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From The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. LVIII, No. 3, March 2005, 533-536.  Sherburne is responding to Professor Ferré’s “The Practicality of Metaphysics,” in the same issue, 521-528, his Presidential Address at the Annual Meeting of the Metaphysical Society of America, Athens, Georgia, March, 2004.   I borrowed that address’s title and put it before Sherburne’s.  Before summarizing Whitehead’s critique of the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness,” Sherburne recounts an anecdote of F. S. C. Northrop’s about Einstein. 

The Practicality of Metaphysics: Response to Frederick Ferré’s Presidential Address

Donald W. Sherburne


It was a genuine pleasure to read Frederick Ferré’s presidential address.  He has done an elegant job of humanizing Whitehead’s account of the nature of speculative philosophy.  Not only has he provided a most useful expansion of Whitehead’s rather austerely presented criteria for judging the success of a metaphysical system—coherence, logicality, applicability, and adequacy—he has wrapped the whole in his version of the axiological viewpoint in such a way that we see how norms and value judgments anchor metaphysics in an unshakable practicality that goads us evermore toward living not just well, but beautifully.  I find this vision not only satisfactory, but genuinely uplifting.  Therefore, in what follows I will simply put forward some random thoughts concerning the practicality of metaphysics generated by Ferré’s very succinct, yet rich, presentation.

I will start with a trivial observation just to make the point that Ferré’s concern with the practicality of metaphysics has a long history.  Thales, so history (or maybe it is mythology) tells us, was badgered and probably belittled by contemporaries because they found his philosophical studies, which surely were metaphysical in important ways, impractical.  Stirred, like Ferré, to a response, Thales is purported to have utilized the meteorological dimension of his studies to conclude that it was going to be a bad year for growing olives.  So he bought all the olives in sight.  When the crop did fail, he had a corner on the market and made a killing.  I am sure that put a lid on the carping.  And note, rain is water and water was the ultimately real for Thales.  But there is another message here.  History, or is it mythology, tells us that Thales died when, while walking alone at night and studying the heavens, he fell into a well and drowned.  The moral of the story is that we had best distinguish between the practicality of metaphysics and the practicality of the metaphysician!

Now I’ll get more serious.  F. S. C. Northrop was a professor at Yale with whom I studied.  He had a summer home in New Hampshire.  Over a series of summers Albert Einstein went up to New Hampshire to spend a week or two with Northrop.  In one of our conversations in his office Northrop told me that on one of those trips to New Hampshire Einstein had said to him that if he had not read Kant and Hume he never would have had the courage to propose the Theory of Relativity.  Was that a casual, off the cuff comment by Einstein?  Perhaps, but I tend to think that in saying it to Northrop he was genuinely serious.  You may recall that in Science and the Modern World,1 Whitehead describes philosophy as the critic of abstractions.  He offers that description in the general context that generates one of his famous fallacies, this one being the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness.  The paradigm of the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness for White-head is the claim by Descartes that in arriving at the notion of matter and the notion of mind he has arrived at the final realities, at the most concrete of entities.  Whitehead will maintain that there is a reality more concrete than either mind or matter, namely the actual entity.  In making this claim, Whitehead is the critic of Descartes’s foundational concepts, and those concepts are just the sorts of abstractions of which philosophy is the critic.

With that train of thought in mind, recall that Newton, in the Scholium to his Principia, had made the claim: hypotheses non fingo, I frame no hypotheses, and had gone on to say that “whatever is not deduced from the phaenomena is to be called an hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, whether of occult qualities or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy.”2  Therefore, Newton is saying that his notions of space and time are deduced from the “phaenomena” and therefore do have a place in experimental philosophy.  It is just this claim that Kant challenged when he argued that space and time are the outer and inner forms, respectively, of intuition.  I submit that Kant’s metaphysical analysis here is a classic example of what Whitehead would describe as philosophy functioning as the critic of abstractions.  And if Einstein was indeed serious, as I am convinced he was, in making the claim that it was Kant, as well as Hume, who opened for him the door to the plausibility of relativity theory, then I think that we can conclude that we have here one of the all time most persuasive examples of the practicality of metaphysics.

And now a final, and very serious, reflection upon the practicality of metaphysics.  I think I can make the case that Whitehead’s Adventures of Ideas3 is one profoundly sustained exercise in practicality.  You all have probably heard of the two pairings: Barbarians and Christianity, and Steam and Democracy.  But I wonder how many have followed through to grasp the significance of these pairings in understanding what the book is all about—or to put it another way, have grasped the underlying unity and practicality of a book that appears to have such a wide variety of subjects and foci.

The important claim behind the two famous pairings is that at any given time and place there are two types of forces driving the processes of social change, the first being brute, senseless agencies of compulsion and the second being formulated aspirations grounded in articulated beliefs.  It is the second type of force that Whitehead is interested in, the formulated aspirations grounded in articulated beliefs, this type of force being exemplified by Christianity and Democracy in his pairings.  To carry the point a step further, Whitehead is fundamentally concerned with how aspirations are related to the conceptual possibilities embedded in the philosophical understandings available at the moment when these aspirations struggle for release and efficacy.  His conclusion is that the aspirations have to wait for, or are attendant upon, developments in the underlying conceptual schemes that support them, that give them voice.  Adventures of Ideas is one gigantic exercise in articulating a cosmology, a belief system, appropriate for our age, which can support a new formulation of certain aspirations—read norms and values—that now have a voice so they can be pulled into conscious acceptance.  That is why you have to have the metaphysical conclusions of the middle sections of the book in order to provide the concepts that will support the aspirations appropriate to our day and age that get formulated in the remarkable fourth and final part of this great work.  Whitehead gives us a vision of norms and values couched in such concepts as Truth, Beauty, Adventure, Zest, and Peace, concepts which are Whitehead’s formulated aspirations totally grounded in the articulated beliefs which comprise his metaphysics.

And here we are, right back at the conclusion of Ferré’s paper.  We have just looked at one monumental metaphysical exercise in grounding, as Ferré says, “our most profound values in the thoughtful search for the deepest meaning and richest fulfillment of public and private life,” and that, he says, “is the practicality of metaphysics.”

1 Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World. (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1925), 86.

2 Sir Isaac Newton, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, trans. Andrew Motte (New York: D. Adee, 1846).

3 Alfred North Whitehead, Adventure of Ideas (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1933).

Posted April 15, 2007


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