In which I apologize for metaphysics

school of athens sitter

This blog has a crisp, clear theme:  the importance to democracy of morality as it is conventionally understood.  Conventional means rooted in history, tradition, in the facts of human life rather than emanations from a higher sphere.  Convention is usually contrasted with the absolute.  In philosophy, the former is considered to be weasely and false, the latter is noble and true.

I have tried, from many directions – and, I hope, with some measure of success – to turn this argument on its head.

I detest metaphysics.  Some of that is personal:  I’m an analyst of events, and analysts of events distrust categorical thinking.  I live with data and patterns, not abstractions.  Even for a condition like the current fixation with authenticity, it seems to me more productive to look at how people actually behave than at how many multi-syllable words a German thinker can wrap around the subject.

But I also have intellectual concerns.  Metaphysical thinking and writing (there are always thick blocks of text) is a perfectly legitimate activity, but it can, by its nature, lose touch with reality.  It has often done so in the past.  Philosophers begin with the human condition but end with some Hegelian “World Spirit” – a phrase, like so many in metaphysics, that no one has ever filled with content.

This seems like a harmless addiction, akin to watching Naked and Afraid on TV, but it isn’t.  Hegel’s World Spirit evolved into Marx’s proletariat:  one man’s gasbag became the other’s justification for political violence and the police state.  Foggy thinking has consequences.  Sometimes, that includes shedding the blood of innocents.

***

I am about to perpetrate metaphysics on this blog, and hence, good reader, on you.  I would like to explain why.

All the data that analysts love to play with comes wrapped in categories.  These are symbolic rather than empirical – but that’s just the shape of human knowledge.  That thing on my front yard is an oak, which makes it a tree, which places it in the class of organic life, subsumed under the order of all existing stuff.  This last category can be a true order, a cosmos, a universe, a one, or it can be a disorder, a chaos, a many.

These categories exist within frameworks, and these frameworks have an internal logic that sometimes channel human action.  When we do something, we offer reasons why.  (It’s a homo sapiens thing.  Even our nearest genetic cousins, the chimpanzees, wouldn’t understand.)

The reasons we offer for our actions march onward in long chains of causation toward the metaphysical.  They either synch up with cosmic certainty or they float suspended in mid-air.  If the latter, nothing changes in the objective world, at least right away.  A lot of our reasons hang suspended in mid-air.  A lot of our actions are matters of pure will.

But anything that depends on pure will is vulnerable to the slightest subjective change.  If, for example, I assert that all men are created equal just because I will this proposition to be so, the proposition will be falsified, and come crashing down to earth, the moment my will wanders elsewhere.  And it is as much part of human nature for will and attention to wander, as it is to give reasons for our actions.  A proposition that lacks a necessary connection to our understanding of the way the world works, or to a higher truth, or to a logical certainty, will not long endure as a reason for human action.

My wedge into metaphysics will be the question of whether we are one or many.  By one I mean that all the grand problems of morality and politics are susceptible to a single solution, one that can be applied to the entire human race at every point in history.  By many I mean that no such solution exists – not just that it is difficult or even impossible to discover, but that the nature of reality forbids it from being.

This too has consequences.  If we are one, all the contents of our boundless ignorance must obey laws to identical to those that govern our microscopic speck of knowledge.  We then live within a transcendental order, even if we are but dimly aware of its constituent forces and structures.

If we are many, however, we are truly ignorant in our ignorance.  What we don’t know could conceivably obey an infinite number of unknown principles, or none.  That casts a cold shadow over the little we do know.  If our ignorance is a chaos, our knowledge must be illusory.

In the posts that will follow, I apply the logic of categories to certain aspects of history.  I found, to my surprise, that these categories were amenable to analysis.  I even toyed with the idea of calling what I was doing meta-analysis, a parsing of higher structures instead of data – structures, however, into which all data has been squeezed.  But I won’t call it that.  It would make what I try to do in these posts seem radical and ground-breaking, while in truth it’s old and stodgy.

It’s just metaphysics.  I have used it in an attempt to trace the direction of history and the future of liberal democracy.  As I have made amply clear, I am no metaphysician, don’t even play one on TV:  so I apologize for any errors of substance or logic, and invite the reader to correct them.

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