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The Highest Principles? The Death and Rise of ‘First Philosophy’

An Introduction to Metaphysics

Published onAug 24, 2021
The Highest Principles? The Death and Rise of ‘First Philosophy’

1 • Introduction

Philosophers never stop asking questions. These questions often concern very fundamental issues: How can we make a difference between right and wrong? What can we know about the world we live in? What is knowledge? What is truth? As this volume demonstrates, philosophy has many subdisciplines each of which concerns itself with some of these questions. Ethics addresses issues of right and wrong, epistemology concerns the nature of knowledge, anthropology is about the nature of man, etc. Is philosophy therefore an aggregate or even a collection of different disciplines rather than a unified whole? Some philosophers contend that it is in fact a coherent whole because the various branches of philosophy all draw upon and are rooted in the most basic and fundamental of all philosophical disciplines, namely metaphysics. After all, it is metaphysics that inquires after the principles of reality as such: What is a being? Is reality rationally or systematically ordered? What would be the founding principle of this or any order? The Greek philosopher Aristotle calls this foundation ‘first philosophy’. When his lectures were collected, the lectures on ‘first philosophy’ were grouped after the lectures on physics and therefore they were called metaphysics [ta meta ta physika], which literally means ‘the [work] after physics’. ‘Metaphysics’ can also be translated as ‘beyond physics’, referring to the most general characteristics of reality (e.g., what is a being?) that transcend the qualities of natural things as they are researched in physics (e.g. what is the speed of sound?). In Aristotle’s view, asking such fundamental questions is essential. Moreover, people have a natural capacity to inquire knowledge and a desire to know, as Aristotle signifies in the opening of his text: “All men by nature desire to know” (Aristotle, 399 B.C.E./1984, II 1552).

Through the ages, metaphysics was indeed seen as the ‘first philosophy’, as the basis and foundation of all other thoughts and reflections. From the nineteenth century onwards, however, it has been regarded more and more as a branch of philosophy, the reliability of which needed to be critically questioned (Kant, 1781/1999) or as a branch of philosophy with unanswerable questions that would be better left behind (Nietzsche). Some philosophers have even straightforwardly called metaphysics impossible or useless (Dilthey, 1989; Carnap, 2003). Philosophers of the so-called Vienna Circle approached it with downright hostility. But the questions about the world as a whole and about life as such return again and again. Metaphysics cannot be dismissed so easily. Is there still a place for metaphysics in contemporary philosophy? And if so, what would it look like? To address these questions, I shall first sketch some prominent features of the metaphysical tradition as it was developed in ancient Greek philosophy (§ 2). The philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, as well as of other ancient Greek thinkers continued to inspire philosophers in later times, even though critical views were also voiced at crucial moments in time.

A major rupture emerged in the 19th and 20th century, and that is the focus of this chapter. What was considered to be traditional metaphysical thinking was profoundly criticized by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (§ 3). We shall see that Martin Heidegger subsequently tried to depart from traditional metaphysics by developing an alternative (§ 4 and § 5). Many philosophers have followed Heidegger in this move. Some of them believe however that Heidegger was still overly influenced by a metaphysical style of thinking. As a result, several critics of metaphysics ‘accuse’ each other of ‘still being too metaphysical’ (§ 6). In conclusion, it will be argued that much of the contemporary critique of metaphysics can be seen as a sort of metaphysics in itself, which makes metaphysics today a somewhat hyper-critical and self-undermining discipline, which has been declared dead many times and yet rises again each time (§ 7).

2 • Greek metaphysics

From its very start philosophy has been looking for a stable and lasting understanding of being. It should come as no surprise, then, that philosophers were trying to find that which is of lasting value in reality. What is ‘really’ true is supposed not to be true for just a while, but rather forever. In this way, many Greek philosophers argue that rational or scientific knowledge concerns that which always stays the same and does not change. Continuity and sameness are therefore valued higher than change and variation, and likewise identity is valued higher than difference.

Given this focus, real knowledge is thought to be about reality ‘in general’. It is about the invariable essences that underlie or shape our everyday experiences rather than about the variations in and changes of those experiences themselves in our daily lives. We can see many individual horses but scientific knowledge is about horses in general, that is, it is about the essential features that make a horse ‘horse.’ All individual, concrete horses share this general, abstract essence of ‘being a horse’. In general, essences like ‘horse-ness’ are more fundamental than individual or singular things that actually exist like this specific horse in front of me.

The many horses that exist, that are born, live and pass away, are all captured by thought and knowledge in the one concept ‘horse’, which remains the same. Moreover, ‘first philosophy’ is not about all the different essences considered in isolation from each other, but it examines how they all hang together. Reality is not chaotic, so it is assumed, but rather reality is a coherent unity, and an examination of this unity is more fundamental than a study of the plurality of things. In short, in metaphysics we can discern the primacy of identity and stability over difference and movement, of the general over the singular, and of unity over plurality. The most important question then will be: what are the main characteristics of this unity, that is, of reality as a whole? Given this object of investigation, the next question is how it is to be examined. Here the Greek philosophers contend that it is reason that can provide us with fundamental insights. They expect to find the principles of reality that underlie our experiences by employing rational reflection. This focus on reason establishes another ‘primacy’ in Greek philosophy: the primacy of reason over the senses. For the senses give us knowledge of specific things, while reason provides us with insight in essences. The assumption thereby is that reality itself is rationally ordered. Since reflection is a rational activity, this position can be described in the words of the early Greek philosopher Parmenides: “Thinking and being are the same” (Kirk et al., 1983, 246n2).

The identification of reason and reality has had a profound influence in the history of philosophy, and is known as the ‘identity-thesis’. One of the most famous formulations of it comes from the German philosopher G.E. Leibniz: nihil est sine ratione, nothing is without reason, or: nothing is without ground. Leibniz called this the ‘principle of sufficient reason’, and later philosophers have taken it to imply that in principle everything can be understood and explained by rational reflection and research. (Leibniz, 1989, 227) All of these primacies can be found in combination in the thought of one of the most important and influential philosophers ever, Plato. According to his famous theory of Ideas, real knowledge is not about singular things like, e.g., horses, but about the general form or ‘Idea’ of the horse. With our senses we may gather knowledge of several individual horses, but lasting knowledge can only be attained by rational reflection, by reason. Reason focuses on what all horses share, i.e. ‘horse-ness’ or the Idea of the ‘horse.’ According to Plato, a horse is a horse because it ‘participates’ in the Idea or the essence ‘horse’. Behind the everyday world that we can see, hear, or touch, and that can offer us only temporary or even illusionary knowledge, there is a world of essences, of Ideas, that we can come to know by rational insight. This is illustrated by his famous allegory of the cave (Plato, Republic, 514a-521b).

Though indebted to Plato, his pupil Aristotle is more interested in the reality as we observe it. In what was later called his Metaphysics, Aristotle discusses two questions: What are the principal qualities of a being? And, what is the highest being, that is, what is the principle that guides and arranges all other beings? He criticized Plato’s assertion that only the Ideas are truly real. Instead, Aristotle argues that concrete sensible things are real. They are combinations of form (the abstract essence of something, what stays the same) and matter (the concrete material from which something is made, what changes over time), that develop towards their goal. The form ‘horsehood’ is what is essential to a horse, what makes this horse a horse, and ensures its identity over time: Lady the filly is the same horse (i.e. has the same form) as Lady the old mare, even if its matter changes (Lady’s hair, skin and other cells will have changed over time). As one already said in Antiquity, Aristotle ‘brought down’ the Platonic forms to earth and located them in the things themselves. Since reality is still seen as forming a unity, all movements ultimately find their last goal in an Unmoved Mover, the highest being, which is a form of pure contemplation.

Plato’s and Aristotle’s views constitute two major metaphysical systems of ancient philosophy. In the long history of philosophy that followed, many metaphysical systems were proposed in the search for the ultimate foundation of reality: God, Subject, Consciousness, Spirit, History, etc.

But metaphysics has also always had its fair share of critics. The sceptic Pyrrho, for instance, denied the possibility of reliable knowledge and thought we should ‘suspend’ our judgments, rejecting not only metaphysical claims but any kind of dogmatic claim to knowledge. The history of metaphysics also includes philosophers who criticize the possibility of obtaining knowledge of the basic or ultimate structure of reality or who consider the whole enterprise as building castles in the air. So metaphysics not only comprises the study of some fundamental questions that gave rise to famous philosophical systems and the study of these systems themselves, but also the discourses of their critique. Without discussing the long history of metaphysics, we will now turn to this critique in more recent times.

3 • Radical critique of metaphysics:
Friedrich Nietzsche

A staunch critic of the metaphysical tradition is Friedrich Nietzsche, who lived in the second half of the 19th century. In his view, metaphysics is nothing but the misleading invention of a Hinterwelt, a world of ‘Ideas’ beyond the world as we know it. But, according to Nietzsche, such a ‘world beyond’ or ‘world behind’ is simply a misunderstanding: it is a product of the philosopher’s imagination. These metaphysicians are seduced by language. Because we talk about horses as belonging to one kind, the suggestion arises that there ‘is’ something like the horse in general. There is, however, no reason at all to think that such an idea of horse contains an objective identity of all horses on some higher level, nor an objective validity over all horses (Nietzsche, 1886/2002, 20).

Similarly, Nietzsche criticizes the whole western philosophical tradition. In his eyes, not only metaphysics, but also Christianity and all traditional moral values are fundamentally mistaken – a view summarized in his adage “God is dead.” (Nietzsche, 1882/2001, 119-120) Being more radical than his skeptical predecessors, he questions the principle of reason itself. According to Nietzsche, there is no solid rational order in reality, there only is the dynamic and ever-changing world that we know through our senses. Rather than trying to refute the rational argumentation for different metaphysical worldviews, Nietzsche sets out to describe where these views come from and how they could have developed. He does not just argue against metaphysics and Christianity as such, he explains their origins through a ‘genealogical method’ that unearths their historical roots (Nietzsche, 1887/2006).

For Nietzsche, not only metaphysics but all of our knowledge is finite and historically embedded and can therefore never arrive at eternal truths. Human knowledge can only be developed from cultural and historical perspectives. It is impossible to transcend such a perspective and view reality from a God’s eye view. “There are only interpretations,” Nietzsche concisely stipulates (Nietzsche, 1886/2002, 139). This means there can be no beliefs about which we can be absolutely sure and no all-embracing or all-determining metaphysical principles that can be known. In Nietzsche’s own view, the Hinterwelt is an illusion and the world is nothing but a chaos of competing forces that all have a ‘will to power.’ The result of this radical criticism is often seen as a form of nihilism, the idea that there are no intrinsic values. Nietzsche, however, has his own approach to nihilism. In his view, the alleged truths of metaphysics, as well as the norms and values of Christianity and conventional morality were all part of the imagined Hinterwelt. All efforts to reach and understand this ‘world behind’ have resulted in the conclusion that the whole idea was an illusion from the start. It turned out to be worthless in itself and inevitably resulted in nihilism (Nietzsche, 1967). The conclusion that there is no ‘real world behind,’ that there are no ultimate foundations or principles, is labeled by Nietzsche as ‘negative nihilism.’ His plea instead is for a ‘positive nihilism,’ one in which individuals can trust their own power and insights, being also willing to revalue all traditional values in order to create their own values. This includes embracing even the fatal misfortunes that inevitably will happen to us. Nietzsche thus tries to replace the perspectives of truth versus untruth, and good versus bad with a ‘transvaluation of all values’ (Nietzsche, 1918, 182). He criticizes all traditional, rationalistic, and Christian values as being depressing and unhealthy, claiming that it is healthier to develop your own strength and your own values.

In short, Nietzsche radically rejects all characteristics of traditional Metaphysics: the primacy of generality, unity and identity over singularity, plurality and difference, as well as the identity thesis and the principle of reason. This criticism has been very influential. But did it really mean the end of Metaphysics?

4 • Overcoming metaphysics:
Martin Meidegger (I)

In reaction to this vigorous attack on the metaphysical tradition, we can see a parting of two ways in twentieth century philosophy. The first of these two, ‘analytical philosophy’, starts with the call to restrict philosophy to explaining and analyzing meaningful statements made in science and philosophy. Traditional metaphysical claims were considered to be literally meaning-less: they could not be verified or falsified, unlike (most) scientific statements, and hence no meaning could be attached to them. Among philosophers known as the logical positivists (the Vienna Circle and its followers), metaphysics had a bad reputation. For much of the twentieth century analytical philosophers shared this negative view of traditional metaphysics, and there was hardly any contact between them and the second current of thought, ‘continental philosophy’. Only in more recent times, a fruitful interaction between analytical and continental philosophers has begun to emerge, even though differences in style and content remain. In addition, metaphysical questions have recently received their own treatment again from analytical philosophers.

Whereas analytical philosophers often simply ignored traditional metaphysics, continental philosophers (broadly speaking, those philosophers working in Germany and France) criticized it by seriously engaging with it. They asked that attention be paid to that which appears to escape or exceed human reason, rational reflection, and conceptual thinking. This critique of metaphysics is certainly not less radical, but focuses on different aspects of the metaphysical tradition. One of the most influential voices in this debate is Martin Heidegger, a twentieth century German philosopher, who tried to overcome traditional metaphysics by developing an alternative for it.

Heidegger starts with the question of Being, which for him is the most fundamental question in philosophy. What does it mean that things ‘are’, that there is a world, that we exist? It is not so easy, however, to ask the question of Being in a proper way. For the question ‘what is Being?’ in itself already uses the word ‘is,’ a conjugation of the verb to be, and therefore already presupposes a view of Being, one that should be questioned instead of implicitly affirmed. Hence, ‘Being’ cannot simply be defined in a phrase like “Being is...”. (Heidegger, 1927/1962, 21-64) According to Heidegger, from the very beginning of philosophy, Being has been misunderstood. Despite a promising start by the pre-Socratics, philosophers never thoroughly realized the difference between Being and beings. Beings, regardless whether they are things like cars and buildings or occurrences like traffic or art performances, have one ‘thing’ in common: they ‘are.’ But what this ‘are’ means cannot itself be understood as a being, as existing as a thing or occurrence. The fact that beings exist, and the way they exist, ‘is’ not itself a being. In English, this is usually expressed as the Being (Sein) of beings (Seiendes), or the difference between Being and a being. Heidegger calls this difference between Being and beings the ‘ontological difference’.

In Heidegger’s view a major mistake was made in the beginning of philosophy by confusing Being and beings. From the start, the basic principles of reality were thought of as beings. Aristotle’s metaphysics indicates how this manner of thinking results in two main questions: What are the main characteristics of a being? and, What is the highest being? This last question necessarily arose as soon as one started to think in terms of beings, because it was thought that the orderly arrangement of beings can be understood only on the basis of a principle, that is, the most fundamental being. Heidegger labels this way of thinking as ‘onto-theology’, taking the two metaphysical topics of Aristotle together as ontology and theology (Heidegger 2002a). The traditional focus on beings sadly implied the “forgetfulness of Being” (Heidegger, 1927/1962, 21-35).

But how, then, can we understand this ‘Being’, if it is not a being or thing? This is not an easy question to answer. In all his reflections, Heidegger never provides a clear and unequivocal description of Being. A hint in the right direction comes from language: the word ‘Being’ should first of all be understood as a verb and not as a noun. The reality we live in, is dynamic and versatile, always in movement and change. Despite the constancy and order that we also see around us, it is too dynamic to be fixated in solid concepts. What is, happens, and can only partially be understood. In developing knowledge of the world around us, we must fix and determine what actually is in motion all the time.

In line with Nietzsche, Heidegger states that all knowledge, including all of experience, is a matter of interpretation. It is all dependent on specific practical and cultural perspectives, by which some elements of what we can know may appear, whilst others remain concealed. We can consider a horse to be large, expensive, beautiful, our possession, powerful, healthy, fast, working hard, elegant, black, useful for an escape or representative for its race, but we cannot have all these experiences at the same time. Given that things only appear to us under these conditions, Heidegger does not defend relativism, because that still presupposes the possibility to compare perspectives from a God’s eye view. He claims that the dilemma between either objective knowledge that would be absolutely certain, or subjective relativism, needs to be overcome. We can have reliable knowledge, but it is always dependent on specific perspectives and circumstances.

In every appearance of beings some features remain concealed. Being only manifests itself implicitly in the beings that appear to us and hence remains partly concealed itself. The same applies to the dynamic nature of Being, which cannot be grasped in the fixed and stable concepts that we employ. Given these limitations, Heidegger searches for a new understanding of Being. It needs to be thought as a dynamic occurrence of beings, not as a being that would manifest itself as a firm foundation or a guiding principle.

The entire history of philosophy, however, has been dominated, at least in Heidegger’s view, by the metaphysical effort to find a highest principle that is the source, foundation or goal of everything. Not only Plato’s Ideas, Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover and the Christian God, but even Nietzsche’s Will to Power, are all manifestations of this metaphysical way of thinking. These highest principles all lay the basis for an assembling of reality that is ordered by hierarchical oppositions like necessary and contingent, body and soul, high and low, reason and nature, subject and object, and so on. Therefore, in Heidegger’s view, metaphysics itself is also a manner of thinking that tries to grasp and control reality by forcing it into hierarchically organized systems.

In this respect, Heidegger regards Nietzsche’s philosophy and the modern era of technology as the last phases of a metaphysical tradition that has always focused on beings as things that can be defined, explained, calculated, and controlled. Coming at the end of this metaphysical tradition, Heidegger believes that we need to overcome it and look for a new beginning.

He calls this project the Destruktion of the history of ontology. This should not be translated literally as ‘destruction’, but as dismantling. This re-interpretation of the historical metaphysical systems is aimed at laying bare their inner contradictions and blind spots. Such a dismantling is meant to pave the way for a new style of thought (Heidegger, 1927/1962, 41-49). Heidegger even speaks of ‘the end of philosophy and the task of thinking’, suggesting that philosophy needs to be replaced by an entire new manner of thinking (Heidegger 2002b).

5 • A new beginning for philosophy:
Martin Heidegger (II)

In several ways Heidegger searches for a new beginning of philosophy. He interprets the fragments of the earliest Greek philosophers such as Anaximander and Parmenides, in search of traces of another non-metaphysical thought. In need of a new language or a re-invention of existing language, he also tries to find inspiration in poetry, mainly in the work of the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin. The philosophical terminology is too contaminated by what he calls “the language of metaphysics.” It contains terms like ‘subject,’ ‘essence’ and other words that could not but lead the thinker to assume or defend a fixed and allegedly stable system of thought. However, Heidegger also states that overcoming metaphysics is an endless task, because one inevitably falls back to the language of metaphysics. Probably, the ‘seduction of language,’ which was an expression of Nietzsche, is inevitable.

In contrast to the metaphysical tradition that he seeks to overcome, Heidegger’s thinking shows a primacy of difference over identity, of the singular over generality, and of plurality over unity. Heidegger also explicitly distances himself from the principle of reason. He re-interprets this principle – nihil est sine ratione, Nichts ist ohne Grund, nothing is without sufficient reason – in such a way that in the end it means something like the opposite. Through “ ‘Nothing’ is: without ground” Heidegger arrives at: “Nothing: the abyss.” (Heidegger, 1957/1991). Thus, according to Heidegger, instead of a metaphysical first principle, the abyss of a “nothingness” can be found behind all things. However, he also tries to avoid Nietzsche’s nihilism. Rational reflection can give us helpful insights in reality but it cannot give us absolutely certain knowledge or a survey of the world as a whole. Hence, without leaving reason behind, Heidegger disagrees with the metaphysical presupposition that reality can in principle be completely comprehended by rational reflection.

Heidegger’s philosophy clearly embodies a radical critique of the metaphysical tradition. His new alternative way of thinking, however, remains an endless effort of searching and questioning. The overcoming of metaphysics can never really succeed; it can only continue as an infinite task. Moreover, it is not only a task, but also an unclear destiny. Heidegger’s later thought emphasizes that human thinking is profoundly guided by long term developments that it cannot survey or choose. Our thoughts are not created by ourselves, but mainly come to us from the ‘history of Being’. Within this history of thought, the era of metaphysics seems to come to an end and philosophy is in need of a new beginning, but it is not really in our power to develop a new way of thinking.

In the end, therefore, it is not clear whether and to what extent metaphysics has actually ended or whether it has been overcome. Did metaphysics really come to an end? Or was Heidegger’s own thought still marked by metaphysical traits? Is it ever possible for philosophy to engage in systematic reflection that is not reminiscent of the metaphysical effort to reach a solid foundation or principle? Philosophers who have followed in Heidegger’s footsteps have given different answers to these questions.

6 • After metaphysics or continuing metaphysics?

Despite Heidegger’s efforts to overcome metaphysics, the twentieth-century French philosopher Jacques Derrida claims to trace metaphysical traits in Heidegger’s own work. On the one hand, and in line with Heidegger, Derrida criticizes metaphysics insofar as it aims to construct ordered views of reality on the basis of a foundation, source, or goal. He deconstructs or dismantles these constructions by showing how they, with their alleged foundations, are always embedded in social and linguistic networks of references that are, by their very nature, unstable. At the same time, Derrida regards such constructions as unifying systems that reduce all differences and ‘otherness’ to the same general concepts, within hierarchical oppositions (Derrida, 1967/1976).

On the other hand, Derrida also states that this metaphysical way of thinking is inevitable. We cannot but think with a general vocabulary that reduces differences to identities. The language of metaphysics is therefore unavoidable. Even the conception of and clear distinction between two periods and two styles of thought – metaphysics and beyond metaphysics – would in itself be a clear opposition and thus a sign of metaphysical thinking (Derrida, 1988; 1979, 117- 119).

In this view, philosophical and scientific research cannot but result in constructions of knowledge that may be practical and helpful, but that also need to be dismantled in order to open up new and unexpected perspectives. Derrida tends to see in every construction the contours of a metaphysical system, and such a system needs to be deconstructed. What seems to be left, then, for philosophy, is an endless dismantling of inevitable metaphysical constructions.

Political or juridical reforms, for instance, need to aim at justice, but because no one can give a final definition of justice, it infinitely remains open to improvement. To give another example: Derrida criticizes the attempts to draw a fundamental distinction between human beings and ‘animals,’ because such an attempt takes many different animals together as categorized under the same ‘essence,’ namely, being a non-human animal.

Following another aspect of Heidegger’s inheritance, the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer presents a different elaboration of Heidegger’s notion of Destruktion. He does not aim to deconstruct an inevitable metaphysics, but tries to lead strict philosophical terminology back to its origins in living dialogue, where the meaning of language is never entirely fixed. According to Gadamer, it is possible to think without a language of metaphysics. Philosophical reflection can do without an ultimate principle or foundation. The philosophies of difference that keep on fighting against the metaphysical tradition, in fact prolong it in a negative way (Gadamer, 2007). In a similar fashion, another German philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, has argued for a post-metaphysical philosophy that stops asking for ultimate principles (Habermas, 1992).

The apparent paradox of this discussion is that these French and German philosophers accuse each other of still being too metaphysical, as if this would be a crime or a disease. In fact, they use the term ‘metaphysics’ with different meanings. According to Derrida, thinking with clear concepts and distinctions always uses a metaphysical style and language, but this language, in spite of its appearance, is in itself unstable and refers to something unstable, which is the task of the philosopher to disclose. In addition, this metaphysical language is problematic, because it reduces unique otherness to general frameworks, which are based on absolute principles as Ideas, God, etc. Metaphysics is an inevitable but problematic feature of philosophy that has to be dismantled again and again.

According to Gadamer and Habermas, such criticism, however, is still based on the misleading presupposition that philosophy cannot but think in terms of pure distinctions, based on absolute principles, which then need to be undermined and dismantled. Not every distinction between, for instance, justice and injustice, or humans and other animals, should be reduced to alleged general metaphysical systems. In their view, only the explicit search for absolute principles should be called ‘metaphysics’. Philosophical reflections that reveal awareness of their historical and cultural contexts can avoid such broad questions and claims.

From Derrida’s perspective, however, such more modest reflections can only be offered within a general framework that necessarily builds on metaphysical presuppositions. Therefore, metaphysical questions are unavoidable after all. According to Gadamer, this may be true but it does not make it necessary to explicitly discuss these questions on a metaphysical level. In Gadamer’s view, Derrida’s approach of criticizing and dismantling systems of thought only works because it presupposes such systems of thought in the first place, as if philosophy always reduces multiplicity and difference to universal systems; this presupposition, Gadamer says, we don’t need to accept.

On closer inspection, both approaches – that of Derrida on the one hand, and Gadamer and Habermas on the other – focus on different aspects of the metaphysical tradition. One may see metaphysics as the domain of the big questions and all-surveying systems or as reductions of unique and dynamic life to fixed frameworks of conceptual constructions with hierarchical oppositions, for instance, the reduction of all non-human living creatures to ‘animals,’ or implicitly using the concept and features of ‘man’ as a model for ‘human.’ According to Derrida these two sides of metaphysics are in fact always related. In the eyes of Gadamer and Habermas, making a conceptual distinction or mutual understanding is not the same as a reduction of otherness to general rational concepts, and it also does not necessarily include large-scale conceptual systems of reality as a whole. Only the last aspect would be labeled as ‘metaphysics’ by Gadamer and Habermas. Nevertheless, their views on language and knowledge, including their conditions and possibilities, may be regarded as points of view on a metaphysical level because they contain presuppositions about the limits and possibilities of human knowledge as such.

7 • Conclusion (to be continued)

Through the ages, metaphysics has often been regarded as the most fundamental domain of philosophy, which inquires after the ultimate or foundational principles of reality. At the same time it has always attracted a lot of criticism both in Antiquity and in later periods. From the nineteenth century onwards, metaphysics began to be criticized so vehemently that it was often declared dead. The world as a whole was considered too large to be surveyed and comprehended by human reflection, which is inevitably conditioned by its own perspectives. In addition, life and the world were seen as too vivid, unique, and inconstant to be grasped by a set of basic principles.

But pleas for a complete abandonment of metaphysics were not successful, because the metaphysical questions about the unity and main characteristics of reality, as well as about the most basic presuppositions of other disciplines, returned again and again. Martin Heidegger attempted to develop an entirely new style of thinking, different from the metaphysical tradition, which he called a new ‘thinking of Being.’ But it appeared to be very difficult to throw away the ‘language of metaphysics’ with its general concepts, basic principles, and fixed terminology. Such efforts to replace metaphysics have turned out to be more like a renewal of metaphysics. The many critiques of metaphysics can be considered as metaphysical reflections in a new manner, continuing metaphysics by criticizing it.

Today many philosophers prefer to avoid these kinds of big questions, are not interested in such questions, or think they don’t make sense. They study moral questions, the differences between human beings and other species, the concept of truth, knowledge, and all the other themes addressed in this handbook. Indeed, as we already noticed, such a turn to and specialization in different subdomains is an important feature of contemporary philosophy and of the sciences in general. Yet insofar as those different endeavors endure, we still assume that there is a criterion of right and wrong, that there is a conception of truth, or a clear demarcation between humans and other creatures, and so on. As such, we may be said to be doing metaphysics after all: we always can, and every now and then have to critically question, on a metaphysical level, the implicit presuppositions of the very concepts that we use. Examining life cannot be done without such very broad-scale questions about, for instance, truth, ethics, and life. Therefore, despite having been burned down to the ground many times, metaphysics, the discipline of the most fundamental questions, always rises again from its ashes.


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