Return to Reformation Resources

A Brief Summary of Robert C. Neville's
"Sketch of a System"

© Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D.



Robert C. Neville is a professor of philosophy and religious studies at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. In his article entitled "Sketch of a System," he discusses metaphysics and the components of a metaphysical system while making a general proposal (1987, in New Essays in Metaphysics). His proposal is put forward as a tentative hypothesis and can be described as axiological.

Beginning with some very abstract considerations he moves to some slightly less abstract. He begins by discussing systematic philosophy in contrast to a philosophical system. Here his primary point is to indicate that a systematic philosophy is comprehensively and reflectively critical of anything or everything while a philosophical system is a complex set of abstract categories and principles which guide the suppositions of systematic philosophy. "A philosophic system is only a part of the larger practice of systematic philosophy" (p. 254). Neville, in discussing systematic philosophy, contends that it is essential that one be able to critically reflect on everything discursively (moving from one thing to any other thing).

He expresses remorse over the dearth of well-developed systems in our own time. Several criticisms toward systems were discussed including the Deconstructionist's critique which he points out as being founded on the assumptions of Heidegger. He argues in note 3 that because there may be problems with one system does not mean they are all flawed. "It is absurd that all systematic philosophy or metaphysics be condemned because certain systems are flawed" (p. 272). Further, he comments on the criticism that the possibility of a system reduces the concrete individuality and uniqueness of things to abstractions which are not properly valued. He affirms that this is a valid criticism of systems which take their abstract categories to be concrete an fail to recognize that abstractions lose something but gain formal clarity.

Neville says though, the greatest problem in making a system is not the objections to it in principle but the practical business of thinking up a good one (p. 255)! Here he agrees with Whitehead. We can now, he asserts, forget the concern of the modernist to delimit tradition and "enrich our philosophic heritage with traditions from China and India, as well as from nonelite cultures. But the metaphysician must come to terms with fragmentation. "There are very few philosphically interesting orders extending uniformly over much of reality" (p. 255). A systematic philosophy's subject matter is the sum of all order.

The basic categories he discusses are harmony, essential and conditional features, and the demonstration of how value emerges as a central theme in essential issues such as the one and the many, the nature of concrete harmonies, individuality, and obligation.

What I found most interesting was his discussion of the cosmos. Neville images the cosmos as a welter of pockets of order, each with a temporal thrust; they overlap and interweave. Within this section he alludes to life within the cosmos. His description of the origin of life sounds like the "hopeful monster mechanism." He exclaims, "What fortune when the right conditions of earthly chemicals and solar radiation made it possible for life to emerge! Or when social life allowed leisure for the invention of the arts and philosophy" (p. 268). I would add, what fortune for the right conditions of "earthly chemicals and solar radiation" for us to think about it correctly.

He does discuss briefly the relationship between epistemology and metaphysics stating, "In the modern period, epistemology has been thought foundational to metaphysics, and metaphysics has been thought to be justified to the extent a plausible epistemology shows it warranted. Epistemology has not been successful, and so metaphysics has been thought by many to be unjustified." He concludes that there can be no domination of one over the other (p. 271). Four kinds of thinking need to be reexamined: imagination, interpretation, theorizing, and the pursuit of responsibility.

In Neville's conclusion he suggests that his contribution of the system sketched is its axiology, its thematising of value. This can be contrasted with other process thinkers, such as Whitehead, Hartshorne, Weiss, Buchler, for whom value is less central.