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The Spike Victoria University College Review 1944

The Metaphysic of Interestingness

page 22

The Metaphysic of Interestingness

This Essay suggests that the first question to be asked about any given thing by those in whom the metaphysical instinct is strong is' How real is it?' To those who will grant that this is the case the essay points out that we cannot put real things in their proper perspective unless we recognise that when we ask 'How real is X?' we are asking 'How interesting is X?'

Interesting is used in a very ordinary sense. Any single person could build his own metaphysical structure from his private opinions as to what is interesting. Indeed we may expect that all the most interesting metaphysical systems will have a highly personal architecture. But the first sentences of some metaphysical systems will have a more public interestingness than those of others. And in as much as we wish to talk about a science of metaphysics, we shall in this essay endeavour to talk about publicly interesting metaphysical sentences.

Taking up our argument in earnest, we put the question, 'What is the value of metaphysics?' and Why do we bother about such a science?' Here it is most instructive to refer to F. H. Bradley's remark, in the preface to 'Appearance and Reality, 'that' Metaphysics is finding bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct, but to find those reasons is no less an instinct.' This epigram points many morals. The first on which we would place emphasis is that we speculate on metaphysical topics not for the sake of what we can prove, but because we are made that way. The second is that it is very easy to lose your way in such an enquiry and end up by trying to do something absurd.

From this we should conclude that even if metaphysics has a value in its own right, which we must pursue, we can only steer clear of trouble by looking backwards to see whether what we are doing is of any use to us in our everyday life.

To quote Baldwin's Dictionary of Philosophy, the aim of metaphysics is to make' a synthetic statement in ultimate terms of the nature of the real, so far as that is obtainable from the human standpoint.' We have argued that before trying to make such statements, we should ask how it is going to help us to be able to make them, and should not be guilty of setting out to prove what we already know. In this it will be observed that we believe as Bradley did not, that the topics of metaphysics are not ultimate truths (for their reference is utterly beyond us) and that its proper study is the topography of phenomena.

On the other hand it is necessary to insist that it is impossible to get out of making metaphysical assertions. And this not merely in the sense that, as a philosopher said, the man who asserts that there is no metaphysics thereby asserts a rival metaphysics of his own. But because at every turn of our daily life, as well as in our most ambitious projects of thought, we are forced to decide whether this or that is real or unreal, important or unimportant, significant or insignificant. We may like to pursue the elusive, but hardly the illusory.

If metaphysics is a statement about reality from a human standpoint, then it is the pattern or structure we find when we look back over our decisions as to what is real. We must be careful about trying to make deductions from what we can see of this pattern. We may be justified if we claim that the study of metaphysics has helped us to put things in perspective. We should be rash, and criminal, if we claimed to have deduced facts about what transcends human experience.

However, in order to take stock of our many statements about what is real, we shall probably want to find some way of interpreting them in other terms. Otherwise they will be unmanageable. Since we cannot have any knowledge of what transcends human experience, we have to interpret reality in terms of ourselves. There is some prejudice against this. We commonly think of the real as being page 23 the world about us, or when we take a more inclusive view, we regard ourselves as litle wiggly bits of the world, which is inconsistent with our behaving as if the things which give us pleasure, the things of the mind, the values of art and the moral values were also real. So to restore our perspective we have to interpret the adjective real by some other adjective. This essay puts forward the word 'interesting.' And the more we think about this adjective, first suggested by C. J. Ducasse, the better it seems.

In conclusion, we would state that our motto in philosophy is that we must have lived through a philosophy before we formulate it as a system. The only person in whom solipsism is good manners is an oyster. The only person who has any right to a transcendent theology is God. Men may compare notes with other men about what it is like being a man.

James Witten-Hannah