No Escape from Metaphysics


I think the contemporary [metaphysics] scene is thriving. But you still run into critics of metaphysics. I find these critics genuinely puzzling. Let me try to explain why.

That’s Trenton Merricks, Commonwealth Professor of Philosophy at the University of Virginia, in a recent interview at 3:16. It’s the beginning of a response to a question from interviewer Richard Marshall:

Many non-metaphysicians heard the news that logical positivists and Heidegger from a different angle had put paid to metaphysics and missed the news about Lewis, Kripke et al bringing it back. What’s the contemporary scene looking like?

[Norman Rockwell, “The Art Critic” (detail)]

Professor Merricks continues his answer:

For me, the most interesting aspect of philosophy is the arguments. And there are arguments in metaphysics. Suppose you think that metaphysics is dumb. Then you must think that the arguments in metaphysics are dumb. Take one of those arguments. Suppose you think it has a false premise. Fair enough. That is a good reason to oppose that argument. But opposing that argument in that way is not being a critic of metaphysics, it is instead opposing a single argument.

Moreover, in opposing that argument in that way, you are almost certainly doing some metaphysics yourself. One reason that I say this is that the denial of the premise that you are rejecting will probably be as “metaphysical” as that premise itself. With this in mind, it is unlikely that you can successfully oppose all the arguments in metaphysics without just becoming another metaphysician. (Welcome home.) So opposing those arguments—showing where they go wrong—is not a likely route to becoming a critic of metaphysics.

But most of the critics that I have encountered seem to sidestep this route to becoming unwitting metaphysicians. For they do not explain where the arguments in metaphysics go wrong. After all, you cannot do that unless you are intimately familiar with those arguments. And those who are most dismissive of metaphysics, in my experience, are definitely not intimately familiar with those arguments. Yet they still think that those arguments are dumb.

I do not understand why anyone would be dismissive of any field of philosophy that is populated with arguments—metaphysics included—without being familiar with the details of the arguments in that field. It’s like these naysayers think that they can tell, a priori, that all those arguments have false premises or are invalid or beg the question. Talk about armchair philosophizing!

You can read the whole interview here.


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