What is metaphysics?

Finnegan asked:

What is metaphysics for a contemporary philosopher? Is there agreement that it is still considered a valid field of inquiry within contemporary philosophy?

Answer by Peter Jones

Metaphysics is the same subject that it was on the day it was named and always will be. Among contemporary philosophers there are two schools of thought.

For the professional academic metaphysics is incomprehensible and a waste of time. This renders the whole of professional academic philosophy incomprehensible and a waste of time. This is made clear in the current edition of the Blackwell Guide to Metaphysics where metaphysics is described as unscientific, inconclusive and absent any decision-making procedure. Most philosophers of the Academy ignore metaphysics and form their opinions on philosophical issues as suits them.

For philosophers who take it seriously metaphysics is not merely a valid field of enquiry but the most important and valuable of all fields, If we do not understand metaphysics then for us philosophy must be a muddle of competing unworkable theories and inadequate conjectures. Thus Kant calls academic metaphysics an ‘arena for mock fights’.

The second school of thought would say that metaphysics is comprehensible and has an excellent system for making decisions and arriving at firm conclusions. This school is called the Perennial philosophy. It explains metaphysics and claims it is comprehensible. This school would include Plotinus, Nagarjuna, Lao Tsu, Francis Bradley, D. E. Harding, George Spencer Brown, Sri Aurobindo and a long list of others who are ignored in the philosophy department. As it would also include me I’ll offer as link to my writings on this topic. You might like the essay ‘Is Metaphysics a Waste of Time?’ https://philpeople.org/profiles/peter-g-jones.

To the question of whether metaphysics is considered a valid field of enquiry, then, there will be different answers depending on who you ask. Russell and Carnap would say not and it is difficult to think of any contemporary scientists who believe otherwise. It is not much easier to think of contemporary scholastic philosophers who believe otherwise. The Blackwell Guide states clearly that it is not a valid field.

The reason for this is that metaphysics is incomprehensible unless we assume that mysticism, specifically non-dualism,  is its correct solution. As a consequence, all philosophers who reject mysticism find metaphysics a hopeless and inconclusive area of study and so they often reject metaphysics as well. Meanwhile all metaphysical problems are solved by Nagarjuna in the second century in his Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way for a position known as the ‘Middle Way’, non-dualism, advaita, the perennial philosophy or mysticism. Those who endorse this view would argue that metaphysics is the way to unlock the secrets of the Cosmos. It’s your choice who to believe, but logic is on the side of Nagarjuna and Lao Tsu.

Thus we have two distinct global traditions of philosophy, one for which metaphysics is incomprehensible and a waste of time and one for which it is a path to truth and understanding. This means an uncontroversial answer to your question is not possible, It has to be you who decides which is the correct view.

2 thoughts on “What is metaphysics?

  1. “This is made clear in the current edition of the Blackwell Guide to Metaphysics where metaphysics is described as unscientific, inconclusive and absent any decision-making procedure.”
    I am confused. What makes other fields of philosophy ‘scientific’?

    1. Nothing makes them scientific according to the Guide, not even as a science of logic. If metaphysics is correctly described by the Guide then so is the whole of philosophy. The preface is a startling condemnation of Russell’s tradition of scholastic metaphysics and a clear and outspoken endorsement of the Perennial philosophy, which clearly the preface-writer and contributors have never bothered to study. This is an academically-respected guide to metaphysics and I’m unable to understand why anyone would bother to read it. I may be more confused than you as to how such a guide can exist. .

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