In philosophy metaphysical debates are quite popular - all the "-ism"s are fighting one another. And many give good insights for every side of every debate. This seems like it can't be stopped, ever, especially since metaphysics is, by its nature, unanswerable by science. So technically it can't be "proven" or "disproven" (not even "falsified"), unless we find a deep logical error in it (though even then, some metaphysical claims are going to the realms beyond logic, so even that won't satisfy every metaphysical debate).

My question is, are we actually going somewhere with these questions that are as old as philosophy itself? I do feel we make incremental steps over the course of history, but it just doesn't seem like it can ever be concluded, and the whole subject looks highly subjective.

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    I edited the question to make it look less like asking for personal opinions.
    – Conifold
    Feb 20, 2018 at 1:21
  • There is no difficulty in sorting out metaphysics and changing it from Kant's 'arena for mock fights', into something useful, but many philosophers cannot even catch up with Kant never mind surpass him. I blame it on a refusal to properly examine the Perennial phil0sophy, where metaphysics is concluded and the subject is not at all subjective. Until this blind-spot is addressed then progress will be impossible, as you suggest and as history clearly shows. . .
    – user20253
    Mar 30, 2018 at 12:13

3 Answers 3


It seems that we find the same "battlefield of endless controversies" in figuring out what to make of metaphysics as Kant found within the metaphysics itself. But perhaps hosting controversies is the mission of metaphysics. If we accept that knowledge is fallible and advances through improvement, its improvements must first be conceived without sufficient evidence, on a hunch. Perhaps the intractable "questions" are only questions in their surface grammar, and have much more oblique depth significance (stimulating and guiding other research, for example). In the end, philosophy is the handmaiden of the culture at large, and its clients either have ways of resolving their own controversies (science) or thriving on them (art). As long as they benefit from metaphysics as it is, why change what works as intended? Friedman's Dynamics of Reason (p.107) suggests that we should not:

"Although we do not (and I believe should not) attain a stable consensus on the results of distinctively philosophical debate, we do, nonetheless, achieve a relatively stable consensus on what are the important contributions to the debate and, accordingly, on what moves and arguments must be taken seriously... Characteristically philosophical reflection interacts with properly scientific reflection in such a way that controversial and conceptually problematic philosophical themes become productively intertwined with relatively uncontroversial and unproblematic scientific accomplishments; as a result, philosophical reflection can facilitate interaction between different (relatively uncontroversial and unproblematic) areas of scientific reflection."

In earlier times philosophers were more definitive, negatively so. Kant thought that he diagnosed the problem and found a solution, once and for all, in Critique of Pure Reason by way of Copernican turn from metaphysics to epistemology, "to seek the observed movements, not in the heavenly bodies, but in the spectator":

"Our reason (Vernunft) has this peculiar fate that, with reference to one class of its knowledge, it is always troubled with questions which cannot be ignored, because they spring from the very nature of reason, and which cannot be answered, because they transcend the powers of human reason... Thus, however, reason becomes involved in darkness and contradictions, from which, no doubt, it may conclude that errors must be lurking somewhere, but without being able to discover them, because the principles which it follows transcend all the limits of experience and therefore withdraw themselves from all experimental tests. It is the battlefield of these endless controversies which is called Metaphysic... I venture to maintain that there ought not to be one single metaphysical problem that has not been solved here."

Hegel told us that "the answer to questions that philosophy leaves unanswered is that they must be put differently". C.S. Peirce argued that the flaw was in the misguided Cartesian maxim, and that philosophy, like science, must admit its perpetual fallibility and seek self-correction, not ultimate answers. As he wrote in Some Consequences of Four Incapacities:

"The same formalism appears in the Cartesian criterion, which amounts to this: "Whatever I am clearly convinced of, is true." If I were really convinced, I should have done with reasoning and should require no test of certainty. But thus to make single individuals absolute judges of truth is most pernicious. The result is that metaphysicians will all agree that metaphysics has reached a pitch of certainty far beyond that of the physical sciences; -- only they can agree upon nothing else. In sciences in which men come to agreement, when a theory has been broached it is considered to be on probation until this agreement is reached. After it is reached, the question of certainty becomes an idle one, because there is no one left who doubts it."

After the epistemological and scientific turns it was time for the linguistic turn. Carnap, in a distant echo of Kant, merrily declared in self-explanatorily titled Elimination of Metaphysics Through Logical Analysis of Language:

"In the domain of metaphysics, including all philosophy of value and normative theory, logi­cal analysis yields the negative result that the alleged state­ments in this domain are entirely meaningless. Therewith a radical elimination of metaphysics is attained, which was not yet possible from the earlier antimetaphysical standpoints."

Wittgenstein mused about intractability of metaphysical problems in 1930-s, after parting ways with positivists. He compared irresolvable philosophical problems to "diseases of understanding" and wondered:

"Have we to do with mistakes and difficulties that are as old as language? Are they, so to speak, diseases that are bound up with the use of a language, or are they of a more special nature, characteristic of our civilization? Or also: Is the pre-occupation with the edium of language that runs through all our philosophy an ancienttrend of all philosophizing of all philosophy, an ancient struggle? Or is it new, like our science?" [MS 132, 7 quoted from Gordon Baker's late interpretation of Wittgenstein by Hacker]

What emerged out of these musings was his philosophical therapy of late period, originally modeled on Freud's psychoanalytic method (which he later came to despise, however). Instead of attacking positions with arguments remove the confusions and anxieties that move people to insist on those positions in the first place. Dissolution and conciliation in place of solutions.

But then Quine, Carnap's nemesis, adopted a far more pragmatic view of metaphysics (or ontology, as he preferred to call it) as organizing disparate parts of our knowledge for various uses. And even Peirce himself developed an elaborate speculative metaphysics of his own with universe as "effete mind, inveterate habits becoming laws" in a series of papers one of which was tellingly titled A Guess at the Riddle.


You ask some great questions.

You're speaking of metaphysics in Western thought which Kant sums up beautifully as 'An arena for mock fights'. This statement is worthy of close examination. But nothing you say is generally true of metaphysics, only locally.

The debate can be stopped but not unless we pay attention to the formal results of metaphysics. Western thinkers cannot do this since it would bring them into line with Nagarjuna, who with great care shows exactly how the debate can be stopped. Regrettably a common superstition has it that mysticism is not worth getting to know and is wrong about metaphysics in some unspecified way.

To stop the debate we have to find the exit from Kant's arena and there is only one. It is to concede that all positive metaphysical positions are logically absurd thus must be judged false. Job done. It really is this simple. The idea that metaphysics is a non-halting problem is only viable for those who reject the solution. The solution is to follow the logic and abandon dualism in all its forms. This is the rational approach.

The problem is that at this time the professors refuse to do this since it would mean breaking down the barriers between 'Western' and 'Eastern' thought. I could easily show you how to bring metaphysics to an end. The clue is in your question. You only need to reject all the theories that don't work. But don't expect to hang on to your tenured position.

The idea that metaphysics is interminable because its questions are not answerable by science is terribly wrong. Metaphysics is prior to the natural sciences and deals with much deeper issues. Science has very little to contribute. They have different names for a reason. Rather, it is science that needs metaphysics. Hawking more or less concedes the point in an essay called 'The End of Physics' (which used to be online but seems to have been withdrawn).

Kant showed the way but few people take any notice. If we stand on his shoulders metaphysics proves to be quite simple. After all, it is a safe bet that only one world-theory is correct and that all the rest will not work. You've noted that in our tradition of thought we have not found one that works so really all that is required is to examine the one it refuses to study or consider.

The final result of metaphysics is well-known. It is, in Kant's words, that all selective conclusion about the world a whole are undecidable. In Nagarjuna's words it is, 'All positive metaphysical positions are logically indefensible'. Bradley puts it as 'Metaphysics does not produce a positive result'. How much clearer could the situation be? Even Carnap acknowledges this point as your quote shows. He cannot make sense of this result, but then he is firmly trapped in Kant's arena and seems happy to be so.

It is truly weird that you have to ask a question such as this one in the 21st century. It seems rather obvious that metaphysics has a clear result and a definite end given that it hasn't moved for two millennia. All we need do is understand why it ends where it does. The only difficulty is that this would mean climbing over the walls of the Academy and exploring the world beyond. At the level of principles, as the three quoted statements above indicate, metaphysics is a doddle. It allows us to logically prove that the Universe is a Unity. Or, more accurately, it allows us to prove that no other solution is available, which is good enough for abduction.

The answer your question is therefore that philosophers in the West (sorry about the geographical stereotype but it's handy) make nothing at all of metaphysical controversies (antinomies, dilemmas, barriers to knowledge, ignoramibuses etc.) while philosophers in the East use them to prove the truth of nondualism and the Unity of the Universe. You pay your money and make your choice...

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    So, metaphysics in the West is bs controversies and we can see this by looking at the history, yet many of the philosophers in the academia (Chalmers for example, but many others) are simply talking nonsense instead of looking at the East' solution? And about this solution, could you care briefly explaining it, or provide a source (articles/book)? Feb 20, 2018 at 13:33
  • Those don't sound like Kant's words, or Nagarjuna's. @Yechiam Weiss You might like to read absoluteirony.wordpress.com/2014/09/17/… as a quick introduction to what Nagarjuna is doing, as well as some context setting that he is not the only one doing it
    – CriglCragl
    Feb 21, 2018 at 17:00
  • @Yechiam Weiss Kant thought he had 'solved' metaphysics. So did Wittgenstein. Peter J thinks Nagarjuna did. To even begin assessing these or other 'solutions' you need to settle on a specific definition of metaphysics, and in particular what it's claimed or practiced purposes are for you or others to consider whether it is or can achieve them. Your critique of metaphysics, 'are we actually going somewhere?' can be as easily applied to this thread. And the answer is the same, depends what your aims are, and likely you get back in relation to what you put in.
    – CriglCragl
    Feb 22, 2018 at 10:28
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Feb 26, 2018 at 15:00

'Are we actually going somewhere with these questions that are as old as philosophy itself?'

The changelessness and continuity of the questions are largely appearance, I think. The reality is that there is no philosophical question now that is exactly the same as any question Plato asked, or Aristotle, or Aquinas, or Descartes ...

Take that old favourite, the existence of God. The God that Aristotle argued for the existence of in the 'Metaphysics' (pure thought thinking about pure thought) is not the God of Aquinas in the 'Summa' (omnipotent, benevolent and spiritual, and the God of Aquinas is not the bodily God of Hobbes in 'Leviathan' and the God of Hobbes is not the limited God of John Stuart Mill in the 'Essays on Theism'. Intensionally the term 'God' is very different over time - the concept of God changes, and with it the question we are discussing when we talk about the existence of God.

Or consider materialism : if (IF) this is the view that all that exists is matter and states of matter, an 18th-century materialist's 'matter' will be nothing like a 21st-century physicist's or scientifically-informed philosopher's.

Finally on this brief tour look at 'the problem of universals'. If a universal is now widely construed on the model of redness, a quality present in all and only red things, then this quite misses a feature of universals that Plato included. Assuming (which elsewhere I might doubt) that a Platonic Form is a universal, with e.g. the Form of the Beautiful being present in some sense in all and only beautiful things, Platonic Forms/ universals have the extra feature of being self-predicating. That is to say that the Form of the Beautiful is itself beautiful. Self-predication is utterly absent from the concepts of a universal to be found in Russell, Carnap, Quine or Strawson. And while most philospohers probably think of universals as in some way and sense 'abstract', Hegel, Bradley and Bosanquet present us with the concept of the 'concrete universal'.

It's 'all change' on the philosphical journey. The passing scenery only looks the same.

  • This doesn't convince me. It actually makes me realize that there's maybe a more concerning matter - sure, Aristotle and Aquinas talked about slightly different sense of the meaning of God, but I'm not sure that those different interpretations are really meaningful (and I know that's one of the few things philosophers hate to hear) in general - sure, maybe we get a slightly different insight on the subject, but one can argue that this isn't really a progression (surely one can also claim that philosophy doesn't work by progression which is related to another upcoming question of mine),... Mar 21, 2018 at 21:57
  • ..but rather "just" a different approach by a different personality. And another argument might be that while accepting a certain progression, this isn't the progression one would aspire to get (which is as far as I know why the positivists left metaphysics). As the video you linked me on a different topic shows, Copleston, while giving a supposedly different argument, still uses the same general lines of Aristotle's (the difference between a first mover and a non-contingent entity is basically the same). Mar 21, 2018 at 21:57
  • 'Aristotle and Aquinas talked about slightly different sense of the meaning of God' - sligthly different. Are you joking ?
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Mar 21, 2018 at 23:15
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    really, no - sure there's seemingly a huge difference between a "pure thought", purely logical entity, and a spiritual, loving entity. But at the essence of the metaphysical arguments that can be made on these two different ideas will be eventually quite the same. You can say the definition of God has changed, I'll say different people see the same thing differently, but it's still the same thing. Mar 21, 2018 at 23:21
  • I see your point now. At a broad level everything stays the same. I see differences but you're entitled to underline similarities. Btw : your productivtity in asking thought-provoking questions is amazing. You have the liveliest mind on PSE ! Best - Geoff
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Mar 22, 2018 at 8:52

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