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Issue 211

Can Metaphysics Help Us Heal the World?

The consolations of ancient philosophy for our dire moment

BY Paul Chan in Frieze , Thematic Essays | 05 JUN 20

It’s as surprising as it is paradoxical that metaphysics is on my mind. I’ve never found it pleasing to imagine that a transcendental source of power guides and influences this world. In my experience, otherworldly feelings have typically been the product of food poisoning. But, when our days are as punishing as they are now, when ordinary forms of concernment feel insufficient, our thoughts naturally turn to extraordinary means to deal. Perhaps this is why I’ve recently been thinking about metaphysics.

There are curious parallels between metaphysics and art. Both entertain radically opposing forms of thought: mysticism and reason. Yet, it’s hard to reconcile how mystical beliefs can exist, much less thrive, on the same intellectual plane as critical thinking. This, arguably, is why metaphysics and art are fundamentally paradoxical.

But the paradox slackens (a touch) if we consider a feature common to both mysticism and reason: a refusal to accept what is generally presented as being all there is. So, even though there are countless ways in which critical thought is opposed to mysticism, the two are also bound by their shared opposition to all varieties of dogmatic thinking, of accepting this reality as the only one worth being real.

Hilma af Klint, The Ten Largest, No. 4, Youth, 1907, oil and tempera on paper mounted on canvas, 3 × 2.3 m. Courtesy: © Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk, Stockholm; photograph: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet

Metaphysics is the species of philosophy that takes concepts as its objects, treating them as if they exist independently of our capacity to formulate them in our minds and inhabit a plane of existence beyond ours. The substantive and persistent nature of these concepts is understood as superior to everything in this world. Philosophers claimed that metaphysical concepts gave birth to and support all that exists, bestowing upon this world its ultimate meaning and purpose.

At its inception in Ancient Greece, metaphysics was, arguably, a secularization of religious thinking. Concepts such as ‘good’ or ‘mind’ tried to replace gods and other supernatural entities as the cause and purpose – the alpha and omega – of earthly existence. This secularizing impulse also reflected the fact that, the more we grapple with concepts, the more we tend to develop mental habits over time that correspond to what we call reasoning. This includes the ability to make inferences based on observations and to grasp causal relationships. Metaphysics exerted a rationalizing force against theocracies ruled by tyrants and priestly classes who claimed they were anointed by divine powers. Thinking was offered as an alternative to worshipping dogma.

But arguably beginning with Plato, this growing capacity to reason became, itself, dogmatic. It also could not overcome a central paradox at the heart of its doctrine: how can the rich and varied nature of experience be considered less worthy of our devotion than something as abstract and intangible as concepts? And what, in truth, underwrites the dominion concepts hold over us and our experience of the world, given how they themselves are derived from experience?

Charles and Ray Eames, Powers of Ten, 1977, film stills. Courtesy: © Eames Office LLC

This irreconcilability between these two aspects of existence – concept and experience – is what makes metaphysical thinking so illuminating. Things that are paradoxical are not worthless because they don’t make sense. On the contrary, it’s what makes them invaluable. Irreconcilabilities are where insights are truly gained. When thinking becomes an active experience, it tends to create options for consideration that were neither evident nor given by initial concepts. Real thoughts occur when all the solutions on offer are wrong or are refused.

The paradoxical nature of metaphysics led various thinkers and poets to a peculiar insight about concepts in general: they function as if they are timeless. If there is truth to the claim that we must experience a thing before we can formulate a concept of it, then what is interesting about a concept is how – once it appears in the mind – it no longer needs the particular experience from which it was derived to be valid.

For example, once we know an apple through experience, the concept of an apple remains valid in our minds – even if we come across apples that are radically different or we never see an apple again. If experience can be defined as how we perceive what exists over time, the notion that concepts function as if they are timeless really means that concepts don’t need to appeal to experience for justification after the fact.

The idea that great works of art and literature are distinguishable by the fact that they express ‘timeless’ qualities reflects this dynamic. Under this belief, forms of expression that do not conform to this notion of ‘greatness’ are deemed unworthy because they do not champion the validity of the initial experience from which the concept was derived.

Emma Kunz, Werk-Nr. 004, undated, pencil and oil crayon on millimetre paper, 1 × 1 m. Courtesy: © Emma Kunz Zentrum

This is where metaphysical thinking turns cruel. For, if the argument can be made that concepts manifest a higher reality, then all that constitutes experience as it is lived must consequently be considered inferior. Experience is regarded as a lower reality, because it exists in, and changes over, time. In metaphysics, experience is exploited simply to justify that which transcends it.

The persistent demonization of experience, coupled with the accusation that our sensory faculties fail to grasp ‘what truly matters’, is central to the legacy of metaphysics. And it is not hard to see how, once installed in seats of power, concepts can be used to justify laying waste to all that does not conform. Inferior beings living inferior existences do not deserve higher orders of protection. It is no coincidence that the 20th century’s most influential practitioner of metaphysical thinking was also an unrepentant Nazi. I am, of course, referring to Martin Heidegger.

Is anything in metaphysics worth redeeming? Is the empirical world as it is all there is? One of the most evocative sentences Theodor Adorno ever composed is also one of his best-known, from Minima Moralia (1951): ‘The only philosophy that can be practised responsibly in the face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption.’ This came to mind in regard to a 1965 series of lectures on the history of metaphysics, where Adorno relentlessly examined its irreconcilabilities to try to find insights into whether anything in it was worth salvaging.

Fascinatingly, Adorno professed he was doing this out of a desire for joy. For him, thinking has the capacity to inspire feelings of joy – none more so than thoughts that rise beyond what merely is. He also claimed that rescuing what is left of the metaphysical legacy makes room for thoughts and ideas to which empiricism may be hostile. There is no doubt that evidence-based knowledge gained from observation and experience is indispensable to our shared understanding of the world. Empirical methods work. But what is also undeniable is how empirical thinking tends to be hostile to that which cannot readily be grasped by our common senses nor openly presents itself with concrete definition in reality.

I think Adorno is making room for what we intuitively understand: that our existence flourishes, in large part, due to what cannot be seen or measured outwardly. Like the invisible and ghostly weight of the past that we bear. Or the undetectable binding of relationships between people. Or a style of expression that singularly captures the unspeakable or unthinkable.

‘Metaphysical experience’ is the phrase Adorno coined to describe what metaphysics might be like if it were genuinely redeemed. Given that metaphysics has such a low regard for experience, the phrase is – in typical Adorno style – intentionally paradoxical. He created a paradox as an invitation to think.

Hilma af Klint, The Ten Largest, No. 6, 1907, tempera on paper mounted on canvas, 3.2 × 2.3 m. Courtesy: © Hilma af Klint Foundation; photograph: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet 

Here is how I would describe metaphysical experience. First, the empirical world is taken seriously: that which exists, in other words, is not assumed to be inferior to some plane of existence beyond this one. Concepts that are metaphysical by design are not presumed to be of greater importance to this world. Instead, they are considered from a historical standpoint that draws out their cultural and political lineages. This critical reflection is how the spell of metaphysical thinking is broken. It shines a light on the illusory nature of concepts as pure and timeless entities.

But the world as it stands is not accepted as being all there is. This essential refusal can be strengthened by cultivating an awareness that our sensory and intellectual capacities are still evolving and making room for speculative thinking as a crucial aspect of our changing nature.

If this awareness is allowed to develop, the world begins to deepen and enlarge before our very eyes as we become more discerning and sensitive to all that participates in its becoming, without the influence of anything that is not already here. This expanding sense of what it means to be here is what I would call the metaphysical experience. It is what is felt and thought once we let go of the need for a binding conceptual certainty about what constitutes the world. Left to our own devices, but not alone. Ready to face experience, as if we are meeting a new friend.

I don’t remember if I thought this last year. Is that why it was so bad?

This article first appeared in frieze issue 211 with the headline ‘My Year of  Metaphysical Thinking’.

Main Image: Emma Kunz, Werk-Nr. 003, undated, pencil and oil crayon on millimetre paper, 96 × 96 cm. Courtesy: © Emma Kunz Zentrum

Paul Chan is an artist and publisher. His travelling exhibition ‘Paul Chan:Breathers’ is currently on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Richmond, Virginia.