vrijdag 25 april 2008

On reading Collingwood's "Essay on Metaphysics"

Took R.G. Collingwood's Essay on Metaphysics (1939) with me for weekend reading, and it's one of those books that are hard to put down. I'm very fond of his Idea of History because it suggests a metascience for history and historical linguistics that makes a tremendous amount of sense: if what a historian does is indeed re-enacting a historical event (namely, an act of reasoning: as all historical events (as opposed to say natural) are rational actions) in his mind, owing up to this may liberate the historical sciences from methodological principles borrowed from the natural sciences on the one hand, and despair on the other. In the study of language change, the rational, logical structure of the events we deal with are very much in our faces - the reanalysis of grammar, the analogical extension of grammatical relations across different paradigms, etc. Yet teleology in language change is a tremendously controversial concept. Collingwood's philosophy of history (which has been applied to linguistics mainly by Raimo Anttila) allows for a way for historical linguistics to "return home" to the human sciences.

But back to the Essay.

No, I'll get to that in a bit. I must first say that, in general, reading stuff like this makes me very melancholy. Most of the philosophers I tend to get very interested in were active in, say, 1880-1940. But it seems such a fascinating (though rather bloody!) time to be alive in other ways as well: in terms of scientific progress, with the previously complacent view on natural science exploded by the Einsteinian revolution and quantum stuff, and in terms of art, literature, music... I get acutely conscious of a wasted education, having had to spent too much time in high school on useless crap instead of Kant and Hegel. Classical languages were probably the most useful subjects I had - even if I have forgotten most of my Latin and Greek, it did give me a definite edge when tackling linguistic concepts later in university. I'm currently scavenging my way around philosophy and theology and all that, picking up something here, something there - but I still lack a basic acquaintance with big ones such as Aristotle or Kant, and my attempts at Hegel were as painful as they were interesting - I can make sense now of the dialectic (something which I never could, funnily enough, as a Marxist), but Hegel writes against a certain historical background with a certain terminology which makes him, for me, very hard to understand.

And I suspect that brilliant generalists such as Whitehead and Collingwood wrote in an intellectual environment which encouraged generalization and engagement with tradition (even if both of them were swimming against the intellectual stream of their own times). I also suspect that modern universities do not really provide such an environment any more. I don't even want to speak of high schools. I'm not whining here - as long as they still have libraries, I'm happy. Wasting a lot of my intellectual energy on Lenin and Trotsky was wholly my own choice, and perhaps some good will still come of it.

But look at the state of our civilization. Look at modern and postmodern art which has ironicized and revolutionized itself to death. Look at the soulless crap of modern popular music. Call me a reactionary, but as far as I am concerned, civilization ended a few decades ago, and all that is left is to poke about the rubble. We just don't know it yet.

But back to Collingwood's Essay on Metaphysics, this time for real.

Fascinating move that Collingwood makes: metaphysics is a historical science, as the study of the absolute presuppositions of the scientific knowledge of a given historical actor or epoch (Collingwood uses 'science' and 'scientific' in the broad and correct sense of 'ordered knowledge about a determinate subject' which includes the natural sciences, the humanities, and also applied sciences). 'Historicizing' the subject in such a manner allows Collingwood to deflect the charge of the positivists that metaphysics is concerned with unverifiable propositions, and therefore nonsensical: though Collingwood concedes that the absolute presuppositions underlying a body of knowledge are neither true nor false, the subject of the metaphysician is not so much these presuppositions themselves as their place within the knowledge of a given historical actor, and the truth or falsehood of metaphysics thus seems to be the truth and falsehood of a historical proposition.

This sounds radical on the one hand, but may not be that radical. Last time I read The Idea of History, it struck me that the notion of the human sciences as somehow secundary or subsidiary to (and waiting to be reduced to) the natural sciences puts things on their heads: when studying metaphysics, we study basically rational systems (with all their logical interconnections, analogies), etc. - which is precisely the 'thought studying thought' that is basic to the study of history. If I grapple with a given linguistic change in Old Finnish, I try to 're-enact' what went through the mind of a given writer (or the 'collective mind' of a speech-community). But in the same way, if I try to model, say, process philosophy or Hegelian dialectics in my head, I am doing something very similar. In both cases, it is hermeneutics, rather than a narrow positivist view of the scientific method, that is king.

Now, additionally Collingwood localizes philosophy as historically situated knowledge: the attempt to uncover the absolute presuppositions that underly scientific knowledge in a broad sense:

Let it be understood that the business of metaphysics is to find out what absolute presuppositions have actually been made by various persons at various times in doing various pieces of scientific thinking. Let is be understood that if a certain absolute presupposition has been made on one occasion by one person this fact makes it probable that the same presupposition has been made by other persons having in general what may be called the same cultural equipment as himself: the same outfit of social and political habits, the same religion, the same sort of education, and so forth; but correspondingly improbable that it has been made by persons whose cultural equipment was notably different. At the same time let it be understood that probabilities are not history, which demands proof; and that the only way to prove that somebody has made or has not made a certain absolute presupposition is to analyse the records of his thought and find out (p. 60).

Collingwood exemplifies this in an interesting way: namely by analyzing the role of Christianity, and of a certain conception of God as an absolute presupposition, in the development of science. In context of this, he has a fascinating take on Anselm's argument:

Anselm's proof is strongest at the point where it is commonly thought weakest. People who cannot see that metaphysics is a historical science, and therefore habitually dock metaphysical propositions of their rubric, fancying that Anselm's proof stands or falls by its success as a piece of pseudo-metaphysics, that is, by its success in proving the proposition that God exists, as distinct from the proposition that we believe in God, have allowed themselves to become facetious or indignant over the fact, as they think it, that this argument starts from 'our idea' of God and seems to proceed thence to 'God's existence'. People who hug this blunder are following Kant, I know. But it is a blunder all the same. When once it is realized that Anselm's proof is a metaphysical argument, and therefore a historical argument, it can no longer be regarded as a weakness that it should take its stand on historical evidence. What it proves is not that because our idea of God is an idea of id quo maius cogitari nequit therefore God exists, but that because our idea of God is an idea of id quo maius cogitari nequit we stand committed to belief in God's existence. (p. 189-190).

So, instead of "God is a perfect being" -> "God is a necessary being/cannot fail to exist", we have "God is a perfect being" -> "We cannot think the preceding concept sound yet disallow for God to be an absolute presupposition in our own knowledge of the world". This would not be too far from the modal readings of Anselm's argument defended by for example Hartshorne: if we allow for the possibility of the concept, we are committed to its necessity; likewise, if we are convinced of its impossibility (as J.N. Findlay seemed to be), we stand committed to rejecting the existence of God. In either case, we are far removed from the God that Dawkins et al. disbelieve in, namely, the contingently existing "Star Trek's Q" version of God:

For the Patristic writers the proposition 'God exists' is a metaphysical proposition in the sense in which I have defined that phrase. In following them here, I am joining issue with my 'logical positivist' who evidently does not think it is anything of the kind. In his opinion it has nothing to do with the presuppositions of science but with the existence of a quasi-human but superhuman person. And the department of knowledge (or if you like pseudo-knowledge) to which a proposition concerning a matter of that kind would belong is, I suppose, psychical research; or what booksellers, brutally cynical as to whether these things are knowable or not, classify as 'occult'. There can be no conceivable excuse for classifying it under metaphysics.
If the proposition that God exists is a metaphysical proposition it must be understood as carrying with it the metaphysical rubric; and as so understood what it asserts is that as a matter of historical fact a certain absolute presupposition, to be hereafter defined, is or has been made by natural science (the reader will bear in mind my limitation of the field) at a certain phase of its history.

Collingwood proceeds to defend the view that, for early Christian writers, one of the ways to defend their faith was to show that it in fact solved some open issues within the reigning classical metaphysics of their time.

I will have to reflect on this a bit. Collingwood's view on metaphysics seems attractive to me in the sense that it confirms my intuition that metaphysics is ultimately a human science with the same basic methodology as other fields of the humanities; his contention that it is also a historical science I need to digest a little bit more. If Collingwood is right, reflective theists would want to think about how God functions as a presupposition in their own body of knowledge - not only scientific, but also pragmatical (as most reflective theists do, I think). We could also drive the atheists up the walls by explaining that the notion that God exists is strictly taken neither true nor false, yet absolutely necessary as a basic presupposition. At the very least, the notion of God would need to be attacked or defended in connection with the ordered body of knowledge it is a part of. Perhaps this may suggest a way of grounding belief in God in continuous religious practice. Which is something I've been getting more interested in as of late.

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