Thursday 20 July 2017

Why was metaphysics rejected by modern philosophers?

Metaphysics is concerned with the ultimate nature of reality - which throughout human history was regarded as the single most important intellectual subject. Yet from the middle 19th century, it incrementally became the consensus among philosophers that metaphysics was meaningless, nonsense or actively harmful - and almost all philosophers worked at a more superficial level of 'analysis' in fields such as epistemology (concerning the possibility of knowledge, or logic, or ethics or whatever.

These philosophers assumed that they had dispensed with metaphysics, but of course they had not; they simply became unaware of (or denied) their own assumptions concerning the nature of reality; and in almost all cases this included the assumption that there was no god, reality was not 'created' nor sustained by a god, and certainly that reality was not created for Man and for individual men and women.

What were the criticisms of the philosophical activity of metaphysics that led to its rejection? These are some:

1. That it is purely subjective - everybody has their own individual and idiosyncratic ideas (unless some individual or groups succeeds in imposing their metaphysics on many other people).

 2. That metaphysical statements are imprecise - so imprecise as to be useless, meaningless, platitudinous, non-contributory. This would include ideas such as 'god', 'creation', Man, Good and so on.

3. That metaphysics had a covert agenda (of some kind of religious, reactionary, oppressive type)  - an agenda which could be avoided by avoiding metaphysics.

4 That there is no evidence for (or against) metaphysical statements. Thus they are meaningless, nonsensical, or not-what-they-seem.

The recommendations from such analysis were that people should stop using metaphysical language; should stop talking-about, discussing, or arguing-about metaphysics. The safest thing was to remain silent on the topic; but when people refused to keep quiet on the subject, they should be ridiculed as stupid, crazy or confused (or covertly malign).

(This implicitly applied to nearly all of philosophy before the early 1900s; unless it could - like selective readings of Aristotle, Locke, Hume, Kant etc, be seen as the first baby-steps towards a state of non-metaphysics.)


1. That metaphysics is subjectively inflected, includes subjectivity, does not imply that it is purely subjective.

2. That metaphysical statements are imprecise does not imply that they are therefore utterly useless as communications. That communications are unreliable does not imply that nothing is being communicated-about.

3. That metaphysicians have a covert agenda does not imply that that a covert agenda can be (or has been) avoided by avoiding mention of metaphysics.

4. That metaphysical statements cannot be verified or refuted by empirical, observational, experimental, experiential evidence is, in the first place: not distinctive to metaphysical statements (it applies to all statements since there are no non-arbitrary rules to generate truth from empirical data); and secondly untrue in the sense that metaphysical statements can be tested from consistency (the demand for consistency being and implicit but denied metaphysical assumption of many self-styled opponents of metaphysics; and thirdly, subtracting metaphysics makes many observable differences to human life (or else the advocates of ignoring metaphysics would not bother advocating) - thus particular metaphysics does not lack distal empirical consequences.

We must ask why insist on silence about metaphysics? Why introduce this ethical imperative? On what grounds?

The usual answer is to say that the new (post-empirical) philosophy is about achieving clarity... but why is clarity supposed to be a good or desirable thing? In the first place there is zero evidence that clarity is helpful (philosophers don't have observably better, happier or less-suffering lives than a controlled comparison group of non-philosophers; nobody even tries to suggest that they do).

And clarity is very obviously not important in leading a good life - honest philosophers will usually admit that a comforting delusion is a better basis for happiness than (supposed) clarity.

And who says that modern philosophers are clear? Nobody else finds them at all clear! Indeed, they are a by-word for un-clarity, and modern philosophical work is avoided by everybody who does not have a professional reason to engage with it! (Non-philosophers usually find pre-moderns to be much clearer, and more helpful in living.)

If we are to exclude and forbid metaphysics, why on earth stop there? All the strictures brought against metaphysics apply far more widely - probably to all language, all communications, all statements about the world... The terminus of anti-metaphysics is indeed nihilism: the denial of any real-reality (or any which can be understood or spoken of); and nihilism leads to despair.

In sum; the rejection of metaphysics - which has affected essentially all modern professional philosophy - is dishonest (being prejudicially but arbitrarily applied only to metaphysics, but not to favoured forms of knowledge); incompetent (being grossly over-inclusive in its criticisms, but failing to see this); and clearly (therefore) driven by a hidden agenda (or else why would all acknowledged professional philosophers have followed the 'party line' so slavishly).

That hidden agenda, driving anti-metaphysics, is precisely the destruction of all values (i.e. nihilism).

As an alternative I suggest the following:

If we accept that an individual may have knowledge (and if we don't accept this we must stop at that point, because discussion really is futile!) then - given the intrinsic uncertainties of communication - there must be a direct way of knowing that does not involve communication.

In other words, at least some individuals must, in principle, be able to apprehend reality directly (even if this apprehension is regarded as susceptible to partiality and distortion, due to the finite nature of individuals).

Direct knowing must include metaphysics, or else all other forms of knowledge are intrinsically undermined.

(If metaphysics is possible and defined as the most fundamental form of knowledge, then all more superficial forms of knowledge rely upon it - and wrong or absent metaphysics will undermine all other forms of knowledge.)

This leaves open the specific nature of metaphysics. People must be able to know it, but need not be able to communicate it - precisely because they can know it directly.


JB said...

Interesting article. See Guenon on precisely this issue here:

Epimetheus said...

How interesting that spiritual corruption reaches even such a hidden and obscure part of society! And with such high organization and motivation, and in tandem with attacks in other areas...

Bruce Charlton said...

@E - Indeed. For me, it is conisistent-with purposive supernatural strategising.

Chiu ChunLing said...

Part of the problem is that the modern dependence on physics (or rather on technology, which is engineered through dependence on physics) makes it unworkable to present any metaphysics which would contradict existing physics, despite the fact that huge amounts of what now pass for that are entirely speculative and backed only by 'evidence' of being able to construct an explanation for observed phenomena after the fact rather than having predictive utility.

In the case of quantum mechanics, what is usefully predictive is the theory that all forms of energy are made up of quanta, packets of energy generally expressed as a wave or bond (or complex) of one of the fundamental forces, and that fundamental particles match the behavior expected of such quanta. Almost everything else which is 'studied' under that subject is speculation which produces no reliable predictions, only elaborate rationalizations.

Worse is the inclusion of all manner of other theory under the banner of 'science', greatly increasing the conclusions (many of them contradictory) which cannot be made untenable by a metaphysical foundation without that metaphysics being popularly condemned as "anti-science". This epithet is now very heavily used against those who identify Global Warming Alarmism as a politically motivated hoax and those who dispute the ever evolving denial that human sexuality is an innate biological trait that has survival value for the species and for human communities.

These latest excesses are merely the exaggerated results of a process that has been significantly present in the modern world since the point at which the average person was heavily dependent on modern technology they did not personally understand or know how to do without. For the modern, the claim that Global Warming Alarmists are defrauding the public is indistinguishable on the merits from the claim that their smartphone operates by releasing hallucinogens which make them imagine all of its functions occurring. But this has been the case since shortly after radios and other consumer electronics became commonplace. Indeed, the typical modern has no real idea how even an electrical motor works (while I believe there was a significant level of knowledge of internal combustion engines a generation ago, even that is beyond the comprehension of today's youth).

Chiu ChunLing said...

The other side of the equation is that the rise of consumer technology has meant that the demand for competent engineers to design functioning devices is drawing on the pool of intuitive logical thinkers capable of engaging in metaphysics. One of the great problems of complex engineering (especially software creation) is that once the details of a project are beyond the grasp of any single engineer, you must create teams of engineers and have managers coordinate their activities. The high demand for engineers creates opportunities for those without the actual intuitive logical mental capability to obtain employment through the use of formal credentials, and the existence of teams of engineers makes it possible to hide their incompetence by shoving the work-load off onto the few competent engineers. The relative dearth of engineers means that the managers of teams of engineers are not themselves engineers, and thus have no way of reliably telling the contributing engineers from the free-riding fakes other than social cues and formal credentials. This becomes a self-perpetuating cycle because the existence of fake engineers increases the number of engineers necessary for a given complexity of project, further increasing the demand for engineers.

Meanwhile, the marketing of novelty as "cutting edge" technology (combined with bad IP laws) means that today's engineers are being continuously asked to reinvent the wheel. This increases the workload (and thus the demand) for engineers even further.

Even if average intellectual capacity weren't falling because of civilizational decadence, drawing so much of the available pool of intuitive logical thinkers off into an increasingly trivial and ephemeral pursuit (the demand for software engineers is vast, and mostly oriented towards entertainment) would obviously hinder the development of every other field that requires that kind of problem-solving intellect.

In other words, modernity rejected philosophy as a field worthy of the mental capabilities necessary to carry out metaphysics. And now those with that mental capacity are beginning to reject modernity.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CC - Interesting insights. I think the main problem is deep and simple; as I tried to argued in Not Even Trying.

Modern culture has (increasing over the decades) discovered that in the short and medium term, the relebvant people can be persuaded that there has been technical advance when there is in fact decline. The loop has been substantially closed.

Also, failure is excused as progress - so slow, expensive, ugly, wasteful and ineffective projects are positively spun as progress in being environmentally-friendly.

I have also seen this cultural focus on software - a pouring of ever more scarce creative and developmental resources into ever slower developments in entertainment, lifestyle and distraction (and population surveillance, obviously).

Chiu ChunLing said...

I'm sure that there have always been snake oil salesmen and outright con-men. But certainly the modern combination of vast wealth generated by former generations and the systematic dis-education of the general populace has created a rather extreme opportunity for such.

There are in fact areas where things are improving, for example the density of integrated circuits, and the heavy reliance on these economies does lend credence to the illusion of overall progress.

But the really essential task is not to make faster digital information processors (or whatever) but to retain and transmit spiritual awareness and a sense of responsibility for our eternal destiny as individuals and as a people. It is because we lead lives worthy of living that we begin to value the potential inherent in others' lives, which is why we begin the project of helping others to live, expanding to build a civilization in which the hardships of life in a natural environment are alleviated, serving as the basis for technological advances being promulgated and widespread. Having advanced technology doesn't make or keep us civilized, living in large cities doesn't cause us to value other's lives or seek the real meaning of our own.

We haven't just put the cart before the horse, we've fed the cart the horse's grain in the conviction that it can move on its own, dragging the starving horse along.

lgude said...

I am aware of one 20th century exception in philosophy - Robert Pirsig - who talked both about direct knowing and argued against what he called the subject object metaphysics of Western Culture. He speaks of the central role of the former in Zen an the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and the second quite systematically in Lila. Of course he was entirely rejected by the academic establishment for much the reasons you observe. In that he is a genuine successor to the premodern philosophers which still interest ordinary people. He knew what he was doing - he put his philosophy in the form of novels.

Bruce Charlton said...

I've written about Pirsig on this blog, if you do a word search...