Objection #2: Middle Way theory is as metaphysical as the views it is criticising

The issue particularly raised by this objection is that of the meaning of the term "metaphysical". I plead guilty to using the term in a sense which may not be accepted by all. However, I think I am justified in adopting a particular aspect of its previous use for my purposes, as no use of language (especially philosophical use of language) is ever completely neutral in relation to what went before. We must be prepared to adopt vocabulary according to need. However, complete discontinuity from what went before might also be more confusing than helpful. There is some continuity with previous use in the way I use the term "metaphysical", even if that use is different from the use of those who are likely to raise this objection.

When first used by Aristotle, the term "metaphysics" simply meant beyond physics. However, as Aristotle believed the physical world was knowable, the distinction he was making might be interpreted as that between the observable and the unobservable. It was the logical positivists of the early twentieth century, though, who seem to have first started using "metaphysical" in a pejorative sense, to refer to claims which were beyond observation and thus, in their terms, beyond meaning. I have adopted this usage because I feel that the logical positivists were onto something, even though there is much else that I disagree with in logical positivism (see objection number 9). It is the logical positivists (inspired by Hume before them) who invented the term "critical metaphysics", which I also use to describe the sort of metaphysics which the Middle Way theory involves.

Critical metaphysics is anti-metaphysical metaphysics, entering into metaphysical arguments in order to show their lack of justification. It is a rearguard action, but nevertheless a necessary one if one is to use argument to show the unhelpfulness of metaphysics. Argument by itself will never be enough, especially if it is separated from experience, but if we are to disengage from metaphysics (which we need to do, basically, in order to perceive and discover the nature of moral goodness), then it needs to be argued against. Simply rejecting metaphysics without argument, or ignoring it, is likely to have the effect of strengthening it, because it will involve insufficient recognition of present conditions and an illusory discontinuous leap away from them (see thesis section 4.h.i on Kierkegaard's leap and why it does not work).

Critical metaphysics can actually be respectful of the human experiences which have been given metaphysical expression, and can attempt to disentangle what is valuable in those experiences from the unhelpful metaphysics. This is particularly the case with religion, which is often expressed in a metaphysical form but nevertheless contains much that is valuable. Critical metaphysics thus also has a positive function in identifying the real value of ideas such as God.

In one sense, then, Middle Way theory is indeed metaphysical, but in another it is not. The danger involved in criticising "metaphysics" is obviously one of slipping into denial rather than agnosticism, of being metaphysical in a similar sense to the sense that atheists can be religious. Middle Way theory can indeed start to become metaphysical the moment it slips off the delicate agnostic balance it needs to hold, and ceases to be rigorously even-handed in its treatment of positive and negative forms of metaphysics. I would value the help of others in identifying any points in my writings where I have slipped from that balance myself. However, when Middle Way theory really is Middle Way theory, by definition it is not metaphysical in the terms I have used for metaphysics: namely beyond potential verification or falsification through experience (even of an indirect or remote kind), dogmatic, and rejecting opposed metaphysical beliefs without justification.

As for those who continue to use "metaphysics" in a sense incompatible with this, as in Strawson's "descriptive metaphysics" or Heidegger's use of term "ontology" (a term with a very similar sense to metaphysics), I think there are strong arguments as to why this is unhelpful. If one uses "metaphysics" to mean "analysis of concepts", for example, one simply loses an available word for claims beyond experience, and reduplicates the word "analysis", which can serve that task perfectly well. I understand that there are university courses in "metaphysics" today that are, in fact, mainly about the analysis of basic concepts as we understand them. Such muddying of the water may well have the effect of making it harder for their students to see any problem with metaphysics, and thus lead them to be even more puzzled about the nature of ethics than they were before.

Further discussion relating to this objection

Psychological basis and philosophical expression from thesis

Thesis section on analytic philosophy

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