Wednesday, 15 February 2017

The Resurgence of Metaphysics as a Notational Convenience

Reading Jessica Wilson's interesting new SEP entry on Determinables and Determinates, the following speculation occurred to me: the oft-remarked-upon resurgence of metaphysics heralded by the work of David Lewis, D.M. Armstrong and others was driven in part by cognitive resource limitations and practicalities of notation; putting things metaphysically often lightens our cognitive loads and makes thinking and writing more efficient in many philosophical situations.

Wilson's piece is dripping with metaphysical turns of phrase, but much of what she says could be re-expressed in a conceptual or linguistic key. I think this goes for a good deal of contemporary metaphysics. However, converting metaphysically-expressed ideas and claims into a conceptual or linguistic key may make them a bit fiddlier to think and express. And if you're doing hard philosophy and need to think and express a lot of things, this extra cost is going to pile up. Sometimes, having things in a conceptual or linguistic register may make things clearer, and sometimes it may be essential. But for many purposes the metaphysical register does fine, and often has the benefit of being less resource-hungry.

Yes, some metaphysics may not be capturable in conceptual or linguistic terms, and perhaps even in favourable cases the capturing will not be complete or perfect. And there are doubtless other important things going on behind the sociological phenomenon of the resurgence of metaphysics. But maybe this is part of the story.

UPDATE: Brandon Watson (at the end of a post on Fitch's paradox) links to this post, writing: 'I'm very interested, of course, in accounts of how philosophical scenes get transformed, how ideas transmogrify, and the like. This hypothesis for the rise of analytic metaphysics makes considerable amount of sense, and is probably true.' This is encouraging!


  1. Maximilian Schlederer19 February 2017 at 12:43

    Hi Tristan, interesting thoughts. Expanding on that, I'd like to propose three aspects in which metaphysics both avoids and creates problems: Behaviorism, vagueness, and essentialism.

    - If we go full (late) wittgensteinian, and ask only "how do we use the terms of our language?" we avoid many metaphysical questions, in the way that they are (supposedly) created by misuse of language and therefore confused. But this easily lets us treat philosophy as mere language behaviorism, as a form of linguistic anti-philosophy. One could say that this seems to underestimate the expressibility of our philosophical language. Metaphysics avoids behaviorism in explicitly stating: I don't talk about language usage, I actually talk about reality.

    - Metaphysics seems to naturally avoid vagueness: This makes things clear and understandable, it leads to clear cut distinctions, in the best case to categorical hierarchies which help to structure our reasoning. But this also can make us prone to assume implicitly that vagueness is merely secondary, that our simplifications aren't really simplifications, that behind the imprecision of our language there is some ultimate fact which makes (in the most extreme case) a heap either a heap or not. Williamson is such an extreme case. Many philosophers doing metaphysics would not go that far in clear cases like heaps, but they still may be tempted to do the same thing in other (more abstract) cases where it is much less obvious that borderline cases might actually be a product of semantic vagueness than missing metaphysical knowledge.

    - Metaphysics sometimes seems to lead to "too much essentialism": We then assume that there is a way in which things really are even when we are using (to some extent) arbitrary conceptualizations. We then treat necessary/sufficient conditions of our concepts as if they where essential properties of the things we name. The opposite would be "too little essentialism", e.g. in a form of extreme constructivism we find sometimes in the social sciences: When we think that some things only depend on our arbitrary concepts even though there actually is a difference in the world which is reflected by the difference we make in our language.

    1. Thanks for this intelligent comment.

    2. By the way, in your third point, the middle sentence ('We then treat...') doesn't seem, to me, to be about the same phenomenon. To invoke an example close to my heart and relevant to philosophy of language (especially Kripke's puzzle), consider questions about whether some X and Y mean the same as each other or not. I think that sometimes there is no single context-independent answer - that 'means the same as' exhibits a certain kind of flexibility. (I've discussed this under the heading 'semantic granularity' in my PhD thesis and on this blog.)

      On this kind of view there is a kind of philosophical mistake in asking, after having considered both sides of the issue, whether or not some pair of expressions or expression occurrences mean the same or not, in the sort of case where one answer is natural in some situation or from one point of view, but the opposite answer is natural from the other - for instance, Kripke's case of Pierre's different attitudes to 'Londres est jolie' and 'London is pretty'.

      This sort of mistake seems to be closely related to what you're talking about in the first sentence of your third point and again at the end, and seems definitely to be a type of instance of your second point. But then the second sentence of the third point doesn't seem to apply.

      All in all, I think it would be good to separate things out a bit in the "too much essentialism" category. There seem to be a few quite different things going on there.

      Regarding talk about different kinds of concepts, and whether the difference is arbitrary or reflects something in the world, I think this is very confusing and runs different things together - talking generally now, not just about what you wrote.