Lev Shestov has some very funny critiques of metaphysics in All Things are Possible . In one section, he compares the differences between metaphysics and positivism to styles of painting:

“In each there is the same horizon, but the composition and colouring are different. Positivism chooses grey, colorless paint and ordinary composition; metaphysics prefers brilliant colouring and complicated design, and always carries the vision away into the infinite; in which trick it often succeeds, owing to its skill in perspective. But the canvass is impervious, there is no melting through it into ‘the other world.’ Nevertheless, skilful perspectives are very alluring, so that metaphysicians will still have something to quarrel about with the positivists” (25).

In another section, Shestov notes that in some “savage tribes,” the people believe that the king eats no food, since he is no ordinary mortal. To keep up the illusion, the king withdraws behind a purple veil to eat. Shestov says, “Metaphysicians remind one of these savage kings . . . .

“They want everyone to believe that empiricism, which means all reality and substantial existence, is nothing to them, they need only pure ideas for their existence. In order to keep up this fiction, they appear before the world invested in a purple veil of fine words. The crowd knows perfectly well that it is all a take-in, but since it likes shows and brought colours, and since also it has no ambition to appear too knowing, it rarely betrays that it has caught the trick of the comedy. On the contrary, it loves to pretend to be fooled, knowing by instinct that actors do their best when the audience believes implicitly in what happens.” Nobody points it out, but “the metaphysician are unable to explain anything” and have “not been able to present even a single hypothesis free from contradiction (33-35).

Now what is one to do in response to such an onslaught, if he believes, as I do, that some sort of metaphysics is well-night inevitable? A starting point is to accept Shestov’s critique insofar as it is what DH Lawrence says it is, “a shaking free of the human psyche from old bonds.”

A sober, serious response plays into Shestov’s hands, showing that the philosopher is indeed what Shestov says he is, “a clown of lofty ideas.” Serious metaphysicians may win in logic but they lose in rhetoric. What’s needed in response, it seems, is a metaphysics as funny as Shestov’s anti-metaphysics. That’s hard to do, because it’s easier to be funny while subverting than while constructing. But there are examples, the leading one being Chesterton: Not only in substance but in style Chesterton is the model metaphysician for the cynical and hyper-ironic present.

More on: Philosophy

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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