Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Metametaphysics in Barcelona/some distinctions

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 a 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?).


Dan López de Sa said...

Hey Robbie!

Many thanks for the pointer, I look forward to seeing many of you there!

I guess the model for ‘meta-metaphysics’ is that of ‘meta-ethics’ we are fairly familiar with. So to the extent to which the latter can be seen as philosophical reflection on the status of certain disputes in ethics, meta-metaphysics could be regarded as that with respect to metaphysics.

I think this might subsume nicely what you described as first and third projects, and part of the second (and other parts of it are quite “first-order,” aren’t they?). I agree however that it easily would raise general issues in meta-philosophy. But so it is the case with meta-ethics, and it is anyway what one would expect given the (non-)nature of “disciplines” in philosophy, don’t you agree?

Robbie Williams said...

Hey Dan,

Yeah, I agree with most of what you say, especially the stuff about the non-nature of disciplines in phil.

I guess I don't think of "meta X" primarily as indicating philosophical reflection on the status of disputes in X, but rather, philosophical reflection on the notions distinctive of X-theorizing. At least, I want to claim that that makes sense of what's going on in some of the literature.

I'm not over familiar with how the metaethics debate goes. But my paradigms for metaethics are e.g. which expressivist theory to choose, or which realist theory of moral properties to choose, which are rival views on the metaphysics (and logic) of first-order ethical theories, and not obviously concerned with the status of disputes, whether in applied ethics or normative ethics. (Of course, there'll always be interaction: e.g. expressivists as a group and realists as a group will regard ethical disputes in applied ethics differently. But that's sort of epiphenomenal).

I'm thinking of the second category of "metametaphysics" as the philosophical examination of notions that are distinctive to metaphysics. So in the same way that studying e.g. the metaphysics of superpositions is part of metaphysics of science, the philosophical examination of ontological commitment or naturalness is part of the philosophy of metaphysics, and in that sense, metametaphysics. (That's compatible with it also being metaphysics).

Brit had some similar concerns over at T&T. Hopefully I'm not just adding to the confusion by trying to "disambiguate" a term with a clear meaning!

Robbie Williams said...

Just for completeness, here's an attempt (reproduced from the comments over at T&T) to capture three sense of "meta X" that map onto the three sense I thought I saw of "metametaphysics"

(i)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 (alternatives to) presuppositions that as a matter of contingent fact have become entrenched in the study of X (perhaps within a specific community).

Robbie Williams said...

Sorry, final thought. I guess one autobiographical reason for wanting to disentangle this stuff, is that while I find (ii) and (iii) rock my boat, and what I say about them may have consequences for (i) (in that e.g. the position I like on ontological commitment gives *one* sense in which debates over composition can be settled by stipulation), I'm not really animated by (i) itself as a philosophical project.

What I'm *particularly* left cold by is the search for some criterion by which we could demarcate which debates are genuine and which terminological (or whatever); and relatedly, the attempt to argue in the abstract about the methodology of metaphysics. Insofar as I'm interested in (i), it's in questions like: how on earth could debates over composition be settled by stipulation? What presuppositions would I have to drop to get that to make sense?

I don't like the more abstract and methodological questions mostly because I'm really pessimistic of making decent progress on those points. But I've noticed that lots of stuff in the metametaphysics literature that looks more progressive and interesting, and that's what I value when I read it.