Metametaphysics in Barcelona/some distinctions (x-post from MV)

Logos are holding a meta-metaphysics conference in Barcelona in 2008. The CFP is now out: with deadline being April 1st 2008.

I went to a Logos conference back in 2005, when I was just finishing up as a graduate student. It was a great experience: Barcelona is an amazing city to be in, Logos were fantastic hosts, and the conference was full of interesting people and talks. I also had what was possibly the best meal of my life at the conference dinner. This time, the format is preread, which I’ve really enjoyed in the past.

Here’s a quick note on the “metametaphysics” stuff. Following the Boise conference on this stuff, it seemed to me that under the label “metametaphysics” go a number of interesting projects that need a bit of disentangling. Here’s three, for starters.

First, there’s the “terminological disputes” project. Consider a first-order metaphysical question like: “under what circumstances do some things make up a further thing” (van Inwagen’s special composition question). This notes the range of seemingly rival answers to the question (all the time! some of the time! never!) and asks about whether there’s any genuine disagreement between the rival views (and if so, what sort of disagreement this is). The guiding question here is: under what conditions is a metaphysical/philosophical debate merely terminological (or whatever).

Note that the question here really doesn’t look like it has much to do with metametaphysics per se, as opposed to metaphilosophy in general. Metaphysics is just a source of case studies, in the first instance. Of course, it might turn out that metaphysics turns out to be full of terminological disputes, whereas phil science or epistemology or whatever isn’t. But equally, it might turn out that metaphysics is all genuine, whereas e.g. the Gettier salt mines are full of terminological disputes.

In contrast to this, there’s the “first order metametaphysics” (set of) project(s). This’d take key notions that are often used as starting points/framework notions for metaphysical debates, and reflect philosophically upon those. E.g.: (1) The notion of naturalness as used by Lewis. Is there such a notion? If so, are their natural quantifiers and objects and modifiers as well as natural properties? Does appeal to naturalness commit one to realism about properties, or can something like Sider’s operator-view of naturalness be made to work? (2) Ontological commitment. Is Armstrong right that (at least in some cases) to endorse a sentence “A is F” is to commit oneself to F-ness, as well as to things which are F? Might the ontological commitments of our theories be far less than Quine would have us believe (as some suggest)? (3) unrestricted existential quantifier. Is there a coherent such notion? How should its semantics be given? Is such a quantifier a Tarskian logical constant?

These debates might interest you even if you have no interesting thoughts in general about how to demarcate genuine vs. terminological disputes. Thinking about this stuff looks like it can be carried out in very much first-order terms, with rival theories of a key notion (naturalness, say) proposed and evaluated. Of course, this sort of first-order examination might be a particularly interesting kind of first-order philosophy to one engaged in the terminological disputes project.

The third sort of project we might call “anti-Quine/Lewis metametaphysics”. You might think the following. In recent years, there’s been a big trend for doing metaphysics with a Realist backdrop; in particular, the way that Armstrong and Lewis invite us to do metaphysics has been very influential among the young and impressionable. A bunch of presuppositions have become entrenched, e.g. a Quinean view of ontological commitment, the appeal to naturalness etc. So, without in the first instance attacking these presuppositions, one might want to develop an alternative framework in comparable detail which allows the formulation of alternatives. One natural starting point is to go with neoCarnapian thoughts about what the right thing to say about the SCQ is (e.g. it can be answered by stipulation). That sort of line is incompatible with the sort of view on these questions that Quine and Lewis favour. What’s the backdrop relative to which it makes sense? What are the crucial Quine-Lewis assumptions that need to be given up?

Now, this sort of project differs from the first kind of project in being (a) naturally restricted to metaphysics; and (b) not committed to any sort of demarcation of terminological disputes vs. genuine disputes. It differs from the second kind of project, since, at least in the first instance, we needn’t assume that the differences between the frameworks will reduce to different attitudes to ontological commitment, or naturalness, or whatever. On the other hand, it’s attractive to look for some underlying disagreement over the nature of ontological commitment, or naturalness, or whatever, to explain how the worldviews differ. So it may well be that a project of this kind leads to an interest in the first-order metametaphysics projects.

I’m not sure that these projects form a natural philosophical kind. What does seem to be right is that investigation of one might lead to interest in the others. There’s probably a bunch more distinctions to be drawn, and the ones I’ve pointed to probably betray my own starting points. But in my experience of this stuff, you do find people getting confused about the ambition of each other’s projects, and dismissing the whole field of metametaphysics because they identify it with some one of the projects that they themselves don’t find particularly interesting, or regard as hard to make progress with. So it’d probably be helpful if someone produced an overview of the field that teased the various possible projects apart (references anyone?).

8 responses to “Metametaphysics in Barcelona/some distinctions (x-post from MV)

  1. Brit Brogaard

    Hi Robbie. That’s interesting. And it sounds like a really great conference. But I are not sure what exactly the difference is between metaphysics from metametaphysics (though I am usually in a position to tell on a case by case basis). I always thought of ontological-commitment issues as falling under metaphysics. Is there a neat way of drawing the distinction?

    Also, there is now stuff written on meta-ethics, meta-metaphysics, and meta-epistemology. I wonder why nothing has been written on meta-philosophy of language (?).

  2. I get that. To be honest, I’m pretty sceptical about to what extent all the nomenclature we use to demarcate areas of philosophy carves things at the joints: I’m happier just describing various projects and saying which I’m interested in. So I’m really not optimistic there’s any neat dividing line here that groups all the various things I claimed were disambiguations of “metametaphysics” together.

    Despite that, here’s a few thoughts in favour of categorizing debate over OC as part of something other than metaphysics proper.

    First, a sociological observation: it is part of a standard framework that’s presupposed rather than up for grabs in a lot of contemporary discussion, I guess I feel happy enough thinking of it as something other than metaphysics proper. Using that sort of sociological dividing line as a guide for what counts as metametaphysics makes the category very context-specific and non-robust, but then I don’t know whether we should expect anything more robust.

    Second, just as you might use “the metaphysics of science” to characterize the metaphysical discussion of the characteristic notions that some science talks about (e.g. what a superposition is); you might also use “the metaphysics of metaphysics” to characterize the metaphysical discussion of the characteristic notions used by metaphysicians (and not by the folk or by any science). E.g. Lewis’s “naturalness”, “ontological commitment” etc might be part of that project, which it wouldn’t be unreasonable to call “metametaphysics”. Presumably all these “metaphysics of X” are all instances of doing metaphysics, so this would make some questions both metaphysical and metametaphysical. (I’m not sure that ontological commitment is part of the metaphysics of metaphysics—see below—but I guess this is how I think of debate over how to formulate and think of Lewis’s notion of naturalness, as in Sider’s recent stuff).

    A final thought I have against classifying OC debate as part of metaphysics: at least the way I think of these things (which may very well be extremely contentious) the question of what the ontological commitments of a language is a question in the philosophy of language, rather than metaphysics. I think of it as a bit of phil language that has a serious influence in metaphysics and the methodology of metaphysics. So while I think of the debate over OC as first order philosophy, I don’t think of it as first-order metaphysics.

    Does that make sense?

  3. On “meta phil language”

    I think of metasemantics (and what they call in Oxford the theory of meaning) as meta-phil lang: it’s the metaphysics (and epistemology, sometimes) of the representational properties of language that philosophers and linguists describe when doing first-order phil lang.

    There might be other stuff which also would fall under the label “meta-phil language” if we were to invent such a label: stuff on the metaphysics of words (e.g. Kaplan). Maybe we’d start confusing ourselves by subsuming some of the methodological discussion (debate over compositionality?) as part of this stuff. But just as in the metaphysics thing, while metasemantics, metaphysics of words, and methodology of linguistics all look perfectly fine on their own, they’re not exactly a natural grouping.

    However, they all contrast with what you might call first-order phil lang, where we’re working out what the semantics for “the” or “not” or “I” or “F-er than” or “bald” is, or whether T-theoretic semantics is a goer. Of course, there’s a usage of “phil language” where both first-order phil language and metasemantics and the like all fall under that description. But that’s kind of like the usage of “moral philosophy” used to cover both metaethics and normative ethics.

    Anyway, the main thing is that it’s all a big old mess.

    By the way, what’s meta-epistemology? I’ve heard of metaepistemic scepticism, but never could get anyone to tell me what it was…

  4. Brit Brogaard

    Hi Robbie
    Fumerton is one of few people who have written extensively on meta-epistemological issues so-called. I guess ‘meta-epistemology’ would mean ‘meta-philosophical study of epistemic properties posited, and methods used, in epistemology’. Of course, lots of people have written on meta-epistemological issues (without using the term ‘meta-epistemology’). I guess everything from discussions of regress problems to value debates might be thought of as meta-epistemological.

    Your characterization of meta-philosophy of language makes a lot of sense. But I guess most philosophy of language is then meta-philosophy of language. Opacity issues, for example, presumably cannot be resolved without debating the nature of semantic content, etc. It is not even clear that one can write anything interesting about the meaning of ‘the’ without shaking up old paradigms (as Szabo’s and Graff’s work on ‘the’ makes clear).

    But I like the sociological definition of metaphilosophy. Philosophy that questions well-established principles and premises is, I guess, a kind of meta-philosophy. I like that way of looking at it.

    Of course, one could also take meta-Q to be a metaphysical study of the concepts, properties etc. posited and methods used within Q. Meta-ethics would be the study of the nature of ethical properties, ethical truth etc. Likewise, meta-metaphysics would be the study of the nature of metaphysical properties, metaphysical truths, etc. And likewise for other areas.

    I guess the reason I find it difficult to classify certain kinds of philosophy as non-meta-philosophical is that most analytic philosophy just is meta-philosophy, the exception being applied philosophy (which is genuinely first-order).

  5. I think I agree…

    One thought: I don’t think that classifying *articles* or *arguments* as meta-phil language vs. first-order phil language is going to be that helpful. But classifying *claims* or *topics* as first order or meta phil lang might be useful. E.g. claiming that “red” means (roughly) “is significantly redder than is typical” looks to me a paradigmatic first-order semantic claim. Saying that “Toby” refers to Toby in virtue of causal connections between “Toby” tokenings and Toby, seems paradigmatically metasemantic. That’s not to say that to argue for a given semantic , you won’t have to route through a bunch of meta claims. Presumably, it’s the availability of such arguments that makes it so worthwhile having people who are both linguists and philosophers.

    In sum, some disambiguations of “meta X”:

    (i) (from Dan over at MV) the philosophical reflection on the nature of disputes in X.
    (ii) the metaphysics (and logic, phil lang, epistemology) of the distinctive properties etc posited by X.
    (iii) the philosophical study of presuppositions that (as a matter of contingent fact) have become entrenched in the study of X (perhaps within a specific community).

    I think those three map pretty well onto the three strands I was talking about originally in connection to metametaphysics. And of course, a given position can be metametaphysical in more than one way (e.g. questioning Quineanism about OC might fall under both (ii) and (iii).)

  6. Dan López de Sa

    And of course, a given position can be metametaphysical in more than one way (e.g. questioning Quineanism about OC might fall under both (ii) and (iii).)

    And arguably under (i) aswell, as suggested by yourself over at MV.

  7. Yes, arguably, though my own attitude to it is equivocal. I think that if we stipulate hard enough we can make universalism true, in a language with standard syntax and semantics and with the unrestricted quantifier. And by stipulating hard enough we can make nihilism true under the same presumptions. What varies is the ontological commitments of the language we’re using.

    For all that, I think that the metaphysical question of when things compose is well-posed and has a determinate answer which can’t be settled by stipulation (and I’m inclined to think that the nihilist is right).

    What we need to do to get at the real metaphysical question is to maneuver ourselves into a position whereby the ontological commitments of our language are of the Quinean sort. We do this in order to *express* the question and answer we’re interested in. But that’s quite familiar: everyone thinks some similar scene-setting has to go on to ensure that the quantifier used is unrestricted. In a sense, this is a bit like Sider’s notion that we have to get ourselves in a position to speak “ontologese” in order to really ask the metaphysical questions.

    If the canonical way to formulate the special comp question is via a language with Quinean OC’s (or to formulate it under the scope of an operator which has the same net effect) then playing about with the OC’s of language used in non-metaphysical contexts, for all its independent interest, won’t do much new to give a sense in which the *metaphysical* disputes are terminological.

    Though I take the point that all this is in the ballpark of (i).

  8. Dominick Lutjens

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