How Things Are

On the recommendation of a kind commenter, I read an essay by Jonathan Schaffer called  “On What Grounds What” (in Metametaphysics volume). Turns out reading straight up analytic prose is fun and edifying. Skipping large sections in the middle where Schaffer argues against Quine’s view that metaphysics (and ontology in particular) deals with the existence of things, the essay basically draws attention to the fact that the questions of existence are trivial – the really interesting question is not whether something exists, but how.

I conclude that contemporary metaphysics, insofar as it has been inspired by the Quinean task, has confused itself with trivialities. Hofweber 2005 speaks of ‘‘a puzzle about ontology,’’ namely how it could be that (i) metaphysics seems to ask deep and difficult questions, when (ii) the existence questions seem shallow and trivial. This is only a puzzle on the Quinean assumption that metaphysics is asking existence questions. The deep questions about numbers, properties, and parts (inter alia) are not whether there are such things, but how. [361-62]

So against Quine and Carnap, Schaffer proposes to do a bit of Aristotelian ontology. Why Aristotle? Not because it is cool or because it is another name that, in the name of some philosophical hipsterism, one can put forward and differentiate oneself from the herd. It’s Aristotle because he deals with issue of grounding rather than issues of existence, i.e. with the issues that are truly ontological and not trivial. Schaffer (easily) shows that most of the ontological debates aren’t about existence, but about what is more fundamental (prior, grounding, and so on) in existence, i.e. about the ordering of existing things.

I thus submit that a meta-metaphysics that would make sense of these central questions must make sense of claims of grounding. These central metaphysical questions are not questions about whether entities exist, but only about how they do. [363]

Basically Quine (and all other attempts at “flatness”) errs because his method presupposes ordering structure. The discussion then proceeds in an oddly non-continental way by asking questions not about who said what about what, but what sort of ontology would be better, flat or ordered. Better as a theory, not better for what.

Part of what makes a theory best (even by Quine’s own lights) is that it is a theory of what is fundamental (the ‘‘ultimate structure of reality’’). [367]

Some domains are metaphysically privileged. [371]

To conclude: metaphysics as I understand it is about what grounds what. It is about the structure of the world. It is about what is fundamental, and what derives from it. [379]

That last quote is the final sentence of the essay. So there is fundamental and there is derivative. I’m skipping of course the majority of the actual arguments. This is interesting on several levels, but mainly on the level of the counter-intuitive nature of “flat ontology” – it isn’t just that it cannot be consistently flat, but that the flatness, if it was possible, would contribute little to one’s metaphysical stance, doesn’t it?

And last and probably least: obviously privileging something over something is a form of ordering and therefore a form of “flatness” – but isn’t also the claim to explicitly not privilege something?



4 thoughts on “How Things Are

  1. Is Metametaphysics a new sub genre of epistemology? Or an old one? I’ll be getting this book! Aristotle, Kant and Quine are the most consistently rewarding thinkers that I have read, so this sounds right up my alley. Thanks for this post.

    • I’m not sure, I best read the introduction to the volume to see what it’s all about. In Schaffer’s piece, metametaphysics is simply a discussion of what metaphysics must be about (versus what it is about nowish)…

  2. I haven’t read this article, but from what you say here, I’m not sure about the distinction between “whether” and “how”, or at least not this one.

    As you tell it, Schaffer wants us to say that when we wonder whether A “grounds” B, we take the _existence_ of A and B for granted. Presumably this is because otherwise the question wouldn’t even come up – how could something participate in a “grounding” relation, as either grounder or groundee, if it doesn’t even exist? What we want to know is whether or not A does indeed ground B, not whether they exist.

    But in practice I don’t see that much difference between this and normal metaphysics. Normal metaphysics is chock full of arguments that A grounds B, with conclusions that A really does ground B. These claims are often used as premises for further claims, such that since A grounds B, then B doesn’t *really* exist: A is more fundamental and thus more full of being or whatever. And indeed, if every time I talk about B you chime in with “remember though, the nature of B is determined by the grounding it receives from A” then it will surely be – has been – a perennial temptation to go on to deny real or full or proper existence to B. If Schaffer wants us not to do that, then fine, but it doesn’t change anything about the first part (the grounding part).

    Or another case: the question of whether A grounds B is often equated from the beginning with whether *A* exists: we know that B exists (there it is right there) and the question is whether there’s anything more fundamental grounding it, such as A. If yes, then A exists; if not, not (as Russell likes to say). But if you’ve gotten me to admit at the beginning that there exists some transcendent/transcendental A whose existence is just given, then you’re 3/4 of the way toward your conclusion that A “grounds” B — and why should I make it easy for you like that? It’s on you to show me that there’s *something* which “grounds” B, and then if you want to go on to argue that that thing is A, then go ahead.

    In any case I certainly agree that what the proponent of metaphysics must do is to “make sense of claims of grounding” — that is, in some non-trivial way that we need “metaphysics” to show us. And maybe they will yet succeed! Still, it doesn’t look to me that exchanging “whether” for “how” makes a whole lot of difference for that task. But maybe I am missing something?

  3. Dave, I skipped large sections where Schaffer addresses some of the potential objections. There is a sense in which Schaffer wanted to combat the dominant tradition of metaphysics with which I am not very familiar (or not as familiar as, say, with the usual continental stuff) – so it was mostly very informative but I didn’t feel I could chime in and say anything intelligent. However, I did enjoy the whole discussion and I want more. From my narrow continentalist point of view, the point seemed to be that, as I think you are also suggesting, “whether” and “how” are indeed connected and therefore any attempt as separating them fails. So lists of things isn’t metaphysics, it’s a parlor game. Somethings are more fundamental than others, or at least ontology must make such claims – “flat ontology” is then a kind of oxymoron…

    I kind of want to read more about this now – can you recommend something?

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