Thursday, June 19, 2008

The possibility of metaphysics

The following was posted as a comment on a Philosophers Magazine Blog article entitled: What is Metaphysics?"

I had written the following note just before reading “What is Metaphysics?”. It is not therefore properly a comment, but still it is, I think, relevant.

Aristotle was not responsible for the introduction of the term ‘metaphysics’, yet he was responsible for the wrong direction the inquiry took and for all the misunderstandings that surrounded it. Aristotle was primarily a scientist: he wanted ‘correct’ answers to questions. Socrates had found that the investigation of the objective world of facts had nothing to do with or to say for the examination of values and ideals he was concerned with. He also found that questions not relating to the sphere of objective facts could not be answered but could be thrashed in questions and ‘answers’ that only raise further questions, but that through this apparently fruitless search both the questioning party and the answering party attain a measure of clarity within their own minds and that the aporia at which they end is translated into insight into themselves. Aristotle misunderstood this Socratic examination – the Socratic elenchus – and consequently represented it as a search for definitions, definitions which were never reached.

Socrates was interested exclusively in moral questions. Plato, who clearly understood that the Socratic aporia could not be – and was not meant to be – surmounted and at the same time also clearly understood its positive value, passed beyond Socrates’ moral questions and posed questions about ultimate reality. He knew full well that these questions are unanswerable. But he also knew that not to ask these questions is to trivialize our mind and impoverish our inner life. The celestial realm of forms in the Phaedrus, the absolute Beauty beheld through the ascent described in the Symposium, the Form of the Good in the Republic, are not ‘answers’, are not fixed ‘truths’, but are question-breeding wonders in wrestling with which our minds live to the full.

Aristotle in his First Philosophy (accidentally named ‘Metaphysics’) gave us an ideal system which exercises the mind as positively as Plato’s, but because Aristotle presented his system as true and demonstrable, it could, in the hands of a Thomas Aquinas, be turned into a system of beliefs that cripple the mind. We are then seemingly faced with the dilemma: either to follow the Empiricists and Analysts and live in a world of unintegrated fragments and depthless Humean ‘impressions and ideas’, or follow the theologians and subject our minds to revealed superstitions.

But the horns of the dilemma are brittle and can be broken. Wittgenstein at the end of the Tractatus frustratedly concludes that concerning that about which we cannot speak, we must be silent. This is regrettable pusillanimity. Rather, what we cannot speak about we must mythologize about, creating myths in which the world becomes meaningful to us and thus enjoy a rich spiritual life free of superstition, of dogma, of prejudice, of conceit, when we know with Socrates and Plato that every answer to a question must in turn be questioned, for philosophy, as Plato insists in the Republic, must constantly destroy all presuppositions.

This is the position I have been putting through in my writings, particularly in Let Us Philosophize (1998, second edition forthcoming) and Plato: An Interpretation (2005), a position which, being so alien to mainstream philosophical thought, naturally cannot be adequately expounded and justified in this short abstract.