E. A. Burtt om metafysikk

Noen mennesker mener at de ikke trenger å spekulere i ting som metafysikk, fordi de er mer interessert i virkelighet. Ikke minst at de fint kan holde seg til naturvitenskap uten å måtte kjenne til verken filosofi eller metafysikk i det hele tatt. Men sannheten virker å være, som denne bloggen i stor grad tar for seg, at vedkommende dermed er lett bytte for dårlig og fullstendig ukritisk holdt tankegods, og mest sannsynlig derfor har lite grep om virkeligheten i det hele tatt. F.eks. å utøve naturvitenskap uten først å ha et minimum av filosofisk trening, kan ende i katastrofe. Man kan i verste fall ende opp som dette, dette eller dette.


Edwin Arthur Burtt var en amerikansk filosof som skrev boka The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science i 1922. En bok som har hatt stor påvirkning, men som sammen med folk som Alfred North Whitehead burde vært desto betraktelig større. Her skriver han følgende om metafysikk. Legg særlig merke til siste halvdel (og takk til Hallvard Jørgensen for gode uthevelser):

…there is no escape from metaphysics, that is, from the final implications of any proposition or set of propositions. The only way to avoid becoming a metaphysician is to say nothing. This can be illustrated by analysing any statement you please; suppose we take the central position of positivism as an example. This can perhaps be fairly stated in some such form as the following: It is possible to acquire some truths about things without presupposing any theory of their ultimate nature; or, more simply, it is possible to have a correct knowledge of the part without knowing the nature of the whole.

Let us look at this position closely. That it is in some sense correct would seem to be vouched for by the actual successes of science, particularly mathematical science; we can discover regular relations among certain pieces of matter without knowing anything further about them. The question is not about its truth or falsity, but whether there is metaphysics in it.

Well, subject it to a searching analysis, and does it not swarm with metaphysical assumptions? In the first place it bristles with phrases which lack a precise definition, such as “ultimate nature,” “correct knowledge,” “nature of the whole,” and assumptions of moment are always lurking in phrases which are thus carelessly used.

In the second place, defining these phrases as you will, does not the statement reveal highly interesting and exceedingly important implications about the universe? Taking it in any meaning which would be generally accepted, does it not imply, for example, that the universe is essentially pluralistic (except, of course, for thought and language), that is, that some things happen without any genuine dependence on other happenings; and can therefore be described in universal terms without reference to anything else?

Scientific positivists testify in various ways to this pluralistic metaphysic; as when they insist that there are isolable systems in nature, whose behaviour, at least in all prominent respects, can be reduced to law without any fear that the investigation of other happenings will do more than place that knowledge in a larger setting.


…even the attempt to escape metaphysics is no sooner put in the form of a proposition than it is seen to involve highly significant metaphysical postulates. For this reason there is an exceedingly subtle and insidious danger in positivism. If you cannot avoid metaphysics, what kind of metaphysics are you likely to cherish when you sturdily suppose yourself to be free from the abomination?

Of course it goes without saying that in this case your metaphysics will be held uncritically because it is unconscious; moreover, it will be passed on to others far more readily than your other notions inasmuch as it will be propagated by insinuation rather than by direct argument. That a serious student of Newton fails to see that his master had a most important metaphysic, is an exceedingly interesting testimony to the pervading influence, throughout modern though, of the Newtonian first philosophy[!]

Now the history of mind reveals pretty clearly that the thinker who decries metaphysics will actually hold metaphysical notions of three main types. For one thing, he will share the ideas of his age on ultimate questions, so far as such ideas do not run counter to his interests or awaken his criticisms. No one has yet appeared in human history, not even the most profoundly critical intellect, in whom no important idola theatri can be detected, but the metaphysician will at least be superior to his opponent in this respect, in that he will be constantly on guard against the surreptitious entrance and unquestioned influence of such notions.

In the second place, if he be a man engaged in any important enquiry, he must have a method, and he will be under a strong and constant temptation to make a metaphysics out of his method, that is, to suppose the universe ultimately of such a sort that his method must be appropriate and successful. Some of the consequences of succumbing to such a temptation have been abundantly evident in our discussion of the work of Kepler, Galileo, and Descartes.

Finally, since human nature demands metaphysics for its full intellectual satisfaction, no great mind can wholly avoid playing with ultimate questions, especially where they are powerfully thrust upon it by considerations arising from its positivist investigations, or by certain vigorous extra-scientific interests, such as religion. But inasmuch as the positivist mind has failed to school itself in careful metaphysical thinking, its ventures at such points will be apt to appear pitiful, inadequate, or even fantastic.