Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Metaphilosophy: P.M.S. Hacker vs. Timothy Williamson (2)

Above: P.M.S. Hacker. Below: Timothy Williamson

The following is a commentary on P.M.S. Hacker's sixteen-page review (or 'Critical Notice') of Timothy Williamson's book The Philosophy of Philosophy. The review is an interesting account of what two analytic philosophers take philosophy and metaphilosophy to be. Williamson's own The Philosophy of Philosophy shows us what he takes metaphilosophy and philosophy to be. 

In basic terms, Hacker's critique is twofold. One, he doesn't really believe that The Philosophy of Philosophy is an example of the philosophy of philosophy. Two, he believes that Williamson - in parallel - pays too much attention to various disputes, subjects and problems which are firmly within the domain of analytic philosophy. Hacker's other main critique is, as one would imagine, that Williamson's criticisms of the “linguistic term” and “conceptual analysis” are both philosophically problematic and often historically and philosophically na├»ve - sometimes downright false.

Indeed Hacker seems to have a problem with just about every sentence in Williamson's The Philosophy of Philosophy. Hacker's relentless (if sometimes mild and subtle) sarcasm does grate after a bit. One is led to ask: Does Timothy Williamson really make so many fundamental schoolboy errors? (Perhaps Williamson once spilt Hacker's coffee in an Oxford college common room and he's never forgiven him.)


Matti Eklund sums up Timothy Williamson's The Philosophy of Philosophy in the broadest possible terms. He writes:

In one way,Williamson is conservative: he wants to defend (analytic) philosophy pretty much as it has tended to be done. In another, he is radical: he wants to correct what he regards as common misconceptions of the enterprise of philosophy.”

P.M.S. Hacker, on the other hand, takes another angle and says that that metaphilosophy is about “the nature of philosophy and its methods”. Such a pursuit, according to Hacker, has “been little discussed by recent analytic philosophers of the new persuasion”. More precisely, Timothy Williamson involves himself in the “rethinking of philosophical methodology”. This “involves understanding, at an appropriate level of abstraction, how philosophy is actually done”. Yet despite that, Hacker doesn't think that's what Williamson does. Instead he covers subjects and problems which have been well trod in analytic philosophy.

Thus there's a difference between analysing different subjects and problems and philosophical methodology (or “understanding how philosophy is actually done”). For example, analysing (analytic) philosophy's various accounts of analytic statements and the a priori (as has been staple subjects for various analytic philosophers in the last 70 years or so) is not metaphilosophy or even methodology.

Hacker's general critique of Williamson (at least within the context of metaphilosophy) is Wittgensteinian. Wittgenstein is, of course, sometimes regarded as being a metaphilosopher. Hacker says that “since there is no investigating concepts other than by investigating the uses of words that express them, these questions are about words and their use”. Furthermore, “[o]ne must look and see how philosophy is actually done”. This, to Wittgenstein, was important. To Hacker it is also, I think, metaphilosophy. That is, looking at how philosophy is done is - at the least - a part of metaphilosophy.

To put this another way. One gets the feeling that Hacker doesn't believe that Williamson's Philosophy of Philosophy is an example of the philosophy of philosophy. This is the case in that we only seem to have (analytic) philosophy, rather than the philosophy of philosophy. Hacker offers us this example:

We are promised insight, rigour and courageous precision, but what we get is tens of pages of reflection on the sentences ‘All vixens are vixens’ and ‘Vixens are female foxes’, coupled with the admonition that ‘impatience with the long haul of technical reflection is a form of shallowness’.”

Prima facie, Hacker is perfectly correct. This isn't even the analytic philosophy of philosophy. It's just plain analytic philosophy. It's of course possible to have a metaphilosophical position on - or critique of - the philosophy of “analytic statements” (if that's what they are). For example, one could question whether or not such statements impinge on extra-philosophical areas or whether they are truly analytic (as with Quine). Is that what Williamson does? Hacker doesn't think so. All we get, instead, is an expression of “how the current Wykeham Professor of Logic does philosophy”. Does that mean that Williamson doesn't even tackle philosophical methodology in a metaphilosophical way? Not according to Hacker, who says that

[o]ne might expect a methodical investigation of how philosophy is actually done by the most eminent philosophers of the ages, or of the past age, or even just of the present age.”

Instead of that, “all we are shown is how the current Wykeham Professor of Logic does philosophy”. Of course one has to tackle philosophical subjects and problems in some way in order to see how philosophy is done. But seeing if the a priori is defeasible, or if metaphysical necessity is discovered a posteriori, isn't such a pursuit. I suppose that, in this case, we'd need to say how these subjects would be tackled in a metaphilosophical kind of way. And that's difficult! As soon as one attempts to do so, one seems to stop doing philosophy and start doing, for example, the history of philosophy or the sociology of philosophy. And these subjects are neither philosophy nor metaphilosophy. At least not on the reading of Nicholas Joll. He writes:

We might want to deny the title ‘metaphilosophy’ to, say, various sociological studies of philosophy, and even, perhaps, to philosophical pedagogy (that is, to the subject of how philosophy is taught). On the other hand, we are inclined to count as metaphilosophical claims about, for instance, philosophy corrupting its students or about professionalization corrupting philosophy...”

Yet despite Hacker's criticisms (as well as what's just been written), Hacker does adumbrate on what seems to be Williamson's various metaphilosophical positions. Hacker writes:

Three themes dominate the book. First, that it is false that the a priori methodology of philosophy is profoundly unlike the a posteriori methods of natural science; indeed that very distinction allegedly obscures underlying similarities. Second, that the difference in subject matter between philosophy and science is less deep than supposed; ‘In particular, few philosophical questions are conceptual questions in any distinctive sense’. Third, that much contemporary philosophy is vitiated by supposing that evidence in philosophy consists of intuitions, which successful theory must explain.”

You'd think that those three subjects were surely enough to fill any book of the philosophy of philosophy (or metaphilosophy). But, again, is this metaphilosophy?

Is a debate about the a priori and its relation to the “a posteriori methods of natural science” metaphilosophy or is it simply philosophy? Presumably the a priori method (if that's what it is) would need to have been distinguished from the a posteriori method from the very beginning. And that distinction is obviously philosophical. But is it metaphilosophical? If it is, then Plato, Hume, Kant and God knows who else were also metaphilosophers. In order to make a distinction between the a priori and the a posteriori it's the case that at least some kind of meta-position must have been taken. All philosophers will have needed to have taken some kind of meta position. Again, the problem is finding the purely meta in such philosophy.

Philosophy, the A Priori and Science

Hacker's long non-metaphilosophical investigations of Williamson's long non-metaphilosophical investigations of analytic philosophy's problems and pet subjects seem besides the point within the context of metaphilosophy. Nonetheless, Hacker's statements on the nature of philosophy - in a broader sense - are of interest. Specifically, whether or not philosophy is “an a priori investigation” and therefore radically at odds with “scientific knowledge”.

Williamson sees “fundamental similarities between philosophical and scientific knowledge”.

Williamson also makes a move from the “armchair” to what he says is “knowledge of truths about the external environment”. How does he make that move? Hacker says that “no examples of such knowledge are offered, and no explanation is given to render the ‘mays’ precise”.

One of Williamson's examples of a strong connection between science and philosophy certainly does seem bogus (as well as a little inane). Or, should I say, it does so (only) if we accept Hacker's account of that example. Hacker tells us that the

fact that Galileo and Einstein engaged in thought experiments does not make metaphysics any more akin to science than to chess or cricket (in which one may also reflect on what would happen or would have happened if ...)”.

Needless to say, there is a connection being made here between the a priori (or at least the importance of the armchair) and the realities of scientific thinking. Yet surely any “thought experiments” that Galileo and Einstein engaged in about concrete empirical specifics - even if they led to general or universal laws – wouldn't have been examples of armchair philosophising or apriorising. (Hume and other empiricists have told us that even claims of universality and law always go beyond the empirical and the observational.) In addition, the fact that such scientists sometimes thought about things - and didn't always require experiments to do so - didn't make them armchair philosophers or apriorists. If that were the case, every one of us would be an armchair philosopher or an apriorist. And stating these armchair thoughts in the guise of conditionals or hypotheticals doesn't advance Williamson's case either. Here again it's something we all do; except, of course, for the fact that we don't use the word “conditionals” or “hypotheticals”.

Despite all the above, Hacker does admit that there is some metaphilosophy in The Philosophy of Philosophy. He tells us that Williamson “informs us” that philosophy is “an armchair science”. In addition:

It consists of thinking, without any special interaction with the world beyond the armchair, such as measurement, observation or experiment would typically involve.”

Now that passage, surely, is metaphilosophy. It's about philosophy. It's not about a subject in philosophy. And it's not an analysis of a problem within philosophy. It is, in fact, a huge thing to say that philosophy is an a priori pursuit. We can of course ask if it is such a thing. We can even ask if it's possible, in principle, for there to be such a thing. Thus would these questions be metaphilosophical too in the sense that in order to answer them we'd need to philosophise about the nature of the a priori and whether a discipline could ever be entirely a priori (or even a priori at all)?

Whatever the answers to these questions are, Hacker also says that Williamson “holds that philosophy can discover truths about reality by reflection alone”. That, for one, isn't a scientific position. Despite that, Williamson believes that “some philosophical truths are confirmable by experiments”. That means that even though “philosophical truths” are armchair phenomena, there's nothing to stop them being backed-up or “confirmable” by scientific experiments or other a posteriori factors. (Like Laurence BonJour's position on a priori statements.) After all, if a philosophical truth is indeed a philosophical truth, some would say that it can hardly be contradicted by a scientific experiment and it - almost as a consequence of this - must therefore be confirmable by them. Though that would depend on whether an experiment can impact at all on certain/any philosophical truths. (For example, it can be said that a scientific experiment could have no import on a moral truth or on the metaphysical necessities discovered while sitting in Williamson's armchair.) In addition, in the case of certain philosophical truths, it can also be said that scientific experiments can neither confirm nor disconfirm them. In other words, experiments are basically irrelevant to (most/many) philosophical truths.

Hacker's account of Williamson further stresses the latter's ostensible belief that philosophy isn't that different from other kinds of thought and, indeed, from science. Hacker writes:

... since philosophical ways of thinking are no different in kind from other ways, philosophical questions are not different in kind from other questions (4). Most importantly, philosophy is no more a linguistic or conceptual inquiry than physics (21).”

Williamson again bridges the chasm between philosophy and science when he says that “[p]hilosophy, like any other science (including mathematics) [...] has evidence for its discoveries”.

Williamson then says that “philosophy is no more a linguistic or conceptual inquiry than physics”. Does that mean that philosophy both is and is not like science? Does it depend? Alternatively, philosophy can clearly be about “the world” or “the nature of reality” without it thereby being a science. (Williamson gives the following examples: “Contemporary metaphysics studies substances and essences, universals and particulars, space and time, possibility and necessity.”) And that's certainly true. Here again we can ask whether or not science can either confirm or disconfirm such world-directed philosophical/metaphysical statements. Or, alternatively - as with certain logical positivists - we can say that they're not amenable to scientific scrutiny at all because (as with the most extreme logical positivist position) world-directed philosophical claims are “meaningless”.

More broadly, these strong distinctions and connections between science and philosophy are surely important and indeed metaphilosophical. Though, here again, such a subject has been part of the staple diet of analytic philosophy since Wittgenstein in the 1920s (or even before). So, on the one hand, this is clearly metaphilosophy. On the other hand, if this is metaphilosophy, then metaphilosophy has been part of (analytic) philosophy for a very long time.


Hacker's review of Williamson's The Philosophy of Philosophy becomes even more explicit – indeed crashingly so! - when he concludes with the following words:

The Philosophy of Philosophy fails to characterize the linguistic turn in analytic philosophy. It fails to explain why many of the greatest analytic philosophers thought philosophy to be a conceptual investigation... It holds that philosophy can discover truths about reality by reflection alone, but does not explain how. It holds that some philosophical truths are confirmable by experiments, but does not say which. It misrepresents the methodology of the empirical sciences and the differences between the sciences and philosophy. It has nothing whatsoever to say about most branches of philosophy.”

Yes, characterising the “linguistic turn” in broad and contextual terms would indeed be metaphilosophy. A philosophical analysis of some of its problems and assumptions wouldn't be. The same is true about “conceptual investigation”. For example, arguing that conceptual analysis alone doesn't do justice to “metaphysical reality” wouldn't be metaphilosophy... or would it?

Despite that final declamation against Williamson, Hacker does say that The Philosophy of Philosophy “does provide an adequate ‘self-image’ of the way Professor Williamson does philosophy”. And even that ostensible plaudit is, I believe, subtly sarcastic. 

*) Next: 'Metaphilosophy: Examples and Problems (3)'

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Metaphilosophy: Definitions and Questions (1)

Why Philosophy?

There are many general questions we can ask about philosophy. Many of these questions have been asked by non-philosophers such as laypersons, scientists and academics in the humanities.

A layperson, for example, may ask:

i) Does philosophy have any psychological, moral or social benefits?
ii) Does philosophy improve the people who write and read it?

A physicist, biologist or chemist may ask:

i) Is there such a thing as philosophical knowledge?
ii) Does philosophy (or the philosophy of science) benefit science or scientists?
iii) What is the nature of divergence in philosophy – can it be solved with the aid of such things as evidence, fact and data?

A political scientist, historian, sociologist or political activist may ask:

i) Is all philosophy political - by its very nature?
ii) Does philosophy simply reflect the times in which it is written?
iii) Is philosophy always to be read historically?

Philosophers themselves may ask:

i) What prose-style/s should philosophers adopt – academic, popular, poetic, etc.?
ii) Are we living in a post-philosophy (or post-philosophical) age?
iii) Were Wittgenstein, Heidegger, etc. correct to argue against philosophy itself?

What is Metaphilosophy?

If philosophy itself is hard to define, it will be even harder to define what metaphilosophy is.

One of the main questions about metaphilosophy is whether or not it's actually part of philosophy. Since one has to philosophise about “the nature of philosophy”, it can hardly help but be part of philosophy. Or, as Timothy Williamson puts it, the “philosophy of philosophy [is] automatically part of philosophy".(Williamson's use of the label “philosophy of philosophy” gives the game away.) It's conceivable that there could be sociological, political, scientific., etc. analyses of philosophy which could also be deemed to be metaphilosophical in nature. Though could something that's not philosophy also be metaphilosophy?

Nicholas Joll believes that these examples (as well as others) of metaphilosophy can be tendentious. He writes:

We might want to deny the title ‘metaphilosophy’ to, say, various sociological studies of philosophy, and even, perhaps, to philosophical pedagogy (that is, to the subject of how philosophy is taught). On the other hand, we are inclined to count as metaphilosophical claims about, for instance, philosophy corrupting its students or about professionalization corrupting philosophy...”

It's clear that these pursuits have existed for a longt time; at least since the early 20 century. Thus they don't really fit the “philosophy of philosophy” or “metaphilosophy” label.

Joll also stresses the point that most – or even all – philosophy is metaphilosophical. (He calls it “implicit metaphilosophy”.) Or he argues that all philosophy (at the very least) has metaphilosophical components. He writes:

... all philosophizing is somewhat metaphilosophical, at least in this sense: any philosophical view or orientation commits its holder to a metaphilosophy that accommodates it. Thus if one advances an ontology one must have a metaphilosophy that countenances ontology. Similarly, to adopt a method or style is to deem that approach at least passable. Moreover, a conception of the nature and point of philosophy, albeit perhaps an inchoate one, motivates and shapes much philosophy. But – and this is what allows there to be implicit metaphilosophy – sometimes none of this is emphasized, or even appreciated at all, by those who philosophize.”

So what would metaphilosophy be if it weren't a part of philosophy? And even if it were apart from philosophy, would that automatically mean that it isn't philosophy?

Analytic Philosophy and Texts About Texts

Analytic philosophy has traditionally downplayed metaphilosophy. Nowadays that doesn't seem to be the case.

The very definitions of “metaphilosophy” (used by some analytic philosophers) seemed to stress that downplaying. To many previous analytic philosophers, metaphilosophy is simply the the study of previous philosophical works which the philosopher concerned may analyse or add to. In other words, this isn't seen as contributing anything very new or original to (analytic) philosophy.

In Continental philosophy this has been called 'intertextuality' in which all we have, according to Julia Kristeva, is “texts about texts”. Then again, the Continental philosophers who used this term would apply it to every philosopher – even to those analytic philosophers whom contributed what they see as original philosophy to the corpus.

All this also begs the question as to whether or not commentary or research is automatically excluded from the realm of philosophical originality. Can new ideas and theories be found or formulated through research and/or commentary on the works of (dead) philosophers? Yes, because such a thing has occurred many times.

One definition of metaphilosophy doesn't seem to be have taken up by analytic philosophers. That is the seeing of metaphilosophy as post-philosophy. Now this has certainly been taken up by many Continental philosophers over the last 100 years or longer. (For example, Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida, various postmodernists, etc.) Here again we see that post-philosophy can't help but be philosophy; just as metametaphysics can't help but be metaphysics (at least as practised by certain metametaphysics).

Metaphilosophy as Second-Order Philosophy

The prime contender for seeing metaphilosophy as being separate from philosophy is to see it as a “second-order” study. This raises the question of whether or not the assessment of philosophy is, in fact, a second-order pursuit or simply philosophy about philosophy (as with Timothy Williamson). The term “philosophy of philosophy”, unlike “second-order philosophy", doesn't imply that it “look[s] down upon philosophy from above, or beyond”.

Paul K. Moser accepts the second-/first-order distinction. He writes:

"The distinction between philosophy and metaphilosophy has an analogue in the familiar distinction between mathematics and metamathematics."

Thus Moser prefers the term 'metaphilosophy'. However, other philosophers treat the prefix 'meta' as simply meaning about (i.e., not intrinsically second-order).

How can we be more technical and explicit about this second-order study?

For one, it can be said that metaphilosophy is “thinking about thinking”. However, haven't virtually all philosophers thought about thought?

Some say that metaphilosophy analyses the concepts [concept], [proposition], [theory], etc. rather than particular concepts, propositions, theories, etc. Though, here again, first-order philosophers (if that's what they are) have always carried out this enterprise. However, some of them did indeed see themselves as second-order philosophers (even if they never used the word “metaphilosophy”) - specifically in the first half of the 20 century. Isn't this related to (philosophical) mathematical “meta-theory”; which found a philosophical parallel in Tarski and Davidson's meta-language/object-language distinction?

Another question arises here. Is philosophical methodology metaphilosophy? This is the study of how to do philosophy. I would say no. Primarily because methodology has always been important in philosophy and one can hardly philosophise at all without studying such methodologies. This isn't to contradict the Wittgensteinian point that there may be different methodologies for different philosophical problems or areas. Indeed Wittgenstein himself acquired various philosophical methodologies.

Gilbert Ryle and Martin Heidegger

Gilbert Ryle, for one, was very much against metaphilosophy. Or at least he was without actually using the word “metaphilosophy”. Instead he focussed on what he called “methods”. He said that the

"preoccupation with questions about methods tends to distract us from prosecuting the methods themselves. We run as a rule, worse, not better, if we think a lot about our feet. So let us... not speak of it all but just do it."

Is this typical English commonsensicalism? This position chimes in with something than a fellow Englishman, Bertrand Russell, once wrote: “The only way to find out what philosophy is, is to do philosophy." It certainly seems like an example of Ryle's well-known distinction between “knowing how” and “knowing that”. And isn't it neat that he should apply this distinction to philosophy itself? Of course if Ryle is correct, then that would mean that metaphilosophy (or at least the methodology of philosophy, as done by Timothy Williamson) is a waste of time.

Martin Heidegger did believe in metaphilosophy (again, without using that term). He wrote:

"When we ask, "What is philosophy?" then we are speaking about philosophy. By asking in this way we are obviously taking a stand above and, therefore, outside of philosophy.”

Heidegger then went on to offer his own person slant on the practice of metaphilosophy. However, it's not immediately obvious why such questions should automatically be “taking a stand above and, therefore, outside of philosophy”. Why can't they simply be more examples of philosophy itself? Even if philosophical questions about philosophy are (as it were) meta or second-order, that doesn't automatically mean that these questions are “outside philosophy” or “above” philosophy. They're simply philosophical questions about philosophy; which have been asked since the Greeks.

In any case, Heidegger (in his Was ist das - die Philosophie?) continued by saying:

But the aim of our question is to enter into philosophy, to tarry in it, to conduct ourselves in its manner, that is, to "philosophize". The path of our discussion must, therefore, not only have a clear direction, but this direction must at the same time give us the guarantee that we are moving within philosophy and not outside of it and around it."

Heidegger, therefore, seems to contradict himself. At first he says that metaphilosophy is “outside philosophy” and/or “above” philosophy. Then he says that his metaphilosophy has a “direction [that] must at the same time give us the guarantee that we are moving within philosophy and not outside of it and around it”. Unless I'm a victim of “binary thinking” here. Perhaps Heidegger's metaphilosophy is both above and beyond philosophy and “within philosophy” at one and the same time. This toing and froing beyond and within philosophy may be the only way to reach deep Heideggerian conclusions about philosophy. Jacques Derrida also said (in his 'Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences' - 1970) that one can never transcend Western metaphysics because the borrowing of a single concepts from it brings along with it the entire package. That is, “the entire syntax and system of Western metaphysics” is brought in when we philosophise about Western philosophy.

*) Next: 'Metaphilosophy: P.M.S. Hacker vs. Timothy Williamson (2)'

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Ted Sider's 'Ontological Realism'

The following is a commentary on the first and last sections ( 'The Ontology of Composite Material Objects' and 'What Should We Believe?') of Theodore Sider's paper 'Ontological Realism'; which is included in the book Metametaphysics: New Essays on the Foundations of Metaphysics.

Just as Sider's first and last sections are more or less introductory in nature; so is this commentary. I'll attempt to tackle the more technical sections within Sider's paper subsequently. 

Ted Sider on Metaphysics

Ted Sider tells us what he takes metaphysics to be. (Or, perhaps, he tells us what he wants metaphysics to be.) He writes: “The point of metaphysics is to discern the fundamental structure of the world.” What's more, “[t]hat requires choosing fundamental notions with which to describe the world.”

Metaphysics, according to Sider, can even have practical or pragmatic value. For example, Sider says that “it’s good to choose a set of fundamental notions that make previously intractable questions evaporate”. Indeed Sider continues by saying that “no one other than a positivist can make all the hard questions evaporate”. Finally: “There’s no detour around the entirety of fundamental metaphysics.”

Sider makes it plain that metaphysics asks fundamental and important questions by asking the reader a question: “Was Reichenbach wrong?— is there a genuine question of whether spacetime is flat or curved?” The obvious response to this is to ask if that's a scientific (not a metaphysical) question. Unless it's the case that metaphysics can offer insights on this which the physicist is incapable of. Though surely that can't be true. (More technically, Sider cites Quine's work and the quantification of logical and metaphysical structure as the means to establish an answer to this question.)

Sider also gets to the heart of the matter (at least in the debate between metaphysical realism and what he calls “deflationism”) when he states the following:

Everyone faces the question of what is ‘real’ and what is the mere projection of our conceptual apparatus, of which issues are substantive and which are ‘mere bookkeeping’.”

That's certainly not true about everyone; just most - not even all - philosophers. Sure, it's true that many laypersons are concerned with what's real. However, they don't also think in terms of the possibility that it's our “conceptual apparatus” that hides – or may hide – the real. Many laypersons believe that other things hide the real: lies, propaganda, “the media”, politicians, religions, drugs and even science and philosophy.

Nonetheless, the philosophical issue of realism does indeed spread beyond philosophy. Take science:

This is true within science as well as philosophy: one must decide when competing scientific theories are mere notational variants. Does a metric-system physics genuinely disagree with a system phrased in terms of ontological realism feet and pounds? We all think not.”

Or take Donald Davidson's less theoretical example of centigrade and Fahrenheit. These are two modes of expression of the same thing. However, Sider asks if the same can be said of “a metric-system physics” and a “ontological realism feet and pounds”. Does this position have much to do with what's called “empirical/observational equivalence”? If it does, then theories which are empirically equivalent need not be theoretically identical. They're equivalent in that they also carry the same weight. Sider writes:

Unless one is prepared to take the verificationist’s easy way out, and say that ‘theories are the same when empirically equivalent’, one must face difficult questions about where to draw the line between objective structure and conceptual projection.”

The Ontology of the Composition of Objects

Ted Sider is explicit about his defence of this area of metaphysics. He states:

I, on the other hand, accept a very strong realism about ontology. I think that questions about the existence of composite objects are substantive, just as substantive as the question of whether there are extra-terrestrials; and I think that the contemporary ontologists are approaching these questions in essentially the right way.”

The debate about ontological composition is “substantive” (as word which Sider uses a lot) if one accepts the legitimacy of a question which he asks his readers. Thus:

... we could ask: ‘is there any context in which it would be true to say ‘‘there are tables and chairs’’?’ It is hard to see how you could block the legitimacy of this question; and if it is phrasable in your fundamental language, it is substantive and nonverbal.”

Is Sider truly saying that the legitimacy of this statement (“there are tables and chairs”) can be questioned when it even comes to everyday (or “ordinary”) language-use? After all, he does say “any context”.

I must be honest here. The debate about the ontology of the composition/constitution of objects sometimes irritates me. It's one of the few subjects in metaphysics which does so; and, I suppose, that's saying something (if only about me). Perhaps I'm a philosophical philistine; though, as just said, I don't feel this way about any other of the main subjects in metaphysics. (Perhaps I would do about some of the minor subjects; though I would need to know what they are and none spring immediately to mind.) Perhaps I'm missing the substantive realities of these debates. Then again, perhaps there is no substance to them. On the other hand, objectual composition may be as substantive as any other subject in metaphysics. Thus it may be just a quirk of my own mind that I sometimes find it annoying.

In any case, many positions in the ontology of object composition seem extreme. Sider himself cites some of them. For example, “the nihilists have a very quick solution to the old puzzle of the statue and the lump of clay: neither exists!”. Then we have the case in which “[o]thers said that nothing you could do to the objects would make them compose something further”.

Thus what does Sider have to say about all this? After all, this truly is his own bag.

Interestingly enough (as just stated), Sider himself seems to think that some of these beliefs are ridiculous. For example, he writes:

No matter what you do to the objects, they’ll always compose something further, no matter how they are arranged. Thus we learned of the fusion of the coins in our pockets with the Eiffel Tower.”

Perhaps the position advanced above about coins and the Eiffel Tower fusing together (to make another bone fide object) is a metaphysician's way of saying that the debate itself is ridiculous. In other words, the position is an example of “postmodern irony” within analytic metaphysics.

Another position in ontological composition (as stated by Sider) simply seems trite or stupid (or both). Sider writes:

... objects have to be fastened together in some way, the way the parts of the things we usually think about are.”

Then again, Sider gives a sensible repost to this when he says:

But van Inwagen taught us of people stuck or glued or sewn or fused to each other. Such entanglements, van Inwagen thought, create no new entities.”

Perhaps the position of “mereological nihilists” is, prima facie, the most ridiculous of all. Sider writes:

According to these ‘mereological nihilists’, tables, chairs, computers, molecules, people, and other composite objects, simply don’t exist. All that exist are simples—entities without further parts; subatomic particles presumably—which are ‘arranged table-wise’, ‘arranged chair-wise’, and so on.”

It can of course be the case that I simply don't understand the arguments. It may also be that I don't want to understand the arguments. More relevantly, these issues may well be substantive without me knowing it. They may be substantive without anyone (except mereological nihilists and Sider) knowing it.

Finally, there's a position which appears to be quite arbitrary; which Sider himself acknowledges. That's the position of Peter van Inwagen. According to Sider,

Van Inwagen himself also dispensed with tables and chairs, but departed from the nihilists by admitting people and other living things into his ontology.”

As a response to that position, Sider states (in parenthesis): “Why he spared the living few could tell.”

Conceptual Analysis and Deflationism

Sider asks a couple of good questions of deflationists and philistines like myself. He asks:

Is your rejection of ontological realism based on the desire to make unanswerable questions go away, to avoid questions that resist direct empirical methods but are nevertheless not answerable by conceptual analysis?”

It's hardly surprising - if we take the positions above (alongside my earlier personal reactions) - that Sider himself has heard “[w]hispers that something was wrong with the debate itself”. Despite that, according to Sider:

Today’s ontologists are not conceptual analysts; few attend to ordinary usage of sentences like ‘chairs exist’.”

I'm tempted to say that ontologists should indulge in a bit of conceptual analysis! I don't mean that conceptual analysis should be the beginning and the end of metaphysics; only that it may help things. Thus Sider's statement begs the following question: What wrong with (a little) conceptual analysis? Who knows, Sider may well have answered that question elsewhere. Indirectly, Sider does comment on conceptual analysis; or at least on what is called ontological deflationism. Sider writes:

These critics—‘ontological deflationists’, I’ll call them—have said instead something more like what the positivists said about nearly all of philosophy: that there is something wrong with ontological questions themselves. Other than questions of conceptual analysis, there are no sensible questions of (philosophical) ontology. Certainly there are no questions that are fit to debate in the manner of the ontologists.”

Sider states the position of ontological deflationists; though, here at least, he doesn't offer a criticism of their position.

In terms of conceptual analysis and ontological deflationism being relevant to the composition/constitution of objects, Sider writes:

... when some particles are arranged tablewise, there is no ‘substantive’ question of whether there also exists a table composed of those particles, they say. There are simply different—and equally good—ways to talk.”

Ontological Structure and Quantification

What is realist in Sider's ontological realism is “objective structure”. This does the work done in the past by objects, entities, events, laws, essences, conditions, etc.

It's interesting that Sider stresses the importance of structure in both science and metaphysics considering the fact that analytic metaphysicians just like Sider are the main enemy of, for example, ontic structural realists, whom also stress structure. (See my 'The Basics of Ladyman and Ross's Case Against Analytic Metaphysics'.) For example, Sider says that some questions “are questions of structure”. That is, “how much structure is there in the world?”. Sider gets more technical when he says that

Quine’s (1948) criterion for ontological commitment is good as far as it goes: believe in those entities that your best theory says exists.... believe in as much structure as your best theory of the world posits”.

Does the expression of ontological commitment in the language of quantifiers automatically solve our problems? (Hilary Putnam once sarcastically said that he thinks that “part of the appeal of mathematical logic is that the formulas look mysterious – you write backward Es!”.)

Even Sider's locution “[i]f quantifiers carve at the joints” seems nonsensical. How can quantifiers (which are only logical symbols, if with content) carve anything? (They're not sharp enough.) Less literally, shouldn't it be said that quantifiers quantify and describe the world as (if it is) carved at the joints? In other words, not even ontology does the carving. It describes, explains, justifies and accepts the ontological and/or scientific carving (into natural kinds, etc.) of the world. Then logic codifies that world-as-carved. It's only then that we can see ontology as ‘factual’ and ‘deep’.

Put simply, the quantificational statement ∃x (x = F) simply codifies our ontological positions. It doesn't explain (at least, not entirely), justify, and describe (at least not entirely) them.

In any case, Sider gives his own example. He states:

... ‘there is an F such that ...’, where F must be replaced by a sortal predicate, rather than the bare quantifier of predicate logic.”

That's not ontology – it's logic. Or, at the most, it's the logical codification of an ontological position. Or, as Sider puts it, the statement there is a F such that... “would not make all the ontological questions go away”. In other words, the substitution of an F for an x doesn't help. That's the case because “we could ask what the range of sortals is”. This is an important ontological question and not simply one of logical codification. After all, after someone has used the sortal F, Sider's asks us if there is “any sortal F such that #there is an F that is composed of me and the Eiffel tower is true?”. (Sider also offers us [person] and [subatomic particle] as less extreme examples of a sortal.) Could there be the following sortal? Namely, [Ted Sider and – or fused with - the Eiffel tower]? To state the obvious, sortals (at least here) concern objects which could include the fusion of Sider and the Eiffel tower (or even Quine's “rabbit fusions”). The logical codification of such things is unconcerned with what objects are posited or accepted. That's the job of the scientist and/or ontologist and these questions arise before logical codification... or they should do.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

A Review of *Metametaphysics: New Essays on the Foundations of Ontology*

The following piece isn't a review of the whole of Metametaphysics: New Essays on the Foundations of Ontology. That would end up being far too long for a review. Instead I focus entirely on the introductory section ('Worrying about Metaphysics') of the editor's (David Manley) own 'Introduction: A Guided Tour of Metametaphysics'. The introduction tackles all the issues (if in a fairly rudimentary form) which are featured in the book's collection of independent papers. 
David Manley

What is Metaphysics?

It seems strange, prima facie, that in a introduction to a volume which is asking questions about the real nature of metaphysics, David Manley (the author of the Introduction) should tell us exactly what metaphysics is. He tells us that metaphysics

is concerned with the foundations of reality. It asks questions about the nature of the world, such as: Aside from concrete objects, are there also abstract objects like numbers and properties? Does every event have a cause? What is the nature of possibility and necessity? When do several things make up a single bigger thing? Do the past and future exist? And so on.”

What if one metametaphysician (if, as yet, such a description exists) says: The idea of there being “foundations of reality” is preposterous. It can even be said that talk of “the nature of the world” (rather than, say, the plural natures) begs a few questions too. In addition, why accept any distinction between abstract and concrete objects? Or, alternatively, perhaps there are other kinds of objects. Perhaps some metaphysicians even question that there are events in the way that others question the existence of objects. And so on.

Possibly all these questions can legitimately exist and it still be acceptable to talk about “the foundations of reality” and “the nature of the world”. After all, the discussion must start somewhere. And even if a metametaphysician rejects everything contained in David Manley's short descriptive account of metaphysics (above), these basic distinctions are still accepted by many metaphysicians and that's where the deflationist (see later) or sceptical philosopher must start.

Empirically speaking (as it were), it's interesting to note that, according to Manley,

[m]ost contemporary metaphysicians think of themselves as concerned, not primarily with the representations of language and thoughts, but with the reality that is represented”.

Manley goes on to write that “this approach in mainstream metaphysics” has “only come to ascendancy lately, and is still widely challenged”.

In a very basic sense, this approach is classic metaphysical realism – however you slice it. Thus many other philosophers would be mad (or sad) that this is still the current paradigm for contemporary metaphysicians. Then again, anti-realism (to take alternative to this) has only ever been one option in metaphysics.

It may need to be added here that even though these realist (or non-deflationary) metaphysicians are concerned with “the reality that is represented”, they may still be very concerned with what contemporary science has to say on this or on similar subjects. After all, if science (as with Quine) tells us “what is”, then a realist metaphysician needs to listen to science. Nonetheless, metaphysicians who've been strongly committed to the findings of science have also taken various anti-realist positions. Manley himself stresses the importance of science to both realist metaphysicians and their opponents. He writes:

And the preferred methodology for answering these questions is quasi-scientific, of the type recommended by W. V. O. Quine, developed by David Lewis, and summarized by Theodore Sider in this volume.”

In addition, ontic structural realism (the new kid on the block) is strongly against traditional forms of metaphysical realism even though it is itself a kind of realism - an ontic structural realism; which, basically, takes only structures and numbers to be real. (Ontic structural realists class the type of realist metaphysics they're against as “analytic metaphysics”.)

Trivia? Objects and Ontological Composition

One can certainly see why many people have a problem with (analytic?) metaphysics. Or at least they would do so after reading Manley's description of a particular ontological position within metaphysics.

The question is: What is an object? Manley writes:

Some English-speakers might describe the hand-clenching situation as one in which a new object—a fist—comes into existence; others might describe it as a case in which an old object—your hand—takes on a new shape and temporarily becomes a fist.”

Yes indeed. Manley's response is understandable. He continues:

But it is easy to feel that there is no disagreement—or still less any mystery—about how things are in front of your face. Your hand and fingers are in a certain arrangement that we are perfectly familiar with: call this situation whatever you like.”

Of course it can now be said that Manley has been a little unfair to this ontological dispute on which hundreds of thousands of words have been written. After all, many philosophers say that “intuitions matter”. Nonetheless, many other philosophers say that “intuitions are irrelevant” (or something similar). Whatever the case is, perhaps it's inevitable that we have to start with our intuitions; even if we completely reject them later. And, in this case, the words “call this situation whatever you like” is an intuitive response which many people will have – not least some or many philosophers!

Nonetheless, one can see the problem with any deep trust in intuitions when Manley himself seems to endorse (even if as a devil's advocate) the position that “one is apt to feel suspicious of the methodology behind any theoretical defense of the thesis that numbers do not exist”. That, of course, depends on what's meant by the words “numbers do not exist”. (Or, more basically, on what's meant by the solitary word “exist”.) Here again we're back to the subjects of concepts and language. Despite that, this stress on language and concepts doesn't thereby erase the metaphysical nature of numbers (or lack thereof); it simply helps us to clarify what it is we're talking about.

The Meaty Issue of God?

Manley offers an example which he believes shows that the idea that metaphysics is often trivial and insubstantial (as is purportedly the case with ontological composition) is often misplaced. He says that “the debate over the existence of God is perfectly substantive and has a correct answer”. Apparently this isn't about semantics or language. Yet doesn't it depend on how the word “God” is defined? On some definitions, the issue would be meaty and not entirely determined by language. On the other hand, it would depend of what's meant by the word 'God'. For example, if it refers only to the monotheistic God of Christianity, then it's substantive since such a being has at least some determinate ontological characteristics. (That is, not only Hume's “ontological predicates”; such as eternity, omnipresence, omnipotence.) However, if the word 'God' is defined more loosely, then perhaps the claim that “God exists” may well be insubstantial or semantically suspect. (Say, for example, if the claim “God is nature” or “God is the ultimate mind” is considered.) However, it's not quite that simple. Talk of the God of Christianity may still be a conceptual confused. On the other hand, a vague God may still have determinate characteristics which can be tackled in a philosophical manner. So language is important in both cases. As for the accusations of “shallowness” and being insubstantial, that depends...

What is Metametaphysics?

After describing the nature of metaphysics, Manley goes on to describe the nature of metametaphysics. He writes:

Metametaphysics is concerned with the foundations of metaphysics. It asks: Do the questions of metaphysics really have answers? If so, are these answers substantive or just a matter of how we use words? And what is the best procedure for arriving at them—common sense? Conceptual analysis? Or assessing competing hypotheses with quasi-scientific criteria?”

Let me repeat myself here. If it's wrong that metaphysicians (or Manley) assume that there are “foundations of reality”, perhaps it's also wrong to assume that metametaphysics is solely concerned with “the foundations of metaphysics”. Here again, the subject metaphysics may well have foundations. And those foundations may be partly explained historically in that the ancient Greeks took certain subjects or phenomena to be foundational. In addition, some metametaphysicians may be concerned with the words and concepts used by metaphysicians; not with what they talk about. (Perhaps because what they talk about doesn't actually exist.) Nonetheless, in Manley's description of metametaphysics, he does raise similar questions. For example, he tells us that the “questions of metaphysics” may only be “a matter of how we use words”. And this takes us on to the subject of metaphysical deflationism.

Strong Deflationism

Many people who're deeply suspicious of metaphysics (perhaps of metametaphysics too!) will be keen on the position David Manley classes as “strong deflationism”. (That's if people who hate metaphysics will even care about a position which criticises metaphysics.) The position of strong deflationism is, of course, still a metaphysical position. Indeed whatever position you take on the world (or on anything else for that matter) must surely contain some assumptions (or even explicit beliefs) which are metaphysical in nature.

What defines strong deflationism? According to Manley, it's

[m]otivated in part by intuitions of shallowness, they argue that the dispute is merely verbal, or that the disputants are not making truth-evaluable claims at all”.

All “merely verbal”? Perhaps not:

i) One's tempted to make the possibly trite point that even to these strong deflationists, there must still be a way the world is. And that is metaphysics.
ii) Sure, we talk about the world with words, concepts and theories; though there's still a way the world is.
iii) Those words, concepts and theories may distort or simply alter what we say about the world; though there's still a way the world is.
iv) Indeed we may not even be able to get at the world unless we use words, concepts or theories which distort or change the world; though there's still a way the world is.

Furthermore, what does “shallowness” mean here? (I'm assuming this word isn't only Manley's term for what these deflationists think.) What are (realist?) metaphysicians “shallow” about? Why is what they say shallow? What can they say – metaphysically or otherwise – which isn't shallow? And is it really the case that a dispute – any dispute – can be “merely verbal”? (Is that even possible in principle?)

In addition, if the metaphysicians' claims aren't “truth-evaluable”, then what sort of claims are truth-evaluable? What makes them truth-evaluable? These questions will require answers which, at least in part, will include metaphysical answers. (The critics of - realist - metaphysics may not, of course, deny that they're committed to some form of metaphysics.)

Despite my own questions, Manley goes on to say that “[i]n its new forms, strong deflationism poses as serious a challenge to metaphysics as ever”.

Mild Deflationism

The “mild deflationist' position (as enunciated by Manley) is difficult to grasp. Manley tells us that mild deflationists “admit that there is a genuine dispute at issue”; though they also believe that “it can be resolved in a relatively trivial fashion by reflecting on conceptual or semantic facts”. Moreover, “nothing of substance is left for the metaphysician to investigate”. I can't see how all that works. If these mild deflationists admit that there are “genuine disputes” here; then how can they be entirely resolved by “reflecting on conceptual or semantic facts”? Concepts and semantics are of course important; though they can't possibly be the whole story. Unless the remainder is - by (semantic) definition - “trivial” (or “nothing of substance”). But what the hell does that mean? The only situation in which I can conceive of this position (as stated) working would be when it comes to the position of linguistic idealism (or perhaps some other form of idealism) - and even then I'm not sure. Of course the simple solution to my quandary may be to read more of what these mild deflationists actually have to say on the subject.

It's not surprising that Manley rounds off his description of mild deflationism by saying that “mild deflationists tend to be motivated more by intuitions of triviality than by the intuition that nothing is really at issue in the dispute”. Here again we see the word “triviality”; which is troubling. Moreover, Manley hints that if these mild deflationists aren't motivated “by the intuition that nothing is really at issue in the dispute”, then doesn't that mean that they may well believe that something is really at issue in the dispute? If that's the case, how is the mild-deflationist circle squared?

In any case, can any dispute be merely verbal in a literal sense? Can any dispute be entirely “due to differences in the way the disputants are using certain terms”? Think about it. Despite saying that, perhaps my own problem is that I'm taking the popular phrase “merely verbal” too literally in the sense that surely no one really believes that a dispute is all about semantics and/or language.

Manley's second point is more telling. He says that mild deflationists claim that “[n]either side” in a metaphysical dispute “succeeds in making a claim with determinate truth-value”. Surely here the mild deflationist has to move away from the merely verbal if he's also talking about truth-values. In other words, if neither metaphysical position X nor metaphysical position Y (on the same subject) have a truth-value; then that means that the mild deflationist is – even if elliptically - making a metaphysical statement about the nature of the world. He's saying that the world couldn't possibly provide an answer to the question of whether or not position X or position Y has a “determinate truth-value”. Thus we're still in the world of metaphysics.

Next: Theodore Sider's 'Ontological Realism', as found in Metametaphysics: New Essays on the Foundations of Ontology.