metaphysics and anti-metaphysics

Positivists typically uphold the principle that metaphysics should be replaced by science and technology. In the middle of the nineteenth century advanced thinker G H Lewes published a history of philosophy that hailed Auguste Comte’s positivism for putting an end to philosophy1. A later anti-metaphysical movement began with G E Moore and Bertrand Russell’s demolition of Hegel inspired Absolute Idealism. A form of philosophical logic was developed, which bore one fruit in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

This was a principal inspiration for the Logical Positivism expounded in Austria by the Vienna Circle. Measured by the standard of their verification principle, ethical and metaphysical statements were to be judged strictly meaningless. These philosophers were committed to science and technology as the partly unspoken agenda behind the rejection of metaphysics. At the present time there are echoes of the positivist creed in Richard Dawkins, who attacks religion to replace it with a faith in. His atheism may be thought to smuggle in its values. Removing questions of basic value from rational discussion ethical norms can be simply assumed.

Metaphysical revival

At the time metaphysics was under such attack there were philosophers as different as R G Collingwood and Martin Heidegger who were determined to contribute to the subject.

For Collingwood metaphysics was the science of ‘absolute presuppositions’. He appears to suggest that different eras embody different perspectives that depend upon different absolute presuppositions, which we may think of as metaphysical and which are not to be thought of as either true or false. To describe what these are is the business of philosophy.

From such a standpoint some conclude that we can identify a zeitgeist that is not subject to rational criticism. This could fit in with some of the principles of postmodernism. Some hold that there are forms of knowledge that do not come down to factual truth.

Later Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein developed his later philosophy from criticising the arguments of his own Tractatus. He concluded that the account of factual truth he had tried to present there was seriously inadequate to the rich diversity of language as it actually works. There are different views on the metaphysical implications of his later philosophy. His early interpreter John Wisdom mentioned Wittgenstein’s annoying habit in the 1930s of ending philosophical discussions with ‘say what you like’2. Is such an injunction anti-metaphysical or not? It might seem to let everything back. But being able to say what you like does not mean you can necessarily convince others. In one sense metaphysical problems are dissolved, insofar as they can be shown to result from bewitchment by language. In another sense ‘meaning is use’, and language can serve all sorts of purposes. You dissolve and then you permit.

Exploring the implications of such permission may begin with a degree of experimental contrariness. Wittgenstein is not content with the technological ideals of scientific positivism. He explores religion, and settles on some surprising and perverse forms of asceticism, like the Christianity of Tolstoy, which had been influenced by Schopenhauer’s pessimism.

In some ways he was quite open minded. Faced with fellow philosophers attacking Heidegger for writing nonsense, Wittgenstein read a passage from Being and Time and said that it made sense to him. So Heidegger himself may not be beyond the pale given we can find an understandable use for what he was trying to do.

Perspectivism and truth

The idea that there are just a lot of different perspectives appeals to many modern minds. Different perspectives may account for all the same facts, or seem to. We can see how the idea of innumerable different points of view could appeal to a young person at a particular stage of his life, determined to assert the freedom to believe what he wants to believe.

Some philosophers, taking their cue from an arguably out of context remark of Nietzsche’s that “there are no facts only interpretations”, go so far as to entertain the idea that there is no truth. There are various considerations that make this plausible. It may seem that that even what counts as fact can be determined by some very personal emotion. Attracted to a belief for some personal reason, we may feel confident enough to establish it as authoritative. You choose an opinion based on strong emotion and commit yourself to it. This brings the feeling that what counts as truth can be constructed.

So when we consider how emotion can appear to determine what passes for an objective perspective it can come to seem there is no objective truth, and from that position there are unlimited possibilities. One might adopt a perspective with a very different basis from respect for science and technology.

It is not a big step to conclude that some justifiable beliefs cannot come down to facts, that it would be far too lengthy and complicated a business to try to make them do so. But what can legitimise a perspective if not fact?

Need for metaphysics

There are things people want to say that seem to them to demand going beyond factual truth. These may be understood as features of the zeitgeist. This is a fairly familiar concept. Russell wrote that ‘in most periods there has been a prevailing tone among great writers.’3

Ortega y Gasset has much to say about the zeitgeist4, much of it interesting if somewhat dogmatic. He feels able to define a general character of his age. He claims to be the first to identify the importance of conflict between generations. There are changes in the zeitgeist, the disagreements between the generations that are hard to reduce to identifiable facts. He suggests an idea of truth as uncovering. It is said he had some influence on Heidegger rather than just the other way round5.

Both Ortega and Heidegger desire to generalise about the times and the human condition, and say something more authoritative than simply expressing their opinions as empirical hypotheses to take their places amid innumerable other candidates for people’s attention. Rather than just taking their views to the marketplace as tentative judgements submitted to the public, many people want to make statements about the basic nature of experience. They want to say things that go beyond the everyday language of testable fact, something that is not restricted by the logical framework designed to fit empirical claims.

Behind the idea of reviving metaphysics is the need to make room for ethical, religious, and sometimes political claims. Heidegger and others wish to speak more generally than a positivist logic would permit. Metaphysical generalisation can echo the fertility of myth and religion. There are things that can be said that have a meaning that goes beyond testable fact. And such assertions are fertile, they have effect. Religious ideas can obviously make a difference, and this can be thought of as their meaning.

Will to power

Nietzsche’s universal will to power sounds like a metaphysical principle, and it is sometimes presented as such. It does not have to be thought of as claiming truth in a direct sense. Taken in the light of the questions it was meant to answer, it should rather be understood as a perspective or alternatively as a fiction, in the sense of Vaihinger’s philosophy of ‘as if’6.

Assuming we have established that metaphysics is or can be meaningful, we can see how we feel about the metaphysical assertions people wish to make. Typically they want to say something authoritative. One motive behind anti-metaphysics is to refuse this authority. Yet if all such discourse is meaningless the denial of authority may seem as metaphysical as its converse.

Opening up possibilities of thought and experience is one thing, and strictly speaking need not involve metaphysical beliefs or assertions. Resisting specific claims others want to make on you, which do, is to tackle metaphysics head on.

On the theory of universal will to power human life is seen in terms of conflict. Every successful point of view is understood in terms of the suppression of other possible ones. Objectionable metaphysical claims are countered, not by denying their possibility, but by confronting them in their own terms. The only decisive refutation will be ordinary fact, demonstrable irrefutable reality, unmediated by theory. It is contended that such facts can be brought out by the perspective, or fiction, of the will to power and have to be ignored or denied by the objectionable view.

Considering how a decisively a dominant emotion may colour all discourse, some conclude there is no ground for choosing between different perspectives and therefore no objective truth. But this idea itself provokes in some people a strong emotion of resistance. Such feeling has its own religious myth in the Gnostic struggle against Ialdabaoth, the demiurge that falsely claims to be the supreme God. If one view is acceptable the other cannot be, they are irreconcilable. As a theory will to power need not lay claim to absolute truth. One thing it does is give rational form to the emotion, bringing out universal conflict between opposing points of view in the need to resist an objectionable consensus. With the powerful psychological motive behind this objective, implicit universal conflict may be understood as if it were always consciously felt.

Thus we may demonstrate that the idea of no truth does indeed matter, that there are points of view from which it is experienced as intolerably oppressive. From this experience facts about human nature that an opposing perspective could feel easily able to dismiss as non existent, become glaringly obvious. Once identified they remain facts whatever perspective on them you choose to adopt.

That such facts can be discovered which undermine the consensus model is not to be doubted. The very thinkability of the conflict model involves relevant realities that only require to be fully described to be inescapable.

The will to power perspective preserves a sceptical attitude towards metaphysics. Any metaphysical claim reduces to a notion of truth of a most ordinary kind. The concept of the universal will to power is anti-metaphysics in the form of metaphysics.

That Nietzsche is prepared to question the value of truth is not to say he rejects it. To him power as a value precedes and underpins that of truth. The value of truth needs to be deduced from that of power. If someone is caught out in manifest error then their position is undermined.

The attempt to see the world without will to power means denying the universality of conflict. In its place might be something like a Platonic idea, an intuitive vision not to be criticised. The view that the value of truth precedes that of power suggests some such inspiration. Truth might thus be understood as an absolute moral imperative. There is no need to see it like this for the value to be effective. We need not aspire to completely ‘disinterested scholarship’. Interested scholarship should be good enough for all reasonable purposes. The adversarial system of Anglo-Saxon justice is held to be at least as good a way of uncovering the truth as the inquisitorial continental approach.

On the other hand in the hands of the politically motivated the idea that there is
no truth and that ‘interested’ scholarship is quite legitimate becomes an abstract metaphysical principle as pernicious as any tendentious intuition of truth. Some such idea seems to be behind Richard Rorty’s assertion that “there is no way to step outside the various vocabularies we have employed and find a meta vocabulary which somehow takes account of all possible vocabularies, all possible ways of judging and feeling.”7

It is surely commonsense that there is always subjection to the language of ordinary fact. What Rorty is doing amounts to asserting an abstract principle as a bid to bypass all such tests. Nothing can be immunised in that way. With that far from insignificant proviso you may surely say what you like.

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