Metaphysical Bridges



There’s a very interesting (and extensive) interview with Pete Wolfendale over at Figure/Ground. One of the most exciting parts for me is the discussion of the analytic continental relationship which is something I have been working on more and more in the last 6 months (largely with Matt Hare at PAF).

Pete says:

The current renewal of metaphysics in the Continental tradition, of which SR/OOO is merely the most obvious expression, is not entirely dissimilar to the renewal of metaphysics in the analytic tradition that began in the 1970’s and has since snowballed. There was an anti-metaphysical tendency dominant in each tradition from their beginnings in the first half of the 20th century. Although there were always metaphysical outliers (e.g., Bergson, Sellars, etc.), the influence of phenomenology/post-structuralism in the Continental tradition (e.g., Heidegger/Derrida) and logical positivism/ordinary language philosophy (e.g., Carnap/Wittgenstein) in the analytic tradition cultivated a pronounced skepticism about the very possibility of metaphysical inquiry. Figures like Habermas and Rorty were even able to exploit this ‘post-metaphysical’ consensus as a means to build bridges between the traditions. The problem with the ongoing collapse of this consensus has been that the desire for renewed metaphysical speculation has rarely been accompanied by a response to the methodological problems posed by metaphysical skepticism. If you ask someone in the analytic tradition working on, say, the metaphysics of causation (e.g., Russellian eliminativism, Lewisian counterfactual analysis, causal law realism, powers metaphysics, etc.) what precisely ‘metaphysics’ is, they’ll likely say something like “the attempt to describe ‘the real structure of the world’, ‘what there really is’, ‘the fundamental constituents of nature’, etc.”, but they’re unlikely to be able to define these phrases with any degree of methodological precision. I think that if you ask someone in the Continental tradition working on, say, the metaphysics of agency (e.g., Zizekian/Badiouian ontologised Lacanianism, Deleuzian neo-Spinozism, Latourian actor-network theory, new materialism, etc.), then you’re apt to get a similar response, maybe using slightly different language. What this means is that ‘metaphysics’ has come once more to signify something like ‘first philosophy’, not in the sense of providing a methodologically perspicuous foundation for other fields, but in the sense of naming the place where we keep our foundational assumptions, whatever those assumptions happen to be.

I want to expand on some of the issues that I have encountered exploring particularly the relationship of predication and ontology. First, it is quite telling that when you speak to continental philosophers, or people who read continental theory broadly construed, there is a sense that continental philosophy is necessarily dry and concerned only with truth tables, predicate logic, and with serving science. This caricature is wedded to, as Pete’s suggestion above suggests, the Carnapian view of analytic philosophy.

The story goes that Carnap effectively banned metaphysics and ontology in the interwar years, claiming that both were abuses of language (either of language in general in regards to the former or of the meaningful intention of the speaker in regards to the latter). Quine then in the 50s supposedly single-handedly resuscitated metaphysics in the name of science. This picture of course would obscure the fact that Carnap admitted abstract entities in the name of good scientific methodology and Quine relied upon semantics to justify his holism.

The current explosion of metaontological and metametaphysical work often refers back to the Carnap-Quine debate but the more adventorous analytic metaphysicians do not often refer to Quine (see Anna Sofia Maurin’s text here). There are various reasons for this, one of them being that several ontologists believe that the Carnapian paradigm can be expanded to allow for Quine’s concerns or, in other words, they take a deflationary approach to ontology while accepting Quine’s methodological worries. In the aforementioned interview Pete mentions that his own work is an attempt to resist the deflationary trends as well as the ontological liberal trends.

This latter tendency (ontological liberalism) is something I have written about before here but what exactly this means in analytic terms is tricky. Many of the stranger trends in analytic ontology or metaphysics (or their meta- forms) see Meinongianism or neo-Meinongianism as too strange, or simply incoherent. What is too often forgotten, however, is that Meinong was writing in the dark ages of metaphysics (as Peter Hylton puts it) and thus is unclear about the degree of his ontological commitment, what exactly he means but non-existent objects etc. Yet fictional objects, as well as impossible worlds, abstract entities, and negative facts are employed by many deflationists. The Ontology After Quine project as a interesting classification:

“despite the fact that the vast majority of philosophers working on ontology in the last 50 years have approached their task from a broadly Quinean point of view, a growing number of dissenting voices can be heard in the recent literature. Two groups in particular can be identified:

  • The Moderates, who think that though Quine’s approach to ontology is broadly right, there are ways of alleviating ontological commitment that Quine did not fully accommodate. This group includes various philosophers who have advocated forms of fictionalism, such as Stephen Yablo and Joseph Melia.
  • The Radicals, who think that Quine’s approach to ontology is totally wrong, either because Quine misidentified the question of ontology or because his account of how ontological inquiry should be conducted is misconceived. This group includes various philosophers who have suggested that questions of reality and/orfundamentality should be central in ontology inquiry, such as Kit Fine and Jonathan Schaffer.”

The biggest difference is that fictionalists say that whether or not something exists depends upon the speaker’s commitment, context, or what it is that the fictional object is indexing. In this regard ‘exists’ is folded into language completely, it is about how we can talk about objects and how they are classified.

This discussion leaves out those who were interested in ontology far earlier on (such as David Lewis starting in the 1960s) as well as the Kantian lines in P.F. Strawson and then in a different way with Sellars. Lewis’ push for the existence of possible worlds to explain modal logic has given rise to various research programs emphasizing world structure, counterfactuals, and universals. Ted Sider can be taken to be one of the more radical proponents arguing that the world has a definite structure that can be adequately described with the correct metaphysical semantics. Sider is thus close to the Quinean radicals in terms the question of metaphysics is about structure not objects but differs from their emphasis on ground and priority.

Part of the problem with all of this is it amounts to approaching analytic philosophy in a general continental way, that is, in terms of history and figures. It is often said that analytic philosophy revolves around problems whereas continental philosophy sticks to its history of influences. This leads to the repetition of problems in the analytic world (since there is little memory) while the emphasis on history can lead to rather rigid -isms in continental thought, or crippling allegiances to figures.

One of the striking things about Meillassoux’s After Finitude, for all its problems and controversies, is that it approached continental philosophy in a analytic way, i.e., it focused on the problem of correlation as a unacknowledged bias. The talk of correlationists, and the defending of various figures from the charge, is a continental reaction to a analytic approach.

It would seem what is required is an acknowledge of general tendencies especially regarding the limits of logic and language, the relation between structure and existence, and between monism and pluralism. Or how, why, and what.

Maximalist interpretations of ontology on the continental side of things are met with maximalist interpretations of deflationary ontology on the analytic side. Yet the former requires a prioritization of the epistemological whereas the latter necessitates its elimination. New Realist tendencies attempt to split the difference thus why figures such as Frege and Putnam show up in the works of thinkers such as Markus Gabriel and Maurizo Ferraris.

Both of these trends supplant concerns about structure or priority (which we might generally see in more metaphysical terms then ontological if by ontology we are talking about objects or things). This leads to questions of existence since, in this general paradigm, saying that we can talk about something, or how we talk about something, does not tell us whether it exists or not. Existence is a question of the underlying structure (this tends towards monism, ground, or ontological dependency of some sort). On both the continental and analytic sides these thinkers tend to be more open to the hard sciences. Both Deleuze and Schaffer could reside here despite all their differences.

These problems in turn face the problem of what it is that minds do, of what they are capable of. Is thought maximally or minimally present, is it clarified or hindered by epistemological concerns, and is it understood better as a peculiar object or as an underlying structure of philosophical practice if not ontology and/or metaphysics. This can be played out in empiricism, idealism, or numerous other attempts at attempting to account for how we add to and determine the contours of world. This form in turn can have maximalist and minimalist interpretations – the former being strong ontological idealism of a figure like James Jeans or Eddington with the minimal interpretation being that of Kant.

These positions all bleed into one another, particularly in the moderate forms of each such as in a figure like Sellars whose nominalism with psychologist and naturalist tendencies places him between figures like Carnap and Quine but also between Kant and Hegel. We can also talk about the ongoing caricatures of philosophical style and content, and the assumption that radical conceptual content implies radical philosophical and philosophical beliefs. This cuts into the epistemology and ontology relation, that an emphasis on the former is anthrocentric while the latter is inherently liberating (i.e., the assumption that flat ontology implies democracy).

But, as has already been suggested, saying that things exist equally does not determine that you behave as if things are equal, or even that you should, particularly if you remain int he mode of objects and not structures. That is, in terms structures you have some form of asymmetrical determination but with objects you have various forms of co-determination (which is already implied in the maximal state of ontology). This is why, despite some appearances, de Castro for instance is actually closer to monism that ontological liberalism since he emphasizes translation and the perception of differing objects as fitting different functional roles for different cultures for instance.

Thus, a constructive suspension of suspicion accompanies much analytic work in ontology, metaphysics and their meta- forms that better allows for translation then the rigidity of the historical or great figure account. The historical and contextual emphasis of the continental tradition helps us not repeat ourselves in terms of the form of the problem and also suggest why certain problems become concerns in different language over again. The analytic approach can become too much a game of imitating science while the continental one can become too much a game of creating a theory of meaning for the all.




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