Fine on metaphysics and common sense

3:AM Magazine interviews metaphysician Kit Fine.  Fine remarks:

I’m firmly of the opinion that real progress in philosophy can only come from taking common sense seriously.  A departure from common sense is usually an indication that a mistake has been made.  If you like, common sense is the data of philosophy and a philosopher should no more ignore common sense than a scientist should ignore the results of observation.  A good example concerns ontology.  Many philosophers have wanted to deny that there are chairs or numbers [or] the like.  This strikes me as crazy and is an indication that they have not had a proper understanding of what is at issue.  By recognizing that these things are crazy we can then come to a better understanding of what is at issue and of how the questions of ontology are to be resolved.

Naturally, I agree, as any Aristotelian or Thomist would.  But why favor common sense?  Is this merely an ungrounded prejudice, an expression of bourgeois complacency, of discomfort with novelty, or a failure of imagination?  Or are there principled reasons for taking common sense seriously?

There are.  One reason is that common sense provides the conceptual framework apart from which our philosophical claims, including the claims of the skeptic who would deny common sense, lose their coherence.  Common sense can be mistaken on points of detail, but not wholesale.  That is why we find that the most radical assaults on common sense tend to be self-defeating.  Parmenides and Zeno denied the reality of change of any sort -- yet even they had to change their minds in order to come to this conclusion.  Alex Rosenberg’s scientism leads him to deny the reality of intentionality -- and thus to deny that his own thoughts, and indeed even the words in which he expresses this radical thesis, have any meaning.  No attempt to make such views coherent has succeeded or could succeed.  (Not that the Eleatics and Rosenberg are entirely comparable, mind you.  The arguments of Parmenides and Zeno are extremely interesting.  Rosenberg’s argument for scientism is not.)  

Even on points of detail, where common sense can be wrong, there is at least a presumption in its favor, albeit a presumption that can be overridden.  What J. L. Austin said of ordinary language (in his essay “A Plea for Excuses”) applies to the conceptual apparatus embodied in common sense:

[O]ur common stock of words embodies all the distinctions men have found worth drawing, and the connexions they have found worth marking, in the lifetimes of many generations: these surely are likely to be more numerous, more sound, since they have stood up to the long test of the survival of the fittest, and more subtle, at least in all ordinary and reasonably practical matters, than any that you or I are likely to think up in our arm-chairs of an afternoon – the most favoured alternative method…

[O]rdinary language is not the last word: in principle it can everywhere be supplemented and improved upon and superseded.  Only remember, it is the first word.

For reasons I have given before, respect for common sense does not entail either a blind adherence to tradition or a subjectivist appeal to “intuitions.”  Nor does it entail that we can expect much light to be shed on philosophical problems by sending out questionnaires and the like, after the fashion of “experimental philosophy.”  As I had reason to note in a recent post on philosophy and neuroscience, the perceptions of the “man on the street” can in fact subtly be altered by researchers who unknowingly insinuate debatable philosophical assumptions in the way they question their subjects.  And as Fine says:

Consider the question of whether mathematics is a priori or whether principles of abstraction of the sort proposed by Frege might provide a foundation for a significant part of mathematics.  How could asking the folk possibly be of any help in answering these questions? Physicists don’t ask the folk to look down telescopes and mathematicians don’t ask folk to assess the plausibility of their axiom.  And so why should it be any different for philosophy?  Or, take another analogy.  We don’t ask the folk to read X-rays since it takes skill and training to know what to make of them - to understand whether a particular blotch, for example, has any real significance.  It is no different, it seems to me, in regard to the intuitions of philosophers.  One needs skill and training to know what to make of them and it would be a terrible retrograde step to rely instead on the untutored judgments of ordinary folk.

I argued in another earlier post that respect for common sense in moral and political contexts by no means entails favoring the opinions of the mob over those of learned men.  Conservatism, rightly understood, is a sober middle ground position between snobbery and populism, neither disdaining the opinions of the common man nor considering them anything more than what Austin called the first word rather than the last word.  The same thing holds where metaphysics is concerned.  Though a sound metaphysics should be continuous with at least the broad outlines of the common man’s understanding of the world, it takes high intelligence, education, and leisure actually to develop such a metaphysics, and indeed even to understand what the issues are all about.

Nor is it only philosophers beholden to scientism or naturalism who have a tendency to depart from common sense.  Recent decades have seen a revival of metaphysics and philosophy of religion within analytic philosophy -- in itself a very welcome development.  But to a large extent this work has been in what might be called a broadly modernist-rationalist vein (in the Cartesian/Leibnizian sense of “rationalist”) rather than a classical (Aristotelian, Neo-Platonic, Thomistic or more broadly Scholastic) vein.  Fine, with his broadly Aristotelian sympathies, takes aim at one example of this regrettable tendency toward rationalism:

Yes, there has been a heavy emphasis on possible worlds in the philosophy of language and metaphysics.  I think that to a large extent this emphasis is misplaced, that the work done by possible worlds would be better done by other means. 

So instead of saying that necessarily, Socrates is a man, it would be more illuminating to say that Socrates is by his nature a man, putting the emphasis on the nature of Socrates rather than what is necessary. Or again, instead of understanding the counterfactual ‘if the match were struck it would light’ in terms of what would happen in the closest worlds in which the match is struck, it would be more illuminating to talk about the consequences of a situation (not a whole world) in which the match is struck. 

For the Aristotelian, reality (including the natures of things and what is necessary to them) is something we know through experience, not a priori and not via “modal intuitions” or the like -- even if (or rather precisely because) the Aristotelian conception of “experience” is richer than that of the empiricist.  (I discussed the Aristotelian-Thomistic attitude toward “possible worlds” and related ideas here.)  And for the Aristotelian-Thomistic philosopher, the rationalist/empiricist/Kantian merry-go-round is itself part of what needs to be superseded, part of the package of errors that entered Western thought with the anti-Scholastic revolution of the moderns.  

The restoration of common sense within metaphysics requires, ultimately, renewed attention to the insights of the ancients and medievals, and especially renewed attention to the Aristotelian strain within the larger classical tradition.  And Fine has made a significant contribution to the Aristotelian revival (most recently in Tahko’s Contemporary Aristotelian Metaphysics volume). 
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