Two (or Three) Metaphysical Themes

Fallacies and Effacement (and Blank Slates)

In a series of posts I have discussed biases and fallacies that are specific to metaphysical thought, and which bear upon metaphysical systems that have often been conceived fallaciously. These posts include:

In another series of posts I have discussed what I call “effacement,” being the gradual (though sometimes catastrophic) extirpation of the record of the past. While I began with familiar scientific themes from geology and cosmology, I attempted to expand beyond these particular instances of effacement to a more universal conception of effacement formulated in ontological terms. These posts include the following:

Thus fallacies and effacement have been two metaphysical themes that have concerned me over the past few years. In an oblique way I have previously brought some of these themes together in yet another series of posts, viz. posts concerning the blank slate idea:

I am beginning to see a way that it might be possible to bring these themes together, as well as connecting them to another idea that I have had in the back of my mind for many years, but on which I have not made much progress: metaphysical history.

A Metaphysically Pure Naturalism

My posts on metaphysical biases and fallacies eventually turned to the examination of the metaphysical biases and fallacies that have been incorporated into naturalism, and my concern with naturalism follows from its status as the dominant theme in contemporary philosophy. One could just as well examine the role of metaphysical biases and fallacies in Scholasticism, and this would be a fruitful field of study, but I suspect that only a few neo-Thomists would possibly have any interest in such an exposition.

On the other hand, the modern man, whether he knows it or not, assumes doctrines of naturalism as the background of his ordinary day-to-day thinking, so that naturalism today has almost become instinctive. Moreover, when we think of naturalism, we often implicitly (but, again, often concealed from ourselves and rarely articulated) think of naturalism itself as the result of a long philosophical battle to free ourselves from the metaphysical fallacies that were so painfully obvious in idealism and other exemplars of what Bertrand Russell once called the “Classical Tradition” in philosophy.

But as naturalism has undergone extensive development as its role in human thought has exponentially expanded, naturalism, too, has been seen to be plagued by metaphysical biases and fallacies, and so it becomes necessary to ask whether it is possible to formulate a metaphysically pure naturalism.

A rigorous formulation of naturalism would illuminate all of the many naturalistic philosophies of today, much as a rigorous formulation of Scholasticism would have illuminated all the many scholastic philosophies of the 13th century, if only one had been reflexively formulated at the time (none was).

Blank Slate Naturalism

Suppose we were able to formulate a metaphysically pure naturalism purged of all metaphysical fallacies — what would we have? Blank slate naturalism. That is to say, the result of this idealizing process would be naturalism re-constructed from its historical roots and transformed into a blank slate. In other words, our metaphysically purified naturalism would constitute a metaphysical blank slate.

Presumably, science would be left to write upon the metaphysical blank slate of naturalism, to give it the content that had been wiped away in the purging of metaphysical fallacy. But science today — which is, in a sense, an instrument of naturalism, as well as a receptacle — is easily as guilty of metaphysical biases and fallacies as naturalism itself. Science could only safely inscribe its findings upon the blank slate of metaphysically pure naturalism after science, too, had been purged of metaphysical fallacies and could then express a pure naturalism.

What would be the instrument with which we purged science of metaphysical fallacies? This instrument could only be philosophy — but it was the compromised tradition of philosophy that led positivistically-minded philosophers in pursuit of that philosopher’s stone that a purged and purified naturalism, and the metaphysical blank slate, was to be. Thus we have a dilemma, because any attempt to purge philosophy will require methods equipollent with philosophy, and therefore equally suspect.

The only way we can fail to apply the hermeneutics of suspicion to our question for a metaphysically purified naturalism is to conceal from ourselves what exactly it is that we are doing. And, in fact, this is often the case. However, it is also often the case that we use a little bit of impure philosophical insight and a little bit of impure scientific thought to slowly, gradually, and incrementally purge and purify our understanding of the world without taking a dramatic posture of casting aside the whole of some cognitive tradition, whether that cognitive tradition is philosophy of science, each rife with the errors of thousands of years.

The Ascent to Metaphysical History

Suppose, again, that we were able to formulate a metaphysically pure naturalism, whether by a dramatic gesture of casting aside the errors of tradition, or by the painfully slow and incremental methods of internal self-criticism, tested, as adequately as possible, each hesitant step of the way. If we were able to formulate a rigorous and metaphysically pure naturalism, we would be faced by another question, perhaps perceived to be less insistent than that of clarifying the fundamental presuppositions of naturalistic thought, but one which nevertheless suggests itself, and, in suggesting itself, points to many subtle and interesting metaphysical questions with concrete applications for human thought and how we relate ourselves to the world (which latter is one of the ultimate purposes of philosophical inquiry).

And this is the other question that appears: If naturalism purged of metaphysical fallacies is naturalism purged of its historical associations, is this purged and purified naturalism a naturalism with its history effaced? And would not a naturalism with its history effaced — an idealized naturalism floating disconnected from his history — be distinct from a naturalism with its history intact? Which is the genuine naturalism: the metaphysical blank slate of naturalism, or the naturalism with a long and difficult history, converging upon a a naturalism purged of metaphysically fallacies, but still with a history riddled with such fallacies?

This and related questions pose interesting problems of the historicity of metaphysics. Is the history of a concept relevant to that concept? The question can be argued either way, but I think that the traditional philosophical point of view is that history can be ideally separated from concepts, and the concepts treated in isolation as abstractions without a history. However, the experience of attempting to do this has proved time and again that denying history means repeating history: those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Must metaphysics, then, remember the past so as not to be condemned to repeating the past of metaphysical fallacies, and, if so, what form is this metaphysical remembrance of things past to take? Would it be a metaphysical history of concepts, concepts that served well enough in their imperfect forms in the past, but which must be continually explicated at ever-more-rigorous levels of formulation in order to continue to serve the function they previously served?

Here a distinction must be made between a history of metaphysics (which might be taken to be an account of the metaphysical history of a concept) and a metaphysical history sensu stricto, which is not identical to a history of metaphysics. Moreover, a further distinction must be made between a metaphysical history of actual history, and actual concepts embedded in history, and an abstract and idealized metaphysical history of anything whatsoever. These distinctions, and the body of thought that would grow out of an attempt to observe these distinctions and to elaborate a metaphysical history, would be an exceptionally subtle inquiry, and an inquiry that has not yet been made.

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