How To Do Real Metaphysics, Revisited: Theses 8–14.
By Otto Paans
— 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.
The first installment, which contains theses 1–7, is HERE.
This second installment contains theses 8–14.
8. Real metaphysics is therefore organicist[ii] in the sense that it tries to make sense of appearances, phenomena and objects by utilizing an open structure that can grow and adapt once insights progress; a real metaphysics shies away from strict taxonomy and leans in its approach more towards geography or gene mapping.
Every form of taxonomy is an attempt to freeze the continuous stream of phenomena and appearances we encounter. It is an attempt to create an order and impose it on natural structures that seemingly lack it. The mistake that occurs here is that the structure that is imposed — and that is supposed to represent the order of the world as it is — bears little resemblance to the content it is supposed to order. To investigate the real structure of the world, we need tomust follow the clues it provides us; but to impose an external standard on the material that we encounter mistakes mistakenly views an idealization of the world with its real and manifest properties. Here, we encounter the Kantian thing-in-itself: it is the world as such, hiding behind the mere appearances, and our descriptions of its are ephemeral encrustations that glimmer and shine on its surface.
The form of thought by which a questionable standard is imposed on an essentially organic subject matter is mechanistic in approach. It assumes already that its descriptive method reflects the structure of the world to such a degree that it can be taken as the structure of the world. It is to confuse the map with the territory. The assumption underlying the mechanistic worldview is that we already know the concept behind the structure of the world and have to roll it out everywhere. And given that there are many regular patterns to be deciphered in the world, this approach appears to be successful — no, more than that, it presents itself as the only available option. Yet, we do not fully know what we miss out on by applying the mechanistic worldview arbitrarily and haphazardly to a full range of manifestly real phenomena.
By a diametrically opposed contrast, an organicist approach is epigenetic, which means that it purposively and repeatedly applies a small set of flexible procedures appropriately to different domains of content. It follows the characteristics of phenomena wherever they lead. The ideal picture of nature does not emerge; let alone the confirmation that nature is indeed a clockwork, a Ladder of Creation, or a machine. Instead, the very organicity of nature, its very propensity to multiply and differentiate is taken as the model of reasoning. What Schopenhauer called the Will-to-Live (Wille zum Leben) emerges in nature as the tendency to realize as many different objects as possible. The most basic property of its nature is one of ceaseless variation, and its inner nature or essence can be only dimly grasped. We perceive its effects, but its depths cannot be inferred from the abstract, superficial display of these effects. A deeper level of philosophical reflection on structure is required in order to venture beyond the surface structure. The mistake of empiricism was to assume that from the mechanical surface-structure of phenomena, the deep structure of organic reality can be readily and straightforwardly inferred, as if one were attempting to infer the properties of the real numbers from the properties of the natural numbers. It mistakes the superficial fragmentary, sparse structure of appearances for the deep holistic, rich structure of reality; and it regards the sum total of surface interactions as a comprehensive world-picture. Not surprisingly, David Hume was able to conclude only that it is habit by which we live. Indeed, this is the cognitive situation in which we find ourselves when we remain fixated on the mechanical surface-structure that is wrongly supposed to be manifest reality by classical empiricism.
Consequently, we must take the idealist lesson that we are dealing with phenomena fully seriously. Philosophy in the organicist tradition can help us to grasp the Will-to-Live more concretely only by paying closer attention to the phenomena that result from the differentiating activity of nature, precisely by resolving not to apply mechanistic models to them. This anti-mechanistic, closely-attentive methodological strategy allows one fully to appreciate the richness of manifestly real phenomena and their fineness of grain. Without the attitude of natural piety, one is condemned to view the whole of nature as either (i) a divine creation that is a mechanical system, or (ii) a God-less a mechanical system. In either case, the root metaphor for nature is the natural machine. Leaving aside Spinoza’s intentionally paradoxical formulation, deus sive natura, in classical theology God — by definition — cannot be nature itself. If He were nature, He would cease to be God. A natural machine is a systematic abstraction from a fundamentally organic physical nature: therefore, when we describe physical nature in mechanical terms, we delude ourselves by confusing what is systematically abstract with what is fundamental and concrete.
Methodologically, the organicist tradition in real metaphysics takes an epigenetic and — as it were — geological approach. The taxonomist tries to freeze the world to conform to his schemes, orders and tables; the organicist tries to follow and interpret the manifestly real movements of the phenomena he encounters. As such, both the influence of time and evolutionary space are integral to organicist concepts. An organism is what it inherited from its progenitors, but without being reducible to these properties. Simultaneously, an organism is a creative, dynamic entity, capable of agency. And also, at the same time, an organism is the result of dynamic, causal, material flows whose precise interconnections may be forever beyond explanation. The organism, then, is perilously perched on a dynamic point in manifestly real spacetime. It occupies a unique and individual perspective onto the world, yet only temporarily; it inherits characteristics, but in some cases also free choice. As such, it is born into a causally determined body, but the possibilities that this body offers cannot be determined in advance, but advance but arise in dynamic interaction with the environment. And again, the body itself is the result of the interaction between environment and organisms in manifestly real time. Body and environment can be analysed separately, but these efforts demand a price, which consists in overlooking the absolutely fundamental domain in which they dynamically and mutually shape each other
Any concepts that result from this way of looking at the world, bear the stamp of temporality and what I will call tentativity, i.e., the property of being tentative, which is from the very beginning inscribed in the concept of “concept.”A concept in the usual sense is only a fixed point in a discursive space. However, a concept in the organicist sense is a descriptive entity that enables one to think beyond it, and that will be discarded once insights mature beyond its .usefulness. It is a stepping stone on the road of thought, useful only to highlight certain features of the environment before thought itself moves on.
9. Real metaphysics is the conception of a structure that enables incorporative thinking: it accepts manifestly real appearances/phenomena, facts, and objects at face value, and seeks incorporation of them within an the open structure; if the open structure fails to incorporate the manifestly real appearances/phenomena, facts, or objects, then it is revisited and reworked if necessary.
If concepts in the organicist sense are descriptive-analytic instruments that are in development, hence always tentative and changing, it follows that they incorporate, reject, envelop, and exclude certain influences on them. What Michel Foucault attempted to map was the secret life of concepts, whether this concerned their development in the domains of madness, clinical treatment. or sexuality. What his genealogical analysis showed was twofold: First, concepts are human inventions that submit to conventions, have defects, and ere are continually re-invented. Second, concepts highlight as much as they cover up. Every concept pulls some features of a given phenomenon (madness, sexuality, beauty, behaviour, etc.) into view, while relegating others to the background. Depending on the emerging pictures, new ideas on what constitutes “objectivity” are constructed.
For the organicist, the genealogical or epigenetic approach presents an opportunity to avoid the trap of conceptualist perfectionism. By treating concepts as temporary analytical instruments open to change, one can freely discard, transform, modify, or multiply them, morphing them into new forms. The diagrams of D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson or Frei Otto are better shapers of concepts than the decision-theoretic models of Allen Newell or Herbert Simon.
To think is to move. It follows that one must orient oneself towards a given notion, and move around it, shifting perspectives, and sometimes reconciling fundamentally incommensurable insights. What results from this process is an open structure of concepts that grows, changes, and extends. Conversely, some concepts lose features or return to their atavistic form. To think of a “system” as a closed new organon or Novum Organum, in which every concept has a neat and fixed place, is a mechanistic phantasm. Instead, an open conceptual system is more akin to a pattern of frost forming on a windowpane: along certain lines, a phase change takes place, and the conceptual structure solidifies. Yet, this structure can adapt whenever insights change. Organicist thinking is incorporative: analytic definitions are of limited use to it, and they are not taken as the horizon of understanding. For instance, if we consider the notion of genus in biology, we can see that it is for some cases as an instrument of identification. Yet, for some genera, it is a stumbling block to appreciate the differentiating character of nature. By sticking to an old categorization, one runs in paradoxes left and right — conceptual problems that are so serious that they undercut the entire genus/species distinction altogether.
By taking the “pure” or the “ideal” as the point of departure for reasoning, each concept in the mechanistic sense has to represent an ideal to verify or evaluate all further findings against. The ideal oak tree is a “typical” specimen that can be used to determine the ideality of other oak trees. However, this is an exception to the rule of nature. More often than not, the ideal is a fiction, a phantasm, or a pragmatic label to describe a certain kind of property — in this case, a kind of “oakness.” But the ideal is only an excessively narrow concept, and it requires a range of supplementary cases to show how nature deviates from the ideal. In reality, the ideal is the deviation it does not exist, just like the “average family” with 2.5 children does not exist. Organicist thought starts from a structure of incorporation: a concept entails an ideal or typical situation, and the cloud of variations that derives from it. The ideal itself is a temporary construction: it anchors a set of variations in a discursive space.
10. Real metaphysics is a one-world metaphysics, and to that extent a monism: the properties that makes this world develop and grow are dynamically inherent in it; and although it cannot be precluded that these properties do not extend into some domain that for all intents and purposes appears as a radical “beyond,” these properties and that “beyond” nevertheless remain proper parts of the one world.
The world is a single unity; yet our access to it is limited to just a demarcated zone of its entire being. There is no need to postulate an external entity to explain this world. For one thing, an external factor does not belong to this world, and seems an explanatory extravagance. Inside this world lies the potential to form life, if favourable conditions are present. This is the only conclusion one can reach if one postulates a single world.
It follows that life is dynamically inherent in this world, and that it develops out of the matter from which it is constituted. It also follows, then, that real metaphysics is monist. But it is a deeper and richer monism than the sterile atomism of Democritus. If anything, it is a pure ontology in the sense of Spinoza, yet supplemented with and supported by contemporary scientific insights, starting with a robust account of the nature of matter as point of departure.
From the depths of matter and asymmetric energy flows, everything emerges, including awareness, consciousness, and mindedness more generally. Real metaphysics deals with the properties of matter without falling back into a crude physicalism, which is a remnant of Cartesian dualism and the doctrine of the soul — or even primitive animism.
11. Real metaphysics must be connected to the idea of the sublime, the experience of that which is unbounded and yet also remains non-conceptually accessible to us: it must point to, and open up towards, that which cannot be expressed in concepts and judgments or propositions.
The sublime may appear as an 18th and 19th century notion that is outdated and even naïve. However, the very idea of the sublime can easily be extended to encompass and include the essentially non-conceptual domain that structures our experience in conjunction with our conceptual grasp of the world. For example, the concepts of the sublime and human dignity are closely related in Kant’s aesthetic, moral, political, and theological writings. It They also opens out onto the attitude of natural piety: we find ourselves in a universe that we will but partially understand, and whose inner depths elude us. However, more often than not, this understanding is emotively felt rather than rationally thought about. It is expressed in language and imagery, but these images themselves are viewpoints through which we experience the world.
Given the fact that we are essentially embodied, this is only to be expected. The sensibility that we possess derives from an evolutionarily developed, biological, bodily structure, and that body is the point of contact with the world. In a dynamic interaction with the environment, our impressions are formed. In creatures with our type of mindedness, the sublime figures as a horizon of rational understanding, leading to feelings of apprehension — or, as Burke expressed it — of terror and finitude.
12. Real metaphysics cannot be merely theoretical: the way the world is structured also reciprocally determines the way we desire and feel, and the way we ought to act.
As Donne pointed out, we do not exist as islands, either from each other or with regard to the world at large. When we extend the notion of natural piety to a larger scale, we end up with a cosmic piety, the realization that we inevitably tied the destiny of the cosmos as such. Cosmic piety is the diametrical opposite of nihilism. It follows that there is a close link between the organicist account of the world, and the imperatives that we should rationally set for ourselves. It would be self-contradictory if we did not act on the single fact that we are integral parts of the cosmos. From an evolutionary point of view, our genes configure us for survival. However, in creatures with our sense of planning and foresight, this biological imperative cannot just involve short-term, egotistical optimization. Instead, it must necessarily involve cooperation and planning, especially in this era of ecological degradation. One of the major tasks of any philosophy — whether organicist or otherwise — is to think long and hard about accomplishing this goal, with our embeddedness in mind. No matter how much we attempt to disentangle ourselves from our natural roots, there is no way that humanity as we know it can survive without the natural substrate out of which it emerged. This applies especially to the recent “transhumanist” fantasies, which take still our naturally evolved cognition and relation to the world as point of departure for their construction of digital forms of mind.
13. Real metaphysics is non-exhaustive: no system of metaphysics has ever been exhaustive; and how could it be?, since every metaphysical system is the product of the finite human mind, with all its tendencies and shortcomings reflected in its products.
Every system of metaphysics has been authored by human beings. No system has been exhaustive or final. And no system has perfectly encapsulated the world. Every attempt to do so has resulted in grave omissions, oversimplifications, either heavy anthropomorphizing or equally and oppositely, anti-humanism, baseless idealization, and over-intellectualizing. All this, in turn, is a privileging of the ideal over the real, the eternal over the temporary, and the static over the dynamic; and the predictable over the unpredictable and unforeseen. As such, many metaphysical systems try to freeze the world into rigid distinctions — they try to interpret the world by changing it into a set of ideals or over-idealized representations. They think against the structure of the world, not with and alongside it. Organicist metaphysics can avoid this trap by tapping into different resources, and consequently adopting a different modus operandi. But above all, one must set aside the wish to comprehend everything at a single glance. A metaphysical system is an instrument to explore and survey the world, to create new ideas; not to freeze them into dogmatic assertions. That being said, nevertheless some distinctions are fundamental to a given system, but that does not make them true by stipulation. One must learn to create and to let go: grow, flourish, wither, and emerge again.
Thus, real metaphysics is fully immanent in its methodology, while being at the same time being transcendental in its scope and ambitions.
14. Real metaphysics is radically subjectivist only in an existential-phenomenological sense: it reflects one’s necessary embeddedness in a particular social and historical context, along with one’s personal and cultural preferences, blind spots, shortcomings, advantages, insights, and habits.
But if real metaphysics fully embraces a form of transcendental idealism, it follows that one core lesson of George Berkeley must be fully incorporated into it: namely, that our access to the world is necessarily limited. Moreover, our access proceeds via our embodied existence. Hence, it is radically perspectivist, and perhaps even unrepentantly subjectivist in an existential-phenomenological sense. This position has given rise to much discussion and derision: does it not lead automatically into the worst kind of relativism or postmodern denials of the value and/or existence of truth? First, we must admit that our personal experiences are indeed unique and endogenous to us — they can only be partially communicated to others by us. If our access to the world is limited, so too is our access to the minds and experiences of others — and ourselves — limited. However, as I have said in thesis 12, none of us are islands. Each individual possesses a unique perspective on the world; however, large parts of that perspective are shared with others in various forms of intersubjectivity, whether bodily, culturally, socially or affectively. Subjectivism is something to be recognized, without directly falling into the trap of unconstrained relativism or subjective idealism. It is the source of the richness of intersubjective experience, and equally of its incomplete and sometimes sketchy character.
Consequently, as per thesis 13, it is no wonder that metaphysics is an incomplete and perspectival discipline. Given the preceding theses, we can maintain that all metaphysical systems are reflections: they reflect the culture in which they were conceived, they reflect inherited ideas, and they reflect the perspective of their authors. Again, this may seem a postmodern assertion that every form of philosophy must be reducible to a socially conditioned set of assertions. However, this is a fatal underestimation of individuality and individual agency (and in extenso, dignity). To hold that individuals are just socially conditioned is to relapse into a nihilist mistake of the worst kind. If it were not for creative individuals, we would not have a range of precious artworks and scientific discoveries we have now; of course it is equally true, without destructive individuals, we could have circumvented the worst atrocities and political disasters.
If real metaphysics is radically subjectivist in an existential-phenomenological sense, it should take this property as point of departure for all of its development, even despite recent “Correlationist” protestations that such a form of philosophy is doomed to fail. Moreover, it should refrain from trying to be a metaphysics that has the “last word” on everything. Expression is a much more vital and living notion than arid comprehension or completeness. To think is to express. And to express is to fully embrace the incompleteness of the perspective from which one reasons. This is why philosophy is a kind of metanoetics in Tanabe’s sense of the word: it must apologize for its inadequacy. Yet, this is no ground for despair or nihilism: on the contrary, it is an invitation to embrace nothingness fully, and thus it is the beginning, of all philosophy. Philosophy must not start from a blank slate: it must focus on where it stands, i.e., it must consider its own structure and foundations as preliminary and tentative points of departure. Without this first glance inward, however, thinking cannot begin.
[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, “The Organicist Conception of the World: A Manifesto” (Unpublished MS, 2020), available online HERE; R. Hanna and O. Paans, “This is the Way the World Ends: A Philosophy of Civilization Since 1900, and A Philosophy of the Future,” Cosmos & History 16, 2 (2020): 1–53, available online at URL = <http://cosmosandhistory.org/index.php/journal/article/viewFile/865/1510>, and also available in preview HERE; J.S. Torday, W.B. Miller Jr, and R. Hanna, “Singularity, Life, and Mind: New Wave Organicism,” in J.S. Torday and W.B. Miller Jr, The Singularity of Nature: A Convergence of Biology, Chemistry and Physics (Cambridge: Royal Society of Chemistry, 2020), ch. 20, pp. 206–246; and R. Hanna, THE END OF MECHANISM: An Apocalyptic Philosophy of Science (2021), available online HERE.
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