research agenda: metametaphysics

My dissertation sought to rework Immanuel Kant’s once venerable distinction between analytic and synthetic judgments for the purpose of leveraging this distinction, in future work, to better understand what it is to “do metaphysics.”  Going forward, beyond publishing articles advocating for my account of the analytic/synthetic distinction and my extended incompatibility semantics for modal logic which it drew upon, I would like to focus on employing this account for such broader metametaphysical ambitions.  Specifically, I would like to employ my dissertation’s account of the analytic/synthetic distinction for the dual projects of pragmatically delimiting the bounds of metaphysics (in metaphysically neutral terms) and developing an account of how philosophy can successfully avoid metaphysics (and what it would it look like for it to do so).  In so doing, I take my research to fit into two ongoing, philosophical projects: Immanuel Kant’s critique of metaphysics and Jürgen Habermas’s paradigm of postmetaphysical thinking.”[1]

The first part of this project would seek to answer the metametaphysical question of what makes a claim or inquiry metaphysical.[2]  In my view, picking out what is distinctive about metaphysical claims requires more than isolating some common content or subject matter (the semantics): we must also look to what is being done when metaphysical claims are made (the pragmatics).  Drawing heavily on my account of the distinction between the analytic and synthetic, I hope to show that, semantically, metaphysics involves what I term, onto-logical claims, which are claims containing onto-logical operators such as “exists,” “is real,” “is essential to,” “grounds,” “explains,” “is fundamental,” “is necessary,” etc.[3]  The semantic contribution of onto-logical operators to these claims have these two key features: first, they inferentially commit us to there being (or, negatively, not being) further, synthetic truths of a specific, schematic sort—that is they engender synoptic, synthetic inferential commitments involving their objects; and second, their use in such claims need not be taken to further inferentially commit us to (by entailing or precluding them) which particular, substantive claims of the requisite schematic form these are—that is, they can, consistent with everyday usage at least, be understood to remain analytically, inferentially inert in extra-onto-logical matters.  Onto-logical operators and claims thus allow us to undertake commitments to there being some further synthetic claims to make and endorse, but they do not themselves commit us fully as to which – the commitment is rather schematic, synoptic, or only present in outline rather than in detail.

Onto-logical claims, in my view, are as much at home in everyday life as they are in the metaphysician’s armchair.  To get at distinctively metaphysical uses of such onto-logical claims, we must also identify a telltale pragmatics for such usages.  I take it that onto-logical claims are used metaphysically when they are made with a distinctive interpersonal, expressive inflexibility that is absent in everyday usage.  In my research, I hope to elucidate this pragmatic inflexibility and the semantics of onto-logical claims in greater detail.
By illuminating metaphysics’ bounds, I hope to assemble the resources to articulate how philosophy can do without it, and perhaps thereby trade metaphysics’ extramundane trappings for greater everyday relevance.  The kind of postmetaphysical proposal I will advocate is not an anti-metaphysical proposal per se, for I take it that anti-metaphysical proposals fall into the trap of becoming metaphysical arguments in their attempts to defeat or deflate metaphysics.[4]  Rather, I support a kind of metaphysical agnosticism—a conscientious decision to forget metaphysics and leave metaphysical claims and questions by the wayside.

This kind of methodological counsel is not unprecedented.  Some kinds of arguments and appeals have been seemingly outgrown by the philosophical profession as a whole: for instance, appeals to religious convictions.  This is not to say that religious faith, beliefs, and practice do not have their place in life and the academy more generally.  And, importantly, it does not mean that such religious beliefs are incorrect.  Philosophy is not anti-religious.  Rather, philosophy avoids making appeals to or taking a stance on the truth or falsity of such religious matters.  Philosophy has become, by and large (albeit imperfectly), methodologically agnostic about matters religious.[5]  I think we philosophers can learn to become methodologically agnostic about matters metaphysical too.  When we adopt a meta-philosophical outlook that shows us how our explanatory needs are better served by theories and accounts that avoid metaphysical claims and arguments, we can learn to outgrow metaphysics and lose our grip on why we thought of it as a necessary or important component of philosophical analysis to begin with.  By shedding metaphysical “training wheels” and highlighting alternative accounts that explain the phenomena at least as well or better than metaphysically-loaded accounts, we can gain confidence to do philosophy without metaphysics.  We may eventually forget why we took ourselves to need metaphysical supports in philosophy at all, in much the same way why modern philosophers are often puzzled or unmoved by their predecessors’ invocation of the divine.  Still, such a methodological shift does not show or even seek to demonstrate that there is something substantively mistaken about metaphysics, any more than philosophy’s parallel methodological shift about matter religious should be taken as damning of religion.  Rather, the counsel I hope to espouse is that metaphysics is no longer something that we need concern ourselves with in order to do philosophy well or, indeed, better than before.

[1] Jürgen Habermas, Postmetaphysical Thinking: Philosophical Essays, trans. William Mark Hohengarten (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1992).
[2] When I speak of delimiting metaphysics, importantly, I do not mean only contemporary metaphysics as studied in analytic philosophy departments: I mean the full gamut of metaphysical views across history and continents.  My inquiry will not shy away from discussions of metaphysics by Heidegger and Adorno, and I look forward to interdisciplinary discussions of critical theory and “continental” thinkers with my colleagues in the humanities.
[3] Why “onto-logical” and not “ontological”?  I use “onto-logical” rather than “ontological” to emphasize that what I mean by this term is actually closer to the explicit conjunction of the predicate, “onto-,” and the notion, “logical,” than standard usage of the term “ontological.” I thus take onto-logical operators to be broadly logical operators that take objects, referred to linguistically by nouns or nominalizations, as their arguments where standard, truth-functional logical operators take sentences as their arguments—hence onto-logical.  I take these operators as broadly logical operators in that they allow us to render in explicit terms inferential operations we have implicitly mastered anyway simply by being competent participants in an autonomous discursive practice: they allow us to say what we previously could only inferentially do, where these things that we could previously only do are universal in the sense of being things that any sapient, concept-using creatures could do simply in virtue of belonging to a linguistic practice.  In this view of the “broadly logical,” I follow along the lines of the view Robert Brandom outlines in his Between Saying and Doing: Towards an Analytic Pragmatism, (2008, 47-54).
[4] As Habermas writes, “antimetaphysical countermovements … remain within the horizon of possible thought set by metaphysics itself” (1992, 29).
[5] Of course some philosophers still do engage in philosophy of religion with particular theological content, and in this way do not maintain a methodological agnosticism about religious matters.  But some philosophers of religion still do seek a kind of methodological agnosticism and instead seek to describe religion or matters of faith from an external, analytic perspective.  And even for those philosophers of religion who do argue for some vindicatory account of religious practice, still, oftentimes, the details or particulars of religious dogmas or faith are purposefully left open by a particular philosophy of religion, within a given scope.  In this way, the methodological agnosticism of contemporary philosophy still may have a grip even within the philosophy of religion.