How To Do Real Metaphysics, Revisited: Theses 15–21.

By Otto Paans

“Wheat Fields,” by Jacob van Ruisdael (c. 1670)

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

Introduction

The first installment, which contains theses 1–7, is HERE.

The second installment, which contains theses 8–14, is HERE.

This third installment contains theses 15–21.

***

If scientists of the positivist persuasion had their way, the world would look like a table with boxes, and all the items neatly subsumed in one of the available — and a priori — thought-up categories. Or, if these scientists were of an empiricist persuasion, they would say that each category derived from experience itself. This scientistic mindset can be traced back to the 18th-century, when Laplace constructed his clockwork universe, and D’Alembert wrote his encyclopaedia. The curiosities of the world were lined up as in a “Kunst-und Wunderkammer.” In the 19th century, this type of thinking found its culmination in Hegel and Haeckel.

However, despite all his organicist talk about the “movement of the Notion” (Begriff), Hegel himself did scarcely recognize how it is often not the case that the particular is the neat instantiation of a concept, but that this notion of “particular” is itself an ideality that is regarded as a faithful representation of the genus for which it is a placeholder. The particular is seen as a typical instantiation of the universal; or, as the locus where different universals come together in a fixed combination. But as Kierkegaard repeatedly pointed out, the singular is overlooked in this scheme and relegated to the sideline. If every organism or phenomenon in the real world is regarded as the instantiation of a higher order, it follows that the new, creative, and unique do not fit neatly in this scheme.

For this reason, the notion of the singular was invented. It has been treated as a leftover category, reserved for unique or unplaceable objects, for art or sublime experiences, or otherwise for the oddities that were found in nature. They were deemed deviations from the norm of the taxonomist. However, instead of falling into a postmodern critique of modernism’s “totalizing” tendencies, we can simply take another route: if we exchange the positions of the notions “particular” and “singular,” the entire edifice built on top of them can be made to topple. If every instantiation of a concept is something unique, the particular itself vanishes. All of a sudden, there are no “typical” instances or “average” specimens anymore. Every instantiation of a concept is a singular; irreplaceable, with a singular perspective.

The particular is a pragmatic placeholder to think about the features that singulars have in common. The average values or representations that result from this process should not be used as normative images, but as point of departure for thinking about a single question: why is it that these features that occur in a “typical” instantiation emerge again and again, and how do they relate to other variations?

The distinction between the particular and the singular can be traced back to Kant at least. In his distinction between “determining” and “reflecting” judgements in the Critique of the Power of Judgment, we can already witness the struggle between concepts and affects; between understanding and sensibility; between rational insight and artistic taste; between the intellect and the feeling; and between that which can be expressed in an exact manner and that which escapes such forms of representation.

When European thinking followed the Cartesian view that mathematics was the highest and most secure science, it not only adopted a particular form of representation, but also accepted a particular form of thinking that made exact representation possible, one in which the notion of the singular was problematic and with which it could not be united. The very term “outlier” in statistics shows the problem here in a most revealing way: an outlier is only an outlier relative to a core cluster or group that is used as point of reference. It disturbs scientific models and worldviews, especially those that have made completeness and comprehension the cornerstones of their thought.

Outside the sphere of exact representation lies a qualitatively different domain that is essentially non-conceptual. The contents of the non-conceptual domain are pre-reflectively sensed rather than self-consciously understood. They are accessible through sensibility and imagination rather than ratiocination. In a half-hidden manner, they drive and direct thought, especially so in domains where form of exact representations falls short of completeness. Examples of such domains are the applied and fine arts, religion, and what is unhelpfully called “the spiritual” or “the mystical.” The Rationalist philosophy of the 17th century already shows signs of distress in the face of the persistence of the essentially non-conceptual domain. Up until now, those of a positivist persuasion seek to explain the pervasive influence of artistic, and religious and/or spiritual experiences by way of materialist explanations. Granted, there may be good reasons why we enjoy certain sounds, timbres, colours, compositions, or experiences. These effects might even be traceable and detectable.

Nevertheless, it still does not explain them, unless one subscribes to the idea that the essentially non-conceptual and the conceptual cooperate in creating forms of understanding and feeling that cannot be explained reductively. Consequently, a purely conceptualist understanding of the world cannot — due the incompleteness of concepts — account for the world as it is. There will always be a remainder or residue that falls outside what concepts are able to explain.

If this is the case, then the experiences outside the conceptual domain must be taken seriously. There is, after all, no reason to think that the essentially non-conceptual and conceptual domains do not communicate. Via the process of “thought-shaping,” links between the two domains are established, structuring our cognition bottom-up (essentially non-conceptual) and top-down (conceptual).[iii] In cases where concepts fall short to represent experiences, one must allude to them via images, metaphors, analogies, imagery, suggestions, oblique descriptions or gestures. None of these instruments can be reduced to concepts, although they are partially constituted by them.

Contrary to the conceptualist claim that knowledge must be expressed by concepts, or exact modes of representation, real metaphysics departs from the opposite viewpoint: because non-conceptual is always involved in our cognition, the experiences that emanate from it should be taken seriously, even if concepts fall short for fully expressing them. It follows that expression is an activity that must be practiced and refined, in order not to get stuck on the conceptual surfaces, populated by concepts that are often thought up by others, or that are handed out as handy packages or placeholders.

In contrast to a dogmatic metaphysics that attempts to freeze the world into a static condition, or a placeholder image, real metaphysics departs from an unfolding structure that is immanent in the world. We can illustrate this thought by reference to the unfolding of naturally occurring evolutionary developments and the Greek notion of apeiron: when we start from a formless mass that reacts to impulses or stimuli, but simultaneously creates the context from which these stimulants emerge, we end up with a situation in which, at some points, internal imbalances or disturbances in the system emerge. No external deity or force is required to come in from the outside and set off a new series of modifications or state changes. The original mass is already divided internally. Its propensity for differentiation is one of its basic properties. On this account, there is no need for a prime mover to start the universe, simply because the original “matter” or “state” is inherently dynamic.

Given the right impulses or stimuli, adjacent possibilities are unlocked, leading to greater internal differentiation. The complexity of possibilities increases in (geological) time, leading all the way from matter to molecules, proteins, unicellular organisms, multicellular organisms and eventually to minded life. Each new form of life unlocks new potentials. These potentials exist as real possibilities, but whether they will ever realize themselves is based on contingency. Yet, the causal steps that lead to the realization of these real possibilities can be retrospectively reconstructed. Each new adjacent space of possibilities contains new “free space for development” that cannot be inferred from the properties of the matter that constitutes it. This unexpected potential is called creativity.

Creation occurs in two different ways: (i) either it is a recombination of existing elements into new constellations, or (ii) it is the emergence of something genuinely new. There are cases in which recombination leads to new, emergent properties and objects, and in which (i) leads to (ii). The propensity for this creation is immanent in matter and the earlier evolutionary stages of which matter as we know it is a result.

In the preceding theses, I have discussed the uneasy position of singulars in conceptual schemes; two types of creativity; and the immanence of a creative potential in matter — and possibly even the stages before matter as we conceptualize it has formed. Ironically, we can line up three philosophers who had nothing in common whatsoever, but who stress, each in their own way, the importance of differentiation. Schopenhauer conceptualized a Will-to-Live, a hidden driving force whose workings we could infer but no isolate or conceptualize, as the driver of the world. Hegel stressed the notion of becoming, but did so entirely in conceptualist terms. The Notion (Begriff) develops and progresses towards a higher stage of development. And Deleuze posited pure difference as the basis of identity, turning the world-picture that departed from sameness and identity upside down.

Each of these thinkers would disagree with the others about important aspects of the notion of differentiation, but they all recognized a kind of creativity at work in the universe.

What Schopenhauer called “objectivation,” what Hegel called “the movement of the Notion” and what Deleuze called “pure difference,” all point towards the ceaseless creativity of the cosmos. However, given different historical periods and metaphysical commitments, each of these thinkers stressed different aspects of this creativity. By reinterpreting these thinkers with the aim of developing a new line of philosophical paradigm, we can formulate the foundational principles of a new organicism, a doctrine that takes differentiation as point of departure, and as its ultimate “thought-shaper” or “root metaphor.”

For something to be truly organic, the notion of differentiation that applies to it must also be complemented with the notion of discarding. Just as certain strains of a given species have no place in the world anymore or fall victim to a mismatch between them and their environment, so too must ideas wither and die once they have lived and developed. Discarding them is the key to further thinking. As per theses 8 and 9, real metaphysics incorporates ideas into its “working array” of notions, and consequently it can grow and develop. But this means also that ideas have a lifespan that is relative to new insights and developments. In turn, this entails that becoming is a core notion of real metaphysics. And as Hegel already theorized, the notion of becoming is a continuous oscillation between Being and Nothingness. It bridges the gap between these two extremes. In a dialectical fashion, it introduces Nothingness into Being and the other way around.

A paradigm shift or epistemic break is the introduction of decay into an established set of ideas: every system of thought topples because of seemingly innocuous questions about its core tenets. Conversely, old ideas are resurrected in a new guise once they offer new possibilities. As A.N. Whitehead said: philosophical positions are generally not refuted, merely discarded; but philosophical positions and notions are repeatedly interpreted and adapted for new environments in which they have to function.

From thesis 19, it follows that real metaphysics is not concerned with the construction of unassailable cathedrals of thought, or intellectual monuments. Thus, it does not conceive of its own activity as a linear trajectory that runs through history, and that strips untruths and misconceptions in the process of reaching the pinnacle of Truth. Neither is it concerned with the formulation of “knockdown arguments” to prove this or that philosophical point or to defend a fixed system of notions and relations to attack from the outside.

Instead, metaphysical thinking as such — the “gesture of doing metaphysics” — is its modus operandi. Its objective is to think on a high level of generality, from which certain connections can be seen that cannot be observed from “ground level” or from a position where one is overly concerned with the rules of logic. It is like speaking in one’s second or third language: focusing too much on the rules of grammar impedes spontaneity and the “line of flight” of thinking. In turn, focusing too much on details too early in the thinking process impedes the construction of a “open system” of notions that are able to develop.

NOTES

[i] O. Paans, “How To Do Real Metaphysics: 22 Theses,” Against Professional Philosophy (15 July 2020), available online HERE.

[ii] See, e.g., O. Paans, “Opening Up Towards the Non-Conceptual: From Kantian Judgment to Creative Oscillation,” Contemporary Studies in Kantian Philosophy 5 (2020): 116–131, available online HERE.

[iii] See, e.g., R. Hanna and O. Paans, “Thought-Shapers,” (Unpublished MS, 2021, available online HERE.

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