My apologies to anyone who has taken a course in philosophy of language (I haven’t) or mind (I haven’t) and recognizes this brief discussion as trite, misguided, or already discussed in superior fashion.
When I first came across the position of physicalism (which I understand as a kind of metaphysical thesis about the nature of reality–that everything that exists is within the explanatory domain of physics), I found it to be an appealing position. The initial appeal for me, I think, did not lay in any apparent epistemic virtues (which I think attracts most) but in its usefulness as a vehicle for rejecting certain everyday socio-cultural positions which I dislike.
In any case, one day I was discussing physicalism with someone who was well-versed in the subject, and sympathetic to it. In the midst of the discussion it occurred to me that it didn’t make any sense to me for the person to say that they are a physicalist (or for anyone to say such a thing).
First of all, to say that one is a physicalist, is to make a double commitment to metaphysics insofar as one is (1) holding a metaphysical position (that all existence “is” physical) and (2) further stating that one believes that this position “is true” (which is also a doubly metaphysical statement). This seems immediately problematic to me–how does one sustain a “metaphysical” view of the nature of existence as a physicalist? Doesn’t physicalism itself conceptually preclude any possibility of metaphysics (of course, these articulated concerns seem to betray a metaphysical view of language that is lost in a physicalist picture–which leads to my second point…)?
Second, how does a physicalist even express such a view (how does a physicalist even have any “views” at all–including physicalism?)? It occurred to me that if physicalism is indeed true, then it seems that all language “is” (forgetting the above problem of metaphysics–how can a physicalist say anything “is” something in a “meaningful” way?) crudely performative (the “meaningful” aspect of language related to conceptual thought/communication and truth/falsity that we all seem to labor under is some kind of illusion since it is not part of the “physical” world). So, I find myself quite confused when someone states that they are a physicalist–though one can certainly make such an utterance (and if they are “right” then my confusion is illusory–though, ironically, they don’t actually “know” that they are right!)