From Existentialism to Metaphysics

The Philosophy of Stephen Priest

by Benedikt Paul Göcke (Volume editor) Ralph Weir (Volume editor)
©2021 Edited Collection 368 Pages


The pieces collected here are written by fifteen philosophers and one poet who have been influenced by Stephen Priest, or develop themes in Priest’s philosophy, or both. They include contributions from the United Kingdom, the USA, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Taiwan and Japan by authors working in a range of traditions. Topics covered include philosophical method, the analytical/continental divide, the nature of the mind (or self, or soul), metaphysics, and the meaning of life. The volume also includes responses by Priest and an intellectual biography, describing some of the life-experiences which caused Priest to become interested in philosophy and to make the transition from existentialism to metaphysics.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction (Benedikt Paul Göcke and Ralph Stefan Weir)
  • From Existentialism to Metaphysics: An Intellectual Autobiography (Stephen Priest)
  • Armchair Philosophy (Timothy Williamson)
  • The Distinction in Question: The Analytic/Continental Divide in Philosophy (Mikołaj Sławkowski-Rode)
  • The Metaphysical Poverty of Naturalism (Daniel Kodaj)
  • Questioning Oneself (Brian Elliott)
  • Mysticism and Philosophy (Imola Atkins)
  • Private Language and the Mind as Absolute Interiority (Ralph Stefan Weir)
  • John Foster’s and Michael Dummett’s Arguments for Idealism (Howard Robinson)
  • On the Knowledge That This Human Being Is Uniquely Unique (Shogo Shimizu)
  • Priest on Religious Experience and the Soul (Samuel Hughes)
  • Kant and Quantum Physics on Freedom and Determinism (Christian Helmut Wenzel)
  • Itinerarium Mentis in Deum: The Philosophy of Stephen Priest as Mystical Theology (Benedikt Paul Göcke)
  • The Problem of Change Restored (Martin Pickup)
  • Bergson on Nothing (Michael Inwood)
  • ‘What is the Meaning of Life?’ A Philosophical Question with a Theological Answer? (Nicholas Waghorn)
  • Fifteen Metaphysical Poems (Kerry Priest)
  • Replies (Stephen Priest)
  • The Logical Status of Philosophy: Reply to Timothy Williamson
  • ‘Analytical’ and ‘Continental’ Philosophy: Reply to Mikolaj Slawkowski-Rode
  • A Critique of Pure Science: Reply to Daniel Kodaj
  • Being Someone: Reply to Brian Elliott
  • Mysticism and Philosophy: Reply to Imola Atkins
  • Wittgenstein’s Metaphysical Assumptions: Reply to Ralph Weir
  • Idealism and Quantum Physics: Reply to Howard Robinson
  • The Trinity: Reply to Shogo Shimizu
  • Zen and the Re-Discovery of the Soul: Reply to Samuel Hughes
  • Kant and Quantum Physics: Reply to Christian Wenzel
  • God and World: Reply to Benedikt Paul Göcke
  • Changes: Reply to Martin Pickup
  • Does the Something Someth? Reply to Michael Inwood
  • The Meaning of Life and the Existence of God: Reply to Nicholas Waghorn
  • Poetry and Metaphysics: Reply to Kerry Priest
  • Notes on Contributors

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Benedikt Paul Göcke and Ralph Stefan Weir


Stephen Priest is a member of the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Oxford. He is Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford and a member of Wolfson College, Oxford and Hughes Hall, Cambridge. He has been Visiting Professor in the USA, France, Germany, the Netherlands, FYROM (now North Macedonia) and Japan. He is the author of The British Empiricists (Penguin), Theories of the Mind (Penguin), Merleau-Ponty (Routledge), and The Subject in Question (Routledge), editor of Hegel’s Critique of Kant (Oxford University Press) and Jean-Paul Sartre: Basic Writings (Routledge), and co-editor (with Antony Flew) of A Dictionary of Philosophy (Macmillan). His work has been translated into seven languages.

The pieces collected here are written by fourteen philosophers and one poet who have been influenced by Priest, or develop themes in Priest’s philosophy, or both. They include contributions from the United Kingdom, the USA, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Taiwan and Japan by authors working in range of philosophical traditions. The editors, Benedikt Paul Göcke and Ralph Weir were both graduate students of Priest’s and have greatly benefited from his guidance and friendship then and since.

Priest is a distinctive figure in present-day philosophy for at least two reasons. First, Priest’s thought has been guided by influences rarely brought together in the hyperspecialised world of academic philosophy. As Timothy Williamson comments in his contribution to this volume, Priest’s approach to philosophy emphasises values usually thought of as ‘analytic’, such as clarity and directness of argument. However, Priest’s principal philosophical influences are post-Kantian continental philosophers and he is an authority on Husserl, Merleau-Ponty and Sartre. Priest also engages seriously with Zen Buddhist and medieval Scholastic philosophy and has published research on Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas.

Secondly, in his more recent work Priest has eschewed the naturalistic presuppositions that dominate much of present-day philosophy in favour of resolutely theological approaches that putatively prove the existence of God and the immateriality of the soul. In this respect, Priest’s recent work is more akin to European philosophy before Kant than it is to most present-day philosophy.

Something else distinctive about Priest is his capacity to communicate excitement about philosophical questions to students, fellow academics, and the ←9 | 10→wider public. While philosophers tend to start out enthusiastic, they can quickly become jaded by the drudgery of scholarship and the extremely technical focus of most research. Priest, by contrast, has an exceptional ability to see past the externalities of academic research to the weight and profundity of philosophical ideas, and to communicate a sense of that profundity to others. This side of Priest was noticed by the journalist Peter Hitchens at a 2011 debate in Oxford:

The most moving—and most enjoyable—contribution of the evening came from the marvellous Dr [sic] Stephen Priest, simultaneously diffident and extremely powerful… It reminded me of why I had once wanted to study philosophy, a desire which faded rapidly when I was exposed to English Linguistic Philosophy and various other strands of that discipline which made me wonder if I had wandered into a convention of crossword-compilers, when what I wanted was to seek the origins of the universe. (Hitchens 2011, October 27)

Those who have had the fortune to discuss philosophy with Priest or to hear him speak will agree. There is no formal recognition for the service of reminding people why they are engaging in philosophy in the first place but in doing so Priest has made a significant contribution to the discipline over and above his published research.

Priest’s best-known works can be divided into two groups. In the first are influential studies of post-Kantian continental philosophers, including Hegel’s Critique of Kant (Oxford University Press 1987), Merleau-Ponty (Routledge 1998, 2nd ed. 2003), and The Subject in Question (Routledge 2000), a study of Husserl and Sartre’s thought on consciousness and the self. (As Mikolaj Slawkowski-Rode observes in his contribution to this volume, Priest would question the value of the label ‘continental’ for these thinkers.) In the second group are accessible, but serious general works including Theories of the Mind (Penguin 1991), The British Empiricists (Penguin 1990; 2nd ed. Routledge 2007) and, with Antony Flew, A Dictionary of Philosophy (Macmillan 2002). Priest has also authored several e-books, including Kant’s Attack on Cartesian Dualism (2007a), Kant’s Concept of Freedom in the Critique of Pure Reason (2007b), and Nietzsche and Zen (2007c), the last of which is discussed in Samuel Hughes’ contribution to this volume. In addition to the works mentioned, Priest has authored many shorter pieces as well as a number of unpublished works. The unpublished works include a manuscript entitled Philosophical Questions: Theological Answers which was the subject of a symposium organised by Daniel Came in 2008, and a seminar series organised by Grahame Locke in 2012, both of which took place at the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Oxford. While Philosophical Questions: Theological Answers has never been published, Priest has delivered ←10 | 11→numerous talks on the relationship between philosophy and theology several of which can be watched online.

The variety of Priest’s interests and influences are reflected in the papers collected in this volume. Five of the papers are broadly concerned with philosophical method. Timothy Williamson discusses the role of ‘armchair’ theorising in philosophy, defending the importance of abduction and model-building as armchair methods. Mikolaj Slawkowski-Rode discusses the distinction between analytical and continental philosophy. Slawkowski-Rode agrees with Priest that the distinction makes little sense in geographical, political, historical, or methodological terms, but argues that there is nonetheless an important ‘temperamental’ distinction between the two traditions. Daniel Kodaj mounts an attack on the naturalistic approach that has dominated recent metaphysics, arguing that naturalistic theories cannot make sense of our ability to grasp metaphysical truths. Brian Elliot makes the case for bringing in socio-political considerations in tackling the existential puzzle, central to Priest’s thought, of ‘noticing what I am’. Imola Atkins discusses the relationship between mysticism and philosophy.

The following five papers reflect Priest’s interest in the nature of the mind/self/soul. Ralph Weir defends Priest’s conception of the mind as an ‘absolute interiority’ against Wittgenstein’s private language argument. Howard Robinson discusses two arguments for Berkeleyan idealism. Shogo Shimizu raises a puzzle about Priest’s thought regarding the knowledge ‘that you are you’, and proposes a response. Christian Wenzel advances an alternative to Kant’s solution to the third antinomy which allows free will to exist within space and time. Samuel Hughes raises a question about the compatibility of Priest’s endorsement of the metaphysical thesis that the self is an immaterial substance and his positive comments on Zen Buddhist meditative apprehension of the non-existence of the self.

The final five contributions focus on metaphysics and religion: themes that have come increasingly to dominate Priest’s thought. Benedikt Paul Göcke discusses Priest as a mystical theologian. Michael Inwood considers whether the question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ can be answered by endorsing Henri Bergson’s arguments for the impossibility of nothingness. Martin Pickup argues that metaphysicians should return to the once-commonplace view that there is something puzzling and problematic about the fact that things change. Nicholas Waghorn defends the thesis that the philosophical question ‘What is the meaning of life?’ requires a theological answer that relates individuals to a maximal conceivable value. Kerry Priest contributes a collection of fifteen metaphysical poems. The contributions are followed by replies authored by Priest himself.

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Stephen Priest

From Existentialism to Metaphysics: An Intellectual Autobiography

Existentialism is the study of a cluster of problems about human existence, for example: What is existence? What is it to be me? Am I free? Is death to be feared? What, if anything, is the meaning of life? What is the ground for political, or sexual, commitment? Is there a genuine distinction between right and wrong? Metaphysics is sometimes understood as the study of reality, as opposed to appearance, sometimes as the study of reality as a whole. Metaphysical questions therefore include: Is nothing real? Does God exist? is there life after death? Is the physical world fundamental? Why is the time now? Why is there any change? Did what is begin? The papers authored by my former students and colleagues bear in different ways on Existentialism, Metaphysics, and the relations between them.

In what follows, I describe some of the life-experiences which caused me to become interested in philosophy, and, in a way, to make the transition from existentialism to metaphysics.

1. Existentialist Literature

My father used to pester me to read novels. But the English literature prescribed at school was not inspiring to an energetic teenage boy: Milton, Robert Browning, D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy. I developed a deep loathing of Jane Austen, which has never left me. However, at the age of about fourteen, I was introduced to the work of Albert Camus, by Mr. Stevenson, a teacher of French who, in the reading hour, had the sound policy of allowing us to select a volume from a boarding trunk at the front of the class room, but replacing it if it was not to our taste. If you meet a word you don’t know three times in the hour, look it up. Otherwise, bash on. Suddenly, I read avidly: Camus, France, Gide, Giraudoux, Ionesco, Malraux, St. Exupéry. Sartre was not allowed in the trunk, but he and de Beauvoir were soon located in bookshops. Mauriac went back in the trunk. Gone were the Regency drawing rooms. Here was: How should I live? How should I commit myself, politically, sexually? Am I free? In ethics, what are we standing on? Is death to be feared? If death is the end, what is the point in living? Does religion have the answers? Why should one human being ever tell another what to do? Or not do? What is this existing that everything is getting on ←13 | 14→with? The young and rebellious French intellectual who smoked Gitanes and Gauloises was an image I embraced unreservedly. Mao’s Little Red Book just fitted in the school blazer breast pocket, half an inch of red plastic ostentatiously showing. After all, Sartre had aligned himself with the young Maoists in the May ‘68 revolt. The headmaster made it clear that anyone responsible for a school strike would be expelled. But, reading, as my father required, had been happily integrated into my lifestyle. The great thing about being a teenage revolutionary in the ‘60s is that you know what is best for everyone on the planet and, if someone disagrees with you, the only question is whether they are evil or stupid. The back room of the Church Inn in Cheadle Hulme reverberated with animated discussion of existentialist and political questions. Not quite Café Flore or Les Deux Magots, but, to the annoyance of the old men and office workers, our zone.

It was also Mr. Stevenson who organised the school exchange with Le Havre. I soon realised that the spoken French I had acquired in school was not the French spoken by the French. On our meeting, my host asked ‘Ca va?’. I had no idea what she meant, having only been taught ‘Comment-vous portez vous?’. She rolled her eyes. Le Havre is the model for Sartre’s 1938 novel, La nausée, but WW2 bombing had obliterated the look and feel of Antoine Roquentin’s Bouville.

I continued reading Existentialist literature through the1970s: Lermontov, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Kafka. In the Penguin classics translations, I read all they had of Tolstoy, Gogol, and Herman Hesse. At school, my favourite book had been Camus’ La Peste but, afterwards it was War and Peace. Camus says somewhere in the Carnets that he wished he could integrate philosophy into the plot in the manner of Tolstoy, rather than overtly though conversations between characters. (He is thinking, perhaps, of Rieux and Tarrou in La Peste). I feel Camus could have been easier on himself. The huge third part of War and Peace is Tolstoy overtly informing the reader of his own Philosophy of History. Yet the murder in L’Etranger, the fléau in La Peste, and the suicide in La Chute, raise the questions How should I live? Should I live? What is the value of my life, or any life? in a plot driven way. Yet, Tolstoy is a brilliant stylist: with a stroke of the pen, he shows us even the character of the dog. Like Tolstoy, I personally am obsessed with the minutiae of the Napoleonic Wars, and interested in why and how anything happens in history. But these are quite specialised interests, not shared, even, by most historians. It therefore escapes me why War and Peace is loved by so many readers.

Between school and university, I was in Austria, improving my German as the guest of a friend of my father, Franz Lenhart. Franz had been a socialist ←14 | 15→trade unionist in Austria in the 1930s, but had to keep quiet about that after the 1938 Anschluss. Ironically, he narrowly escaped execution by Communist Italian partisans in 1945. Outside the mountain hut where he was interrogated was a pile of Wehrmacht overcoats. He showed me the pink lines along his ribs channeled by the MP 40 bullets which had knocked him down the snowy, wooded slope in the Alps. He had made it to an American camp, turned himself in, and received good medical treatment. The Americans handed him over to the British, who put him in a prisoner of war camp run by Sikhs, who beat him up repeatedly. He protested in vain that he was a socialist, an anti-Fascist who liked Indian people, and had been drafted into Rommel’s Afrikakorps against his will.

From 1973 to 1976 I studied History, with Archaeology and French, at the University of Lancaster in the North of England. There was, to say the least, a buzz about the place. Austin Woolrych was my tutor for the so called English Civil War, Harold Perkin for comparative industrial revolutions, Constantine somebody or other for comparative imperialism. Ninian Smart had recently set up the world-class Department of Religious Studies. Drs. T. W. Potter and David Shotter had devised a new course on the Archaeology of Roman Britain. I eagerly enrolled.

The French course was organised thematically: one week Surrealism, another Freedom, another Death, le nouveau roman, the resistance, and so on; reading the literature, watching the films, studying the history of the time, and paintings, music or scupture which bore on the topic.

It was one of the few truly interdisciplinary courses I have encountered. Most Joint Honours or Joint Schools degrees simply juxtapose subjects. Often this is right: one and the same question often cannot be coherently addressed by methods of, say, both physics and philosophy, or both mathematics and history. Much later, I was asked whether the Philosophy of History course should be compulsory in a History and Philosophy joint degree, and whether Philosophy of Mind should be compulsory in a Psychology and Philosophy joint degree. I answered in the negative. Suppose a student has two interests, but not much interest in the relation between those two interests. Bryan Magee interviewed Iris Murdoch on television. He introduced her, appropriately, as writing novels and teaching philosophy in St. Anne’s College, Oxford. Then he asked her what the interesting questions are about the relation between literature and philosophy. She said she did not think there were any. Bryan’s face dropped, no doubt realising he still had the best part of an hour of television to fill. But, there is no reason to think some of the Joint Schools undergraduates do not have a similar separation of interests as Iris Murdoch.

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2. Nineteen-Sixty-Eight

Later on, Cartmel College at the University of Lancaster was sacked. I mean sacked in the quasi-Viking sense: fridges, cookers, and televisions gleefully thrown out of the upstairs windows to burst in the quad, fire hoses turned on in the corridors, so staircases became waterfalls, rooms ransacked, huge glass panes broken, etc. Who would do such a thing? The students of Cartmel College. Why? For the high level of mindless drunken entertainment. The sacking was not political (unless you think everything is political). In the 1960s and ‘70s students had a bad image with the public. But the anarchistic reality far exceeded even what was avidly reported in the tabloid press. You have to understand that the ‘60s did not last from 1960 to 1969. The ‘60s lasted from 1967 to 1976, or, perhaps until May 1979. Or perhaps, through their recuperation by Global Capitalist (Neo-)Liberalism, the ‘60s never stopped. Or perhaps the ‘60s lasted until the return of nationalistic conservative and socialist politics through Brexit and the Covid crisis. Either way, the ‘60s failed. Why was that?

The ‘60s was in fact two separate kinds of revolt: there was the quietist revolt of the hippies and like-minded people. They wished to have as little as possible to do with capitalist society and the state, and wished to live a communal and self-sufficient life, in the country, in teepees, and often travelling. They smoked marijuana, took LSD, and were non-violent. On the other hand, there was the political revolt of the anarchists and Marxists, and their fellow-travellers. They wished to overthrow capitalist society and its state, and hand power over to the people. They were not particularly interested in marijuana or LSD, and their methods were violent. These two groups were not made up of the same people, even though some members of the public dabbled lightly in both lifestyles.

The ‘60s failed not only because the two kinds of revolt diluted the rebellion. The two kinds of revolt placed mutually exclusive demands on the individual: Do I fight or drop out? Am I violent or pacifist? Do I argue or contemplate? Should I act, or just be? This bifurcation of the revolt allowed the recuperation of ‘60s rebellion by Global Capitalism.

1975 the University of Lancaster was dominated by a huge sit in: the occupation of the University administration buildings by the students. Seventeen students were arrested, and became known as ‘the Lancaster seventeen’. Their arrest added to the intensity and duration of the revolt. The plate-glass windows of the campus SPAR supermarket were smashed, and its shelves emptied. (The name of the shop had long been regarded as paradoxical.) When Saigon fell to the NVA and Vietcong on 30th April 1975, ending the Vietnam war, a huge ←16 | 17→banner was unfurled across the outside of the upper floors of the building, at the end of Alexandra Square:


3. The Basque Country

In 1976 I was in the Basque Country of Northern Spain teaching English in a language school in Eibar, in Guipuzcoa. Although or because Franco had died about a year earlier, there were demonstrations for Basque independence, shootings, and arrests more or less on a daily basis. Eibar was wildly exciting and deadly, terrifying but addictive. The political situation was far more complex and nuanced than I had assumed. There were seven kinds of ETA, and only one of them, ETA Militar, was armed. There were seven kinds of Spanish police force. Warned of the secret police (las secretas) more or less on arrival, I thought this was a joke. Quite soon I learned it was the opposite. There were disagreements between Basque separatists about what sort of society an independent Basque Country would be: Socialist? Anarchist? Anarcho-socialist? Russian style communist? Euro-communist? There were Basques who thought Fascism was right, and the only real difficulty about Franco’s extreme nationalism was that it had not been Basque.

A young communist, perhaps seventeen or eighteen, used to drink outside the bar amusing himself by placing his hand in the mouth of a large Alsatian, withdrawing it just as the animal’s jaws snapped shut. He was reading a book I knew, about the abortive Russian revolution of 1905. I also used to drink with two communist revolutionaries who had fought with Fremilo with Cuban backing, against the Portuguese army in Angola, one from Cape Verde, the other from Angola.

One day, the young communist came to the bar heavily bandaged. He had been beaten up. I asked who had done this. He said it was the Angolans. I was absolutely incredulous. I asked the elder of the two revolutionaries about this. He said that it was indeed so. Naturally, I asked what on earth possessed communists to beat up a fellow anti-fascist. He replied in a completely matter of fact way, that they did it for the money (el dinero). The politics of the Basque Country were, indeed, nuanced: off-duty Guardia Civil paying African communists to beat up Basque communists.

Some weeks later, my Basque friend Valentino told me that the young communist had been shot by the Guardia Civil, not fatally, but in one arm, and was in hospital. We went to the aftermath. On the street that starts at the bar with ←17 | 18→arches, up from the Eibar main square, the window of every parked car was broken by sub-machine gun bullets.

One evening, two English colleagues and I were drinking in a bar with a young Basque anarchist who began placing CNT stickers on the inside windows: Confederatión Nacional del Trabajo; the anarchist trade union. The bar began to empty, and the barman could be seen using the telephone attached to the corridor beyond the bar. It seems incredible to me now, but I could not tell how much danger there was in this situation. Anyway, the four of us at our table were the only ones left in the bar.

Two men came in, both with pistols drawn: one portly with a black beard, wearing a large cream Arran cardigan; the other taller and thinner with shoulder length blond hair wearing a denim jacket. I had no idea who they were. Secret police? ETA? Los Guerrillos del Christo Rey?


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (November)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 368 pp., 5 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Benedikt Paul Göcke (Volume editor) Ralph Weir (Volume editor)

Benedikt Paul Göcke is Professor of the Philosophy of Religion and Philosophy of Science at the Ruhr-University Bochum. Ralph Stefan Weir is Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Lincoln and Associate Member of the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford.


Title: From Existentialism to Metaphysics
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