The UR Philosophy department hosted Peter VanInwagen this Friday and his paper was a response to Bas VanFrassen’s criticism of analytic metaphysics. I hadn’t heard the criticism before, but it was critical of analytic philosophers’ methods. According to VanFrassen, the methods are both impotent and wreak collateral damage. Such philosophers introduce technical terms that aren’t at all the same in meaning as the terms of everyday folks – in its most distilled (and perhaps slightly unfair) version. VanInwagen’s response was clear, fair and witty in a particularly VanInwagen-ey way. He has a facility with metaphors and similies that most philosophers lack. I also especially like that VanInwagen’s view of material beings is that, in the philosophy room, there are no such things as chairs and telephones, the only material beings are living entities (and perhaps simples of some sort – although I may be misremembering). While this came up only peripherally in his talk, it’s always a hoot.
As a librarian, I sometimes get bogged down in the minutiae of the day – tasks, immediate problems, and scheduling. Librarianism some days is mostly jumping from one fire to the next without a lot of time for contemplation. It is both refreshing and surprising to find myself back in the philosophy room giggling at jokes only philosophers would laugh at, and finding puzzles in questions such as, “is there a world that exists?” I think it was Bertrand Russell that said philosophy takes a statement everyone takes to be true and hopelessly complicates it until it’s no longer obviously true, and in fact, what the statement means at all is in doubt.
At one point in VanInwagen’s talk he mentioned in passing that one must “think responsibly” and it seems to me that this would be a good slogan for us all. Whether Bas VanFrassen is right and analytic metaphysicians are impotent and wreaking collateral damage, I like being in their company…that is, if such a thing as an analytic metaphysician exists at all.