Jacques Maritain Center : General Metaphysics / by John Rickaby, S.J.


(1) THERE is in England a plain-spoken proverb which says, "Give a dog a bad name and hang him;" and there is, moreover, in England a bad name attaching to Metaphysics, with the result that our countrymen incline to treat that science after the manner in which they would treat the dog under a similar imputation. The ill-fame is in part due to ignorance, which not in every case produces the aggrandizing effect expressed by the words Omne ignotum pro magnifico, but sometimes, as in the present instance, acts in the contrary way, and has the vilifying effect signified in the adage, "Ignorance is the mother of prejudice." Metaphysics are supposed by the ignorant to be essentially what many writers have made them to be by abuse -- a wild dance of unintelligible speculations in the air. Again, there is a prejudice against them because no immediate results in pounds, shillings, and pence come of Metaphysics. Not only is it that a book published on the subject brings in no large returns to the author, but the science itself contrasts unfavourably with many branches of physical science, which, so far at least as concerns material comforts, have done very much, in recent generations, to make our earth a more desirable place of habitation than it used to be.

In reply it has to be answered that Metaphysics certainly need not extravagate into meaningless jargon: for, dealing with notions that enter into every sentence which we intelligibly utter, the science is quite able to single out these fundamental ideas and to explain their rational significance. Next, we answer that, though Metaphysics do not serve the uses that are not proper to their nature, yet they do serve even nobler uses than those of material comfort, and form in themselves a worthy end of pursuit -- not, of course, man's ultimate and adequate end, but still a good end. It was the great work of Socrates to go about questioning people as to what they meant by the generalized terms in constant use among them, and to show them that they needed to make their notions much more precise; no one can deny that this was a worthy occupation for the life of a philosopher.

(2) From the student of General Metaphysics no great genius is necessarily demanded, but only that he should be a steady worker -- one who thinks often and patiently, who takes pains to be clear to himself, and who does not rest till he has acquired an easy familiarity in dealing with the most abstract and most general of human conceptions. The meanings which he must affix to terms are substantially matters settled by the very nature of the case, yet not so that no room is left for free arrangement. When, however, a convention has been fixed upon, care should be taken not to forget the fact. To be thoroughly at home with the whole phraseology, both conventional and otherwise, as it is one of the great difficulties of the study, so also is it one of the prime requisites. The bewilderment that disheartens the Metaphysician in his early struggles is comparable to that of a stranger in a house with many rooms, passages, and landings; to move about easily in such a place is a matter of habituation. Not sublime intellect, but repeated traversings of the several departments, with an attentive eye to notice their exact forms and their mutual bearings -- these are the means to be employed. Think often, think clearly, think connectedly: here is the motto for a beginner in Metaphysics.

While insisting that a Metaphysician need not be a genius, but should be a patient, plodding thinker, who makes sure of each step as he proceeds, we may add that not unfrequently mischief befalls genius misdirected where mediocrity would have been safe. Hume, Kant, and Reid have concurred in expressing the judgment that the creative imagination of the genius may be a great snare to him when he is dealing with philosophy; so that it is not enough to urge, in answer to the very severe condemnation of some systems, that their authors have been exceedingly clever men. All the worse that they were clever, if it was cleverness misapplied; many a work fails because "it is too clever by half."

(3) In appreciating the magnitude of the task before us, there are two opposite extremes to be avoided: one is to suppose that the notions with which we have to deal are so simple as to require no study, and that they can be confused only by a preposterous attempt to force them into a long scientific system, such as a text-book on Metaphysics displays; and the other is to imagine that the notions are so minute, so fluxional and evanescent, as to defy anything like fixity of signification. The fact is, the ideas are simple, and carry along with their simplicity some of its greatest difficulties. As a man may have "the faults of his virtues," so a study may have the difficulties of its easiness. Nor do Metaphysics stand alone in the enforcement of the lesson that it is hard to be simple, that there is much art in simplicity.

As all the notions we have to deal with are so elementary, it will not be surprising that often in the explanation of them the larger part of the discourse goes to setting aside misconceptions, and that when these have been removed, comparatively little space is required for the statement of the true doctrine. The importance of the positive teaching must not be judged by the proportion of the words devoted to it, but rather by its own intrinsic merit. In the early days of French juries it is reported that the instruction had to be given to them, that they must weigh witnesses rather than count them; and the same is true of the paragraphs in a book, especially if that book is about "First Philosophy," where most of the terms to be expounded are too simple to admit of definition, and most of the propositions to be defended are too self-evident to allow of demonstration by principles more fundamental than themselves. In these cases, to clear away false impressions is often the larger part of the task which lies before one who would carry home to his readers a conviction of the truth.

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