Being, judgment, and the shape of a philosophical question

Contemporary metaphysics is often thought to be essentially a continuation of the project that engaged Plato and Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and other figures of philosophy’s perennial past. This post shows a respect in which this fails to be the case.

The central questions of contemporary metaphysics reduce to two: the first, ‘what is there?’; the second, ‘what is there fundamentally?’ The first was asked by Quine in his seminal 1948 article ‘On What There Is’; more recently, Jonathan Schaffer’s 2009 ‘On What Grounds What’ has consciously and effectively posed the second question in contrast with the Quinean one. The former question dominated the metaphysical program in Anglophone philosophy until quite recently; and now, Schaffer’s question looks as though it may fundamentally write the contrast program for metaphysics for the next generation. In spite of their differences, these questions share some similarities they fail to share with those of the long dead masters.

First, both Quine and Schaffer’s questions admit of plural equivalents. On Quine’s understanding, to ask the question of what there is is equivalent to asking what things there are. Here, Shaffer’s question is only a minor modification of Quine’s: Shaffer wishes to know what things there are at bottom.

Second, both questions admit of paraphrase in terms of a series of ‘whether’ questions. Since the answers to the question, ‘what things are there?’ or ‘what things are there at bottom?’ can be given as universally quantified disjunctions, the disjuncts of which are non-empty and non-redundant,[1] one can ask whether a thing is in the disjunction.[2] This allows research in metaphysics to bear a superficial relationship to that of the natural sciences, where an overarching view is articulated,[3] and progress is made by testing more manageable aspects of our environment against this view.[4]

Thus, a central aspect of modern metaphysics is this focus on producing questions to be answered in an act of judgment. Research in metaphysics today poses questions the answers to which may be formulated as ‘there-is’ statements, or, alternatively, as ascriptions of being or existence,[5] which may or may not be qualified adverbially,[6] to a subject. And like the natural sciences it is modeled upon, its aims are essentially prohibitive: to demarcate and delimit the domain of a universe of discourse, often in the service of making it simpler and more manageable. But unlike the natural sciences, where the domain of inquiry is specified and restricted antecedently,[7] today’s metaphysician imagines herself to cast the beings outside of her purview wholly to oblivion, or at least to bar them from inclusion in an elite group.

In this way, contemporary metaphysics remains a practice centrally concerned with the conferral and withholding of status. Where the restriction of the domain of the scientist serves the constructive purpose of specifying an object of concern, and thereby removes other beings from consideration, helping to ensure a kind of scientific detachment from positive or negative evaluation of those beings, this same restriction in metaphysics fails to specify a domain, and instead serves to make the things to be affirmed and denied objects of concern precisely as things to be evaluated positively or negatively – contributing to attitudes of both attachment and opprobrium in the respective cases. In metaphysics, the same precautionary measures taken in the sciences reproduce not the inquiry of the servant, but the decree of the master. This transformation of the mechanisms producing virtuous science into mechanisms producing vicious metaphysics suggests their inappropriateness to the matter at issue in the latter discipline.

Where modern metaphysical programs take their shape by lifting a pattern of inquiry found in the sciences, one focused on ‘whether’ questions and a non-copulative use of the verb ‘is’, the pattern one finds in the great figures of the past grows more naturally out of ‘what’ questions, to be answered in terms of a copulative use of the same verb. A toddler can ask ‘what’s that?’ Those around them respond ‘that’s a banana,’ ‘a chair,’ ‘a birch tree’, ‘a reservoir,’ ‘the moon’. Still very young children may articulate a more advanced kind of question, where the demonstrative ‘this’ or ‘that’ is replaced with a noun: what’s a reservoir, a university, blindness, virtue, friendship, God? One even finds a pattern in Plato’s dialogues where Socrates’ interlocutor is led from more pragmatic ‘whether’ questions to these more essential ‘what’ questions. Tell me Socrates, is virtue teachable? Well, Meno, to determine this, we should first know what virtue is.

After practice with these sorts of questions, one can move to question what appears unassumingly in all of one’s questions and answers:

What is it to be?

To this, the philosopher provides various answers. To be is to be present. To be one. To be intelligible. To be good. To be situated. To change. To differ. To act. To suffer.

In this way, the essential question of metaphysics has its root in the earliest questioning of the toddler, even if those who raise it explicitly, let alone answer it, remain few. Furthermore, never in this natural progression is the reality of what is given questioned. Rather, the toddler and the true lover of wisdom alike submit to it and wonder.

From the above, we can see the inquisitive child remains three steps closer to the genuine metaphysical question than many professional philosophers concerned with questions ill-fitting the non-copulative use of the verb ‘to be’, separated as they are by 1) the respectable non-copulative questioning common to both scientific and non-scientific inquiry alike, where the existence of monsters, God, quarks or gravitational waves is inquired about, and 2), the legitimate, albeit self-interested questioning of a Meno, for instance, asking whether virtue is teachable, from 3) the copulative essential questioning of the child asking what dinosaurs are. From this last we have much to learn.

And an argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest. But when Jesus perceived the thought of their hearts, he took a child and put him by his side, and said to them, ‘[…] he who is least among you all is the one who is great.’

[1] E.g. ‘Everything is an atom or a cat or a baseball bat or …’

[2] E.g. ‘Are there cats?’ ‘Are atoms fundamental?’

[3] E.g. ‘Only non-composite objects exist!’

[4] E.g. ‘This article examines the question of whether there are baseballs, on the assumptions that only simple objects exist and baseballs aren’t simple.’

[5] E.g. ‘There are baseballs,’ ‘Baseballs exist.’

[6] E.g. ‘Fundamentally, there are no baseballs.’

[7] E.g. the biologist concerns herself with living beings as such, and only those.


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