Friday, January 25, 2013
Mumford on metaphysics
In another in a series of excellent interviews with contemporary philosophers, 3:AM Magazine’s witty and well-informed Richard Marshall talks to analytic metaphysician Stephen Mumford. Mumford is an important and influential contributor to the current revival of interest in powers and dispositions as essential to understanding what science reveals to us about the natural world. The notion of a power or disposition is closely related to what the Scholastics called a potency, and Mumford cites Aristotle and Aquinas as predecessors of the sort of view he defends. Mumford’s notion of the “metaphysics of science” is also more or less identical to what modern Scholastic writers call the philosophy of nature. But Mumford’s interest is motivated by issues in philosophy of science and metaphysics rather than natural theology. The interview provides a useful basic, brief introduction to some of the issues that have arisen in the contemporary debate about powers.
Some comments on the interview: Mumford cites Bertrand Russell as a great thinker from whom one can learn much even if one largely disagrees with him. I agree with that assessment (where Russell’s serious philosophical work was concerned, anyway -- his popular writings on religion, morals, politics, etc. are awful), and I wrote my doctoral dissertation in part on Russell. I would qualify some of the specific points Mumford makes, however. The early Russell famously rebelled against the neo-Hegelian monism that dominated British philosophy in the late 19th century, in favor of a metaphysics of radically discrete objects. He famously suggested that for Hegel the world is like a jelly -- one continuous blob, as it were -- whereas for Russell himself the world was like a bucket of shot, countless disconnected individual bits.