Last week I blogged a bit about Cian Dorr's review of Ladyman & Ross http://ndpr.nd.edu/review.cfm?id=19947.
I had a few more reflections:
1. At one point in his review Dorr writes, "If anyone can ever succeed in explaining category theory in a way that the larger philosophical community can understand"
I think a text that does this exists: Steve Awodey's (aptly named) Category Theory (OUP, 2006).
My remaining comments are about Dorr's concluding *Apologia* for analytic metaphysics.
2. Dorr writes, "Opening up some works of analytic metaphysics, the authors found a lot of arguments they didn't like. They concluded that they had nothing to learn from this tradition, and went on to write a book of metaphysics that is largely uninfluenced by anything written in mainstream metaphysics from the last forty years. But in focusing only on the arguments, they have missed what is best and most distinctive about the tradition they set themselves against: its gradual raising of the standards of clarity and explicitness in the statement of metaphysical claims. It is this, rather than any supposed consensus about the appropriate methods of argument, that constitutes analytic metaphysics's strongest claim to be part of the story of the advance of human knowledge."
There can be no doubt that Dorr is right to say that L&R attempted to bypass contemporary metaphysics and in doing so missed out on some important virtues.
I was amused to see, however, that Dorr's defense of contemporary metaphysics, (which echoes a claim made in a very illuminating review of L&R by Kathleen Hawley, http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/~kjh5/OnlinePapers/EveryThingMustGoReview.pdf), *turns not on the arguments or its progress toward truth*, but rather on the raising of standards of clarity and explicitness. This is very much in the spirit of David Lewis (who only gets mentioned in a footnote by Dorr), who had taught that we can get clear on the costs and benefits of certain metaphysical moves (see his lovely underrated methodological dialogue with Stephanie Lewis, Holes). Yet, it echoes the claim by the Scholastics against the philosophical newcomers of the 17th century. Compared to the sophisticated distinctions and clarifications of the Scholastics, Descartes and Galileo and the other "new philosophers" were really philosophical amateurs (and objectively lowered the standards of philosophical argument as anyone who has looked at Suarez can tell you). (Hawley, incidentally, defends analytic metaphysics for its neo-scholastic virtues--this seems to me the most promising and also most credible approach.)
3. Dorr continues "Ironically, analytic metaphysicians have been much more gripped by the kinds of concern that motivated Hume and the positivists than are the authors of Every Thing Must Go. Much of what is distinctive about the analytic way of doing metaphysics is meant to guard against the danger that we might accidentally lapse into nonsense, or launch into disputes that turn out to be merely verbal. This explains the focus, dominant since Quine, on theses that can be stated using familiar everyday words ('there are no numbers', 'everything with more than one part is alive', and so on). When analytic metaphysicians do introduce technical vocabulary without defining it explicitly in ordinary terms, their approach tends to be tentative and defensive: they propose logical constraints on the new vocabulary, and attempt to draw connections between it and questions expressed in more familiar terms, in the hopes of thereby imposing enough discipline on its use to fend off the charge of unintelligibility. This applies, in particular, to discussions about the "fundamental" and the "derivative". Concerned that such discussions have, in the past, come unmoored from any standards of meaningfulness -- most notoriously, in the work of the British Idealists to which Russell and Moore were reacting (and which, interestingly, has many echoes in Every Thing Must Go) -- metaphysicians who are willing to talk in these terms at all have attempted to impose some discipline, by requiring those who want to claim that X is more fundamental than Y to describe an adequately expressive language for talking about X without mentioning Y. In the work of philosophers as disparate as Russell, Carnap, Prior, Armstrong and Fine, this constraint has been enormously fruitful: it has given us a much more fine-grained understanding of the range of possible views about the fundamental nature of the world, and of the challenges they face."
This paragraph is full of quite breathtaking even ironical historical claims. A) If by "positivists" Dorr means either Comte and his followers or (more likely) the Logical Positivists of the Vienna Circle then much of contemporary metaphysics runs afoul of the verificationist and scientistic commitments of both movements. B) Much contemporary scholarship has tried to read as a kind of naturalist, but I agree with Don Baxter that Hume was a genuine metaphysician. But Hume wished to constrain his metaphysics by considerations of utility (just read his Introduction to the Treatise and his criticism of the false claim to exactness by geometry) in order to improve the human sciences, and I don't think that by those lights much contemporary metaphysics will pass muster. C) Note how Dorr links L&R with the failings of the British Idealists. I do wonder if Dorr has gone back to the British Idealists to see if they really are as unintelligible (as our analytic founding mythology maintains). D) Dorr is right to say that a wide variety of analytic philosophers have explored the technical details and characteristics of formal languages. But the question is has this really "given us a much more fine-grained understanding of the range of possible views about the fundamental nature of the world"? Why think that? Here there is a commitment (inherited, by the way, from the Idealists) that somehow the study of the structure of language has anything to teach about the range of ways in which the world can be. But (ever since Locke) if the history of physics has taught us anything, it is that the world keeps surprising us in ways that force us to develop (or deploy) ever new (and stranger) languages. (Call this my pessimistic meta induction about the very possibility of characterizing the fundamental language.)
Finally, Dorr concludes with the following:
4. "Alas, the alienated approach of Every Thing Must Go seems likely, if it has any effect at all on analytic metaphysicians, merely to confirm a few more of them in their impression that no one has yet shown how developments in the sciences might be relevant to their concerns."
I was a bit amazed by this last claim because there have been quite a few people (several of them contributors to this blog) who have embraced a project along the lines of the metaphysics of science or issues in causation. Moreover, there has been quite lively analytic literature in the philosophy of space/time that deals with recognizably metaphysical questions. So this made me wonder what the "concerns" are that Dorr is alluding to? For, the whole point of L&R's project is to claim that if metaphysical concerns are not in some way responsive to (or motivated by) the sciences then they are not really worthy of interest. Now I have criticized L&R for this dogmatism on this blog before. But contemporary metaphysicians often want it both ways: on the one hand they appeal to scientific virtues of various sort and claim to be studying a topic that relates to "the fundamental nature of the world," yet, on the other hand, when scientifically informed criticism arises they claim it is irrelevant to their (unspecified) "concerns." (Again, I think Hawley meets that challenge in her review.)
Okay, this went on too long, alas.