Philosophy TV Managing Editors

David Killoren (Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry, Australian Catholic University)

Jonathan Lang (Wisconsin Institute for Sleep and Consciousness, University of Wisconsin-Madison)


Tuomas Tahko and Thomas Hofweber

Tuomas Tahko (left) and Thomas Hofweber (right) on the foundations of metaphysics.

If metaphysics is a form of genuine inquiry, then presumably metaphysicians investigate questions of fact. But it seems that for any given type of fact, there is already a discipline that investigates facts of that type. For instance, physicists investigate physical facts; mathematicians investigate mathematical facts—and so on. Perhaps there is a special realm of facts investigated only by metaphysicians, but it is unclear what such facts would be like. Alternatively, perhaps metaphysics plays the role of verifying results obtained in other disciplines, but it is unclear that metaphysicians are qualified to check the work of physicists and mathematicians. So what exactly is it that metaphysicians do? In this episode, Tahko and Hofweber grapple with this question.

Related works

by Tahko:
“The Epistemology of Essence” (draft)
“In Defense of Aristotelian Metaphysics” in Tahko (ed.), Contemporary Aristotelian Metaphysics (2012)
“Counterfactuals and Modal Epistemology” (2012)

by Hofweber:
with J. David Velleman: “How to Endure” (2011)
“Ambitious, Yet Modest, Metaphysics” in Chalmers, Manley, and Wasserman (eds.), Metametaphysics: New Essays on the Foundations of Ontology (2009)
“The Meta-Problem of Change” (2009)


2 comments to Tuomas Tahko and Thomas Hofweber

  • Dan Kaufman

    Nice dialogue. It occurs to me that one might wonder whether what much of this conversation comes down to is what one is allowed to call something, and whether this question is really of interest.

    We can ask all sorts of questions and the various efforts at answering some them might coalesce into “disciplines” that we want to give names, but it doesn’t seem to me that there’s all that much to this, beyond housekeeping.

    Maybe philosophers tend to ask more abstract, general questions about reality, but that doesn’t mean that scientists can’t. Likewise, scientists may tend to ask more specific, concrete questions about reality, but that doesn’t mean philosophers can’t. The fact that we organize such questions and their answers under the names of disciplines such as “philosophy” and “science” seems relatively trivial, in contrast to the actual questions themselves.

    –Dan Kaufman

  • This is a very interesting topic. However, I’m not sure either of you talked about one way to flesh out the grounding and fundamental ontology talk is to say that some objects are more “natural” or cuts nature at its joints better than others.

    But I tend to have pragmatically inspired worries. Perhaps what we determine to be fundamental may largely depend on what we have uses for. So say numbers are often posited to exist because they serve useful purposes but if we can jettison them for something else that can do the job better (or maybe we manage to abandon whatever the job they serve to describe completely) we may not view them as fundamental or even real anymore. They don’t cut nature at its joints at all; nature has no number joints.

    Maybe tables, chairs and even people do not cut nature at its joints or at least cut it less fundamentally than more natural objects (perhaps subatomic particles or the cosmos as a whole?).

    More specifically, say, tables are posited to exist because they serve an important role in society but table-chair composites do not and thus we may not see it as fundamental or as real as the table and chair individually. The table is physically separated from the chair, of course, but we posit the existence of many things that have parts vastly spatially separate from other parts (the solar system, e.g.). That may be because the solar system plays such an important roles in our society, our sciences and so forth. Likewise, the left-half of the table is seen as less fundamental or real as the whole table perhaps because it serves a smaller function for us. But say someday we stop using whole tables for whatever reason but find major indispensable uses of half-tables and forget all about whole tables. Will we then see whole tables as we do like table-chairs?

    It may be more difficult to jettison the usage of some things than others because they are so culturally and socially and personally ingrained.

    But pragmatic considerations come in degrees (which may explain the fundamentality or grounding relation) and are relative to societies and times (which may undermine essentialism or neo-aristotelianism).

    Perhaps the sciences offer the best analogy here. At one time, Newtonian mechanics was a model that was thought to describe reality. But when Einstein came along, his model was then seen by scientists and common folk as a more accurate model which is more fundamental in a sense than Newton’s. Scientists don’t want to say that Newton was wrong maybe because his model still has practical applications in society. But say, one day, a model of physics will render both Newton and Einstein’s theory useless (as an explanatory or any other kinds of tool such as a handmaiden for developing new technologies, say) and posit laws and objects that are so different from anything these two physicists posited that people may forget those other theories and call them false.

    Here, you can say that it is because the new theory more accurately represents reality than the former two or you can say that it has more usages that the previous theories it has supplanted does not. What reasons do we have for the former explanation than the later?