Moore – The Evolution of Modern Metaphysics: Introduction

This will be our reading for March 24.  You can find the details on our page.

1-6. The Definition of Metaphysics and Self-Consciousness

1. Moore’s working definition of metaphysics is “the most general attempt to make sense of things” (1).  This is entirely provisional, and he needs to explain why he did not use a different definition like “a general description of the whole universe,” or Wilfred Sellars’ “to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term,” or Hegel’s “search for the most plausible theory of the whole universe, as it is considered in the light of total science”.  All three parts of his expression, “most general,” “attempt,” and “make sense of things” do important work for Moore.

2. There are four points to be made about “most general.”  The first is about what sort of generality is meant; metaphysics always refers to general terms like time, existence, relation, and quantity.   For example, we can ask what it means to be and offer an answer with the form of “To be is to be x,” where x can be an individual, or an appearance, or an expression of power.

3. The second point is that “most general” can suit two common positions about metaphysics.  Some claim metaphysics deals with what is necessary or a priori, while others claim there is no necessary/contingent distinction.  “Most general” suits both groups.  Those who insist on the contingent/necessary distinction can take the term to extend to all possibilities, and those who dislike the distinction can accept it because it need not refer to possibilities at all.

4. The third point is that “most general” qualifies attempt, not sense; this distinguishes his definition from the others, because while they spoke of the thing sought for, he is talking about the search itself.  

5. Finally, “most general” is a superlative.  Some claim that there is no highest level of generality, so metaphysics is impossible.  However, his definition admits of degrees: the more general, the more metaphysical.  Whether or not metaphysics is unavoidable, Moore is committed to the idea that it is possible.

6. While other disciplines may also use the word “attempt” in their definition, they are just as likely to call themselves sciences.  So, bioecology is the science of organisms and their environment. He will not define metaphysics as the most general science or study of things because metaphysics might not be a science at all.  It might not even be a study of “things”. He also uses the word “attempt” because we can attempt things that might be impossible.  The phrase “make sense of” can be taken to be only an endeavour, as in “I spent the afternoon attempting to make sense of this passage, but gave up”.

7. The “sense” of something could be its meaning, its purpose, or an explanation.  This is because a near-synonym for “make sense of” is “understand,” and there is a wide range of things that we could say someone understands, such as languages, suffering, and behaviour.  He says, “Thus making sense of things can embrace on the one hand finding something that is worth living for, perhaps even finding the meaning of life, and on the other hand discovering how things work, for instances by ascertaining relevant laws of nature” (5).  Moore wants all of these possibilities to be kept in mind.

8. When “make sense” without a direct object, there is another range of associations.  Here, it is not quite “understand,” but to “be intelligible” or “be rational.” The phrase “make sense of things” can imply “things” is an undifferentiated lump, and this can make us think in terms of just making sense, full stop.  

9. The phrase “of things” does make a difference, however.  It can check an urge to treat metaphysics as if it were mathematics, as if it were “executed by devising abstract self-contained systems” (6).  It also distinguishes metaphysics from logic, which we could say is about “making sense of sense” (though the two are related). Further, “of things” enforces some resonances of “make.”  While “making sense” can just be a matter of “being intelligible,” making sense of something has associations of productivity.  In some cases, making sense is a matter of being intelligible, but making sense of something is a matter of rendering something intelligible.  Moore wants to leave room for the idea that sense is literally made of things, like bread is made of yeast, water, and flour.

10. He wants to take full advantage of the myriad associations “make sense of things” opens up.  For example, there is the possibility that what metaphysics results in is not knowledge, or perhaps not knowledge that something is the case, but rather a knowledge of how to reckon with things, or knowledge about what it means for things to be what they are.  Hence, that which results from metaphysics may not be knowledge which can be expressed by descriptive declarative sentences.  We could also make the related claim that metaphysics is not a search for the “truth.” It might be that the “best” metaphysics involves creating new concepts, or that the best metaphysics is being clear about existing concepts and making correct judgements.

11. There are two major pitfalls of the phrase “making sense of things.”  First, it can be pointless or even destructive when applied to things we already understanding: jokes are a good example of this.  The second is that it might be impossible to make (some kinds of) sense of certain things: “We must take very seriously Adorno’s question of what the prospects are for metaphysics after Auschwitz” (7).   Moore seems to be referring to this passage: “A new categorical imperative has been imposed by Hitler upon unfree mankind: to arrange their thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will happen” (Negative Dialectics, 365).

12. It is a common claim that metaphysics involves self-conscious reflection; perhaps Moore should have included a reference to this in his definition, but Moore says “most general” already accounts for it.  To make sense of things at the highest level of generality implies making sense of what making sense is, and this requires us to reflect on our activity. Moore thinks this is why most metaphysical systems have some account of what metaphysics is.

13. Self-consciousness complicates the matter somewhat.  Self-consciousness and self-confidence do not go well together, because self-consciousness typically produces doubt.  It could turn out that metaphysics is a self-defeating endeavour because of this link to doubt.  Terry Pinkard’s commentary on Hegel describes the relation between self-consciousness and doubt this way:

There are at least two types of doubts we may have about [the sort of reasons we take to be the most important reasons for belief or action].  We may have doubts about whether those reasons that we take as authoritative really are authoritative reasons and we may have doubts about whether the account that we have given of why they should (or should not) counter as authoritative reasons is itself in order.  Skepticism arises when either of these kinds of doubts occur; it arises, as Hegel likes to put it, out of the negativity of self-consciousness …. This kind of ’negativity’—the capacity to generate a kind of skepticism about itself from its own terms—is a characteristic … of self-consciousness.”  (The Sociality of Reason, 7)

6. Three Questions

14. Metaphysics does not deal with any specific areas of the world or human life; it is “pure” philosophy.  This makes its evolution difficult to entangle from philosophy as a whole. Moore thinks there are three basic questions that have been sources of serious disagreement; the questions of transcendence, novelty, and creativity.

a) The Transcendence Question

15. The transcendence question involves asking if we can make sense of “transcendent” things, or if we are limited to “immanent” things.  These terms have been described in many ways, but they typically suggest a contrasts between what is “beyond” and what is “within,” which prompts the question: beyond or within what?  There are also long-running battles over what the border between the transcendent and the immanent is, or even if such a border exists.

16. This question is also about the boundary between what is accessible or inaccessible through experience, or what is knowable or unknowable by us, or the supernatural and the natural, or the atemporal and the temporal, or the infinite and the finite, or between what we can make sense of and what we can’t.  

b) The Novelty Question

17. The novelty question concerns whether or not we make sense of things in a radically new way, or if we limited to making sense of things in the same way we already do.  It brings to mind P.F. Strawson’s distinction between “revisionary” and “descriptive” metaphysics: “Descriptive metaphysics is content to describe the actual structure of our thought about the world, revisionary metaphysics is concerned to produce a better structure” (Individuals, 9).

18. Moore asks why “practising metaphysicians” should think of themselves as being limited to making sense of things in the way we already do.  The phrase “practicing metaphysicians” is crucial, because others, operating a lower level of generality, might discover new ways of making sense all the time.  But the metaphysician might insist that because they are focused on making sense itself, then they should only be concerned with current practices of sense making and protecting them from confusion.

19. Alternatively, one could say there is only one way of making sense available to us.  Strawson himself holds something like this view.  He thinks descriptive metaphysics wants to “lay bare the most general features of our conceptual structures”:

For there is a massive central core of human thinking which has no history—or none recorded in histories of thought; there are categories and concepts which, in their most fundamental character, change not at all. Obviously these are not the specialities of the most refined thinking. They are the commonplaces of the least refined thinking; and are yet the indispensable core of the conceptual equipment of the most sophisticated human beings. It is with these, their interconnexions, and the structure that they form, that a descriptive metaphysics will be primarily concerned. (Individuals, 10)

20. Descriptive metaphysics counts as metaphysics in Moore’s sense as a “meta-level” exercise.  Its project might be to make sense-making clear where it is muddled, or to reinforce it where it is disintegrating, or protecting against distortion or abuse.  For example, the ancient paradoxes of motion, like Achilles and the tortoise, might only arise because we have an “insecure grasp” on our ideas about space and time.  The use of clear mathematical formulations can help us solve problems like this.

21. As for revisionary metaphysics, which offers a resounding yes to the novelty question, it has value because it is not clear that our ways of making sense cannot be radically improved, or what might even count as revisionary.  Moore says, “There is an issue about how far we count as making sense of things in a  way that is radically new if we make judgments that are radically new, but using old familiar concepts” (13).  If we say one thing, but a metaphysician tells us to say the opposite, is that revisionary metaphysics? Or is it non-revisionary because the metaphysician is acceding to the concepts we use?

22.  As Strawson is our example of a descriptive metaphysician, we can take Gilles Deleuze as an example of a revisionary metaphysician:

The object of philosophy is to create concepts that are always new. …. In fact, sciences, arts, and philosophies are all equally creative, although only philosophy creates concepts in the strict sense. Concepts are not waiting for us ready-made, like heavenly bodies. There is no heaven for concepts. They must be invented, fabricated, or rather created and would be nothing without their creator’s signature. Nietzsche laid down the task of philosophy when he wrote, ‘[Philosophers] must no longer accept concepts as a gift, nor merely purify and polish them, but first make and create them, present them and make them convincing. Hitherto one has generally trusted one’s concepts as if they were a wonderful dowry from some sort of wonderland,’ but trust must be replaced by distrust, and philosophers must distrust most those concepts they did not create themselves …. What would be the value of a philosopher of whom one could say, ‘He has created no concepts; he has not created his own concepts’? (What is Philosophy, 5-6)

c) The Creativity Question

23. The creativity question is about the possible scope of creativity in sense-making, or the limits on that creativity.  The above passage from Deleuze is just as much an answer to this question.  The question can also be reversed; is there scope for discovering the sense that things already make, and thus for being right, or are we limited to inventing the sense we make of things in a way that is neither right nor wrong?

24. The creativity question is equivocal in this way because people can approach metaphysics with very different goals in mind.  If we are limited to inventing the sense we make of things, then our scientific hopes are curbed. If we are limited to looking for the sense that things already make, then our artistic hopes are curbed.  The creativity question allows for endless variations on the theme. Do we find things intelligible, or do we make them intelligible? Does our sense-making reveal more about us than it does about things? And in any way we phrase these questions, there is always the question of who the “we” is.

25. As with the novelty question, what is at stake here is what we can aspire to when we do metaphysics.  We might aspire to complete objectivity, but we might also find that making sense of things at a sufficiently high level of generality involves “an unavoidable element of self-consciousness which is in turn incompatible with such objectivity” (14).

d) The Significance of the Three Questions

26. The three questions indicate the scope of disagreement about what metaphysics is. Those who take the more restrained answers to each consider certain activities to be off-limits, and importantly, they often thought of themselves as repudiating metaphysics. On Moore’s broad definition, many people who considered themselves critics of metaphysics were themselves metaphysicians.  This is partly why Moore says there has been an evolution of metaphysics, not just a repetition of the same points or mistakes.

27. Moore will make no attempt to be non-partisan, and he has his own answers to each question:  

We are, in practicing metaphysics, (a) constrained to make sense of immanent things, (b) free to make sense of things in a way that is radically new, and (c) engaged in a fundamentally creative enterprise.  Or, to put it glibly and question-beggingly, but also, I hope, suggestively, we are, in practicing metaphysics, (a) constrained to make nothing but sense of things, (b) free to make any sense of things, and (c) attempting, literally, to make sense of things (15).

7. The Importance of Metaphysics

28. To what extent does metaphysics matter for its own sake?  Moore thinks its inherent value is limited. This partly reflects his own position that metaphysics is fundamentally creative.

29. If metaphysics were an attempt to find the sense that things themselves already make, then Galileo’s statement might apply: “He who looks the higher is the more highly distinguished, and turning over the great book of nature … is the way to elevate one’s gaze.”  But if metaphysics is the attempt to create sense, then it has to answer the question “What is the attempt for?” If the answer is “for its own sake,” then it is easy to understand the criticism that it is pointless. Moore is not denying that creativity for its own sake exists or that it is valuable, but he thinks that creativity in the context of making-sense involves special commitments: “The most general attempt to make sense of things is part of the overall attempt to make sense of things, in all its diversity and complexity, and with all its myriad specific concerns and its myriad specific purposes” (17).  The “most general” attempt has to have some value for the more specific attempts, otherwise it is purely ornamental.

30. We need to see how metaphysics makes a difference.  One way, already suggested by the discussion of the novelty question, is that good metaphysics can rectify bad metaphysics.  The urge to do metaphysics, in some sense, is extremely common, and there have been many relatively primitive efforts. Hence, we need good metaphysics to correct these mistakes.  Some philosophers think this is the only function of metaphysics, but Moore thinks this overstates things.

31. A second way metaphysics can make a difference is through combination with other areas of enquiry.  Historically, metaphysics has often been combined with, or perhaps subordinated to, science, ethics, and theology.  In each case, metaphysics has helped its partner to make sense.

32. He first discusses metaphysics combined with science.  There are various quandaries about the nature of properties or universals, like redness.  David Lewis, for example, thinks universals are a special kind of property that have some sort of significance for causal relations: they “carve reality at one of its joints.”  Lewis thinks this idea helps make us make the best sense of science, especially physics.

33. Second, metaphysics can be combined with ethics.  There is an old metaphysical problem about whether all statements about the future are (already) true or false.  WVO Quine argues that such a doctrine has ethical consequences. Take two principles: first, that conservation of the environment is necessary for the sake of the unborn.  Second, birth control is necessary to combat overpopulation. Both principles are appealing, but they seem to be inconsistent. One recognizes the interests of the unborn, while the other denies them their right to life.  But if all statements about the future are (already) either true or false, then the statements are no longer inconsistent; we can speak in a tenseless way about the unborn: “There are” unborn people who will be affected by environmental disaster, but there are no unborn people denied their right to life by birth control.

34. Importantly, the ethical payoff is not about helping us to live better lives, but in helping us to think more clearly about our reasons for our decisions.

35. Third, metaphysics has been combined with theology.  There is a metaphysical doctrine called the doctrine of relative identity, which says it is possible for there to be different things of a certain kind which can also be the same thing of another kind.  An example of this is to imagine a piece of bronze which is made into a statue of a man, then melted down and turned into a statue of a horse. The doctrine of relative identity would say it is the same piece of bronze.

36. The Catholic philosopher P.T. Geach uses this to help make sense of the Trinity: while the Father is a different person from the Son, they are the same God.

37. A third way that metaphysics makes a difference, and the one that Moore considers the most important, is that it can offer radically new concepts to live by.  This depends on his answer to the novelty question, that we can come up with radically new ways of making sense. If Moore is wrong about this, then metaphysics has far less to often than he thinks it does; it use would be limited to protecting or adapting the concepts we currently live by.

38. By “living by a concept,” he means that some concepts are action-guiding in the sense that just to use them is to be motivated in some way.  This is similar to what Bernard Williams calls “thick” ethical concepts. A thick ethical concept involves both a factual aspect and an ethically evaluative concept.  To apply a thick ethical concept is to say something false if the situation turns out not to be a certain way, but it also ethically appraises the situation. One example is infidelity; if I accuse you in infidelity, am I obliged to retract the statement if you turn out to be innocent, but I have also evaluated you.  Another example is the promise: you could not really make promises or decide whether or not to keep them or even be motivated by the idea if you were not factually part of a community that used the concept of a promise.

39. Even someone sympathetic to the idea of action-guiding concepts might balk at the idea that metaphysics can provide us with such concepts.  The claim might be that action-guiding concepts are not general enough to be metaphysically-relevant. Moore makes four points in response to this.  First, the worry that action-guiding concepts are not general enough is misplaced. Thick ethical concepts are not the only action-guiding concepts. On some accounts, all concepts are action-guiding.  Second, it is not clear that thick ethical concepts are insufficiently general; he thinks freedom and personhood are thick ethical concepts, and modern metaphysics has been very concerned with these terms.  Third, there are degrees to which whether or not a concept is metaphysical. A concept can be minimally-metaphysical and be action-guiding. Fourth, we should not assume that metaphysics can only produce metaphysical concepts.  For example, the concept of blasphemy is a thick ethical concept and is not itself metaphysical, but certainly depends on a certain kind of metaphysics.

Appendix: Whitehead, Heidegger, Meillassoux

40. A.N. Whitehead describes his “speculative” metaphysics in this way:

“Speculative Philosophy is the endeavour to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted. By this notion of ‘interpretation’ I mean that everything of which we are conscious, as enjoyed, perceived, willed, or thought, shall have the character of a particular instance of the general scheme. Thus the philosophical scheme should be coherent, logical, and, in respect to its interpretation, applicable and adequate. Here ‘applicable’ means that some items of experience are thus interpretable, and ‘adequate’ means that there are no items incapable of such interpretation.” (Process and Reality, 3)

41. Martin Heidegger insists on both generality and self-consciousness:

“First, every metaphysical question always encompasses the whole range of metaphysical problems. Each question is itself always the whole. Therefore, second, every metaphysical question can be asked only in such a way that the questioner as such is also there within the question, that is, is placed in question. From this we conclude that metaphysical inquiry must be posed as a whole and from the essential position of the existence [Dasein] that questions.” (“What is Metaphysics” in Pathmarks, 84)

42.  Quentin Meillassoux defines metaphysics as a search for an absolutely necessary being, and so the ontological argument for God is the apex point of metaphysics:

“We will call ‘real necessity’ this ontological register of necessity which states that such and such an entity (or determinate res) necessarily exists. And it would seem that this type of necessity can be found in all the variants of dogmatic metaphysics. For to be dogmatic is invariably to maintain that this or that – i.e. some determinate entity – must absolutely be, and be the way it is, whether it is Idea, pure Act, atom, indivisible soul, harmonious world, perfect God, infinite substance, World-Soul, global history, etc. But if we characterize a metaphysics minimally in terms of this kind of claim, viz., that such and such an entity must absolutely be, we then begin to understand how metaphysics culminates in the ontological argument, viz., in the claim that this or that entity must absolutely be because it is the way it is. The ontological argument posits a necessary being ‘par excellence’ insofar as the essence of this being provides the reason for its existence – it is because God’s essence is to be perfect that He must necessarily exist.” (After Finitude, 32-33)



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