TA 110 (Butterfield)


Commentary 6



by Herbert FJ Müller

24 November 2008, posted 29 November 2008



‘Natural Metaphysics’  by Alexander Bird  is a further recent publication which elaborates the contemporary  revival  of metaphysics.    The reviewer, Helen Beebee, is very supportive of the metaphysical effort in general, and of Bird’s arguments in favour of ‘dispositional essentialism’ in particular.    But then she adds :


‘ One central question that Bird does not answer, however, is why, on his view, the dispositional essences of properties are knowable only a posteriori  -  that is, only after empirical investigation.   While Saul Kripke showed that identity claims about objects ("Clark Kent is Superman") are necessary yet knowable only a posteriori, it is unclear that the strategy generalizes to dispositions.   Lois Lane can come to know Superman in two distinct guises :  the shy, bespectacled man who works in the office, and the superhero;  hence the truth that they are in fact  (and so necessarily, for everything is necessarily identical with itself)  the same person is some­thing she has to discover.   It is unclear that a similar story can be told for dispositions.   Take the case of fragility.   Arguably, we cannot point to a property and say "let that property, whatever it is, be fragility",  and then later discover that fragility is the disposition to break when dropped, as Lois first identifies Superman and later discovers that he is, in fact, Clark Kent.   We had already defined fragility as the disposition to break when dropped when we originally identified it. ’   


The postulate that reality is structured independently of subjective experience  (mind-independent reality, MIR)  is the defining aspect of metaphysics-ontology.   For several centuries, traditional realism, empiricism, positivism, materialism, analytic philosophy, etc.,  have been implicitly based on metaphysics.    Metaphysics indeed goes back to Parmenides,  but it has, after Descartes, long been suppressed as ‘meaningless’, and its use  was denied despite its being the basis of MIR-thinking.   Only quite recently is this point  ‘officially’  recognized  by the MIR-theorists.    Some of them now appear to accept the consequences of the leap of faith to MIR-belief, which can, it seems, be quite extraordinary.  


The reasons for taking  this leap in the first place  are not usually made clear, however.   Most likely people want someone or something outside themselves to guarantee their operating structures.   But if you do metaphysics nowadays, you are not only deprived of yourself, the subject,   as  metaphysics-ontology  has postulated  since its beginning.   You are in addition  bound to do it in a  naturalistic  framework,  which disallows the goddess of Parmenides as well,  and thus you cannot blame her for the complications.    Instead you have to struggle   alone   with ‘utterly fundamental’  dispositions which unfortunately  often cannot ‘manifest’  themselves,   among other things because they are ‘finkish (a term coined by David Lewis);  and even without the help of ‘objects’, which dissolve into ‘spatio-temporal relations’  (see C5 to TA110 on the book by C. B. Martin;  Martin talks about  ‘Mother Nature’,  but that too is of dubious help). 



I expect that   the implausibility of this situation  will eventually convince people to go the other way :   to accept that there is no such thing as mind-independent reality,  and  that  the subject is a constituent  part of all reality,   as constructivism proposes.   The dispositional essences, etc.,   are then not something we find ready-made (either a priori or a posteriori).    Instead they are   the results of our (essential, if you like) subject- object- and all-inclusive  reality-structuring activity within an otherwise not structured matrix or background.    Parmenides alluded to that as well, by saying that knowing and being are identical.   And evidently one can know about structures,  including dispositions,  only a posteriori,  that is :  after one has designed and tried them.   


Metaphysics ‘in-itself’  is both meaningless and indeed impossible  (which is why it had often been denied)   and needed for MIR-thinking (and that is the reason for its recent resurrection).    But the two aspects can be gotten together without conceptual acrobatics if one considers metaphysics-ontology as a working reality-design-tool (‘working-metaphysics’) within ongoing experience.     An even more compelling reason to change to a subject-inclusive epistemology is that this is the only available access to the questions of consciousness and the mind-brain relation (see TA45, etc., in KJF)






Beebee, Helen (2008), Heroic Powers. 

Review of :  Alexander Bird (2007), ‘Natural Metaphysics. Laws and Properties’.   Oxford Univ Press   

In  Times Literary Supplement 14 Nov 2008, p.35




Herbert FJ Müller

     e-mail <herbert.muller (at) mcgill.ca>