Two incompatible objections against metaphysics (pt. 1)

Consider two objections:

1.) Metaphysics is pointless because it does not reach any definite conclusions. All metaphysical options have remained unchanged, or only been multiplied, since the time of the Pre-Socratics.

2.) The sciences have rendered metaphysics superfluous or false by explaining its conclusions in another way.

One problem to focus on is that the first claim sees no single metaphysics, but an irreconcilable crowd of competing doctrines, while the second sees metaphysics as unified enough in its conclusions replaced by a single method. So how can we see these claims as compatible?

Easy:  science is a method that works and metaphysics doesn’t have one. Metaphysics tried to figure out things from principles that were not testable when they should have framed hypotheses that could be decided by a test that could be agreed upon in advance. And so the diversity of metaphysics is a result of its absence of a decent method, and the one decent method we’ve found to solve questions replaced it.

But while this account does a tolerable job at explaining objection 1, it gives us no reason to believe that 2 is true – it even gives us a reason to hold that 2 is false. You haven’t explained any of the conclusions from Parmenides to Heidegger by switching to a hypothesis/test method. You haven’t resolved a single philosophical dispute, whether it was between Plato and Aristotle; the Idealists, Rationalists and Empiricists; Continental and Analytic philosophers, etc.



  1. Pseudonoma said,

    September 17, 2013 at 2:35 am

    I am interested in the relation between the two objections posed here.

    The first objection is the one Kant famously advances in the opening lines of the Preface to the Second Edition of his first Kritik:

    “Whether the treatment of that portion of our knowledge which lies within the province of pure reason advances with that undeviating certainty which characterizes the progress of science, we shall be at no loss to determine. If we find those who are engaged in metaphysical pursuits, unable to come to an understanding as to the method which they ought to follow; if we find them, after the most elaborate preparations, invariably brought to a stand before the goal is reached, and compelled to retrace their steps and strike into fresh paths, we may then feel quite sure that they are far from having attained to the certainty of scientific progress and may rather be said to be merely groping about in the dark.”

    But the scientific solution to the first objection –let me call it the methodological objection –bears a relation of dependence to what is objected to in the second objection. The second objection –let me call it the the explanatory objection –wishes to claim for science an alternative form of explanation for those problems previously considered to be properly metaphysical. But supposing this alternative form of explanation were in principle possible (contra one possible implication of your post’s conclusion), it nevertheless would not be possible without first settling (either implicitly or explicitly) certain metaphysical questions. That is, in order even to set up a verification method one must first interpret the givenness (gegebenheit) of what is given in a specific way, e.g.. that the motion of an object be understood in terms of a concept of force which is presupposed in advance, or that objects be treated as extensive magnitudes in terms of a presupposed concept of the quantum of space. Kant himself understood precisely the necessity of these metaphysical presuppositions with great clarity, which is why he cannot rest with the methodological objection to metaphysics found in his second preface but must also follow it with other metaphysical conclusions.

    • September 17, 2013 at 10:32 am

      To add to what you’re saying, I think that the dialogue between the two objections is between, on the one hand, the broadly Kantian idea that the problem with metaphysics is that it has not formed a single definitive science like (Euclidean!) geometry and (Newtonian!) physics and, on the other hand on the broadly Positivist idea that metaphysics is at best a primitive approximation of a more perfect method, and at worst a vast set of scheinprobleme. Kant clearly does not believe the second idea, as he is very clear that positive methods neither solve metaphysical problems nor prove that they were bogus all along. For Kant, faith plays a crucial role in bringing the objects that the metaphysicians once stove after into human life – but I can’t imagine Comte or Steven Pinker saying this.

      My expansive, glorious vision for this argument would be to show that both premises somehow form an undivided critique and that they are mutually contradictory – the implication being that the objections end up destroying one another. True, Kant does a good job at keeping them separate, but is the separation tenable? It gets a little difficult to believe that a doctrine that rests everything on the primacy of possible experience can avoid the gravitational pull of grounding everything firmly in the a posteriori. At the end of the day, Kant only allows one method for rationally adjudicating problems about reality, i.e. the hypothetical/experimental method, and I don’t know that this leaves him with a solid patch of ground from which he can rationally leverage himself apart from Positivism.

%d bloggers like this: