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There is no special problem with metaphysics


I argue for the claim in the title. Along the way, I also address an independently interesting question: what is metaphysics, anyway? I think that the typical characterizations of metaphysics are inadequate, that a better one is available, and that the better one helps explain why metaphysics is no more problematic than the rest of philosophy.

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  1. The idea in question is epistemicism, according to which there is little justification for believing either side in the relevant disputes (or, at least, that the kinds of arguments actually being deployed in the literature cannot settle the disputes).

  2. In this, I disagree with something Merricks says in passing: that little “hangs on the answer” to the “mildly interesting” question of how to characterize metaphysics (2013, 722). I am suggesting that something does hang on the answer. What hangs on the answer to “what is metaphysics?” is the answer to other questions like “is metaphysics worth doing?” and “is metaphysics entirely wrong-headed?” For a different reason why it matters what counts as metaphysics, see Barnes 2014.

  3. I use ‘special’ and ‘distinctive’ interchangeably.

  4. Thanks to Rohan Sud for pressing me to better answer this question.

  5. I am glossing over irrelevant niceties of formulation. Whether this ought to read ‘all instances of x have F or do a’ or ‘all participants in x have F or do a’, or something slightly different, will presumably turn on what the value of x is.

  6. Here’s a reason to think this is relevant to the case of metaphysics. It might be the case that some feature or activity counts as distinctive to metaphysics in sense (5), but only during a particular time period, because of various contingent pressures and fashions.

  7. Thanks to Elizabeth Barnes for pressing this kind of example.

  8. This point came out of discussion at Michigan, but I can’t remember if there is a specific individual to whom I should attribute it.

  9. Compare someone who is biased against some racial or cultural group R, who claims to dislike Rs because they engage in certain behaviors and ways of talking that make her uncomfortable. Upon learning that these behaviors and ways of talking are proportionately no more widespread in the relevant group than outside it, she stubbornly decides to apply the label ‘R’ to all and only the people who do in fact engage in them (this is not a realistic portrait of an actual racist, of course, though it does partially reflect what is behind offensive claims like, “oh, he’s practically a white guy…”). Whatever claims this person goes on to make using the label “R” are not about Rs in the sense other people have in mind. It would be better to just talk directly about the putatively problematic behaviors.

  10. Since I attribute this characterization to Sider, I should note that he would agree with at least some of the criticisms I will lodge against it. As he says, “I got a little carried away with my rhetoric” (2013, 754).

  11. In 2003, Schaffer claims that “there is no evidence in… favor” of the claim that “that there exists a fundamental level” (498). In 2010, he instead says that “there must be a ground of being. If one thing exists only in virtue of another, then there must be something from which the reality of the derivative entities ultimately derives” (2010, 37). This apparent contradiction reflects a change of position. But it also reflects the fact that in 2003 he is primarily concerned with composition, with the idea that the world might be gunky—and in 2010 it becomes clear that he does not think that composition has anything to do with fundamentality at all. Later Schaffer thinks that the world has a fundamental level even if it is gunky.

  12. Compare Barnes, and what Jackson calls solving “the location problem” for various phenomena (1998, 4–5).

  13. That last remark might make it sound as though a plausible characterization of metaphysics can be reached by conjoining the idea that metaphysics is about the fundamental nature of reality with Schaffer’s idea that metaphysics is about what grounds what. Certainly, at least if ‘ground’ is understood broadly (as ‘build’ in my sense; see my 2011 and especially ms chapter 2), this conjunctive claim makes much better sense of actual metaphysical practice. But it is still inadequate; it still fails the first constraint.

  14. I mean, this one particular interpretation of the particular Aristotelian slogan. I make no claim about whether it accurately reflects Aristotle’s full views on the nature of metaphysics.

  15. I am not alone in doubting that metaphysics has some single, nondisjunctive theme; both Merricks (2013) and van Inwagen (2007) share my skepticism. Still, I do think a bit more can be said than that it is just a total hodgepodge. I am categorizing metaphysical questions into two categories, the first of which is reasonably unified even if the second may not be.

  16. Perhaps gender as well; see Barnes 2014.

  17. The relation to actual Carnap is not entirely clear.

  18. It is one thing to conclude that the question “are there properties?” ought to receive a negative answer, and to think that expressions like “feature” and “similar in certain respects” are just ways of talking that do not carry any worldly commitments to universals or perhaps not even to sets. It is another to think that the question “are there properties?” is illegitimate, meaningless, and ought not be asked at all.

  19. Suppose I introduce ‘blerg’ as an expression that picks out anything that is either a pickle, a prime number, or embarrassing. It is not very prima facie plausible that there is anything distinctively objectionable about blergs.


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Thanks to Elizabeth Barnes, Ted Sider, and audiences at Notre Dame, the University of Michigan, the 2014 Pacific APA, and the 41st annual Oberlin Colloquium in Philosophy. Special thanks to Thomas Hofweber, my commentator at Oberlin, Rohan Sud, my commentator at Michigan, and Daniel Nolan and Sara Bernstein, my commentators at the APA.

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Bennett, K. There is no special problem with metaphysics. Philos Stud 173, 21–37 (2016).

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  • Metametaphysics
  • Metaontology
  • Nature of metaphysics