Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Reclaiming Metaphysics from the Mushy-Headed


One of the "problems" with a UD education is that the UD graduate likes to use certain "fancy" words that not many other people necessarily understand. (I write this as a UD graduate, but I'm sure anybody with a decent liberal arts education has encountered this problem too.) When he leaves "the bubble," he sometimes forgets that these words are not in everybody else's vocabulary. The careless UD graduate in his conversations occasionally lets drop a word which for him is rich in associations and encapsulates his point nicely but which only confuses his interlocutors; pretty soon he finds himself re-formulating his entire argument in order to make himself understood. One such fancy word is "metaphysics," and I recently ran up against the problem of trying to use the word in a conversation with someone from "outside the bubble."

After a lecture event sponsored by a certain libertarian-conservative student group, I went out for a drink with some other members of the group. In the ensuing discussion, I told a libertarian that one of my disagreements with libertarians is that they draw too rigid a distinction between the individual's private life and the public realm, and that this stark dichotomy has its roots in libertarians' arbitrary distinction between ethics and politics, on the one hand, and metaphysics on the other. I thought I had made my point relatively clear, but when my libertarian interlocutor heard the word "metaphysics" come out of my mouth, he looked at me as if I had just grown a nose in the middle of my forehead. He was under the impression that I was referring to old ladies with crystal balls charging me a few dollars to read my fortune, or maybe to some New Age fad. He thought I had a head full of mush!

When I saw his face, I hastened to explain that I was talking about a branch of philosophy. He replied, "I have zero background in philosophy. Why don't you just say 'reason' or 'logic'?" For half a second I entertained the idea of explaining that logic and metaphysics are distinct branches of philosophy, and for another half-second I considered mentioning something about "the study of being," but then I remembered that I had a train to catch. So, I just answered, "Yes, reason!" Of course, his conception of reason was probably a purely modern, instrumental conception of reason...but that was a discussion for another night.

Do so few people understand what "metaphysics" really means? What will happen to public discourse when members of a "learned profession" (yes, I actually am referring to lawyers) who believe they have a special calling to study and resolve the most pressing questions concerning men's relations with one another have no clue what "metaphysics" means?

It probably was always the case that the majority of lawyers were not familiar with philosophy. But, to hear such an open avowal of ignorance from someone who appeared to be interested in larger questions of philosophy was frightening. It wasn't so much his ignorance that frightened me, though, as his lack of shame at his own ignorance.

This ignorance and this lack of shame do not bode well for public discourse. We are left, then, with only one choice: We must reclaim the word "metaphysics" from the mushy-headed!
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