Of all the assorted strategies of Being I’ve come up with so far, most have had a sharply pragmatic turn to them, by program and definition. I’ve always attempted to make them endmost examples of applied philosophy. Of Word made flesh. Temporal, physical and militantly anti-metaphysical. They’ve always been, in a lot of ways, the opposite of metaphysics… in the sense of metaphysics as an authoritatively final, eternal, and universal description of the Order of Things, by which we can guide our lives and inquiries. In fact, to the degree that I’ll ever contribute anything original philosophically, it’ll be because I take the anti-metaphysics of pragmatism and Nietzschean vitalism for granted, as an intuitive starting point, rather than as a controversial thesis. Philosophy without rather than against metaphysics. Just busying myself with hatching strategies.
On a very different note however, there is another, weirder, crucial kind of thinking— outside of all pragmatisms, vitalisms, and humanisms— which gets mingled in with metaphysics, and unfortunately gets tossed out with the dirty bathwater. A kind of thinking that serves as a mindboggling complement to any radical pragmatism’s perfection of experience. A kind of thinking that probes and noses outside of experience, outside the Human Circle, formulating the intractable and asking the unanswerable, and looks an awful like metaphysics, but isn’t.
We’ll call this thinking, for want of a better name, negative metaphysics.
For the Vienna Circle, this was precisely their scornful assessment of metaphysics itself: the futile enterprise of asking unanswerable questions. But the futility of metaphysics was not that it asked unanswerable questions. It was that it earnestly tried to answer unanswerable questions. The asking was admirable, necessary, wondrous, and deserving of the same esteem that Wittgenstein, pace the Wiener Kreis, had reserved for effing the ineffable. For trying to say what could not be said. What Wittgenstein had called— with his special and precious skew on the word— “Nonsense.”
Metaphysics has always, since its Parmenidean inception, come in two parts: the asking and the answering. From Parmenides and Plato through Descartes and Leibniz, up to the last of the self-professed metaphysicians, we’ve had a noble legion of great askers… and maybe not-so-great answerers. To rectify this, I’m suggesting that the history of metaphysics be reinterpreted— kneaded a little— by rephrasing all the would-be metaphysical answers back into the form of a question. Pretending that these philosophers were, aside from their marches into natural philosophy, metaphysically engaged in a negative, skeptical project of counterintuition.
Through this interpretive glass, we’d get to keep the Cartesian doubt and evil genies while playing down the cogito and extension. We’d applaud Plato for flipping our sense of the Real, our ontological bearings, but call off the actual hunt for forms and essences. We’d thank Leibniz for offering us a palacial picture of cosmic mechanics that is too beautiful to deny, but too puzzling to fully accept. All in all, we’d be grateful to these thinkers for turning our worldview inside out, rather than for offering us any working definitions of the really, really Real.
This is darkhorse philosophy, more comparable to a mid-day eclipse than an academic discipline. Humanism and pragmatism focus on what experience, thought, and language put before me. In my lap. On my table. In the human arena, where Man is the measure of all things. From there we run with it. Toward understanding, mastery, excitation. Negative metaphysics serves as a complement to this, squinting and looking askance, away from the centers of experience, toward the lining and unlit corners, where thought and experience fail to follow. In so doing, it shows us our intellectual limits and limitations, failings and frames of reference— or conveys insight by poetic “bursts of significance” rather than as a showcase of manageable facts. It works not by thesis but by hypothesis.
The naughty pre-Socratics really knew how to pull this off, with their frequent hikes into such perilous realms as cosmology and ontology… They always went unswervingly into a thicket of unanswerable questions. Cosmology itself has always been a balanced alloy of science and metaphysical urges. It breaks off a few falsifiable claims here and there, but ultimately strives for the large, sprawling, mindfucking unanswerables. No matter how many facts we shovel in, though, the unanswerables will always swallow them up. No matter how many facts we tack onto the cosmos, we’ll never grasp the meaning of the Whole— or das All as they say in German. I love that: the All. Meaning is deeply contextual, and the Whole can, of course, have no context, nothing outside of itself. So where’s this leave us?
It leaves us flailing, that’s where. Especially in such disciplines as cosmology whose fundamental questions are inherently about the Whole. Why is there something rather than nothing? What does the Death of the Universe mean for me? Where does the order of magnitudes end? That is, what is the largest possible frame of reference?
Put so succinctly, we quickly surmise their unanswerability. We run up against our own thinking. We see that we cannot answer these with astrophysical fact, that we are not practicing a falsifiable natural science. Instead of answers, we get conceptual vertigo. Instead of data, we get to feel the fraying of our puny human minds.
And this… this is the very purpose of such “metaphysical” questions: to stagger, to mindfuck, to create unease and vertigo, to puncture worldviews with a smirky, Humean panache. To ask questions in such a way that even religious metaphysics is exposed for the stopgap it is… Dramamine against conceptual vertigo. They can even, as Leibniz does so exquisitely, make claims so far-fetched that they sit beyond the borders of truth and falsity, so much so that “metaphysics” itself becomes a form of mythos. Spinoza at times begins to resemble Italo Calvino or Giordano Bruno more than he does Euclid or Newton. And though this negative metaphysics sits somewhat outside the world of consequences, we still feel the tugs on our webs of significance.
Sitting here, underneath the wide Texan sky, on tour with the Extraordinaires and Man Man, stargazing, I allow myself to wade into the dangerous waters of philosophical cliché. The spooky, trippy metaphysical topics that a lot of people commonly take for philosophy itself. With guilty pleasure, I break into cosmological questions, that stab into our largest frames of reference, and ontological questions about “what there is.” With “the best-selling guide to understanding the night-sky” in hand, I strain my neck picking out Vega and Sirius and Betelgeuse, and then read along, filling the night sky with new personality.
It’s weird. It’s as if I’ve been sleeping in the same bedroom all my life, and never once noticed the weird shapes on the wallpaper. Directly above the neck of Pegasus, swirls Andromeda, the closest galaxy to ours, itself “comprising 200 billion suns” in a huge spiral. A spiral, much like our own spiral, that we can sit and admire from across an unimaginable, and sadly unreachable, distance.
Suddenly, the bright lights of a jetliner appear over a tree, coming in slowly… very slowly… Not even moving, really… What is up with that plane? I stagger a second, squint and then realize my error. That is no plane. It’s Venus, twinkling pink and ten times as bright as the Dog Star. I then spy Mars in the Gemini constellation. Leaning back, perched on top of the Extraordinaires tour van, nuzzled inside my cocoonish sleep cell, I suddenly glimpse the three-dimensionality of the night sky, and the scale of outer space. To borrow an analogy from Leslie, I “see” this dimensionality in the same way I would “see” a sailboat or a Michael Jordan in a stereogram at the mall, or in the way Wittgenstein saw his duck-rabbit.
This is a cosmological glimpse of immensity, of scale— a burst of significance. In astrophysical terms, broken down into articulable facts, my epiphany sounds pretty pathetic: “space is big.” Not exactly headlines, but in terms of significance rather than fact, capable of bringing on a true shiver of the Uncanny. In under three seconds, I discard the assumption that we humans are “medium-sized”— that scale has a natural center— and see how this sense of scale springs rather from the radius of human perception. Which we all know factually, but only understand in flashes.
What we see, then, in these great flashes of metaphysical insight, is not facts, answers, or objects. Instead, we suddenly find ourselves stranded on the island of human finitude, looking up, toward places where human perception and conception cannot reach. So here the metaphor of stargazing holds. Earth being the home of human affairs, of humanism and pragmatism; while an eye upwards reveals a terrifying and yawning chasm of the Incomprehensible. The realization that the age-old obsessions of metaphysics— the eternal and atemporal, the solid and certain, the infinite and universal, the archai and the absolute, the unseen and unknown, death and cosmic purposelessness— together earn the title “perennial philosophy” precisely because they what perennially foils our grasp. They defy and define the limits of Experience, cannot be metaphorically assimilated in with tangible household objects. True metaphysics does not ground us, then, as Descartes imagined. On the contrary, it causes us to lose that Hegelian faith in the ultimate rationality of the Real— and more than that, glimpse the certain and chilling incomprehensibility of the Whole.
When the next day begins, however, I’ll make due with the comprehensibility of its Parts and Pieces. Parts and pieces that we humans make and re-arrange and learn to handle with style. Kettles, governments, molecules, revenge-tactics, and sheep… Things with meanings. Things that make sense in the stream of life. And in which humanism, after a few qualifications, can get underway.