Introduction (Full Text)
- Launching metaphysics as a systematic enterprise, Aristotle is soon seen to be defining it twice over, once in fairly technical terms and again in an almost ostentatiously vernacular fashion. Technically defined as the theory of being qua being, metaphysics is more accommodatingly summed up by Aristotle in a single word: wisdom. How these two definitions connect with one another remains a source of puzzlement to the present day.
- Although some notion of wisdom, however inchoate, may be presumed to be available to human beings everywhere, even to the most primitive, there is a tendency to relegate its actual possession to remote ancestors, if not to the gods. At any rate, this is proposed as a cross-cultural hypothesis which professional anthropologists are invited to investigate. But metaphysics aside, how shall wisdom be defined, if only for the purpose of that investigation? Readily enough, as an understanding of the deepest or most fundamental things. That it should be philosophy and not, say, poetry (recalling Plato's attack on the poets) that is called on for such understanding, one has every right to query. Moreover, there have always been students of philosophy who, even after prolonged immersion in the subject, have despaired of achieving wisdom in the absence of some divine revelation. It is with some such thought in mind that Aristotle expresses the fear that his launching of metaphysics may expose him to the charge of impiety, on the ground that the gods may be expected to reserve wisdom to themselves, out of jealousy. In less personal terms, this almost Old Testament jealousy may be presumed to reflect the following line of argument. What distinguishes God from anything else must be the best of things; wisdom and not, say, immortality is the best of things, therefore. . . .Smacking of impiety at the outset, metaphysics comes to be viewed anew in the age of modern science as a presumptuous, if not pretentious, undertaking, as, in three successive waves, Hume, Kant, and Wittgenstein proceed to subject its cognitive credentials to the most searching critique, the end result after only a few years, the smoke having cleared, being its re-emergence today as a safe, scholastic discipline in which, however, only specialists take any great interest. Tucked away in an obscure niche of the university, it is only to be expected that metaphysical researchers should hesitate to advertise themselves as the custodians of wisdom, not least because their professional colleagues in other departments would take offence at the suggestion.
- In particular, the claim that it is metaphysics, not physics, that addresses the fundamental things is not one to which the scientific community is likely to assent; in fact, at the outset of his enquiry, Aristotle enthusiastically endorses the prima-facie plausibility of its being physics that engages the deepest things. As the word itself indicates, 'metaphysics' is defined by way of express contrast with physics, beyond which it fixes its sight, there is reason to believe that metaphysics as a systematic undertaking is launched by Aristotle under the auspices of a critique of physical inquiry informed by the new science of logic, which he also instituted. This emergence of logic and metaphysics in tandem, not remarked upon by Aristotle himself, has only come to be appreciated in recent years.
- Basic to Aristotle's logic, if not to (just about) all subsequent logic, is the grammatical distinction between subject and predicate, which the philosopher comes to gloss in terms of the contrast between a substance and its properties. It is that contrast, above all, that provides the slender patrimony off which, in one form or another, metaphysics continues to live to the present day; thus, even so simple a sentence as 'Socrates is snub-nosed' is felt to involve predicating snub-nosedness of Socrates. Classified by the grammarian as an abstract singular term, the neologism 'snub-nosedness' appears to designate something (possessed in common by all snub-nosed people) of which the man in the street can be supposed to be at best only dimly aware. Whether such recherche items credited largely to Plato should rather be scorned as the merest artefacts of philosophical jargon that answer to nothing in reality, remains a question that one persists in cherishing as the archetypal theme of metaphysics. How a property might belong to a thing — whether essentially or accidentally — is one sort of complication, which supplies the theme of Chapter 1. A further complication, namely, how a property might belong to a thing — whether relatively or absolutely speaking — is the topic of Chapter 2. The rest of the book is simply more of the same, as I back and fill, veer and tack, in an extended meta-physical investigation that, in the end, will be seen to feature essence and the absolute.
- These two themes prompt reflections of a more systematic sort in Chapter 3, where their precise role in the theory of being qua being is defined. Chapter 4 focuses on Hegel, whose conception of metaphysics as the rational reconstruction of formal logic will be seen to connect with Frege on a nuts-and-bolts level. A professional mathematician, Frege is acclaimed for having revolutionized the entire science of logic at a single blow in 1879; but philosophers have been extraordinarily slow in bringing that revolution specifically to bear on the metaphysical agenda as bequeathed by Aristotle. This point is worth lingering over, since in continental Europe it is widely believed that the metaphysical game was pretty much played out in Hegel, and there is a tendency to associate the new logic of Frege with the logical positivists, who welcomed it as a weapon to be used against metaphysics. The basic thought was attractive enough. Over the centuries philosophy has succeeded in establishing itself as a proper science in only one area — logic. Why not, then, junk the rest and confine philosophy henceforth to the logic of the empirical sciences?
- Executing such a program was to prove by no means simple. In particular, it meant reckoning with the mathematical science of set theory, from which the new logic was felt to be virtually indistinguishable; thus the sentence 'Socrates is snub-nosed' came to be glossed by the logician as saying in effect that Socrates is a member of the set of snub-nosed people. Accordingly, the set of snub-nosed people emerges as the mathematical surrogate of Plato's snub-nosedness. Though it was natural enough to suppose that Plato's gropings in antiquity had at last been placed on a secure, scientific footing, such an estimate of the situation came to be recognized as at best premature, if only because of the gropings of mathematicians themselves, until they finally achieved (no thanks to the philosophers) their own so-called ZF intuition into the innermost nature of sets. It is, in fact, the innermost nature of everything which the metaphysician aims to address: witness Chapter 17, where sets in particular come to be understood in a much deeper fashion than mathematics alone can afford, and also Chapter 19, where current research into artificial intelligence1 positively invites the metaphysician to shatter traditional stereotypes regarding the link between the mental and the physical.
- This emphasis on recent developments must not be allowed to obscure my commitment in the present volume to a quintessentially traditional approach, towards both philosophy in general and metaphysics in particular. What traditional metaphysics might be supposed to consist in, I am not prepared to accept at second hand. Thus, when Frege, in the course of arguing that a predicate like 'x is snub-nosed' stands for a function in the mathematician's sense of the term, insists that functions are 'founded deep in the nature of things' (see Chapter 9), one knows that one is in the presence of metaphysics pure and simple. Metaphysics can even be defined, in sharp distinction to physics, with which it might otherwise be confused, as the theory of what lies founded deep in the nature of things. Classical metaphysics has thus been given a new lease of life, albeit in the most clandestine fashion, in the work of Frege. That Frege himself could only be astounded by the suggestion that he was a metaphysician merely indicates how very much closer to Aristotle we are today, thanks in no small measure to the Fregean revolution in logic. Inevitably, it was Kant who presided over all nineteenth-century attitudinizing in regard to metaphysics, and it can only be supposed that the protracted failure of philosophers to recognize the metaphysician in Frege attests to grave deficiencies in our proximate, Kantian heritage.
- My own traditionalism is nowhere so evident as in my sustained effort to accommodate Kant, quite as much as Aristotle, within these pages, even while availing myself of all the advantages of hindsight afforded by the Fregean turn in philosophy, the clarification of which remained for W. V. Quine to effect in our own day by showing us how set theory — now recognized to be positively awash in Platonistic metaphysics — can and should be prevented from infecting logic proper. It is with just such a purified logic that I conjure in Chapters 4, 5, and 6, culminating in Quine's droll maxim, 'To be is to be the value of a variable2.' What Quine asks us to do in quasi-algebraic fashion is to 'solve' for X in the predicate 'x is snub-nosed', Socrates being one of the values of X. Quine's drollery was evident enough in the implicit conflation of such moribund Aristotelian jargon as 'being qua being' and the logico-mathematical idiom regarding the variables x, y, and z. Simply on the level of language, this refreshing interplay of old and new provided a first indication that philosophy was entering a new era, the age of Quine.
Footnote 2: See "Quine (W.V.) - On What There Is".
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