Monday, November 16, 2015

The Problems of Metaphysics by William James 1911


See also 600 Books on Philosophy on Two DVDroms

No exact definition of the term 'metaphysics' is possible, and to name some of the problems it treats of is the best way of getting at the meaning of the word. It means the discussion of various obscure, abstract, and universal questions which the sciences and life in general suggest but do not solve; questions left over, as it were; questions, all of them very broad and deep, and relating to the whole of things, or to the ultimate elements thereof. Instead of a definition let me cite a few examples, in a random order, of such questions:—

What are 'thoughts,' and what are 'things'? and how are they connected?

What do we mean when we say 'truth'?

Is there a common stuff out of which all facts are made?

How comes there to be a world at all? and, Might it as well not have been?

Which is the most real kind of reality?

What binds all things into one universe?

Is unity or diversity more fundamental?

Have all things one origin? or many?

Is everything predestined, or are some things (our wills for example) free?

Is the world infinite or finite in amount?

Are its parts continuous, or are there vacua?

What is God? — or the gods?

How are mind and body joined? Do they act on each other?

How does anything act on anything else?

How can one thing change or grow out of another thing?
Are space and time beings? — or what?

In knowledge, how does the object get into the mind? — or the mind get at the object?

We know by means of universal notions. Are these also real? Or are only particular things real?

What is meant by a 'thing'?

'Principles of reason,' — are they inborn or derived?

Are 'beauty' and 'good' matters of opinion only? Or have they objective validity? And, if so, what does the phrase mean?

Such are specimens of the kind of question termed metaphysical. Kant said that the three essential metaphysical questions were:—

What can I know?

What should I do?

What may I hope? A glance at all such questions suffices to rule out such a definition of metaphysics as that of Christian Wolff, who called it 'the science of what is possible,' as distinguished from that of what is actual, for most of the questions relate to what is actual fact. One may say that metaphysics inquires into the cause, the substance, the meaning, and the outcome of all things. Or one may call it the science of the most universal principles of reality (whether experienced by us or not), in their connection with one another and with our powers of knowledge. 'Principles' here may mean either entities, like 'atoms,' 'souls,' or logical laws like: 'A thing must either exist or not exist'; or generalized facts, like 'things can act only after they exist.' But the principles are so numerous, and the 'science' of them is so far from completion, that such definitions have only a decorative value. The serious work of metaphysics is done over the separate single questions. If these should get cleared up, talk of metaphysics as a unified science might properly begin. This book proposes to handle only a few separate problems, leaving others untouched.

These problems are for the most part real; that is, but few of them result from a misuse of terms in stating them. 'Things,' for example, are or are not composed of one stuff; they either have or have
not a single origin; they either are or are not completely predetermined, etc. Such alternatives may indeed be impossible of decision; but until this is conclusively proved of them, they confront us legitimately, and some one must take charge of them and keep account of the solutions that are proposed, even if he does not himself add new ones. The opinions of the learned regarding them must, in short, be classified and responsibly discussed. For in stance, how many opinions are possible as to the origin of the world? Spencer says that the world must have been either eternal, or self-created, or created by an outside power. So for him there are only three. Is this correct? If so, which of the three views seems the most reasonable? and why? In a moment we are in the thick of metaphysics. We have to be metaphysicians even to decide with Spencer that neither mode of origin is thinkable and that the whole problem is unreal.

Some hypotheses may be absurd on their face, because they are self-contradictory. If, for example, infinity means 'what can never be completed by successive syntheses,' the notion of anything made by the successive addition of infinitely numerous parts, and yet completed, is absurd. Other hypotheses, for example that everything in nature contributes to a single supreme purpose, may be insusceptible either of proof or of disproof. Other hypotheses again, for instance that vacua exist, may be susceptible of probable solution. The classing of the hypotheses is thus as necessary as the classing of the problems, and both must be recognized as constituting a serious branch of learning. There must in short be metaphysicians. Let us for a while become metaphysicians ourselves.

As we survey the history of metaphysics we soon realize that two pretty distinct types of mind have filled it with their warfare. Let us call them the rationalist and the empiricist types of mind. A saying of Coleridge's is often quoted, to the effect that every one is born either a platonist or an aristotelian. By aristotelian, he means empiricist, and by platonist, he means rationalist; but although the contrast between the two Greek philosphers exists in the sense in which Coleridge meant it, both of them were rationalists as compared with the kind of empiricism which Democritus and Protagoras developed; and Coleridge had better have taken either of those names instead of Aristotle as his empiricist example.

Rationalists are the men of principles, empiricists the men of facts; but, since principles are universals, and facts are particulars, perhaps the best way of characterizing the two tendencies is to say that rationalist thinking proceeds most willingly by going from wholes to parts, while empiricist thinking proceeds by going from parts to wholes. Plato, the archrationalist, explained the details of nature by their participation in 'ideas,' which all depended on the supreme idea of the 'good.' Protagoras and Democritus were empiricists. The latter explained the whole cosmos, including gods as well as men, and thoughts as well as things, by their composition out of atomic elements; Protagoras explained truth, which for Plato was the absolute system of the ideas, as a collective name for men's opinions.

Rationalists prefer to deduce facts from principles. Empiricists prefer to explain principles as inductions from facts. Is thought for the sake of life? oris life for the sake of thought? Empiricism inclines to the former, rationalism to the latter branch of the alternative. God's life, according to Aristotle and Hegel, is pure theory. The mood of admiration is natural to rationalism. Its theories are usually optimistic, supplementing the experienced world by clean and pure ideal constructions. Aristotle and Plato, the Scholastics, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibnitz, Kant, and Hegel are examples of this. They claimed absolute finality for their systems, in the noble architecture of which, as their authors believed, truth was eternally embalmed. This temper of finality is foreign to empiricist minds. They may be dogmatic about their method of building on 'hard facts,' but they are willing to be sceptical about any conclusions reached by the method at a given time. They aim at accuracy of detail rather than at completeness; are contented to be fragmentary; are less inspiring than the rationalists, often treating the high as a case of 'nothing but' the low ('nothing but' self-interest well understood, etc.), but they usually keep more in touch with actual life, are less subjective, and their spirit is obviously more 'scientific' in the hackneyed sense of that term. Socrates, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, the Mills, F. A. Lange, J. Dewey, F. C. S. Schiller, Bergson, and other contemporaries are specimens of this type. Of course we find mixed minds in abundance, and few philosophers are typical in either class. Kant may fairly be called mixed. Lotze and Royce are mixed.

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