January 08, 2015

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I recently spent some time making a table for my kitchen, with the assistance of a dear friend whose hobby is cabinetry, and who is generous with his time and equipment. (Thanks, pal!)

We made measurements and plans, then purchased good-quality wood. We cut, jointed and planed, glued and clamped, tenoned and mortised. We shaped, chamfered, and tapered. We planed and sanded. We shellacked, oiled, and waxed.

It’s a lovely table. My pleasure in making it was only slightly marred by the reflection that mine is probably the last generation that will make tables for pleasure. If our kids want a table they will just print one.

Those hours of close engagement with the stubborn reality of physical matter drove me into a severe reaction, though: I took up an interest in metaphysics”€”speculations about the ultimate nature of reality.

Anglo-Saxons have traditionally regarded metaphysics with disdain, as of interest only to prating papists, Germans with thick eyebrows, and oriental chaps in saffron robes. (Colonel Younghusband, when his expeditionary force reached Lhasa in 1904, was amused to learn that the Tibetan government official he was negotiating with bore a title that translated as “€œGrand Metaphysician.”€ We have a few of those in D.C., too.)

“€œAnglo-Saxons have traditionally regarded metaphysics with disdain, as of interest only to prating papists, Germans with thick eyebrows, and oriental chaps in saffron robes.”€

Thomas Love Peacock mocked the subject in his 1818 novel Nightmare Abbey, describing the metaphysician Flosky as “€œa very lachrymose and morbid gentleman.”€

Flosky:  This distinction between fancy and imagination is one of the most abstruse and important points of metaphysics. I have written seven hundred pages of promise to elucidate it, which promise I shall keep as faithfully as the bank will its promise to pay.

Marionetta:  I assure you, Mr Flosky, I care no more about metaphysics than I do about the bank …

The triumphs of science in the 19th century fortified this scornful attitude, turning even some of those morose continentals away from metaphysics. This led at last to the late-1920s philosophy of logical positivism, which regarded all statements not susceptible to empirical verification as nonsense.

Positivism turned out to have some logical problems of its own. How do you empirically verify the statement: “€œOnly statements that are empirically verifiable have meaning”€?

Something much older and darker was still alive, too. Intense mystical experience, recorded in all times and places, offers a different take on reality. Cool-headed modern researchers like William James and Marghanita Laski found that these experiences are surprisingly common. They may (it’s disputed) lie behind the famously obscure ideas of the metaphysician Martin Heidegger, a major target of the positivists:

The act of negation does not generate the “€œnot”€ but is grounded in the “€œnot,”€ and the “€œnot”€ in turn is generated by the action of the no-thing … [“€œWhat is Metaphysics?“€ (Heidegger, 1929).]

Politics of the serious kind were also in play in the metaphysics v. positivism bout. The great dictators of the age, Stalin and Hitler, were both hostile to positivism. Heidegger joined the Nazi Party. Moritz Schlick, one of positivism’s founders, was murdered by a Nazi who at trial claimed philosophical grounds for the deed.

And historically, whatever Heidegger thought he was talking about (don”€™t ask me), mysticism and metaphysics have not been friends. Mystics think the attempt to describe the ineffable in words is foolish. “€œTao can be talked about, but not the Eternal Tao,”€ according to Lao-Tzu.

The true spirit of mysticism in early 20th-century philosophy may in fact have belonged to Ludwig Wittgenstein, whom most of us dabblers vaguely suppose to have been in the positivist corner for the bout”€”he was mentor to Rudolf Carnap, the positivists”€™ positivist. Russell Nieli makes the case for Wittgenstein the mystic in Wittgenstein: From Mysticism to Ordinary Language

Wittgenstein never imagined … that his book would inspire a messianic materialist movement that … would throw the spiritual baby out with the metaphysical bathwater.

If you prefer your metaphysics without mysticism, try David Johnson’s “€œExploring Metaphysics”€ lectures from Great Courses. Prof. Johnson presents a straightforward modern view of his subject. We speculate about things we don”€™t”€”or don”€™t yet“€”understand, as our remote ancestors speculated about the nature of stars, the cause of earthquakes, or the transmission of disease. Metaphysics, says Johnson, is the critique of these speculations, sorting out the more- from the less-plausible.


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