by Mel Thompson *
Extraordinary, in that it seeks to breathe new life into metaphysics, the often-neglected attempt to grasp the nature of reality itself, rather than opting for the more narrowly defined questions that have become the norm in academic philosophy. Timely, in that it seeks to construct a theory based on relationships, interconnectedness and a holistic view, which reflects the global nature of the challenges, both intellectual and practical, that we face today.
Much academic philosophy, particularly in the analytic tradition, is precise and logical, making incremental steps within arguments that have been developed by generations of thinkers. Yet the real impetus in philosophy has always been provided by those who have not been afraid to challenge existing assumptions and raise fundamental questions.
Even an over-simplified and cursory glance at the landscape of Western thought, reveals the significance of Plato, with the his theory of Forms and huge influence on both philosophy and religion, or Aristotle with a metaphysics that enables the integration of philosophy and the empirical quest of science, providing so many of the basic terms upon which later thinkers have come to depend, or Aquinas’ attempt to integrate philosophy and religion. In the quest for certainty, and the shift in the 17th and 18th centuries towards the centrality of the theory of knowledge, you have Descartes, Hume or Kant, radically challenging previous arguments and setting the agenda for those who follow. You have the systematic thought of Hegel, or its political development in Marx, or the development of existentialism from Kierkegaard, or Heidegger’s ontology. Hugely, for the 20th century, there is the influence of Wittgenstein and the shift in philosophy towards the appreciation of the limitations, meaning and function of language, or the pragmatist tradition of James or Dewey or the move towards postmodernism. These and other broad movements in Western thought have one thing in common; they seek to shift the philosophical agenda.
So what of Scarborough? His book is both challenging and disconcerting, in that it too seeks to shift the agenda. His metaphysics is systematically rooted in the ideas of interconnectedness and human values that come closer to the insights of the Buddha than to most western philosophy. He sets about using that new perspective in order to re-examine traditional areas of philosophical discussion – ethics, religion, free will and the relationship between mind and body.
Thus, for example, he sets out to reincorporate ethics into metaphysics, getting beyond Hume’s claim that one cannot derive an "ought" from an "is" and thereby setting a question mark over much modern ethical discussion. His ten ethical principles are founded on the observation of reality in ways that bring it closer to the earlier Natural Law approach to ethics, and he is rightly critical of the false simplicity of much utilitarian thought. By thinking expansively and holistically, he is able to devise his own ethical maxims, taking us into intellectual territory far removed from the familiar arguments of utilitarian, deontological or virtue ethics.
In 1962, working in the field of the philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In it he described the long periods of time during which scientists tend to work within an accepted paradigm for their field of study, challenging it to a greater or lesser extent, until eventually it is found to be inadequate and is replaced in what he called a "paradigm shift". I sense that what Scarborough is seeking with this book is to present us with the need for a paradigm shift in metaphysics and in philosophy more generally.
Philosophy in the 20th century left few assumptions unchallenged, and its legacy is a suspicion of any "metanarrative" or attempt to give an overall account of reality in general. This book attempts to rectify that situation and restore the quest to describe "everything briefly" in a way that shifts our thinking from the confines of earlier paradigms to one that reflects the observation that there are boundless relations and interconnections within our world, and that our philosophy should build upon these "low level" facts towards a genuinely new metaphysics.
I have little doubt that those steeped in academic philosophy may find some aspects of this book frustrating, partly because of the originality of what Scarborough sets out to do, and partly because the later sections of the book, in which he unpacks the implications of his thought, make one eager for further development and examination. This is not a criticism of the book itself, for it would be quite impossible in a single volume to unpack all the implications of his thought. What we have here is a work of genuine originality, shifting the parameters of debate and introducing ideas that may at first appear improbable because they are unexpected.
Perhaps there should be a final word of warning for those embarking on this book. Previous metaphysics has tended to argue for a single idea or theme around which everything else can cohere; a single key to unlock all mysteries. That is not the case here. In a world of boundless relations there is no fixed centre – nowhere to "plant our flag", to use Scarborough’s image – no narrow certainty, but only an invitation to an ever-wider sense of openness.
Those picking up this book, expecting it to offer a nuanced and careful development of familiar arguments, comfortably edging academic progress forward at a glacial pace, are in for a shock. It is not that sort of book, but it deserves to be read more than once in order to savour what it has to offer.
* Dr. Mel Thompson is a British writer, formerly a teacher and examiner. Author of 38 titles in philosophy, religion and ethics, he is best known for his introductions to the various branches of philosophy, in Hodder & Stoughton's Teach Yourself series. His books have sold over half a million copies in English, and have been translated into 15 other languages. For further information about his books, along with a range of articles, reviews and free notes for students of philosophy and ethics, visit his website or take a look at his Wikipedia page.