Friday, 7 January 2011

The modern inability to *get* metaphysics

I remember as a teenager encountering philosophy and being mystified by the early metaphysical debates, among the ancient Greeks, about whether reality was changing or un-changing.

So-and so-said reality was unchanging, such-and-such said reality was change; Socrates/ Plato said that unchanging reality was transcendental and this world was change; Aristotle said the forms were unchanging and appearances changed, and so on...

The whole thing struck me as silly, pointless, just an arbitrary choice between silly options.

What I was interested in was Truth - in the sense of how did we know what was true and what was not (I was accepting that mathematics, logic and science were true; and working out from there).

It was only about a year and a half ago, as a result of reading Edward Feser - - that I suddenly understood what the ancient Greeks were getting-at and what they were trying to do.


As I understand it, reality must be unchanging, or else if everything changes we cannot know anything (not even that reality is change); yet if reality is unchanging then everything we experience is an illusion (including the illusion that we have have experienced understanding of the unchanging nature of reality). Therefore there must be change.

Therefore reality - since reality must both not-change and change - reality must be a mixture of the eternal and the changing.

Then we try to understand whether change and eternity are on the same level, or whether one is fundamental and the other more superficial - and try to understand the relationship between them.

But because reality is actually whole then the mere fact we have divided it into the eternal and the changeable does violence to our understanding, so that no explanation can ever be wholly satisfactory.

(The paradox: to explain reality we crack it into pieces, must divide and distinguish; but having done so we can never put the picture back together again without being able to see the cracks.)


My last secular philosophy was a version of Luhmann's systems theory including a heavy dose of selectionist (evolutionary) thinking -

This was an 'everything changes' theory that could only survive by a wholly arbitrary decision to accept axioms on which it based itself; in other words an assertion of eternal knowledge which could not be justified by the theory itself.


I was able to do this from a sense of intellectual pride/ honesty...

(Saying something like: ' 'at least' I admit that my system is arbitrary, all systems are indeed arbitrary, but 'at least'; I know that mine is arbitrary while the others deny the fact')...

But I could not in practice accept that the axioms on which the system of systems theory was built really were arbitrary, contingent, indefensible; and I therefore persisted in thinking that my philosophy was superior to, deeper than, alternatives.

Such is human nature.


I now perceive that the only solution to the insoluble basis of philosophy is religious - intervention from outside philosophy: i.e. divine revelation. The only non-arbitrary source of axiomatic validity.


This was perceived by many people in the past, and the vast consequences of lack of divine revelation (of disbelief in divine revelation as a basis for philosophy) were also perceived.

But for modern thinkers - such as my former-self and the hundreds of philosophers and thinkers that I read/ listened to/ talked-with for most of my adult life - the basic metaphysical question is not understood, seems irrelevant, seems silly, seems arbitrary.

Which is, of course, a situation that is precisely what was understood and predicted by those who recognized the effects of rejecting revelation as a basis for human knowledge.


Of course, philosophy is rare and restricted to very few cultures and people. But modern thinkers, and at the highest level of acclaim, have not - for many scores of years now - reached the point reached by the first and simplest and most basic of ancient Greek philosophers.

And they, we, congratulate ourselves on our pragmatism in this.

What it actually means, what 'pragmatism actually means' is that philosophy has been abandoned in favour of hedonism - in favour of doing and saying what makes us feel better about ourselves (even when 'feeling better' means feeling heroically noble in our despairing negations).

And indeed this has often been specifically argued to be the true nature of philosophy, the proper goal of philosophy by many, many 'philosophers'.


My point is that it is hard to exaggerate the depth of confusion of modern intellectual life. It is hard to exaggerate the lack of basic grasp.

Our most lauded and influential thinkers nowadays, and for several generations, do not even rise to the level of children or the simple-minded in their philosophical reflections; they are delirious maniacs who experience reality as discontinuous fragments during momentary awakenings from unreflective nightmares or euphorias, and yet who expend their energies arguing that this perspective has progressed beyond, has superseded those of our ancestors.

We are delirious maniacs with delusions of grandeur.



  1. I'd never understood really why the classics were studied until very recently. Reading Nock's excellent "The Theory of Education in the United States":

    What was the purpose of this? We may admit, I presume, the disciplinary value of these studies, since that has never been seriously disputed, so far as I know, but we may say a word, perhaps, about their formative character. The literatures of Greece and Rome comprise the longest and fullest continuous record available to us, of what the human mind has been busy about in practically every department of spiritual and social activity — every department, I think, except one: music. This record covers twenty-five hundred consecutive years of the human mind's operations in poetry, drama, law, agriculture, philosophy, architecture, natural history, philology, rhetoric, astronomy, politics, medicine, theology, geography, everything. Hence the mind that has attentively canvassed this record is not only a disciplined mind but an experienced mind — a mind that instinctively views any contemporary phenomenon from the vantage point of an immensely long perspective attained through this profound and weighty experience of the human spirit's operations. If I may paraphrase the words of Emerson, this discipline brings us into the feeling of an immense longevity, and maintains us in it. You may perceive at once, I think, how different would be the view of contemporary men and things, how different the appraisal of them, the scale of values employed in their measurement, on the part of one who has undergone this discipline and on the part of one who has not. These studies, then, in a word, were regarded as formative because they are maturing, because they powerfully inculcate the views of life and the demands on life that are appropriate to maturity and that are indeed the specific marks, the outward and visible signs, of the inward and spiritual grace of maturity. And now we are in a position to observe that the establishment of these views and the direction of these demands is what is traditionally meant, and what we citizens of the republic of letters now mean, by the word "education"; and the constant aim at inculcation of these views and demands is what we know under the name of the Great Tradition of our republic.


  2. Indeed. But the problem lies even deeper, in the sense that IF people were again taught classics, they would almost certainly be taught it in such a way that failed to provide an explanation of how the ancients actually perceived the world. And they they were deeper thinkers than us (they were mostly right and we are mostly wrong).

    I strongly suspect that the classics teachers nowadays would not even understand this themselves.

    For example, how many would understand that Aristotle was right about democracy?

  3. That's a fair point, but one of the wonderful things about studying Primary Sources is how hard it is to impose your own views upon them. The past is a foreign country and historical texts often refer to debates and discussions so far removed from our day-to-day experience that we can't but unpack them upon a clean slate, and consider them academically.

    It's laughable enough to try to impose modern PC sensibilities on Huckleberry Finn; but to attempt to do the same to Plato or Aristotle is meaningless: "So class, was Socrates a racist?"

    It's a magnificent quality of literature that the any but the most sociopathic human mind cannot help but be affected by what is read; the mere act of reading and unpacking and internalising the meaning of a text changes the pattern of one's neurons. I don't doubt that pumping the classics through a PC filter would blunt the impact, filter many of the more inappropriate truths, but the bright students would get it.

  4. Fair enough - if one is capable of engaging with primary sources then I agree.

    Unfortunately I cannot! - and therefore rely on editors, commentators - and of course translators - who nowadays have no compunction about PC bowdlerising.

    For example the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible which is officially used in the Church of England, and which (among other horrors) uses 'inclusive langauge' throughout -

    Also, one of my earliest direct experiences of political correctness was at the University of Texas in 1992, when in a seminar we were attempting to discuss exactly this issue, the importance of the teaching of classics (with a visiting speaker called Robert Proctor -

    - but the seminar kept getting hijacked by one of the students who harped-on&on about the Greeks keeping slaves and not allowing women to vote in the forum...

  5. Good discussion. Human knowledge has an internal dynamism that ends in God because it's necessarily incomplete and unable to sustain itself.

    A bit of an aside maybe: I've always thought of Samuel Beckett as the end of the tradition of Great Literature, a.k.a. Literature As A Source Of Wisdom. His works show that given the modern outlook we can't think, talk, or act coherently, or even successfully refer to anything, except maybe to some extent through habits that retain some ability to function but are constantly winding down because they've lost the understandings that once motivated them.

    After that there's nowhere for the tradition to go except through a truly new beginning that goes far beyond literature.

  6. Thanks Jim.

    This was my take on Beckett, last summer:

    The problem is that the minuscule attention span of modern culture (including my young self!) accepts Beckett at his (parodoxical, nonsensical) face value - as if he were (somehow!) making objective statements concerning the nature of reality.

    Unfortunately Beckett himself was probably among those who mis-understand Beckett in this fashion...

  7. Okay, I'm familiar with the problems with the NSRV, NIV, etc. although my understanding is that it's less an intentional omission and more the use of incomplete Hebrew/Greek original texts.

    I gave a study on this for my secondary school CU and I got them to recite the Lord's Prayer as they knew it, and then read the one out of the NIV for reference :P

    Having never formally studied the classics, and indeed only recently becoming interested at all, I didn't realise things were quite that bad.

  8. Peter S. said...

    With respect to the classical understanding of metaphysics and the modern misunderstanding of the same, I would strongly recommend, in addition to Edward Feser’s "The Last Superstition" and "Aquinas", the following two works: David Conway’s "The Rediscovery of Wisdom: From Here to Antiquity in Quest of Sophia" and Mark Anderson’s "PURE: Modernity, Philosophy, and the One".

  9. I'm glad you liked Beckett's stories and novels more than the plays. Agreed on his wonderful gift for language. Also agreed that he probably misunderstood the significance of what he was doing. If someone's good his work is his work and his conscious understanding isn't really the point.

    For all that he seems to have been personally a good man--heroic during the War, self-deprecating, charitable toward individuals.

    Another reference to the arts: the Raphael Stanzas in the Vatican illustrate your post. You have Plato and Aristotle on the one side, arguing about what to do about particulars and universals, and without knowing it they're walking toward the Eucharist that unites all spheres of being 20 feet away (see The School of Athens and The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament).

  10. If you will pardon a somewhat tangential question (as I thought of Joyce when someone mentioned Beckett and when the posters discuss modernism vs chassicism), could you give some thoughts on Joyce, his worldview or whatever you may choose to comment on. Thanks.

  11. I'm one of those unusual people who read Beckett somewhat before Joyce - although Beckett was a disciple, and his early books were a brilliant pastiche of Joyce.

    I was utterly obsessed with James Joyce aged about 21, and read everything by him several times over (with the exception of Finnegans Wake which I always found both unreadable and uninteresting).

    My fascination lasted about ten years - although waxing and waning in intensity.

    Nowadays I would regard Joyce as certainly one of the greatest ever prose writers in English - but someone that had nothing to say about any subject except himself; which is a tiresome trait after adolescence.

    I still find myself re-reading favorite passages from Portrait of the Artist, Ulysses and The Dead (which must be one of the very greatest short stories - and movies) - but I doubt whether I shall ever again read any of these books in their entirety.


    The other Irish writer I would bracket with Joyce and Beckett is Flann O'Brien - who wrote two superb novels: At Swim Two Birds, which is distinctly patchy but contains some of the funniest writing I have ever encountered; and The Third Policeman, which is a perfect nightmare - quite unlike anything else in its cumulative horror and fascination (and also has some very droll footnotes).