By Otto Paans
Thus profound metaphysics is rooted in an implicit geometry which — whether we will or not — confers spatiality upon thought; if a metaphysician could not draw, what would he think?
— Gaston Bachelard, Dialectics of Inside and Outside
[I]f pure experience means to know things just as they are, then simplicity or passivity are not characteristics of it — the truly direct state is constitutive and active.
— Kitarō Nishida, An Inquiry Into the Good
This essay is an elaborated and extended version of an earlier essay, “How To Do Real Metaphysics: 22 Theses.”[i] In this revised version, I’ve tried to work out some of the relations between individual theses, illuminating the theoretical foundations on which they build. Moreover, I’ve also added four additional theses that extend the scope of the original argument.
1. There is never just one metaphysics — even two or three systems of metaphysics authored by different persons might be considered as equally viable.
Real metaphysics in the sense used here is a part of a puzzle that is made by humanity as a whole. It attempts to combine different realms of the human condition and is as such perspectivist: it fully takes account of a given individual’s embodied position in the world. However, since each of us has a limited cognitive capacity, it follows that we all grasp only a few parts of the puzzle. However, we might all strive towards the same goal, even if we have vastly different conceptions of it. The scientist might strive for a descriptive view of the universe. The artist discovers a kind of truth that can only be artistically expressed; the poet alludes to a truth that may be hard to express, but that can be dimly grasped; and the philosopher writes systems of metaphysics that trace connections between these domains, even if they are sometimes miles apart.
2. “Real metaphysics,” as a branch of real philosophy,[ii] is a given metaphysical system that exhibits the characteristics set out in the theses below.
I will speak of “real metaphysics” instead of the more cumbersome “a real metaphysics,” but one should bear in mind that every metaphysical system is but one actualized possibility among many.
During the 18th century, metaphysics was described by Hume as an “airy science,” prompting Kant to provide an a priori foundation for it. But both Hume and Kant focused on the content of the metaphysical system, not on what it could do. Real metaphysics is the practice of a philosophical train of thought that overhauls earlier presuppositions in favour of a new, more comprehensive account of the human condition. What is exactly said within such a system (its content) is less important than the spirit and breadth of mind with which it is practiced. Real metaphysics is necessarily open-ended. It is an ongoing inquiry that keep itself vital by rethinking itself perpetually. It is the work-in-progress in the most ultimate sense. The book of the world is continuously written, and as such is continuously open to scrutiny and amending. Any system that closes itself off from change loses its vitality and becomes stale and dogmatic.
3. Real metaphysics is inherently opposed to dogmatic metaphysics.
There is no shortage of references to the past in philosophy. More often than not, the newcomers have to fight their way into the accepted canon of ideas. But like any other discipline, metaphysics can start to serve as the foundation for unexamined presuppositions that support an entire belief system. Medieval Scholastic metaphysics is perhaps the most well-known and also the most notorious example. Whereas Scholasticism enabled breakthroughs in logical theory, it nevertheless could not compete with the modern, natural science-oriented worldview that gained currency during the 17th century. Another example would be Hegelianism and other versions of Absolute Idealism in the early 19th century: by the time of the neo-Kantians in the mid- to late-19th century, and then again during the emergence of Analytic philosophy, Hegelian/Absolute Idealist metaphysics was regarded as an antiquated and dogmatic hindrance to the innovations that beckoned just beyond the horizon. The charge of dogmatism, then, can be seen as an accusation of clinging to old thinking habits for too long, even when the tensions in a given philosophical edifice are clear for everyone to see. Moreover, the accusation of dogmatism draws the attention to a certain hostility inherent in the very notion itself — newcomers are distrusted and scorned, as their innovations are perceived as a sacrilege against a more recently-discovered immutable truth.
4. Real metaphysics is open and creative; dogmatic metaphysics closed and insular.
A dogmatic system starts out from a few core tenets that must be defended against attacks from the outside. These core tenets are theoretical commitments: they exclude certain types of reasoning; they focus on certain questions over others; and they regard certain presuppositions as true-by-stipulation. These presupposed-and-stipulated statements are regarded as the absolute foundation for any further thinking and assume a role of similar to the Freudian unconscious: without becoming explicit, they direct the form and direction of the inquiry. However, committing to a dogma means that one must close off certain types of thinking before others are even considered. Dogmatic thinking is therefore insular: it considers new possibilities only insofar as they conform to received or inherited dogmas. It is important to stress that a dogmatic system is not static, even if it is insular. Catholic Scholastic thought, for instance, has developed considerably from its inception onwards. However, the way in which new findings are integrated into an existing system of thought is stamped by the unassailable status accorded to dogmas. Dogmatic metaphysics suffers from the same defect: it takes too much for granted.
Real metaphysics is therefore thoroughly open. It utilizes core ideas that start the thinking process, but these ideas themselves are not accorded the status of theoretical dogmas. Therefore, the very idea of development is ingrained in real metaphysical thought. Any idea is open to change — such is the manifestly real nature of thought; it is a movement rather than a conclusion. However, the idea of change itself cannot obtain the status of a dogma, as it is not a goal in itself, but an instrument to keep the thought process going forward.
5. Real metaphysics starts not from the construction of a spatial, organizing structure in which the world has to be fitted; instead, it starts from the intelligible world in its natural manifestations.
Real metaphysics does not posit or start from some Platonic Beyond, or an idealized realm of Ideas. Instead, it starts from immediacy, vividness, and wonder. As such, real metaphysics starts with a radical one-world view, experienced by cognizers like us, but any other species as well. Amoebas, cacti, huskies, and dolphins all have multifaceted relations to the world. All these relations are characterized not by dualism or the haunting presence of an in-itself or noumena beyond experience, but by an active and engaged stance. Evolutionary speaking, (self-) conscious reflection is a very recent player on the cognitive stage. Yet, we made it the pinnacle of thought, especially after Descartes’s radical notion of the Cogito. However, real metaphysics takes a step back from this position, in order to engage with the world in all its fullness, and in its direct and vivid presence. The very impact of the manifestly real world on us and every other being is taken as point of departure for metaphysical thought as such.
6. Real metaphysics allows us to see the world in a qualified sense — in all its fullness, its richness and its inexhaustible fineness of grain.
It follows that “seeing” the world entails far more than merely ratiocinating about it. The world is felt and constructed in ways that are thoroughly non-conceptual, non-propositional, affective and emotive. We resonate with phenomena in the manifestly real world on levels that are pre-reflectively conscious or proto-conscious. The fineness of grain of the world extend far beyond and intellectual grasp, and it is the basis for natural piety. The expanse of thought extends beyond that which can (clearly) be expressed by words, concepts, or propositions. The result is an experience of the world that is thoroughly open-ended and that affects our senses to such a degree that we (non-conceptually) feel rather than intellectually know the world. We sense its depth even before we can grammatically express it.
7. Real metaphysics structures thought by developing alongside it; it does not impose an external normative structure to which the stream of thought or its products must conform; its thought-structures emerge from the structure of the world itself.
The relation between the world and real metaphysics is one of overlapping rather than describing. To think is to become entangled with an object. The problem how to conceptualize this relation has plagued Western philosophy from the very moment of its emergence onwards, giving rise to Platonic Ideas, the Cogito, the thing-in-itself, or the Absolute. These fictions introduce a distance between the world as it manifestly really is, and our access to it. However, in doing so, these fictions must also describe a “point of contact” with the beyond. Plato needs his eidos, and Descartes needs his “clear and distinct” insight, just as Kant needs the a priori, or Hegel needs the notion of religious experience. These concepts are ways to access the world-as-it-is. Nowadays, mathematic description takes pride of place among the instruments to describe the world, while simultaneously distancing oneself from it.
This line of thought gives rise to what Nishida calls “an object logic” in which subject and object are forever separated. Real metaphysics approaches this relation from the opposite side: what is thought must conform to the object that is non-conceptually presented to thought. The manifestly real world itself determines the most fruitful lines of thinking. By sharp contrast, all idealized, preconceived structures that guide how thought should develop (i.e., always reducing phenomena to mathematical and/or physical substrates, or taking merely a conceptualist approach, for example) cannot but fall short of the richness of the world, and forever close off “seeing” the world in the rich, unbounded sense. To think is to become the acolyte of the world. It is taking the manifestly real presence of an object as the point of departure for philosophically explaining it, together with the web of relations in which it is embedded.
[i] O. Paans, “How To Do Real Metaphysics: 22 Theses,” Against Professional Philosophy (15 July 2020), available online HERE.
[ii] See, e.g., R. Hanna, “Popular Philosophy, ‘Populist Philosophy,’ Mind-Manacled Philosophy, and Real Philosophy,” Against Professional Philosophy (8 July 2020), available online HERE.
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