Defending Metaphysics, Part 1

Eric of Splintered Mind, in his post Metaphysics, What? raised the issue of what metaphysics is, and its role in well… lives of certain people. Inspired by it, I will  write a series of posts, in which I will use small parts of the post to try to point to, what I take, are misconceptions about metaphysics. It won’t be exactly a reply to Eric’s post, but more of an different view.

The first can be connected to what Eric puts in this way (which he argues is “mystical view”):

“Metaphysics is the discovery, by a priori armchair reflection without depending upon anything empirical, of necessary truths of the universe… How do we learn about the outside universe (not just our minds), without looking at it?”

There are two things I want to say about this:

1. If the “universe” refers there to this particular (is there any other?) universe as a whole (as some sort of rigid designator) or to all the particular facts in it (Wittg. 1.1 ‘The world is the totality of facts’ idea), and “learning about the universe” refers to learning facts about it then… the easy reply is “We don’t”. But, that is surely what metaphysics is not about! Metaphysics is not about particularities and facts of the universe, it is about universals and their relations. Or maybe it is about particularities but just as much as they fall under universals. More on this later.

2.One can connect that question also to concepts used in metaphysics. Can we have concepts before looking at the world (having experience)? Proponent of metaphysical (or any a priori) thought doesn’t need to say that we have the “proper” notions to think metaphysics before we “look at the universe”. So, again the answer would be “We don’t”. Metaphysicist can freely accept that the concepts are learned from experience. What is required for a priori thought is that what is learned from concrete experience are universal notions. Or so to say,the requirement is that notion which is learned from particular experience, is not dependent on that particular experience. That notion is then separate and can be appropriate for a priori thought. While this might seem problematic, it is really simple… one can give several examples of ostensible teachings, where this happens:

a)The teacher teaches the numbers “one” and “two” to a student. She shows him a series of examples. She shows either one pencil, or two pencils. And she says “one” when she shows one pencil, and says “two” when she shows two pencils. The student figures out what is that about the examples that the teacher is pointing to. When he had figured it out, he is ready to join the linguistic community of users of the words “one” and “two”. But wait! If the concepts of “one” and “two” are based on examples with pencils, will he not use them just when he is shown pencils? Well.. would you be able to say how many sirens are in front of you if you see them? Of course you will be, even you have never seen sirens in your life before! Same with that student. Once he figured out what distinction the teacher was pointing using the examples, he can as well forget the examples. He might have been taught using different examples. Doesn’t matter. What example do you think when you think of numbers one and two? I’m not thinking of examples. I don’t imagine neither pencils, nor points, nor anything. (Why would someone imagine points anyway? Has anyone learned what one and two is based on examples with points?). So, while the concepts are learned from experience, they transcend examples, they transcend concrete.

b)If you think there is something magical about the notions of numbers, think about notion of “color”. Have you ever seen all the colors, all the particular shades? Do you not know what color is until you have seen them all? Do students first learn that green is color, and then again that blue is color, and then again when they see pink, do we need to tell them again that PINK is also color? Of course not! (Lot of exclamation marks, I know. I can’t help it.). Students ask “What is that color?” for the colors they never have learned. But how is that possible if the concept of color doesn’t transcend the particular colors?

I guess those two examples are enough to give a general idea, of how the particulars and universals are connected.
The main point is that while experience of the world is necessary for learning concepts, those concepts transcend particular contingent experiences.

To be continued…