philosophy is for everyone
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Toward a Radical Metaphysics
by Richard Schain
In all eras, metaphysical thought is the driving force of civilization. Today this force is largely unacknowledged. It is unacknowledged because the metaphysical will to development has no place in the paradigms of modern science. Yet all of the values, the aspirations, the ambitions and compulsions powering societies have their basis in unacknowledged metaphysical phenomena underlying human activity. The tendency to neglect the metaphysical aspect of human life has always existed in the history of mankind but no era has so depreciated and disparaged metaphysics as the current one. Metaphysics is relegated to the realm of scholarly study or traditional religions where it exists in a tethered, tradition-bound form of little use to those seeking to develop their position in the universe. Parenthetically, it should be noted that the need for metaphysics is widely utilized by profit-seeking individuals who take advantage of the yearning for something more than the limited materialist approach to life.
One does not have to look far to discover the reason for the absence of influence of metaphysics in contemporary life. It can be found in the dogmas of modern science that have pervaded all aspects of our culture. Materialism is the foundation of life, any ideas lacking a material basis are regarded as lacking reality. Scientific study of the brain has replaced metaphysical study of the mind. If a concept is not based on weights and measures it is thrown out of court. These statements are not mere assertions, they represent the intellectual foundations of "developed" societies in the world today. In these societies, the media have grown to vast proportions, molding the tastes and values of the society to a degree previously unimaginable. Finally, the computer has become the central feature of modern life illustrating the powers and reach of technologically-based science.
Today, any independent metaphysics is regarded as radical thinking, far removed from the mainstream of modern thought. However, in spite of the pervasive influence of the materialist dogmas, there is a need for metaphysics, to utilize a phrase from Ortega y Gasset (one of the last metaphysically minded philosophers of the twentieth century) that continually emerges in individuals with an independent mentality. Consciousness of the interior self is the principal factor developing the mind in a metaphysical direction. Scientific knowledge is of no value in this effort no matter how many studies of memory, language functions or neuronal activity enter into the scientific literature. As for Christianity, the principal source of metaphysics in the western world, one may say its main virtue is that at least its ideas and values are metaphysical ones, albeit suited more for those with a limited intellectual conscience.
Paraphrasing Nietzsche's remark that there was only one Christian and he died on the cross, we may say that Soren Kierkegaard was the first and last absolute existentialist to achieve public recognition, albeit occurring long after his death. Existentialism merely means that an individual is committed to his metaphysical nature, i.e. his own feelings, thoughts, values and desires, and gives them priority in his philosophical expression. Kierkegaard's repeated statement that "truth is subjectivity" contains the entire existential point of view and is far more meaningful than Sartre's more famous sophism "existence precedes essence". By 'truth' of course, Kierkegaard does not mean two plus two is four or any form of factual knowledge but rather the scriptural concept that Jesus must have had in mind when he said, "I am the truth." Subjectivity is put forth as the supreme value in human life. One has to remember that the word "subjective" has pejorative implications in our culture indicating the vast divide separating the scientific mind-set from the metaphysical one. There is no great difficulty in grasping existential thought once one accepts the reality of the metaphysical self and the necessity for human beings to cultivate this aspect of their being.
"Truth is subjectivity" means that the essential feature in the life of an individual is his valuation of his interior self, i.e. his subjective self. There is no greater tragedy than the failure of an individual to realize this value. What hinders this development, however, is the modern view that there is no such thing as the self, that there is only a complex arrangement of synapses and neurons in the brain, giving rise to the illusion of self. Without a belief in the metaphysical self, humans are at the mercy of their environment, which in the present age cares little for the development of an interior self. Only a radical metaphysics will save the individual from drowning in the swamps of the materialist dogmas of contemporary society. There is a pressing necessity for metaphysics for any individual in today's world who has respect for himself as an independent being.
If there is a common denominator that the materialist viewpoint shares with the metaphysical one, it is to be found in the "search for reality." There is general agreement that reality is what is to be valued and illusion is to be avoided. Henry David Thoreau remarked that the instrument the world is in need of is a "realometer" that will locate reality. All agree that the truth refers to what is real, falsity indicates the presence of the unreal. If Kierkegaard claimed that truth (reality) is subjectivity, the entire world of science and technology has replied "No, truth is objectivity". The real world is the objective world subject (sic) to measurement, analysis and control. Whatever one's values and attitudes, it is the object world that in the end is what counts.
Where then is the real world really to be found? This is the burning issue confronting every individual, young or old, male or female, white-skinned or colored-skinned, Jew or Christian, free-thinker or traditionalist. Every self-respecting individual wants to participate in the real world. How is one to know where it is to be found? In the absence of a realometer, the individual has to make up his own mind as to its characteristics. For the vast majority of people, this decision is an unconscious one, framed by the culture and traditions in which their minds developed.
In the "progressive" world of science, objectivity and material being represent the real world and the successful life consists in obtaining the maximum of materia and power available, utilizing the analytic objective techniques developed in western societies. Possession and utilization of materia represent participation in the real world. Tradition-bound societies have a different approach; for them, reality is to be found in one's connections with the members of one's family, race or religion, and the successful life consists of strengthening and solidifying these bonds. This is a metaphysical attitude toward life since it emphasizes social continuity rather than material acquisitions. There is nothing concrete about one's relationships with those to whom he is connected by genetics, tradition or belief. The metaphysical self, however, is not emphasized; rather it is one's connections to the extended group that are valued above all else.
It needs to be recognized, however, that the dichotomy between scientific and metaphysical is a false one because all values or conscious orientations inescapably have a metaphysical basis. No matter how objective or analytic one may be, his preferences in life are based on personality factors that do not have a material basis. One cannot demonstrate scientifically that the will to material success is a desirable or undesirable trait. One can analyze the consequences of this or that mental trait, one can perform correlations of outcomes with attitudes, one can theorize about the causes of human behavior ad infinitum, but in the end, the orientation of an individual is a subjective phenomenon, not to be explained by objective analysis. The distinction between various worldviews lies in the depths of the human mind. These distinctions are greatly affected by one's culture and upbringing, but ultimately turn out to hang upon the personal temperament and strength of mind of the individual. At all times and in all cultures there have been unregenerate materialists and unworldly metaphysicians. It should be remembered, however, that humans are deceptive creatures and materialists are prone to use metaphysics for very worldly purposes.
What I mean by radical metaphysics is a turning away from materialist or tradition-bound metaphysical values to an emphasis on the metaphysics of self; the one area where an individual can be certain his efforts will bear fruit. The metaphysical self is the domain of the individual, it is where his responsibility for development lies, it is the locale where he can be sure of his purposes. There is nothing really radical about concentrating on the development of self, it is the most natural and authentic arena for expression of one's energies. Kierkegaard's aphorism "Subjectivity is truth" can serve as the slogan for approach to the task of living, albeit minus his peculiar obsession with Christianity. The reality of the metaphysical self is a reality that transcends all others for the individual. Material things deteriorate and lose their value, communication is uncertain, love is the frailest of feelings, charity is usually misplaced. Social justice is almost always an illusion and societal power corrupts the individual. Only the realm of the metaphysical self offers a continuing source of fulfillment to the individual in search of the real world.
© Richard Schain 2002
Web site: Radical Metaphysics