Wednesday, December 08, 2004

First Philosophy

I've been reading the comments to one of the nominated posts at the Philosophers' Carnival, and been rather surprised by some of the claims (some of them rather blatantly false, I think) about 'first philosophy'. What follows are some counter-thoughts. I think they're fairly obvious, but I can elaborate if it turns out they're not.

* Descartes did not regard epistemology as first philosophy. It would not have even made any sense for him to do so. (1) 'Epistemology' was not a major philosophical curricular division at the time. I'd have to check, but I'm pretty sure it was not even a word, because I suspect 'epistemology' was formed on the model of 'ontology', which was a word that came into use after Descartes's time. (2) Contrary to common misreadings of the Meditations, Descartes's primary concern is not epistemological. All of what we would call the epistemological side of Cartesian philosophy subserves metaphysical ends. (3) Descartes, dedicating the book to Jesuits, would have known quite well what the standard scholastic notion of 'first philosophy' was: metaphysics, particularly insofar as it relates to God. Descartes's Meditations are a contribution to this field.

* I think Aristotle is absolutely right that there are only two real candidates for first philosophy. If metaphysics is not first philosophy, physics (in the broad sense of all the inquiries into the physical world) is. If we can go beyond physics (in the broad sense) in any real way, metaphysics must be first philosophy. Making logic or philosophy of language first philosophy would be committing oneself to the claim that all knowledge is subordinate to language or logic, in the sense that the principles of logic or philosophy of language contain, in a robust sense, all other knowledge.

* It is really quite bizarre to say that there is no first philosophy; for in fact everyone who says so actually does privilege either metaphysics or physics. (The closest I have ever seen to not doing so is the occasional attempt to make ethics first philosophy; but this, in fact, confuses ethics with its metaphysical or physical foundations. Whether its foundations are metaphysical or physical depends on which is first philosophy. Given that ethics is often made to grow directly out of whatever one regards as first philosophy, one rough-and-ready way to determine which a person holds, in fact, is to ask what they regard as the ultimate set of facts to which ethics, as a philosophical discipline, has to answer.)

I suspect, of course, that what was really in mind wasn't 'first philosophy' but something like 'primary organon' (it makes no sense to say that philosophy has no primary organon, either, but if we substitute 'primary instrument' for 'first philosophy' some of the other statements make much more sense). Whatever was meant, it surely could be expressed in some better way than absconding with a phrase that is already perfectly serviceable for its own purposes.

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