“Philosophy without metaphysics.” Whenever I slip this phrase in, mid-conversation, on my less traditionally philosophical friends, I can see the growing unease in their eyes, as they wonder to themselves “What does he mean by metaphysics?” Well these friends can rest easy; because even between philosophers there is some slippage and argument in the word, especially when it appears in the phrase “philosophy without metaphysics.” The two have been roughly synonymous for so long, both in pop-concept and academic practice, that even “professional” philosophers will often look upon the possibility of non-metaphysical philosophy as something inchoate and mysterious, like the Trinity, the end of the Universe, the fourth dimension or decaffeinated coffee. Something like a square circle, that must be erased upon drawing.
But I have a hunch that Academic Philosophy will always have trouble getting beyond metaphysics, in the widest possible sense of the term. It will always need some center to its discipline, a scaffolding to uphold its self-image. When each philosophical wave begins to take its metaphors too seriously, as absolutes, foundations, or as necessary definitions of philosophy itself, then we’re already well on our way to rampant metaphysics. If it doesn’t take itself seriously, and defines its philosophy loosely and off-the-cuff, as shorthand for all its large, sprawling, non-specialized ideas— and braintools given to change— it will most likely have trouble fitting into the grid of any disciplined, philosophical curriculum.
And so be it. Deprofessionalization, here we come. I’m gung-ho for culture-wide philosophy-as-dialogue. In the streets, so to speak. Comic-book philosophy. And candy-wrapper philosophy. Backseat taxi philosophy. Philosophical guest-appearances on Conan O’Brien. I’m tired of the endless exigesis, the canon, the book reports. By now, many of the malnourishing, text-bound “philosophers of suspicion” within Continental philosophy can bore me almost as much as some of the dusty, scientistic ridiculously over-professionalized geezers on the Analytic side. Just give me your best ideas— about anything, as long as it’s raw and pumping with lifeblood. Immediate, action-packed, ever-mingling with everyday life, and too fluid for solder in the framework of a metaphysical system.
I’m not promising that unacademic, non-academic, anti-academic philosophy will necessarily be unmetaphysical, non-metaphysical, anti-metaphysical. Far from it and quite the contrary. But it’s our only hope for getting beyond a metaphysical culture; that is, our implicit and unwitting metaphysical culture. In philosophical circles, many shining candidates for unmetaphysics have stepped forward— including linguistic analysis, hermeneutics, literature, and others— but none that I feel would satisfy the needs for public life-philosophies And so, with this need in mind, and for all my fellow wiseass philosophers-to-be, this is what I got so far on “metaphysics,” in the widest possible sense of term…
The belief in something outside the circle of Man that, once revealed or deciphered, can serve as a polar star to all human affairs, a definitive blueprint for the progress of our beliefs and desires. Past candidates include, but are not limited to: gods, natures, transcendental ideas, true selves, biology, dark amoebic forces, class struggle, and planetary alignment. These notions may at times be extremely useful or fruitful, taken as conceptual tools in a world of choices. The problems come when we fall into believing that some framework or fixture of reality can ultimately choose for us, rather than simply influence our decision. This becomes especially pernicious when we try to funnel our human values into the plumbing of the Universe; disingenuously casting our beliefs and desires as “God’s favorites.” The universe does not care; it cannot care. And furthermore we don’t need it to care. Mankind is of-age and on its own, able to decide its destiny all the way down.
So, a non-metaphysical philosophy tries to co-ordinate all of its beliefs, desires, perceptions, fellows, and other possibilities, without appealing to some trumpcard in the great Beyond, beyond the particulars of daily life and collective perception. I feel, very intuitively, that we should take pride in our own self-constructions; that if we justify our beliefs by their own utility we shall less often go astray.
The coarse prejudice for the Found over the Made; the belief that ideas found are better than ideas made— truer, weightier, and higher hopes for the salvation of Man. Personally, by inclination, I have neither the belief nor the prejudice. In general, I’m much more interested in putting things into the world that were not there to begin with, things and states-of-affairs that were never there to be “discovered” at all. So, obviously, I’m not terribly worried how close these mutations sit to the immutable Order of Things. Genuine novelty in the universe. I think mankind is the best show in town. I really cheerlead the manmade and our weird-shit contributions to the complexity of the unnatural world. Whereas, before, philosophy was born of curiosity, or the “love of wisdom,” it now springs from Boredom. It invites the “speaker of great words and the doer of great deeds” to concoct the historical exception, the unknown, the extraordinary. Freak blips on the world-historical radar-screen. From Giambattista Vico we get Certum Quod Factum— “We can only know that which we make ourselves.” And really taken to heart, our young philosophers-to-be should be as obsessed with “the making” as with the “the knowing,” producing objects worthy of scrutiny.
The assumption, made even by the savvy and pragmatic, that the fundamental task of philosophy is descriptive in nature, or at least redescriptive, whether or not these descriptions and redescriptions are made or found, deep or shallow. Philosophy, it has been noted, is no longer a form of knowledge. At times, yeah sure, I might describe, or I might throw around descriptions borrowed from outside sources— from sciences, platitudes, cereal boxes, rumors, bad dreams, or bad influences. Hell, sometimes I might even use boldface lies to get my point across. Ultimately, however, my philosophical projects do not offer a picture of “How Things Are” or “How Things Hang Together.” My pragmatic-thinking trades in the picture for the instrument, and tries to dodge references about “The Way the World Is.”
Plus, in my opinion, descriptions of the greatest controversy, like “the nature of Being” or “the root of all suffering,” are only projects in the guise of descriptions. To get beyond metaphysics is to get over the idea of Philosopher-as-Spectator; to get past the contemplative ideals of the Penetrating Eye, the eye that pierces through the lifeflux to find the reality behind appearances. We are here to make and remake our reality, to its deepest core. Once this is taken to heart, we can take our metaphors for what they are: metaphorical.
In my corner, among the strategies and transformations of everyday life, I try hard to avoid quiddities like “what is the nature of toothbrushing,” and try even harder to find things that were previously alien to the toothbrush, things that violate whatever nature it might have. That is, I work to spite essences. Militant anti-essentialism.
The flight from Time and Space. You can always peg a metaphysical philosopher because he or she always needs to have The Last Word, meaning that their claims must be atemporally and universally valid, for everyone and every need, from here to eternity. You can see how this might create some strain. Time and Space are the mortal foes of metaphysical systems; and metaphysics is, you might say, basically the attempt to outsmart and overcome Time and Space… Seems like a fair assessment…
Our anti-metaphysicians, antimetaphysicists, or whatever, lunge at Time and into Space, and yearn for philosophy made flesh. And not just in a culture-wide Zeitgeist sense, but headlong into the immediacies of everyday life. The mastery rather than the transcendence of finitude. They know that their beliefs are tools, served up for weird and particular needs, desires, beliefs, time-periods, people, problems; the questions of the day, the needs of the moment. “How shall I satisfy our desires this Saturday Night?” or “Toilet stalls are ideal locales for fiddling with my own vulnerablities” or “What’s the best way to spark the next American Renaissance?”
Our anti-metaphysicians avoid long-winded solutions to eternal questions; vast responses to half-vast questions. Instead, they dirty their hands in the finite, scheming up damnfool ideas to spring on a helpless and pliable everyday reality. They think of bigger and better ways of brushing their teeth, ways that maybe border on the Sublime and the Beautiful. Bigger and better ways to send their friends into fits of joy and humiliation. And I’m perfectly content, hopeful even, that my children’s children will think my crazy ways tame and old-fashioned, in comparison to their cutting-edge shenanigans with hoverboards. This is progress— just that— and death to metaphysics.
Metaphysicians of the highest order, the priestly caste, go even further, outside of Time and Space altogether, into the lost realms of the otherworldly. I cannot say that they are necessarily wrong or incorrect in their devaluation of Time and Space and Life altogether. The devaluation here is more a matter of value and desire and disposition, which cannot be disproved or falsified. I just happen to find these outlooks unfortunate, wasteful— too quick to surrender. And on the other hand, try as I may, I will never be able to fully communicate my life-fetish, no matter how I scrap together my thoughts and comments, no matter how hard I try to find the phrases, actions, slogans, snippets, and moments that “brand the essence of life into the flesh.” You cannot export or explain the urgency of carpe diem by formula or dialogical persuasion. The love of life is like any other love: hard to explain, difficult to plan, impossible to resist.
Precedence. I love it: ask any department chair whether they think their cherished discipline is the foundation for understanding the modern world and they will reply, unblinkingly, “Physics/economics/literature is the foundation to understanding the modern world.” No tolerance for epistemological pluralism in the halls of academe. Lip service maybe— “My esteemed colleagues in the chemistry department”— but everyone harbors the belief that they and they alone keep the masterkey in their bottom-right drawers. Metaphysics is all about foundations; the meta to the physik. The trunk, Descartes imagined, from which all other branches of knowledge grow. Anti-metaphysics is for topsy-turvy anti-foundationalism and worldview pluralism. Like tools on the toolbelt; the more, the merrier. The more unrecognizable, world-shattering and incommensurable, the better. And the differences— inside these disciplines— are the engines of the dialectic. Fuel for the fire, for common dialogue.
Get outside more often. Air circulation. Oxygen to the brain. Put down that volume of Husserl or Lacan or whoever for this afternoon, and step outside the library for one minute. Telephone your professor and ask him if he wants to go blacklite bowling or play hookie or anything. See if is a real human being, with a life outside of Aristotle and The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Rubbed wrong by the cold shoulders of Academic Philosophy, I’m convinced that while the professionals wrangle with the “linguistic import of secondary quality” or the “gender play of Derridean Valéry criticism,” the rest of the world is making up its mind and living its life out, without them. But, really, what do I know? I’m no authority; certainly no scholar. In the dying words of Jonathan Swift, “I am a fool.”