The State of Contemporary Metaphysics


I think metaphysics is what its always been—and its hard to say what that is!”

That’s Ross Cameron, professor of philosophy at the University of Virginia, answering a question from interviewer Richard Marshall about the state and content of metaphysics these days.

[Lisa Ericson, “Migration”]

He continues:

I think its in a pretty good state: weve emerged from the darkness of logical positivism, ordinary language philosophy, and conceptual analysis, and are once again unapologetically trying to say something about reality! I suppose one thing that might surprise someone coming from near pre-Lewis/Kripke times is the variety of phenomena that are taken to be legitimate subjects of metaphysical theorizing. (Although it wouldnt be at all surprising to someone from farther back in the history of philosophy.) People still do the metaphysics of time, possibility, existence, etc., but also the metaphysics of race, gender, disability, social groups, sexuality, etc. One sociological change is that its become absolutely standard to see these topics in metaphysics textbooks, being taught to undergraduates, being presented at mainstream metaphysics conferences, etc. I think thats a very good thing.

In the interview, Professor Cameron explains his views on a number of topics in contemporary metaphysics, including philosophy of time, grounding, mereology, and vagueness. His remarks are interesting and informative throughout. For example, in his answer to a question about grounding, he brings up the roles of the empirical and the useful in addressing metaphysical questions. He says:

Grounding is real. What it is is another issue. Whether theres a single notion of grounding, as Jonathan Schaffer thinks, or whether there are a multitude of different grounding relations, as Jessica Wilson thinks, is a difficult issue—but that there is some phenomenon whereby some features of reality give rise to others is hard to deny. Universities do not belong alongside electrons in physicistscatalog of the elements of being!

I think infinite descent—reality having no fundamental layer—is possible. Maybe its even actual. I think thats partly an empirical question. I do think there is something beneficial about metaphysical views on which everything is ultimately grounded in a fundamental layer: there is a kind of explanatory benefit, a unity of explanation, that we sacrifice if we accept a world of infinite descent. I think that gives us a reason to believe in a fundamental layer, but its defeasible. Empirical evidence and philosophical argument could yield reasons for infinite descent that outweigh this reason against.

The whole interview is here.

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