The Fun of Metaphysics (…on ‘the One’)

Those who have read my posts before will know that, ontologically, or let us not be afraid of that word, metaphysically, I move on the hermeneutic, deconstructive, pragmatist side of the philosophical road. Not because I believe in some authoritative declaration like the one of Heidegger that ‘metaphysics is not possible any more’, but just because I see that this approach gives us better chances to articulate what drives life, thinking, being in our time. Because it provides more ‘truth’, that is, more understanding. Hermeneutic, because understanding the power of interpretation and taking it into account, may guard us from some ideological delusions. Deconstructive, because becoming aware of how things, or views of things become constructed by historical, political and ethical conditions, may guard us from taking things in the seemingly solid manner in which they pose. Pragmatist, because pragmatism is the only positive ontological approach that takes the dynamic, deconstructive structures in which we live since the times of Darwin and Nietzsche seriously.

Just yesterday I talked in my ethics course on Immanuel Kant’s criticism of dogmatic metaphysics. As one of the students remarked, Kant does not do away with metaphysics (thinking in a demonstrative fashion on what is beyond the empirical) entirely. No, he doesn’t. But he restricts metaphysics to the search for the possibility conditions of pure reason (the practical and the theoretical). That is: we will only venture in the realm of the unseen to find the principles that explain it to be possible that we talk morals with each other, or do science. Like the principle of unity in the world, which might be called ‘God’. (pragmatism doesn’t need this anymore – it accepts there to be multiverses, rather than a unified universe – and thus it can accept polytheism as a sensible approach) But what Kant dismisses is to perform a kind of reasoning that pretends to be able to logically demonstrate objective truths on the nature of God, his eternity, the creation of human beings, etcetera. Speaking on such things can only be done in the axiomatic manner he practices, for instance when he claims that we need the concept of free will to explain the possibility of morally right actions. We cannot say anything, he insists, about free will as such, as it is objectively, for we do not know such things, in the manner which we would call justified knowledge.

Well, that is the situation we are in, philosophically. Kant drew our attention to the limits of reason, and hermeneutics, deconstruction and pragmatism try to articulate the logic at work in the borderzones that it has discovered to be there where Kant saw (from a distance still) razor sharp frontier lines. I would not try to just do some good old metaphysics, as I aim to avoid creating confusion in my readers or my students. There is only one thing about this situation, that tickles me from time to time: good old metaphysics is fun. I understood this again when I took this one book in my hand, that Spinoza published during his lifetime in his own name (and which is sadly so much neglected by Spinoza researchers): his handbook on The Principles of Cartesian Philosophy, which is followed by his own Metaphysical Thoughts.

Reading the latter makes one feel the joy of their author, to follow the route of abstract thought in it’s utter logicality. Like where he argues that absolute good cannot exist and that ‘those who keep seeking some metaphysical good not qualified by any relation are laboring under a misapprehension, in that they are confusing a distinction of reason with a real or modal distinction.’ Huh? What is this all about? Is this dogmatic metaphysics? Is spinoza not rather trying to articulate in other words what Kant repeated in his own time… that we should never take the world of appearances for the world of reason? And did Aquinas or Plato do something radically different in their works? In other words, was Kant’s disctinction between dogmatic metaphysics and critical reasoning not just a marketing strategy to sell his old wine in new bags?

If so, should we really forsake the fun of doing metaphysics? Or would the risk to fall into ideological traps be too great? It surely is when we throw away the ladder of critical reasoning which might take us out of the world of abstraction in which we will descend – if it doesn’t live up to our needs. So we should still be hermeneutic, deconstructive and pragmatist, while playing the game. I know only of one person who does this in these days – but he is not a philosopher. It is funk bassist Bootsy Collins, who has taken James Brown’s rhytm concept of ‘the One’, which was also supposed to have a spiritual meaning, and builds from it seemingly crazy revelations like these from the ‘High Trinity of Funk’:  ‘It is not good for humans to be funkless and separated from the One, you see One is not a lonely number as it contains the essence of all there is.’ You may think I have lost it, but I think I have not. I find in these texts the good old Fun of Metaphysics, but now with irony as it’s critical ladder. Exploring playfully the language of abstraction, which is strange, mysterious, and revelatory at the same time.

Spinoza lived from 1632 – 1677 and is most well-known by his posthumously published work Ethics.

I cited from Spinoza’s Principles of Cartesian Philosophy with Metaphysical Thoughts, in the translation of Samuel Shirley, published in 1998 by Hackett Publishing Company. This work was originally published in 1663.

Bootsy (William) Collins was born in 1951 and started as member of the band of James Brown. Later he played in the famous bands Funkadelic and Parliament, and nowadays he creates and performs under his artist’s name Bootsy.

I cited from his album Tha Funk Capital of the World, published in 2011.

  1. onesis said:

    Angela, I too would like to think we can still do metaphysics, and enjoy doing it. Is it possible that Heidegger was contradicting himself when he wrote what you quoted? I find metaphysics on every page of Heidegger. And of course Kant was merely following in Plato’s footsteps, outlining as he attempted to do, the forms of pure and practical reason.

    So I ask, what is this all about, the idea that metaphysics is dead? I am particularly puzzled about these claims concerning the existence of multiverses. I am puzzled, principally, because the claim itself assumes that the trajectory of multiverses ends up in the thoughts of the claimant. And if they all converge, does this not entail that the claimant has assumed the position of The One (the one who knows it all)?

    In short, I do not think that pragmatism has superseded metaphysics, as many of its followers seems to be saying. To the contrary, a metaphysical approach requires the humility of knowing that one does not know, even as one never gives up the quest, the possibility of a glimpse of something that remains elusive to those who wish to enframe and constrain through dogma, or if you prefer, technology.
    David Turnbull

    • Thanks, David, for a reaction that I think is very much to the point. As for pragmatism, of course those who are counted as pragmatists differ in their views among each other. Charles Sanders Peirce has said on human knowledge that, although it is always provisional, it converges towards the truth – which is a manner of saying what you say: not giving up the quest, although one never arrives there.

      William James is the one of the multiverse, but his thoughts about it are in itself metaphysical in one sense of that word.- as he claims that reality is such that it has no unified principle, but that its logic is that of several webs of meaning overlapping but not coming to unity, and that that is ‘good enough’ for human beings to live.

      As for Heidegger, I think he mistook the growing awareness of language constituting our perception of reality for the impossibility to arrive at ‘things themselves’. I would ask him: and what if language is a ‘thing itself’…?

  2. independence2 said:

    Yes, good old metapshysics is fun, and can be funky. What our needs are should not be the only criteria for exploration and true adventurers, even those who keep their reason dry, are driven more by restlessness than recklessness. Finally, and I hope so, irony is an instrument too often played in the 20th Century. What makes one funky is a balance of romanticism and wit (which is ironic).

    • onesis said:

      I’ve been re-reading Angela’s metaphysics post. So much in there, in such a small space. It’s like a zip file. I don’t wish to criticise Angela since her post makes a conversation possible right on this site. By why have a blog and why post thoughts is one does not find at least one thought to discuss with others? I find the notion of hermeneutics intriguing, as it occurs in boundary situations. One boundary situation I inhabit is where traditional people from cultures over 10,000 years old, still interact with the bold brash economically driven people of European and Chinese origin. It is a contested space to do with “intellectual property” of items such as native fruits. Irony won’t do here. Pragmatics is too Euro-centric even if it is North American. One has to delve hermeneutically into deep cultural myths to even start to make sense of the controversies. But how does one do hermeneutics without a written record? There is only an oral tradition, and this tradition is being spoken by people who have been entrusted with traditional knowledge, and the people who have such knowledge forbid the use of digital recording devices. You have to hear it, and remember what you can, and go away and think about it. And if its living knowledge it gets on your insides and conducts its own trajectory of transformation. Frontier metaphysics. Not dead as door nails re-incantations of Kant. I’m not being ironical and I’m not doing this for fun. Perhaps if you want to engage with me you’ll have to catch me elsewhere.
      David Turnbull

    • Thanks for your reaction. I have a question to you – as I understand it, romanticism and wit both (in different ways) keep a distance to reality as such, the one enlarging it, if you wish, the other downplaying it. So it seems you are indeed saying that metaphysics old style is not possible any more, but the funny and romantic style of Bootsy Collins can. Am I right?

      • independence2 said:

        Angela, the funky style can a viable one, but takes us only so far. We should not limit ourselves. We might as well use all our critical thinking ability, and especially as we approach the boundaries of the known/unknown, we need to use all of our transformative thought processes: romanticism, skepticism, humor. Each is best when it employs imagination, and each exaggerates certain aspects of reality over others (selection and generalization, which artists use). Philosophy can use new transformative thought processes, such as new forms of logic.

        Staying with music, the best mixes romanticism with humor, or playfulness. In literature and film, romanticism and wit balance one another, and create a sense of reality that is palpable. This is a very good sentence: “Exploring playfully the language of abstraction, which is strange, mysterious, and revelatory at the same time.”

        Metaphysics lives! Think of scientists. When they reach the boundaries of the known, they hypothesize. They will even when all esle fails, speculate, visualize, romanticize, poeticize, improvise, doodle and hum. There’s a neat piece online called Up and Down the Ladder of Abstraction. They are engineers, but they use the word “intuition” unabashedly. They apparently mean the brain’s ability to make connections (which is one of the things it does best), and when we are focused on a task or situation, we become slightly conscious of this process, and if we’re smart, let it direct us.

        Heidegger has a point: in philosophy we are language-driven, language-trapped. Scientists can draw, do math or make models to get away from language, just enoiugh to give us perspective. A walk in the woods can do the same thing.

        David, is the oral tradition one of getting the right words in the same sequence evey time, person after person, generation after generation? Or is that the story changes every time and recording it would “kill” it. Or is it simply that a living person speaking to another living person gives it meaning and life? As you say, it “gets inside you and conduct its own trajectory of transformation?”

        It’s all about crossing boundaries, enlarging our understanding of reality, and that includes ways in which we transform reality, and it transforms us (in webs of meaning, or the music of The One).

        Mary Clark

  3. Hi David, the reply above was for ‘independence2’. Thanks for your second reading and discussion proposal – actually I think this comment of yours is very ‘dense’, and interesting – too much to react to in one go. But I think I understand your point – that when one digs deeper, right into oral traditions of wisdom, one goes beyond the ‘dead’ metaphysics – it rings somewhat of what I wrote in my post on Nietzsche, the one before this one – am I right?

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