{jctv}//metaphysics I: ontology [AND] truth\\ Back to 7X300





What is? [AND] What is what?

The metaphysics of Aristotle was not meant to bear that name. It was certainly not a name Aristotle used. The story goes that an editor in the 1st century AD was wondering what to do with a small bunch of writings that did not clearly fit anywhere else in Aristotle's Oeuvre but nevertheless felt they would be best placed after the physics. With that innocent action he inadvertently labelled a discipline that has had an interesting ride. Never have I come accross a word with a more chaotic set of meanings. I am going to keep to a pragmatic definition of Metaphysics, which, at a stretch might include most of the others. Peirce calls metaphysics the discipline which is concerned with decribing the landscape of the world's intelligibility. In order to define desirable or undesirable qualities (aesthetics) and describe good and bad ways of achieving those qualities (ethics), metaphysics, the third great leg of philosophy, may be defined as the discipline which explores the conditions upon which the first two discplines can relate. It describes the landscape of experience and makes it communicable. Sorts out that which is compelling enough to be believed from that which is flawed, so as to form a basis for desire and action. The study of language thus fits within the discipline of metaphysics, as language is that which mediates between aesthetics and ethics. And language to be compelling and useful, most prove itself against experience.

A second word, both an obstacle to and instrument of metaphysics is truth. What is truth? Is truth a correspondence between our statements about the world and the world itself, as it is? That appears attractive. But how do we get to know the world? Immanuel Kant had quite explicitly said that the world can only be known through the structure of our thinking body. (I am trying to avoid the word mind here) He said that das Ding an sich the thing itself cannot be known. Well the history of that phrase has become very as contentious and tortuous as the history of the word metaphysics and the word truth. For the purposes of our course I am going to keep things simple by adhering closely to what Kant says about this. Das Ding an sich , is, as far as I am concerned, simply the world out there before it is enveloped in our bodily system of sense, experience, feeling and thought. It is only accessible to us through our bodily network of senses, memory and ability to feel and think. What we see of the world out there is always mediated by the structures of our ways of experiencing things. Even science has access only to observation, observation through the mediation of all sorts of complicated apparatus, but in the end it can only see how things behave in light, in space, in time and in relation to other things.

So what is truth? Well contrary to fashion I believe that Peirce, James and Dewey had it right. As Richard Rorty says, they'l be there standing at the end of the road applauding the latecomers. Truth is not a question you should ask of the world. Instead we need to work with a more provisional model of cogency, a model that says that statements may or may not correspond to a reality out there. We shall never fully know whether they do or do not. The best we can do is formulate theories that work when measured against the best scientific and psychological research, the most compelling descriptions of phenomena and experience. Through critical thinking we are encouraged to build up our experience of the world and we can allow theories that work against the most compelling paradigm. And if it doesn't work, either the paradigm or the theory must give way under the pressure..

As such, truth is, to all practical purposes (and that is all I am looking for) a correspondence to experience. It is an empirical judgment. I leave the other kind of truth to theologians. They know what to do with it. I don't. Now, does this mean that several contradicting things can be true at the same time? Well, yes and no. For someone with an unpracticed and meagre experience of things, truth can lay in very weird theories indeed. Someone with a more critically practiced and extended experience of the world will generally not find such theories compelling. But that does not necessarily mean that the person with a small experience of things is thereby forced to give up his. He persists in his way of looking at the world which he will most likely not give up under duress, but only if he himself seeks access to this extented experience.



A selective bibliography of metaphysical and ontological notions

Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (Gifford Lectures Delivered in the University of Edinburgh During the Session 1927-28) (1979)
Alfred North Whitehead, A Key to Whitehead's Process and Reality (1981)
Aristotle, Metaphysics, (350 BC)
Benedictus de Spinoza, Ethica, (1677)
Charles Sanders Peirce, How to make our ideas clear, Popular Science Monthly 12 (January 1878), 286-302
Charles Sanders Peirce, The Fixation of Belief, Popular Science Monthly 12 (November 1877), 1-15.
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh : The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (1999)
George Lakoff and Rafael Nuñez, Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being, (2001)
Mark Johnson, The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason (1990)
Martin Heidegger, What is metaphysics? (Wat is Metafysica) (1929) many translations and editions
Peter Sloterdijk, Sferen & Schuim, Boom, Amsterdam, 2002 & 2009 (A critique of spherical metaphysics)
Richard Rorty, The decline of redemptive truth and the rise of a literary culture
Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1996)
William James, Pragmatism, A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907)
William James, The Meaning of Truth, a sequel to 'Pragmatism' (1907)

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