for our desires, our hopes, our fears. So even though its demise had been predicted since the rise of modern science, religion, though not the same as it ever was, is still as strong as its ever been. The purport to bring that questioning to a close with some real answers.

Thus both science and religion (at least for most people) always need to get going, so to speak, which means they need to bring to a close radical self-questioning and self-reflection and start “doing things.” This is easy to see in religious people, who talk comfortably about faith. But it also can be seen in the views of some of our public scientists, such as Stephen Hawkings and Lawrence Krauss. You can easily see their exasperation with philosophy (or, what is the same thing, ultimately, metaphysics). We just don’t “need it” anymore. We just don’t “need” to ask what we mean, in the case of Krauss, by “nothing.” We can, we techno-scientists, go about our business very well without asking ourselves these questions.

True enough. But some of us apparently cannot help ourselves. We wonder — it all begins with wonder, says Aristotle — about your business, both techno-science and creedal-religion, what it’s really for and what accounts for it and where it might be headed and what we might hope for. We are bothered, as Chastek puts it, that something in all your business has been lost or forgotten. Not just, though, in math and science but also in theology and religion. And, perhaps most importantly, we want to know for ourselves to the extent we are able what that might be.  Sometimes it appears that we’re given a stark choice: side with the techno-scientists or side with the religious adherents. Perhaps there is a real third alternative: the philosophical life and its metaphysical speculation. The scientists will yawn and the believers will scoff – that is, if they don’t do worse. But we philosophers might live happily anyway, even if we live on the run from scientists and believers, at least so long as the scientists and the believers don’t kill us all in the meantime. Maybe wonder and speculation is our best hope.

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How many worlds are THE REAL world?

There is an interesting and very informative conversation going on here about the implications of quantum mechanics and the plausibility of the multiple worlds interpretation. The discussion was seeded by a brief, informative, and mercifully clear article by physicist Stephen Barr. Barr is also participating in the discussion for the next couple of days, so check it out.

This particular bit of the exchange caught my attention, making me wonder about its implications for the project of Speculative Realism (particularly Quentin Meillassoux‘s complaints about “correlationism”):

Steve Barr to Josh Weiner:

I think I know what is bothering you, Josh.  As I said in reply to Wallace Forman (in the third paragraph), it all comes down to what the wavefunction of a system is.  One would like to be able to say that it is just a straightforward description of what is happening in the world, of the world as it really is, apart from what you or I know about it.  That leads straight to the Many Worlds picture, because the wavefunction typically contains descriptions of many alternative branches.  In the traditional or Copenhagen interpretation, one has a more modest view of what the wavefunction is: It is not simply “the world as it is”, but rather it encodes what some observers know or are in a position to assert about the world.  that is why heisenberg himself said that the mathematics of quantum mechanics “represents no longer the behavior of elementary particles, but rather our knowledge of this behavior”. And it is why Rudolf Peierls said, “the quantum mechanical description is in terms of knowledge.”

That raises a very important question — which, I think, is your question: What DOES describe “the world as it really is”?  Even if the wavefunction does not describe it, there must be some comprehensiove and complete and accurate description of physical reality — call it the “God’s eye view of things” (even though I don’t want to drag God back into the discussion).

In other words, what IS really going on when no one is looking? What if beings such as ourselves had never evolved?  What about regions of the universe that no human or other sentient organism is ever going to observe or make measurements of? What about what will be happening in the universe after all life has died out?  Good questions! The wimpy answer is that science cannot speak about things that cannot be observed, and what is going on in places that will never be observed is, by definition, something that cannot be observed! But that seems a pretty unsatisfactory answer.  The traditional Copehagen interpretation doesn’t give an answer.  I have an answer that satisfies me, and I give a very brief sketch of it in my reply to jrd261.  Here I will only say that I think that even in the context of the traditional interpretation of quantum mechanics there does exist an answer to the question “what is really going on in the world even when no observers are looking”. In other words, the traditional interpretation does NOT commit one to some form of subjectivism or Berkeleyan idealism, but can be consistent with a robust philosophical “realism”. But this is a tricky business, and probably beyond what can be discussed in such a forum.

FYI, this is, I think, the relevant part of Barr’s answer to jrd261, mentioned above:

In particular one could take the view that whenever there is a branching of the wavefunction (which happens when different parts of the wavefunction “decohere” from each other, in the technical jargon) all consciousness in the universe proceeds down just one branch. The wavefunction would continually branch, exactly as MWI says, but there would never be a situation where the same observer existed in several conscious versions in distinct branches.  In this picture, the wavefunction itself is constantly branching, like train tracks; and what happens at the “collapse of the wavefunction” is not really any change in the wavefunction — all the tracks are still there — but rather all consciousness proceeds down a single track, so to speak.   (What I have just described is my own speculative view of quantum mechanics, for what it’s worth.)

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“Ontics” vs. Philosophy

Colin McGinn has positioned himself as leader of the C.R.A.P. movement (er, pardon the pun), that is, the Campaign for Renaming Academic Philosophy. His suggested new moniker: “Ontics,” which he defines as “the study of the fundamental nature of what is – being.” I was alerted to this post by philosopher Graham Harman, who offers his not uncertain no, thank you, to McGinn. But I have to say McGinn’s suggestion is, well, suggestive. What should we make of it?

First, it may come as a shock to all those included by his “we” – i.e., academic philosophers – that what “we” do is study the fundamental nature of what is, i.e, being. It seems to me that anyone in academic philosophy not named Colin McGinn would know that the study of the fundamental nature of what is, i.e., being, is traditionally called metaphysics, and metaphysics as been anathema to academic philosophers, both continental and analytic alike, post-Hegel, and only very recently has been making something of a come-back (as it always will, by the way; Gilson said that philosophy – which is metaphysics – always buries its undertakers). So my first point is this: if McGinn is right about what academic philosophers are generally doing, then I say in this respect hallelujah! It’s about time. As a proponent of studying the basic nature of what is, i.e., being; i.e., as a proponent of metaphysics, I am heartened by this self-description of what “we” do. Here’s hoping McGinn is right.

Second, McGinn doesn’t address this directly but perhaps he does not want to call academic philosophy “metaphysics” because he worries that the term “metaphysics” has the lexical connotation of “beyond the physical” and he doesn’t want what “we” do mixed up with the stuff you’ll find in the “metaphysics” section of your local Barnes and Noble (if you still have one). That’s a genuine concern. However, if the fundamental nature of what is, i.e., being, is purely material or can only be considered on the basis of materialism, then the study of the fundamental nature of what is, i.e., being, is completely covered by physics.  To put it in old-school language, on this view metaphysics is physics. This is a widely held position (prejudice, really), and it is one of the reasons metaphysics fell into disrepute – there would be nothing for it to do. I don’t know McGinn’s work to be able to comment on it, but I am guessing from this piece he sees a difference between “ontics” and physics (as would I, as would any old-school metaphysician). So I would also want endorse the idea that there would be something for “ontics” to do, and that physics is not metaphysics.

Third, McGinn objects to philosophy’s being housed in academia under arts and humanities, both of which to him have to do with the study of human culture. He says,

Metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, philosophy of physics and so on deal not with human culture but with the natural world. We deal with the same things the sciences deal with — the world beyond human culture. To classify philosophy as one of the “humanities” is grossly misleading — it isn’t even much about the human.

I am also in agreement that metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of physics are not (or are not fundamentally) determined by “human culture,” if there is one such thing, and certainly ought not to be thought of as purely culturally relative. There is a drive to universality in these pursuits, just as there is in physics, math, and biology, for instances. Some commentators on McGinn’s piece took him to task on this point, saying (the obvious truth) that both metaphysics and physics are cultural productions and that cultures are real things. Neither of these truths touch on McGinn’s point, which is that philosophy is studying what is (and not just what we say) and he believes that a systematically organized body of knowledge has been generated over time as a result of this study, and this is what it means to be a science. Thus, philosophy is a science on his view. In one sense, this is indisputable. There is a body of knowledge that one can learn and be certified to have learned. This would include the history of what has gone on under the name philosophy, its practitioners and their ideas, terminology, arguments, etc. However, it is not obvious that there is a systematically organized body of knowledge that has been making a kind of progress over time, as we see in physics, chemistry, and biology. McGinn’s critics would be right to press him on this. Now, it may not be a devastating criticism of philosophy that it does not make progress in the same way as the natural science – see a piece by John Lachs on the matter here – but perhaps this is a warning not to hitch philosophy’s (or “ontic’s”) wagon too exclusively to science’s star.

So why does McGinn suggest a name change? Literally, philosophy means “love of wisdom.” He wonders whether this enough of a description to determine a field of inquiry. He asks rhetorically whether we should not assume that everyone in an educational institution is a lover of wisdom. And he also wonders if by “wisdom” we mean something like practical advice for living. If so, this is not usually the work-product of the academic philosopher (McGinn excepts ethics and political philosophy, but even there these days practical advice is rarely offered, making ethics and political philosophy more like sociology than what it once was). I think McGinn is right about this: academic philosophers are not at all interested in wisdom in this sense.  To that I say: too bad for “us”.

Or let me broaden my lament. I don’t think education in general is interested in wisdom, however much it may pay it lip service. It is interested in occupational competence, technological prowess, and economic relevance, but not in wisdom. On the contrary, the watchword is “value free science.” Who are “we” to teach ethics? And we don’t. We teach about ethics, as if we were sociologists or literary critics and not traditional philosophers interested in the Good. When we grade students in an ethics course, do we grade them on how good they’ve become? No, of course not. We wouldn’t dare. We grade them on how much they know about what others have said about ethics and how well they piece together an argument without regard to its conclusion. And this points to the function of education generally: certification. We are interested in what we can certify, in what we can give a grade for. Philosophy – in the sense that McGinn says is not what “we” do – is not something that can be certified and graded. How would we certify or grade either “love” or “wisdom”? We can’t and don’t. If philosophy, in this sense, is not the sort of thing that can be certified and graded, then McGinn is right that we ought not to be advertising that philosophy is our offering. It really ought to be called something else, perhaps “ontics.”

But if we cannot legitimately explore in an academic setting how it is best for us to be (knowing which would constitute the highest wisdom), then where should we explore it? Where is wisdom to be found? Not in an academic philosophy department, to be sure. But where…?

Actually, the problem is inherent to philosophy itself. A distinction might be kept in mind between the presocratic philosophers and their lineage (so to speak), on the one hand, and Socrates and his lineage, on the other. The presocratic philosophers were, in effect, proto-scientists attempting to move beyond the myths to find explanations of the physical world by way of observation (Thales, for instance) and experimentation (Anaximenes, for instance), who sought rational explanations that might even be at odds with perception and common sense (Pythagoras and Parmenides, for examples). Socrates, on the other hand, was interested in understanding how it is best for human beings to be. He did not find materialist explanations sufficient (consider his disappointment with Anaxogoras as reported in the Phaedo). The presocratic line is of the sort that can be legitimately taught and certified, but the Socratic line is much trickier, if not impossible to institutionalize. In fact, it is inherently destabilizing of institutions. It is all about the dangerous question, and not about a growing organized body of knowledge.

Of course, this is just a rough distinction offered to make a point; reality is, as it always is, more complicated. Socrates, in order to know how it is best for humans to be, had also to be interested in how it was best for anything at all to be.  And in which group would one place Aristotle? On the one hand, much of what he studied is still studied by modern natural science (which was, in fact, built on his foundations, at least initially). On the other hand, in the Nicomachean Ethics he reminds students that the point is not to know about the Good but to be good – not the sort of thing we’re comfortable grading. Aristotle says of his own work in Book II chapter 2:

the present inquiry does not aim at theoretical knowledge like the others (for we are inquiring not in order to know what virtue is, but in order to become good, since otherwise our inquiry would have been of no use).

Now we have more of a dilemma. Aristotle is saying that just knowing about the good is of no use! One could conclude, then, that what goes on in academic philosophy courses in terms of ethics is useless. Food for thought, anyway, but the point is that wisdom would be knowing how to be good, and not just about what the good is in a “theoretical” sense, and so academic philosophy is not about wisdom.

At this juncture, one could ask: should we rename academic philosophy for reasons of truth in advertising, or should we remake academic philosophy such that it is actually philosophical?

McGinn wouldn’t like this question, and he thinks that calling what “we” do “Ontics” would get us out of this jam once and for all. He writes:

…“ontics” will certainly not be confused with “philosophy” in the vernacular sense — so no more of that tedious linguistic wrangling about what a “philosopher” is or should be.

We can then leave the word “philosophy” to those practical sages, reputable or disreputable, that tell people how best to live, proudly calling ourselves by a name far more appropriate to what we actually do.

Maybe. I’m interested to how Graham Harman would define philosophy, whether he sees it as the “advice giving” enterprise McGinn wants reserve for that title or as something else. Harman’s blog entry just insists that philosophy is not a science, without saying what he means by that. I would say there is an organized body of knowledge about philosophy, that is, there is a “science” of philosophy. But just as, although there is a science of nature, nature is not a science, so too philosophy is not a science. Or, as I like to put it, philosophy is not an academic discipline like physics or biology is an academic discipline. The discipline we call “philosophy” is mainly about philosophy without being philosophy, just like the discipline called “ethics” is not inherently ethical, nor are ethics professors inherently ethical, or more ethical than others.

I find myself very much interested in undisciplined philosophy. Academic philosophy is certifiable – and where I come from to call someone “certifiable” is to call him crazy. There is a certain insanity in academic rationalism, with all its testing, grading, tenuring, border-patrolling, legalistic legitimizing, and certifying. Now, hey, I’m all for a little craziness now and then myself. But there is also a kind of sanity and reasonableness that comes only from the uncertifiable, anarchic, undisciplined way of living a life that has always been called philosophical. Many of those “we” study couldn’t and still wouldn’t get academic jobs – they wouldn’t get past the gatekeepers. We take up their thoughts, cauterize them (close the wound that gave rise to them), sanitize them, standardize them, embalm them, and plug them into our scientific discipline called “philosophy”? What have we lost of the living philosophy? One wonders….

I’ll close with this: I am all for doing “ontics” (I’m happy just to keep calling it metaphysics, though) in a rigorous, systematic, and even academic manner (so long as we keep loose or porous borders). But philosophy has always, in part but fundamentally, had itself as an object of inquiry. McGinn wants to put a stop to that, it seems. I believe that way lies hybris.

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“Nothing can be reduced to anything else…”

From Bruno Latour:

I taught at Gray in the French provinces for a year.  At the end of the winter of 1972, on the road from Dijon to gray, I was forced to stop, brought to my senses after an overdose of reductionism.  A Christian loves a God who is capable of reducing the world to himself because he created it.  A Catholic confines the world to the history of the Roman salvation.  An astronomer looks for the origins of the universe by deducing its evolution from the Big Bang.  A mathematician seeks axioms that imply all the others as corollaries and consequences.  A philosopher hopes to find the radical foundation which makes all the rest epiphenomenal.  A Hegelian wishes to squeeze from events something already inherent in them.  A Kantian reduces things to grains of dust and then reassembles them with synthetic a-priori judgments that are as fecund as a mule.  A French engineer attributes potency to calculations, though these come from the practice of an old-boy network.  An administrator never tires of looking for officers, followers, and subjects.  An intellectual strives to make the “simple” practices and opinions of the vulgar explicit and conscious.  A son of the bourgeoisie sees the simple stages of an abstract cycle of wealth in the vine growers, cellarmen, and bookkeepers.  A Westerner never tires of shrinking the evolution of species and empires to Cleopatra’s nose, Achilles’ heel, and Nelson’s blind eye.  A writer tries to recreate daily life and imitate nature.  A painter is obsessed by the desire to render feelings into colors.  A follower of Roland Barthes tries to turn everything not only into texts but into signifiers alone.  A man likes to use the term “he” in place of humanity.  A militant hopes that revolution will wrench the future from the past.  A philosopher sharpens the “epistemological break” to guillotine those who have not yet “found the sure path of a science.”  An alchemist would like to hold the philosopher’s stone in his hand.

To put everything into nothing, to deduce everything from almost nothing, to put into hierarchies, to command and to obey, to be profound or superior, to collect objects and force them into a tiny space, whether they be subjects, signifiers, classes, Gods, axioms—to have for companions, like those of my caste, only the Dragon of Nothingness and the Dragon of Totality.  Tired and weary, suddenly I felt that everything was still left out.  Christian, philosopher, intellectual, bourgeois, male, provincial, and French, I decided to make space and allow the things which I spoke about the room that they needed to “stand at arm’s length.”  I knew nothing, then, of what I am writing now but simply repeated to myself:  “Nothing can be reduced to anything else, nothing can be deduced from anything else, everything may be allied to everything else.”  This was like an exorcism that defeated demons one by one.  It was a wintry sky, and a very  blue.  I no longer needed to prop it up with a cosmology, put it in a picture, render it in writing, measure it in a meteorological article, or place it on a Titan to prevent it falling on my head.  I added it to other skies in other places and reduced none of them to it, and it to none of them.  It “stood at arm’s length,” fled, and established itself where it alone defined its place and its aims, neither knowable nor unknowable.  It and me, them and us, we mutually define ourselves.  And for the first time in my life I saw things unreduced and set free.

From “Irreductions” in The Pasteurization of France, pp, 162-163. [1988]

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Caputo on Žižek and Milbank

If you are one of those people for whom these kinds of things matter, you will want to check out Jack Caputo’s review of The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? by Slavoj Žižek and John Milbank.  If you are not familiar with the work of either Žižek or Milbank, perhaps this is not a bad (if critical) introductions to some basic ideas in their work.  To simplify, both thinkers in this book are taking the thought of G.W.F. Hegel as their starting point and “materialism” as their main concern [and not Jesus, btw…].  Žižek is pro-Hegel and Milbank is anti-Hegel, but, as Caputo shows, their “Hegel” is probably not the one you can find in, say, Hegel…or at least not in the standard readings of Hegel.  Žižek uses Hegel to argue for a radical materialism; Milbank argues against Hegel in favor of a materialism supported, instead, by the apparatus of the metaphysics of analogy [and here] of St. Thomas Aquinas.  So this is the question posed in the title of the book:  Does Hegel’s dialectic lead to a nihilistic dead end that is upended by the paradox of a God-made-man (Milbank)? Or, does Hegel’s dialectic demand the conclusion that God (divinity) died on the Cross, leaving us with no choice but a fully-demythologized materialistic view?  Caputo’s review lays this all out nicely.

Caputo’s estimation of all this?  He finds neither Žižek nor Milbank to be really interested in matter…i.e, matter doesn’t really matter for them.  Milbank denigrates matter by seeing it as a moment or a stage to be passed through on the way to the resurrected body (which, if matter, is no matter we’re familiar with)—his not-so-radical orthodoxy.  For Žižek, it is not so much matter that matters but our ability to embrace our fantasies and to give ourselves over to a Cause even though we know there is nothing more to what is than matter, despite the utter despair this produces.  The “matter” that matters to Žižek is “spectral” or virtual matter that is the result of our pursuit of desires, fantasies, causes.

In the end, Caputo thinks this debate on matter doesn’t really matter at all.  Why be forced to choose if presented by a false dilemma?

Why do we need the notion that at the metaphysical base of things there lies either a primordial peace or a primordial violence — or a primordial anything, at least one that we could ever get our hands on? Why do the multiple repetitions of which our lives are woven need to be cast either as a downbeat and futile search that will be always frustrated or as underwritten by an uplifting metaphysics of participation? Why inscribe either absolute contradiction or absolute peace at the heart of things instead of ambience and ambiguity? Why chaos instead of the unsteady chaosmotic process of unprogrammed becoming? Why not see life as a joyful but risky business that may turn out well or badly, a repetition forwards in which I produce what I am repeating, in which I invent what I am discovering, but in which I am divested of any assurances about what lies up ahead — let alone deep down at the metaphysical base of things? Žižek’s notion of the contingency of necessity is close to this insight, but he insists on treating the Deep Trauma like some Metaphysical Meteor that cratered downtown Ljubljana. Is this not just the search for a transcendental signifier all over again? Why do we have to believe that something deep is out there but alas it is lost and we are hopelessly searching for it?…

Why not adopt the post-metaphysical idea that gives up searching for all such primordial underlying somethings or other? Why must we posit either a primordial loss or a primordial gain? Is there some reason we get only two choices, either God as an illusion spun by the objet petit a or God as the Alpha and Omega, the really real and really Big A? Is this not simply metaphysics spinning its wheels all over again, a point Milbank supports when he says neither of these views can be proven (153)? All that is truly given is a promise/risk, what Derrida calls a “perhaps” not reducible to one or the other. Why must we believe that underneath it all is something profoundly productive or destructive? Why not simply confess that the “matter” that really matters is the risky matter of life, life marked by an unknowable and fundamental undecidability, an ineradicable secret or mystery which reminds us that we do not know who we are, that we do not know what is (deeply) what or what we truly want, yet to make this confession without nostalgia and without despair and without theological triumphalism but with a joyful sense of discovery?

To put this set of questions my own way:  Why not try to feel our way through [phronesis] that space between idolatry (a set-in-stone guarantee that it will all work out in the end and I know what “work out” means precisely; i.e., that I know God as the god-that-I-know, and the god-that-I-know is the One True God) and foolishness (that nothing matters, not even matter, and that what is is just what I say and nothing more, i.e., nothing more than nothing at all)?

My only reservations with Caputo’s review is the tendency that bubbles up here and there of the pot calling the kettle black.  Caputo doesn’t like Žižek’s nasty criticism of Derrida (whom Caputo loves), but then lays into G.K. Chesterton in a manner equally unfair—he “mocks mercilessly,” just as Žižek does Derrida.  Sometimes Caputo himself has, in his own words directed at Milbank, “a disturbing and dogmatic theological dismissiveness of anyone who disagrees with him.”  I risk this comment under the dictum, “he without sin cast the first stone….”  We all do this, I suppose.  But I do want to point out that Caputo’s is not the only (or best) way to read Chesterton….

I prefaced this review-of-a-review with a qualifier:  If you are one of those people for whom these kinds of things matter….  You don’t have to be.  As Caputo asks:

Does anyone really think the Sermon on the Mount has anything to do with any of this bombastic metaphysical tilting and jousting?

Jack’s message is this:  The matter that really matters is the flesh of your neighbor.  Just go take care of it….

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Peter Hallward on Badiou’s “Logic of Worlds”

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