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Reality, Time and All That

by Rick Lewis

Welcome to this issue, which has a theme of metaphysics. But what exactly is metaphysics? I was once asked this question during a job interview, and mumbled that it was about trying to discover the underlying nature of the universe as opposed to surface appearances. This, luckily, is broadly correct. One of the central aspects of philosophy since ancient times, metaphysics includes explorations into the nature of reality; the search for some single underlying substance explaining the very diverse world (thanks, Presocratics); the nature of time; the nature of singularity and plurality; the nature of personal identity; the reality (or otherwise) of mathematics; the reality (or otherwise) of moral values; the reality (or otherwise) of a God or gods; whether the world we see is all an illusion, and much more. So, quite a big topic. We will cover all of this in this issue of Philosophy Now.

No, of course we won’t. Metaphysics is far too lofty and varied a subject for us to even hope to pack it all into one issue. If you want to know everything about metaphysics, you’ll just have to spend your entire life studying it. You could start by reading most of the books in the vast canon of Western philosophy, and once you’ve finished that, then you can move on to the philosophical traditions of the East. Let me know how you get on. All we can do here, as in our previous issues on metaphysics, is to give you just a taste of it with some interesting articles on a handful of key metaphysical questions.

Our opening article by Will Bynoe asks, what exactly do we mean by ‘reality’? Then Nurana Rajabova tackles another question: what makes a person still be the same person throughout their whole life, even though they change profoundly as the years go by? She discusses John Locke’s famous theory that it is all about memories. Jared Warren mulls over the metaphysical mysteries of mathematics, then Letizia Nonnis explores how, according to Immanuel Kant, we should understand that ever-pressing phenomenon known as time. Finally Jacob Bell explains why he is sceptical about all grand metaphysical schemes.

It is striking that at least three articles (including the lead article on reality) refer to the work of Oxford philosopher John Langshaw Austin (1911-1960).

J.L. Austin was a thinker with wide-ranging interests in philosophy’s core questions and in particular he argued that we can advance our understanding of some of these questions through a close study of the meaning, structure and use of language. Not the rarefied perfect language of which logicians sometimes dream, but the ordinary language of everyday life. He hoped that through analysis of the grammatical nuances of how people speak, it might be possible to clarify the concepts they use and so find some underlying truths about the great universe of which they form a part. In particular his study of how people employ language led him to his theory of ‘speech acts’, in his book How To Do Things With Words. Inferring hidden facts from the careful analysis of speech might remind you of the work of an intelligence agent or a codebreaker, and as a matter of fact Austin played a key wartime role in the British Army’s Intelligence Corps. (This is the subject of a new book by M.W. Rowe, J.L Austin: Philosopher and D-Day Intelligence Officer, Oxford U.P. 2023.)

Later Austin wrote another book, about how the evidence of our senses refers to things in the world. He called it Sense and Sensibilia. You could perhaps say that both of these books, concern what reality is and how we know about it. As you can see from the list of metaphysical questions with which I began, many of them concern whether something (such as God, or numbers, or the world of appearances) is really real. So does investigating the meaning of ‘real’ make one a meta-metaphysician?

Our cover art by Steve Lillie shows Austin as a magician of metaphysics, juggling time and space as he casts his linguistic spells on the cosmos. This might have irritated Austin himself, but on the other hand he was known for his sense of fun and love of wordplay and jokes, so perhaps he wouldn’t have minded much. If he has an immortal spirit (which he probably doubted) then we hope he forgives us and approves of the general spirit of this issue.

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