An Essay on Metaphysics

An Essay on MetaphysicsBuy An Essay on Metaphysics here.

Presuppositions are not Propositions

David Lorimer

R.G. Collingwood
Martino, 2014 (Clarendon Press 1940), 354 pp.


R. G. Collingwood (1889-1943) was a philosopher, archaeologist and historian, who was Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford. His father was a painter and archaeologist, and between 1911 and 1934 he concentrated on archaeology, becoming the leading authority of his time on Roman Britain. Interestingly, he painted and composed music throughout his life. I was alerted to this book by reading Harald Walach’s contribution to The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Transpersonal Psychology, reviewed in the last issue. In correspondence with Professor John Dupre and Dr Iain McGilchrist, I discovered that they had both read the book at school at the age of 16 – at the time, John was a scholar at Eton and Iain a scholar at Winchester. I wonder how many 16-year-olds would even know about – still less think of reading – such a book these days?

There is no doubt in my mind that the book is a seminal one for philosophy of science and should be much more widely known in the field. It consists of five parts, namely metaphysics beginning with Aristotle, anti-metaphysics, the existence of God, the metaphysics of Kant, and causation. As Collingwood says in his first sentence, this is not so much a book of metaphysics as a book about metaphysics, taking as it does a historical approach to the question of absolute presuppositions taken for granted by thinkers in particular cultures or periods. He begins by explaining metaphysics is what Aristotle called First Science (by which he means a body of systematic or orderly thinking about a determinate subject-matter) and is logically prior to any other science, but in terms of order of study it is the Last Science – ‘the ultimate goal of the scientist’s pilgrimage through the realms of knowledge.’ (p. 9) It is the ‘ultimate logical ground to anything that is studied by any other science.’

He dismisses his first definition of metaphysics as the science of pure being on the grounds that there is no definite subject-matter to think about. This made me reflect on the Indian Advaita tradition or the notion of pure consciousness, which is beyond his scope but can nonetheless be explored experientially. He settles on his second definition of metaphysics as the science which deals with the presuppositions underlying ordinary science. It is important to stress that the priority affirmed by the word presupposition is a logical priority that its logical efficacy does not depend on the truth of what is being supposed, but only on is being supposed. In that sense, it is taken for granted, and an absolute presupposition always remains such, and is never an answer. This accounts for what he calls being ticklish in one’s absolute presuppositions when they are questioned – they are not verifiable, but simply taken for granted, like the notion of law or cause.

Perhaps Collingwood’s key insight is that absolute presuppositions are not propositions as they are never answers to questions, which themselves contain presuppositions. Think, for instance, of David Chalmers’ ‘hard problem of consciousness’ when he asks how the brain generates consciousness. This question presupposes that the brain does indeed generate consciousness, so for him, this is an absolute presupposition, as it is for most neuroscientists, philosophers and psychologists. As Collingwood states, ‘the answer to any question presupposes whatever the question presupposes… And because all science begins with a question (for the question is logically prior to its own answer), all science begins with a presupposition.’ (p. 63) This statement could not be more important, and also underlies the work of Nicholas Maxwell, as related in my review of his Understanding Scientific Progress in No. 124.

Collingwood takes a historical approach to presuppositions as they change and develop over time and in different cultures. In passing, he gives the example that in modern physics the notion of cause has disappeared and has been replaced by laws. The job of the metaphysician is to establish the nature of absolute propositions as historical facts. In this respect, a special characteristic of modern European civilisation is its denial of the existence of absolute presuppositions. He distinguishes carefully between the meaning of fact as belonging to historical thought and its questionable elision with truth. This brings him to what he regards as the fundamental logical fallacy of positivism – its denial of absolute presuppositions – that ‘what are in fact suppositions they consistently misunderstood as propositions.’ (p. 147, my italics)

The classic textbook example is A.J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic, published in 1936 when the author was only 24. Ayer maintained that any proposition which cannot be verified by appeal to observed facts is a pseudo-proposition; and since metaphysical propositions cannot be verified by appeal to observed facts, they are pseudo-propositions and therefore nonsense. Collingwood remarks that this attack on metaphysics is in fact an attack on pseudo-metaphysics on the grounds that Ayer commits the characteristic positivistic error of converting metaphysical propositions about the history of absolute presuppositions into pseudo-metaphysical propositions, thus committing the blunder of mistaking suppositions for propositions and therefore inferring that logical efficacy belongs only to propositions. This is characteristic of the whole Vienna School and has morphed into modern scientism that continues to deny its own status as a presupposition or belief system. Ironically, then, any attack on metaphysics in this true sense is an attack on the foundations of science. Proof depends upon presuppositions, not presuppositions on proof.

Collingwood goes on to discuss the relationship between presuppositions in Christian patristic theology with those later adopted by natural science. For these early theologians, God is an absolute presupposition, not a proposition that can be proved true or false. Logically, therefore, denial of the existence of God is also an absolute presupposition, although modern atheists treat it as a proposition they argue is falsified by the findings of natural science. This leads on to a fascinating and important discussion of polytheistic and monotheistic science, relating monotheism to the development of Greek philosophy in its quest for what he calls a monomorphic science arguing that the world is one – think of Thales in his search for a single unifying principle of nature, leading to the presupposition that nature is one, and later that science is one – hence the interest for Aristotle and his successors of reconciling the one with the many. For theologians, there is one God and many modes of God’s activity; this develops structurally into the presuppositions of natural science about the oneness of nature and the universality of laws applying to many different realms. For Galileo, it was an absolute presupposition that the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics; this is not a proposition that can be rendered true or false even if pragmatically its validity can be affirmed by its efficacy ‘it works’. Historically underpinning this is the idea of God, Logos or Kosmos as an ordering principle. Likewise, the idea that nature is continuous or the indestructibility of substance cannot be conclusively proved, only presumed.

There is a long and technical section on the metaphysics of Kant, followed by a useful discussion of different meanings of the term cause, as historically developed. Here Collingwood argues that its fundamental sense relates to a free and deliberate act on the part of a conscious and responsible agent, and that the secondary and tertiary definitions are underpinned by the primary definition. The importance of this point goes back to Aristotle’s distinction between efficient and final cause – causa quod and causa ut – where final cause implies intention and, implicitly, free will. Naturalistic science tends to invert this priority with its causally closed physical system logically implying determinism and therefore denying free will. We all experience free will subjectively, even if science denies this objectively and places itself inside a reductio ad absurdum loop whereby we cannot logically take seriously their proposition that everything is determined, because their own opinions are equally so.

I hope that the foregoing has conveyed something of the seminal importance and relevance of this book, and that some readers will now consult or return to the original text.

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