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Metaphysics in Ordinary Language
Metaphysics in Ordinary Language, by Stanley Rosen; 290 pp. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999, $30.00.
Metaphysics has had a bad time of it in the last couple of centuries. The (apparently) straightforward attempt to ground "what seems to be" on what putatively "is" came to such grief at the hands of enlighteners like Hume that Kant's resurrection of metaphysics had to be accomplished out of categories of consciousness. This allowed Nietzsche to take the next and possibly already implicit step of announcing that, if the emperor was wearing subjective clothes, he wasn't wearing any at all. Ordinary language philosophy, by contrast, is one of the leading advertised Anglo-American ways out of the dilemma that follows from the death of metaphysics: i.e., we're not talking about what is, but about how we talk about it. So then, what is this "metaphysics in ordinary language" that Stanley Rosen claims to be engaged in?
Simply put, in Rosen's (Socratic) view, it is what philosophy has always been and will always be: following out to the furthest humanly possible extent the beliefs and opinions that human beings have about their experience. Ordinary language can only be sharply delimited from metaphysics if one has made the erroneous assumption that metaphysics is meant, on the model of natural science, to represent some essentially technical higher understanding that grounds but is not itself grounded. That assumption, for obvious reasons, however, leads to the death of metaphysics, i.e. the effort to understand ourselves and the world.
In this book of carefully arranged occasional pieces, Rosen combats that assumption both explicitly and by demonstration. The first chapter, "Suspicion, Deception and Concealment," seeks to show that the experience philosophy must clarify is necessarily deceptive. Because we are not equipped to grasp directly the eternal order of things, all descriptive discourse necessarily involves some kind of invention or distortion. Yet this does not mean, as it might appear to, that the deconstructionists are right and everything is poetry. Thus, the second chapter, "The Lived Present," like the next-to-last chapter, "Nothing and Dialectic," argues persuasively that beneath the linguistic (and necessarily deceptive) representations of reality are experiences which are not relativizable, even if not simply describable. Thus, whatever philosophers may say to explain away the present or the nothing as conceptually "specious," in fact turns out to rely on precisely what they seek to explain away. Philosophers err in this, because, in the case of the present, "they begin with the assumption of the primordiality of temporal flow," when in fact the lived present is not "a unit of temporal flow" but "the point of organization for all experience of temporal flow." At the root of what the technical philosophers have missed is the role played by desire in organizing experience, i.e. of what Plato calls eros. Thus, in his third chapter, Rosen explores Platonic eros "through the everyday details of life." [End Page 245]
Rosen's defense and practice of "metaphysics in ordinary language" owes a great (and acknowledged) deal to the revival of ancient philosophy in the thought of his teacher Leo Strauss. Thus, in the fourth chapter, Rosen ascends, erotically enough, from attacking contemporary and unerotic metaphysicians and anti-metaphysicians, to facing the real challenge to erotic philosophy, namely whether it can reach its end and thus whether it is possible at all. Called "The Golden Apple," its title refers to a Maimonidean image used by Strauss to describe the esoteric fruits of true philosophy that are concealed beneath an exoteric and yet still valuable filigree of silver. But strikingly, Rosen's conclusion is not triumphant. Plato points, it seems, to two versions of the philosophic life. In one the erotic ascent ends in frustration, and in the other there is no erotic ascent, just a preparation for death. The golden apple may be a myth or, at best, we are left with "the silver filigree, peering into its interstices, not, as the postmoderns would have it...