I'm curious of the modern meta-philosophical viewpoints on metaphysical knowledge. That is, is it possible for arm-chair theorizing or rational pure thought alone to gain true knowledge about any metaphysical structure or facts of the real world?

In my mind metaphysical theories regarding abstracta, materialism or idealism, and so on, are usually considered to be epistemically indistinguishable so we are really just debating the concepts themselves separated from any true interaction with reality.

I'm wondering whether certain other modern philosophers hold onto a similar positivist-like viewpoint as I do regarding metaphysics in a deflationary viewpoint? Further, are there philosophers who have defended metaphysics and in what fashion have they attempted to this?

  • Philosophers with "similar positivist-like viewpoint regarding metaphysics in a deflationary viewpoint" is a bit too convoluted for me. Are you looking for philosophers who "defended" the grand old school view of metaphysics, or philosophers who only see a place for deflated metaphysics (as you do? is that right?)?
    – Conifold
    Sep 23, 2019 at 21:24
  • More philosophers who still see core metaphysical discussions as being of paramount importance. Discussions like whether abstract objects exist, mereology in relation to physical objects, materialism vs idealism, etc. Sep 23, 2019 at 22:00
  • As opposed to those who would seek to deflate metaphysics to merely clarifying scientific concepts or just outright admitting its closer to an art rather than a way of rationally investigating the world which is distinct or somewhat separate from the sciences. Sep 23, 2019 at 22:02
  • I see. Picking abstract objects and mereology is a bit odd though, those are rather formalistic areas that one can easily cast as debating a better choice of language (i.e. conceptual organization of knowledge). Have you looked into speculative realism/object oriented ontology? This is probably the most sizable recent development in metaphysics, Harman and Meillassoux are the most recognizable names. An older, but still very lively, area is the metaphysics of consciousness (e.g. Chalmers)
    – Conifold
    Sep 23, 2019 at 22:13
  • Conifold, what is speculative realism? The thing you linked to seemed to be more focused on reviewing his particular book. I'm looking it up now but if you could provide other resources please do. Sep 23, 2019 at 22:21

4 Answers 4


Edward Feser, speaking in the context of the philosophy of mind regarding arguments between dualism and materialism, claims that the "positivist" view that the OP presents is common and is indeed a misunderstanding of philosophical argumentation. (page 234)

A related misunderstanding - and this time, one that even many philosophers are prone to - is to assume that dualism is to be understood as a kind of quasi-scientific "explanatory hypothesis," presented as an ostensibly more plausible way of accounting for the same data that materialist theories try to explain.

Rather the dualist argument is a "straightforward demonstration", much like a proof in geometry. It is a metaphysical argument about a true interaction with reality.

Assuming Feser is right, let's consider the first question:

I'm wondering whether certain other modern philosophers hold onto a similar positivist-like viewpoint as I do, regarding metaphysics in a deflationary viewpoint?

One should assume that many philosophers take a similar "deflationary viewpoint". It is modern philosophical common sense. However, Feser suggests there's another perspective worth considering. He attempts to explain it from the perspective of Descartes' dualism: (page 235)

[Descartes] is not "postulating" its existence [immaterial substance] as merely the most plausible way among others of "explaining" the "data" that both dualists and materialists seek to "account for." If anything, the existence of immaterial substance is for Descartes itself part of the data that any truly scientific picture of the world has to take into consideration.

This shows metaphysical argument is a true interaction with reality and not just a language game where concepts are debated. Philosophical argument is not intended to be scientific and (page 236)

empirical science is simply not the only form of rational inquiry.

Let's consider the final question:

Further, are there philosophers who have defended metaphysics and in what fashion have they attempted to this?

Based on these quotes from Feser, he would be one of the philosophers who takes metaphysics seriously by presenting it as a rational demonstration. If those claims succeed then

...they provide genuine knowledge of a level of reality that is not material, and do so without resting on empirical observation or theory - construction of the sort familiar in science. Of course, one could try to refute this claim, but the point is that to do so one would also have to defend scientism, rather than simply presuppose it.

The way Feser attempts to do this is to challenge anyone who thinks metaphysics is not genuine knowledge of reality to provide a philosophical argument, a demonstration, that scientism is true and not just assume scientism is.

Feser, E. Philosophy of Mind: A Beginner's Guide. 2013. Oneworld.

  • But what knowledge does metaphysics give us, that is possibly distinct from and possibly inaccessible from the known sciences? Note i'm at least admitting some low-brow metaphysics for science and not attributing scientism to myself but to me metaphysics is there to clarify the concepts outlined in scientific theories but not to go out of its way beyond experimental methods to assert the existence of proposed entities without any interaction with reality. You could say I follow some watered down empiricism in contrast to contemporary metaphysics with which I view as 17th century rationalism. Sep 23, 2019 at 22:13
  • Further, is metaphysics merely mean't to interpret the data and reality of scientific theories then? That's something I happened to glean from your post and I'm curious as to how you would agree with this. Sep 23, 2019 at 22:15
  • @JustinOrosz In the case of the philosophy of mind, Descartes' dualism demonstrates the existence of immaterial substance. This is distinct from what materialists recognize as empirical data, but is part of the data, not just an interpretation of the data. Metaphysics is more than clarifying concepts from empirical science. It provides a rational argument about what the data actually is that it expects empirical science to accept as data. Feser knows "scientism" is a negative word. I think he uses it to nudge people to examine their unexpressed assumptions about metaphysics. Sep 23, 2019 at 22:26
  • Are you saying something along the lines that given a set of experimental assumptions and data from a scientific investigation there is also something more to be concluded from the data that is different from the interpretation but like an inference from the data? Sep 23, 2019 at 22:31
  • I still see what you are saying as an interpretation in the sense that we are given data and you may interpret it differently coming to the conclusion, through rational investigation, that there must be an immaterial mind to be accounted for or included in our analysis of the data. Sep 23, 2019 at 22:32

Metaphysics does its job perfectly well but you have to realise there are different approaches to it, by one of which it is useless.

Are there philosophers who have defended metaphysics and in what fashion have they attempted to this?

There are many. I would be one.

Briefly, the situation is this. Metaphysics proves that all positive metaphysical theories do not work. They give rise to fatal contradictions. This would be the reason why so many philosophers follow Russell and Carnap and reject metaphysics as a source of knowledge. Meanwhile the Perennialists argue that all these theories are false, which explains their failure in logic, and it is to the eternal credit of metaphysics that it does not endorse any of them.

Thus we have a choice as metaphysicians. We can believe it is incomprehensible and useless, or we can believe it is a proof of the doctrine of Middle way Buddhism etc. and as such of immense value. The former belief is held by philosophers in Russell's tradition, who usually reject metaphysics as pointless. The second is held by philosophers in the tradition of Plotinus, Lao Tsu and Nagarjuna, who produce an extensive literature explaining the results of metaphysics and proving its value as an analytical discipline. It's your choice who to believe, but while there is comprehensible explanation that remains unfalsified the idea that metaphysics is incomprehensible or useless is redundant.

I feel this is not the place to post links to my more comprehensive explanations of this issue, but if you want them and can figure out a private communication method I'll do so.

EDIT: It has been asked that I say more about the relationship between metaphysics and Reality. This would require a long essay. I would rather leave it to the reader to do their own investigating. My longer answer would take the form of suggested reading and I would be forced to link to my own work. To do so publicly seems inappropriate.

The essential point is that the conclusion of metaphysics is the absurdity of extreme or positive metaphysical theories. As Bradley notes, it does not endorse a positive result. There is only one doctrine for which they would all be false, thus explaining their failure in logic, and this is the one I mention. This is very definitely not rocket-science but it's off the beaten path for academically-trained philosophers, as the comments here indicate.

EDIT 2: I've been pushed to provide a link to support this answer so have done so. The most comprehensive discussion of these issues is the dissertation at the bottom of the page, the bibliography for which provides a long list of sources. Although I've done it once or twice before it seems wrong to link to my own work and I post this only because I intend to drop out of SE in the near future.


  • 1
    If you're going to downvote then please give a reason if you have time. So far nobody has disagreed with anything said here. I firmly believe that what is said is correct and downvotes don't tell me anything about possible objections.
    – user20253
    Sep 26, 2019 at 15:26
  • 1
    "We have two choices" --- neither one of which I consider reasonable. (However often you tell me what I think, I do not consider metaphysics useless. Keep saying it and it will continue to be false.) That means we have more than two choices. Abiding contradiction in a different way than dismissing all the problems is a third way, so your argument hinges on a false statement. Ergo the downvote.
    – user9166
    Sep 26, 2019 at 19:45
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    It is very strange that someone who constantly references nondual approaches insists on approaching them from a forced false dichotomy.
    – user9166
    Sep 26, 2019 at 19:50
  • @jobermark - i won't argue since I don't understand your point, but at least it's feedback. .
    – user20253
    Sep 27, 2019 at 12:13
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    Thank you for basically preaching (Sarcasm if you didn't know). Sep 30, 2019 at 20:50

Whenever we talk about metaphysics, we have to be careful of scope. There's an unfortunate tendency to define metaphysics in indiscriminate and subjective terms — treating metaphysics as a dumping ground for any question one doesn't happen to like — that obscures a lot of good reasoning.

For example, consider Durkheim's concept of 'social facts'. Émile Durkheim (back at the turn of the 19th century) did some analysis and discovered that people from predominantly Protestant cultures committed suicide at significantly higher rates than people from predominantly Catholic cultures. He reasoned that this effect came from what he called anomie: the failure of the society to provide proper moral guidance, which tends to break down social bonds and force individuals to make solipsistic decisions. The question is this: is anomie a matter of metaphysics? Clearly, the impact of anomie on an individual is not 'tangible' in the same sense as getting hit by a baseball; equally clearly, something is going on that produced these divergent suicide rates. Anomie is obviously related to overtly metaphysical concepts like 'free will' (since it involves human choice), but it is also a concept based in empirical evidence. And then there is the other side of this issue, in which we only have indirect evidence for the existence of things like quarks, gravitons, and dark energy... Are they metaphysical concepts, and if not, in what way are they different from a concept like anomie?

There are metaphysical questions which are little more then philosophical argle-bargle, granted. But making the assumption that all metaphysical questions are such, particularly with a loose and subjective definition of the term 'metaphysical', seems ill-advised.

  • Social psychology and quantum physics are not metaphysical, nor are their concepts. Even within philosophy, before they were separate domains, they belonged to domains of philosophy other than metaphysics: psychology and physics.
    – user9166
    Sep 25, 2019 at 23:34
  • Well, that's nice of you to say so, but you'd be surprised how many people I run across who disagree. That's part of what I was pointing at when I said the classification of metaphysics was overly-subjective. Sep 26, 2019 at 0:08
  • That not just me, it is history. Metaphysics is not what some random commentator on the street says it is, it is what philosophy now and historically says it is. But if those are negative examples, then nothing in your answer says anything about metaphysics, and it is not really addressing the question... It is a long comment, not an answer.
    – user9166
    Sep 26, 2019 at 1:44
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    I'm not talking about random commentators. You should read people like Russell, Popper, and Skinner more carefully. Sep 26, 2019 at 2:51
  • I feel Jobermark is right in a way since metaphysics may be defined with reasonable precision. But as you say lots of well-known philosophers redefine it to include inappropriate questions or to exclude legitimate ones, so to me your answer seems helpful.
    – user20253
    Sep 26, 2019 at 15:33

Positivism will get you really far, and we have not tapped some of its most powerful insights.

Modernism is full of people who consider all of metaphysics either decided or irrelevant. My favorite one of these alive right now is Daniel Dennett. He thinks that we need to take science and apply it to our philosophy, deconstructing problems we don't realize are already solved, which decides, and then removes large areas of metaphysics. This is an entirely positivist endeavor.

For instance, he is most famous for working from the known structure of the brain, and realizing that it means the 'Cartesian Theater' with a centralized self observing outside reality was not an option. Whatever strong metaphysical attachments we had to the self, it was optional, and all the thinking around it needed to be used to pull it apart and generate a theory of self congruent with the parallel and distributed nature of neuronal processing.

On the other hand, hard-core modernism is dead: We know positivism fails. We see that it ultimately fails as an basis for truth through modern logical analysis. And we see it fail as a strategy for dealing with reality on a regular basis by looking at history.

Late modernist historians of science like Kuhn pointed out that can proceed with a positivist endeavor only by freezing a given set of metaphysical assumptions. No progress is possible if you have not already made decisions about what is and is not real, knowable, etc. Whether or not you have expressed those, you have to be working from the same basic notions. When theoretical explanations of observed results cannot fit into those presumptions, for instance the idea that there is a fixed global frame of reference to which all events are equally related, you have to rewrite parts of that provisional paradigm.

This is itself a defense of the relevance of metaphysics. You cannot discuss alternatives to such propositions if you do not have a fund of metaphysical analysis from which to draw distinctions and propose alternatives. The only place to get ideas and habits you need to talk about the things that up until now were wholly outside of your physics from the possibilities we have entertained about those things that currently appear wholly outside physics in general.

Atomism went from metaphysics to physics when chemistry demonstrated that chemical transformations involved small fixed and generally integral ratios of masses. Until then, it was impossible to decide, because we lacked the right kind of problem. If it had not existed as a metaphysical concept already, we are unlikely to have come up with it at the right time.

And Kant's Antinomy of Atomism motivated us to not trust it too completely, and to reach behind it looking for continuous descriptions of the apparently discrete reality. We know that there is a deep paradox here, and we are not shocked that we come down to some weird partially discrete, partially continuous solution. We expected that -- we just didn't realize it.

That we can expect these things to change faster and faster as we watch cultural development accelerate implies that we will be making use of a lot of metaphysical ideas that we currently don't care about. The fact that we do not have leverage on problems that make the concepts relevant right now, does not mean we will not need those concepts.

So metaphysics is generally not justified in its conclusions, but it is justified in analyzing and expanding different ways of looking at the kinds of explanations people can reasonably make and share about abstract reality, ultimate truth, etc. Some of them will have such major flaws they can never be redeemed. Others will interact and generate more options.

The same way that mathematics provides the power behind ordinary, everyday science -- what Kuhn calls the 'normal science' of 'puzzle solving' -- philosophy often provides the power behind resolving paradigm shifts and other arguments of crisis throughout scientific history.

  • Nice answer but I'm intrigued as to why you say the conclusions of metaphysics cannot be trusted. It would suggest that your answer to the question in the title would be 'No'. For such a strong view an example of an untrustworthy conclusion would be useful as justification. It seems odd that you defend metaphysics but at the same time deny the reliability of its conclusions. The old expression 'damned with faint praise' seems appropriate. What would be an unreliable conclusion of metaphysics? This is a genuine question and not an attempt to prolong our feisty discussions elsewhere. .
    – user20253
    Sep 26, 2019 at 15:46
  • @PeterJ Metaphysics that makes conclusions is no more useful from this point of view than metaphysics that makes none. The answer wouldn't really be 'no', it would be "Metaphysics' justification is independent of its conclusions." Both materialism and idealism are conclusions of metaphysics, and I find them both unreliable. Ontology is especially bad. Conclusions like Mienong's, Kripke's and David Lewis's seem unreliable as a guide to anything - but they present problems that motivate better thought. It shares that with math. There is a lot of useless math, but results aren't the point.
    – user9166
    Sep 26, 2019 at 16:01
  • Well now, its seems we agree on the plausibility of Materialism and Idealism and the ideas of those you mention. But here's the thing. metaphysics does not endorse Materialism or Idealism, so by rejecting them you are endorsing the conclusion of metaphysics. This is my problem with your rejection of it. You seem to be rejecting the way it is commonly done, not the discipline itself, and if so I would heartily agree with you.
    – user20253
    Sep 26, 2019 at 16:16
  • @PeterJ You have a very special meaning for metaphysics that nobody else here shares. It makes conclusions that nobody else here finds concluded. All these things you want to reject are part of metaphysics by the standards of almost everyone who uses the word on this forum. Stop preaching that yours is the only metaphysics. I am not open to being converted.
    – user9166
    Sep 26, 2019 at 17:06
  • You seem to miss the fact that almost all philosophers agree that metaphysics does not endorse a positive conclusion, a conclusion that often leads them to dismiss it as meaningless. Most philsosophers agree with me about metaphysics as a logical procedure. They just don't agree on interpretation, I'm not sure why you don't recognise this. As far as the logic goes I'm just agreeing with Russell and Kant. Someone who is not open to being converted should not be doing metaphysics. It is relentlessly iconoclastic, which is why Bradley calls it an 'antidote for dogmatic superstition'. .. .
    – user20253
    Sep 27, 2019 at 12:20

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