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Mellor Real Metaphysics Review

Articles by | Books written by | edited by | D. H. Mellor


Philosophical Books 45(4) October 2004, pp. 359-61.

Review of

Real Metaphysics

Edited by Hallvard Lillehammer and Gonzalo Rodriguez-Pereyra
Routledge, 2003, viii + 248pp.

The variety of topics addressed by the papers in this festschrift for Hugh Mellor is a testament to the range of Mellor's influence on philosophy during his distinguished career. Topics covered are truth, truthmakers and 'success semantics'(Armstrong, Lewis, Smith and Daly), physicalism, mind and causation (Crane, Jackson, Noordhof and Menzies), dispositions, properties and laws (Levi, Bird and Koslow), and change and time (Rodriguez-Pereyra and Oaklander). The collection thus offers a valuable insight into the topics that have been of concern to Mellor during his career, as well as into some of the positions he has occupied and theses he has defended. Furthermore, if one were looking for a contemporary collection of essays that make an original contribution to issues of current import in metaphysics, one would be hard pressed to find a better one than this.

The volume exhibits a number of other important virtues. First, the status of the contributors is impressive. It is quite a feat to find original papers by the likes of David Armstrong, David Lewis and Frank Jackson, to name just three, collected together in one volume. Second, the volume contains, not just the thirteen contributions to the festschrift, but also a chapter of Mellor's replies to each of those contributions. The ideal of engaging in vigorous philosophical debate to achieve a greater understanding of the nature of reality, which has been so important to Mellor, and to which he has made such a notable contribution, is thus affirmed and practised in this volume. Lastly, each of the papers is relatively short. The longest is 22 pages, but they average around 15 pages. Thus, not only are these essays eloquent and original contributions to the issues they address, they also come in manageable sizes, so that newcomers to the issues will not feel daunted by the size and complexity of the papers.

Another significant feature of this collection that is worth mentioning is that, by and large, all of the papers directly address aspects of Mellor's philosophy: theories he subscribes to, and positions he has defended. Contributors to a festschrift often choose to write about something of current interest to them that also happens to overlap with issues of interest to the person in whose honour the essays are presented. In this volume, however, the contributors (on the whole) engage directly with Mellor's philosophy. This yields at least two further virtues of this collection. First, anyone unfamiliar with Mellor's work, or only familiar with parts of it, will get a useful overview of the issues that he has tackled in his career and of the positions that he has taken with respect to them. Second, it is abundantly clear that Melllor's philosophy and his philosophical method are held by these contributors in genuinely high esteem.

One area of philosophy on which Mellor has had a profound influence is the philosophy of time. Before the publication of his Real Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), debate in the philosophy of time had stalled. At that time the so-called A-theorists held that the common sense distinction between past, present and future reflects a real ontological distinction, and that time flows. Their opponents, the B-theorists, denied these claims. The reasons offered by both parties to this debate in support of their positions were largely based on facts about temporal language. The A-theorists argued that tensed sentences (sentences locating an event or state of affairs somewhere in the past, present or future) were untranslatable by tenseless sentences (sentences locating an event or state of affairs in the static B-series). They concluded from this that, since tensed expressions are needed to give a complete description of reality, there is a feature of reality to which they uniquely refer. That is, there really is an objective distinction between past, present and future, and time really does flow. Their opponents argued that tensed sentences could be translated by tenseless sentences without loss of meaning, and concluded that, since tensed expressions are not needed to completely describe reality, there is no feature of reality to which they refer. Consequently, in this, as in other metaphysical disputes, the debate about the nature of temporal reality was quickly transformed into a debate about the meanings of temporal sentences.

As it turned out, the translation project of the 'old' B-theory of time failed. So, in the terms in which the debate had been carried out up to this point, it seemed that the A-theorists had been vindicated. Mellor's contribution was to revive the B-theory by showing that it was not dependent on flawed linguistic arguments as its previous proponents had thought. In doing so, he helped to change the focus of debate in the philosophy of time away from the nature of temporal language, and back on to the nature of time itself.

He showed that the debate between A-theorists and 'old' B-theorists, as characterised above, was in fact a false dilemma. Both sides had got it wrong. He argued that, even though tensed sentences are not translatable by tenseless sentences, it is not the case that the only alternative to this is that they refer to tensed facts. (Indeed, he offered further arguments, based on the work of McTaggart, to show that reality could not contain tensed facts.) A tensed sentence can be irreducible, in that no tenseless sentence can capture the entire meaning conveyed by it, while still being made true by a purely tenseless fact.

There are, of course, many philosophers who disagree with Mellor about time, and who hold some variant of the A-theory, but none of the contributors to this volume chose to address this aspect of his philosophical legacy. Of the two papers on change and time, one (Rodriguez-Pereyra) takes issue with the relational theory of change, a theory that Mellor espouses in Real Time, but which he rejects in Real Time II (London: Routledge, 1998), opting instead for the view that change involves one and the same particular possessing different properties, where the particular's possession of those properties is located at different B-times. Rodriguez-Pereyra criticises Mellor's reasons for rejecting the relational theory of change, but he also criticises the relational theory on independent grounds. His position is thus that Mellor is right about the relational theory of change, but for the wrong reasons. The other paper on time, by Oaklander offers a critique of presentism, as defended by William Lane Craig, a theory that both he and Mellor think is false. Oaklander argues that, despite Craig's claims to the contrary, his version of presentism succumbs to McTaggart's paradox. His argument owes a debt to Mellor's original revival of McTaggart's paradox.

Tim Crane's paper, on subjective facts, comes closest to addressing the aspects of Mellor's views on time that I outlined above. There, he argues that Mellor is wrong to deny that there are any subjective facts. Mellor endorses objectivism, the view that "reality as such is how it is, regardless of the way we represent it" (p. 68). He thus denies that there are any subjective facts corresponding to subjective representations of the world. Given this position, Mellor has sought to refute Jackson's 'knowledge argument', which, if sound, would show that there are irreducibly subjective facts associated with mental representations in addition to physical facts. Crane argues that the existence of subjective facts is metaphysically benign, and not something that should worry Mellor. Subjective facts are merely "facts the learning of which requires that one has certain kinds of experience, or occupies a certain position in the world" (p. 78), and their existence is quite compatible with physicalism, and with Mellor's objectivism. As Crane puts it, "the fact that these pieces of knowledge are only available from certain perspectives does not entail that there are some further non-physical/non-objective objects and properties involved in these situations" (p. 80). In his reply to Crane, Mellor reaffirms his original position with respect to the non-existence of subjective facts. His complaint against them is that they are inexpressible. He writes, "I still cannot see why, if there are such truths, we cannot state them" (p. 220). This response seems to me to be putting the linguistic cart before the metaphysical horse, something that Mellor, in general, strongly cautions philosophers against doing.

Real Metaphysics is an impressive collection of essays that exemplify much current thinking in metaphysics. It illustrates well how energetic and vital, and how fruitful, is much of the debate in contemporary metaphysics. Hugh Mellor has done more than most in the last 40 years to inject some of that energy and vitality into metaphysical debate, and to show that real results can be achieved. This collection is a fitting token of gratitude for his contribution to philosophy.

Heather Dyke
University of Otago

(This review is reproduced here by permission of the author and of Blackwell Publishing.)