Don’t Look Down

My father believes that the 21st century by necessity will be a metaphysical age. Our tacit metaphysics so divides us from one another and from the world, that we will have to find our way back again. I do not doubt that a new, great unified metaphysical framework may bloom. As to its necessity—I wonder.

For a long time, as a devoted believer in the philosophy of David Hume, I thought that “metaphysics” was simply the highest form of rationalism; a word that must always be said with a sneer. Metaphysics is synonymous with hubris, with the folly of man leaping over an open cliff with no real hope of reaching the other side.

A greater appreciation of history has helped me to see that Hume’s anti-metaphysics metaphysics, and the sorts of metaphysics it was aimed against, tend to run together. For every Plato and Aristotle there is a Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus, for every Hume there is a Kant—or more to the point, a Hegel.

Today, the echoes of the Hegelian and Marxist projects, as well as the anti-metaphysical positivist ones, are all we are left with. They have fallen into ruin, but their ghosts continue to haunt us as the most recent of such projects to be taken up. Behind them we see the long reach of their predecessors; the continental rationalists and the English-speaking empiricists.

But in this accounting we leave out a very different sort of project. We can see it in the phenomenological and hermeneutical schools in Germany, and in the “ordinary language” philosophy in England. Its most prominent figures are Heidegger, whose putrid prose and National Socialist politics left a foul odor on the enterprise, and Wittgenstein, who made his name through a cold formalism he subsequently abandoned for the enchantment of language.

These thinkers were not so much metaphysical or anti-metaphysical as mystical. Their critics would agree, for positivists, Hegelians, rationalists and empiricists alike can think of no higher insult to a thinker than the accusation of mysticism.

But mysticism is not here meant as an insult, but as an appreciation for ineradicable mystery. Heidegger’s forgetting of Being can be seen as the inevitable result of attempting such an eradication. In seeking to remove all mystery, we simply fence our attention into specific areas and soon forget that a whole world exists beyond them. As Wittgenstein put it:

It is as if someone were to say: “A game consists in moving objects about on a surface according to certain rules…”—and we replied: You seem to be thinking of board games, but there are others. You can make your definition correct by expressly restricting it to those games.

A serious commitment to truth accepts that unconcealing some aspect of it necessarily involves some other aspect falling back behind the veil. Total unconceilment, Hegel’s great promise, is not available to frail, finite beings such as ourselves.

And yet there is wisdom, there is truth—even moral truth—immanent in life. It is not really grasped through theory, though theory does play a partial but important role in the life of such truths. These truths are best approached cautiously, sketching them out as living phenomena rather than attempting to reduce them to some formula.

Poetry and storytelling are beyond compare as methods for approaching these truths. It is precisely their indirect, figurative, and suggestive nature that leaves them open to vastly more than direct examination allows. More than even poets and storytellers are capable of realizing they have captured.

I don’t think anyone has any trouble seeing and feeling this when they aren’t taking the stance of philosopher or scientist. As children, stories seem to have a simple meaning. As we age, we notice meanings in familiar stories that we had missed the first time. The danger is to suppose we have finally grasped all of the meanings, or that we are capable of doing so. True adulthood requires an acceptance of the multitudes forever beyond our reach. This acceptance must be paired with a faith that such multitudes exist at all.

Metaphysics, and even anti-metaphysics, has its place. But living in the world requires a deep seated belief in its enchantment. In practice, we are all mystics.

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