Peircean realism - towards a scientific metaphysics

Dissertation, University of Kent (2024)
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Abstract

The problem of the status of metaphysics -- what it is and what it is for, what use it is - has been with us for millennia, at least since Plato took issue with the Sophists, and continues to the present day. Here I attempt an intervention in this perennial dispute, with the aim of providing some kind of rapprochement between the factions. This intervention is based on how Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) understood metaphysics and the position presented here is thus called `Peircean realism'. The basic idea is that everyone has a metaphysics and has to have one, just to get by in everyday life, and this is no different for scientific inquirers in their professional work. The subject matter of metaphysics is thus presuppositions, whether it is what we rely on to go shopping or to discover the Higgs boson. We rely on these in our activities and expect them to have an effect on outcomes, so when our expectations are frustrated, doubt may be thrown on our presuppositions. We would thus like the ability to inquire into our presuppositions so as not to repeat mistakes, but our instinctive, evolved capacity for reasoning may not be up the job, since it is entwined with what we take for granted. Instead, Peirce develops a science of good reasoning that includes a theory of inquiry, which would allow us to scrutinise our presuppositions, to perform metaphysical inquiry. The starting point for this science of good reasoning is basic principles of combination and organisation, because these are involved in all activity, and these are Peirce's categories of Firstness, Secondness and Thirdness. This is also where I start in the exposition of and argument for Peircean realism as a scientific -- that is, truth-directed -- metaphysics that provides the best possible general presuppositions to the natural and human sciences, the special sciences that deal with matters in their particularity; that Peircean realism is a viable metaphysics for those sciences. This exposition and argument comprises the first part of this thesis. In the second part, the case for Peircean realism is further bolstered by turning a critical eye on positions that are deficient from the Peircean point of view, in that they lack one or other category and thus starve the special sciences of the resources they need, or that they try to ignore metaphysics entirely. All this is meant to demonstrate that metaphysics is unavoidable, that we need all three of Peirce's categories for a viable metaphysics for the special sciences, and that Peircean realism is just such a metaphysics.

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Vittorio J Serra
University of Kent

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