How To Do Real Metaphysics, Revisited: Theses 22–26.

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

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.

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

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

The third installment, which contains theses 15–21, is .

This fourth and final installment contains theses 22–26.

***

22. Real metaphysics is anti-scientistic but also pro-science, anti-mechanist, and organicist: it promotes rational intelligibility, taking as its starting point the manifold possibilities of rationality and their associated modes of expression, whether they are philosophical, scientific, social, artistic, or religious/spiritual.

Some of the philosophical commitments outlined in the preceding theses might convey the impression that real metaphysics is relativist (due to its emphasis on subjectivity and perspectivism), anti-science (due to its criticism of exact modes of representation), mystical (due to its openness towards artistic, religious and/or spiritual experiences), and blind to the successes of a mechanist approach to nature (due to its organicist orientation).

These objections stem from a misunderstanding of the philosophical project of real metaphysics. In order for our mode of thinking to develop, we must address the conceptual problems into which both philosophy and the sciences end up once they stick to the conceptual framework of natural mechanism.

In order to preserve the spirit of curiosity and wonder that gives rise to philosophy and the sciences alike, the existing conceptual frame that supports them must be adapted to avoid the recurring conceptual dead-ends that current thinking runs into. Real metaphysics is pro-science and anti-mechanist so that it can formulate a new organicist science that follows the structure of the objects it studies and does not reduce thinking to conceptualism or fixed methodological schemes. Real metaphysics is a pro-organicist-science.

The importance of subjective experience cannot be stressed too much, as our joint subjectivity constitutes a joint collective consciousness and sphere of communication that we call intersubjectivity. Because each of us is endowed with different capabilities, it follows that some of us due to study, disposition, practice or a combination of all three are attuned to the world in ways that other individuals are not. These potentials can be harnessed only if we take various frames of thought seriously, and trace where they overlap and reinforce each other, or where they raise questions that require answers.

This does not mean that every frame of reference is equally useful or valuable; nor does it condemn one to boundless relativism or uncritical acceptance of all viewpoints, no matter how absurd. The central point that should be kept in mind as a cognitive guideline is that our thinking is both non-conceptually and also conceptually structured. To reduce thought to the conceptual sphere is to do it a disservice and is an unjustifiable narrowing of the potential of the human mind, and its accompanying creative piety.[ii] Moreover, it stunts and deforms the human mind by not allowing it to practice those habits of thought that foster creative piety. As such, dogmatism has a deeply immoral character: instead of anchoring humans in the world, it chains them to a fixed worldview, depriving them of their freedom to think for themselves.

23. Real metaphysics attempts to be as non-anthropocentric as possible, while still fully incorporating the radically subjective point of view, and by approaching the world as a domain in which any entity whatsoever possesses some sort of agency and exerts influences on other entities.

Real metaphysics is committed to the continuity between the material and the mental — or rather, it rejects the distinction between the two by insisting on the fact the we are embodied and enactive in the world. From this commitment, it follows that non-minded entities in the world are on equal ontological footing with minded entities. Moreover, many of them possess a kind of agency that is free of intentions, but nevertheless cause major changes in the world. A tropical storm, the accumulation of phosphate in a pond, moving sand dunes, and marine acidification processes all exert real-world effects that we might or might not experience.

The varieties of anthropocentrism that real metaphysics aims to avoid are:

(i) narrowly egocentric, egoistic point of view for thinking about the world, and

(ii) narrowly speciesist forms of anthropocentrism that privilege the human being over other entities.[iii]

This might seem to contradict thesis 14, but in fact it does not. The type of subjectivism that real metaphysics aims to avoid is a narrowly egocentric, egoistic conception of subjectivity, whereby the world is only considered from a personal standpoint, without taking intersubjectivity and the influence of prejudgements seriously. In short, it is an anthropocentrism that valorizes The Dear Self. This commitment is also intimately bound up with the avoidance of a human-speciesist anthropocentrism that places the interest and experiences of human beings or humanity as a whole at the centre of the metaphysical enterprise, to the detriment of any other creatures or points of view.

A third type of anthropocentrism cannot be avoided and is simply a given. It is an existential-phenomenological anthropocentrism that stems simply from our being embodied in the way that we are. We are living organisms, minded animals, and as such cannot divorce ourselves from this viewpoint. Organicist philosophy emphasizes philosophical practice from an “organism’s point of view.” The advantage that we have, however, is that we possess an imagination to place ourselves mentally in the position of other organisms or systems. The “God’s-Eye” point of view is an analytical instrument, not the pinnacle of human achievements in epistemology. Thus, the third type of anthropocentrism is simply an “organicentrism”: it can be extended to any organism whatsoever. Moreover, it can also be extended to entire systems, such as weather systems or ecosystems.

24. Real metaphysics utilizes the notion of expression as a core idea for making sense of the manifestly real phenomena it encounters.

Many entities in the world can be said to express themselves: the cell dividing itself, as much as the cuckoo singing, or the violinist playing a sonata. If we regard the manifestly real world as emerging from the properties of matter (or the thermodynamic properties that make up what we call “matter”), we can think of its core activity as expression. As I explained in thesis 18, differentiation is postulated as the core property that underlies the dynamic emergence and disappearance of objects, organisms, forms of life, systems, and entire spaces of possibilities. Nevertheless, this differentiation takes shape and acts in the world through expression. Genes express themselves in various ways, and often their expression changes due to the gene-complex in which they appear. Genes can switch “on” or “off” due to environmental factors, thereby altering the organism and its behavior.

In turn, this expression has a profound impact on how organisms behave and/or cooperate, or how their interaction with the environment unfolds. Moreover, (and we see this in the phenomena of the “extended phenotype,” or ecological degradation due to the rapid development of the built environment), behavior that leads to the creation of lasting artifacts and the exploitation of the environment in one form or the other leads to different expressions in ecosystems or weather systems. These causal chains are not one-directional, but multi-directional and dynamic.

Expression in animals with our type of consciousness and intellect, takes on a different form than in wolves, amoebae, fungi, or trees. But fundamentally, rituals and recurring events like mating calls, leaf coloration, marking territories, erosion, or sedimentation can all be regarded as forms of expression of the environment in conjunction with its organisms and larger dynamic systems.

In human beings, expression has developed into an entirely new domain of representation via the arts and mathematics. Due to our cognitive, affective, and practical capacities, we can appreciate auditory or visual patterns that are purposively ordered, and in turn, they affect our interactions with the world, as they open up adjacent cognitive spaces.

This feature, in turn, influences our expression of what we call “the self,” i.e., our self-presentation, our persona. Alternatively, we might say that we also engage in a form of self-expression, both internally and externally. We hold up an image to the outside world, but equally to ourselves.

25. Real metaphysics aims at thinking through becoming, and becoming through thinking; as such, it participates in the universal dimension of (moral) life; but intellectually grasping phenomena is just one cognitive activity alongside the uses of our capacity for sensibility — especially including the imagination — that are inherently bound up with doing real metaphysics.

To use our imagination effectively, we must attempt to think non-anthropocentrically in the sense that is explained in thesis 23, even if that is already an anthropocentric notion (in the third sense) itself. Our cognitive capacities allow us to plan ahead, to switch perspective, and to conceive of imaginary and possible worlds. However, our most basic moral duty is not to undermine the natural substrate on which we live, out of which we emerged, and of which we are an integral part. We must treat it as an end-in-itself. I call this natural substrate Life, with a capital “L.”

We know and experience Life through creative piety. Creative piety amounts to a qualified form of seeing the universe, as it lies in plain view. This “plain view” is so obvious, in fact, that it takes cognitive discipline and practice to see it. In Buddhism, to achieve this sight is called Enlightenment, or “the objective view.” To become an object in thinking is to mentally overlap with it, and deeply sense the connectivity we share with it, even if this can be exceptionally difficult to achieve. Moreover, it is to consider our own actions in relation to the connection we share with the rest of the cosmos and with Life. This does not always mean that we will act in the direct interest of the cosmos and Life as a whole: indeed, to do so would be impossible. Yet, it is important always to aim not to act to the detriment of Life in the long-term.

To think through the landscape, for instance, would amount to taking the landscape’s viewpoint, and reconstruct its dynamics, the way it looks, or the way it is affected by inhabitation, preservation, or exploitation. One must perform an imaginative leap in order to grasp the inner dynamics of an object — or to raise self-critical questions, for that matter, about one’s own thinking. Hegel called this “the movement of the Notion,” i.e., following the structure of self-critical questions through a dialectical thought process.

26. Real metaphysics, therefore, cannot separate life in the biological sense from Life in the existential-phenomenological sense: to do so would be to counteract the very notion of organicist continuity upon which it is founded.

Biological life has given rise to Life, which in turn has developed in multiple directions, and has consequently resulted in various forms of expression, all the way from the colored patterns on the leaves of an Iris flower, to Sibelius’s symphonies. If Life itself were to undermine biological life, then it would undermine itself, and be self-stultifying. It would cut the root from which it receives its sustenance.

Real metaphysics stresses the essential continuity of biological life and Life. It might even be said that Life is an adjacent space of possibilities that was impossible to infer during, for instance, the Precambrian period. Yet, life developed from the cosmological potentials that were present then (and by evolving some new ones along the way). This insight alone should make us suspicious when it comes to predicting phenomena in the biological world. Biological life is built on the basis of relationships between invariants, but it is never explanatorily or ontologically reducible to this basis, precisely because biological life inherently anticipates and predelineates Life.

The essential continuity of life and Life provides a fundamental imperative for humanity: to treat the cosmos as an end-in-itself, because not doing so would harm us in the long term. It follows that our basic habits of thought and action must be oriented towards an organicist framework, and suffused with an attitude of creative piety.

NOTES

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

[ii] See R. Hanna and O. Paans, “Thought-Shapers,” (Unpublished MS, 2021, available online , section 7.

[iii] I am grateful to Robert Hanna for suggesting this important distinction.

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