by Joshua Harris
The science of metaphysics has been considered the noblest task of philosophers throughout a majority of the Western tradition. This special science, defined by Aristotle as an inquiry into “being qua being” or “being itself”, undergirds any imaginable account of the world and our place in it. Insofar as we use words like ‘is’ or ‘exists’, we are committing ourselves to some kind of metaphysics. These days, however, not everyone thinks doing metaphysics is a good idea.
Peter Hacker, renowned Oxford philosopher and author of an incredible multivolume commentary on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, recently penned a short article on the task of philosophy as a discipline. What do philosophers do? Or better, what should they be doing? Hacker answers both of these questions with a twofold thesis—one part negative, the other positive.
Hacker’s negative thesis is simple: whatever the task of philosophy is, it’s not metaphysics. He defines the content of metaphysics as “the essential, necessary features of all possible worlds” (an unhelpfully narrow definition, I think), then gives three reasons for thinking that it’s not good philosophy:
1. No progress in metaphysics: “[I]f it were the case, it would need a great deal of explaining to vindicate philosophy. For while physics has produced libraries of well established results (and chemistry and biology yet more libraries), we can look in vain for trustworthy books entitled Established Truths of Metaphysics or A Handbook of Philosophical Facts.
2. Metaphysics an unnecessary “add-on” to physics: “Moreover, there is more than an air of absurdity to the thought that chemists discover that water consists of H2O, and that philosophers then discover that this is not a contingent truth, but a necessary one; or that physicists discover that E=mc2, and meta-physicists then discover that this is true in all possible worlds.”
3. Metaphysics paradox-prone: “Finally, if we look at the kinds of results that meta-physicists do produce, it is evident that they are little more than paradox.”
Hacker then moves onto his positive thesis: philosophical problems are conceptual problems that do not “contribute to human knowledge of the world.” Although he gives many reasons supporting this position, again I cite three:
4. Philosophical problems are a priori: “The characteristic feature of philosophical problems is their non-empirical, a priori character: no scientific experiment can settle the question of whether the mind is the brain, what the meaning of a word is, whether human beings are responsible for their deeds (i.e. have free will), whether trees falling on uninhabited desert islands make any noise, what makes necessary truths necessary.”
5. Philosopher as sense police: “Philosophy patrols the borders between sense and nonsense; science determines what is empirically true and what is empirically false. What falsehood is for science, nonsense is for philosophy.”6. Philosophy begets healthy skepticism: “The study of philosophy cultivates a healthy scepticism about the moral opinions, political arguments and economic reasonings with which we are daily bombarded by ideologues, churchmen, politicians and economists.”
There is a lot that could be said about these critiques, but one thing in particular stands out: It’s simply not clear that metaphysics—returning to our definition of the science of “being qua being” or “being itself”—suffers from the faults Hacker ascribes to it. In fact, I submit that if we take a good look at Hacker’s criticisms of metaphysics, what we really get is a criticism of bad metaphysics. Even a cursory reading of a great metaphysician such as Thomas Aquinas reveals with intricate detail the manifold meanings of concepts (especially the great trascendentals such as being, truth and goodness). This is true to such an extent that a great commentator of Aquinas’ works, Cardinal Thomas Cajetan, remarks in his De Nominum Analogia, “[W]ithout an understanding of the doctrine of analogy [a linguistic concept, first and foremost] it is impossible to acquire a knowledge of metaphysics.” It’s no wonder, then, why the best philosophers associated with Hacker’s own “linguistic turn” of twentieth century (analytic and continental) philosophy find themselves coming back again to the great metaphysicians—in both deep agreement and disagreement, of course.
I recognize Hacker’s brilliance as both a leading Wittgenstein scholar and a philosopher in his own right. I also think his critique of contemporary “scientistic” strands of neuroscience is devastating. Yet I can’t help but think that Hacker falls victim to what is an unfortunate trend in contemporary philosophy: namely, the trend of “being against metaphysics.” Nothing could be worse, in my view, than abandoning the pursuit of the great “transcendental” concepts: being, unity, truth, goodness and beauty, among others, as somehow determinative of the world we inhabit. Pace Hacker, I submit that weighty topics like these are what philosophy—and metaphysics—is, really. I also submit that there probably isn’t as much disparity between Hacker’s Wittgensteinian philosophical motivations and the great metaphysicians as the Oxford don thinks. We should be for metaphysics for the same reason we should be for philosophy—to be vulnerable, creative and dedicated enough to do the hard work of telling the truth.
With that, allow me to conclude with some rather metaphysical thoughts from another great Wittgensteinian Peter Geach in an article entitled “Truth and God”:
Christ said that he was born and came into the world to bear witness to the Truth; unless in our small measure we too do that, we are worthless; our life has failed like a seed that never germinates. In comparison with this goal, how paltry it seems to devote oneself to the godling of some modern thinkers: a godling changeable, and ignorant, and liable just as we are to passions like anger and grief and excess of joy! I have not proved that the True is God, but I will worship nothing else: if the True is not God, there is no God.
First image of Plato and Aristotle in Rafaello Sanzio's The School of Athens circa 1509, public domain, used from http://bobandnellasworld.com/Italy%202009/Rome/RaphaelRms/RaphaelRms.html; second image used from http://www.kent.ac.uk/secl/philosophy/staff/hacker.html; third image used from http://www.philosophers.co.uk/; fourth image used from http://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/2013/12/peter-geach-1916-2013.html