This review appeared in Studies in Religion / Sciences Religieuses 21/3 (1992), pp. 365-366.
Beyond Experience: Metaphysical Theories and Philosophical Constraints
Toronto and London: University of Toronto Press, 1991. xiv + 449 p.
The author has the laudable purpose of writing about metaphysics not only for his colleagues and for full-time students of philosophy, but also for the interested lay reader. He is impressed and encouraged by the example of Sir Karl Popper, who exhorted his pupils to write clearly so that as many people as possible could understand them, and practised what he preached. Swartz complains that too much contemporary philosophical writing apes the abominable style of many papers in scientific journals. You would not think, as he says, that professional philosophers were deeply and passionately interested in philosophical questions, from the way in which some of them write about them.
Not everyone is troubled by metaphysical problems, but many people are, in one way or another. Martin Buber tells us that as a boy he was driven literally to the brink of suicide by preoccupation with the problem of how space and time could be, or fail to be, either bounded or endless. Metaphysical theories undergird world views, and world views affect not only our beliefs, but our actions and emotions. For example, "What is a person?" is a metaphysical question; and one's attitude to a close family member in the final stages of Alzheimer's disease might be powerfully affected by the answer that one would give to it. Is what I see before me really my beloved husband or merely his breathing body? Again, one's response to another person's wrongdoing is likely to be affected by whether or not one holds to the metaphysical theory of determinism: many determinists believe that punishment strictly speaking, as opposed to influence exerted on persons in order to alter their behaviour, is never justified. How, after all, could it ever be right to punish, if no one can do other than one does, given all the circumstances of each case? Furthermore, if you believe that human beings have souls, whereas other terrestrial animals do not, and maintain that the inflicting of pain is morally regrettable as such only on beings who have souls, you will hardly be averse to the killing of animals without any attempt to lessen their pain.
I think it is importantly mistaken to regard science as concerned exclusively with "experience," and metaphysics as treating of what lies "beyond experience"; but there is no space to go into the matter here. In general, the author very properly stresses what is in common between science and metaphysics, maintaining that they are both facets of our understanding of the world and of the human situation within it. His book is in fact a welcome corrective to that dismissive attitude to metaphysics which, while much less common now than it was, is still, alas, not quite extinct among philosophers. There are chapters on the nature of theories, space and time, properties, individuation, identity through time and persons. The work ends with a useful glossary of technical terms. Swartz has on the whole, I think, succeeded in what he set out to do, and his book is quite highly to be recommended.
Hugo Meynell University of Calgary
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