Monday, 10 August 2009

metaphysics 0.101

How is it that metaphysical debates get generated and sustained? Here's my abstract grasp of the essential character of metaphysical thought.

...I'm aware of how ridiculous that sounds, of course. Let's put it more modestly: here's my abstract grasp of the essential character of whatever fits the forthcoming characterisation...

Using the conceptual resources of some particular 'discourse' or 'language game' we can raise empirical questions regarding the viability of some or other judgement regarding an instance of it's subject matter. I say "Katie seems sad", but you question my grounds for saying this, and I come to see that I had jumped to a premature conclusion. In fact she was crying out of relief, ecstacy, or boredom.

But now a certain doubt strikes us - not regarding the viability of some particular judgement, but of the whole discourse in its truth-stating deployments. Not: how do I know I was right about Katie? But rather: how do I know that I am ever right about what people think or feel?

With that kind of sceptical doubt in place, we all too readily find ourselves imagining that we now need to find a way of holding up this language-game against reality. To find some vantage point from which the moves made within the game can be shown - or shown not - to tally in toto with the facts about the thoughts and feelings of others.

This leads us, then, quickly to a position called 'Realism'. Realism wants to tell us that it not only makes sense to talk of particular judgements corresponding to the facts (or not), but also makes sense to discuss whether an entire domain of discourse corresponds to the nature of reality. Not just: is this judgement made using this concept a good one, but: are these concepts themselves good ones - do they 'pick out' (or whatever other dead metaphor you prefer) anything 'real' in 'reality'? (That's right - you also have to be prepared to talk not just about regular things like tables and cats, and how solid or furry they are, but also now about some super-thing called 'reality' which too is thought to have some or other character.)

We struggle with this for a while, and find it hard to occupy any vantage point that doesn't tacitly presuppose, for any affirmative answer, our entitlement to the conceptual resources which are here being sceptically questioned. By accepting the Realist's answer we seem to have unwittingly preserved our ontology (if you like) at the expense of our epistemology. We find ourselves attracted to phrases like 'mind-independent reality' but simultaneously at an anxious epistemic remove from precisely that reality.

So perhaps we oscillate into another position - lets call it 'Constructionism'.

As a Constructionist we find ourselves wanting to reject Realism's epistemic immodesty. Rather than attempt to answer our question by reference to the world, we instead try to answer it by reference to the discourse itself. What I, or what we, say or think determines the answer to the sceptical question. So, there 'really are' cows because we speak of cows. And so on. Language or thought determines the nature of reality. Oh, no, we don't mean to say... er... anything too drastic ... er, transcendental idealism all comes good in the end ... er... Or does it? Haven't we now substituted ontological immodesty (now we're world-makers) for epistemological immodesty (claiming to know stuff that we don't seem to be able to reflectively accommodate within the Realist worldview)?

As I see it, metaphysics is all-too-often the practice of jumping on to this see-saw of Realism and Constructionism, of trying to load the weight all on one side, of hoping that if we manage this well enough we can get it to touch the ground of both our epistemological and our ontological needs. But accept the sceptical question, and the game never ends.

How to dismount the see-saw? Well, we find ways to reject the sceptical question in good faith. For example, we remind ourselves with Ryle that 'existence' is not a generic word, but one tied to the logical space opened up by some particular discourse. From within the sceptical fantasy we imagine ourselves and our language games standing over against some super-thing called 'reality'. But 'reality', 'existence' and the like tend to be philosophical hypostasisations of perfectly good existential terms which have their scope of application individually set by the rules of the diverse language-games which deploy them. Or - another example which takes us away from hypostasising generalisations - we remind ourselves with Wittgenstein of the 'paradigm case' character of deployments of particular terms. So that it just isn't clear what is being asked when someone says, in the vicinity of a ripe tomato, 'Yes, but does 'redness' really exist?' Because to be red is to be just like that tomato, and so on.

So yes, we use such particularising examples to help to free us from the metaphysical impulse. We also develop, perhaps this time with Austin, a less tinny ear when it comes to spotting the philosopher's (the philosopher-inside-us's) decontextualised (and thereby de-meaning-alised) uses of terms such as 'reality' and 'appearance'. With Wittgenstein we 'bring words back to their everyday use'. But more than this, we need to keep a handle too on our diagnostic formulations. We have an account of how the sceptic has unwittingly alienated themselves from the world, or from the mentality of others, before they even ask their question, and of how their question bears the logical traces of this alienation, an alienation which is now inscribed in the question's every iteration.

I would like to add one further suggestion, this time lifted from psychoanalysis. It might be thought that neurotic defences are typically and for-the-most-part deployed against the real anxieties that confront us in the midst of our lives - managing our relationships, illness, injury, death, work, etc. And as a result we inhabit a phantasy land in which the mind tries to narcisistically ground itself within itself - to (impossibly) be an other to itself, rather than rely on the vicissitudes of the availability of the love of others, or of meaningful employment. To generate a phantasy object which then gets treated like a real object (compare what Wittgenstein's private linguist tries to do - how he tries to get real normativity out of imagined normativity) within the mind, which can now stand (it is fruitlessly imagined) as something to which the mind can be in relation - something which can ground its representations.

Well, that may sometimes be true. Life is hard. But what makes it much harder, what continually inspires the need for the further deployment of defences, is not so much - I believe - the original pains and fears of life. Rather it is the ongoing oscillation of the defence/anxiety cycle. For the phantasy objects that are narcissistically installed as if genuine others to thought are always threatening to reveal themselves in their fantasy status. And by inhabiting the domain of phantasy we become further estranged from whatever sources of love, reality contact, engaged work, there are in our lives. The defences, in other words, generate further anxiety. The cure becomes a poison.

The same, I believe, obtains in the metaphysical context. What sustains, and sometimes makes increasingly desperate, the metaphysical impulse is, I believe, the vicious cycle of metaphysics and scepticism itself. Once caught up within it, and responding to the needs of the sceptical questions, we find it hard to put it down. That would seem, from within the ambit of this metaphysical vortex, to amount to a capitulation to scepticism and a loss of the world.

In setting aside the metaphysical impulse, however, it is precisely the world that we find. (This, I believe, was what Wittgenstein was on about when he talked about looking for that which would enable him to give up 'philosophy' - i.e. not an expression of an anti-reflective impulse, but an expression of a desire to in good faith lay to rest his sojourns into the phantasy world of sceptical questions and metaphysical answers in endless symbiotic hock to one another.) Or to put it better - what we find are the diverse particulars that show up in the diverse byways of our days. To acknowledge that we need and can do nothing, cognitively, to hold on to these - that we cannot earn our worlds but must accept them as gifts, as instances of grace - now that is the real challenge. Can I tolerate relinquishing the phantasy that I could sustain myself if my world is taken from me?