For and Against Metaphilosophy

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In this blog post some thoughts will be presented and, perhaps, certain arguments will be propounded for and against the interpretation of metaphilosophy as a field of study outside the scope of philosophy. The contention is whether the reasoning of philosophy itself renders the study thereof something other than philosophy or does not affect its status qua branch of philosophy; the conclusion possibly being that such controversy is misleading and best be circumvented, at least until further research succeeds in making any breakthroughs.

Metaphilosophy is the philosophy of philosophy, the study of the abstract structure of philosophy as such. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) provides the following definition and description:

What is philosophy? What is philosophy for? How should philosophy be done? These are metaphilosophical questions, metaphilosophy being the study of the nature of philosophy.

[T]hree very general metaphilosophical questions are (1) What is philosophy? (2) What is, or what should be, the point of philosophy? (3) How should one do philosophy? Those questions resolve into a host of more specific meta­philosophical conundra, some of which are as follows. Is philosophy a process or a product? What kind of knowledge can philosophy attain? How should one understand philosophical disagreement? Is philosophy historical in some special or deep way? Should philosophy make us better people? Happier people? Is philosophy political? What method(s) and types of evidence suit philosophy? How should philosophy be written (presuming it should be written at all)? Is philosophy, in some sense, over – or should it be.

Philosophy and the “nature” of

At first, note should be taken of the present author’s disagreement with the wording furnished by the IEP concerning the definition of metaphilosophy as the “study of the nature of philosophy”. The use of the word “nature” is found to be inadequate in two ways: (i) it re-contextualises and re-defines a commonly applied term — “nature” — to name features of reality that are intelligible, not partaking of the sensible magnitude of the world, and (ii) it seems to conflate philosophy with ontology.

If “nature” is the world in all of its sensible manifestation, the combination of all experiences with the totality of objects that are graspable through the faculties of sense, then there probably is another kind of investigation that is more effective at rigorously examining the subject matter: science. Understandably, the IEP attaches a peculiar signification to the word, so that it names the “substance”, the “essence”, the “transcendental features” of the thing in question, the “what [it] is”; a somewhat common practice in philosophical parlance.

Even so, the conceptual tension, albeit obfuscated, remains largely in tact. Philosophical considerations occur at an intelligible level. Their content does not share a necessary causal link with sensible categories of reality. Abstractions are not objects of the world, but intelligible conceptions of specified parts of totality. External stimuli might provide an impetus to philosophise, though they do not determine the characteristics of its particulars, as reasoning about objects does not, in itself, exert a formative influence on them. One’s recollection of the world may be a concatenation of [abstracted] impressions, even though the experiences engendering them were concrete instances of reality.

It is not that a given word is placed in the milieu of a metaphysical discourse to acquire a meaning profoundly different from its original; but rather that doing so entails a risk of fallacious reasoning, by begging the question about the distinction between — or the status of — sensible and intelligible objects. It might assume certain categorical relations it intends to vindicate, with whatever constraints this will impose on the capacity of the method to sufficiently address the issues at hand.

Furthermore, and such concern aside, the definition provided by the IEP seems to narrow the scope of philosophy to that of ontology, effectively aligning, conflating, identifying the two. That would be an erroneous approach. Philosophy is broader than ontology/metaphysics. It is concerned with comprehending intelligible features of reality in relation to one another even after a given ontic presence is recognised or claimed. “What is” is accompanied by “how do we know about it”, “with what means”, “how ought it be” and a host of more refined issues, all branching out into different areas of philosophical inquiry. The very ontological proposition being, in a sense, a claim of knowledge of a presence.

This variety is already evident in the IEP’s description, which documents, among others, questions of a normative sort, suggesting that there indeed is no deliberate effort whatsoever of blurring the distinctions between philosophy and ontology.

Normative judgements would not address just the “nature” of philosophy but also its disposition towards non-philosophy objects, its consequences when applied, the appropriateness of its application and scope thereof etc. They are prescriptive _not descriptive. If it is in the _nature — the ontological what is — _of a thing to perform certain functions to meet given ends, then posing a question on whether it _should perform them or not, pursue them or not, by what means and to which degree, would be false in at least three ways:

  1. it would presume the availability of choice;
  2. it would treat the thing as having faculties of discernment with which to make a judgement about such a possible choice;
  3. it would be addressing the question to someone other than the thing that would presumably be called to choose, namely, the thinker wrestling with such themes.

To inquire upon the normative features of philosophy is to consider the optimal manner in which humans/philosophers [ought to] make use of it, not to claim that philosophy should, in and of itself, act in accordance with the philosophers’ findings about its normative features. Thus, either normative aspects are not “in the nature” of the thing, or, if they are, they are to operate in the way that they do in spite of the deliberations of philosophers and any conclusions reached therefrom. The law of gravity functions in the way it does regardless of how humans think of it. Even if all philosophers were to reach a consensus that gravity ought not pull apples to ground, their ex cathedra pronouncement would not affect the ongoing attraction of apples to the ground. Prescriptions on gravity’s operation(s), would only be meaningful if it were able to deliver on them.

If constitutive of [our] reality are the magnitudes of sense and intelligence, the case of the law of gravity would be but a mere indication of an object whose presence is not dependent on categories of thought. It functions in the way it does in spite of how it is considered by humans (though the idea about it is subject to change by means of intelligence). Normativity can have a scope of application on those things whose presence is predicated on thought; whose presence changes or remains, in the way it does, because of being intelligibly conceived as such. Discussion on the normative features of a piece of legislation can produce certain positions that may define its very status in the instituted order of values, its moral, legal, political, economic, cultural ramifications and so on. These are all outward manifestations of intelligible objects, susceptible to change — or the absence thereof — by the manner in which they are thought.

The application of the term “nature” would, therefore, amount to a vector for confusion, for failing to effectively discern sensible from intelligible objects (note: I have previously labelled them _pragmata _and _chrēmata _respectively, thought I am no longer confident in the correctness of such terms, hence their omission herein). Should philosophy be an activity carried out by humans and should such activity be of an intelligible sort, then it would be a matter of precision of statement to make use of linguistic instruments that do not impel us to assume the ontic status of our activity as commensurate with those objects whose presence is not predicated on us.

In accordance with the aforementioned, we shall treat philosophy as the study of the abstract structure of its subject matter, which involves the identification of the objects within it, the properties peculiar to such objects, the relations, orders, taxonomies that appear among the objects, the methods applied to identify them and their status thereof, the enumeration of their possible modes of implementation and the conditions underpinning them and so on. The definition connotes open-endedness, in recognition of the (current?) lack of a robust terminus to — of clear borders around — philosophical investigation.

The following two sections can now provide the outlines to some arguments for and against the treatment of metaphilosophy as a field of research outside philosophy.

Metaphilosophy is within the scope of philosophy

Let us employ an analogy. A painting of paintings, say, one that perfectly depicts and harmoniously combines Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa with Paul Cézanne’s The Card Players and Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, could still feature the properties constitutive of a painting. Similar for a study of studies, such as an assessment of all referenced works in the papers in macroeconomics that were published over the last decade, which could still have all that is characteristic of a study (granted the term “meta-analysis” is applied, although not with philosophical connotations).

The self-reflectiveness of these instances, would not, in itself, be a factor for their qualification as a meta-painting or a meta-study respectively. It would not transfigure them into a kind of activity that is intrinsically different from the ones whose subject is exterior to them. Their properties would remain constant. They would appear as continuations of their subject; their attention being directed inwardly, with the quality of the act not being determined by the object examined, but only in its own capacity as per the features germane to it.

Not everything can be turned on itself. There is no football of football, agriculture of agriculture, brewing of brewing etc., though there can be reasoning about each one of them, outside of them. An example is musicology, which is the discussion, the study, about music, _not _the music of music. Yet philosophy can be turned on itself in that there can be philosophising about philosophy, thinking about thought, theorising about theory. But does that make it any different than the afore-mentioned cases of the painting or the study?

Metaphilosophical considerations cannot be treated as indeed meta-_philosophical, in the same way _meta-_physics is distinct from physics, because they are _philosophical in themselves. They have all the properties peculiar to philosophy. To inquire on “what is philosophy” is, in effect, an ontological concern about the form of philosophy, about philosophy as such. There is nothing “meta-” in that, in the sense of a higher-order conception._ “_Non-hyphened” philosophy also wrestles with the absolute presence of the object it scrutinises. That this may happen to be philosophy itself does not alter the fact that the method proceeds from the application of reason, concerns abstractions — intelligible objects — and wishes to be rigorous and coherent in its findings. The “meta-” is but an ill choice of terms.

There is, nonetheless, a more critical take on this issue. In the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences, Hegel puts forward a trenchant and scintillating argument:

A main line of argument in the Critical Philosophy bids us pause before proceeding to inquire into God or into the true being of things, and tells us first of all to examine the faculty of cognition and see whether it is equal to such an effort. We ought, says Kant, to become acquainted with the instrument, before we undertake the work for which it is to be employed; for if the instrument be insufficient, all our trouble will be spent in vain. The plausibility of this suggestion has won for it general assent and admiration; the result of which has been to withdraw cognition from an interest in its objects and absorption in the study of them, and to direct it back upon itself; and so turn it to a question of form. Unless we wish to be deceived by words, it is easy to see what this amounts to. In the case of other instruments, we can try and criticise them in other ways than by setting about the special work for which they are destined. But the examination of knowledge can only be carried out by an act of knowledge. To examine this so-called instrument is the same thing as to know it. But to seek to know before we know is as absurd as the wise resolution of Scholasticus, not to venture into the water until he had learned to swim.

Additionally, the possibility of reasoning about philosophy — metaphilosophy — can suggest that still loftier realms of contemplation may be reached, so that there is a reasoning about metaphilosophy, a meta-metaphilosophy and then a meta-meta-metaphilosophy and so on ad infinitum. Such infinite regress, at least seen from the perspective of a Pyrrhonian skeptic, would be treated as rather dubious a ground for certainty, since the proponent of metaphilosophy would have to arbitrarily select a basis on which to establish their argument. With no Archimedean point to be found, all claims may then amount to speculation.

This is not meant to attack the very enterprise of reasoning about philosophy, but rather to propose that it falls within the scope of philosophy; its inwardness being irrelevant to its philosophical standing, its purported “meta-ness” being but a darling folly, a mere illusion produced by the misuse of language.

Metaphilosophy is beyond the scope of philosophy

We may withhold judgement before aligning ourselves with any of the above or providing assent to Hegel’s critiques and exhortations. To suggest that metaphilosophy falls within the scope of philosophy, effectively is a conclusion that follows from an account of the abstract structure of philosophy (and, admittedly, the claim about the “abstract structure” also is a metaphilosophical position). At the very least, this is indicative of possible counter-positions to the one outlined in the previous section.

The two-tier order  is not engendered by inwardness per se, it is merely addressed by it. There is, for instane, a distinction to be made between classes of knowledge and knowledge as such. Knowledge of painting, knowledge of playing football, knowledge of developing with WordPress, are skills or arts or techne, not equivalent to the form of knowledge. Forms are higher-order abstractions than their extensions, even when those also are abstractions in their own accord. The properties of the extensions are not found in the abstraction, though the reverse applies. There are delineations to be drawn between knowledge of the skill/art/techne, say, “what is painting”, and the reasoning about “what is to know of what is painting”.

In terms of possibility, one can [claim to] know that they know what painting, football, WordPress are or how to paint, to play football, to code with WordPress; i.e. one can [claim to] to know that they know of the classes of knowledge. And, conversely, one may not know that they know of knowledge as a skill/art/techne, such as in the case where they have no memory of it.

The successful outcome to the venture into “what knowledge can philosophy deliver” would not merely be an act of knowledge in advance, but rather the attainment of knowledge of the status of knowledge delivered by means of philosophising. Besides, the enterprise of epistemology occurs after the realisation that one may philosophise. The philosopher is aware of their methods prior to having reached conclusions. Is that awareness tantamount to the object of inquiry central to epistemology? To examine the instrument is not the same as to know it, for the examination commences from — and occurs in — ignorance of the absolute. The sameness of the two can only be ex post, provided the terminus is reached and the totality is revealed in its fullest.

That ultimate state of affairs notwithstanding, a multi-level taxonomy is brought to the fore, where there can be contemplation about the intelligible object and the abstract structure of such contemplation, _irrespective _of one another.

Then considering “what knowledge can philosophy deliver” may reveal areas of research that would have otherwise remained obscure. Is it by means of recollection that one has awareness of the faculties of sense and cognition? How come the philosopher understands the instruments of their philosophising prior to having philosophised? Do they _understand _them, are endowed with an instinct of using them deterministically or some other state of affairs? Whence cometh such knowledge and is it the same as the _knowledge _following — and derived from — its application? These and a host of other related topics are to be considered without regard to philosophy’s objects of study.

Concluding remarks

If there is a place where neat and tidy solutions are supplied, it is not here. Problems are found in our struggle for clarity. We may opt to cavalierly neglect or carefully consider them, admitting that we too might be found wanting. The process is that of dialect, not edict. The attitude inquisitive, not authoritative. Perhaps an appropriate formulation remains to be found. A modicum of consensus be reached, for there seems to be something elusive in that direction which could indeed provide justice to either of the opposing views on whether metaphilosophy is a branch of philosophy proper or a second-order reasoning beyond its scope.

That no persuasive answers may be given, or that several mesmerising problématiques can give rise to yet more doubts, is not necessarily suggestive of a need to dismiss the study altogether or to rush to categorise it in a certain way. Rather these are signs of the necessity of further exploration into the unknown. Perhaps then, the very dilemma of whether metaphilosophy falls inside or outside the realm of philosophy is a misleading and presumptuous one as it takes place before any considerable breakthrough is made; if there eventually is any to be achieved. Until then or if so, an aporetic _and _zetetic approach can circumvent the controversy, treat it as a distraction from the meaningful considerations, an impediment even, and proceed with the examination of its subject matter indifferent to the claims on its status. Let that be settled after the fact.

It might arguably be a feature of philosophy not to close itself to the prospect of being endogenously reconsidered, revised, reformulated. If it were reluctant, obstinately resisting its own means, it would be asserting itself and its own end, transfiguring into nothing more than a dogma, an heteronomous institution, the answer to which would not be a counter-dogma of resolute anti-philosophy, but a genuinely argumentative, open-ended method, call it “philosophy” or whatever.

If there is one thing to be learned from that muse of philosophy named “Socrates”, is that by philosophising, by means of dialectic, one must be grateful to be found mistaken in their judgements. That recognition does not amount to an actual loss in argumentation as those professing antagonistic rhetoric and eristics would suggest. It would rather be an instance of enlightenment, of emancipating oneself from perceptions that confined them to ignorance. Such an approach, of welcoming rebuttal as an impetus for progress towards truth, is what can keep philosophy open and eager to whatever results further research may yield, be them in the areas of metaphilosophy or elsewhere, even if those could ultimately lead to the obsolescence of philosophy as such.

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Protesilaos Stavrou

EU policy analyst. Philosopher. Web developer.
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