14 July 2006

Ensnarled in the Population Imagination

The best thing, in my view, about a recent Call for Papers from the "Metaphysical Society of America" was the footnote at the end:

N.B. The 2007 program takes place on a Sunday and Monday, not Saturday and Sunday.

I liked that. After all, why should we presume that it is acceptable to hold academic conferences on the Jewish Sabbath, which effectively excludes many of our colleagues? But why hold them on a weekend at all? Why shouldn't they be scheduled, standardly, during the week, and considered as part of our professional work--with our making provisions, of course, to make up for missed class time?

But the rest of the Call is the sort of thing gives metaphysics a bad name. Here's the first paragraph.

Metaphysics, First Philosophy, was described by Aristotle as the quest for ultimates, archai, as he put it. Its subject: Being qua being. Its core question: What is it for a thing to be? Metaphysics considers not just living things, like biology, or thinking, or the weather, but whatever exists. It holds itself open to consider all claims about reality at large. It is perhaps its generality that has given metaphysics a bad name in some quarters. The interest in ultimates ensnarled it in population imagination with the arcana of the occult. For many philosophers, metaphysics has seemed to be hopelessly entangled with irresoluble quandaries. For how could one have the effrontery to try to characterize reality at large? Some have taken refuge from such big questions by turning to an analysis of language or some other meta-critique, parasitic on other modes of discourse. Others have substituted historical disquisitions on texts and the circumstances of their composition. Or they have sublimated, if not creatively, in poetic or artistic expression, then cloaking their metaphysical interests in the opacity of oblique discourse or the armor of technical jargon. And yet the big questions do not disappear. They remain robust as long as human curiosity flourishes. And efforts to address them persist, varying in quality with the insights or insightfulness of those who make the attempt.
The paragraph raises interesting metaphysical questions itself, such as what sort of thing is such that it can be ensnarled in the imagination ('population imagination') together with 'arcana of the occult'. Or how is it that there can be a 'meta-critique' which is not parasitic on language but 'discourse'. Or what it means for persons to 'sublimate'. Or whether a question may remain robust when human curiosity no longer flourishes. (I did, however, appreciate the subtle distinction between 'insights' and 'insightfulness'. That was helpful.)

Of course we certainly should avoid 'cloaking metaphysical interests in the opacity of oblique discouse'. That would be terrible. We should never do such a thing.

The second paragraph attempts to clarify:
Our question, then, is the ancient one: What is it for a thing to be? Do minds exist? If so, what is their relation to bodies? What is it to be a person, or a living being? What connections are there between being and knowing? fact and value? reality and truth? Do ideas exist, and if so how? Does God exist? What about probabilities and possibilities? What is the ontic status of causes? All these questions are opened up by the inquiry into being. The topic is chosen for its openness to a wide variety of perspectives. Papers are invited that seek to grapple with such questions, drawing on the work of past and present philosophers but not avoiding active engagement with the core questions in their own right.
Yes, clearly, 'the ancient question', What is it for a thing to be?, is equivalent to Do minds exist?, the fact-value distinction, and the existence of God.

And what about probabilities and possibilities? Yes, what about them?


Anonymous said...

I don't think I've ever read anything of yours that was quite so disdainful. Usually you're more understated. Then again, when you're taking a break from moving furniture, and you find ridiculous calls for papers, sometimes you just have to let it all go, I guess.

Michael Pakaluk said...

I'll remove the last paragraph. I want to be funny but not nasty.

I think it must have been the contrast between the honest work I've been doing (such as replacing toilets) and that Call. Also, I'm very much aware of how close to nonsense all philosophy is.