Elijah Millgram on metaphysics as intellectual ergonomics

[The turf of metaphysics] is the design and implementation of intellectual devices that facilitate effective reasoning.


Philosophical problems almost always turn out to be about what the right way to think is, and a creature’s cognition should match its form of life.  If we’ve come to have a different form of life (a form of life that consists in having many thoroughly different forms of life, side by side but temporarily), we should expect to find, when we take another look, that we’ve got a different pile of philosophical problems to deal with.


Necessity is a metaphysicians’ staple, and it plausibly has a cognitive function also: it tells you to ignore, anyway for the purposes of theoretical reasoning, anything outside a given range of alternatives.  So it’s an attention management device.


Although philosophers tend to argue about distinctions as though they were arguing about matters of truth and falsity, a distinction is neither true nor false.


The point of arguing that a distinction is hard or even impossible to draw is that it is, as a practical matter, badly chosen. If a distinction is well or badly chosen, it can be so for a variety of other reasons as well. The real question is normally not whether the distinction is, metaphysically, there, but how much attention it should get.

The Great Endarkenment D’où venons-nous . . . Que sommes nous . . . Où allons-nous?”

It’s not a new idea that intuitions are views, or perhaps intellectual habits, that were arrived at for some reason or other, only we’ve all forgotten what it was. We mostly still don’t realize what our technical term for this is, the one we use to mark simultaneously having forgotten how we came to think something, along with our dogged insistence on the something we nonetheless continue to think. That term is a priori”.


[Old-school metaphysics] analyses are our version of Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”: there is this thing, say, metaphysical necessity, it is just that way, and we’re sure because our intuitions say so—which again is what we say when we’ve gotten used to doing it one way, and can’t remember why. The subtext is that there’s no need to reconsider how we do do things.


Metaphysicians and moral philosophers don’t actually write journal articles and books reconstructing the metaphysics and moral theory of which side of the street to drive on. But as far as I can see, that’s mostly because it’s obvious that the rules of the road are policies we’ve adopted, and that the sense of indelible rightness and wrongness [of driving on a particular side of the road] comes from having gotten so very used to those policies. When you look around at the monographs and papers we philosophers do write, it often is just this, only in cases where it’s less obvious what the policies are. Somehow the policies have become hard to notice; somehow we’ve forgotten that there were any such policies.

I don’t think that metaphysics has to amount to turning memory loss into invisible objects, but a lot of it does. I don’t think that moral theory has to be the pretense that habits are ghostly imperatives, but a lot of it is. We have an interest in reconsidering the policies we’ve forgotten; you know, maybe they were bad choices even back then, and maybe circumstances have changed in the meantime.


quote elijah millgram metaphilosophy pragmatism