Artwork by Joanna Borkowska
When two things are distinct from each other, what makes them distinct? An odd question, perhaps, but one motivated by the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR): the principle that, as Michael Della Rocca puts it in his electrifying new book, “each fact or each thing has an explanation” (xiv). The PSR seems innocent enough. Shouldn’t people, especially philosophers, always be entitled to ask for explanations? But in Della Rocca’s hands the PSR becomes a rocket launching us into the “Parmenidean Ascent”. At the crest of this Ascent we find the whole of reality, ourselves included, dissolved into something indescribable. The conclusion is, as Della Rocca put it when he wrote for this journal (“Thinking with Parmenides”, Autumn 2020), “literally unbelievable”. How should an innocent-seeming principle launch us into the literally unbelievable?
I won’t go through the details of Della Rocca’s argument, since he did so himself in “Thinking with Parmenides”. But the key is a denial of the possibility of relations. Here Della Rocca draws proudly on the legacy of F.H. Bradley. Suppose that R is a relation between A and B. To explain what the relation R is, we must refer to the fact that it relates its terms, A and B, to each other. But that is to say that R stands in a relation to A and B – that of relating them. Call this new relation R’. R’ connects R to its terms, A and B. By the same logic as before, to explain what R’ is, we must refer to the way it links its terms, which are R on one hand and A and B on the other. Call this further relation R’’. To explain R’’ we must refer to another relation, R’’’. And so on to infinity. But an explanation that never comes to an end never succeeds in explaining. Thus no relation can ever be satisfactorily explained. The PSR goes hungry.
A hungry PSR becomes destructive. If every real fact or thing has an explanation, then apparent things that can’t be explained can’t be real. If relations can’t be explained then there can be no relations. But if there are no relations then there are no distinct things, since distinct things must be related to each other in some ways. You and I, as distinct from each other and the rest of the universe, cannot exist. The Earth, as distinct from the other heavenly bodies, cannot exist. True reality must be homogenous, undivided, unchanging, and eternal, as the nearly-prehistoric philosopher Parmenides wrote in the few fragments we have left from him.
The PSR plunges us into what appears to be a dark night of indistinctness. Parmenides called this ultimate reality to eon, “What Is”, because he could say nothing more about it. We can ascribe no properties to it, since ascribing a property is making a distinction, and to eon is above all distinctions. The differentiated objects of the familiar world must be mere illusions, except that illusions, being differentiated, can’t exist either. You see what Della Rocca means by “literally unbelievable”. If his conclusion is true, it can be neither uttered nor comprehended. He embraces this paradoxical result; the last two chapters of the book are mostly left blank. Yet, a footnote explains, the blankness isn’t meant to convey oppressive silence. Ascent beyond metaphysical explanation is, Della Rocca insists, a type of liberation, for reasons I’ll explain below.
The Parmenidean Ascent recurs throughout the book. We start with a simple philosophical problem – explaining what a substance, or action, or meaning is. Soon enough the standard explanation posits a relation of some sort. And then, doused in the fuel of the PSR, it explodes, propelling us into the undifferentiated mass of to eon. This result alone will motivate many readers to want to shut off the doomsday device of the PSR, at least before detonation. But Della Rocca crushes the hopes of those who try to moderate the PSR, to prevent it from leading to such extremes, from contemporary thinkers like Shamik Dasgupta to iconic thinkers like Immanuel Kant. Della Rocca’s argument here has an intricate logical beauty. First, he shows how even a very restricted PSR leads to the collapse of all distinctions. Then he shows that, reflexively, the collapse of distinctions validates the strongest possible form of the PSR. So a moderate PSR grows into an extreme one, via the Parmenidean Ascent.
Those who fear Della Rocca’s conclusions have only one recourse left: to reject the PSR altogether. Della Rocca warns that such “PSR deniers” are only safe if they truly reject the demand for explanation. If they “smuggle in a limited form of the PSR” (257), they will be launched onto the Parmenidean Ascent. But then the denier’s position is hardly less radical than Parmenideanism. The denier confronts a world in which nothing has any reason behind it. Every fact is brute and inexplicable.
The Parmenidean also ends up with an unintelligible world. But Della Rocca stresses how different her position is from that of the denier. The denier retains a world of relations and distinctions. Unlike the Parmenidean to eon, the denier’s world is perfectly describable in ordinary metaphysical terms. It’s just that there is no explanation of why anything in that world should be the way that it is. This is a really crucial difference. The seeking of explanations, which involves some commitment to the PSR, is the basis of our scientific knowledge. Scientific theories are accepted because of how well they explain the observed phenomena. But if nothing is explained by anything, how do we make up our mind what to believe, beyond what we immediately observe? One thing the PSR does nicely is link together two notions that are clearly related: explanation and justification. To explain why something is the case is also, to some extent, to justify believing that it is the case. But in the brute and inexplicable world of the denier, just as one can say nothing to the question, “why is it so?”, besides “that’s just the way it is”, so one can say nothing to the question “why should I believe it?”, besides “it just seems true”. Discomfort about the PSR can only lead to accepting (alleged) brute facts on the basis of brute intuition. Thus Della Rocca diagnoses the trend in recent philosophy towards what he calls the Method of Intuition: the principle that “one is entitled to reject a philosophical thesis if it goes against what is seen to be common sense or is somehow contrary to our intuitions” (184). This constrains philosophy to deliver back to us what we already believed on the basis of common sense. As a historian, Della Rocca possesses powerful forensic skills for tracing systems of thought to their root. Applying these to the present, he exposes the Method of Intuition as a central strut holding up the edifice of contemporary analytic philosophy. The Method is “unduly conservative […] and unduly arbitrary” (260) – arbitrary because nothing governs what common sense takes to be true, besides what happens to seem “intuitively” right. This makes philosophy into a device for entrenching prejudice. Della Rocca calls this the “Taming of Philosophy”, and with this he serves a sharp indictment against the profession. Escape from the conservatism and arbitrariness of the great Taming comes, for Della Rocca, from two sources. The first, unsurprisingly, is the PSR. Applying it honestly leads to conclusions that dramatically fail the test of common sense. The other is “the history of philosophy, especially […] before the iron curtain of the MI [Method of Intuition] came down” (289). Bradley, for instance, is quoted with the sally that common sense “at its worst, is in its essence a one-sidedness, which we must not be afraid to mark as stupid, or even perhaps to denounce as immoral” (285).
All of this I find inspiring – a blessed relief from the stifling “consensus” in which English-language philosophy has been mired for over a century. I am not sure how many more articles I can read that take as their starting point a standard-issue ration of empiricism, realism, materialism, naturalism, and atheism (or at least a conveniently non-interventionist deity). I pray that Della Rocca’s words shake some life back into the tradition that once produced Parmenides. All the same, I cannot easily bring myself to follow the Parmenidean Ascent all the way to the summit. My worry is not that the conclusions are counterintuitive. It is on the basis of “intuitions”, after all, that humans most commonly maim, insult, and murder one another; Bradley is right. But Della Rocca’s conclusions are not even counterintuitive. To go against intuition, a conclusion would have to be utterable or thinkable. I hope that it might be possible to lift out of their Parmenidean setting the formidable weapons Della Rocca forges against the Taming of Philosophy. This would involve first tackling his regress argument against relations. Again, this argument is inspired by Bradley, and some hope of avoiding the Parmenidean Ascent, without giving up the PSR, is provided by the answers that have been given to Bradley. Della Rocca discusses responses from Bertrand Russell, who was a practitioner of Taming. But there are also responses from far less tame sources. J.M.E. McTaggart believed he could “remove the force of Mr. Bradley’s argument”. Though he agreed that the presence of a relation implies the existence of an infinite series of further relations, he argued that series of this sort: ...are not vicious, because it is not necessary to complete them in order to determine the meaning of the earlier terms. The meaning of an earlier member in this series does not depend on a latter, but, on the contrary, the meaning of any later term depends on that of an earlier term (The Nature of Existence, §88). We can apply McTaggart’s suggestion to Della Rocca’s argument. Della Rocca argues that in order to explain what a relation R is, we must refer to the fact that it links its terms, and this involves a further relation R’, linking R to its terms. McTaggart proposes reversing the polarity of explanation: it is R that explains R’ and not the other way around. Then the infinite series – R, R’, R’’ … can have every member explained by its predecessor, and the chain of explanations can terminate in the original member R (or perhaps its terms). McTaggart was hardly a Tamer. His ultimate metaphysical conclusions, which I have discussed previously in this journal (“Philosophy and Hope”, Winter 2019), were that time and the material world don’t exist, and ultimate reality consists of timeless spirits in relations of unchanging mutual love. The PSR plays a starring role in generating this conclusion. His argument against matter, for example, is that the qualities of a material object are explained by the qualities of its parts, but material objects must have parts within parts to infinity, so they remain unexplained and therefore (by the PSR) unreal. Unlike Della Rocca’s conclusion, McTaggart’s is perfectly articulable, though unusual. So perhaps we can have intelligibility without Taming, and without rejecting the PSR. Another untamed reply to Della Rocca comes from Graham Priest. In his book One, Priest takes seriously Bradley’s regress argument against the explicability of relations. Like Della Rocca, he rejects any solution based on abandoning the PSR: “one might accept that one cannot provide an explanation […] But giving up without a fight is an untoward defeatism”. Priest notices, however, that the regress of relations only gets going if we suppose that a relation is distinct from the terms it relates. If, whenever R relates A and B, R is identical both to A and to B, then the problem goes away. On the other hand, since A is distinct from B, how can they both be identical to the same third thing? Accepting that they can, Priest shows, involves rejecting the Law of Non-Contradiction: we must believe that certain things can be both true and false at the same time. Hardly the Taming of Philosophy! But enough to stop the PSR launching the Parmenidean Ascent.
Finally, I note what the Zhuangzi, written in China perhaps a couple of centuries after Parmenides, has to say about distinctions:
What is It is also Other, what is Other is also It. There they say “That’s it, that’s not” from one point of view, here we say “That’s it, that’s not” from another point of view. […] Where neither It nor Other finds its opposite is called the axis of the Way [dao shu] (A.C. Graham translation, with Pinyin added).
Distinctions can be made among things, but only from some or other arbitrary point of view. From another point of view, different distinctions could be made. Is Zhuangzi, then, a Tamer, falling into the conservative arbitrariness of the Method of Intuition? Not quite, since he recognises the plurality of arbitrary positions one might take. Your intuition might make this distinction, but you could just as well have had a different intuition and made a different distinction.
Moreover, Zhuangzi believes that at the centre of the different arbitrary points of view lies Parmenidean undifferentiation – the dao shu – the axis of the Way or “hinge of Dao”. Parmenides’ to eon cannot be grasped at all, as we saw; it lies beyond the bounds of sense. Likewise with Zhuangzi’s dao, as Fung Yu-Lan explains: “The Taoists […] realized that the ‘one’ is unthinkable and inexpressible” (A Short History of Chinese Philosophy). But the undifferentiated dao can be touched in passing, as we move through it from one differentiated point of view to another. We pay honour to the arbitrariness of distinctions, not by trying to rise above them, but by remaining mobile within them – being prepared to make contact with the undifferentiated in moving between arbitrary schemes of distinction. Della Rocca reveals more than a hint of the spirit of Zhuangzi at various points. He tells us, for instance, that the Parmenidean Ascent frees us “to play, to joke, instead of being held down by an incoherent standard” (225).
Della Rocca has fired shots at the discipline of contemporary philosophy, and I for one am happy to take up arms with him. But perhaps Zhuangzi provides the basis for a truce. One frustrating manifestation of the Method of Intuition is the way that contemporary analytic philosophers frequently base their arguments on intuitions about what “we” would say in such-and-such a case. Not only is this conservative and arbitrary, it is also exclusionary, as Kristie Dotson has recently argued. Those who don’t feel part of the “we”, or aren’t accepted as such, have nothing to bring to a discipline that constantly risks collapsing into collective self-analysis – a Big Book of Our Intuitions. On the other hand, it is heavy to demand that philosophers instead ascend into what can be neither said nor thought. Zhuangzi offers a compromise. By all means, make your distinctions on the basis of your intuitions. Just remember that they merely express your arbitrary point of view, that others might stand elsewhere, and that the truth resting in the centre is pure undifferentiation.
Alexander Douglas is a lecturer in the School of Philosophical, Anthropological, and Film Studies at the University of St Andrews. He studies early modern rationalism, particularly various forms of Cartesianism and especially that of Spinoza. He is also interested in critiques of political economy and is the author of The Philosophy of Debt.