Speculative Metaphysics with Applications: A Whiteheadian Way Forward

A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house.

Matthew xiii, 57

1. Metaphysics since Whitehead

Whitehead wrote his finest and most difficult work Process and Reality in the 1920s, as one of a rash of grand metaphysical treatises, including Alexander’s Space, Time and Deity and McTaggart’s The Nature of Existence. But in the same decade the Vienna Circle was putting forward its anti-metaphysical programme: scientistic positivism and the deflationary effects of later linguistic philosophy contrived to keep metaphysics down for the best part of half a century, at least in analytic philosophy. The slow recovery came through the rise of logical and linguistic semantics, and through Whitehead’s student Quine’s discussion of ontological commitment. Metaphysics Lite re-emerged in Britain with Strawson’s Individuals, while other recalcitrant metaphysicians such as the Iowa school in the USA and the Australian materialists more unabashedly broached metaphysical themes. As the dampening influence of Wittgenstein and ordinary language philosophy waned, metaphysics began to re-emerge. The work of Kripke and others on the semantics of modal logic brought the philosophy of language and metaphysical speculation closer together. The direct confrontations of David Armstrong with the metaphysics of universals and of David Lewis with the metaphysics of modality finally saw metaphysics shake off its dependence on the linguistic turn, its subservience to semantics and the philosophy of language, and over the past quarter century there has been a spectacular flowering of metaphysical discussion of all kinds.

Analytic metaphysics is one of the liveliest and healthiest branches of philosophy, but all is not well within the analytic house. This is not because there is controversy and lack of agreement: these are endemic in philosophy, and generally welcome in the free market of ideas. Rather it is because of the culture of analytic philosophy itself. The very success of analytic philosophy in the anglophone world, and its widespread influence in other linguistic communities, has had some undesirable side-effects.[1]

One has been to encourage a puzzle-solving culture in philosophy. Analytic philosophy was born in a welter of puzzles and paradoxes, and earned its spurs taming them. There has been no shortage of puzzles to replace the old ones about sets and liars and the unreality of time: vague objects, personal identity and survival, time-travel and the metaphysics of persistence and change have all called forth vast literatures of considerable wit and intelligence. But the optical effect of philosophers spending time on what from outside may easily seem frivolities rather than serious problems is demeaning. Surely such an old and noble subject cannot have been reduced to the level of Sudoku? Of course there is often seriousness to the issues debated, but it can easily become lost in the excitement and the attendant vocabulary. Secondly, the tendency among many analytic philosophers has been to imitate the method of natural science and try to do work “at the cutting edge”, relying only on the latest literature. This is a recipe for wheel-reinvention. Philosophy is not a natural science, and the theories and concepts of its less recent past are not absorbed and superseded by its latest developments. Thirdly, not all good philosophy is done in English, even today, when English has come to hold a place not unlike that of Latin in the Middle Ages. Good philosophy regularly appears in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, Polish, Portuguese, and in other languages. And finally, the cut-throat competition for academic positions in philosophy practically ensures that the only way aspiring young philosophers can get a start is to specialize minutely, whether in some corner of philosophy, or in some corner of its history. All of these factors, while they reflect welcome high technical standards and professionalization, both characters Whitehead exemplified, militate against just those other personal requirements for doing metaphysics that Whitehead represented to near-perfection in his person: long and slow maturation, cross-disciplinary competence, historical depth, synoptic breadth, the willingness to balance local precision with global approxim­ation, and above all, that equilibrium between clarity and importance that signals wisdom.

It is then perhaps little wonder that Whitehead is no prophet with honour in his own country, Britain, or among his own kin, analytic philosophers. His former student Bertrand Russell, who himself advocated that we “stock the mind with as many puzzles as possible”,[2] and a swift developer, damned Whitehead’s mature philosophy with the faintest of praise, once their ways had parted. The whole culture of anglophone analytic philosophy is inimical to Whitehead. And this is not healthy for metaphysics, because Whitehead is the greatest metaphysician of the twentieth century. His example and work, difficult and at times frustrating though it is, cannot be ignored if metaphysics is to take the next major step forward and not fall back into the ineffectual chatter of mini-factions, ignored by the wider world.

2. The Method of Speculative Philosophy

In ‘Speculative Philosophy’, the notoriously abstract and difficult first chapter of PR, Whitehead sets out the requirements on speculative philosophy, in particular metaphysics, with a clarity and boldness that seeks its equal anywhere in philosophy. The validity of these requirements, in effect Whitehead’s Prolegomena, can be maintained irrespective of whether Whitehead’s own process philosophy is materially correct or not. I happen to think Whitehead is indeed materially correct in several important respects, and incorrect in others. But this is not the place to go into content. Even those who disagree wholesale with Whitehead (whether or not they have taken the trouble to try to understand him), if they take metaphysics seriously as a fundamental discipline of philosophy, would do well to read his chapter through carefully, several times, and absorb its message.

Before proceeding to Whitehead’s positive characterization of the speculative method, it is worth dwelling on two negative aspects of his account, criticising extant or previous approaches to metaphysics. Well-taken as they are, they help to explain why Whitehead’s work was not well received by philosophers, a fate he presciently foresaw. The first is that everyday language is inadequate for metaphysics. Everyday language exists and is the success it is because it serves practical uses: we can say (Whitehead did not) that it confers evolutionary advantage. It must do, otherwise there would not be so many humans on the planet. That does not make it suitable for metaphysics, because as Whitehead points out, the principles of metaphysics have to be applicable to everything, so there can be no circumstances where its principles “take a holiday” and are conspicuous by their absence (PR 4). By contrast, elephants are sometimes around and sometimes not, and when they are, it matters. So Mill’s Method of Difference cannot be used to ferret out the metaphysical concepts and principles as it often can in special sciences, and the background metaphysical generalities will not be discerned by examining the tacit presuppositions of everyday language. So much for ordinary language philosophy and descriptive metaphysics.

Secondly, and more surprisingly, coming from a mathematician, Whitehead denies that the mathematical or axiomatic method can be simply wheeled out for metaphysics. Whether or not Whitehead had absorbed the revolution in understanding of axiomatics brought about by Hilbert—and he would certainly have known it, and considered the issue in connection with the axioms of Principia, whether he agreed or not—he was adamant that the self-evidence or obviousness supposedly necessary for a good axiom set must be lacking in the case of metaphysics, which consists not in rigorous deductions from objective certainties but in a crabwise groping towards the expression of ultimate generalities we grasp at best imperfectly. Any actual axiomatic metaphysics is bound to be false, and that goes for his own system as well. The importance of logical deduction is considerable: only when a speculative scheme is stated as boldly and exactly as possible, can its logical consequences be teased out and tested against scientific and everyday experience.

The true method of metaphysics then cannot be other than that practised by good natural science: it is abductive. Explanations are framed in terms of concepts borrowed or constructed, and checked against the testimony of experience. If the explanatory framework holds up under the strain better than any rivals, it is provisionally acceptable; if not, revision is required. But unlike science, metaphysics is a theory of absolutely everything, and cannot be allowed to leave problematic issues on one side for another science to deal with. Whitehead therefore at the beginning of PR sets out four interlocked requirements on a metaphysical system. It must be (1) consistent, (2) coherent, (3) adequate, and (4) applicable.

Consistency means that the system does not entail any contradiction, formal or material. But as Whitehead knew from the paradoxes of mathematics, inconsistencies may lurk undetected in apparently consistent theories. Once again, surprisingly for a logician, Whitehead is relatively less concerned about consistency than the other requirements. It is a desideratum, certainly, and an inconsistent theory cannot be completely true, but Whitehead cautions against drawing overdramatic conclusions from inconsistencies. All an inconsistency shows is that some premises or other in one’s reasoning are incompatible with one another. It does not highlight which, nor does it signal the remedy, which must be discerned by careful thought. Others of Whitehead’s conditions being satisfied, it is better to have a coherent, adequate, applicable and inconsistent theory than a consistent theory which fails one or more of the other conditions.

Coherence is a most important requirement and is peculiar to metaphysics. It is required that the primitive concepts of the theory form a collection such that none of them makes sense in the absence of the others: “the fundamental ideas, in terms of which the scheme is developed, presuppose each other, so that in isolation they are meaningless” (PR 3). This marks out metaphysical from everyday concepts, which are typically relatively independent of one another. It is a requirement that even today most metaphysicians seem neither to know or care about. It is generally assumed in metaphysics that a sort of generalized Ockhamist parsimony principle obtains, so that other things being equal, one should attempt to get by with as few primitive notions as possible. Coherence is much stronger than parsimony: it requires the fundamental ideas to form a unified conceptual bloc, so that each one is intelligible only in terms of the others. This means we cannot exit the bloc to define the concepts in terms of more primitive ones, which is simply the metaphysical predicament. If a fundamental metaphysical idea seems to dangle loosely from the system, it is either redundant, or not fundamental, or the system is still incomplete. Fulfilling the coherence condition is perhaps the hardest single intellectual task a metaphysician faces, but as long as coherence is not attained, there is work still to be done.

Adequacy is the requirement that everything in the world be tractable in the terms of the system. It should be a platitude, following from the definition of metaphysics, but Whitehead goes out of his way to praise Locke for the adequacy of his philosophy, to which no subject is alien (PR 51). Whitehead is not one of those facile critics of Locke who fancy themselves clever because they can point out the latter’s petty inconsistencies. On the contrary, in line with his own mature attitude to the inevitability of error and inconsistency in any comprehensive metaphysical system, Whitehead elevates Locke far above his critics.

Applicability is a sort of converse to adequacy, since it requires that every part of the metaphysical system find some use somewhere. There are to be no emptily turning wheels in the mechanism. Obviously metaphysical applicability may be something that takes times and effort to turn up, just as it does in mathematics sometimes. But the requirement of applicability is again one to which the majority of metaphysicians pay at best lip-service, most being content to worst their metaphysical rivals in debate and occasionally look to a philosophical debate to try their theory’s mettle. Whitehead really does mean application to non-philosophical areas. Obviously his own main interests centred on natural science, though he also wrote at some length about the history of culture and education. However, qua theory of everything, metaphysics should be in principle able to go anywhere and consider whether metaphysical concepts can bring enlightenment or conceptual clarity. We shall consider certain unusual areas of application later.

Overarching all these important conditions is the general methodological requirement that metaphysics like natural science be revisable in the light both of recalcitrant experience and of exposed conceptual weakness. Metaphysicians are by comparison with other thinkers especially prone to go wrong. The reasons are various: human intellectual limitations, the difficulties of being comprehensive, the need to attend to detail as well as system, stubbornness and irrational attachment to pet ideas, as well as fashion and vanity, and the ridiculous and unscientific cult of the individual genius, which means that philosophers who practise solid collaboration get less credit than high-profile zanies. When done properly, metaphysics is supremely hard, and that is one reason why it advances so slowly and uncertainly. It also means that a really outstanding metaphysician like Whitehead is worth his weight in gold as an example to be cherished and, with due care, imitated.

3. The Centrality of Categories to Metaphysics

Whitehead wrote, “Philosophy will not regain its proper status until the gradual elaboration of categoreal schemes, definitely stated at each stage of progress, is recognized as its proper objective. There may be rival schemes, inconsistent among themselves; each with its own merits and its own failures. It will then be the purpose of research to conciliate the differences. Metaphysical categories are not dogmatic statements of the obvious; they are tentative formulations of the ultimate generalities.” (PR 8)

Whitehead’s assessment of the importance of categories to speculative metaphysics is as true today as it was when he wrote it, and if anything it is heeded even less today than then. Modern analytic philosophy takes less notice of questions of classification than earlier philosophical epochs. Partly this is because the subject developed out of concerns in the philosophy of mathematics, where classification is not a serious issue; partly (and not unconnectedly) it is because the ubiquity of sets, those ontological jacks-of-all-trades, means there seems to be no shortage of “classes” to classify things; and partly it is because the legacy of ordinary language philosophy was to stress the contours of language constrained by everyday usage rather than systematic intent. The linguistic turn, whether logic-driven or ordinary-language-driven, has been uniformly disastrous for philosophical consideration about classification in general and categories in particular, so it is small wonder that anyone intent on reviving this interest has to look back to the work of pre-turners such as Whitehead, Samuel Alexander, C. S. Peirce, H. W. B. Joseph and John Anderson for inspiration.

The point about having an account of categories in one’s metaphysics is not to stress classification for its own sake, but because it is conducive to the requirements of coherence, applicability and adequacy. Without the drive to system, metaphysics, no matter how locally insightful, becomes mere dabbling. A conceptual framework for metaphysics can only stand a chance of being systematic and relatively robust by working with a system of categories as envisaged by Whitehead, since it is by their exhaustiveness and their mutual interrelation that the categories allow us to check that in an ontological assay of any subject matter nothing essential has been omitted and no special case has been overlooked.

Whitehead somewhat savagely overextends the term ‘category’. His category of the ultimate is no category in any traditional sense, simply the epitome of the basic cell of creation, the becoming of a new actual occasion. The eight categories of existence are categories in the traditional Aristotelian sense, the basic kinds of entity. His categories of explanation and categorial obligations are best considered as explanatory, heuristic and definitional principles.

Aristotle’s categories are intended to divide reality at the joints and give us fundamental classes of thing. They presuppose a harmony between language and the world which can no longer be taken for granted. Kant’s categories on the other hand range more widely and cover logical features such as negation, universality and modality, but are not intended to divide reality in itself. In fact we seem to need both Aristotelian, ontic categories, which do divide reality, and Kantian, auxiliary categories, which are concepts we find indispensable to our cognitive commerce with the world, even though they correspond to nothing in the world itself.[3] Typical auxiliary categories are existence, identity, negation, universality and other logical constants, and necessity, while typical ontic categories are the relational oppositions part/whole, one/many, dependent/independent, causation, and the spatiotemporal relations.

Auxiliary categories are extended by certain general-purpose cognitive operations which generate novel objects of thought for cognitive ease, notably abstraction, which is very familiar, and the less familiar operation of complexification. The multifarious results of applying these cognitive operations include the sets, numbers and other abstract items investigated by pure mathematics, as well as the means and other weighted moments of statistics. Philosophical ontologies are particularly prone to accept what appear to us to be auxiliary categories as real: typical popular modern instances are sets, universals, states of affairs and possible worlds. These and their combinations are in considerable demand to provide ample models for various domains of discourse.

The distinction between ontic and auxiliary categories, a distinction too rarely made, is difficult not because the distinction itself is difficult but because it is highly difficult in practice to decide of a putative category whether it is ontic or auxiliary. Negation is one case in point: its assumption among entities caused a near-riot in Harvard in 1914 when Russell assumed there are negative facts, and most philosophers consider their robust sense of reality to exclude real negation, but its exclusion from the world, in the light of its cognitive ubiquity, always remains aspirational rather than proven. A more clearly controversial example is provided by various forms of modal realism such as Lewis’s concrete possible worlds. These are both hard to accept and yet appealingly useful.

If category schemes were just lists of top-level classes, as is often assumed in philosophy, then they would indeed be of only marginal interest. One would simply in principle wait until the disputes about the most indispensable high-level concepts had been resolved, and publish the table somewhere as an appendix. But that is not how categories should work. In any ontological theory barring one which is mono­categorial, there is a plurality of categories, and the question arises as to what really keeps items in the categories apart from one another. Assuming we are not going to subscribe to some form of linguistic or other relativism, there are really only two reasonable answers. The first is that the ontic categories are brutely distinct: no explanation or account is possible, they are simply and brutely different. The trouble with this is that when discussing how the items in the different categories differ we are never reduced to mere silence. Rather we are able to continue the discussion. For example the traditional distinction between substances and their accidents is discussed in terms of the relative independence of substances by comparison with the one-sided dependence of accidents on their substances. Also substances are often considered independent wholes, their accidents as partial. This and other examples compel us to consider a range of concepts which characterize the ontological differences among the basic classes of entity as formal generators of the classes, more ontologically fundamental than the classes themselves.[4] The idea is not new: Aristotle’s oppositions in a subject/not in a subject and said of a subject/not said of a subject are the factors setting up the substance/accident and universal/particular distinctions in the Categories, while the more elaborate system of existential moments employed by Roman Ingarden in his Controversy over the Existence of the World are precisely such formal factors underpinning the more traditional classification of entities into things, properties, relations, states of affairs etc. in that work.

The fundamental ontic categories are therefore formal (topic-neutral) factors, not classes of entity. They are however involved in the delimitation of classes of entity. They are all what Whitehead would call “ultimates which are actual in virtue of their accidents” (PR 7) that is, they exist not autonomously but only in so far as they inform the division of actual entities. Unlike Whitehead, we consider there to be several such fundamentals, and they are not entities but formal relations (part–whole, numerical difference, ontic dependence, causation, spatiotemporal location).

For category systems to “bite” in reality they have to feed into the actual account of entities found in everyday discourse and in the schemes of the sciences. Fortunately, the ontic categories of part–whole and number, dependence, causation and location are obviously ubiquitous, and the same goes for whatever auxiliary categories such as negation, existence and modality need to be brought to bear to discourse intelligently about any subject matter. By digging beneath the surface to formal factors rather than resting with lists of entities, category theory clearly retains its importance despite the upheavals caused by scientific revision. Apart from systematic biology and librarianship, few sciences expend much effort on considering the formal principles of classification or taxonomy generally, but simply forge ahead. This is a pity, as with some little effort the general requirement of adequate taxonomy can be matched to the extant taxonomic practices, which in the natural sciences at least, are relatively robust.

Like Whitehead’s categories of explanation, a system of categories should embody not just a list of items but a catalogue of fundamental principles applicable to the categories, taken singly and together. It is indeed their working together which constitutes fulfilment of the requirement of category coherence. Some progress has been made on several of our ontic categories, notably part–whole,[5] dependence,[6] one/many[7] and spatiotemporal location.[8] Causation has proved a harder nut to crack, and it may be that the common-or-garden concept of causation is too ambiguous or multi-faceted to remain undivided and unrevised. Nevertheless the ideal of a closed axiomatic treatment of the categories remains before us as an aspiration.

4. Grand Speculative Hypotheses

Metaphysics consists on the one hand of formal ontology, the go-anywhere conceptual framework, and on the other of what we may call systematics. As biological systematics is the study of the diversity of organisms, so metaphysical systematics is the study of the diversity of all things, of no matter what kind. Formal ontology is a relatively tightly circumscribed area concerning the proposal and appraisal of systems of categories, ontic in particular. As such it is subject to the kinds of detailed debate in which analytic metaphysics excels. Systematics is somewhat different. Being metaphysics, and not a special science, it cannot rest content with piecemeal development and addition, but must take place within a more speculative framework, since it is indeed intended to cover all being. A good systematic metaphysician can therefore not shy away from making bold speculative conjectures, since without them there is little prospect of systematicity, just a hodge-podge. Let us consider some examples, starting of course with Whitehead.

Whitehead’s metaphysics embodies several such speculations. The first is his assumption that the concrete has priority over the abstract. This informed his nature philosophy before being transferred to his mature process philosophy. Another is his acceptance of indeterminism for actual occasions. A third is his assumption that actual occasions are monads which are “all window”, i.e. whose nature is determined by the entities they prehend. A fourth is his atomism: the actual occasions have no parts. This, a revision over the “gunky” atomless event theory of his middle period, seems to have been a response to Zeno, one I personally do not think he was forced to make. A fifth is his panpsychism or pan-experientialism, according to which all creatures are crypto-mental and their concrescence is a subjective development. This is the aspect of Whitehead’s metaphysics that I most highly deplore. I think it is an evasion of the problems about mentality and when feeling uncharitable I consider it little more than Victorian sentimentality. Further speculations are the acceptance of eternal objects and of God, with both of which I likewise disagree. So we can see that Whitehead is not afraid to speculate, and as we know he is duly modest about his chances of success. But it would be wrong to castigate Whitehead for speculating. Speculation is unavoidable: what matters is how well it is done and what the results are. In the end, metaphysical systems are not compared at the level of detail but as wholes. In this regard Whitehead’s is a contender, albeit on my view a failed one.

Whitehead’s one-time student Quine, who in his youth disdained metaphysics, and under the influence of Carnap never took it with undue seriousness, in the end did offer a speculative metaphysical scheme, albeit one of considerable plainness. In Quine’s view the world consisted of sets, and possibly of the objects of fundamental physics as well. This parsimonious platonistic ontology was defended as of a piece with his semantic holism, and it is quite hermetic and difficult to criticise in its own terms. This is indeed the mark of a systematic thinker, and Quine was certainly that, despite his generally antimetaphysical bent. The only sensible response to Quine’s metaphysics is either immersion or rejection, and I join everyone else in the latter, while marking my admiration for Quine’s Konsequenz as a logician–metaphysician. It was Quine more than anyone who broke down the barrier of apartheid between science and metaphysics that allowed the subject to go on and flourish in the later twentieth century.

Quine’s one-time student David Lewis had an equally uncompromising metaphysical vision and like Quine was extremely adept at both securing it against criticism and exploring its internal ramifications. Lewis’s extreme concretism and realism about possible worlds coupled with his generally Humean view of the worlds’ inhabitants as separate mutually unconditioned individuals surely represents the late twentieth century’s most impressive metaphysical system. Like Quine’s before it, it has inspired much admiration and controversy, and little emulation. Perhaps speculative meta­physicians are generally destined to be loners.

Another outstanding metaphysician who has driven towards system is David Armstrong. Armstrong’s metaphysical career has been less one of expounding a single blinding vision than of working diligently from solid empiricist and materialist beginnings through argument and counterargument to an overall metaphysical position which amalgamates aspects of Aristotelian realism about universals and laws of nature with Russellian logical atomism about states of affairs as truthmakers. Armstrong is a physicalist but like his mentor Russell he is prepared to be led where arguments lead him, if need be to revisions of his own position. Armstrong was not the first late 20th century metaphysician to reject the linguistic turn,[9] but he has been perhaps the most influential.

In the metaphysically post-glacial climate of early post-positivism is was relatively easy for the timorous to be an ontologist, since that could be neatly linked to “acceptable” areas of philosophy such as logic and philosophy of language, equipped with model-theoretic semantics and an account of “ontological commitment”. But that compromise was always unstable and the transition to franker acceptance of speculative hypotheses in the traditional grand manner has affected me just as much as it is now unquestioned second nature for my younger colleagues. My own speculative hypotheses are particularism (sometimes unhappily called ‘nominalism’) and naturalism. Both sound harmless enough but are quite far-reaching. The former is the weaker and less firmly held of the convictions, since it may be that some abstraction reveals rather than constructs, but it is consonant with aspects of naturalism. As I understand naturalism, it is not physicalism, the attempt to say everything in the language of physics, but the more sober yet still radical rejection of any actual entities not ontologically generable from entities falling within the bounds of nature. Naturalism accepts no unbridgeable ontic gulfs such as that between abstract acausal ideas and the concrete goings-on of the world, so it is anti-platonistic. It accepts no realm causally apart from or inexplicable in terms of the physical, such as the phenomenal or qualitative spaces beloved of mind-body dualists. It denies that life or mind are ontically emergent, i.e. require new ontic principles not otherwise discoverable in reality. Their complexity may be epistemically beyond us, now and maybe for evermore, but epistemic emergence is not the same as ontic. Anything as complicated as we are may have to be beyond our own comprehension. Finally it denies all supernatural agency, so is atheist. The source of major new knowledge is scientific investigation practised freely in an open society, and long may these flourish. So while being naturalist sounds flat and platitudinous, it entails views which in other times and places would get one burnt at the stake. Metaphysical speculation is not just an academic exercise.

5. Applications

Much of modern metaphysical discussion is taken up with what one might call chunky middle-sized theories, being about such issues as persons and survival, persistence and change, endurance vs perdurance, atomism vs gunkiness, determinism, presentism, absolute vs relational spacetime, the nature of laws and dispositions, the nature of causality and causal powers, whether there is ontic vagueness, whether qualia or other mental items are reducible to physical phenomena, and many more. This is in addition to traditional disputes about the necessity or dispensability of this or that putative ontic category such as possible worlds, substances, sets, states of affairs and so on. It is in these areas that the majority of metaphysical discussion goes on, and quite rightly so since they are internal philosophical issues. However, just as Whitehead was interested throughout his career, as mathematician, philosopher of nature and metaphysician, in the potential applications of his theories, so I think metaphysicians cannot and should not hide themselves away solely among other philosophers, but should get out into the world and proclaim the news that metaphysics is applicable outside philosophy. They will meet with some bemusement elsewhere in other subjects, but also some respect, interest and even gratitude; they will meet more regularly with amusement and on occasion derision from their peers in philosophy, as I have. No matter. Meta­physicians who do not think their theories have anything to say to anyone other than other metaphysicians, or at best to other philosophers in adjacent fields, simply do not understand or take seriously the relationship of their subject to other subjects. They should get out more.

In the following I shall mention just a few perhaps unexpected applications, they being ones where I have worked myself. Standard areas of application like physics and biology will be left on one side, though of course physics in particular drew Whitehead’s close attention.

Of the physical sciences, it is of course physics which claims most of the attention of the philosopher of science, because physics is fundamental, difficult and challenging. But sciences such as geology and physical geography have their ontologies just as does physics, and despite the much lesser technical difficulty of these subjects they can on occasion benefit from an ontologist’s attention. In the jumble of upland terrain, for example, the clear-cut features such as peaks, cliffs and corries[10] which are so beloved of textbook illustrators are frequently unforthcoming. What the geographer and cartographer finds is a much greater crowding of ontically ambiguous features with attendant difficulty of feature recognition and location, and insecurity of where to assign the names of features. These uncertainties are compounded by the fact that much uncharted and inaccessible terrain is nowadays mapped not by the traditional methods of ground surveying, but by the use of satellite photography and radar. Algorithms for converting raw height data on a rasterized terrain into maps with named features are variable in quantity and sensitivity, so a basis of fundamental types and recognition of how these shade into one another would appear to be a strong desideratum. When maps are no longer pieces of paper but large databases, it is more important than ever before that a sensible ontology of the features they portray should be able to cope with issues such as ambiguity, vagueness, transitional states, seasonal variation, changes in land use and much more.

One of the more unexpected ways in which metaphysics can play a positive and beneficial role outside its own subject area is in the monitoring and criticism of the ontology inherent in large databases, of which Geographical information Systems (GIS) form just one. Early database design had no benefit of philosophical input and yet as the demand for automated storage and control of large amounts of data grew it became increasingly important to the design of such databases that the ontology they describe should be accurate. Much design embodied such fundamental errors as confusing objects with their names, which is an error easier to commit than one might expect, since the machine storage of names and other data take similar forms in either case. Large database ontologies in medicine, genomics and other areas require careful design and monitoring to make sure that they are capable of fulfilling the tasks envisaged for them.[11]

Another area in which metaphysics turns out quite surprisingly to be of interest are in the practical disciplines of engineering and manufacture. The electronic documentation governing the design and manufacture of complex artefacts such as buildings, aircraft and ships is typically a very large hierarchical database organised along mereological principles. Engineering constraints mean that there are frequently considerable discrepancies between different versions of these databases used at different production stages: it takes a clear ontological assay of the discrepancies to allow project managers to cope with the differences other than by making the adjustments by hand or mentally.[12] In greater generality, philosophical reflection on the ontology of engineering turns out to be of interest both for engineers, who gain a seasoned general vocabulary, and for metaphysicians, who gain examples of real-life complexity against which to test their theories.

A final surprising area where ontological expertise can prove useful is in the design of complex enterprises themselves. Business models, no matter how strongly marketed by their proponents, are far too faddy and ephemeral to be of more than passing assistance to an enterprise designer or manager intent on adapting their organisation to the rigours of the global market and the rapid changes required of modern enterprises. Paradoxically, the relative stability and unexcitingness of philosophical ontology, its concern to maintain the perennial verities of Moorean common sense when dealing with everyday entities (as distinct from the revisionism properly required for fundamental ontology), provides a conceptual framework which is unlikely to be swept into oblivion by the next Harvard Business Review and so can be relied upon for long enough to actually plan, implement and monitor intelligent change.

If metaphysics is to to be taken seriously outside its own tight esoteric circle, at least some of its practitioners have to be prepared to venture outside the Philosophy Room. This does not require metaphysicians to lose their professional scruples and become mere popularizers, or leave their rigour behind them. On the contrary, they can best serve those who can benefit from their familiarity with abstract and difficult concepts by maintaining those standards. What they cannot do is expect those with complementary expertise to love their intricate controversies or acquire their vocabulary. Provided they can find sympathetic people who appreciate the enhanced clarity they can bring to difficult areas of disciplines that can use the help, they can show that, paradoxical though it may seem, even the most abstract of sciences can be of practical use.


[1] For more on the malaises of contemporary philosophy see Mulligan, Simons and Smith 2006.

[2] Russell 1956, 47. Russell’s injunction applied to logic and not necessarily to philosophy in general.

[3] Simons 2005.

[4] Cf. Simons 2004a. The idea is that the basis of ontological differences is not to be found among the entities divided is also supported by Jonathan Lowe: cf. Lowe 2006.

[5] Simons 1987

[6] Fine 1994, Lowe 1994.

[7] Simons 2007a.

[8] Simons 2004b.

[9] Other notable exceptions include Gustav Bergmann, Roderick Chisholm and Wilfrid Sellars.

[10] Cf. Simons 2007b.

[11] See among his many other papers on this issue Smith 2004.

[12] Simons and Dement 1996.

Works Cited and Further Readings

Fine, K. 1994. “Ontological Dependence”. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 95, 269-90.

Flower, Elizabeth and Murray G. Murphey. 1977. A History of Philosophy in America, Vols. 1-2 (New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons).

Lowe, E. J. 1994. “Ontological Dependency”. Philosophical Papers 23, 31-48

Lowe, E. J. 2006. The Four-Category Ontology: A Metaphysical Foundation for Natural Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Mulligan, K. Simons, P. M. and Smith, B. 2006. “What’s Wrong with Contemporary Philosophy?” Topoi 25, 63-67.

Russell, B. 1956. “On Denoting”. In Logic and Knowledge. London: Allen and Unwin, 41-56

Simons, P. M. 1987. Parts. Oxford: Clarendon.

Simons, P. M. 2004a. “Pourquoi presque tout—mais non pas exactement toute chose—est une entité”. In J.-M. Monnoyer, ed., La Structure du monde: Objets, Propriétés, Etats de choses. Renouveau de la métaphysique dans l’école australienne. Paris: Vrin, 2004, 265-276.

Simons, P. M. 2004b. “Location”. Dialectica 58 (2004), 341-7.

Simons, P. M. 2005. “The Reach of Correspondence: Two Kinds of Categories”. Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review 44, 551-562.

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Simons, P. M. 2007b. “Cliffs and Buttes: Metaphysics and Physical Geography”. In M. Lutz-Bachmann and T. M. Schmidt, eds., Metaphysik heute—Probleme und Perspektiven der Ontologie / Metaphysics Today—Problems and Prospects of Ontology. Freiburg/Br: Alber, 196-213.

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Smith, B. 2004. “Beyond Concepts: Ontology as Reality Representation”. In A. Varzi and L. Vieu (eds.), Formal Ontology in Information Systems. Proceedings of the Third International Conference (FOIS-2004).

Author Information

Peter Simons
British Academy Research Reader
School of Philosophy, University of Leeds

How to Cite this Article

Simons, Peter, “Speculative Metaphysics with Applications: A Whiteheadian Way Forward”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <http://encyclopedia.whiteheadresearch.org/entries/thematic/metaphysics/speculative-metaphysics-with-applications/>.