Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Toils of Metaphysics

Here are three quotations on the nature of philosophy (or 'metaphysics') that have something in common. They are all from the eighteenth century (Isaac Watts, known to members of the Anglican communion from the many hymns he wrote, David Hume and Thomas Reid). They all defend philosophy in some way while conceding its defects.
Watts criticises the 'subtlety' of scholastic metaphysics, and like Hobbes, disparages the tendency of philosophers to invent meaningless names.

Both Hume and Reid underscore their point with a staggering variety of metaphors. Both compare idle speculation to a net. Hume speaks of the 'intangling brambles' of religious fears and prejudices. Reid warns against being 'intangled in metaphysical toils'. Hume invokes Locke's comparison to the robber's den. Reid speaks of the 'bogs and quagmires' into which philosophy may entice us, and at the end compares Philosophy to a fair but wayward lady, whom he must trust until he finds 'infallible proofs of her infidelity'.

"In order to make due Enquiries into all these and many other Particulars which go toward the compleat and comprehensive Idea of any Being, the Science of Ontology is exceeding necessary. This was what was wont to be called the first part of Metaphysicks in the Peripatetick Schools. It treats of Being, its most general Nature, and of all its Affections and Relations. I confess the old popish Schoolmen have mingled a Number of useless Subtleties with this Science; they have exhausted their own Spirits, and the Spirits of their Readers in many laborious and intricate Trifles, and some of their writings have been fruitful of Names without Ideas, which hath done much Injury to the sacred study of Divinity. Upon this Account many of the Moderns have most unjustly abanded the whole Science at one, and thrown abundance of Contempt and Raillery upon the very name of Metaphysicks; but this Contempt and Censure is very unreasonable, for this Science separated from some Aristotelian fooleries and scholastic Subtleties is so necessary to a distinct Conception, solid Judgment, and just Reasoning on many subjects, that sometimes it is introduced as a Part of Logic, and not without Reason. And those who utterly despise and ridicule it, either betray their own Ignorance, or will be supposed to make the Wit and Banter a Refuge and Excuse for their own Laziness." [Isaac Watts - Logick, or the Right use of Reason, I. 6. ix]

"But this obscurity in the profound and abstract philosophy, is objected to, not only as painful and fatiguing, but as the inevitable source of uncertainty and error. Here indeed lies the justest and most plausible objection against a considerable part of metaphysics, that they are not properly a science; but arise either from the fruitless efforts of human vanity, which would penetrate into subjects utterly inaccessible to the understanding, or from the craft of popular superstitions, which, being unable to defend themselves on fair ground, raise these intangling brambles to cover and protect their weakness. Chased from the open country, these robbers fly into the forest, and lie in wait to break in upon every unguarded avenue of the mind, and overwhelm it with religious fears and prejudices. The stoutest antagonist, if he remit his watch a moment, is oppressed. And many, through cowardice and folly, open the gates to the enemies, and willingly receive them with reverence and submission, as their legal sovereigns.

"But is this a sufficient reason, why philosophers should desist from such researches, and leave superstition still in possession of her retreat? Is it not proper to draw an opposite conclusion, and perceive the necessity of carrying the war into the most secret recesses of the enemy? In vain do we hope, that men, from frequent disappointment, will at last abandon such airy sciences, and discover the proper province of human reason. For, besides, that many persons find too sensible an interest in perpetually recalling such topics; besides this, I say, the motive of blind despair can never reasonably have place in the sciences; since, however unsuccessful former attempts may have proved, there is still room to hope, that the industry, good fortune, or improved sagacity of succeeding generations may reach discoveries unknown to former ages. Each adventurous genius will still leap at the arduous prize, and find himself stimulated, rather than discouraged, by the failures of his predecessors; while he hopes that the glory of achieving so hard an adventure is reserved for him alone. The only method of freeing learning, at once, from these abstruse questions, is to enquire seriously into the nature of human understanding, and show, from an exact analysis of its powers and capacity, that it is by no means fitted for such remote and abstruse subjects. We must submit to this fatigue in order to live at ease ever after: and must cultivate true metaphysics with some care, in order to destroy the false and adulterate. Indolence, which, to some persons, affords a safeguard against this deceitful philosophy, is, with others, overbalanced by curiosity; and despair, which, at some moments, prevails, may give place afterwards to sanguine hopes and expectations. Accurate and just reasoning is the only catholic remedy, fitted for all persons and all dispositions; and is alone able to subvert that abstruse philosophy and metaphysical jargon, which being mixed up with popular superstition, renders it in a manner impenetrable to careless reasoners, and gives it the air of science and wisdom." [David Hume, An Inquiry concerning Human Understanding, section I].

"In the meantime, the unprosperous state of this part of philosophy [epistemology] hath produced an effect, somewhat discouraging indeed to any attempt of this nature, but an effect which might be expected, and which time only and better success can remedy. Sensible men, who never will be sceptics in matters of common life, are apt to treat with sovereign contempt everything that hath been said, or is to be said, upon this subject. It is metaphysic, they say: who minds it? Let scholastic sophisters entangle themselves in their own cobwebs; I am resolved to take my own existence, and the existence of other things, upon trust; and to believe that snow is cold, and honey sweet, whatever they may say to the contrary. He must either be a fool, or want to make a fool of me, that would reason me out of my reason and senses.

"I confess I know not what a sceptic can answer to this, nor by what good argument he can plead even for a hearing; for either his reason is sophistry, and so deserves contempt; or there is no truth in human faculties - and then why should we reason? If, therefore, a man find himself intangled in these metaphysical toils, and can find no other way to escape, let him bravely cut the knot which he cannot loose, curse metaphysic, and dissuade every man from meddling with it; for, if I have been led into the bogs and quagmires by following an ''ignis fatuus'', what can I do better than to warn others to beware of it? If philosophy contradicts herself, befools her votaries, and deprives them of every object worthy to be pursued or enjoyed, let her be sent back to the internal regions from which she must have had her original.

"But is it absolutely certain that this fair lady is of the party? Is it not possible she may have been misrepresented? Have not men of genius in former ages often made their own dreams to pass for her oracles? Ought she then to be condemned without any further hearing? This would be unreasonable. I have found her in all other matters an agreeable companion, a faithful counsellor, a friend to common sense, and to the happiness of mankind. This justly entitles her to my correspondence and confidence, till I find infallible proofs of her infidelity. " [Thomas Reid, An Inquiry into the Human Mind, works, introduction, ''ibidem'' p. 105]

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