Metaphysics, Validity of
METAPHYSICS, VALIDITY OF
The history of Western philosophy is one alternately marked by metaphysical and antimetaphysical currents of thought. Looking back on this history, one can discern certain patterns. Each time metaphysics reached a new crest, there set in a reaction against it—typified by the movements known as skepticism, empiricism, and fideism. After the apex of metaphysics reached by plato and Aristotle, scant progress was made in this area until the Middle Ages, when it was to flower once again. Then, toward the end of the Middle Ages, scholasticism became increasingly decadent, preparing the way for a new rejection of metaphysics in the modern epoch. This rejection has extended all the way into contemporary philosophy, and while its strength has dissipated, it continues as a strong movement.
The present article surveys the antimetaphysical trends promoted by influential philosophers from the late Middle Ages to the end of the modern period. A brief critique is given, followed by an appraisal of the contemporary status of the movement from the viewpoint of moderate realism.
Ockham. In the period of the decline of metaphysics and scholasticism, the Franciscan william of ockham is most representative among those who can be singled out as contributing to this decadence. Ockham under-standably rebelled against the picayune distinctions introduced into philosophy by an earlier confrere, John dunsscotus, the Subtle Doctor. The voluntarism of Duns Scotus presented a less favorable climate for the growth of metaphysics than did the intellectualism of St. thomas aquinas. In sharp reaction to the increasing complexities introduced in philosophy, Ockham formulated his famous principle of parsimony, popularly known as Ockham's razor: "Beings are not to be multiplied without necessity."
None could quarrel with the statement of the principle, only with its possible interpretation. Ockham interpreted it liberally and used it ruthlessly to eliminate many of the traditional distinctions of metaphysics (see distinction, kinds of). He accepted as real only those distinctions implying separability—a legacy whose error was continued by René Descartes. Previously acknowledged real distinctions, such as those between principles of being, Ockham placed in the category of logical distinctions. He thus turned over much of the subject matter of metaphysics to the science of logic. Ockham limited the use of demonstration so severely (denying, for example, that one can establish the spirituality and immortality of the human soul) that he became increasingly dependent upon faith for genuine certitude. Accepting only the reality of singulars, Ockham initiated also "the destruction of concrete universality" (É. H. Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages 492). Ockham's terminism further combined strong elements of nominalism and skepticism, both of which proved antithetical to metaphysics. Modern philosophy was to be strongly influenced by both.
Hobbes. Thomas hobbes, who was subjected to the Ockhamist influence at Oxford, was an early representative of empiricism in the modern era. Openly nominalistic and linguistically oriented, Hobbes was preoccupied with words. He explained away the universal idea as but a common name serving as a mark for memory or imagination. Accordingly, science could be defined as "a knowledge of all the consequences of names appertaining to the subject in hand" (Leviathan, 1.5). For Hobbes, reasoning differed from sensation only in degree. It could be explained as nothing more than the adding and subtracting of various names. Prepared to simplify all philosophy along the lines of mechanism, Hobbes needed but two principles—matter and motion. Only what could be subsumed under these two categories could lay claim to being real. Metaphysics was thereby ruled out of court, and the way was paved for accepting only the positive sciences as valid.
Berkeley. Definitely opposed to the mechanism and especially the materialism of Hobbes, but proceeding initially from empiricist principles, Bp. George berkeley also legislated against metaphysics. But to make his case, he had to eliminate the material world and the substances it purportedly contained. Exhibiting greater consistency than Locke, who accepted substance simply as an "I know not what" (Essay on Human Understanding, 2.23.2), Berkeley insisted that for all unthinking things, to be (esse ) is to be perceived (percipi ). A material thing, then, is but the sum of the ideas of its qualities. Consequently, things exist only in a mind—whether man's or God's. In denying the extramental status of the material world, Berkeley eliminated the need for abstraction— ideas being given to man in various sequences by God. Although he accepted the reality of spiritual substances and a "notional" knowledge of them, Berkeley's position on this point was soon to be refuted by Hume.
Hume. Briefly stated, the position of David hume can be described as follows: all genuine knowledge must have its validity tested by tracing it to primary impressions derived from experience. Now, in considering the nature of these impressions, one observes that they involve only phenomenal aspects. The same can be said of the knowledge that the agent possesses of himself. By what speculatively verifiable right, then, may one conclude to the reality of anything other than phenomena? Since man cannot trace the complex notions of substance or cause to corresponding sensory impressions, he cannot confirm their validity. Nevertheless, their practical utility is undeniable. It follows, then, that not only metaphysics and its substances are to be criticized as human pretensions, but all scientific (i.e., causal) knowledge as well.
Speculatively, only skepticism was tenable for Hume. Practically, however, he placed his trust in instinct, feeling that it would prevail over the impasse of speculative knowledge, thereby enabling man to continue living as he had in the past. Man could also turn to the vividness of certain impressions, if he wished to provide ground for the probable acceptance of an extraphenomenal world. It should be noted, though, that it would not be the real object itself that provided such probable grounds; rather it would be the way the impression of the object was present in the consciousness of the knower.
It is no exaggeration to state that Hume was the most consistent of the empiricists. He resolutely maintained that the image is the object of knowledge and exhibited no hesitancy in accepting the full consequences of the epistemological cul-de-sac into which this led. Hume succeeded in bringing empiricism to its irreducible base, allowing no semblance of metaphysics within it. After Hume's attack, many felt that the only way open for philosophical progress would be to commence along a different path. This trail, which also proved to be an anti-metaphysical one, was explored by Immanuel Kant.
Kant. Kant attempted to weld together the irreconcilable positions of Wolffian-Leibnizian rationalism and British empiricism. Never doubting the scientific validity of the universal and necessary (a Kantian heritage bequeathed by rationalism) or the requirement for experience as the only means by which one can progress in knowing (Kant's recent legacy from empiricism), the German thinker constructed a monumental synthesis based upon these twin presuppositions. That Kant met with a measure of success is an undeniable fact, but it is also undeniable that he accomplished this at the expense of metaphysics.
Kant berated the a priori metaphysics of rationalism as failing to provide for any new knowledge. He pointedly asked how it was that metaphysics, supposedly queen of the sciences, found herself without a court. In fact, not only her crown, but her claims to science as well were in jeopardy. Despite the strong criticism of Hume with respect to all scientific knowledge, Kant never seriously doubted the validity of mathematics and physics. But he always entertained suspicions about the scientific status of metaphysics, suspicions confirmed as a result of Hume's criticism. In order to solve the problem of Hume and at the same time provide for a philosophy of Newtonian science, Kant subjected philosophy to his own "Copernican Revolution." Henceforth, he would explain knowledge as revolving around the knower instead of around the object. This differed sharply from the more classical explanation of knowing as a reception of the form of the object in the matter of the knower. According to Kant, it would be more fruitful to proceed on the assumption that the matter of the object is received and the form is imposed upon it by the knower. Since the form confers intelligibility, and since this is due to the knower, "the understanding does not derive its laws (a priori) from, but prescribes them to, nature" (Prolegomena, 36). Because man cannot know until after he imposes the form upon the raw datum, it is literally impossible for him to know the thing in itself—the noumenon—the real world. "All the properties which constitute the intuition of a body belong merely to its appearance" (ibid. 13.2).
Whatever is transcendent, then, is unknowable and remains so always—for the knower cannot get "outside" himself. Yet man is capable of knowing the appearance of things through the forms of sensibility (i.e., space and time) or through the categories of understanding (i.e., quantity, relation, quality, and modality). The scientific validity of phenomenal knowledge is therefore preserved. Insofar as such knowledge involves the datum as well as the structure of the knower, scientific (i.e., synthetic a priori) propositions about phenomena can be constructed. Once this is seen, it becomes clear why Kant never asks "whether," but only "how," scientific propositions in physics and mathematics are possible.
With respect to metaphysics, however, the question is not "how" but "whether" such synthetic a priori propositions are possible. In Kant's mind, metaphysics answers the latter question by extravagantly proposing to transcend experience. This he strongly challenged, asserting that to do so is simply impossible. On the basis of his own epistemology, Kant was perfectly consistent. Yet he still had to explain the obvious and irrepressible tendencies of his predecessors to accept metaphysics as a science. Kant fully recognized this and claims to have laid bare its uncertain foundations. There are rooted in reason, he says, ideas of God, the world, and the soul. But these are purely formal and seek application to something "given" (to a matter) for content. But the matter they seek to join is not on the phenomenal side; it is on the noumenal level. Since man cannot reach this order, he will always be frustrated in such a quest. Nevertheless, because he has these ideals (which may help to give goals to science, and so serve as regulative principles), man can always be expected to engage in the fruitless attempt to transcend experience. Eventually, Kant permitted metaphysics the role of a critique of reason and conceded to it a moral value. But he was convinced in his own mind that he had buried, once and for all, its pretentious claims to being a science. Despite Kant's momentous efforts to bridge the gap between empiricism and rationalism, his philosophy paradoxically resulted in a dualism itself—a dualism of phenomena versus noumena, of appearance versus reality. It remained for G. W. F. hegel to complete the synthesis.
Hegel. If there is a principle that governs the philosophy of Hegel, it is that the real is rational and the rational is real. Given such a principle, there is no longer need sharply to separate the order of appearance from that of things-in-themselves. Appearance and reality amount to the same thing under two different names. The same may be said for logic and metaphysics—hence the cryptic description of Hegel's system as panlogism. Metaphysics, for Hegel, finally gives way to logic. His entire system develops dynamically according to the dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Two contradictories are sublated and in turn form a unity, preserving the worth of the old components, yet providing for the new. Thus the contradictories of being and nonbeing dialectically evolve into becoming. This system of absolute mind or absolute idealism was at once the culmination and the termination of modern philosophy in its attack upon metaphysics.
Critique. By and large, the rejection of metaphysics by the philosophers mentioned was an outgrowth of their epistemologies. None subscribed to the position of moderate realism, which holds that the universal, while formally in the mind, is fundamentally in the thing—that the mind knows the universal nature in the singular material thing (Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 1a, 84.7). All denied a genuine doctrine of intellectual abstraction, claiming either that the intellect is a constructive device or a refined sensory power. Such being the case, it is highly questionable whether the metaphysics rejected by these philosophers was the metaphysics of Aristotelian and Thomistic philosophy. Kant, for instance, had refuted Wolffian-Leibnizian metaphysics as a science of pure possibles, but he hardly administered the coup de grâce to traditional metaphysics.
There have even been some negative benefits accruing to Thomism by virtue of the critique established by modern philosophies. Among these is the existential reminder that metaphysics should proceed from an empirical base and concern itself with real being. It must curb the tendency to become excessively a priori. In short, traditional metaphysics has been forced to rethink its position—an exercise that must always be deemed as contributing to its health.
Contemporary Status. To a large extent, the anti-metaphysical trends in the contemporary period of philosophy follow the patterns of empiricism. Auguste comte sounded the clarion call for positivism by dismissing the theological and metaphysical as anachronisms in the past development of human thought. In his view, one no longer need view God as transcendent (theological) or as immanent (metaphysical); He has been wholly eliminated by science. The positive sciences, rather than metaphysics or theology, henceforth provide the rallying point for humanism in the new culture.
The neopositivists continue in this view and, indeed, even outdo Comte in their antimetaphysical bias (see logical positivism). The Vienna Circle (Wiener Kreis) of M. Schlick, R. Carnap, H. Feigl, and others declared open war on metaphysics. Abetted by linguistic analysis, they sought to prove that metaphysical statements are neither true nor false, but meaningless. At best, metaphysics reflects an emotive meaning or perhaps an aspiration (as Kant suggested), but it presents no cognitive meaning. Only the sciences can provide advances in genuine knowledge, a position known as scientism. Metaphysics either contents itself with tautologies (which are certain because they have no content) or with pseudopropositions (which are sentences having no means of verification).
Although some linguistic analysts are philosophically neutral, others—represented by such men as A. J. Ayer, Gilbert Ryle, and Anatole Rapoport—dogmatically refuse to accord cognitive meaning to metaphysical statements. With the scientific empiricists, they insist that in order for statements to be meaningful, they must meet the demands of the principle of verifiability. Basically, that principle requires that in order for a proposition to be factually meaningful, there must be ways of proving or disproving it. Those more moderate in their demands (such as Hans Reichenbach) grant degrees of probability as indicative of meaningful propositions. Ayer, however, does not grant even the possibility of proving or disproving the probability of God's existence. In his view, that there is or is not a God is not even a meaningful question, for there is no way of verifying or refuting it.
In attempting to clarify and refine the principle of verifiability, positivists hold for the necessity of deducing some experimental, experiential, or operational statement from a meaningful proposition. The metaphysician, of course, claims that this is not altogether fair, for it prejudices the case from the start, admitting for man only the attainment of empirical knowledge. One can also detect an element of pragmatism in this movement, for a "cash value" is always demanded of meaningful statements. Paraphrasing C. S. peirce and W. james on this point, "to be a difference, it must make a difference." Peirce, of course, would limit this principle to the area of science rather than broaden its application to all life situations as was attempted by James. In general, then, the contemporary period of neopositivism bears a markedly antispeculative attitude that positively and openly discriminates against metaphysics. It matters little whether the subspecies be logical positivism, scientific empiricism, linguistic analysis, or instrumentalism.
What these thinkers have in common is that they have become so enamored with modern science as to be unable to admit other perspectives. They tend to make the same demands for metaphysics as they do for the positive sciences. Although it is true that both areas produce scientific knowledge, it must be recognized that they do so differently. The positive sciences aim at prediction and the discovery of new truths on the basis of their hypotheses. Metaphysics is not concerned with this prediction and forecast of new phenomena, but rather with an under-standing of what is. Metaphysics possesses a domain all its own, untrespassed upon by the other particular sciences. It likewise possesses a peculiar methodology for dealing with this domain. Its material object is reality or being. Although all of the various sciences deal with being of one kind or another, none treats of what is proper to the formal object of metaphysics, i.e., a consideration of being insofar as it is being. Traditional metaphysics shows that the question "What pertains to the real precisely as real?" is indeed a meaningful question. That it has not been solved to the satisfaction of all is patent, but at the same time the various proposed answers to the question are indicative of its fertility. From the perspective of metaphysics, the history of philosophy is a search for the meaning of being. Some have claimed that "to be" is to exist after the manner of a phenomenon; others have said that "to be" is to be material; still others have said that "to be" is to be changing. The views on this point are inexhaustible. In short, it becomes increasingly clear that metaphysics, like a phoenix, continually rises out of its own ashes, for even an antimetaphysics itself constitutes a metaphysics.
See Also: causality; metaphysics; substance; universals.
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[g. f. kreyche]