Susan Stebbing on Metaphysics and Beauty

Alexander Douglas
Nov 14 · 5 min read
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In 1932 L. Susan Stebbing gave a wonderful presentation to the Aristotelian Society, on ‘The Method of Analysis in Metaphysics’.

In it, she begins with a number of accurate historical statements, for example that J.M.E. McTaggart was ‘the greatest deductive philosopher of this century (and […] the greatest since Spinoza)’. I have removed as unnecessary the words ‘in my opinion’.

Stebbing’s purpose is to pursue a different method from ‘deductive philosophy’, namely that of analytic philosophy. A chief inspiration for this project is G.E. Moore. But Moore had presented his difference from philosophers like McTaggart as a difference of opinion. Moore’s philosophical opinions were the commonsensical opinions of the normal man he aspired to be. McTaggart’s were deviant and atypical. There is a Chestertonian swagger in Moore’s writing. ‘We are the people of England, who have not spoken yet’; now, finally, the plain views of the British majority will stand up against atypical elites with Continental sympathies.

The contrast with Stebbing’s wide and empathetic vision is striking. Stebbing appreciates that what separates her from the ‘deductive philosophers’ is not a mere difference in opinion but a difference in approach — really a different project. Stebbing saw that what philosophers like McTaggart wanted from philosophy was different from what she wanted. And she could appreciate why somebody would want what he wanted, though not wanting it herself.

Her presentation of McTaggart’s approach seems just right to me. She finds it to be based on three assumptions:

(1) that the metaphysician is concerned with Reality;

(2) that Reality has an ultimate, as distinct from an apparent, nature;

(3) that metaphysics gives us knowledge of this ultimate Reality.

She also points out that a deductive metaphysician like McTaggart, ‘starts from the ultimate and attempts to derive the apparent from the characteristics of the ultimate’. McTaggart, for instance, produces a vision of Reality as consisting of pure spirits in unchanging relations of eternal love. The challenge for him is to show how that Reality can appear to those spirits as one of matter moving in time, and so full of apparent pain and apparent grief.

Stebbing also recognises that the deductive metaphysician must begin by assuming ‘that something is known intuitively about ultimate reality’. The rest is deduction. Often, she implies, the approach ends up being circular. The initial ‘intuition’ comes to be confirmed by the conclusions deduced from it, leaving the whole system hanging in the air. She writes: ‘The more coherent the system thus constructed, the more impervious it is to criticism from within, until, finally, it must be accepted or rejected en bloc’.

She finds this to be a problem for Descartes, who wanted to begin the construction of his system from ‘an indubitable datum’. I suppose what she thinks is that Descartes’s crucial datum is only indubitable to somebody inhabiting the system he develops from it (she must mean the existence of God, since few would challenge the cogito). This leaves the whole system vulnerable to being rejected en bloc. Here she draws a fascinating contrast with Spinoza:

Spinoza, so it seems to me, used the form of a deductive system in order to exhibit his vision of the universe. I see no reason why he should be dismayed by the charge of circularity; there is no reason why he should not wrap up in his definitions and axioms all that he desired to bring forth from them.

I don’t know whether Stebbing thought that McTaggart was more like Descartes or more like Spinoza. McTaggart certainly claimed that his deduction of Reality began from an indubitable datum. But then so did Spinoza. Stebbing’s point seems rather to be that sometimes the underlying animus behind this claim is really to find such an indubitable datum (Descartes), but sometimes it is simply to ‘exhibit a vision of the universe’ (Spinoza).

Stebbing expresses her difference from these deductive metaphysicians as follows: ‘In my opinion, however, metaphysics does not consist in construction but in investigation’. What she means is that she doesn’t want to construct systems of ultimate Reality, vastly different from our commonsense beliefs. Her metaphysical method is to take as given our commonsense beliefs about the world, at least for the most part, and then analyse these. In other words, she is an analytic philosopher rather than deductive one. I find this dichotomy much more helpful than later inventions like the distinction between ‘revisionary’ and ‘descriptive’ metaphysics.

Alternatively, we could say that Stebbing is an empiricist rather than a rationalist, by which I mean that she takes appearance as a reliable guide to reality rather than deducing reality some other way and then explaining why it appears as it does. Some rationalists — Stebbing suggests that this is true of Spinoza — do not even feel the need to do the second part.

Stebbing is not ashamed to admit that her own metaphysical theory, although derived by analysis rather than deduction, can be accepted or rejected en bloc, from the outside, no less than that of Descartes, Spinoza, or McTaggart. After all, she needs to assume the truth of commonsense beliefs to get going. Thus of Spinoza’s system she writes:

Although I could not accept Spinoza’s system, since it does not square with my fundamental commonsense beliefs, I should not want to reject it as a faulty system. My criticisms of Spinoza would be criticisms from without, based upon assumptions he would not have accepted and upon beliefs he did not share. To such criticisms Spinoza would rightly be impervious. He was not concerned with our commonsense beliefs.

So far we have an ecumenical vision, peaceful but perhaps disappointing. If we are all building castles in the air, differences come down to where we choose to start, and nothing directs us.

But that isn’t right, of course. What directs us is our ultimate philosophical motivation. A point that Stebbing reiterates many times throughout her writing is that it is always the whole person who thinks, not simply the intellectual portion of a person. That’s what’s wrong with Moore’s reduction of philosophical differences to mere differences of opinion, as though we’re all simply playing an intellectual game of getting at the best theory. Moore was a person who wanted to philosophically vindicate the commonsense beliefs of hardworking British families, for his own personal reasons. Stebbing was a person who wanted the same thing, though with much more self-awareness. McTaggart and Spinoza wanted to exhibit their visions of reality. McTaggart’s came to him in a mystical experience; the personal origins of Spinoza’s we do not quite know.

But one thing their visions have in common, and that of Descartes as well, is beauty. Moore, so far as I know, did not really recognise this; perhaps he couldn’t see it. Stebbing could. After describing the system of deductive metaphysics she goes on: ‘Such a system may have beauty, the beauty of a work of art. Small wonder that great men have spent themselves in the creation of such constructions’. She sees the point, in a way that other early analytic philosophers perhaps did not.

But it is here that she adds: ‘In my opinion, however, metaphysics does not consist in creation but in investigation’. The deductive metaphysicians, as Stebbing sees them, are involved in a sort of aesthetic creation. She appreciates it aesthetically but does not recognise it as a properly investigative enterprise. In an earlier version of this post I said ‘it must be that she does not believe that Beauty is Truth’, but now I can instead link to an excellent Twitter thread that was posted in reply:

Genus Specious

History of Logic / Philosophy of Economics

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