Book Review: ‘An Introduction to Metametaphysics’, by Tuomas E. Tahko

An Introduction to Metametaphysics‘, by Tuomas E. Tahko

Cambridge University Press, 266 pp. $29.99

At first glance, the term ‘metametaphysics’ can be a little off-putting. For most folks, I imagine, the term ‘metaphysics’ is off-putting, and to add an extra ‘meta’ may seem to border on self-parody. For those of a more ‘scientific’ mind or those who view metaphysics with some suspicion (for which there are both good and bad reasons), ‘metametaphysics’ might as well say ‘armarmchair’ speculation. Slightly awkward terminology aside, metametaphysics is actually what those suspicious of metaphysics should be thinking about, and Tahko’s book is a brilliant guide to a broad and often complex topic that anyone, suspicious of metaphysics or not, should read.

Tahko says that this is the first systematic introduction to metametaphysics available, and as far as I can tell he’s completely correct. There are some well known collections of essays as important articles in collected volumes, but to date there has been a lack of systematic introduction. This volume offers just that – and, for someone like me, who wasn’t as familiar with this subject, this is about as good of an intro as I can imagine being written. There’s no unnecessary jargon – there’s definitely some jargon, but it’s kept bearable. The entire volume feels almost conversational, especially since the majority of the text is overview and interaction with various positions. One almost feels as if the book is a conversation with Tahko on the state of metaphysics, and this is definitely a good thing.

The basic goal of the book is, roughly, to look at and discuss just how metaphysics works – the epistemology, methodology, subject matter, etc. Tahko interacts with a substantial number of writers and thinkers in the contemporary metaphysical scene, but by and large, he appears to largely be answering the kind of thinking that is exemplified in Ladyman and Ross’s ‘Every Thing Must Go‘ (head here for a good review), where metaphysics, if it has any role to play at all, is more or less a lackey for the natural sciences, since Ladyman and Ross don’t think that metaphysics contributes to human knowledge at all. Over the course of the book, Tahko does a couple of things: he shows how the assumptions undergirding that particular viewpoint themselves need to be questioned, develops just how metaphysical debates actually happen, and fleshes out the relationship between contemporary metaphysics and the natural sciences.

Significant amounts of time are spent analyzing things such as ontological commitments and existential quantifiers, ontological grounding and dependence, the fundamental levels of reality (if there are any), metaphysical epistemology and the interplay between science and metaphysics. My personal favourite section was on epistemology, where Tahko spends a good deal of time breaking down just how our modal knowledge ‘works’ (a priori? a posteriori? Essentialist? A combination of all these?) Also enjoyable was Tahko’s interaction with the natural sciences – the examples and thought experiments are all clear and demand no prior knowledge of any specific science (even if they do get a bit technical at times).

If you have any familiarity with analytic metaphysics, then this volume should be fairly easy going for you. There’s nothing outrageously technical, though the chapter on ‘grounding’ can at times be fairly heavy going. However, the best feature by far here is the glossary, where nearly every technical term Tahko uses is presented clearly and concisely. While not exhaustive in terms of definitions (the definitions here are a sentence or two at most) it is extremely helpful for someone like me, for whom ‘existential quantifier’ or ‘quantifier variance’ are not everyday terms. For folks who need a quick reference here and there, this is the ideal tool. Not enough philosophy books provide helpful glossaries – kudos to Tahko for providing one.

There isn’t much here in the way of positive metaphysical positions that Tahko defends – though his own sympathies are clear – and that’s what makes this volume so important. Skeptics of metaphysics will come away not learning what hill Tahko has chosen to die on but just how metaphysics and science can learn from each other and just how metaphysics actually ‘works’ and just how (and what) it contributes to knowledge. Proponents of metaphysics will not come away learning why their position is wrong but how to better think about the meta-attitudes (the value of various metaphysical theories, the nature of the disagreements between different branches of philosophy) that they hold explicitly or implicitly and so be able to move forward constructively in metaphysics.

All in all, this is an easy-to-read and much needed systematic introduction and survey of a prominent topic in philosophy. Tahko is a superb guide, and I highly recommend this volume to anyone interested in philosophy, metaphysics or the relation between the sciences and philosophy/metaphysics.

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