Tuesday, March 11, 2014

On Being Against “Being Against Metaphysics”: The Case of Peter Hacker

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.

Joshua Harris holds an MA in Philosophy from Trinity Western University, where he defended a thesis exploring the possibility of understanding Thomas Aquinas as a mediator in contemporary debates arising from the so-called "analytic-continental divide" in the twentieth century. As a PhD candidate in Phlosophy at the Institute for Christian Studies, his research interests include philosophy of language, philosophical theology and Christian social thought.

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


  1. Thanks for the well-written post.

    For Geach, would it be fair to say that Truth is not created?

    1. Hi Jeff,

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, I think it would be fair to say that Truth is not created, according to Geach. Here's a link to the full article from which the block quote above is drawn, if you're interested:


  2. A very enjoyable post Josh. What stands out for me is '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.'

    That leaves me wondering two things. First, could you expand a little on what you mean by "somehow determinative of the world we inhabit"?

    Second, why do you feel that could nothing be worse? What do we, or you, get from the pursuit of transcendentals that can't be gotten by inquiring into the same areas sans metaphysical assumptions?


  3. Hi DZ, thanks for these questions. Here's a shot at each:

    1. By using the qualification "determinative of the world we inhabit," I want to avoid a subjectivism that is committed to something like the following: namely, that being, truth, etc. apply in the realm of "language" or the "mind", but not in "reality". I think this is actually quite a Wittgensteinian point to make.

    2. I think nothing could be worse for philosophy than to give up on the transcendentals for a lot of reasons. Let me name one that also covers your sub-question about inquiring "sans metaphysical assumptions." It'd go something like this: if philosophers and theologians do not provide serious discourse on these topics, *someone will* provide unserious discourse about them. For example, few who are engaged in serious discussion about truth would say that "what is true" is synonymous with "what is revealed by the latest results in the empirical sciences (which usually means physics, at day's end)"--or, even more crudely, "what makes money." Yet I submit that these unserious positions find their way into the common sense of our neighbors.

    My point is that words like 'is', 'true', 'good' and 'beautiful' are words that, if their meanings are lost or abandoned, will be co-opted by someone somewhere for some purpose. They don't go away, and so in my mind the philosopher takes it upon herself to befriend them.

    1. Hi Josh, thanks for the post!

      One clarification on your second point above. You say "few who are engaged in serious discussion about truth would say that 'what is true' is synonymous with 'what is revealed by the latest results in the empirical sciences,'" singling out physics as a good example, and you call this an "unserious" position. Are you making the smaller claim that not *all* truth can be found in the empirical sciences (such as physics) or are you making the larger claim that empirical science can not really show us truth--that "truth" is reserved for fields like philosophy and theology?

      I am all about not confining truth simply to the empirical sciences, but I wouldn't want to exclude truth from them either. Different disciplines have different ways of engaging in the search for truth. Of course it is true (pun intended) that sometimes the things we have taken for truth in science are later proved false or are called into question. We are finite creatures, and our ability to perceive, experience, and formulate understanding is rooted in our embodied, finite nature. Sometimes we will understand ourselves, the world, concepts, and relationships poorly. That is hardly reason to give up a concept of truth, though-yes? For our same finite nature and understanding will be operative when we look for truth by philosophical or theological means.

      Perhaps it best to ask, what do you mean when you say truth?

  4. Thanks Josh. What's wrong with engaging what you call "subjectivism"? The distinction between "mind" and "reality" is itself a metaphysical one, is it not? Sans metaphysics even the distinction "subjectivism" seems devoid of meaning to me.

    I made a similar claim about the risk of a descent into unseriousness in the "Building With a Borrowed Axe" thread, in response to the thought that we could get along fine without imagining a core source of authenticity deep within ourselves (the transcendental idea there being the "self"). I found the argument convincing, but only so far. By even making particular supposed practical consequences the main reason to not abandon metaphysics were are admitting that we have already abandoned metaphysics, aren't we?


  5. Thanks for the engagement, you guys.

    Allyson: I meant the first of the two positions you describe--that truth is not exhausted by the results of, say, the empirical sciences. That's what I was getting at with the idea of truth being 'synonymous' with what can be explained by such a methodology. Certainly I don't want to deny that the sciences disclose truths to us. As for *what truth means*, however, I am prepared to say that the empirical sciences aren't very useful. I'm not prepared to answer the big question, but I imagine Peter Geach's answer is pretty close to what I think.

    DZ: Sometimes formal arguments can make our positions clearer. Can you tell me what's wrong with the following argument, so that I can understand your position better?

    1. Philosophers should have reasoned inquiry about the meanings of their words when they speak/write.
    2. Philosophers (and everyone else, too) use the word 'being' and its conjugations.
    3. Metaphysics is reasoned inquiry about being (Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1003a).
    Therefore, Philosophers should do metaphysics.

    1. Oh, syllygism is the ante? Fine, I see your sillygism and raise you a tautology. Your own, in fact.

      [keep yer hand offa that pistol, Josh. this ain't that kind of card game.]


  6. Josh: Does Wittgenstein not worry that premise #2 in your syllogism is precisely the trap that our language sets up for us, thus imprisoning us in a picture that holds us captive? (I.e., the word 'being' looks like a noun, so it must be a name for a thing that we can talk about, and thus do a better or worse job of describing). Is thinking about Being in this way not precisely to forget Heidegger's ontological difference between Being and beings as well? My worry about metaphysics is that, although it starts out as an attempt to honour being as such, it ends up in an epistemological insistence on a mind-reality correspondence that, in its very attempt to honour an object's fundamental reality, ends up squeezing that reality into the bounds of the categories we use to describe it. Unlike Hacker, some reject metaphysics because they see it as a fundamentally violent and reductionistic enterprise. I want to defend the importance of speaking intelligently about all the things you want us to, but why presume that the metaphysical tradition in philosophy is the only arena where this takes place? Unless you are stipulatively redefining metaphysics as any sort of talk about big questions whatsoever. I take Hector's warning seriously: "...metaphysics can render one insensitive to actual experience, since the essence to which one's ideas supposedly correspond is defines as that fundamental reality which stands at a remove from experience" (Theology without Metaphysics: God, Language and the Spirit of Recognition, 11).

    1. These are good and important intuitions that I share, Ron. They lead me to different conclusions, though:

      RE: Wittgenstein, consider an example of two different metaphysical concepts of being. One is the analytic philosopher Peter van Inwagen's idea: namely, that all senses of 'is' or 'exists' can be captured in the existential quantifier (∃x), a logical operator that just means "more than zero". Then take another from Thomas Aquinas, that being and existence are divided into essentia and esse--the first being the "whatness" of a thing and the second its pre-theoretical "act of existence" given gratuitously by God. Those are two very different linguistic "forms of life," right? So Wittgenstein should at least grant that, in my view. But if he does, then we have some traction from which it's possible to engage one another as foreigners.

      RE: Heidegger, I would want to capture his early work at least under the banner of what I mean by metaphysics. Even after Sein und Zeit, Heidegger describes his work as such (I'm thinking of his 1928 Leibniz lecture, in which he wants to give a "metaphysics of truth"). In my view, the real problem with Heidegger is not his yearning for Sein (literally the definition of metaphysics given by Aristotle), but with his intellectual history. It's true that in modernity we have a forgetfulness of being, but it's just weird to think that this is *because* we do too much metaphysics. It's precisely because we don't do metaphysics that we forget about being.

      RE: metaphysics and experience, I would just say that if a particular metaphysics does a bad job explaining actual experience, then that should count against that particular metaphysics. In fact, something like what Hector describes is probably my primary reason for rejecting van Inwagen's mathematical account of being I talked about before. At the end of the day, I just have no idea what a purely "non-metaphysical" language would be.