Notes on physics and metaphysics

-“Philosophy of Nature” was a name coined by mistake. We should either call it “first physics”, or simply admit that there is no meaningful and fruitful nexus between what Aristotle called physics and what we call it.

-The first chapter of Aristotle’s Metaphysics is a straightforward empiricist account of knowledge.

– If “a priori” means “before sense experience” then it does not describe any sort of knowledge that humans have.

-“Act and potency is a metaphysical distinction”. Not originally! It was an explanation of the motion that is given to sensation.

-Plato’s pull is strong. We want metaphysics to be a description of a world which is other than the one we find in front of us. Act and potency can fight it out on the chalkboard of our mind, but they can’t be, say, real parts of a dog.

Metaphysics deals with things that are not limited to the physical world. On the one hand, we  have difficulty understanding metaphysics because we can’t separate it off from the physical things we know; but on the other hand we have the opposite problem of being unable to reintegrate the realities discovered in metaphysics back into the physical world.


  1. desiderius said,

    November 10, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    “- If “a priori” means “before sense experience” then it does not describe any sort of knowledge that humans have.”

    Well, there is the positivist perspective that a priori knowledge is knowledge of nothing more than symbols.

  2. Brandon said,

    November 10, 2009 at 8:59 pm

    I like the label ‘first physics’, dealing with things that pertain to any sort of interaction with the world at all: change as such, causation of change, the preconditions of change, etc. It’s a better label not only than ‘philosophy of nature’ but also than Duhem’s use of the word ‘metaphysics’ for a similar domain.

  3. November 10, 2009 at 9:29 pm

    Sadly, most people want to subsume Aristotle’s physics into a branch of metaphysics or ontology- and it’s not even clear if they see metaphysics as Aristotle did. People tend to forget that Aristotle was an empiricist, which goes for his metaphysics too. He tended to base his philosophy on observation whereas we are more prone to base it on the infinity of possibilities which we think are revealed by the infinite times we fail to see a contradiction in something.

  4. peeping thomist said,

    November 11, 2009 at 6:58 am

    You do the Lord’s work here. There is a reason the guy who wrote the Metaphysics also wrote about the parts of animals. Tell me who studies metaphysics today who also collected and studied the constitutions of various regimes and wrote a history of his own? Who studies metaphysics today who investigates the mating habits of various species of octopus? Who studies metaphysics today who is interested in astronomical physics? Do we think this connection in Aristotle’s life and work is accidental to him happening to be the guy who wrote the metaphysics?????!!!!!!??? Do we philosophize in a vacuum? Is not that the damn problem?

    De Koninck implies in one speech, without mentioning Nietzsche specifically, that the philosopher IS truly interested in the leech brain…

    People today cannot wrap their mind around what men like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and St. Thomas Aquinas were actually like. We create an enervated abstract image of a mind abstracting or working in some sort of intellectual ether simply pursuing truth itself. We turn the past: men, ideas and books into a Rorschach test for our own pet thoughts in the present.

  5. desiderius said,

    November 11, 2009 at 12:32 pm

    “We create an enervated abstract image of a mind abstracting or working in some sort of intellectual ether simply pursuing truth itself.”

    What are universals but subjective notions (i.e., nomina) and not tangible reality (i.e., res)?

    All that exists outside us appear to be individual and specific objects that causally impinge upon us; they are not, in fact, those generic universals.

    Universals are but handy mental abstractions that exist only in thought and not an external presence or reality, no?

    Thus, universals do not have objective existence and any endeavour stemming from these can be just as enervating.

    It would seem that the current struggle eminates from the basic one that originally existed between Aristotle’s objective present versus Plato’s subjective future.

    Even the latter seemed more absorbed with merely definitions that he tended away from things of fact to simply ideas; so much so that his obsession with generals went on to determine his particulars.

    Therefore, this too, I’d say, would likewise be considered ‘some sort of intellectual ether simply pursuing truth itself’.

  6. peeping thomist said,

    November 11, 2009 at 1:54 pm

    I meant to question our conception of the way in which men like Aristotle came to truth, generally speaking. Put the specifics of epistemology aside for a moment. Do you think there is a connection between the fact that the same man who writes the Metaphysics also is interested in so many other, more specific things? I am suggesting there is such a connection between, say, the fact that Aristotle investigated the parts of animals and the fact that he wrote the Physics. Or that he sought to teach political leaders, etc. This general point leads into a discussion of epistemology.

    What I meant in the sentence you cite is that we tend to think of philosophers pursuing truth in the realm of abstraction simply. We forget the tangible reality that anchors and guides such thought and then we fly into all manner of fantastical realms. We tend to forget that the way in which these human beings came to truth–to universal truth–was through in some sense very particular pursuits and tangible studies.

    Read Heidegger and then a Platonic dialogue, for instance, and I would think the point is at least clear there. There is no swamp of abstract terms in the dialogue. There is a very clear story involving a discussion(s) among particular persons. Consider what Plato DID (start a school/thinktank that lasted for centuries, teach politicians and those he thought would be politicians, etc.).

    I do not think one can understand how they came to write what they did within thinking about the connections here.

    In any event, the entire point is that they guy who describes universals and enters the notion into the western canon was also teaching Alexander the Great, building libraries of constitutions, looking at parts of animals, and writing histories, etc. Which may be tied to the reason many of us don’t think his endeavors from universals, and even, seemingly paradoxically, his very explication of what universals are is so compelling. Universal has many meanings, but generally speaking again Aristotle makes a to my mind powerful case explaining what abstraction and universals mean. And this is so because he insists it is only through sensed experience with the memory of human beings through which we come to universals ‘tall.

    Hopefully that one-off makes sense. Have to run. I don’t know what you mean by “Aristotle’s objective present versus Plato’s subjective future” although I can guess, but it sounds interesting.

  7. peeping thomist said,

    November 11, 2009 at 2:18 pm

    “All that exists outside us appear to be individual and specific objects that causally impinge upon us” Say this what is meant by this is true to our experience. My point is that Aristotle via example and teaching would reveal to us that the close study of those individual and specific objects (and persons) and their actions are precisely what allows us to go beyond them. It is only through a close study of what is most known to us (and not all of this is physical, I would argue) that we can move beyond. He was a man full of wonder at the particular combined with the intellectual strength and discipline to investigate until he arrived at some universal. There sheer breadth of his work is astounding. Which is the reason I can still find HIS Metaphysics in a book store, methinks.

    As James points out, his Metaphysics is based on close observation, etc. I think James’ observations above can be seen in the extent of Aristotle’s life and study.

  8. desiderius said,

    November 11, 2009 at 2:20 pm

    “We forget the tangible reality that anchors and guides such thought and then we fly into all manner of fantastical realms.”

    But that’s the point: Take for instance Aristotle’s rather Platonic obsession with metaphysics; this inveigled him into some of the wildest presuppositions. This was a primary defect which made him run all too readily into theory and conclusion.

    One might look into the works of the later Scholastics (those from the latter days when the scholastic age was nearing its twilight) to catch a glimpse of how the school of Aristotle can go wrong.

    It is no wonder there arose the myth concerning how the scholastics were so obsessed with questions like “how many angels can fit on a pinhead?”.

  9. peeping thomist said,

    November 11, 2009 at 2:49 pm

    I understand the myth. I dispute the extent to which it is a fault of the masters in question. My point is I don’t see this danger in his own life and thought. In fact, I think a lot of our problem in falling into these traps when we read him does not come from our knowledge of his life or thought…but from what we come to the table with these days.

    For starters, ye ole how many angels can fit on a pinhead is a serious question. It reveals the thought of human beings who took very seriously the question of what the relation is between what is physical and non-physical. What does it mean for a being that is non-physical to be in place? How can it be in place? What is place? How is an angel in place? What is soul? Etc. I wished we asked these questions. If a theology program today asked that question, odds are not a single student could answer what an angel is, what place is, or say anything sensible about the what is bodily and what is not. Or define soul. These are at least worth asking, no? Give us more such questions.

    In the sense that things went wrong, well, there is the all pervasive mythos that it somehow did…and as Aristotle would say, no doubt there is some truth to what so many say. I grant you that and more. But that has little to do with the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas or Aristotle until proven otherwise, with specific examples. And this task would take significant historic work. Many talk in generalities about such this degradation of their thought into thin abstraction, from Descartes to the man on the street, but I have yet to read how St. Thomas Aquinas’ thought is responsible for a specific failing in theology a century later that traces his error through all its permutations. Or how Aristotle is responsible for the failings of science centuries after wards. There may be some truth to this, but there are a lot of platitudes here, and serious charges need serious argument to back them up.

    My point is that their own lives and thought have none or little of this nonsense within it, and the whole mythology about the inevitable decline of their thought into such regions is often more the result of enlightenment propaganda and other naysayers than anything else.

    I mean, pick something specific and make clear how later developments or errors in Aristotle, Plato, or Aquinas were the fault of sky in the pie abstraction?!?!

    We all make mistakes, and let him without sin cast the first stone, but on this score I’d side with these three rather than the other guys any day of the week. Do we want to come with a list of who runs readily into theory and conclusion on specific issues? Wild presuppositions? Who else should we put on the list? Those philosophers who started such mythos as the head of the pin respondeo? Who else? Herr Heidegger? Rousseau? You want to look at Hobbes and his obsessive refusal to admit that he hadn’t squared the circle? Or do you want to look at the last 100 years of lesser lights?

    Lets talk about wild presuppositions and rushing to theories and conclusions…Aristotle is the first philosopher who provides you in detail with WHY you think such moves are BAD/INVALID. He provides you with the grounds by which you attack him.

    Also, I don’t get how Aristotle was obsessed with Metaphysics. It doesn’t take up too much of the corpus, does it? What presuppositions? If anything, he went wrong due to a lack of modern scientific tools and developments that would have helped his investigations of nature and astronomy. Explain his obsession.

    This probably sounds like a rant, but I’m writing it in a very calm manner by way of distraction from what I ought to be doing.

  10. November 20, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    All this rant about A thinking and doing. There were a lot less distractions in A’s time then today. An active mind had to create its own entertainment. QED – A.

    It is unfortunate that it takes many so long to discern that metaphysics was always intended for the more mature mind.

    Life is good,


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