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Pathways to Philosophy   Book   Preface   Chapter one   Avebury flyer   Download preview

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Naive Metaphysics: Preface

OVER the last two weeks of 1988 and the Winter and Spring of 1989, a group of six would-be philosophy students made their way on Thursday evenings to a flat next to Dore Railway Station, on the outskirts of Sheffield. The group comprised of a retired headmistress, a business man, a young woman who worked as an administrator in an EFL school, a retired fireman turned spiritualist healer, an elderly woman who had studied eastern religions and Theosophy before joining the Quakers, and a young man from the local radio station who nursed the ambition to do a degree in philosophy. (He subsequently gained his BA at Warwick University.) Despite wide differences in their day-to-day lives and academic attainments, the members of the group soon learned that they shared a common belief in the power of pure reason to uncover fundamental truths about reality; although their attitudes towards this discovery ranged from naive optimism to bemused scepticism. They had come as the willing guinea pigs in a philosophical experiment. For their pains (and the payment of a modest entrance fee of two Pounds) they sipped their tea and coffee and hot chocolate while a would-be author, unused to speaking before an audience of strangers, discussed chapters from a work of metaphysics that he was in the process of writing.

The idea behind this curious set up was simple. As an unemployed philosopher, I had much time to think, but little inspiration for putting pen to paper. Scattered amongst various notebooks was the outline of a metaphysic — the theory of subjective and objective worlds — whose detailed structure seemed somehow to elude me. I knew if I was to make any progress, I had to begin for once from the very beginning; to develop my theory from first principles. What better discipline could there be for my project than to seek to make the arguments intelligible to an audience of complete beginners?

Or perhaps not so simple. Of all the branches of philosophy, metaphysics, at least in its modern guise, holds a particular distrust of all starting points and assumptions. Our most basic beliefs are but raw material for philosophical dissection, the pathology of the intellect. In the light of this critical, analytic stance — the legacy of Hume's fork — my search for first principles, whether conducted alone or in the company of persons who did not know any better, appeared indeed naive. Even if I did succeed in gaining my students' acceptance of my ideas, what would that prove? Only, at best, that my audience shared my own pre-reflective prejudices.

On the other side, it must be said that a suspicion of all starting points is no small task to state even in theory, let alone put into practice. Philosophical reason is hard put to question its own rationality: even the most skilful surgeons are disinclined to operate on themselves. The theoretical problem is compounded by the psychological fact that groups of individuals who share expertise in a field of inquiry are only too ready to mistake their agreed assumptions for the perception of self-evident truth. Philosophy is no exception to this rule. A new theory thus faces one or other of two possible fates. Either it fits established preconceptions, in which case its novel features are made the object of intense industry, until all sharp corners are chipped away and roughnesses smoothed over; or it fails to follow the familiar pattern, whereby it is summarily deemed beyond the pale of serious academic discussion.

Professional philosophers, to their credit, are not unaware of the problem. From time to time, fortunately not too often, one finds oneself afflicted by a disconcerting form of cartesian doubt concerning the validity of the philosophical enterprise itself. How can anyone tell when a survey of underlying assumptions is complete? How can we be sure that our critique will not fall to a yet more radical critique? In my defence, I could point out that all I aimed to do was make a contribution to that process of healthy self-appraisal.

I already knew the general tenor of the informed objections, by no means unjustified, that would be raised against the theory I was seeking to develop. For the time being, it did not matter that my listeners lacked the equipment to criticize my views that a philosophically trained audience would have possessed. I was looking for a different kind of criticism, in a way more challenging yet also more constructive; an audience who would pester their teacher with questions that those who knew better were more likely to pass over in complacent silence.

Our legal system enshrines the principle that the guilt or innocence of an accused be capable of being decided by a jury comprising of ordinary persons with no special legal training, using nothing but their common sense and native intelligence to assess the force of arguments for and against. So it is, I told my group, with metaphysics: the conflicting theories arising out of the debates of the philosophical schools ought to be able to be made intelligible to men and women whose only training is the school of life.

Privately, my only residual concern was that as counsel for the prosecution, and at the same time judge directing the jury, it would be all-too easy for me to sway the outcome of the trial in my favour. As things turned out, I need not have worried. Week after week, after listening politely while I read out my latest chapter, my audience would subject me to a barrage of questions and objections. At times, I am ashamed to admit, I found myself reacting with ill-disguised impatience when one of the group members raised an objection that seemed obviously mistaken or irrelevant, only to realize long after everyone had gone home that my critic had been right and I had been wrong. At other times, after I had tied myself up in knots trying to get across a difficult point, someone would say, 'Do you mean...?' and then proceed to explain the point in a few pregnant words. Whether I succeeded in winning over any of my students to my theory I do not know. As we said our good-byes at the end of the last meeting, several assured me that they had been converted to the cause of metaphysics. I considered that success.

Starting in the Summer of 1989, new versions of the chapters I had written became the basis for a year-long course of philosophy evening classes organized by the Workers' Educational Association at Abbeydale Hall, the local adult education centre. Our meetings followed the same format as before. The classes were lively and enjoyable. Yet it soon became clear to me that my views were hardening. Having originally set off with only the sketchiest idea of the form my work would take, allowing the direction of the argument to be influenced and guided to a large extent by the response of my audience, I was now working within a structured program whose main features I naturally had great interest in conserving. Whether I liked it or not, the book was beginning to assume its final shape.

By the end of 1989, with my 'introduction to metaphysics' two thirds of the way through its test run, I decided to approach a publisher. The process of appraisal seemed to be going smoothly, if a little slowly, when at the very last hurdle an obstacle appeared that I should have seen coming. I was well prepared for criticism of my book on the part of academic philosophers. My arguments had been elaborated and honed to the point where I felt sure that they made a strong case, whether or not one agreed with their conclusion. This belief was borne out by two very favourable reader's reports. What I had not foreseen was that the publishers would take exception to the way I had vigorously argued my case to an audience of beginners, rather than presenting the reader with the conventional laconic survey of different views, together with a balanced appraisal of their pros and cons. As one of the reports had colourfully put the point, there was a danger that some students 'would find their critical faculties sufficiently impaired by the glare of the work's metaphysical vision for them to become acolytes of it'. A third reader was appointed. When the manuscript arrived one bright July morning like a slab of meat on the doorstep, the accompanying letter from the philosophy editor said simply that it had been judged 'too idiosyncratic to function as a good introductory book'.

It has taken me a long time to reach the point of finally presenting my views to the community of academic philosophers. In response to criticisms, both real and imagined, the manuscript grew to over one and a half times its original size, then, after a brief circulation, remained on the shelf. The longer it rested there, the greater its faults seemed magnified in my eyes. In the end, however, I came to recognize that time would never remedy those faults. Even if one had the dexterity and wit to fill in every new gap as soon as it appeared, there are limits to the amount of fortification a position will hold before sinking under its own weight. Let others now have their say. What ought to recommend the theory put forward in the following pages is ultimately not words which could be spun out ad nauseam, but simply the perception of its truth.