One of the most important characteristics of philosophical thinking during the 20th century (from Heidegger and Sartre to Foucault and Derrida) is its anti-metaphysical bias, i.e. its endeavour to disentangle the authority of the metaphysical tradition, to deconstruct it from within, and even to bid farewell to metaphysical thinking in its entirety. According to this reading of the tradition it is inimical to the spirit of the age to hark back to times underpinned by the truths of metaphysics. In fact, we are living in a post-metaphysical age: although Classical and Christian metaphysics made some impressive moves in its attempt to understand being, it belongs to the past. Despite disclaimers by some of its proponents, metaphysical thinking is deeply indebted to the “onto-theological” ideal of direct presence to a so-called highest, static and unchangeable being. As such it is in denial of the contingent, changeable and malleable nature of being. During the last century and more we learned to accept the idea that being is not an unchangeable reality, but a mere construct imposed on an empty, meaningless and random reality through our own rhetorical inventiveness and technical manipulations.
However, during the last few decades a new trend has made itself known among philosophers. Despite the lingering animosity against metaphysics, some philosophers dare to ask questions in a more constructive spirit about the nature of metaphysical thinking. According to them, traditional metaphysical questions – “What is the nature of being?”; “Why is there being rather than nothingness?”, etc. – are an inescapable part of the intellectual enterprise. Even more, some of the latter-day metaphysicians argue in favor of the enduring importance of the metaphysical tradition itself. Eric D. Perl represents one of the most important contemporary examples in this regard. Together with that of colleagues found mostly on the margins of contemporary academia, Perl’s thinking is marked by the clearly defined aim to appropriate the metaphysical tradition within a cultural context like ours, i.e. one deeply defined by its nihilism. Against the background of the modern criticism levelled against the metaphysical tradition, Perl aims at a new and often surprising reinterpretation of some of its most important representatives. At the same time his thinking focuses on the contemporary importance of the metaphysical tradition. Contrary to what critical readers like Nietzsche and Heidegger maintained, it is not metaphysical thinking that caused the rise and eventual dominance of nihilism within our cultural landscape. Rather, the opposite is true: the origins of modern nihilism can be traced back to the anti-metaphysical Stimmung at the very foundation of modern thought itself.
In the first section of the article an important assumption within Perl’s reinterpretation of the metaphysical tradition is addressed: contrary to what is often claimed from within a nominalist framework (“There is no such thing as the metaphysical tradition, but only a multiplicity of even contradictory traditions”), Perl indeed accepts the idea of a coherent tradition underlying the multiplicity of approaches within Classical metaphysics. Nowhere is this more visible than in the common acceptance of the idea that being and thought are not based on an extrinsic relationship, but rather on what Perl refers to as their “spousal togetherness”.
In the second section the focus shifts to the criticism levelled against the metaphysical tradition by Martin Heidegger. In many respects Heidegger is the cause of the anti-metaphysical élan within contemporary philosophy. As will be discussed in some detail, Heidegger described traditional metaphysical thinking as “onto-theological” by nature. Contemporary attempts to embrace metaphysical thinking will not, at least in theory, succeed if Heidegger’s critique is not answered in a universally acceptable manner. By means of an appeal to Perl’s rereading of philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Proclus, Dionysius and Aquinas it is argued that Heidegger’s critique is addressed to the wrong audience. Contrary to what Heidegger claimed, traditional metaphysical thinking is the answer to “onto-theological” thinking rather than its cause.
In the third and more substantial part of the essay an in-depth analysis is made of Perl’s work. Special focus is placed on the many and rather dramatic implications drawn by Perl from his discussion of two central questions raised by metaphysical thinking, namely “What is the nature of being?” and “Why is there being rather than nothingness?” Despite the many differences between the philosophers mentioned above, they all placed one or both questions at the centre of their metaphysical thinking. The implications that Perl draws from this (especially the importance of the second question) are dramatic, because they help us to understand metaphysical thinking in a different light from the onto-theological reading accepted as normal during the past century and more.
In the final section I commit myself to a short apologetic for the metaphysical tradition as understood by Eric Perl, among others. Steering a middle course between those contemporary metaphysicians who emphasise the unlimited nature of ultimate reality and those who tend to emphasise the importance of limited being, I do emphasise the hierarchical relationship between, but interdependence of, the unlimited and the limited, between the One as supra-ontological and transcendent reality, and the limited nature of immanent being.
Keywords: beyond being; conjugal relationship between being and thought; Eric D. Perl; Heidegger; metaphysical tradition; nihilism; One; Plato; Plotinus; presence
Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Die metafisiese tradisie vandag. ’n Interpretasie van Eric D. Perl