Monday, 22 December 2008

The Rebirth of Metaphysics

If modern philosophy has seen the end of metaphysics (as is often claimed), everyday life will see its rebirth.

As AC Grayling postulates in last week's New Scientist unless we subscribe to a very narrow view of what we mean by 'mind', i.e. equating it with brain activity, then actually understanding how the mind functions will also embrace, also extends into, language, society and history. This means we can only understand thought (what we use the word mind to mean) by extending this beyond subjectivity, and into the web of social life with which the self interacts and finds definition. So, just as Saussure claimed about language, that the units (words) which comprise it are not understandable in isolation; in fact, lack any meaningful content outside of their relation to other words, so the units of society (people; minds) are also not understandable in isolation. The symbols we use to designate a person (i.e. their name) do not refer beyond themselves to any entity whether spiritual or physical, neither to immaterial souls nor to biophysical bodies and processes. A person is a prolonged social event which only has meaning in terms of its interactions with the rest of the world: we are defined by our social role and by our activity. We are happenings, not objects.

And this is why I say that in fact we are now witnessing the rebirth of metaphysics - for this extended concept of selfhood is nothing if not metaphysical. It involves a reassessment of the previous 'spiritual' or supernatural implications of the word, but I have a strong feeling that those associations were always misinterpretations of these complex concepts anyway. It is easy to mistake subtly shaded meanings for bluntly literal ontological ones.

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