2016 Presidential Address for the Metaphysical Society of America

Anaximander and the Ordering of Time[1]

—Metaphysics Viewed from the Margins of History—


George Lucas

Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale Chair of Ethics

Naval War College (Newport RI)





“Out of the Boundless [aperion] the World arises from whatever is the genesis of the things that are;

into this [Boundless] they must pass away according to Necessity,

for they must pay the penalty and make atonement to one another for their injustice according to the Ordering of Time.”








The theme of the 2016 annual meeting of the Metaphysical Society of America, from which the selection of essays in this special issue of the Review of Metaphysics is drawn, is “Thinking with the Pre-Socratics: History, Myth, and Metaphysics.”

The sub-title was intended to call attention to some connections between myth and history, on one hand, and metaphysical reflection on the other.  With Anaximander’s brief and famously cryptic fragment on Being, Boundlessness, Injustice and Order of Time as an interpretive guidepost, I seek to highlight, and to reflect on the significance of some of those connections, and in the process, demonstrate what I believe metaphysics to be, and what it will require for its future practice.

There are four sections to my outline:  (1) a brief discussion of the wider theme of the annual meeting itself; followed by (2) a panygeric on the history of philosophy from its margins; then (3) a short reflection on the longstanding quest for unmediated experience; and finally (4) concluding thoughts on Anaximander’s denunciation of the injustice inherent in the flux of experience.  Each segment aims to flesh out an underlying notion of metaphysical thinking itself as consisting fundamentally of an engagement with, and redemption of historical experience.


  1. History, Myth, and Metaphysics


First, let me say a bit more about the main theme, and why I chose the preposition “with” in particular, instead of the more conventional “about.”  I chose this deliberately in order to emphasize a way of doing philosophy that is grounded in its history and in the contributions of its predecessors, without limiting it merely to discourse about that history and those predecessors — at least, not exclusively.  Thinking about the pre-Socratics, for example, is what eminent scholars like Phillip Wheelright, Kirk and Raven, and W.K.C. Guthrie do.[3]  Some eminent philosophers do not value that kind of historical scholarship.  When W.V.A. Quine offered his condescending distinction between those who are themselves philosophers, and others who merely examine its history, I think he had this distinction, and such scholars, in mind.[4] Quine mistakenly believed, however, these were the only two options possible, and furthermore, that only the first constituted genuine, original knowledge rather than merely “mucking about” in the past.

Quine apparently did not envision the possibility of a third alternative, in which philosophers, authentically engaged in doing philosophy, pursue their philosophical inquiries primarily through engaging with its history.[5] It is this distinction, between thinking about, and thinking with, that I especially hoped that our membership would highlight during this meeting as a way of doing philosophy, and particularly, of engaging in metaphysical reflection.  Heidegger asserted that philosophy was the human enterprise of “called” thinking — namely, allowing the thing(s) to be thought about to call forth or elicit the activity of thinking as an openness toward Being.[6]  Yet Hannah Arendt asserted that “thinking itself is dangerous,” and accused both Heidegger (her mentor) and Adolf Eichmann (her most famous research subject) of having failed to think.  This lapse was the essence of the banality of evil.[7]

It is with such rich resonances in mind that I hoped to call upon us all to “think with” the pre-Socratics, specifically about History, Myth, and Metaphysics.  Parmenides, as Eva Brann reminded us in her brilliant opening keynote address this morning [pp. 11,13], claimed in his Proem that “thinking” (Nous/noein) and “being” (Esti/To Eon) were one and the same,[8] thus demonstrating that Logic (Quine’s first love) and Metaphysics are finally inseparable. Ms. Brann herself offered, I believe, a perfect illustration of the difference between merely thinking about the pre-Socratics, and thinking with them.  And this is especially apt, since in her book on Heraclitus as well, she characterizes these historical “first philosophers” of having substituted rational accounts for myths of origin, searching for first principles that are intelligible rather than inscrutable — and so, of having thereby stood at the boundary of myth, history, and the historical origins of metaphysics.[9]

Scholars in history and classics, like the famous historians of Greek thought listed above, by contrast, intentionally think about the pre-Socratics — about what they said and when (or even whether) they said it, as well as about how it was received, understood, and transmitted by their audiences.  They treat such topics as purely factual investigations, merely.  Employing the terminology of F. H. Bradley and A. N. Whitehead:  I would say that, by design, they choose to remain externally related to the topics or subjects of their investigation — at arm’s length, if you will, from what they are thinking about.  Their objective is to “get at” the history, get it clear, and to get the ideas of particular classical figures correct (or correctly translated).  It is no part of their task or intellectual obligation, by contrast, to enter into some kind of internal, subjective, transformative relationship with their subject-matter, let alone to engage in the kind of dialectical discourse and reflection that characterizes philosophy as (in Heidegger’s terms) “called-thinking.”

Fields of academic scholarship, such as classics, thus do not aim primarily at engaging in a philosophical dialogue with earlier thinkers, nor to think with them, let alone to be themselves somehow transformed and inspired through their own encounters with the past, nor propose to re-engage and reformulate the thoughts or the edifices of ideas earlier historical figures may have contributed.  We might claim that academic and disciplinary scholarship of these kinds is methodologically precluded from engaging internally, inspirationally, and transformatively with their subject matter.  It is not what they are supposed to do, nor is this how they are to behave responsibly as custodians and stewards of the past.  So intellectual history, and the history of philosophy even (both topics very dear to me personally) consist in the examinations and analyses of the history of ideas, and of the chronicles of the lives and adventures of those who formulated them.  But they do not — again, by custom and design — entail Heidegger’s “called-thinking:” that is, they do not require “thinking with” their subjects of inquiry.  They only think about them.

Quine may thus have been right, in that very limited sense, in refraining from calling these activities “philosophy.”  But he was quite mistaken to disparage the history of philosophy itself on so limited an account of its wider significance.  Let me turn next to a discussion of that history and its wider significance for metaphysics.



  1. Thinking with the Pre-Socratics:  a Panygeric on the History of Philosophy


There are, of course, numerous, perhaps infinite numbers of ways to narrate the history of philosophy.  Each attempts to provide insight both into what the activity known as philosophy is, and what lessons we have learned over the centuries from its pursuit.

When one refers to perspectives on this (or any topic) “from the margins,” one might reasonably suppose in the present climate of opinion that yet another version of this narrative is to be presented, as seen through the eyes of those who have traditionally been excluded from the activity in question, or whose contributions to it or attempts to participate fully in it have been ignored, perhaps on account of their race, class, or gender.  Philosophy’s history, seen from the margins, might thus represent an attack upon the mainstream Eurocentric, logocentric, phallocentric, or otherwise self-centered or “privileged” narratives that have long dominated our understanding of this topic.

While I have been grateful for, and benefitted over the years from the re-telling of philosophy’s narrative by those long excluded, or by representatives of those whose cultural contributions did not often count or were not fully recognized in the more traditional renderings of the history of philosophy, it is not my project in this address either to emulate their example or to otherwise follow their footsteps.  This talk is not itself intended to offer another cultural critique of philosophy, nor is it yet another attack upon the validity of philosophical reasoning.  I am neither prepared, nor qualified, to argue for the greater significance of marginalized peoples, cultures, or genders to the larger story that is philosophy.  Nor, in light of the outstanding work in this vein by so many others, more qualified, would my contribution to this cause prove all that useful.[10]

Nor, it needs be said, do I intend, by speaking from “the margins,” to further the interesting project of Derridean deconstruction by offering inverted, unorthodox, or otherwise idiosyncratic or perspectival readings of familiar texts in ways that yield new and wholly unfamiliar interpretations of them.  The work I am undertaking (of which this lecture is an introduction) is in fact less about individual texts than about their authors, and about the nature of the self-reflective activity in which many of them earnestly believed themselves to be engaged.  Even further, the project is less about distinct individuals than about groups, clusters, schools, movements, disciples, and traditions that together constitute the history of human thought as a communal enterprise. Philosophy glorifies the creative individual genius, but itself occurs only as the collective discourse of some community.[11]  There are ways of shuffling the deck, rearranging the groups and clusters, and the individuals that each such community contains, that result in strikingly different insights on what philosophy actually is, as opposed to how its most celebrated practitioners represent it as being.  My mention of Quine, and even more, Ms. Brann’s alternative representation of Heraclitus and Parmenides in her essay as “first Metaphysicans,” offer examples of this kind of reshuffling, in order to reconsider the nature and significance of philosophy itself.

I recognize that this way of posing my project may seem unnecessarily cryptic.  By way of clarifying illustration, perhaps the most famous and familiar recent example of this reshuffling is the case of Nietzsche.  At his death, over a century ago, relatively few scholars were familiar with his work, and those who were did not take it very seriously.  The philosophical “scene”[12] in Western Europe in 1900 was dominated by the grand, majestic, speculative evolutionary cosmology of Professor Hermann Lotze at Leipzig.  Readers over the age of 65 are probably familiar with this irony, while many others, younger, will have to scramble to their encyclopedias in order to discover who “Hermann Lotze” even was.[13]  They will be shocked and puzzled, when they do, at how what they will undoubtedly regard as such unintelligible nonsense ever enjoyed widespread acceptance, let alone almost global dominance prior to World War I.  Our smug and comfortable conventions about the historical process will assure all, however, that justice was eventually done, nonsense swept aside, and the worthier, “world historical” figure (Nietzsche) eventually (and inevitably?) elevated to his “rightful place” in the philosophical pantheon.

It is my central thesis in this address that Anaximander was, in fact, the first philosopher to harbor grave doubts about the remorseless working of this historical process.   In any case, I want to examine the kind of question that would arise if we were to reconsider instances like this familiar example.  Might we not legitimately wonder at the differences between the two, radically different narratives of philosophy’s proper activity and its historical route to that activity: the one told in 1901 (with its account of who is “hot” and who is “not”), and the one we tell ourselves now, in the year 2016?  What are we to make of those differences?  What account of truth, or methodological legitimacy, or intellectual and philosophical authenticity are we to apply to justify our narrative now, as opposed to theirs, then?  How confident dare we be that we, in the presumably privileged later historical perspective, have arrived at the more authentic interpretive stance?  Our complacent self-confidence in history’s ability to select, in a kind of Darwinian struggle, the best and brightest intellectual achievements and their creators seems (to me, at least) open to grave suspicion.  (Once again, Ms. Brann’s relating of the origin in early 19th century German scholarship of the term “pre-Socratics” as a label for these early thinkers provides yet another case in point.)

Here is another example of reshuffling the deck, championed, but (so far as I know) never fully developed by a prior president of the Metaphysical Society.[14]  If we look at how the history of philosophy has been narrated in the West, including the fate of the two philosophers cited above, we might note that there is a kind of axis, centrally presupposed in most such narratives generated from the “inside” of Western culture, that extends from the flourishing of Greek culture in the ancient period to the flourishing of the Enlightenment in Europe, predominantly and preeminently encompassed within German-language philosophy.  That is not entirely an accident, since the enterprise of philosophical history really gets its start with German scholarship and its weighty historical self-consciousness (as Nietzsche himself complained).[15]  What then could possibly be wrong with casting one’s self, as a culture, as the legitimate heir and culmination of all that you and your cultural neighbors in the European Enlightenment period acknowledge as the best and brightest legacy of the ancient world?  Or, in any case, what more might we expect of a culture’s collective self-consciousness?

The problem, of course, lies precisely in seeing what gets omitted or marginalized in this narrative.  There is, of course, another way of drawing this axis (no doubt there are many).  Like the Mercator projection of the earth’s sphere onto a flat plane, moreover, the redrawing casts the principals and elements into a wholly new light, in a radically altered relationship.  One might, for example, dismiss the Greeks as minor figures (as they are depicted, for example, in the famous Hellenistic bath mosaic in the Rhinesche-Germanische Museum in Köln), and focus instead on Roman and Hellenistic culture as the source of the legacy and philosophical patrimony to be preserved.  Cicero, Seneca, and other “re-discovered” (and currently quite popular) Stoic philosophers become cast in this narrative as the flowering of ancient culture, and their legacy is borne, not by the familiar medieval and early modern philosophers of the ponderously-theoretical, German-axis narrative, but by the likes of Dante, Cervantes, Nicholas of Cusa, and the subsequent figures of the Italian Renaissance, like Giambattista Vico and Pierre Gassendi, for whom history, rhetoric and literary expression (rather than logic and formal analysis) constitute the proper elements of philosophical methodology.

That in turn feeds into the question of how “modern” (as distinct from medieval and ancient) philosophy ever even gets started.  How, for example, does this “business” of individualism and personal liberty ever “get going” or “catch on?”[16]  What was once settled dogma in this respect has now become highly problematic.  It matters whether you start the modern story with Descartes (a scientist and mathematician who wrote books and treatises in his native tongue as well as in Latin), or with Francis Bacon (who wrote, by contrast, in the rhetorical form of aphorisms, once practiced by Heraclitus, and later favored by Nietzsche), or with Montaigne (who pioneered the form of the literary, self-reflective essay).  Each beginning generates a very different subsequent historical narrative, with contrasting emphases on “what counts” and “who matters,” on what the proper methodology and mode of expression of science and philosophy might constitute, and thereby ultimately issues in vastly different conceptions of what proper philosophical inquiry itself actually is. 

The project of philosophical analysis as practiced today, for example, has roots extending back for millennia in the effort to develop a precise if technical philosophical vocabulary out of a common vernacular by Aristotle, as well as in the methodological reductionism of Descartes, perfected in the “logical atomism” of Bertrand Russell.  Francis Bacon is, by contrast, something of an enigma: likewise emphasizing experience and induction, but expressing himself in pithy, Nietzschean-like aphorisms that are more oracular than precisely analytic in character.  But if Montaigne is taken as paradigmatic, it is but a short journey (for example) to Marcel Proust, or Virginia Wolff, and to our current fascination with philosophy as (as well as of) literature and poetry generally.  Here we would be following the example of the late Richard Rorty in ultimately turning our backs on Plato and his deep and abiding mistrust of these alternative forms of discourse, opening ourselves instead toward an anti-speculative philosophical “conversation” devoid of any ground or foundation.

In our own time, we have witnessed the recovery of interest in what educational historian Bruce Kimball[17] called the “oratorical” traditions of ancient philosophy and liberal learning, the Roman civic tradition, as distinct from the more abstract, analytical and contemplative project of the Greeks.  Here philosophy is seen more as a public and practical activity, as engagement in civic life and a preparation for leadership, than an aloof, god’s-eye, disinterested and disdainful dismissal of culture and community.[18]  We have yet to ask ourselves, however, what happens to our overall picture of philosophy and its history if we take this public emphasis seriously, and extend it forward in time to re-write our historical narrative of the present.

The point here is to notice that we are not arguing about facts: we are working with the same historical data, and are even telling the story from inside the same broad “cultural tradition.”  All the above narratives are explicitly western, Euro-centric, logocentric, and male-dominated.  Yet even so, what different accounts they yield!

In other words, we need not descend into a caustic, post-Enlightenment cultural or ideological critique to grasp the problem I am describing.  Feminist scholars and ethnic critics of philosophy’s hegemony do not have a monopoly on critical discourse in this vein, even if they helped open our eyes to the need for this kind of cross-examination.  We need not necessarily follow the Roman historian, Tacitus, and wallow in Western culture’s unique tendency toward self-loathing and uncritical glorification of “the Other,” in order fully to engage in self-reflection and constructive self-criticism.


  • The Pre-Socratics and the Postmodern Quest for “Unmediated” (primordial) Experience


Permit me to turn next to the specific mission or goal that apparently fascinated Husserl and Heidegger, even as they attempted to re-engineer the course of modern philosophy and (in Heidegger’s case) draw our attention toward the so-called “pre-Socratics” in the first place:  the quest for “direct,” unmediated experience.[19]

What would it be like to have direct, unmediated, entirely theory-free experience of one’s own self, immersed in its immediate life-world, without carrying the burden of theory, or even suspecting what it might mean to be “theory-laden?”  Indeed, would we, or even could we, wonder about that very immersion itself, about its nature and effects, wholly absent some prior (a priori) beliefs about it that would provide us with the root concepts and key vocabulary in which to explain it?  What, indeed, would it be like to be wholly absent even a vague awareness of what a “theoretical construct” itself might be, other than some vague rejection of past prior accounts of experience in terms, say, of myth, poetry, or the will of the gods (as we credit the “pre-Socratics” with having been the first in history to achieve)?

Here I would like to pay further tribute to several past presidents of the Metaphysical Society of America who have taught us all a great deal about this topic over the years.  The late Edward Pols, for example, spent his own career examining what he termed “direct realism,” as a way around the highly abstract theory-ladenness of much post-Kantian epistemology — both idealism (which he rejected), as well as the epistemological gymnastics (which he detested) of later critical realists, including Ralph Barton Perry and A.N. Whitehead, attempting to explain how they were not “idealists.”[20]

Donald Phillip Verne, whose work in this vein I cited above, through his many fascinating reflections on myth and imagination in Vico, and their reprise in the literary works of James Joyce,[21] taught me over several decades that this question regarding primordial experience as also fascinated Vico, infusing his accounts of the first imagined quaking response of the human subject to the sound of “thunder,” (an image captured and repeated by  James Joyce, who makes this primordial event the opening of Finnegan’s Wake). That “first word,”[22] the beginning of language, on Vico’s account, is an imitation of what the subject directly experiences, absent the slightest understanding or comprehension.  And so, as Ms. Brann likewise describes Heraclitus as having revealed:  the Logos itself begins with the first logoi, gradually gathering them together so as to order the world intelligibly.

This was what Heidegger wondered, in particular, apparently inspired by his teacher, Husserl’s, conception of the epochecan we “open ourselves” to experience, in order somehow to “know” what is hitherto unknown without any underlying assumptions about what it is that we are knowing?  Husserl and Heidegger held that in “bracketing” the epoche, or (in “called”-thinking), we rendered ourselves open to disclosure, to a shining-forth [Erscheinung] of Being itself.  Such attitudes or stances constitute forms of pre-theoretic, unmediated intuition – very similar, perhaps, to the sort of direct knowing of Ed Pols, or the fantasia of Vico, on Verene’s account.[23]

We find strikingly similar proposals regarding unmediated experience put forward around the same time as the rise of phenomenology in Europe:  by the classical American pragmatists, and by Peirce and James in particular.  Indeed, we find all of these disparate thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic in a similar historical period, moving toward the view that Experience (Peirce’s category of “firstness”) precedes its Ordering (mediation, “thirdness”), which lies in its Naming (Vico’s encounter, Peirce’s “secondness”), which in turn allows Experience to be rendered intelligible.  We might say, in a kind of mytho-poetic sense, that the birth and history of this recent preoccupation with a “metaphysics of experience” mirrors the birth and history of those mythical “first philosophers” and their rival interests as well, over a similar duration of historical time.

While the Logos of Heraclitus may constitute the first explicit account of this ordering principle, Ms. Brann argues (correctly, I believe) that credit is due to all the pre-Socratics/physicists/materialists to some degree for this achievement.  None were “materialists” in the trivial sense in which they were categorized by Aristotle, but each was searching instead to discern and “name” the underlying ordering principle of things, rather than simply describing the things, “stuff” or substance, of experience itself in a physical sense.  In this sense, absent that principle, even ignorant of it, almost by definition their experience was “unmediated” in the sense required by Heidegger:  for each of these “first philosophers” or pre-Socratics would have been obliged, constrained, or limited by their initial collective ignorance as humanity’s first wise men, or thinkers, to be open to the call of Being.

Pragmatists, like William James in America, in contrast to the newly-emerging phenomenologists in Europe at the same period, however, thought that a newborn baby, rather than a methodologically-trained phenomenologist or a pre-Socratic philosopher, should be taken as the proper exemplar of unmediated experience.  Peirce, as noted in passing above, characterized “firstness” as unmediated, unanalyzed experience utterly lacking in order or differentiation, in an account which is strikingly similar to Husserl’s epoche (but only after the phenomenologist teaches herself to “bracket” in an eidetic or phenomenological reduction), while James famously labeled such primitive experience a “blooming, buzzing confusion” (more along the lines of the decidedly non-conceptual hyle, the flux of sense-impressions constituting raw experience for Husserl).

Scholars of each of these figures, to be sure, may rightly worry that I have over-simplified, truncated, and even butchered or mangled their individual accounts in order to disclose what I take as the broader commonality of their respective quests to get at things-as-they-are-in-themselves before we superimpose our presuppositions and theories upon them.[24]  But this summary account of a common quest to attain, and to ground knowledge in unmediated experience, is not a “night in which all cows are black.”  There are some distinctions to be upheld in this account.  Sensory impressions, Husserl’s hyle, or Russell and Moore’s sense-data, for example, were likewise the foundation of Anglo-European analytic epistemology during this period.  But while everyone around this time seemed to be, to some degree, concerned to “avoid metaphysics” (by which they usually meant the lapse into Hegelian idealism in particular), none were so tunnel-visioned and proscriptive as positivists.  If a non-judgmental “openness to Being,” or perhaps James’s infant (immersed helplessly in a raw and disorganized sensory flux) constitutes one pole on a continuum of self-conscious attitudes, its opposing pole is what I we might characterize as “dogmatic epistemology,” in which the “ordering principles” sought in and for experience come to function instead as rules for excluding various kinds of experiences from consideration altogether that do not conform to these rules.  Such experience is dismissed merely as “nonsense” or nothing.

Intelligibility, as Heraclitus first discerned, is essential to deriving knowledge from raw, unmediated experience.  But stipulating what counts as knowledge, as the positivists did, simply cuts off sources arbitrarily, based upon a rule or system of rules which cannot itself be justified or derived.  So experiencing color patches and shapes, and cognizing them as a “coin” or “tabletop,” as G.E. Moore did, “counts” and is verifiable, falsifiable, and therefore veridical.   Insights allegedly derived, however, through prayer or meditation, or an attitude of “openness” to, say, the beauty of Nature are, by contrast, utterly without significance (“nonsense”) or, at best, private and wholly subjective emotive states with no genuine perceptual veridicality or cognitive content.

This is not Socratic “love of wisdom,” or the “wonder” in which philosophy begins for Aristotle.  Neither is it the same spirit of inquiry and openness encountered either in phenomenology on one side of the Atlantic, nor of classical pragmatism on the other.  This attitude of contempt was, instead, a rather peculiar, perverse kind of simple-minded, mean-spirited pin-headedness.  It is tragic to look back on the period just prior to World War I, as we have been inadvertently engaged in doing while compiling the new Whitehead Critical Edition — and realize that it was a period during which an international collaboration toward a new philosophy of experience was underway across the Atlantic that was subsequently cut off by war and brutally crushed in a tsunami of bitterness and recrimination, fomented by an anti-intellectual school of philosophy determined to stamp out and eradicate competition, and in the process, inadvertently cause philosophy itself to all but grind to a halt for the ensuing century.  To a large extent, those who are gathered at this meeting are the remains of that day, all that is left of those who have survived or been broken by that intellectually devastating period.


  1. Anaximander: the Ordering of Time, the Injustice of History, and the Task of Metaphysical Thinking


Thus far in this essay I have re-visited many of the primordial, mytho-poetic first accounts of, and preliminary rival hypotheses concerning, experience in the raw and its underlying principle(s):  flux and becoming (the “flux-gibberish” of Heraclitus that William Desmond discusses in his contribution to this special issue); undifferentiated Being and the decided absence of non-Being (Parmenides); a material “mixture” of some sort with opposite forces as agent of mixing (the love and strife of Empedocles); or initially with the Ionians, one above others of the materials mixed:  water (Thales); air or vapour and a principle of condensation and rarefaction (Anaximenes); nous or Mind (Anaxagoras); the “Logos in the lightening” (as Phillip Wheelright characterized Heraclitus).

All or most of these accounts had antecedents in mythology: “in the beginning was water, the formless void, and the Spirit of God moved over the face of the water….”  And in a strangely similar sense, the contemporary quest for unmediated experience and “direct intuition” is likewise a history shrouded in myth.  Peirce’s recognition of firstness demonstrates this, because it is strongly coupled in his case to the necessity of turning raw experience into knowledge through mediation that (he recognized) places the cognizing subject “at arms length” from raw experience, as the price paid for knowledge.  Finally to know, to cognize, to understand, is to stand at a distance from the Real.

What turns out to be, in its own right, this myth of direct intuition or of “unmediated” experience, fails to encompass this essential feature of the necessary ordering of experience.  As Whitehead tried to explain in his theory of “symbolic reference” [i.e., perception in the mixed modes of causal efficacy and “presentational immediacy”], the “primordial” flux of sensory data experienced by subjects, even after “bracketing” and a phenomenological reduction,[25] is always the back end of a chain of events whose complexity (and therefore “distance” or “thirdness”) is itself dependent upon the nature of the “organism” (in Whitehead’s unique, generalized meaning of that term).  Whether for a rock, a jellyfish, or a late 19th-century aesthete, “unmediated experience” and “openness” toward Being is invariably, of necessity, that “grey upon grey” of a shape of life that has itself already grown cold.  Understanding and wisdom, as Hegel so eloquently and tragically realized in the case of the human subject, is that “Owl of Minerva” that spreads its wings only at the coming of night.  Philosophy can accomplish its business of understanding the world, but cannot itself change that world — since, by then, the world thus understood has already perished. [26]

Here, finally, is why I chose to present all these metaphysical ruminations as fundamentally stemming from a reflection upon Anaximander.  I would claim that he was the first to introduce a normative quality into this discussion, to which I would like to give consideration in conclusion: “justice” (or rather, its absence) exhibited in this flux of becoming, this “issuing forth” of finite a limited Being from the Aperion or “Unbounded,” and its retreat once more into oblivion.  Dike, “justice,” actually means something more akin to “righteousness” than the more impersonal distributive notions of equity, fairness, and “giving each his due.”  Justice is also a character-trait, like integrity.  But however we understand “justice,” it is not its presence, but its decided absence, according to Anaximander, that characterizes “experience.”  What can this mean, and how can it be so?

Our parents first teach us, when we, as children, object to certain sets of circumstances or social arrangements, that “life is not always fair.”  Is that it?  Fatalism?  “So it goes, kay sera, sera: whatever will be will be?”  Or is there something else beyond resignation – perhaps anger?  To Parmenides’ claim, “It Is!” Anaximander in effect, responds, “And It is corrupted, rotten to the core!”  Aperion is not some vague abstract possibility field:  it is the totality of what could be, but is not.  But why is it not?  There is more than simply “no answer” to this question.  There is a recognition that Existence and Experience cannot simultaneously encompass all possibilities, to be sure.  But the unpleasant deeper truth is that what is chosen, and exemplified, in this account of experience, is not chosen or exemplified for any reason.  There is no rational justification for what is, instead of what might be or have been:  rather (Anaximander seems to say) what is “commits injustice against its opposite” banning it to non-being, hogging the ontological stage, monopolizing experience, starring itself, casting itself in the lead role, not on account of moral worth, or value, but at best, arbitrarily, and at worst, as a monstrosity of injustice, since what is crowds out what might be (even if the latter were found to have more worth, more justification, more claim to be real, than what actually is).  In the process, what is better and more worthy is denied its chance, deprived of its opportunity to excel before all is swept away in oblivion.

Whitehead benignly supposed that Process always involved the creation of Value.  Anaximander seems to claim precisely the opposite:  that process is not merely destruction, but that, even worse, what is created crowds out what is often of more value than what is.  Process exhibits injustice; its issue is not “value” in any normative sense, but the misery and the suffering that we cling to desperately nonetheless.  Who, confronted with such an account, would not recoil in anger, would not cry out in protest, would not characterize existence itself as the fundamental commission of “injustice against its opposite,” and would not rage, with Dyan Thomas against the darkness that condemns all, finally, to oblivion.[27]

Anaximander introduces a dimension of moral outrage into experience:  he is as angry (as are we, when children) than the world can offer no better account of itself than our parents do when they shrug off our recognition of moral unworthiness and injustice: “life isn’t always fair!”  But who made that Rule, and why must it be so?

Our own “experience of Experience” sustains this moral outrage.  Anger is the proper attitude toward this injustice, and moral outrage the proper response to “hogging the limelight” and dominating the limited stage of Being.  Doing so crowds out others with as much or greater claim to the limelight, at least if justice is the measure of all such things.  Experience, according to Anaximander, is characterized chiefly by the absence of justice.  It necessarily entails, he says, the commission of injustice, and the recognition that though it is so, it need not be, and should not be.  There is no Logos, no principle of intelligibility, in this particular Nomos of Anaximander.  There is only frustration and rage.

This conclusion is not as shocking or self-contradictory as it seems.  If philosophy begins/emerges from mythology generally, as we have borne witness, then so does this particular philosophical attitude.  It is de rigeur to think of the pre-Socratics as “dreamers” and as contemplative, calm, wise, and other worldly [think merely of Pythagoras, or the ancient parable of the “wise man gazing at the stars who falls into a hole in the ground” (who turns out to be Thales)].  But then think of the Hebrew prophets, of Amos and Jeremiah, in particular:  anger is a reflective attitude as well.  And the philosophically equivalent response is to generalize from the focused specificity of the ancient Hebrew prophets toward their own particular people and god, to the universe generally.  It is the move toward generality and universality, objectivity, which is the initial philosophical move, not the absence of normative judgment or emotion.  Anaximander is our first philosophical prophet, our existential moralist, raging at the dying of the light.

If our anger and outrage are now properly aroused, perhaps it is time to seek their proper subject, and to practice Metaphysics itself “from the Margins of History.”  Those who are marginalized (for example, through Schleiermacher’s “new” ordering principle of re-classifying Aristotle’s “first wise men” instead merely as “pre”-Socratics) experience anger at their marginalization, their diminution, and perhaps are entitled to be angry — especially if Anaximander is correct, that no sufficient reason can be given for why they are relegated and treated thus.

I have in this lecture sketched alternatives to the standard way of narrating philosophy’s history as part of the development of Western culture, emphasizing voices and themes inside the culture that are nonetheless marginalized as minor, unimportant, unrecognized, or forgotten figures and movements.  Hegel (largely marginalized for the past century) argued in the final pages of his Phenomenology that philosophical insight, “absolute knowing,” consisted of a complete recollection and simultaneous re-enactment of its history, holding all the partial pieces together in a kind of divine insight.   In my account, by contrast, most of philosophy’s history consists of what Whitehead euphemistically termed “perishing” and consequent “negative prehension:” conflict, strife, forgetting, and loss to oblivion.  The historical process which is philosophy’s narrative resembles more the strife that Heraclitus celebrated, and even more the tragic and aimless process that Anaximander critically narrated in his fragment on “injustice” and the “ordering of Time,” than it does the Pythagorean memory exercise that Hegel championed.  As such, it is fraught with the normative moral judgment that Anaximander offers with what can only be described as a measure of prophetic anger.  Grave injustice is inevitably done, without rational explanation or justification, and seems almost unavoidable and un-remediable.

Hegel’s final vision of a complete, Pythagorean “master narrative” (as Alasdair MacIntyre termed it) is finally, instead, a normative conception, pointing us toward what we, as philosophers, properly should be about:  like archaeologists or forensic scientists, uncovering the past, and like forensic scientists and theologians, redeeming it, and rectifying its inexplicable injustice.  Anaximander and Heraclitus seem, by contrast, much more like ineffectual art critics, commenting on the demise and sorry state of art itself, but ultimately doing little otherwise about it.  Both offer a description of philosophy in the world as we find it, one in which our efforts, and sometimes our conflicts with one another as philosophers, stand condemned.

Whitehead appears to offload the task of redeeming Experience from its inevitable injustice onto the Consequent Nature of God.  I think that is a mistaken impression for which he himself is culpable, but that, in any case, Hegel (and Pythagoras) have got this much right.  Metaphysics is, finally, the recollection and redemption of history, and the rectification of injustice.  It is a task that falls to us, and cannot be shuffled off on “God,” or some abstract and impersonal notion of Absolute Spirit.  Absolute “knowing,” (a more accurate understanding of Hegel’s concluding phase) entails a full recognition and confession of these sins, as the requisite first step in the redemption of history, and the rectification of injustice.  Philosophy, poised at the onset of its third millennium as a mode of discourse distinct from mythology and religion, is sorely in need of its own redemption, through finally recognizing and willingly shouldering this important task.

Metaphysical thinking is, finally, the redemption of history and the rectification of injustice.  In that unique and indispensable metaphysical sense, we are all “called to think.”[28]

[1] 2016 Presidential Address for the Metaphysical Society of America (Annapolis MD:  18 March 2016).


[2] *Trans. Patricia J. Cook, Dictionary of World Biography, Vol. I, ed. Frank N. Magill.  (Oxford:  Routledge, 2003): 69.  I am indebted to Professor Cook for this translation, and for any insights in this essay that might prove of worth.


[3] Phillip Wheelwright, The PreSocratics (New York:  Pearson, 1966); G.S. Kirk, J.E. Raven and M. Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers, 2nd Ed.  (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2007); W.K.C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, Vol. I:  the Earlier Presocratics and Pythagoreans (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1962).

[4] The distinction appears in several places, e.g.:  Pursuit of Truth, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990; and much earlier as an offhand quip (of the sort for which Quine was famous):  “Mr. Strawson on Logical Theory,” Mind 62, no. 248 (1953): 433-451.

[5] G. R. Lucas, “Refutation, Narrative, Engagement:  Three Philosophies of the History of Philosophy,” Philosophical Imagination and Cultural Memory, ed. Patricia J. Cook (Durham, NC:  Duke University Press, 1993): 104-123.

[6] “What is Called-Thinking?” 1951/76.  That is:  the objects of thought call forth or compel your thinking about them, and not vice versa.

[7] See Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, 13th ed. (New York:  Viking Press, 1973).  So this “thinking with” or “called thinking” is apparently an important dimension of authentic human experience that we neglect at our peril.  For Arendt of course we are all story tellers by nature. . . and the history of philosophy is a “story.”  In The Human Condition, for example, she writes:  “He who acts never quite knows what he is doing, that he always becomes “guilty” of consequences he never intended or foresaw, that however disastrous or unexpected the consequences of his deed he can never undo it, that the process he starts is never consummated unequivocally in one single deed or event, and that its very meaning never discloses itself to the actor but only to the backward glance of the historian who himself does not act”  (Arendt, The Human Condition 1958, p 181).

[8] Brann (and, she notes, Plotinus) translate to gar auto noein esti te kai einai (Diehls-Kranz, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, 3, 8) as “For it is the same to think and to be.”


[9] Eva Brann, The Logos of Heraclitus (Philadelphia, PA:  Paul Dry Books, 2011).

[10]By contrast, this was my explicit exercise in reviewing and extensively updating and revising the coverage of philosophy in reference works (including Grolier’s Encyclopedia Americana, whose editorial oversight I inherited in the mid-1990s from J. B. Schneewind).  With the help of Schneewind and my longtime colleague and friend, Lucius Outlaw at Vanderbilt University, we were able to forge a much broader and multicultural conception of philosophy and – virtually alone among general introductory reference works on this topic – to commission essays from some of the world’s leading scholars that offered a variety of narratives from African, Asian, Islamic, and feminist perspectives that gave the novice some larger insight into the breadth and depth of philosophical reflection as a human and cultural (rather than strictly male or western) activity.  But this is not my principal task in this book.

[11]This is a view of the social, rather than individual nature of philosophy, meticulously documented in Randall Collins magisterial work, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change (Cambridge, MA: Harvard/Belknap Press, 1999).  While my work bears some comparison to his, it will become apparent that the approach taken is quite different, and that my own initial work on this general topic predated the publication of his seminal work in any case by at least a decade.  I do not, for example, aim at a “global” theory encompassing the philosophy of other cultures (but see above, n. 3, 8 above), but offer only a commentary upon philosophy in Western Europe and American after the Enlightenment.  Nor do I attempt the sort of archival and classificatory, descriptive work that establishes his thesis of philosophy as a “community activity.”  Mine is merely a normative commentary on what philosophers do and how they behave, versus how they characterize themselves and others in their writings.  Still, it is evident that my claim that philosophy is a social enterprise that fits poorly within the emergent “culture of disciplines” that it helped to bring about, was greatly amplified and supported by this important social scientific study.

[12]Patient readers will come to see that I intend the deliberate use of this descriptor drawn from popular culture and aesthetics, one that is jarring and somewhat offensive when set against our conventional understanding of our activity as philosophers.

[13] But cf. His surprising influence on Peirce and Am pragmatism, as well as on the formation of personal idealism or “personalism,” much of which influence is now being rediscovered.  See David Sullivan, “Hermann Lotze”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.):  http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2014/entries/hermann-lotze.

[14]This is Donald Verne’s insight, not mine.  It is implicit in his organization and presentation of materials in The History of Philosophy:  A Reader’s Guide (Evanston, IL:  Northwestern University Press, 2008).

[15] Nietzsche in fact lamented this “bad” historical consciousness in German scholarship, and thought it an impediment to true philosophizing.  See On the Advantages and Disadvantages of History for Life (1874): Trans. Peter Preuss (Indianapolis, IN:  Hackett Publishers, 1980).

[16] J. B. Schneewind’s central question driving his historical commentaries and reading selections in Moral Philosophy from Montaigne to Kant (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990). 2 Vols.

[17] Orators and Philosophers: A History of the Idea of Liberal Education, expanded edition (New York:  Columbia Teacher’s College Press, 1995).

[18] The central thrust of the work of yet another of prominent MSA President, John Lachs; see also the mission of the Society for Philosophy in America (SOPHIA), a group which Lachs founded, and the discussion of liberal education, human rights, and individual capacity-building by Martha Nussbaum:  Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Cambridge MA:  Harvard University Press, 1998).

[19] Current work on the new “Critical Edition of Whitehead” situates Whitehead for the first time squarely in the midst of this re-engineering and re-orientation of philosophy to experience in his critique of theory-laden scientific reasoning about it.  See Paul Bogaard’s introduction to the first volume, devoted to The Philosophical Presuppositions of Science, ed. Bogaard and Jason Bell (Edinburgh:  University of Edinburgh Press, 2017).


[20]  Edward Pols, Radical Realism:  Direct Knowing in Science and Philosophy (Ithaca, NY:  Cornell University Press, 1992). See also my account of Pols and this historical dispute in The Genesis of Modern Process Thought (Lanham, MD:  The Scarecrow Press, 1983). I failed to understand at that time, as I believe Pols failed as well, to recognize that Whitehead was trying to move in a very different, Continental-American (rather than British) direction in regards to fashioning a unique metaphysics of experience that, like a good “Master Narrative,” would wholly absorb and replace the narrow, stale English dispute between realism and idealism.  I discuss this larger project in a bit more detail below.

[21]Vico’s Science of Imagination (Cornell UP, 1981), Vico and Joyce (SUNY 1987), Philosophy and the Return to Self-Knowledge (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 1997).

[22]bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!  This hundred-letter word signifying a thunderclap precedes the famous opening, “riverrun, past Eve and Adams, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”  The thunderclap is repeated 10 times in the book, the last consisting of 101 letters, signifying the commodious vicus (Vico) of recirculation (cyclic history).

[23]A propos of Verene’s interest:  James Joyce, during this same historical period, experiments with attempts to portray the inward experience of that flux at the beginning of an individual’s life, in his first novel, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916).  This is explicitly Joyce’s attempt to document the pre conscious organism going through socialization, development and self-realization.  It’s interesting where he ends up as a Self — he yearns to become a creator.  Salvation is in the creative imagination (he wants to be a “priest of the imagination”) and fulfillment . ”Welcome O life!  I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”   And the manifestation of that is his capacity to tell stories.  Joyce used mythology also to tell the story of human consciousness — Daedalus, Odyssey, etc.  And his version of “wonder” was the notion of epiphany with its sacred overtones.


[24] This, I think, was the point of Whitehead’s otherwise puzzling project to “recur to pre-Kantian modes of thought” of which I was earlier extremely critical:  See The Rehabilitation of Whitehead (Albany NY:  State University of New York Press, 1989).

[25] Unless, I suppose, that “reduction” is finally a transcendental deduction regarding the necessary background features for the possibility of experience (Whitehead) or Erfahrung (Kant).

[26] But is it not possible that Heidegger in particular is on to something?  Daniel Dahlstrom thinks so, and said so in his MSA Presidential address in 2011 (“Negation and Being,” Review of Metaphysics 64: 247-71), and William Desmond’s glorious lecture at that same meeting in Boston illustrated itself what a metaphysical disclosure or “shining forth” might be like, in terms of an authentic revelation or disclosure of Being.  Brann does likewise, in discussing the way in which dialectic, reflection on the ruminations and aphorisms of history’s earliest thinkers might afford such a disclosure.  Sean Kelly and Hubert Dreyfus depict the whole of philosophy’s history as this kind of Heideggerian revelation in All things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to find Meaning in the Secular Age (New York:  Free Press, 2011).

[27]             “Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.”*

*[The less often quoted, but (for this essay) more relevant second stanza, from The Poems of Dylan Thomas (New York:  New Directions, 1952).]


[28] Towards the end of the 2012 movie about Hannah Arendt’s remarkable life, written and directed by Margarethe von Trotta, Heidegger’s character says to his former mistress, during her final visit with him: “Liebchen, I meant no harm, I knew nothing about worldly affairs.  I am merely a philosopher,” begging her forgiveness and understanding.  But he hardly ever otherwise portrayed himself as what, in this moment, he surely was, a partially educated, brilliant bumpkin, far out of his depth.  Better to be surrounded in mysticism, lost in the “beyond” and its paraousia, than mired in the unpleasant reality that one has proven, as most of us do, to be incapable of withstanding what Kant called “the strife among the faculties.”  Overcome by willkur, forsaking the simple demands of judicious Wille and Reason, Heidegger himself, we might conclude, failed to think.