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Book I Chapter 1 - § 6

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« on: January 05, 2023, 10:59:20 am »

§ 6. It is now time to consider one or two objections which are very commonly urged against the prosecution of metaphysical studies. It is often asserted, either that (1) such a science is, in its very nature, an impossibility; or (2) that, if possible, it is useless and superfluous, since the other sciences together with the body of our practical experience give us all the truth we need; or, again, (3) that at any rate the science is essentially unprogressive, and that all that can be said about its problems has been said long ago. Now, if any of these popular objections are really sound, it must clearly be a waste of time to study Metaphysics, and we are therefore bound to discuss their force before we proceed any further.
 
(1) To the objection that a science of Metaphysics is, from the nature of the case, impossible, it would be in principle correct to reply that, as the proverb says, "You never can tell till you try," and that few, if any, of those who urge this objection most loudly have ever seriously made the trial. If any one thinks the task not worth his while, he is not called on to attempt it; but his opinion gives him no special claim to sit in judgment on those who think differently of the matter. Still, the anti-metaphysical prejudice is so common, and appears in so many different forms, that it is necessary to exhibit its groundlessness rather more in detail.
 
(a) It is sometimes maintained that Metaphysics is an impossibility because the metaphysician's problems, in their own nature, admit of no solution. To a meaningless question, of course, there can be no intelligible answer, and it is occasionally asserted, and often insinuated, that the questions of Metaphysics are of this kind. But to call the metaphysician's question a senseless one is as much as to say that there is no meaning in the distinction, which we are all constantly making, between the real and the apparent. If there is any meaning at all in the distinction, it is clearly a necessary as  well as a proper question precisely by what marks the one may be distinguished from the other. Our right to raise this question can in fairness only be challenged by an opponent who is prepared to maintain that the contradictions which lead us to make the distinction may themselves be the  ultimate truth about things. Now, whether this view is defensible or not, it is clearly not one which we have the right to assume without examination as self-evident; it is itself a metaphysical theory of first principles, and would have to be defended, if at all, by an elaborate metaphysical analysis of the meaning of the concepts "truth" and "reality." Again, the objection, if valid, would tell as much against experimental and mathematical science as against Metaphysics. If the self-contradictory can be true, there is no rational ground for preferring a coherent scientific theory of the world to the wildest dreams of superstition or insanity. Thus we have no escape from the following dilemma.  Either there is no rational foundation at all for the distinction between reality and appearance, and then all science is an illusion, or there is a rational foundation for it, and then we are logically bound to inquire into the principle of the distinction, and thus to face the problems of Metaphysics.[1]

(b) What is essentially the same objection is sometimes put in the following form. Metaphysics, it is said, can have no place in the scheme of human knowledge, because all intelligible questions which we can ask about reality must fall within the province of one or other of the "sciences." There are no facts with which some one or other of the sciences does not deal, and there is therefore no room for a series of "metaphysical" inquiries over and above those inquiries which constitute the various sciences. Where there are facts to investigate and intelligible questions to be put, we are, it is contended, in the domain of "science"; where there are none, there can be no knowledge. Plausible as this argument can be made to appear, it is easy to see that it is fallacious. From the point of view of pure Logic it manifestly contains a flagrant fallacy of petitio principii. For it simply assumes that there is no "science," in the most universal acceptation of the term—i.e. no body of reasoned truth—besides those experimental sciences which have for their object the accumulation and systematisation of facts, and this is the very point at issue between the metaphysician and his critics. What the metaphysician asserts is not that there are facts with which the various special  branches of experimental science cannot deal, but that there are questions which can be and ought to be raised about the facts with which they do deal other than those which experimental inquiry can solve. Leaving it entirely to the special sciences to tell us what in particular are the true facts about any given part of the world's course, he contends that we still have to ask the more general question, what we mean by "real" and "fact," and how in general the "real" is to be distinguished from the unreal. To denounce the raising of this question as an attempt to exclude certain events and processes from the "province of science," is simply to misrepresent the issue at stake. Incidentally it may be added, the objection reveals a serious misunderstanding of the true principle of distinction between different sciences. The various sciences differ primarily, not as dealing with different parts of the world of reality, but as dealing with the whole of it so far as it can be brought under different aspects. They are different, not because they deal with different sets of facts, but because they look at the facts from different points of view. Thus it would be quite wrong to suppose that the difference between, e.g. Physics, Physiology, and Psychology, is primarily that each studies a different group of facts. The facts studied may in great part be the same; it is the point of view from which they are regarded by which each of the three sciences is distinguished from the others. Thus every voluntary movement may be looked at either as a link in a series of displacements of mass-particles (Physics), as a combination of muscular contractions initiated from a centre in the cortex of the brain (Physiology), or as a step to the satisfaction of a felt want (Psychology). So Metaphysics does not profess to deal with a certain group of facts lying outside the province of the "sciences," but to deal with the same facts which form that province from a point of view which is not that of the experimental sciences. Its claim to do so can be overthrown only by proving what the criticism we are considering assumes, that there is no intelligible way of looking at the facts besides that of experimental science.
 
(c) More commonly still the intrinsic intelligibility of the metaphysician's problem is admitted, but our power to solve it denied. There may be, it is said, realities which are more than mere appearance, but at any rate with our human faculties we can know nothing of them. All our knowledge is strictly limited to appearances, or, as they are often called, phenomena[1] What lies behind them is completely inaccessibie to us, and it is loss of time to speculate about its nature. We must therefore content ourselves with the discovery of general laws or uniformities of the interconnection of phenomena, and dismiss the problem of their real ground as insoluble. This doctrine, technically known as Phenomenalism, enjoys at the present time a widespread popularity, which is historically very largely due to an imperfect assimilation of the negative element in the philosophy of Kant. Its merits as a philosophical theory we may leave for later consideration; at present we are only concerned with it as the alleged ground of objection against the possibility of a science of Metaphysics. As such it has really no cogency whatever. Not only do the supporters of the doctrine constantly contradict their own cardinal assumption (as, for instance, when they combine with the assertion that we can know nothing about ultimate reality, such assertions as that it is a certain and ultimate truth that all "phenomena" are connected by general laws, or that "the course of nature is, without exception, uniform"), but the assumption itself is self-contradictory. The very statement that "we know only phenomena" has no meaning unless we know at least enough about ultimate realities to be sure that they are unknowable. The phenomenalist is committed to the recognition of at least one proposition as an absolute and ultimate truth, namely, the proposition, "I know that whatever I know is mere appearance." And this proposition itself, whatever we may think of its value as a contribution to Philosophy, is a positive theory as to first principles the truth or falsity of which is a proper subject for metaphysical investigation. Thus the arguments by which it has been sought to demonstrate the impossibility of Metaphysics themselves afford unimpeachable evidence of the necessity for the scientific examination of the metaphysical problem.[3]

[1] Cf. F. H. Bradley, Appearance and Reality, pp. 1-4.

[2] I may be pardoned for reminding the reader who may be new to our subject, that "facts" and "processes" are only properly called phenomena when it is intended to imply that as they stand they are not genuine realities but only the partially misleading appearance of reality which is non-phenomenal or ultra-phenomenal. (We shall do well to avoid the pretentious error of calling the
ultra-phenomenal, as such, "noumenal.")

[3] Appearance and Reality, chap. 12, p. 129 (ed. 1).

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