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  • Cause for Thought: An Essay in Metaphysics by John W. Burbidge
  • Philip M. Merklinger
John W. Burbidge. Cause for Thought: An Essay in Metaphysics. McGill-Queen’s University Press. x, 130. $19.95

Over the years John W. Burbidge has become one of a small set of philosophers whose publications I always read regardless of their subject matter, precisely because they force my thinking into places it has not gone before. I have found since my introduction to Burbidge in his 1981 book, On Hegel’s Logic: Fragments of a Commentary, that each new book of his has given me what this most recent book promises in its title—much cause for thought. Cause for Thought: An Essay in Metaphysics does not disappoint in this regard. The cause for thought to which the title refers is Burbidge’s remarkably clear and orderly reassessment of the concept of causality in relation to the concept of metaphysics. Indeed, I expect that readers of this book—be they philosophy students, philosophy professors, or interested laypersons—will, like me, seriously re-evaluate the prevailing prejudices against metaphysics that contemporary philosophy has assumed in our postmodern time. Impressively, Burbidge is able to render us this service without once falling in the other direction, that is, into the traditional transcendental presumptions for which metaphysics has often [End Page 422] been severely criticized. Instead, Burbidge presents his readers with a convincing re-evaluation of the role of metaphysical concepts in framing our knowledge of the world. Metaphysics, in his account, “sits back, reflects on what those concepts involve and considers whether the way they are being used does full justice to our experience.” In doing this, metaphysics can open up many new questions about the world and the ways we understand it while simultaneously revealing that many of our assumptions are simply unverifiable when they go past their ground in our experiential knowing and practical understanding of the world. On the other hand, Burbidge shows, a concept such as causality is not only a central organizing concept employed in our thinking as we negotiate our way through the world but also one that can illuminate our understanding of the world without negating its complex of reciprocal interrelationships or taking it over with unjustifiable assumptions. Indeed, Burbidge points to how a self-conscious use of metaphysics as an interpretative tool can provide us with increasingly rich and complex visions of reality.

Importantly, in Cause for Thought Burbidge demonstrates how allowing the re-entry of metaphysics and causality can help us create a more adequate understanding of the world generated by the needs of the whole human organism. He does this by laying out his thinking in a straightforward and obvious logic of development accessible to any interested reader, be they academics or interested laypersons, well versed in the history of philosophy or not. This logic of development commences with a general introduction to the concept of metaphysics through a discussion of its semantic range via an informative and engaging outline of the main western metaphysical paradigms as found in the philosophies of Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Pierce, Einstein, and others. Moreover, in this outline I was delighted to discover that Burbidge was rendering accounts of thinkers I know well in formulations that had not occurred to me before. Importantly, he is able to successfully extract the concepts of both metaphysics and causality from their location in the non-verifiable theoretical stratosphere of traditional metaphysical speculation, and place them on earth in an account of their actual limit and function vis-à-vis the way we approach the world in order to comprehend it. Doing this, Burbidge is able to reject our unwarranted custom of thinking causality in terms of a “simple cause” that acts in a strict linear, causal deterministic fashion. In its place, he proposes a new paradigm of a “complex cause” and dynamic reciprocal interaction, supported by a most intriguing “theology of comprehensive agency,” both of which he grounds not in the physical world but in a “community of discourse” possessing its own horizon of meaning and “realm of significance” in which organic causation proves to be much more beneficial than the framework created by...


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pp. 422-424
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