Speaking Volumes: Gerd Buchdahl's Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Science

July 18, 1997

On Gerd Buchdahl's Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Science.

When I left Oxford in 1979 and made the short trip east to Cambridge I carried with me a distinctive philosophical baggage: skills in linguistic analysis and a youthful confidence in being able to pinpoint flaws in arguments and the confusions of ordinary communication. In short, I had been trained as an Oxford philosopher, a world view that ended at Cowley, although I did not know it at the time.

At Cambridge, in the department of history and philosophy of science, I began, rather painfully, to realise that my tools of the trade were inadequate. I came to learn that epistemology and problems of knowledge could not so easily be wrenched from their historical context and that, in the case of natural science, the distinction between the logic and the context of discovery was increasingly difficult to make. This was not the path to sociological reductionism but that of careful historical imagination, hermeneutic engagement with the classical period of philosophical systems-building. At the heart of my apprenticeship lay Gerd Buchdahl's unsung tour de force, Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Science, a book whose unremarkable title belies its dazzling mixture of analytical and historical insight.

I learnt that the history of ideas is not to be understood as a disconnected roll-call of great minds but as the uncertain trajectory of conceptual systems emerging from practical preoccupations. From Descartes to Kant philosophy is no longer readable as the hermetically sealed search for abstract foundations, that over-used parody of classical philosophy, but emerges as a reflective engagement with concrete problems and the need for, albeit tentative, conceptualisations of a developing empirical science. Starting from specific preoccupations with understanding the concept of "matter", or Newton's law of gravitational attraction, Buchdahl shows how reflections on the fundamental structure of orderly experience arise naturally rather than as a form of wild transcendentalism. This is not tired old "history of ideas 101" but a sustained attempt to explicate systems of thinking which were never certain of calling themselves philosophy.

It was in Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Science that I learned that Descartes' notion of "deduction", Berkeley's and Hume's "ideas", and Locke's concept of "object" were used in different ways, often inconsistently, not because they were stupid or were suffering from some grotesque linguistic mistake which an Oxford undergraduate could demolish. Rather, arguments which seemed at first just silly, such as Descartes' famous ontological argument for the existence of God, slowly began to make sense against a background of prevalent rationalist beliefs and ideas. Each classical thinker in turn grapples with the issues of the day, issues which require a metalanguage to be made up as one goes along, a language in which there can be no clean distinction between metaphysics and empiricism.

In this book I recognised for the first time what was at stake in this constructive process. Metaphysics is a project with heart and excitement, an adventure in ideas in which connections between mundane practices of measurement and the search for foundations of self-knowledge shock the reader while providing a firm reminder of the situated nature of philosophical reasoning. It is also a tough and long book which, in today's environment of research evaluation, might well have been split into its constitutive parts to give the appearance of productivity. Yet the sweep of the whole is vitally important; one must experience the twists and conceptual turns of a form of inquiry which always lived uneasily with the linguistic resources available to it. To understand the continuity of problems which preoccupied these thinkers and the overlaps between their respective conceptual frameworks is to grasp the essential tension for a rationalist tradition struggling to accommodate the growing importance of empirical knowledge.

Perhaps all of this was, and is, obvious to others, but one should also imagine the impact of this explosion of historical sensitivity on a rather naive and narrowly skilled student of Oxford philosophy. The experience was to reawaken some of the original motivations for doing philosophy in the first place and, as a pupil of Buchdahl himself, I was exposed to the most intense intellectual engagement with a series of problems that I have ever experienced.

Although I no longer work in the field of philosophy I would like to think that Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Science has had a lasting effect on the way I conceive of problems. I would like to think that I have developed a little of the constructivist imagination which neither accepts concepts at face value nor dismisses them as incoherent, but which locates them as part of self-supporting assemblies of ideas which are in a constant process of change and development.

Michael Power is professor of accounting, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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