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Changing Metaphysics: What Difference does it Make?

  • Amie L. Thomasson (a1)

I have argued elsewhere for a deflationary conception of metaphysics, which takes well-formed metaphysical questions to be answerable using nothing more mysterious than empirical information and descriptive and normative conceptual work. Here I examine the ways in which our practices of metaphysics should change, if we adopt the deflationary reconception of metaphysics. Adopting this approach does not mean abandoning metaphysics, but it does lead to important differences regarding which debates and positions are worth taking seriously. It also requires us to reevaluate which criteria for choosing metaphysical views are appropriate – particularly where debates about existence are concerned.

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1 See my Ontology Made Easy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015); ‘What can we do, when we do metaphysics?’, in d'Oro, Giuseppina and Overgaard, Soren (eds) The Cambridge Companion to Philosophical Methodology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017); The Easy Approach to Ontology: A Defense’, in Philosophical Methods (ed.) Matthew Haug (London: Routledge, 2014): 107126; Modal Normativism and the Methods of Metaphysics’, Philosophical Topics, 35:1&2, (2007), 1351160.

2 For details and further discussion of this point see my ‘What can we do, when we do metaphysics?’ (op. cit., note 1).

3 For a recent defense of the idea that metaphysical theories may, like scientific theories, be chosen by consideration of theoretic virtues, see Paul, L.A., ‘Metaphysics as Modeling: The Handmaiden's Tale’, Philosophical Studies 160 (2012), 129. Theodore Sider defends the idea that ontological claims are confirmed with scientific theories in his Writing the Book of the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 12.

4 For discussion of these problems, see my Metaphysics and Conceptual Negotiation’, Philosophical Issues 27 (2017), 364382.

5 A trout-turkey is an individual composed of the (attached) upper half of a trout, and the (attached) lower half of a turkey. See Lewis, David K., Parts of Classes (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), 78. Snowdiscall’ is a term coined by Ernest Sosa, to pick out an object made of snow and in any shape between being round and being disc-shaped (‘Putnam's Pragmatic Realism’, Journal of Philosophy 90 (1993), 605626, 620).

6 For arguments against tables and other ordinary objects, see Inwagen, Peter van, Material Beings (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990) and Merricks, Trenton, Objects and Persons (Oxford: Clarendon, 2001). For arguments against persons see Unger, PeterWhy there are no people’, Midwest Studies in Philosophy 4 (1979): 177222. For arguments against numbers, see Field, Hartry, Science without Numbers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980).

7 The terminology is my own, but the approach owes much to work by such figures as Hale, Bob and Wright, Crispin in the philosophy of mathematics (The Reason's Proper Study: Essays towards a Neo-Fregean Philosophy of Mathematics (Oxford: Clarendon, 2001)), and to Schiffer's, Stephen work on such entities as propositions, properties and fictional characters (The Things We Mean (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)). For my generalization, development and defense of the easy approach, see my Ontology Made Easy (op. cit., note 1).

8 The phrase ‘epistemically metaphysical’ comes from Theodore Sider's Writing the Book of the World, op. cit. note 3, 187.

9 Is there more to metaphysics than existence questions and (implicitly) modal questions? Can questions about grounding, categories, or other sorts be handled in similar ways? I will have to leave that to the side here, for future work.

10 For development and defense of this Modal Normativist approach, see my ‘Modal Normativism and the Methods of Metaphysics’ (2007) (op. cit., note 1), and Norms and Necessity’, Southern Journal of Philosophy 51/2 (June 2013), 143–60.

11 Taken externally, metaphysical modal claims may be used not to express the rules speakers think there are, but rather the rules they think there ought to be.

12 See my ‘Metaphysical Disputes and Metalinguistic Negotiation’, in Analytic Philosophy (July 2016), 1–28. The idea that certain disputes in the object-language may be best analyzed as ‘metalinguistic negotiations’ is developed by Plunkett, David and in, Tim SundellDisagreement and the Semantics of Normative and Evaluative Terms’, Philosopher's Imprint 13/23 (2013): 137.

13 See Millikan, Garrett, Ruth Language, Thought and Other Biological Categories (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1984); Haslanger, Sally, Resisting Reality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Gert, Bernard, Culver, Charles M., and Clouser, K. Danner, Bioethics: A Systematic Approach, second edition (Oxford University Press, 2006); Gert, Joshua, Primitive Colors: A Case Study in Neo-Pragmatist Metaphysics and Philosophy of Perception (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017); Davies, David, Art as Performance (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).

14 See, for example, Edwards, Paul, ‘Hard and Soft Determinism’, in Determinism and Freedom in the Age of Modern Science (ed.) Hook, Sidney (New York: Collier Books, 1958), who expresses it in terms of the conditions a ‘reflective’ person would require (and thus that we all should require) to hold someone responsible.

15 Locke, John, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (reprinted by William Collins and Sons (1690/1964)), 220.

16 Ibid., 216.

17 I defend and develop this view in my ‘What can we do when we do metaphysics?’, op. cit. note 1, and ‘Metaphysics and conceptual negotiation’, op. cit. note 4.

18 Of course, to retain the epistemological advantages, the deflationist must not see the work of determining what concepts we ought to accept, or what functions they ought to serve as a matter of discovering covert moral facts, which might be thought to be every bit as mysterious and inaccessible as the ‘metaphysical facts’ serious metaphysicians purport to discover. Fortunately, there are many other, non-inflationary views of moral epistemology open to the deflationist.

19 Though it does commit us to there being some conceptual content, and to rejecting pure externalist theories of reference. I have argued against these elsewhere, for example, in Ordinary Objects (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

20 Ludlow, Peter, ‘The Myth of Human Language’, Croatian Journal of Philosophy 6/3 (2006): 385400.

21 There is, however, a potential difficulty for the idea that a deflationist should reconceive of metaphysics as centrally involved in determining what concepts we should use, and how we should use them. For those attracted to mainstream metaphysics are prone to think that we should make these kinds of conceptual choices on metaphysical grounds – only choosing concepts or terms that refer, or choosing conceptual rules that will map the real essences of things and the like. For a defense of the idea that we can engage in a purely pragmatic approach to normative conceptual work, which requires no ‘deep metaphysical’ work, see my ‘A pragmatic method for conceptual ethics’, for Conceptual Ethics and Conceptual Engineering (eds) Alexis Burgess, Herman Cappelen and David Plunkett (Oxford: Oxford University Press), forthcoming.

22 ‘Incar’ is a term introduced by Eli Hirsch which applies to any car (or part of a car) entirely in a garage. See his The Concept of Identity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 32.

23 For discussion of the problem, see Sosa, Ernest, ‘Experimental Philosophy and Philosophical Intuition’, Philosophical Studies 132/1 (2007), 99107, and my Experimental Philosophy and the Methods of Ontology’, Monist 95/2 (2012), 175199.

24 David Davies, Art as Performance, op. cit. note 13.

25 Kwame Anthony Appiah, ‘Race, Culture and Identity: The Tanner Lectures on Human Values’, delivered at UCSD, 1994.

26 See Sally Haslanger, Resisting Reality, op. cit. note 13, 236.

27 For arguments that ordinary object concepts such as baseball are inconsistent, see Merricks, Objects and Persons, op. cit. note 6. On persons, see Unger, ‘Why there are no persons’, op. cit. note 6. For arguments against qualia, see Dennett, Daniel, ‘Quining Qualia’, in Marcel, A. J. and Bishiac, E. (eds) Consciousness in Contemporary Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 4777.

28 As I argue in Ontology Made Easy, op. cit., note 1, 269–271, we also have good reason to be suspicious of claims that our ordinary terms are inconsistent. For we must first interpret what the rules governing these terms are – and charity constraints governing interpretation will give us reason to try to avoid attributing inconsistent rules of use to our ordinary concepts (and to think that those often attributed to them arise from a metaphysician's own interpolations).

29 In Ordinary Objects, op. cit. note 19.

30 Keeping “True”: A case study in conceptual ethics’, Inquiry 57 (2013), 129.

31 This, in my view, is a matter of conceptual engineering. But we can also engage in deeper work in conceptual ethics that evaluates what function(s) our concepts ought to serve. See my ‘A Pragmatic Method for Conceptual Ethics’, op cit. note 21.

32 See Yablo, StephenThe Myth of the Seven’, in Fictionalism in Metaphysics (ed.) Kalderon, Mark (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); Ryle, Gilbert, The Concept of Mind (London: Hutchinson, 1949); and Chapter 4 of Brandom's, Robert Between Saying and Doing: Towards an Analytic Pragmatism, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

33 See my Ontology Made Easy, op. cit. note 1, Chapter 10, following John McFarlane, What does it mean to say that logic is formal? (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 2000).

34 Quine, W. V. O., ‘On What There Is’, in From a Logical Point of View (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1948/1953).

35 See my ‘Truthmakers and the Problem of Ontology’, (work in progress), following Alston, William P.Ontological Commitments’, Philosophical Studies 9/1–2 (1958), 817, and Searle, John, Speech Acts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 107.

36 ‘On What There Is’, op. cit. note 34, 17.

37 A World of States of Affairs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

38 See Lewis, David, ‘New Work for a Theory of Universals’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 61 (1983), 343–77. See also Theodore Sider, Writing the Book of the World, op. cit. note 3.

39 Writing the Book of the World, op. cit. note 3, 5.

40 Ibid, 5. In his later paper ‘Substantivity in Feminist Metaphysics’, (Philosophical Studies (forthcoming)) he clarifies that this constraint should only apply to what he calls ‘ultimate metaphysics’, leaving room also for other areas of metaphysical investigation.

41 Writing the Book of the World, op. cit. note 3, vii.

42 Ibid., 6.

43 And in this we can mimic Sider's view that the former is natural. Nonetheless, as the above suggests, talk of carving at the joints, on the deflationist's conception, cannot be understood as finding ‘metaphysical joints’ through epistemically metaphysical means. It can only be understood in terms of using terms that turn out to be effective at scientific prediction and explanation – a feature that can be hypostatized into talk of ‘naturalness’.

44 Barnes, Elizabeth, in ‘Realism and Social Structure’, Philosophical Studies 174/10 (2017), 24172433, has similarly pointed out that this gives us a far too narrow a view of metaphysics. As she has pointed out (forthcoming), part of the point of prominent philosophical theories of, say, race or gender, is to deny that these terms track joints in nature. Yet that doesn't necessarily mean that we should eliminate such terms from our conceptual repertoire.

45 See my (Ordinary Objects, op. cit. note 19, Chapter 5) for discussion of vagueness in our terms and concepts and how, on a deflationary view, it correlates with vagueness for the objects (if any) picked out by those concepts, but gives us a vagueness we should not worry about and that does not undermine accepting that there are such objects.

46 See David M. Armstrong, A World of States of Affairs, op. cit. note 37, 41.

47 On properties, see Armstrong, op. cit. note 37; on mental states see Kim, Jaegwon, Supervenience and Mind (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993); on ordinary objects see Merricks op. cit. note 6.

48 This parallels Jonah Goldwater's persuasive argument that entities alleged to be ‘queer’ or ‘weird’ are in fact ‘assimilated to the wrong category and thereby judged by criteria inappropriate for the kind of entity they are’ (‘Paraphrase, Categories and Ontology’, in progress). What we need to do in response, he argues, is not to eliminate these entities but to get them a proper categorial classification that will stop us from imposing faulty expectations and inappropriate questions regarding them.

49 ‘The Myth of the Seven’, op. cit. note 32.

50 As Field's Science without Numbers, op. cit. note 6.

51 I undertake that disentangling project in Ordinary Objects, op. cit. note 19.

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