Susan Stebbing on metaphysics and beauty

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EXCERPTS: In 1932 L. Susan Stebbing gave a wonderful presentation to the Aristotelian Society, on ‘The Method of Analysis in Metaphysics’. In it, she begins with a number of accurate historical statements, for example that J.M.E. McTaggart was ‘the greatest deductive philosopher of this century [...] I have removed as unnecessary the words ‘in my opinion’.

Stebbing’s purpose is to pursue a different method from ‘deductive philosophy’, namely that of analytic philosophy. [...] Her presentation of McTaggart’s approach seems just right to me. She finds it to be based on three assumptions:

(1) that the metaphysician is concerned with Reality;

(2) that Reality has an ultimate, as distinct from an apparent, nature;

(3) that metaphysics gives us knowledge of this ultimate Reality.

She also points out that a deductive metaphysician like McTaggart, ‘starts from the ultimate and attempts to derive the apparent from the characteristics of the ultimate’.

[...] Stebbing also recognises that the deductive metaphysician must begin by assuming ‘that something is known intuitively about ultimate reality’. The rest is deduction. Often, she implies, the approach ends up being circular. The initial ‘intuition’ comes to be confirmed by the conclusions deduced from it, leaving the whole system hanging in the air. She writes: ‘The more coherent the system thus constructed, the more impervious it is to criticism from within, until, finally, it must be accepted or rejected en bloc’.

She finds this to be a problem for Descartes, who wanted to begin the construction of his system from ‘an indubitable datum’. [...] Spinoza, so it seems to me, used the form of a deductive system in order to exhibit his vision of the universe. ... I don’t know whether Stebbing thought that McTaggart was more like Descartes or more like Spinoza. McTaggart certainly claimed that his deduction of Reality began from an indubitable datum. But then so did Spinoza.

Stebbing expresses her difference from these deductive metaphysicians as follows: ‘In my opinion, however, metaphysics does not consist in construction but in investigation’. What she means is that she doesn’t want to construct systems of ultimate Reality, vastly different from our commonsense beliefs. Her metaphysical method is to take as given our commonsense beliefs about the world, at least for the most part, and then analyse these. In other words, she is an analytic philosopher rather than deductive one...

[...] Alternatively, we could say that Stebbing is an empiricist rather than a rationalist, by which I mean that she takes appearance as a reliable guide to reality rather than deducing reality some other way and then explaining why it appears as it does. [...] Stebbing is not ashamed to admit that her own metaphysical theory, although derived by analysis rather than deduction, can be accepted or rejected en bloc, from the outside, no less than that of Descartes, Spinoza, or McTaggart. After all, she needs to assume the truth of commonsense beliefs to get going.

[...] So far we have an ecumenical vision, peaceful but perhaps disappointing. If we are all building castles in the air, differences come down to where we choose to start, and nothing directs us. But that isn’t right, of course. What directs us is our ultimate philosophical motivation. A point that Stebbing reiterates many times throughout her writing is that it is always the whole person who thinks, not simply the intellectual portion of a person... (MORE - details)

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