The “usefulness” of metaphysics

8 09 2010

It is frightening to think of the extent to which people are now being encouraged to banish from the minds of their children great questions as devoid of all meaning; to dispel the wonder which is a young mind’s birthright; to confine their spirit to petty problems that can be answered once and for all to the satisfaction of reasoners incapable of raising a question to begin with. We now have a philosophy to show that there are no problems but those which it has shown to be no problem; and to decree that there is no philosophy other than one that is a denial of philosophy. Under the twinkle of a fading star, Hollow Men rejoice at a hollow world of their own making.

-Charles de Koninck, The Hollow Universe

I am very sympathetic to this type of comment. For one thing, I think one of the problems with anti-abortion advocates is that they fail to understand how anti-metaphysical our thinking and the thinking of democracy is. The inability of many good intentioned people to see the usefulness of metaphysical first principles prevents any real discourse on morality whatsoever.

On the other hand, you can’t eat metaphysics. We live in a profoundly anti-metaphysical world, and to pretend that these questions mean exactly the same thing as when Aquinas or other scholastics posed them would be the same as saying that a costume ball constitutes an exact re-inactment of the customs of the past. I was struck by this most in my own readings of Aquinas, before I started blogging, in which I concluded that one could not pretend to understand Aquinas unless one begins to try to grasp what kind of world he lived in. What was the “metaphysical atmosphere” in which he thought, how did he envision the cosmos working, how did social and economic factors influence how he approached questions, and so forth. I feel that I need to emphasize that his vision of the cosmos as run by cosmic hierarchies and according to the traditional rhythms of the seasons and the heavens is a much different place from our coldly measured mechanistic universe.

For that reason, I understand why the idea of both Maritain and de Koninick that modern science and human knowledge in general suffer because of a lack of a metaphysical component often falls on deaf ears. Modern science, as a quantitative tool, has no need of anything beyond the physical to explain its object. And quite frankly, it has proven far better than religion or metaphysical thought at feeding and caring for the people who employ it. Perhaps we are missing something even in the neo-Thomist advocacy of metaphysics. Perhaps there is a whole aspect of these propositions, a whole approach to the logos of things that we are missing. If that is the case, we may need to go beyond even the books by chairs of the philosophy programs at Catholic universities.


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4 responses

11 09 2010
J. Gordon Anderson

Aspiring scientists should all be made to minor in philosophy. So many of them whom I have encountered (especially astronomers, as I used to live near the Hubble Space Telescope Science Center) don’t seem to understand the basic assumptions that underly the entire scientific enterprise.

10 09 2010
human virtue and detachment | Words

[…] 10, 2010 by Andrea Elizabeth I’ve perused 2 non-religious philosophy blogs (h/t to Arturo for the last one, see the link at the bottom of his post) and find they have such a different […]

8 09 2010
Henry Karlson

Have you read Paul Anderson’s Platonism in the Midwest? An interesting quote (among many) is this from near the end:

Opposing tendencies even in philosophical circles made the continuance of the Platonic movement difficult. The secularism characteristic of the general public quickly spread to educational institutions, where professional philosophers were largely to be found. Two tendencies were in evidence there, one toward historical study and analysis (which made those following this course relatively immune to intellectual controversy) and the other toward the construction of a philosophy based upon scientific method and theory. Two factions in this connection are important to note. In the first place, as need for an approach to philosophy through science came to be recognized, it made more difficult the pursuit of philosophy as an avocation. As science became more technical, so, also, did the preparation of the philosopher. Philosophy became an all-consuming vocation, and the amateur philosopher was soon outdistanced in range and breadth of thought by those who were professionally trained. In the second place, when it was clear that philosophy was not in necessary opposition to science nor even neutral in regard to it, it became apparent that the only philosophy which could hold its own was that which gave adequate place to, and demonstrated real concern for, science. The Platonism of Jones and his followers was not dead, but out-moded. Jones could, of course, say ‘The achievement of Philosophy is the marriage of the speculative and the experimental,’ but his failure, and that of the other Platonists, was in never taking this statement seriously, and they soon lost out to those who did.

Paul R. Anderson, Platonism in the Midwest (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963), 200-1

8 09 2010
Michael

You should read “Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man” by Seyyed Hossein Nar.

It addressed the issue of metaphysics (or the lack thereof) for underlying problems (in this case our respect and interaction with nature).

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