Review of Lowe's 'The Possibility of Metaphysics'
Olson (Eric)
Source: Mind, 109, Number 436, October 2000, pp. 967-9
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. Lowe understands metaphysics in the old-fashioned sense. It is not a description of our categories of thought, or mere conceptual analysis, or a branch of the philosophy of language, or a regimentation of the deliverances of science. It is, rather, an autonomous inquiry into the most basic nature of reality. Despite the book's title, only the first of twelve chapters argues directly that metaphysics in this sense is possible. The rest is metaphysics in action.
  2. Lowe has an extremely fertile and original mind, and the book is packed full of fascinating claims and arguments of the sort that his readers will instantly recognize. It covers a broader range of topics than his previous books, and anyone with a taste for heavy-duty metaphysics – and a solid background in the subject – will find something of interest. At the same time, this breadth is perhaps the book's main weakness. Though some parts are devoted to related themes and fit naturally together, the whole is rather disunified. (Most of the chapters are versions of previously published papers, and can be read in isolation. This is probably a better approach than trying to read the book through from start to finish.) Although the writing is clear, the arguments are sometimes condensed to the point that I could not fully understand them. Were this not so, the book would be considerably longer than it is already. All of this makes the book rather demanding.
  3. Here are a few of the book's main claims:
    • The subject matter of metaphysics is a species of possibility not discoverable by logic or conceptual analysis.
    • There are things without determinate identity conditions (for example, electrons), things without determinate countability (for example, portions of matter), and things without either (particular property instances or tropes).
    • We cannot account for a thing's persistence in terms of causal or spatiotemporal relations among non-persisting things, or in terms of temporal parts. So there must be things whose persistence is brute: things that have determinate identity through time, but no informative criterion of identity.
    • Tense is an irreducible feature of time, even though being temporally present is not a property of events.
    • Numbers are not sets, but kinds of sets-universals1 of which sets are instances. A set with two members is literally a two, an instance of the kind two.
    • Facts exist and make statements true, but have no determinate identity.
    • It is necessary that there exist concrete objects, even though no concrete object exists necessarily.
    There are many more.
  4. I won't try to discuss all of these themes here. I will remain silent about the many parts of the book that I found plausible and cogent, and focus instead on aspects I had more difficulty with.

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