Amie Thomasson is Professor of Philosophy and Cooper Fellow at the University of Miami. She works in the areas of metaphysics, philosophical methodology and metaontology, philosophy of art, philosophy of social and cultural objects, and philosophy of mind and phenomenology. Her most recent book is Ontology made Easy (Oxford University Press, 2015).

For an introduction to the work and thoughts of professor Thomasson, see this interview in 3:AM MAGAZINE: On the reality of sherlock holmes etc

Read more about Amie Thomasson on her website.

The Wedberg Lectures of 2017 will take place May 29–31 (Mon–Wed), 13-00–15.00, in Bergsmannen, Aula Magna.

Deflating Metaphysics

On the classic conception, metaphysics aims to discover ‘deep’ facts about reality, where these discoveries are supposed to be a matter for philosophical work—not issues that can simply be handed over to the empirical sciences or answered through conceptual means. But this conception of metaphysics has proven problematic—leading to an ever-increasing proliferation of answers, and epistemological puzzles about how we could come to know these facts. The classic conception also threatens to lead to a rivalry with science or a despairing skepticism about whether we could ever come to know these facts. In these lectures I develop an approach to ‘deflating’ many classic metaphysical debates, arguing that debates, for example, about what exists, and about the identity, existence, and persistence conditions of various things can be answered ‘easily’ through straightforward conceptual and empirical work. The interesting and deep work that remains for metaphysics, I argue, is not a matter of discovering covert worldly facts, but rather engaging in a kind of (re-)negotiation of our conceptual scheme. Adopting this reconception of metaphysics, in turn, can enable us to demystify the methodology of metaphysics and make it more transparent and fruitful.

Lecture 1: The Easy Approach to Ontology

Central among those facts metaphysicians have aimed to ‘discover’ are facts about whether various sorts of entity (numbers, properties, ordinary objects, mereological sums, etc.) exist. Such disputes have proliferated in recent decades, and have led to epistemological and methodological puzzles about how we could come to know the answers to these questions, and what could resolve these debates.

But although existence questions are typically treated as ‘deep’ topics for ontological dispute, I argue here that this conception is misguided. Instead, I argue, questions about the existence of entities of various types can be answered straightforwardly by conceptual and empirical work. Often, they can even be answered by trivial inferences from uncontroversial premises, making prolonged ontological disputes out of place. This ‘easy’ approach to ontology leads to both a first-order simple realism about the disputed entities and a form of meta-ontological deflationism that takes ontological disputes themselves to be misguided, since existence questions—interpreted in the spirit of what Carnap would have called ‘internal questions’—may be answered so straightforwardly. 

Lecture 2: The Normativist Approach to Modality

Beyond those debates that focus on existence questions, metaphysical debates often revolve around metaphysical modal questions, including, for example, debates about what the conditions are for persons to be identical, whether works of art are essentially tied to their artist or historical context, or what sorts of change a statue could survive.

I argue, however, that it is a mistake to think of metaphysical modal claims as aiming to describe modal features of this world, or other possible worlds—features that the metaphysician aims to discover. This ‘descriptivist’ assumption leads to formidable and familiar metaphysical and epistemological problems of modality. I argue that metaphysical modal claims instead serve a fundamentally normative function—of making explicit the semantic rules our terms have (or those we think they ought to have) in particularly useful ways. Adopting the modal normativist approach makes a difference to how we adjudicate among competing metaphysical theories, to what methods we will see as appropriate for resolving metaphysical disputes, and to what questions we think are answerable. It also ensures that metaphysical modal questions, like existence questions, can be answered ‘easily’, using only straightforward conceptual and empirical work. Thus these metaphysical modal questions, like the existence questions above, can be ‘deflated’ and the methods for answering them can be demystified. 

Lecture 3: ‘Deep’ Metaphysics as Conceptual Negotiation

Taking metaphysical debates at face value—as deep disputes about what exists or about the modal features of the world—runs into formidable and familiar epistemological problems, along with the threat of a rivalry with science, and of a despairing skepticism. In the first two lectures, I developed an alternative ‘easy’ approach to addressing existence questions and modal questions in metaphysics. But such deflationary views are often accused of being unable to make sense of what disputants are up to, or to account for the apparent depth, difficulty and importance of classic metaphysical debates.

I close this lecture series by laying out an alternative positive conception of metaphysics. I argue that there is room for the deflationist to make more interesting and robust sense of what disputants (at least in many classic debates) have been up to, and of what we can legitimately be up to when we do metaphysics, without giving up epistemological and methodological clarity. For many disputes (taken in what Carnap would have considered an ‘external’ sense) can be seen as implicitly engaged in a form of conceptual negotiation—where that in turn does not rely on ‘discoveries’ of ‘metaphysical facts’. Thinking of ‘deep’ metaphysics as tacitly engaged in conceptual negotiation still enables us to demystify the epistemology of metaphysics, while avoiding both rivalry with science and skeptical despair. Yet it also preserves a sense of the difficulty, depth, and importance of work that we can do, when we do metaphysics.