Do We Really Need Metaphysics?

Post Modern Nihilism and the Need for Metaphysics

By Ryhan Higgins

Metaphysics as of late has become a bit of a dirty word among scholars and intellectuals, particularly within the postmodern and existentialist frameworks which have come to color much of our contemporary thought.

Postmodernism in the words of Jean Francois Lyotard is generally characterized as being ‘an incredulity toward metanarratives’.  Such incredulity is characterized in the works of many notable postmodern thinkers such as Foucault and Derrida whose main focus has been on deconstructing concepts and paradigms that have generally been considered ‘essential’.  The ultimate goal here being to show their inherent contradictions and absurdity and hence their nonessential nature and dispensability.

The general impetus for this movement stems mainly from the leftist political agendas which have dominated the social sciences, such being epitomized in the works of critical theorists and the Franfurt School, particularly that of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno.  

These predominant leftist political agendas, which characterize the lenses of our social sciences constitute another historical factor contributing to this trend of moving away from metanarratives and the deconstruction of essentialist paradigms.  Essentialism has been identified by some as the culprit behind the entrenched ideas in our socio/political sphere, and are generally posited as a key obstacle for those seeking social reform.   The rationale being that such essentialist ideas are seen as the agents by which totalitarian governments and outmoded social institutions such as racism, sexism, and imperialism are legitimized.

This obviously has much in common with the libertine goals in the philosophical system of Thelema; except however, for the nihilistic tendency of postmodern theorists to evade any uniform and positive statements about humankind and the universe.  There is a purposeful ambiguity in presenting any positive or unified vision of what it means to be human during our current historical presence. 

In contrast, those who are of us, that is, those who adhere to the philosophy of Thelema have a clear and positive vision: 'every man and every woman is a star'.[1]And this positive vision provides sufficient and more sustainable grounds for the goals of liberty that are now the hallmark of our time.  Without a clear vision and hence a metaphysics, one will lack the integrity of character to fight for the liberty that is one's birth right.  So, while Postmodernism in particular attempts to do away with all 'essentialisms' in their fight for liberty, the law of Thelema only does away with those which hinder the individual from living fully and exercising their right to self-fulfillment.

In addition to the negative social effects of classic metaphysics, essentialism in general has also demonstrated a limiting effect on the theoretical processes integral to sound research in many, if not all fields of study. Ultimately, the reduction of our knowledge to ‘essential’ static propositions and qualities provides a basis for confirmation bias and attitudes of cognitive dissonance. So the evolution of science itself has tended to shy away from philosophy and metaphysics based on the perceived theoretical limitations associated with classical metaphysics and much of speculative philosophy. 

Of course, these scientific philosophers will purposely avoid mentioning that our scientific processes and even the legitimacy of science itself are the result of early metaphysical suppositions, which we owe much in part to the pre-Socratic thinkers of ancient Greece. Also postmodern critics rightly point out that science itself relies on assertions about the world that transcend rational foundations and are often taken as givens, being axiomatic in nature. 

The other weakness pointed out by postmodern critics is that positive science and its processes are in no position to make the much-needed prescriptive statements that comprise our cultural and social life.  The language game of positive science, is only permitted to make descriptive statements.  So overall, there is a philosophical vacuum that positive science is unable to fill; thus, we need a new language game to fulfill this task.

Despite these assertions however, the politically motivated social theorists and postmodern bandwagon members seem to pose the greatest resistance to developments in metaphysics and the revival of philosophy as a respected discipline. Since they cry the loudest, and while their political motivation has led them to abandon reasoning and objective knowledge, it becomes increasingly difficult to have any genuine dialogue. This sounds harsh; yet, according to linguistics the willingness to participate in a rational form of communication is the criteria for any authentic form of dialogue.  Ironically, this lack of rational dialogue prevents philosophers who attempt to fill this language game vacuum from being-heard. For all intents and purposes it seems that postmodern scholars have thrown the baby out with the bath water.

In spite of any criticisms of postmodernism and for the sake of all fairness, it is also reasonable to say that essentialism does need to go, or in the very least, it needs to be transformed.  This must be, at least in so far as epistemological processes are concerned, and we still maintain a genuine desire for new and fruitful knowledge.

It is also unfortunately true that mainstream modern epistemology and metaphysics have been guilty of fostering both foundationalist and essentialist approaches to our knowledge and understanding of reality.  This overall approach has done more harm than good in regard to the advancement of our understanding both in the natural sciences and the social sciences.

 Postmodernism is at least a partial reaction to these and other fallacies which have haunted us in our recent thought processes of the modern era.  Here I refer to the early dogmatism of materialism, scientism, and totalitarian political systems… all being bulwarks to material, social, psychological, and spiritual progress.

However, there are two questions which haven’t been directly dealt with in our culture’s current response to, and revision of our general outlook:

a) ‘can we truly extirpate essentialism from our understanding of the world?’

b) ‘Is metaphysics necessarily essentialist?’  

It seems that a ‘yes’ to both these questions would involve a certain self-contradiction in terms, thus problematizing much of the postmodern agenda.

Unfortunately, metaphysics has been associated with this undesired tendency toward essentialism. Many attempts have been made to discard it by discrediting the essentialisms found in many traditional forms of metaphysics and the social sciences.  Nevertheless, some serious questions remain throughout all of these endeavors:  

First, what is our definition of metaphysics?

Second, is it not the case that all value judgments, which inform this antimetaphysics sentiment entail certain metaphysical assumptions about the world we live in?

Third, is the study and development of metaphysics not relevant for our other intellectual endeavors and for our general well-being?  

Finally, I would ask: is it not possible to articulate a working metaphysical framework that is congruent with our movement away from the static essentialisms of the past, but rather embraces a more dynamic understanding of reality, which is compatible with our current values of tolerance and respect for the 'other'?  Is it not possible to envision a new metaphysics that is congruent with the spirit of our most compelling existentialist reflections and postmodern deconstructions?  

In future editorials I will propose a revised metaphysics inspired by the The Book of the Law, which I hope others will find to be congruent with our current existential and postmodern insights. The intention is to formulate a metaphysics, which offers a new cohesive vision of our current understanding of existence while opening further theoretical doors, which could stimulate and direct our current scientific and social inquiries.  

Such a metaphysics of course, for epistemological honesty, must include an inherent admission of its own partiality and incorporate a dynamic understanding of reality in order to avoid the pitfalls of our previous metaphysical concepts: it must be reflexive enough to allow for necessary amendments as our historical being in the here and now continues to perpetually unfold.  Liber Al velLegis does this, of course, but the task is to formulate a formal metaphysical and philosophical system that would be accessible and credible in the eyes of other intellectual leaders in our world community. 

Before I can truly begin this endeavor, it is pertinent to examine our dominant contemporary paradigms in order to see where we currently are in understanding both oneself and the universe.  Such an examination requires a look at the three dominant schools of thought (in the West) that have currently shaped our approach to ontology, ethics, metaphysics, morality, and our collective cultural identity.  The paradigms that I am referring to here are phenomenology, postmodernism, and existentialism.  

Existentialism as explained by John Paul Sartre is, typically understood to posit existence as proceeding essence.  This position itself is steeped in the philosophical school of phenomenology which posits that there is just the phenomenon of human experience with nothing else behind it (i.e. metaphysically) to give it further meaning.

 This of course is in sharp contrast to our inherited Cartesian dualism of mind and body. It also contrasts the traditional metaphysics of the Platonists and Scholastics which treats the world of phenomena as a mere copy of some more abstract metaphysical world, a metaphysical world that is often portrayed as absolute and static (essential), being a foundation for modern epistemological ‘certainty’.  

It is generally accepted in philosophy that many problems have been solved by discarding this classic form of metaphysics. Conversely, more detailed and meaningful insights have been gleaned from phenomenological descriptions and their resulting ontology.  Metaphysics as a separate privileged reality[2], a reality separate from the phenomenon has been deemed un-useful and-un confirmable by many recent philosophers.  Postmodern thinkers and critical theorists have all but declared such metaphysical paradigms to be criminal inso far as they are be used to legitimize totalitarian governments and the mistreatment of marginalized groups of people.

Postmodernism, in spite of its seemingly fractured expressions, generally dismisses metaphysics and often ontology on more ethical grounds, and such an approach makes both a problematic and un-compelling case for those that would shun metaphysics.  The problem arises from the fact that the project of Postmodern deconstruction is to critique and problematize both ideas and concepts that may hamper our freedom and marginalize the ‘other’.  

Much of this work, such as in Foucault’s Archeology, is influenced by Nietzsche’s own incredulity toward unquestioned values, particularly the ‘Christian’ values of his own time as seen in his Genealogy of Morals.  In addition, Derrida often deconstructs western biases in values such as the value of spoken phonetic language over pictorial, hieroglyphic and written language. His deconstructions deal with the philosophical suppositions espoused in classic Greek sources i.e. Plato, Aristotle etc.

The overall perceived impetus in these works however, is the celebration of plurality as against a western biased notion, which conveniently devalues the language system of ‘the other’.The ‘other’ here often being that cultural system or particular individual who has a unique perspective with its own internal logic and its own values.  

While some service to individual liberty has come out of this, the caveat is that such examples of incredulity toward metanarratives embody values, which themselves are considered to have an unquestioned and elevated status.

This puts postmodern thought on a par with the very thing it claims to be disrupting: metanarratives.  In this instance, the postmodern endeavor attempts to be the metanarrative of metanarratives: the ultimate moral high ground. Of course, history has shown such moral high grounds to bestow positions of great power, power, which can be easily abused.  It is in this sense that the postmodern critique falls flat on its face.

While there is an array of postmodern thinkers with diverging opinions, the general revulsion of the movement toward metaphysics and ontology seems to share some general values: the freedom to explore ideas, respect for different points of view and their expressions, and the importance of plurality as opposed to universality.  

Postmodern writers tend to shy away from any positive descriptions that would lay out these motivations and values due to the belief that the issuing of a positive concrete statement or philosophy on anything runs the danger of becoming a dominant voice, which might drown out or marginalize other views.  

It is with this attitude that postmodern thought tends toward deconstruction, and disruption of dominant and domineering metanarratives in an effort to constantly challenge our limiting ideas about ourselves and the 'other'.  This however makes postmodern thought practically nihilistic, in that it ultimately says nothing: its function being merely to disrupt power(s).

Ironically, this reticence regarding a general view of the universe in order to avoid totalitarianism toward other views verges on having a totalitarian character of its own.  It involves a shunning if you will, of any attempts to synthesize our partial perspectives and present a positive and synthetic statement about ones understanding of one’s self and the world, in other words the presentation of an ontology or a metaphysics.  

So, as both a philosopher and metaphysician I am speaking for another marginalized voice here. Metaphysics has been marginalized; in part by the postmodern movement and by our obsession with instrumental reasoning.   This obsession with instrumental reasoning of course has marginalized philosophy as a whole by the unmitigated emphasis on business and technology in our current cultural machine.

Ironically, this desire to prevent totalitarian narratives also takes on a totalitarian role as it attempts to disrupt or ignore any narratives that don’t satisfy its own value judgements and these value judgements themselves imply a synthetic view of the world which would inform those value judgements.(i.e. a metaphysics and ontology)  

The values underlining the postmodern narrative usually aren’t stated explicitly; rather, they are often implicated in postmodern criticism.  The general fear expressed by postmodern paradigms is of a universal system, which subjugates the will and perspective of the individual.  Freedom of the individual will is the key here and we will regularly refer to the idea of‘will’, as we continue exploring this topic.

Thus, while postmodernism might be a great form of praxis in terms of studying that which is 'other'[3] and keeping an openness to new views, it is highly problematized by its inherent contradictions. When taken as something more than praxis, it becomes another possible weapon, another form of totalitarianism and thus another form of ‘bad faith’[4]. Postmodern thought then does contain an unconscious metaphysics and it ultimately does in practice, that which it seeks to avoid: the suppression of other narrative and other views.  

This furthermore touches upon Heidegger’s discussion on the inherent violence of being; that for one thing to be, some others must be suppressed.  Thus, even an idea whose raison d’etre is to stop violence and suppression, ultimately suppresses and silences that which it sees as contrary to its goal.  In this case, it attempts to suppress and silence any clearly expressed point of view in regard to the world and our being.  It is in this sense, that postmodernism as a world-view, has become both totalitarian and ultimately nihilistic in its own right.  

This train of thought leads us to Nietzsche once again, a figure who is seen by some as the father of both existentialism and postmodernism.  It is definitely difficult to apprehend these paradigms without discussing Nietzsche, whose uniqueness lay in his deconstruction of metaphysics, ethics, morality, religion, and philosophy itself.[5]  

In many respects, he was the pioneer of postmodernism, being the deconstructionist par excellence with the main difference that he did make some positive universal statements about history, knowledge, and values.  The core of his positive philosophy that will be relevant here is his infamous notion of the ‘will to power’ which Nietzsche regarded as the quintessence of life itself.  Upon reflecting, it is rather strange that a thinker who derides metaphysics reduces everything to the ‘will to power,’ which if anything rings with the tone of a metaphysical statement. The ‘will to power’ replaces the classic metaphysics that Nietzsche deconstructs.  

In this current work I agree with this notion that the categories, identity, and particulars of our being are actually the manifestations of this will to power; however, my main divergence is in the definition of metaphysics.  

The metaphysics that Nietzsche and many postmodernists as well as existentialists refer to in their criticism is a particular kind of metaphysics, a metaphysics which posits an essence behind the phenomenon and which reduces all other phenomena to a set of essences.  

If we look at what metaphysics means in itself: that which transcends physics, we can see that Nietzsche’s will to power is in fact a revised metaphysics.  The will to power is for Nietzsche the interior world of phenomena and this interior world transcends the traditional realm of physics: thus, it is metaphysical.  Moreover, we cannot avoid a certain degree of essentialism in our thinking, since all statements and theoretical discourse require a degree of ‘seeing the general in the particular’[6].  

The question here is, can we conceive of an essence that is elastic, and dynamic; something which provides a deeper characterization and understanding of the phenomenon without divorcing itself from it?  Can we not see the whole of phenomena itself as a basis for an essence and understand that essence as perpetually changing (the nature of Ra-Hoor-Khuit)?[7]  Can we not see the nature and the essence of phenomena as being a dynamic expression of will?  And while we look at phenomena as a single whole,[8] can we not also simultaneously look at phenomena as a plurality of changing essences as well? (i.e. Hadits… interacting with Nuit)

It seems that Nietzsche has essentialized phenomena by reducing it to ‘will to power’.  Yet the question arising here is, whether or not this type of essentialism is the same kind of essentialism that postmodern thinkers abrogate.  My answer here is a resounding no:  ‘Will to power’ unlike the essences of classical metaphysics is potentially unlimited, unbounded and defies certain knowledge (in the conventional sense).  

It is quite meaningless in the project of achieving a rational foundation for certainty in the context of mainstream modern metaphysics.  Yet, for some contemporary existentialists and postmodern thinkers, the will to power is quite meaningful. It raises the very stuff of each individual up and above the deified essences of classical philosophy: nothing is necessarily impossible as the will to power, as the force which creates our self-concept is the driving force behind all conceptions, all knowledge, and values. (The power of Ra-Hoor-Khuit born from the polarity of Hadit and Nuit… 'I' and 'Not I')  

Such a notion doesn’t necessitate any interference with acquiring new knowledge and new experiences, it doesn’t hamper knowledge and human liberty, rather it is the force driving the continual development of all of these things.  So here, we have a potential essence, a basis by which, to draw insight from all other phenomena. Such a basis is unavoidably essentialist, but only in the right ways: that is in ways that don't restrict our liberty or our evolution of new knowledge.  

So rather than being the poison of metaphysics as Nietzsche seems to imply, the ‘will to power’ provides a new model and a hint by which one could construct a much more potent and meaningful metaphysics, a metaphysics which is congruent with the spirit of our time.   With this in mind, it might be fruitful to consider two possible types of essentialism:

1) Fruitful essentialism, which is elastic and changing, but provides a synthesis of our various bodies of knowledge.

2) Barren essentialism, which takes the same synthesis and posits it as a static absolute foundation by which to determine and judge all other phenomena… i.e. the ‘other’ and leads to absurd and dysfunctional reductionist theories in both philosophy and the sciences. 

This latter, barren form of essentialism serves but to flatter our own petty egoism, which itself is a form of insanity; since, there is no static ego.  So the barren essentialism can be said to characterize the metaphysics and philosophy of science in the, until recent modern period of our history.  

It allowed us to make sense of our experience for some time, but it greatly limited our expansion of knowledge and hurt our humanity as it also provided the fulcrum by which humans are treated as passive objects. (the racism and nationalism served by social Darwinism).

In such a context, marginal groups were merely a means to an end[9], and through this process, great crimes against humanity have been committed. It is here in the peak darkness of barren essentialism (perhaps after WWII) that existentialism and postmodernism arose as radical responses to our moral depravation.  The postmodern movement may have thrown the baby out with the bath water since metaphysics is integral to our historical and cultural identity, and a clear sense of self-identity is integral for our personal and cultural health.  

Existentialism however may have provided us with a basis for a remedy, in that it has provided an elastic and creative system placing the self at the center of responsibility, and the creation of meaning.  This is moreover in harmony with the project of Thelema as a philosophical school of thought.

So, in light of these reflections I diverge from Nietzsche and the postmodern writers by attempting to construct a metaphysics along the lines of a fruitful essentialism as described above.  I diverge even further from Nietzsche’s thought by seeing this ‘will to power’ as being the total sum of changing phenomena from a given point of view, and that it is both ontological and metaphysical in nature.  I call it 'pure will'[10] in order to emphasize its spontaneous and pre-reflective nature as we will see in later articles.  

Metaphysics is relevant and necessary today.  This is due to the fact, that value judgements involve metaphysical and ontological perspectives.  Even if they are not stated or thought out in a systematic manner, they are implied. Introductory text books describe metaphysics as ‘... a sustained and rational study of what there is and the ultimate nature of what there is.’[11]  Therefore, we cannot, not do metaphysics, as all of our value judgments, not only the cultural, political, and ethical, but the epistemological and scientific endeavors as well, all involve and demand metaphysical assumptions and considerations.[12]  

So, if we cannot avoid metaphysics and we dupe ourselves into believing that we are beyond metaphysics, then our metaphysical assumptions and deliberations are swept under the rug of unconsciousness.  Thus our own acts and assertions themselves become blind from lack of a deeper reflection and run the risk of becoming destructive as the proverbial forest, is not seen for the trees.

This further adds to our sleep, our limiting of awareness by our confirmation bias and our cognitive dissonance.  If we cannot, not do metaphysics then we are left only with the choice of doing good metaphysics and bad metaphysics; or, rather conscious and unconscious metaphysics.  If we accept a degree of consciousness and accountability as being a necessary component for making good decisions, and if metaphysics plays a role in all of our other practical deliberations, then metaphysics needs to be taken seriously.  

Today this seems especially relevant, as metaphysics and philosophy have continued to be marginalized, and have generally been derided as redundant at best, or as some arcane but tantalizing diversion at worst.  We live in a society loaded with knowledge and technological toys, yet there is a vacuum of understanding in-regard to life and spirituality: the understanding of the self and its relationship with the all.

If we return to the movement against metaphysics that often characterizes the postmodern movement, we can recall that the movement itself is already self-contradictory, since its claim of incredulity toward meta-narratives requires it to be incredulous toward its own framework.  Recall that this framework is based upon and motivated by values of plurality, freedom of thought and expression et al.  The fact that it even facilitates the said values suggests the will to power, the will to overcome restrictions on oneself and others by attacking any ideas that restrict that will.  These values then are an expression of the will to power’s drive for a world where it will be less impeded, and any unquestioned value can be seen as an expression of the will to power in Nietzsche’s sense of the word.

Postmodernism however, unlike Nietzsche focuses specifically on the politics of pluralism, and its main contention against metanarratives is really the resistance against the will to power over others.  The issue here is having a particular will to power oppressing other wills to power through the acceptance of its metanarratives.  One common denominator remains in all this: the will that is valued in a postmodern framework might better be described as the will to be, and the will to become. This, in my opinion is another inescapable quality of our existence: becoming.  

Our will, or wills are always becoming, and attempts to thwart and control that becoming have often proven themselves futile, disastrous, and generally fruitless throughout history, but we will look at that more in our future discussions on ethics and the ethical implications of pure will and its metaphysics.  

So now, we have seen that the postmodern paradigm performs its deconstructions out of the interest of the plurality and freedom of the will to power, or rather, the pure will.  We can see that there is an implied metaphysics in the values embodied by postmodernism and even in its avoidance of metaphysics.  The implicit metaphysics here would involve the will and it’s freedom, a freedom which would deny any static or determined qualities while being the ultimate characteristic of phenomena in its totality, at least in so far as we can imagine it.  

The metaphysics we articulate must be done carefully, and must facilitate the values of the pure will’s historical becoming.  We must articulate it, because if we don’t, it is still there, and becomes dark, unreflective, and distorted. This pure will and it's becoming is a part of our collective drive toward meaning which demands that this elusive will which is the nature of our being be articulated.  This need for articulation therefore is an integral part of the freedom of movement and expression that the 'pure will' demands in this postmodern age.  

Looking at things in this light, we can say that there is just will, as in Nietzsche’s will to power, it is the condition and foundation for our inescapable ontology and metaphysics.  There are no categories, there is no mind, no self, no conception of being without this will, and yet we can conceive and experience this will without any of these things.  We can also see the presence of will in other beings, i.e. other phenomena who may be barren of these other characteristics.  

The will or the 'pure will' rather, is a kind of existence, an unquantifiable and unlimited ontological force containing all potential things, and yet, in itself it is nothing in particular, this pure will then can also be called 'being in its totality': it is both all being and no particular being at the same time.[13]

This pure will is metaphysical in that it transcends all physical things. It negates traditional metaphysics since it pre-exists all essences, and is their creator.  Pure will, in one sense, is no essence at all, and in another sense, it is the essence of essences, since all experiences are modifications or emanations of it: subject, object, space, time, causality, thought, feeling; the idea of the ego, and the world are all manifestations of this will.  

Today however, this community of pure wills has found metaphysics in its current shape undesirable and a large part of metaphysics has been charged with hampering social justice and liberty.  [14]In this framework, metaphysics has been deemed the enemy of the will.  In all this, we have forgotten one thing: our existence as will is not just ontological; it is also metaphysical in nature.  The very thing that seeks to destroy the limiting notion of essences, rigid foundations, and authority, is itself fundamental. Within the will itself is the essence of all essences since it, is the author and generator of all: itself, its ideas, our ethics, and yes, our postmodernism.  

Postmodernism ultimately deconstructs itself in the end, since it too does the very thing that its champions abhor, it too has become a metanarrative by which to judge and subjugate other narratives.  It claims to protect the little narratives, by contesting the fusion of multiple disciplines and the drawing of grand conclusions.  Thus, I ask: on what high ground does this incredulity toward metanarratives stand?  What kind of power relationship does this imply?  

The will to power, which I prefer to call ‘pure will,’ has produced this postmodern phenomenon, as a continuation in the movement of its own historical dialectic, its own partial revelation of its ineffable total being to itself.[15] 

With this newfound historical freedom, there is a need to look at the whole and seek a positive identity.  The existential angst of each individual manifestation of pure will, each star, demands it; it seeks meaning and continued progression in this on-going dialectic as our being unfolds itself though history.  Not only does the will to power itself have metaphysical significance, it also seeks metaphysics as a revelation of its total being.  

[1] CF: Liber Al velLegisch. 1.
[2] CF: Plato, Socratics, and friends…
[3] As in the discipline of Anthropology and Sociology for instance
[4] CF Sartre’s Being and Nothingness
[5] Particularly in Beyone Good and Evil
[6]CF: Peter Berger's description of 'the sociological perspective'.
[7] The introduction of Sartre's Being and Nothingness suggests that our sense of essences is an intuition of the 'whole' relating to a particular phenomenon.  This dynamic nature is due to an upheaval as being and its inherent nothingness are mutually apprehended.
[8] A similar idea was proposed in Leibniz’s Monadology
[9] This is in sharp contrast to Kant’s injunction to treat each human as an ‘end in itself’ and thus his vision of a ‘kingdom of ends’.  This vision is not so far removed from Crowley’s star sponge vision.  The idea that every human is a star being self determined, and an end unto itself.
[10] As per Chapter One in Liber Al velLegis
[11] CF: Beginning Metaphysics Geirsson and Losonsky
[12] CF the beginning of Heidegger's Being and Time
[13] CF: see Crowley’s 1/0= infinity equation as seen in Magick Without Tears.
[14] Or stars as per Liber Al vel Legis
[15] A not too indirect reference to Hegel's logic in Phenomenology of Spirit


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