Thursday, January 29, 2015

One Metaphysic to Rule Them All

This is a game. Join in if you wish. A friend and I have been discussing which thinker of the 20th century created the most robust metaphysic. Of course, there isn't one right answer. But since it's the 20th century, on the tail end of modernism, a last discussion of one meta-narrative to rule them all isn't completely out of bounds.

So here is how I would assess things. If we were to go with a philosopher, the obvious choice would be Heidegger. Except Heidegger is forever going to be tainted by his connection to Fascism, so he is out. This leaves some later philosophers, and although much can be said for Foucault, or Derrida, or even alternative thinkers like Girard or Husserl or Arendt, in the end, I think we would have to name the century Deleuzian.

However, philosophy does not provide a complete metaphysic, so we drift out from there, and consider some theologians. Although much is made of the Barth-Balthasar pairing, and this would be very legitimate, given how each of them wrote a body of work that really attempted to be complete, I would give the century in theology to Dietrich Bonhoeffer if we are speaking of Protestants, and Rahner or de Lubac if we are speaking of Catholics. And Schmemann or Bulgakov if we are speaking of the Orthodox.

Yet this does not yet cut it. This is simply theology. More complete metaphysics are on offer from some of the greatest creative authors of the 20th century. If we move in this direction, the obvious choices include J.R.R. Tolkien, and his progeny, such as Ursula K. Le Guin and Lloyd Alexander. Although C.S. Lewis made an attempt, he was more of an apologist than a creator of worlds, so Tolkien is a more appropriate choice. Le Guin is my favorite in some ways even above Tolkien, if you consider her entire oeuvre. And into this category of 20th century thinkers I would also place such novelists as Dorothy Sayers and G.K. Chesterton.

If I were to take the next generation still in the 20th century, I would go for Discworld (Pratchett), who creates an entire universe that points in an interesting way towards the 21st century. And of course there is Rowlings, whose universe is much more robust than she is often given credit.


  1. So, Clint, you like pretty things, neat comprehensive schema. Pictures on the wall that speak about reality. Except for Bonhoeffer, obviously.

    The impact of Wittegenstein on everyone who followed him is mastery itself. Lonergan provided the conceptual framework that made VII possible - still the single largest gathering of human representation in continuous conversation about matters that pertain to all living things. Without Congar's Ressourcement, there would have been little material to work with at VII.

    My point: life is not a book, thought, or system. The metaphysic that rules has to show actual outcomes.

  2. So, which metaphysic rules them all?

  3. Russell, I am a little confused by your assessment that I like neat comprehensive schema. Certainly Le Guin is not this, or Deleuze.

    I almost added Congar as a pair with de Lubac, and don't contest his importance. Similarly Wittgenstein. And I should have included Lonergan, but I confess ignorance of his work.

    However, the metaphysics that rules doesn't have to be about influence... but if it is about influence, then Tolkien wins, hands down. That or Lucas.

  4. Can you say more about what makes for a robust metaphysic?

  5. I can't say as I know for sure. It's like I know one when I see one. Other contenders than didn't make the original post include thinkers like Neal Stephenson, and perhaps Tillich.

  6. Nikos_Kazantzakis

  7. I should add musicians. Of the 20th century, the ones who attempted a metaphysic and did it well probably include Messiaen, Duke Ellington, and Bob Dylan.

  8. Interesting that you ascribe the phenomenon as influence. I left off Schillebeeckx because that's the category I put him in. His influence has been to help us all imagine Jesus' subjectivity. But in this case he's applying a present metaphysic, not generating one. It's not just that Heidegger hung out with National Socialism, it's that his metaphysic allowed for Nazi's to be masters. One should be frightened by such prospects. In a similar way, I'm frightened by how Rand's metaphysic allows masters to be unmoved by the suffering of the vulnerable. A master metaphysic rules human interaction. It's more than words on paper. Tillich fits this category in my experience from the reports members of his generation have given about how he allowed them to embrace the divine in the face of otherwise absurd mythologies. Integration with actual living experience is the key to how powerful a metaphysic is.