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  • The Things in Heaven and Earth
  • Roman Madzia (bio)
John Ryder, The Things in Heaven and Earth: An Essay in Pragmatic Naturalism. New York: Fordham University Press, 2013. 327 + xiv pp. ISBN 978-0-8232-4469-0. $24.41 (pbk).

What is ultimately real? Is there a fixed nature to reality? If so, is that nature knowable by the human mind? Philosophers have been confronted with these questions since the very inception of philosophy in ancient Greece. In the history of philosophy various answers to these intellectual riddles have been articulated. As a general rule, the metaphysical issues concerning the ultimate nature of reality have been dealt with from what we could call, along with Joseph Margolis, the perspective of archism.1 A vast majority of philosophers have constructed their theories under the tacit assumption that there is a way things are in themselves, and that reality possesses invariant, primitive structures that make it so. Except for sceptics and nihilists, hardly any Western thinkers have contested the very foundational idea of metaphysics (and until recently, also science) which holds that reality is made up of primitive particulars. An extremely important exception to this general rule was Justus Buchler, a philosopher who influenced an entire generation of American philosophers, such as Richard J. Bernstein, Kathleen Wallace, and John Ryder, to name a few.

The philosophy of the Columbia naturalists (e.g., John Dewey and John Herman Randall, Jr.) never had an easy time in the philosophical history of the United States. As Charles Hartshorne wrote, Buchler’s version of naturalism, the ordinal metaphysics, was very difficult to persuasively argue for because “the entire history of philosophy is against such an idea. Only considerable courage could have made it seem worthwhile to challenge this tradition.”2 Likewise, Richard Bernstein undoubtedly has a point when he says that, “A philosopher like Buchler who attempts to break away from ‘school philosophy’ is taking a serious risk. With the introduction of novel terminology, categories, and distinctions, we may be left hanging in mid-air, unable or unwilling to see their relevance to what has become familiar and accepted in philosophic investigation.”3 The unusual character of Buchler’s philosophy thus requires, every once in a while, new explications and clarifications, not because it is unclear, but rather because it challenges our deeply-rooted ideas about how metaphysics should be done.

The Things in Heaven and Earth, a new book by John Ryder, one of Buchler’s last students, should be viewed from this perspective. In fact, it also intends to be a [End Page 111] lot more. The corpus of Ryder’s book is divided into three parts, which break down into eleven chapters. As the title of the book suggests, it unfolds along the stylistic line of an essay. Even though Buchler’s metaphysics does not belong to the traditional philosophical canon, the book proceeds from a methodologically sound, even traditional, point of view. It first familiarizes the reader with problems in today’s conception of naturalism, introduces the key concepts of Buchler’s ordinal metaphysics and subsequently applies it to areas as varied as religion, art, and politics.

The driving assumption throughout Ryder’s book is that there is no good philosophical reason for traditional metaphysical inquiries. The sort of questions we should be posing, according to Columbia naturalists, is not whether this or that is “really real” but in what sense it is real, that is, what role a particular concept plays in our experience. The central tenet of Columbia naturalism is the principle of ontological parity, according to which all objects (natural complexes) share an equal claim to being real. At the outset of the book, Ryder takes pains to explain the reason why Columbia naturalism should not be mistaken for the conventional, scientistic version of naturalism, shaped in the 1960s by philosophers such as W. V. O. Quine. Although both believe that all that exists is nature, they are in substantial disagreement about what this means for inquiry. Conventional naturalists claim that the only way to describe and explain nature is by means of the natural sciences, thus implying that the objects posited by natural science are the only things...