metaphysics and 'pataphysics

Metaphysics and 'Pataphysics

There is a distinction that will assume a great deal of importance in the texts that will soon (I hope) appear on this site. Let me make it somewhat precise here so I can refer back to it when needed. The distinction is between metaphysics and 'pataphysics. Metaphysics has long been considered the central discipline of philosophy if not simply synonymous with philosophy. However, different philosophers have come to mean different things by the term "metaphysics" such that it is far from clear what a given philosopher is doing when he claims to be either pursuing or criticizing metaphysics. The caution that the term "metaphysics" was a neologism, an editorial insertion just intended to provide a name for the books that followed the Physics in the Aristotelian corpus has gone largely unheeded. And not unjustifiably, especially if you consider the physical as limited to what is observable. Aristotle himself branded many of what we call the Presocratics as φυσικόι implying that his own doctrines were not physical doctrines if by "physical" we mean similar to the doctrines of the φυσικόι. But for the critics of the Aristotelian tradition metaphysics had different and sometimes subtly different meanings. For Bacon, Hobbes and Descartes metaphysics was more or less scholastic philosophy of the Aristotelian sort without a great deal of detail as to what exactly that encompassed. And Descartes in particular practiced what many of us today would consider metaphysics. It is significant that Descartes borrowed arguments not from the Aristotelian tradition of scholasticism but rather from pre-thomistic academic philosophy in Europe. A nominalistic defintion of metaphysics seems to have been current among non-philosophical intellectuals in Darwin's time (p. 100, n. 29). Two meanings of "metaphysical" appear in the Tractatus. The first meaning (5.633 and 5.641) qualifies any propositions about the whole world (Cf. 1) including the boundaries that delimit the world from whatever is not the world (Not really clear, I know, but serviceable in the present context). The second (6.53) qualifies any propositions about the world (The whole world? Who knows.) that are not propositions of natural science. Dilthey (p. 111) defined metaphysics as a Weltanschauung that has been conceptualized, justified and universalized. That is, metaphysics is not a discipline or a science but just one world view among others. Moore considered metaphysical those statements that didn't make sense to the average bloke. The logical positivists considered metaphysical any propositions that could not be reduced to logical laws or sense data propositions. Heidegger argued that metaphysics is a specific doctrine or theory (My use of the word "theory" in this sentence differs somewhat from the sense Heidegger gave it when he spoke of and criticized theories or philosophy as theory creation). It is the broad theory that encompasses all the philosophical disciplines and the empirical sciences including physical theory and moral philosophy pretty much from its beginning in a resort town on the southern coast of present day Turkey.

For the purposes of the distinction I want to propose let me make my own meaning clear when I talk about metaphysics. I should like to call metaphysics or metaphysical any study of things that are inherently or by definition separated or divorced from or outside of our world, the real world. The real world has in the minds of many philosophers been identified with what we can experience such as is the direct result of the stimulation of our physical sense organs or indirectly inferred from experiences that are the direct result of the stimulation of our physical sense organs. The real world as I understand it is not coextensive with the world of experience and so what is outside the real world, viz. the metaphysical, is not coextensive with what may lie outside our experience. The world of experience is one take on the real world but the two need not be understood as the same. I shall not propose here an understanding, much less a definition of the real world to replace the notion of experience. That would be quite an undertaking. For present purposes let me leave the understanding of what the real world is as largely intuitive and my definition a rough working definition that does no more than permit of a distinction between things that are in and things that are not in it. Our friends the unicorns are not in the real world by one understanding of the real world, but they could be by another understanding. What is important is that some things can be in and others out, irrespective of what our criteria may be or what may "really" be the case. God strictly defined by scholastic theology and certain Buddhist schools is a metaphysical entity, i.e. thoroughly outside the real world. Animistic religions are largely non-metaphysical in this sense. The god of the Pentateuch, popular Xtianity and (as far as I can tell) Mohammedanism is ambiguous. Most of the time it is non-metaphysical, running about in our world like everybody else. But at other times it is completely outside the world or at least the world of experience. This ambiguity I consider to be a defect and not a virtue of these religions. Deism has its own ambiguity. The actual doctrine is largely metaphysical, i.e. the Deist god like the god of the Jansenists is totally caché. But when Deists begin to discuss the moral implications of their theological views they freely violate their own theology.

My definition of metaphysics clearly runs a parallel path to the one used by Kant. Merely accepting the definition or a kindred definition, however, does not commit us to endorsing any of Kant's specific theories, such as the possibility of synthetic a priori propositions, things in themselves or (though this is probably not what Kant meant) the purely subjective nature of the apparent world. Obviously if the real world (minus things in themselves) is not coextensive with the world of experience, then Kant's transcendental philosophy is no more than an empirical theory of limited scope (It would be a kind of conceptual framework for cognitive psychology). Nevertheless the positive doctrines in Kant's critical philosophy are 'pataphysical in nature (See below). They may just be wrong.

The purpose of my definition of metaphysics is to distinguish it from the entirely different pursuit of 'pataphysics to whose definition I now turn. The term "'pataphysics" was first used by Jarry (Gestes et opinions du Docteur Faustroll, esp Élements de Pataphysique Livre II - viii pp. 668 ff.). He suggests two definitions. According to the first 'pataphysics is beyond metaphysics in the same way that metaphysics is beyond physics. According to the second 'pataphysics is the study of epiphenomena where by "epiphenomena" he means phenomena that are incidental to primary phenomena, on the one hand, and the components of the exceptional universe, the universe supplementary to our own, on the other. I won't adopt either of Jarry's definitions although I use his term. In fact my understanding of 'pataphysics is nearly the opposite of what I understand Jarry had in mind (Is this just another example of a Golly-gee American domesticating a perfectly frivolous and outrageous French sally for the purposes of USAID PR just as Derrida was domesticated into desconstructive interior decorating? I sincerely doubt it. I have been called many things, but never an Aw Shucks kinda guy). But, truth to tell, understanding Jarry is one of the greater challenges in life. I may be going in the same direction as he, just choosing a different path. By "'pataphysics" I mean the study of the things in the real world in a general way not limited to any particular approach or theoretical framework or scientific discipline. One type of 'pataphysics may be the attempt to speak about all the objects in the world. That 'pataphysics in general need not be reduced to the type of 'pataphysics that attempts to speak about all the objects in the world, is important because the latter approach may involve us in paradox. Of course, the broader sense of 'pataphysics may get enmeshed in its own difficulties, for it may be impossible or impracticable to speak of the things in the world without espousing or assuming something that is or is very much like a theoretical framework (This I take it is the gist of much of what Derrida wrote about). Assuming that 'pataphysics does not succumb to these difficulties it may be equivalent to what Heidegger calls ontology and Meinong Gegenstandstheorie.

Heidegger, as far as I know, never really gives a detailed definition of what he means by metaphysics, except that he thinks that all philosophers from Plato to Nietzsche practiced it. On p. 235 of the lecture course Heraklit, however, he does indicate that the essence of metaphysics is determined by physics understood in what he considers to be the original Greek sense of the term “physics.” And on p. 252 he associates the establishment of metaphysics with the historical division of knowledge into logic, physics and ethics. On p. 254 he gives another statement of what he considers metaphysics to be: (1) the association of apprehending objects with apprehending transcendent (Übersinnliche) objects,  e.g. the Platonic Ideas, and (2) and apparently independently the (presumably Aristotelian) view that the being of entities is the most universal class of entities.

Metaphyics and 'pataphysics are different. This is important because confusion of the two leads to confusion on the part of those who are critical of traditional philosophy. For example, it is sufficient and indeed necessary for their purposes that empiricists and logical positivists dispose of metaphysics in my sense while leaving 'pataphysics a viable discipline. This is especially the case since, as has been often observed, empiricists themselves espouse or at least presuppose a 'pataphysical doctrine. So without my distinction empiricist philosophers would land in a state of perpetual self-contradiction. At a greater level of sophistication, Wittgenstein in the Tractatus thought he was criticizing or disqualifying all 'pataphysics. In fact he only succeeded, if succeed he did, in disqualifying the version of 'pataphysics that attempts to speak about all the things in the world, not the broader understanding of 'pataphysics as an attempt to speak in a general way about things in the world. The fraud Plantinga created a bizarre bouillabaisse of metaphysics and 'pataphysics disguised as modal logic. Whether, and this is the issue concerning which Leslie Stephen took issue with Darwin, categories really exist, on the other hand - assuming the members of the categories exist in our world - is clearly a 'pataphysical and not a metaphysical issue. Nominalism states one criterion for category existence, but obviously the mere study of 'pataphysics does not favor nominalism or any of its fuckosophical competitors.

In Individuals Strawson muses that metaphysics is “finding reasons…for what we believe on instinct.” (p. 24). Of course this is not a rigorous definition, nor is it meant to be. It is more a polemical catch phrase directed against the anti-metaphysical rhetoric of the logical positivists and the early Wittgenstein. It relates to the point that many have made to the effect that the abjurers of metaphysics were practicing what they rejected. Unfortunately it also lets Moore’s man on the Clapham omnibus back in to the philosophical temple through the rear door. Nevertheless Strawson’s view of metaphysics has a passing affinity with my view of ’pataphysics.

From a Kantian perspective sufficiently disabused of Kant's theory of knowledge and transcendental faculties, the concept of 'pataphysics may not appear to offer anything new. And that may be the case. However, by focusing on a concept of this non-transcendent world that doesn't rely on the distinct concept of human experience, 'pataphysics offers some advantages. For one thing it makes clear that the real world and the world we experience are not the same thing. (What about the world we can experience? For complex reasons I need to explain elsewhere I have no truck with modalities.) One benefit is that we can look into the ontological commitments of formal logic (If any there be) without having to refer to experience mental or otherwise. Another is that it may provide a better basis for assessing the challenge to what is presumed to be Western philosophy from the side of various Buddhist and Taoist schools.

Let me repeat that these are rough working definitions that need to be fleshed out (ROFL!) and clarified in fuckosophical practice. By way of (I hope) tantalizing conclusion let me say that I intend to structure things such that 'pataphysics is a discipline (a Lebensform? Perhaps) within fuckosophy just as metaphysics is generally considered to be a philosophical discipline. But that's getting ahead of myself.

Philological Note: The most common modern English (and French) sense of “epi-“ is exemplified by a word like “epiphenomenon” where it means “incidental to.” This sense constitutes one of the two meanings Jarry had in mind when he invented his term. There is, on the other hand, a use of ἐπι- that translates as “against” or “hostile to.” This use can extend to context of argument in the sense that to argue against something is to argue ἐπι- that thing. Aristotle occasionally uses verbs in this sense when he describes dialectical give and take (E.g. ἐπιχειρήματος in Topics II iv 111b 13). Nevertheless in Anal. Post. I x 77a 8-9 Aristotle uses πί in the sense of comprehending particulars and/or species (by a genus). This is probably a technical derivative of πί as “incidental to” or “over and above.” Shelley’s understanding of the prefix in Epipsychidion seems to be “about” or “concerning,” but trying to unravel Shelley may end up being as daunting as interpreting Jarry. Was Jarry playing on any of these meanings with his neologism of ’pataphysics, which he in fact glosses as epi ta meta physica. The received understanding of metaphysics is: a study that is beyond the study of physics. And the sense of ἐπί as “resting on or on top of” is consistent with Jarry’s explicit comment that ’pataphysics is to metaphysics as metaphysics is to physics. But, given the subordinate sense of ἐπι-, ’pataphysics could just as well be a discipline directed against metaphysics. Did Jarry mean to include this sense for his new science of ’pataphysics? There is some evidence in his texts that Jarry had at least a passing knowledge of ancient Greek (interestingly enough Patristic or koine Greek). And, as Baudelaire and Rimbaud attest, Latin composition was still very much a part of the French curriculum. If all this is true, then at least one way to understand ‘pataphysics  is as something directed against metaphysics.