About What There Is: An Introduction to Contemporary Metaphysics

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This page reproduces the Preface and Table of Contents (except for page numbers), from the current version of About What There Is.  In addition, current versions of chapters from Parts I - III are available in the PDF format.  This is work in progress, and so subject to change.  I am happy for anyone to use this material--I  request just that you forward me comments, positive or otherwise. 

About What There Is: An Introduction to Contemporary Metaphysics (Fall, 2009)

Preface

Strangely, many metaphysics texts do not really introduce what contemporary metaphysicians do.  A result is that huge chunks of contemporary philosophy may seem mysterious or bizarre, even to students with an undergraduate degree in philosophy.  This might happen for different reasons. 

First, it is my conviction that a text for upper-level philosophy is properly justified as a “window” into standard original works.  A text should not replace original works, but rather provide a “pathway” through them.  An upper-level text should supply background so that original works are accessible, provide context to integrate them, and enter into a student’s conversation with the original works themselves.  In this latter role, a textbook might itself count as original.  I think many texts for upper-level metaphysics do not adequately serve these ends.  Thus, e.g., many do not make direct contact with the literature.  One might think that, even so, a text could count as a legitimate introduction to the subject matter.  Unfortunately, many metaphysics texts do not do even this. 

A metaphysics course that takes up questions about god, mind and body, freedom and determinism, space and time, etc. takes up interesting and important metaphysical questions.  But such a course may overlap with standard introductions to philosophy, and with more advanced courses in philosophy of religion, philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, etc.  Thus, contrary to fact, metaphysics may seem to have no subject matter of its own.  And such a course may never raise those questions about reality, truth, abstract objects, events, and the like, which dominate so much of contemporary (specifically) metaphysical discussion.  Even worse, a course devoted to questions about god, mind and body, freedom and determinism, etc. may leave the more specifically meta‑physical questions strange and unmotivated. 

My aim is to remedy this situation.  I think a narrow focus on metaphysical method, and some specifically metaphysical questions, not only introduces metaphysics proper, but also illuminates metaphysical discussion more generally, and even philosophical discussion beyond the borders of metaphysics.  I approach the task in four sections.  The short first section develops an overall picture of the metaphysical project.  The second section takes up metaphysical method and especially W. V. O. Quine’s classic article, “On What There Is.”[1]  These first two sections raise many important and interesting metaphysical questions.  The latter two focus on a few metaphysical questions more directly.  The third section stands between the second and the fourth, insofar as it takes up metaphysical issues which matter for understanding the metaphysical method.  The last section takes up some metaphysical problems more for their own sake.  In this section, I offer a perspective on what there is which, I hope, is original and interesting in its own right.  I make no claim to comprehensiveness or breadth.  Thinking about these few questions should put us in a position to take up questions beyond those directly addressed.  And this, I think, is what an introduction to metaphysics should do. 

This text aims both high and low.  On the one hand, it’s a significant task to make contact with contemporary metaphysics (e.g., Quine’s slogan, “to be is to be the value of a variable” as discussed in chapter 4, and the consequences of extensionality as discussed in chapter 5).  So working through these issues requires a certain degree of philosophical sophistication.  On the other hand, no particular understanding, beyond a familiarity with validity and soundness that might be obtained from an introductory course on critical thinking, is assumed (and even those notions are discussed in an appendix).  It is likely that the reader will benefit from background in formal logic or philosophy of language.  But every effort is made to supply whatever particular content is required.  Philosophical background, especially in logic and philosophy of language, should ease the way into this text.  But, correspondingly, working through this text should ease the way into logic and philosophy of language.  So it’s not obvious that one order is better than another.  If there were a standard order, later courses could presuppose content from earlier ones.  But there is no such order, and none is presupposed. 

I have, in the past, organized metaphysics courses around Keith Campbell’s text, Meta‑physics: An Introduction and, in broad outline, this book reflects the first and third sections of his.[2]  Naturally, I draw on many different sources; I am especially indebted to my teacher, Michael Jubien.  Unfortunately, About What There Is is not yet complete.  Thanks to comments and discussion from my colleague Matthew Davidson, along with students, especially Richard Jensen, Meggan Coté, Dan Bridges, Donovan Rinker, Robb Vitt, and Sean Korb, in past versions of PHI 380 at CSUSB, it is better than it was.  Your sufferings should make it better still.  Perhaps it seems unfair to have to work through a text in this state.  It shouldn’t.  My upper-division course on metaphysics has always taken up topics in metaphysics proper.  The aim of this text is to aid this project.  Insofar as Campbell’s text (and others) remain available, what you have can only make things better.  Note that page references in the text prefaced with a lowercase ‘e’ are to the essential readings reprinted and separately bound. 

I find the material to be fascinating.  I very much hope that you will find it to be so, as well! 

T.R


[1]Quine, “On What There Is,” The Review of Metaphysics 2 (1948): 21-28.  Reprint in many places including Quine, From a Logical Point of View 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980).

[2]Campbell, Metaphysics: An Introduction, (Encino: Dickenson Publishing Company, 1976).

Contents

 Preface
 I.  Introduction to Metaphysics
     (1)  An Overall Picture of the Metaphysical Project
 II.  Quine’s Method for Metaphysics
     (2)  Plato’s Beard: A Problem About Method 
     (3)  Russell’s Way Out: A Plausible Canonical Notation.
     (4)  Quine’s First Thesis: How the Notation Commits
     (5)  Quine’s Second Thesis: Sufficiency and Application
 III.  Realism and Truth
     (6)  Putnam's Anti-Realism
 IV.  Problems of Metaphysics 

tbd

Appendix: Validity and Soundness

 Further Reading
 Assignment Schedule  
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