Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


We are going to study metaphysics… Now there’s an opening sentence that will drive folks toward the exits. But let’s give Ortega a chance. The mere word “metaphysics” is enough to turn most people off. So let’s start with this question: what is metaphysics? Ortega’s simple answer: metaphysics is something that man does or something that man makes… man makes many things, not just metaphysics… he makes his house, he makes politics, industry, verses, science… This helps get us on solid ground. We’re going to study a subject that’s man-made, the same way we live in a house that’s been made by men. But a second question may arise: why study metaphysics? Why shouldn’t we spend our time studying something useful, like carpentry? Then we can learn how to build houses and earn a living. Why bother studying metaphysics? Do we really need it? The short answer from Ortega is: no. But here’s his longer answer: Metaphysics is not metaphysics except for those who need it. For one who does not need it, who does not seek it, metaphysics is just a series of words. For those who don’t really care about metaphysics it’s just a waste of time. They may as well be doing something useful such as learning carpentry. But for those who are curious and still hanging around to see what all the fuss is about Ortega continues: In order to truly understand something, and most of all metaphysics, it is not necessary to have what is called talent or to possess great prior wisdom… what is necessary is to have need of metaphysics. Metaphysics is philosophy. The best students of philosophy are those who WANT to be philosophers. The rest should go be carpenters or do something else. Now Ortega gets down to business: man engages in metaphysics when he seeks a basic orientation in his situation. A good example of being disoriented can be found in Conrad’s short story An Outpost of Progress. Two men find themselves out in the wilderness with no contact or support from their own civilization. They want to get rich and sit around waiting for the proverbial ship to come in. But they should be learning carpentry so they can repair their own buildings and gardening so they can grow their own food. They become extremely “dis-oriented” regarding their circumstances. How can metaphysics help these guys? Actually metaphysics is the very thing they both desperately need. Ortega doesn’t think metaphysics is useless speculation or mere navel-gazing. Metaphysics (and its cousin, philosophy) provide us with a road map to re-orient our path through life. No matter what our situation is, philosophy can help figure out where we are, where we should go and even what we should do to get there. Ortega says that man’s life seems to made up of situations… as long as one lives, one is living in a specific situation. That’s why we need to study a subject like metaphysics, because man’s primary situation is life, is living. Metaphysics consists of the fact that man seeks a basic orientation in his situation. No matter where we are in life, metaphysics can help re-orient us to a new and better situation. This argument will not persuade most people. That’s ok. They should wait until they truly need philosophy in their lives. It won’t come naturally. Very few people call up their buddies and say “hey let’s have some fun. Why don’t you guys come on over so we can study some metaphysics! Whoo-hoo!” But everyone has to BE something. Ortega notes that there are an infinite number of ways of being a man, and all of them are equally genuine. One can be a man of science, or a business man, or a political man, or a religious man… but man by himself would never be a student, just as man by himself would never be a taxpayer. He MUST pay taxes, he HAS to study, but he IS by nature neither a taxpayer nor a student. To be a student or to be a taxpayer is an artificial state in which man finds himself by obligation… in my judgment the reform of education ought to begin with that brutal paradox. Philosophy is a very practical subject. Ortega says we should reform our educational system. Sound familiar? Philosophy can help but that’s a whole different topic.


Blogger Bryan said...

When I saw this video I couldn't help think of our discussion of On Studying.

4/27/2011 6:30 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home