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What is Metaphysics Anyway?

Peter Adamson considers Aristotle’s original use of the term.

I’ve occasionally had the disappointing experience of walking into a bookshop, seeing a shelf marked ‘Metaphysics’ and, beginning to peruse it, only then finding that it’s filled with volumes on mindfulness, crystals, and learning about one’s past lives. I wouldn’t be surprised if New Age enthusiasts have occasionally had the reverse disappointment upon learning that a ‘Metaphysics’ course they signed up for will involve arguing about the nature of reality, personal identity, and the problem of free will.

This confusion over what metaphysics is, exactly, is an old one. A historically-minded person asked to define this field of philosophy might say that metaphysics simply studies the sort of issues tackled in Aristotle’s Metaphysics, the first work to use the word in its title. But this answer would need a significant caveat: Aristotle did not use this title himself, and indeed the book is almost certainly a collection of disparate materials cobbled together centuries after Aristotle’s death.

Because it is a composite work, maybe we should not expect a unifying theme in the Metaphysics. Perhaps it is called by this title just because it is to be read after (meta) Aristotle’s discussion of natural philosophy in his Physics. On the other hand, perhaps the compiler had good reasons for putting these materials together as a single text. Intelligent readers, from the great ancient commentator Alexander of Aphrodisias, to the also pretty great medieval commentators Averroes and Thomas Aquinas, have indeed detected a single project running throughout the Metaphysics, although without agreeing what it was.

This disagreement was only to be expected. The Metaphysics takes on an enormous range of problems, from the principle of non-contradiction, to the nature of God; from an analysis of material substance, to a refutation of Plato’s ideas about mathematics. One book even takes the form of an extended philosophical lexicon. If however you want to argue that the Metaphysics is about just one central topic, then an obvious candidate for that topic is being. Aristotle has a lot to say about being, especially in the notoriously difficult middle books, whose inquiry into substance is clearly relevant to the study of being (especially since the Greek word for substance, ousia, is derived from the verb einai, meaning ‘to be’).

According to this way of thinking about metaphysics, as being concerned with being itself, it has a good claim to be the most general philosophical subject, and hence in a way, the most fundamental science. Ethics studies only human happiness and virtue; zoology only animals; physics only physical things. Metaphysics would study everything, since everything that is has being. The metaphysician should however bear in mind Aristotle’s dictum that “being is said in many ways.” I myself, for instance, will have being in a different and more primary way than my baldness has being. In Aristotle’s terminology, my baldness is only an ‘accident’ – a property that belongs to me and depends on me for its being; whereas I am a ‘substance’, meaning that I have being independently of other substances.

Now that we’re thinking along these lines, we might wonder: is there some being, or kind of being, that is most fundamental or primary?

Many readers, especially in the medieval period, thought that such a being makes its appearance only in the twelfth of the fourteen books of the Metaphysics. Here Aristotle discusses the immaterial intellects that in his view are responsible for moving the heavens. One single intellect stands over all the others, initiating or coordinating the motion of the entire universe by thinking. This is Aristotle’s God.

Perhaps then Aristotle’s plan all along was to move through preparatory stages of discussion before finally reaching the real object of his investigation, namely the divine First Mover. Thus, once we work through the Metaphysics we will have grasped the nature of the first cause of all things. Since, according to Aristotle, we understand things by tracing back their causes, metaphysics therefore provides a foundation for the study of all other things. If so, metaphysics would still be the primary and fundamental science, but for a different reason. Now, its philosophical primacy will have to do with the primacy of God.

These are two very different ways of understanding the Metaphysics, and hence, metaphysics: are the treatise, and the branch of philosophy, about being, or about God? Or perhaps there are two kinds of science here: it became traditional to speak of metaphysica specialis (about God) and metaphysica generalis (about being). But allowing this would undermine the cherished idea that Aristotle did have a unified project.

That was presupposed in a dispute between two leading thinkers of the Islamic world, Avicenna and Averroes. Avicenna believed that metaphysics is really the study of being, and that talking of God, even proving His existence, is just part of this general enterprise. Averroes disagreed. He pointed out that Aristotle proves God’s existence in the Physics, and thus the Metaphysics only discusses the manner of God’s causality. But this is as it should be. As the first cause of being, God is the proper subject matter of metaphysics; and Aristotle teaches that no science should try to prove the existence of its own subject matter.

This debate has relevance for our understanding of metaphysics today. The lingering association between the word ‘metaphysics’ and theology or the supernatural (what comes ‘after physics’ in another sense), has real historical roots. Some are therefore suspicious of the whole enterprise. But they need not reject the term, or the discipline, since there is an equally sound historical precedent for understanding metaphysics to be something quite different – an inquiry into all that is. This would arguably make metaphysics the most general and fundamental part of philosophy.

© Prof. Peter Adamson 2016

Peter Adamson is the author of A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Vols 1, 2 & 3, available from OUP. Both are based on his popular History of Philosophy podcast.

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