|Metaphysics and the Metaphysical Experience |
(from International Philosophical Quarterly June 1966)
By Stanford Pritchard
|Copyright © 1966 Stanford Pritchard. All Rights Reserved.
In this paper I want to argue that metaphysics is "possible" on the basis of the "metaphysical experience," and that concentrated thought about metaphysical subjects is a respectable endeavor that has concrete and beneficial results. Since this thesis necessarily involves some conception of what metaphysics is, I am obliged to begin by discussing this conception, even though I certainly don't aspire to the well-nigh impossible goal of a systematic definition of metaphysics. Nor do I intend—at least in the beginning of this inquiry—to do metaphysics, and thus beg my own point that it is possible; rather, I will describe what has been taken to be metaphysics in the past. In this preliminary stage, I will not prescribe, but will merely attempt to elucidate. Like Stephen Pepper,1 I will be a spectator at the tracks, commenting on the reputations of the horses and observing the condition of the turf.
To this question, I find a paucity of attempts at a general, coherent answer. Perhaps this is owing to the diversity of the material, or its sheer quantity. In any case, I shall take Lucretius' formulation as a harmless yet provocative point at which to begin: on the nature of things. Metaphysics is the attempt at a most general account, in rational terms, of man and his world. It is the collection of the "more sweeping and radical questions which man puts to the world, because he is human ," as William Ernest Hocking said. "The function of metaphysics . . . is derived from a primitive and inescapable human concern, man's ambition to know where he is, what he is, why he is, and what the whole thing means."2 In Lewis Hahn's similar formulation, metaphysics is "a way of making comprehensive sense of our world."3 Although these descriptions are very general, two important points emerge. First, the motivation for metaphysics is rooted in the basic nature of man; he wants to know why, and his curiosity knows no bounds. In this sense, metaphysics is inescapable, as Kant saw. Secondly, metaphysics is a rational, systematic, comprehensive quest. This distinguishes it from mystical religion, in which universal truth is sought in a momentary and other-worldly experience.
|Speculative Philosophy is the endeavor to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted. . . . [T]here is an essence to the universe which forbids relationship beyond itself, as a violation of its rationality. Speculative Philosophy seeks that essence.8|
|According to R. A. Burtt, it is the task of metaphysics to determine the criterion of reality, to establish an "adequate criterion of criteria . . . by whose aid we may reasonably tell, in any complex situation, what other criteria are relevant." In doing this, metaphysics enlightens creative progress in the sciences and the arts, in morals, social statesmanship, law, and religion.9
Many authors conceive of metaphysics in organic relation to man's scientific quest. R. G. Collingwood, for instance, rejects inquiry into pure Being, proposing, rather, that metaphysics is the systematic analysis of the presuppositions of science and ordinary (i.e., scientific) thought.10 For W. T. Stace, speculative philosophy boils down to inductive generalizations from the results of the particular science,11 and similar views are held by Sterling Lamprecht and John Randall.12 Finally, for Hook the subject matter of metaphysics is not only the "generic traits" of existence, but also "irreducible facts," that is,
. . . those statements or propositions which we believe to be cognitively valid, or which assert something that is true or false, and yet which are not found in any particular science . . . but which are obviously taken for granted by the sciences . . . e.g., 'There are many colors in the world.' . . . 'It is possible to perceive two things at the same time.'13
In all these conceptions of metaphysics, then, a scheme or structure is applied to the natural world, to knowledge, or to human experience. Sometimes these categories of interpretation closely mirror the data; in other cases, they are imaginative abstractions from the data. In each instance, it appears that the reference of the system or interpretation is to the sum of particular existents (Seiendes). In this type of metaphysics, man is a subject trying to order and understand an objective world. |
In ontology, by contrast, the inquiry is pushed beyond the realm of what-is-before-us to an ultimate "Why?" The meaning behind the apparent is sought—some final ground from which all hierarchies of knowledge derive, or the pinnacle to which all point. The consensus of the Pears volume is that ontology is the making of assertions about existence from conceptual considerations.14 Assertions, here, are assertions of truth—propositions, not schemata. Ontology is not after-the-fact organization and re-organization of knowledge, as in the examples above, but the assigning of value to total reality.
Two characteristics of ontology, then, are: (1) it goes beyond all particular existents to investigate Being-itself; (2) it purports to assert truth. Thus neither Spinoza's philosophy of mind and matter, God and nature, nor Leibniz's monadology, nor Kant's distinction between phenomena and noumena is ontology properly considered, because none treats of Being without restriction, Being-itself. Hegel's logic, on the other hand, is ontology because Being-itself becomes objectified in its foundational triad. Contemporary thinkers whose milieu has been ontology are Heidegger and Tillich.
So much for a very brief survey of what in the past have been some of the functions and characteristics of metaphysics. The problem, now, is to show on what grounds metaphysics is "possible" and beneficial. In this regard, a responsibility has been established for justifying both cosmological and ontological emphases. The breakdown into cosmology and ontology is particularly significant because it may be taken to represent, or include, all levels of metaphysical abstraction from the most concrete and empirical to the most general and vague. At the empirical or cosmological extreme might be inductive generalizations from ordinary science, while at
the ontological extreme is the metaphysical vision of Being-itself. If the possibility of experiencing "Being-itself"—the most abstract of all abstractions—can be shown, then fields of lesser abstraction (e.g., epistemology) are also validated as real dimensions in which to explore and describe human experience.
| Nor is the practical aspect of my self threatened in dread, for an experience of dread takes place outside of the context in which any exchange between my subject and other particular beings can be effected. For this reason I cannot control dread nor can I escape from it.17
| Heidegger also points to dread, which, he says, has as its object, Nothing. But since Being has no further ground, its ground is precisely this—Nothing. Therefore "to experience in Nothing the vastness of that which gives every being the warrant to be" is to experience "Being itself."18 In Brossart's terms, "dread is . . . an experience of being,
for being is no particular thing."19 |
The second mood Brossart suggests (this and the following are similarly developed in Heidegger) is boredom. Boredom is profound indifference and, like dread, it has no particular object. The third emotional state is joy, "a positive experience of the unity of being"; it should not be confused with pleasure and satisfaction, which are associated with particular objects and goals.
Other authors rightly suggest additional moods or emotional states. Ludwig Binswanger, the noted existential psychoanalyst, stresses the role of love. Through love, he says, man "has the possibility of transcending this being of his, namely, of climbing above it in care and of swinging beyond it in love . . . into being-beyond-the-world."20 In Sartre's Nausea, Roquentin has a momentary but profound revelation in which the essence of all existence is seen to be its contingency. And Camus writes in The Myth of Sisyphus of a protracted experience in which the world is "but a vast irrational . . . all is chaos . . . the sole datum is the absurd."21 These latter two "metaphysical experiences" are not delineated in philosophical terms, but insofar as they come to constitute an ontological ground for two human selves, they seem to me to be quite similar to the dread and boredom described above. A number of things aren't contingent or absurd; existence in its entirety is. Tillich's description of anxiety is noteworthy because he raises, over and against it, an ontology of "courage."22 Besides those already mentioned, Heidegger adds the element of awe to the metaphysical experience—awe which "dwells . . . hard by essential dread, in the terror of the abyss. . . . "23 And, finally, there is Rudolf Otto's kindred idea of the holy, portrayed in terms of dread, awe, "consciousness of creaturehood," power transmuted into being, urgency, fascination, and the wholly other.24
Now it is Brossart's contention that dread, boredom, joy, and the like, are "nothing more than the various ways in which certain aspects of being are disclosed to us." Each of these moods or emotional states is a metaphysical experience, but each grasps only one "aspect" of Being. To form a more coherent understanding, however, we must go a step further and assert that there is something common to these experiences, namely the vision of Being-itself; that these feelings of dread, contingency, and the like, are different approaches to the one intuition of Being.
Such an argument is skillfully expressed by Jacques Maritain in A Preface to Metaphysics. He describes three metaphysical experiences, one of which is the dread already discussed. The second one derives from Henri Bergson's notion of duration and is the ongoing quality of being, some "irreducible value of being" which is changing and triumphing over "the inertia of matter." The third he adapts from Gabriel Marcel; it is a "fidelity" or permanence that depends upon a "certain steadfastness" present in reality. The important thing, however, is that these are only approaches, or "analogues," to Being; we should not become "imprisoned" in them. "Otherwise, whatever we do, we shall remain in psychology and ethics, which we shall then work up, swell out, enlarge or rarefy to make them mimic metaphysics." 25 These approaches, rather, bring us to the "threshold" which must be crossed by our taking the "decisive step." One is apt to be disappointed, at first, when Maritain fails to tell us just what this "decisive step" consists of. But it must be remembered that no systematic account could possibly be given; precisely the problem is how to attain an intuition of something much too abstract and close at hand to be conveyed without distortion in language. With this in mind, Maritain's account of the mysterious move across the threshold is more adequate, more suggestive; we take the decisive step, he says,
| . . . by letting the veils—too heavy with matter and too opaque—of the concrete psychological or ethical fact fall away to discover in their purity the strictly metaphysical values which such experiences concealed. There is then but one word by which we can express our discovery, namely being.
|And what can be said of the moment of intuition?|
| It is a sight whose content and implications no words of human speech can exhaust or adequately express and in which in a moment of decisive emotion, as it were, of spiritual conflagration, the soul is in contact, a living, penetrating and illuminating contact, with a reality which it touches and which takes hold of it.26
| Brossart's metaphor has it that the metaphysical experience "invades me from within and without as a sieve might be immersed in water. . . ." |
Brossart, Maritain and Heidegger all emphasize that the moment of intuition does not "transport" us into the realm of metaphysics (Being), but that we are already there; in questioning being, it is already presupposed. The "intellectual virtue of the metaphysician," according to Maritain, is his "metaphysical habitus," his inclination to, and preparation for, the object of intuition. But this habitus really comes to birth only at the moment its object is disclosed to it. Thus, as Brossart points out, we are in a sort of endless regression. But to recognize it as endless, he continues, is in a certain way to transcend it. The quotation he provides from Marcel is particularly illuminating:
| I see that this process takes place within an affirmation of being—an affirmation which I am rather than an affirmation which I utter: by uttering it I break it, I divide it, I am on the point of betraying it. . . . It might be said . . . that my inquiry into being presupposes an affirmation in regard to which I am, in a sense, passive, and of which I am the stage rather than the subject. 27
Another perspective can be added to our understanding of the "decisive step" by recalling the "leap" which Heidegger says it involves. In the leap to awareness of Being-itself, we are told, man forsakes all the previous security, whether real or imagined, of his life. 28 This is because in his grasp of total indeterminacy, man must give up his grip on every particular, and subject it to the scrutiny of new and larger perspectives. Ultimately the individual becomes
transparent to himself, acquiring a knowledge that is even closer than the gods. Man can perhaps make himself ready for the experience, can open himself to its possibility by trying to become "disengaged," by trying to hear "what all things whisper," by listening "instead of composing answers."29 The distance across the threshold is such, however, that no one can start across, look to the other side, then consider whether he wants to go on or turn back. No one can calculate his progress across the threshold; to see the other side (the intuition of Being) is suddenly to be there. The notion of a leap, therefore, is suggestive in indicating the radical discontinuity between the before and after of the metaphysical experience of Being. |
On the other hand, the ephemerality and instantaneousness of the metaphysical experience can be too heavily stressed, as I believe it is in Brossart. The metaphysical experience need not be a flash of light in a particular encounter with dread or boredom; it may be a slow and gradual development that takes the subject unawares, and works through many, many insignificant experiences and turns of mind until one day he simply realizes he has, indeed, seen. Dread, boredom, and joy were revelations only of particular aspects of Being; no limitation could be set on the number of other, less noticeable aspects that are possible. Perhaps Heidegger has this in mind when he remarks that the "experient," without having "any idea" of the nature of his mood, may come to participate in an "attunement" that is "revelatory of what-is-in-totality." 30
The thesis that we can have an experience of Being through dread, boredom, joy, and other moods has often been criticized, for example by Sidney Hook. Hook asserts that the intuition of Being and (e.g., in Heidegger) Nothing, is merely a by-product of emotional states, of "purely psychological categories." The function of the word "being," he feels, is to remind us of the ultimate reference of our discourse. But other words—such as "everything," "existence," "Universe," "the world"—he thinks do this equally well.
No one would deny that joy, dread, boredom, and the like, are psychological states. The question is whether they have any "ontological" import, whether they are "paths" (Maritain) to Being. But it is precisely in this connection that Hook falls short, for those various emotional states are the ground from which we are able to have the intellectual perception of Being. In partial agreement with Hook's view, I have tried to emphasize that dread is dread, contingency is contingency, but I believe that from each—or in each—the intuition of Being can be derived. The tone of Hook's argument is that man has emotional experiences, subjective passions, about an objective world. To fully understand the metaphysical experience, however, it is necessary to see that reality is momentarily in the subject—and the world is contingent. The subject comes to see, and exist differently; a basic phenomenology undergoes alteration. Maritain's assertion that metaphysical experiences culminate in a more sublime perception seems to me also to refute the often-raised argument that dread, "creatureliness," awe, absurdity, and other such emotional states are phenomenologically relative and merely autobiographical. The intuition of Being, I believe, can follow from an indefinite number of varieties of experience, and may seemingly be without introduction or precedent. Being itself, however, is not "relative." I cannot help thinking that Hook equates "being" with "the world," "Universe," and the like, because he has infused each with something of his own intuition of Being.
I hope that the foregoing has been sufficient to show that we can have an experience of Being, a vision of the common element—the "ground"—of all that is. Such an experience derives from the make-up of each individual; each person stands in his own privileged relation to Being. Fortunately, humans are enough alike that something of the intuition of Being is communicable. I know that experiences like those of Brossart, Maritain, Heidegger, and others have been communicated at least to some people. It is my concern now to investigate why, and how such communication is possible, and whether there is any value in it. I shall investigate how the construction of systems about Being is related to the experience of Being, and identify, if possible, the concrete worth of such systems.
It might be thought, at first, that discourse and systems about Being must refer to, or be grounded in, a single instance of the metaphysical experience of Being, i.e., that the experience is
unique and harked back to in subsequent discourse. I think this is a misconception. The consensus of the philosophers with whom I have been dealing, as well as my own experience, attests to the fact that when the mind once has this intuition, it has it for good. If we have a new awareness of it, Maritain points out, it is not because we "return" to it, but because we "recreate" it. Sometimes we do not recapture its original vividness; on the other hand, it is possible to make it "indefinitely deeper and more intense." Of great significance, I think, is Maritain's statement that the intuition, and the awareness that duplicates it, "far from being always an act becomes habitual." It becomes the mode of life, we might say, to "stand in" Being. The cognition infuses all reflective thought and becomes its own continual reminder.
| . . . takes concepts drawn from some form of experience or some relation within experience, and extends them either so as to say something about the nature of 'reality,' or so as to suggest a possible mode of coordinating other experiences of different types from that from which the concept was originally derived.32
This idea is very much akin to Pepper's theory of "root-metaphors" in which the individual tries to understand the world by interpreting it from the perspective of one "clue" that has captured his attention.33 The root-metaphor of Thales, for example, was water; for Anaximenes, air. Other philosophers have seized upon the notion of process, and so on. Now besides elucidating the world according to determinate principles, do systems of metaphysics have further relevance? Although it is apparent from the foregoing that they need not be rooted in a metaphysical experience, systems of metaphysics have the unique function of preparing us for, and introducing us to, the experience of Being. Mastery of past metaphysics, it seems to me, provides the most universal preparation for the mind's activity in the present; the surest preparation for the cognition of Being is self-awareness grounded in a knowledge of metaphysics. The latter gives us "some insight into the diversity of being as it manifests itself in particular beings and particular worlds" (Brossart); the former allows us to translate this knowledge into a gripping and continually pertinent vision. |
Another value of metaphysical propositions and systems is the aesthetic one, stressed, for example, by Charles Hartshorne. Knowledge, Hartshorne observes, has either pragmatic or aesthetic value. Since the metaphysical assertion cannot be falsified or reasonably denied, it is a truism. It is not subject to pragmatic evaluation and its aesthetic evaluation can only be positive.
|If this is correct, then metaphysics discloses aspects of reality that can be enjoyed but cannot, unless by confusion and self-misunderstanding, be found ugly or objectionable. Metaphysical truth is in some fashion a realm of beauty unsullied by any hint of ugliness.34|
| The total truistic picture, furthermore, may be much more exciting or beautiful than its elements in isolation. Such a situation holds in Whitehead's cosmology: there is an aesthetic pleasure in the way the system fits together, above and beyond the cognitive significance of the concepts. Schrader's comment that phenomenological description has basically an aesthetic motivation is also relevant in this regard.35 |
Moreover, it does not vitiate the worth of metaphysical systems that they become outmoded. A system is suited to its own data (Pepper: a world hypothesis is relevant to certain evidence), and when new data are chosen or created, old systems must be discarded. Henry Veatch makes a comparison with the growth of science: old systems are not "worse" than the new, the new are merely suited to handle a different, often wider, range of experience. In this sense, metaphysical systems do not supplant one another so much as they supplement and complement one another.36
On this account, then, the metaphysical experience gives rise to meaningful discourse and is itself illuminated by metaphysical systems. Although it can be the inspiration of the most profound and creative philosophy, however, the metaphysical experience does not lend itself easily to elaborate systematizing. The experience of Being belongs to the realm of the poetic and spiritual; it confronts man as an existential being. There is no disguising something of a discontinuity between it and cosmologies rooted ostensibly in propositional truth. This is reflected, I believe, in the contemporary trend away from systematizing. It is also reflected in the doubts Brossart has about putting an "ontological interpretation" upon the metaphysical experience. Although he admits that metaphysical structures may arouse curiosity and awaken a person's sensitivity to the intuition of Being, Brossart stresses that such structures may also obscure that intuition. Furthermore, Brossart contends that the goal of metaphysics is the experience of Being, and that after one has had this experience, there is relatively little that ontological interpretation can do.
It seems to me, however, that Brossart is too skeptical about the possibilities of metaphysical dialogue. As Heidegger points out, Being is something man creates as much as it is something he finds. In the continual questioning of Being, man brings new potentialities into actuality; in the imaginative use of language, man himself becomes enriched and changed. In the later Heidegger, the opening up of Being is portrayed as the task of the poet, the person who has the facility with language to determine the real.
|Poetry is the act of establishing by the word and in the word. . . . What is established in this manner? The permanent. But can the permanent be established then? Is it not that which has always been present? No! Even the permanent must be fixed so that it will not be carried away. . . .37|
The permanence of Being is not something to be established on a unique occasion or in particular moments of dread or joy, as Brossart implies. The greatest visions and potentialities of man are constantly being lost, it would seem, because of the failure of individuals to wrest them from the vague and momentary and bring them through words into concrete existence. If Being is to have relevance for man, it must be continually explicated, and communicated to the limit of man's ability. Even the metaphysical experience, if bottled up in individuals—even this "thou" event, in Buber's terminology—may become objectified as knowledge of a passing particular, if man is not watchful. Being becomes a reality when it is communicated; man's very being and historical existence, according to Heidegger, has been a "conversation." It is the nature of man, then, to determine his own nature; and he can do this only if he does not become preoccupied with particular existents, but pushes toward the horizons of Being. By this reasoning, truth is not the province of statements and propositions about the world, for we can only get at the "objective" truth—what the world "really" is—through more statements. Truth emerges, rather, in the freedom of revealing, the "letting-be" of what will be—of "what-is." "Freedom" does not connote "letting things alone." Rather, man participates in the coming-to-be of things; he "exposes" Being, brings what-is into concealment.38
In order to make this type of abstract discourse more palatable to skeptical minds, one might compare it to art and literary criticism. If Being is so indeterminate and vague, how are we to talk about it—and why? "Talking about" Being is something like interpreting a painting: if we point out to someone the effect of a blue shape's being next to a red one, though we talk about colors he has already "seen," we bring them into existence for him in a new way. They become for him, in fact, different colors; we create the painting anew. Being, like the content of a painting or poem, is made real only when it is brought into the open by a subject's response. When the observer thus "creates" meaning, he himself is created in a new way. And it is exactly in this way that contemplation of the abstract generates the real.
It might be argued that we should stop "playing" with abstractions and generalities, and talk about the facts. But how, finally, do we distinguish between the "true" nature of things, and our "subjective" interpretation of them? Does science inform us about the true nature of the world, or does it create that truth through one of a number of ways of describing and structuring it? What is "really" in a symphony, and what does the music critic "foist" onto it? It is not simply the world that is real, but our encounter with it. And thought and discourse in the realm of Being-itself are valuable because they open up the broadest possibilities for that encounter. As the most abstract of human considerations, because least fastened to particulars, Being-itself draws man forward to the deepest levels of experience—almost as if it were filling up its own "emptiness." Metaphysical systems and discourse of less-than-complete generality are similarly valuable because they illuminate human existence on the less abstract levels to which they are appropriate.
The intuition of Being—the supreme metaphysical experience—is important and relevant because it is the genesis of the practical concern of man about himself and his world in the most inclusive perspective. The intuition of Being awakens man to new horizons of experience—horizons apparently without end. Without some awareness of metaphysics and the metaphysical experience, therefore, a person is less wise, less happy, and less human.
| 1. Stephen C. Pepper, World Hypotheses: A Study in Evidence (Berkeley:
U. of California Press, 1942), p. 73.|
2. Metaphysics: Its Function, Consequences and Criteria, Journal of Philosophy, 43 (1946), p. 366.
3. "Metaphysical Interpretation," Philosophical Review, 61 (1952), p. 176.
4. Op. cit., pp. 73-74.
5. S. N. Hampshire, "Metaphysical Systems," in D. F. Pears (ed.), The Nature of Metaphysics (London: Macmillan, 1957), p. 35.
6. H. P. Grice, et al., "Metaphysics," in Pears, op. cit., p. 21.
7. Quoted in Sidney Hook, "The Quest for 'Being,'" Journal of Philosophy, 50 (1953), p. 722.
8 Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York: Harper Torchbook, 1960), pp. 4 ff.
9. "What is Metaphysics?" Philosophical Review, 54 (1945), p. 556.
10. Robin G. Collingwood, An Essay on Metaphysics (Oxford: Oxford U. Press, 1940), pp. 11 ff.
11. W. T. Stace, "Can Speculative Philosophy Be Defended?" Philosophical Review, 52 (1943), pp. 116-43.
12. Sterling Larnprecht and John Randall, "Metaphysics: Its Function, Consequences and Criteria," Journal of Philosophy, 43 (1946), pp. 393-412.
13. Op. cit., p. 728.
14. Gilbert Ryle, et al., "Final Discussion," in Pears, op. cit., p. 150.
15. Op. cit., p. 7.
16. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper, 1962), p. 27.
17. "Metaphysical Experience," Review of Metaphysics, 15 (1961), p. 44.
18. Heidegger, "What is Metaphysics?," in Werner Brock (ed.), Existence and Being (London: Vision, 1949), pp. 384-85.
19. Op. cit., p. 44.
20. Quoted in George A. Schrader, "Existential Psychoanalysis and Metaphysics," Review of Metaphysics, 13 (1959), p. 144.
21. Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus (New York: Vintage, 1959), pp. 20 ff.
22 Paul Tillich, The Courage To Be (New Haven: Yale U. Press, 1952), pp. 39 ff.
23. Heidegger, "What is Metaphysics?," op. cit., p. 386.
24. The Idea of the Holy (New York: Oxford Galaxy, 1958).
25. Pp. 50-51.
26. Ibid., pp. 46, 52.
27. The Philosophy of Existence, trans. by Manya Harari (New York: Philosophical Library, 1949); quoted in Brossart, op. cit., p. 36.
28. Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. by Ralph Manheim (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1959), pp. 5 ff.
29. Maritain, op. cit., p. 48.
30. Heidegger, "What is Metaphysics?," op. cit., p. 386.
31. Op. cit., pp. 711 ff.
32. The Nature of Metaphysical Thinking (London: Macmillan, 1941), p. 5.
33. Pepper, op. cit., p. 91.
34. Some Empty Though Important Truths," Review of Metaphysics, 8 (1955), p. 560.
35. Op. cit., p. 154.
36. "Matrix, Matter, and Method in Metaphysics," Review of Metaphysics, 14 (1961), p. 588.
37. Heidegger, "Hölderlin and the Essence of Poetry," in Brock, op. cit., p. 304.
38. Heidegger, "On the Essence of Truth," in Brock, op. cit., pp. 332 ff.
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