F. Metaphysics: 1st Extract
The Ultimate Nature of Things
What the metaphysician seeks is nothing less than a definition of reality. We are concerned with the world as a whole, and equally with the essential elements that go together to make a world. Now, one can define something in the sense of explaining the meaning of a term, and also in the sense of defining the limits of a territory, just as a particular colour might represent a country on a map. So we are concerned with the meaning of the terms 'reality', 'real', 'world', 'thing' and also with the limits of all that is real, the totality of all the things there are. Yet such notions as defining a term or a territory are too abstract as they stand to convey any useful information. They do not yet give any sense of the interest that such a project might have. We are not lexicographers, seeking to chart how certain terms are used. We are concerned with the nature and extent of whatever it is that the words 'reality' or 'world' refer to. At the same time, every branch of human knowledge, it must be said, is concerned with the 'geography' of some aspect of reality, everything one might study can be thought of as existing within its own territory, as having its own unique place in the scheme of things. The question is, What could it possibly mean to seek out reality itself as a totality, apart from its myriad aspects? In what sense could the world as such be said to have its 'own unique place in the scheme of things'?
Anyone looking for an answer to these questions in the etymology of the term 'metaphysics' is liable to be initially disappointed. The Greek phrase meta ta phusika, was originally no more than a classification coined by the librarians at the ancient library at Alexandria that referred to a certain collection of Aristotle's works which they chose to place on the shelves 'after' his Physics. There is no record of the principle of classification. (For all we know, it might have been by the date of authorship, or the size of the parchment rolls.) Aristotle himself, in the works known as the Metaphysics, describes the enquiry he is engaged in variously as 'first philosophy', or 'theology', or the definition of 'being qua being'. If the Alexandrian librarians had meant to classify according to the contents of the works, then they must have thought that such topics were, logically, the next thing one would inquire into after inquiring into physics. That would hardly seem to justify the picture that 'above and beyond the physical' creates in the minds of those who come across the term 'metaphysics' outside the context of academic philosophy.
On second thoughts, perhaps we should not allow our enthusiasm to be so quickly deflated by such a pedantic observation. Is not the prospect of exploring beyond the physical beyond our mundane relations to things precisely what excites and nourishes our continuing fascination with the subject?
When poetry, art and religion have ceased wholly to interest, or when they show no longer any tendency to struggle with ultimate problems and to come to an understanding with them; when the sense of mystery and enchantment no longer draws the mind to wander aimlessly and to love it knows not what; when, in short, twilight has no charm then metaphysics will be worthless.
F.H. Bradley Appearance and Reality Introduction.
The sober point to make against the popular understanding of metaphysics is that the study of 'ultimate problems' is quite different from super-physics, the attempt to discover truths about the physical world by pure unaided thought; and different again from para-physics, which (for those who are convinced by its claims) is concerned with such mundane phenomena as water divining, telepathy and spoon bending. For those students of philosophy initiated into its mysteries, metaphysical inquiry yields prospects far stranger and more enthralling than either of these.
Here then is a more concrete, though rather more controversial characterisation of the object of metaphysical inquiry. The essential move of metaphysics the thing that sets it apart from every other form of knowledge or inquiry lies in an attitude of radical doubt or bewilderment in the face of the very existence of the world. The infant's desperate cry for its mother already contains the seed of doubt that will eventually put the world itself into question. That primordial, temporary but necessary separation from what nurtures and protects us is what first allows room for the fatal question mark to slip silently into human consciousness, a question that is no mere abstract idea, but something that will prove urgent and practical: our very sense of what is real. The metaphysical attitude is indeed no mere trick or habit we pick up from pursuing the academic study of philosophy; it is in our nature. One of the first lessons we learn is how to be metaphysicians.
Metaphysics is essentially transcendent. In attempting to break free from our immersion in mundane things, however, as metaphysicians have traditionally sought to do, the contemporary metaphysician no longer seeks a world of absolutes purer, fairer, more 'necessary' than the transient world of phenomena but merely to increase the angle of view on our own world. 'Defining reality' in this relatively modest sense means stepping outside the mundane world (just one step would be enough) in order to grasp it synoptically as a world, a reality, something that mind, or the 'I' stands in relation to. Yet even one step might be thought by those who remain sceptical about the very possibility of metaphysics as a step too far. For, in accounting for the possibility of thought concerning the world as it appears to us, or concerning all that is the case in effect, determining the limits of mundane thinking it seems that one must find the far, no less than the near side of that limit 'thinkable'. But how can one think at all outside the very limits of thinking?
Yet the tendency represented by...[man's] impulse to run up against the limits of language...points to something. St Augustine already knew this when he said: What, you wretch, so you want to avoid talking nonsense? Talk some nonsense, it makes no difference!
L. Wittgenstein 'On Heidegger' (From notes dictated to Waismann).
What kind of talk is that? How can it ever be meant? We are not using language to describe, say, the relation between one mundane thing ('man') and another ('the universe'), nor analysing the conditions under which there exists something to be described. Nor, failing that, are we merely giving vent to the symptoms of some philosophical illusion. What other alternative is there? The possibility of metaphysics resolves into the question: is there any topic that is not mundane? Is there any thinking that is not mundane thinking?
There is an equally serious worry. If the subject matter of metaphysics is not reducible to mundane, empirical knowledge then it seems we are cut off from any appeal to empirical facts to support our theories. Divine inspiration is clearly not a source of knowledge one can appeal to within the context of a philosophical inquiry. Yet it seems we must at the same time resist at all costs the temptation to indulge in empty speculation:
I have prescribed to myself the maxim, that in this kind of investigation it is in no wise permissible to hold opinions. Everything, therefore, which bears any manner of resemblance to an hypothesis is to be treated as contraband; it is not to be put up for sale even at the lowest price, but forthwith confiscated, immediately upon detection.
I. Kant Critique of Pure Reason Preface to First Edition.
Our aim is to construct, by means of rational argument, a ladder of philosophical propositions that will, in some manner, bring into clear view the very limits of the mundane world. Even putting aside the worry about how language could continue to function under such circumstances, we still have the problem of where to begin. But to that problem, there is, strictly speaking, no solution. Every starting point is an assumption, 'an hypothesis'; nor is there any serious hope of making a genuine beginning that is to say, grounding a system of metaphysics without starting somewhere.
In the face of the strict impossibility of building from the foundations up, the method of negative dialectic serves as a workable makeshift. When nowhere is the right place to start, our only recourse is to start anywhere, framing provisional hypotheses purely for the sake of rejecting them, and thus gaining knowledge from that negation. Put simply, the hope is that through successive rebounds from one partial or distorted view to another, we might with luck succeed in approaching somewhere near our destination. Of course, there is no guarantee of success. One could remain on the rebound forever (like the fly that Wittgenstein sought to lead out of the fly bottle). Worse, even if one happened to stumble on 'the truth' (supposing there to be just one), there are no special marks to distinguish it as the one view that will never be refuted. Then we must give up that false ideal and adopt instead a pragmatic attitude: our current position is simply what seems to work best for us now; the latest step along a path (it will always appear the decisive step), a path whose end we shall never literally see.