Metaphysics

RAIG, EDWARD (1998). Metaphysics.
(In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved September 27, 2012, from http://www.rep.routledge.com/article/N095) Metaphysics is a broad area of philosophy marked out by two types of inquiry: 1. The most general investigation possible into the nature of reality: are there principles applying to everything that is real, to all that is?
if we abstract from the particular nature of existing things that which distinguishes them from each other, what can we know about them merely in virtue of the fact that they exist?
2. The uncovering of what is ultimately real, frequently offering answers in sharp contrast to our everyday experience of the world.
Understood in terms of these two questions, metaphysics is very closely related to ontology, which is usually taken to involve both ‘what is existence (being)?’ and ‘what (fundamentally distinct) types of thing exist?’.
Metaphysics is not a uniquely ‘Western’ phenomenon. Classical Indian philosophy, and especially Buddhism, is also a very rich source. The important subjects of metaphysics include inquiry of categories, properties, particulars, universals, substance, facts etc. and related underlying issues. These inquiries can hardly be isolated from those of the nature of being and existence.
Common sense percives existence in space and time. These two though somewhat elusive in their own nature, are further obvious candidates for being features of everything that exists. But that is controversial, and there is much debate about the existence of abstract objects. We commonly speak as if we thought that numbers exist, but not as if we thought that they have any spatio-temporal properties. Kant regarded his things-in-themselves as neither spatial nor temporal; and some have urged us to think of God in the same way. There are accounts of the mind which allow mental states to have temporal, but deny them spatial properties (Dualism). Be all this as it may, even if not literally everything, then virtually everything of which we have experience is in time. Temporality is therefore one of the phenomena that should be the subject of any investigation which aspires to maximum generality. Hence, so is change. In considering change, and asking the other typically metaphysical question about it (‘what is really going on when something changes?’) we are faced with two types of answer:
1. One type would have it that a change is an alteration in the properties of some enduring thing (Continuants).
2. The other would deny any such entity, holding instead that what we really have is merely a sequence of states, a sequence which shows enough internal coherence to make upon us the impression of one continuing thing (Buddhist doctrine of Momentariness).
The former will tend to promote ‘thing’ and ‘substance’ to the ranks of the most basic metaphysical categories; the latter will incline towards events and processes. It is here that questions about identity over time become acute, particularly in the special case of those continuants (or, perhaps, processes), which are persons. It is here that Jain phlosophy through Anekantvad has provided a way of reconcilation.
Two major historical tendencies in metaphysics have been idealism and materialism, the former presenting reality as ultimately mental or spiritual, the latter regarding it as wholly material (Buddhism, Yogācāra school of; Idealism; Materialism; Materialism in the philosophy of mind; Indian Monism; Phenomenalism). In proposing a single ultimate principle both are monistic. They have not had the field entirely to themselves. A minor competitor has been neutral monism, which takes mind and matter to be different manifestations of something in itself neither one nor the other (Neutral monism). More importantly, many metaphysical systems have been dualist, taking both to be fundamental, and neither to be a form of the other (see Sāmkhya). Both traditions are ancient. In modern times idealism received its most intensive treatment in the nineteenth century ( Absolute; German idealism). In the second half of the twentieth century, materialism has been in the ascendant. A doctrine is also found according to which all matter, without actually being mental in nature, has certain mental properties (see Panpsychism).
The relationship with metaphysics is, however, particularly close in the case of science and the philosophy of science. Aristotle seems to have understood his ‘first philosophy’ as continuous with what is now called his physics, and indeed it can be said that the more fundamental branches of natural science are a kind of metaphysics as it is characterized here. For they are typically concerned with the discovery of laws and entities that are completely general, in the sense that everything is composed of entities and obeys laws. The differences are primarily epistemological ones, the balance of a priori considerations and empirical detail used by scientists and philosophers in supporting their respective ontological claims. The subject matter of these claims can even sometimes coincide: during the 1980s the reality of possible worlds other than the actual one was maintained by a number of writers for a variety of reasons, some of them recognizably ‘scientific’, some recognizably ‘philosophical’. Everywhere in metaphysics there is a debate over whether claims should be given a realist or an antirealist interpretation (Realism and antirealism), in the philosophy of science we find a parallel controversy over the status of the entities featuring in scientific theories (Scientific realism and antirealism).
It is true that there has been considerable reluctance to acknowledge any such continuity. A principal source of this reluctance has been logical positivism, with its division of propositions into those which are empirically verifiable and meaningful, and those which are not so verifiable and are either analytic or meaningless, followed up by its equation of science with the former and metaphysics with the latter (Demarcation problem; Logical positivism; Meaning and verification). When combined with the belief that analytic truths record nothing about the world, but only about linguistic convention, this yields a total rejection of all metaphysics – let alone of any continuity with science. But apart from the fact that this line of thought requires acceptance of the principle about meaninglessness, it also makes a dubious epistemological assumption: that what we call science never uses non-empirical arguments, and that what we regard as metaphysics never draws on empirical premises. Enemies of obscurantism need not commit themselves to any of this; they can recognize the continuity between science and metaphysics without robbing anyone of the vocabulary in which to be rude about the more extravagant, ill-evidenced, even barely meaningful forms which, in the view of some, metaphysics has sometimes taken.
Even the philosopher with a low opinion of the prospects for traditional metaphysics can believe that there is a general framework which we in fact use for thinking about reality, and can undertake to describe and explore it. This project, which can claim an illustrious ancestor in Kant, has in the twentieth century sometimes been called descriptive metaphysics, though what it inquires into are our most general patterns of thought, and the nature of things themselves only indirectly, if at all. Though quite compatible with a low estimate of traditional metaphysics as defined by our two primary questions, it does imply that there is a small but fairly stable core of human thought for it to investigate. Hence it collides with the view of those who deny that there is any such thing (see Postmodernism).

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