June 4, 2013

Metaphysical Pathos

Filed under: Metaphysics,Philosophy — camcintosh @ 1:55 pm

Arthur Lovejoy calls one factor that subtly shapes the history of ideas a “metaphysical pathos.” A metaphysical pathos greatly influences and determines “philosophical fashions and speculative tendencies,” and is

exemplified in any description of the nature of things, any characterization of the world to which one belongs, in terms which, like the words of a poem, awaken through their associations, and through a sort of empathy which they engender, a congenial mood or tone of feeling on the part of the philosopher or his readers.

Lovejoy gives several examples, one being “the pathos of sheer obscurity, the loveliness of the incomprehensible,” which he describes as follows:

The reader doesn’t know exactly what they mean, but they have all the more on that account an air of sublimity; an agreeable feeling at once of awe and of exaltation comes over him as he contemplates thoughts of so immeasurable a profundity—their profundity being convincingly evidenced to him by the fact that he can see no bottom to them.

mathurbationLovejoy rightly indicts several continental philosophers for indulging in this pathos, which they sometimes do intentionally.  For other examples, see William Vallicella on Badiou, Tillich, and Levinas. But this pathos is not just characteristic of our philosophical brethren. It often finds voice among the hoi polloi, who so often confuse opaque sayings with profound truths (or philosophy itself). Dan Dennett calls such sayings “deepities.”

The analytic’s counterpart to the continental’s pathos sheer obscurity is the mathematicization of everything, needlessly using complicated mathy examples, definitions, and language in place of what could be more clearly said in English prose. The mood or feeling this pathos engenders is one of ultra-precision and correctness, an attempt to win respectability or perceived brilliance by mimicking the prose of technical science or mathematics. This tendency has aptly been called “mathurbation.” So we could call it the pathos of mathurbation. Related is the pathos of symbol-mongering. See here for an example of unrestrained mathurbation and symbol-mongering.



  1. […] of the historical background, as well as the technical details to avoid what my friend Chad call mathurbation. Joseph Campbell (2007) points out that the Consequence Argument cannot establish strict […]

    Pingback by Incompatibilism, The Consequence Argument, and the No Past Objection | The Shadfly of Athens — June 14, 2013 @ 9:57 am | Reply

  2. Interesting new word. I have read abstract of paper on Cosmological argument and it remind me that few more critics object Craig for equivocation fallacy. But it seem that it is quite clear that Craig don’t use word cause as scientific or material cause (on contrary God can not be material cause). It is big question what mean cause and causation in modern scientific language.

    Comment by Milos — October 20, 2013 @ 12:09 pm | Reply

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