Notes on Metaphysics

There is at least no dispute over where the word metaphysics came from: it is the title of a book Aristotle wrote. But it is not clear what relation the word has to the subject the book discourses on. The first theory was that Aristotle meant to give that title to the contents, and that it therefore explains something about the content. The Laval and River Forest schools of thought stress this sort of reading, claiming that metaphysics must be learned after physics (understood in the broad sense of all the natural sciences). On this account, Aristotle meant that this science was “after physics” in the way that Algebra II is after Algebra I: that is, physics is a prerequisite for understanding metaphysics, and a condition of its intelligibility. Another theory is that the Stoics discovered Aristotle and titled the book “metaphysics” simply because it did not fit anywhere in their tripartite division of philosophy into Logic, Ethics and Physics, and so they made the book an appendix to philosophy. In this sense, metaphysics was only after physics in the way that, say, lunch might be after physics class. Metaphysics, in other words, tells us nothing about the content of the course, still less about physics being a prerequisite. It is a title more like “Miscellaneous” than like “Calc. II”. One support for this idea is that Aristotle never uses the word “metaphysics” in his own text, preferring instead “first philosophy” or “divine science”.

What the two theories have in common seems to be the truth of the matter. Both agree that metaphysics is understood in relation to the various particular sciences. For the Stoics, metaphysics is outside of the categories of the particular sciences, and in this sense is understood in opposition to particular sciences; for the Laval and River Forest schools it is outside any natural science by being subsequent to them. But Aristotle’s claim is that metaphysics is opposed to the particular sciences because it deals with those concepts and realities that are common to the many particular sciences. The Laval school is wrong that metaphysics comes after the philosophy of nature specifically. It comes after any science that takes the common notions at its foundation for granted as opposed to making them open for inquiry. At the same time, the theory that this is a mere catalog term is also false, so far as we discover what is common to many sciences after we have some acquaintance with many sciences.

Some notes:

-On this account, metaphysics is any discourse that is critical of the notions at the basis of all inquiries. Metaphysics means raising the question whether there is a basis for inquiry, even the inquiry into this particular question. In his exposition of Metaphysics proper, Aristotle first raises the question of how any concept can be common to many different sorts of discourse (ans. by analogy), and then raises the question whether there is any one truth at the basis of all discourse (yes- the principle of contradiction). But the crucial note is raising the question of foundations, as opposed to taking them for granted. In this sense, any foundation-critical inquiry is a part of metaphysics: the philosophy of mind, some forms of language theory, philosophy of science, etc. There is no meta-metaphysics, for once one has raised the question whether there is any foundation for any particular science, he has raised a question beyond which there is no other.

-When Aristotle says that physics would be the highest science if there were no separate substances, he does not mean that one has to go through physics to get to metaphysics, or that there is an absolute dependence on physics to establish something above it. He means that if there is nothing above physics then metaphysics is only about logical abstract conceptions of things. This is why the quotation in question arises in the context of asking whether metaphysics is like physics (which deals with realities) or like mathematics (which, on Aristotle’s view, are abstractions from the natural things). The question is not about proving the possibility of metaphysics, but rather given metaphysics, whether it is to be taken as like physics or like mathematics.

-Metaphysics is not about being straight off, but about what is common to many sciences, and because being is the most common term, metaphysics is about being. The order of causality is important. We first run into common notions and common ideas, and then see that the measure of all such terms is being. This is an inference, however, and not a first principle.

-Metaphysics cannot have first principles, i.e. things it takes for granted as true from which it reasons. This does not mean that nothing is self-evident or that there is no basis for things, but it does mean raising the question whether there is any such thing. On this account, there are two modes of science: those that are never perfectly self-reflective or self-aware, but simply take things for granted that are invisible to them (mathematics, natural science) and whatever inquiry is perfectly self-reflective, such that it can even see and raise questions about its foundations. This is why those of a metaphysical bent can get so frustrated by mathematicians and scientists, who simply cannot do what they do without taking principles for granted that they are more or less oblivious to. The pay-off for this absence of self-reflection is great power, exact knowledge, and progressive advances in the discipline. But the metaphysician will always be bothered by a certain sense that there is a forgetfulness of the most important things in science and mathematics, just as the scientist and mathematician will always be bothered by the inability of metaphysical inquiries (philosophy, philosophy of mind, etc.) to make definitive and widely accepted advances in knowledge.

-The central motive for the Critique of Pure Reason is precisely this sense that metaphysics goes nowhere and makes no advances comparable to natural science or mathematics. Kant is right that it doesn’t, he is even right to claim that it cannot. But this is not because we are limited by possible experience but because this is simply the price for the sort of radical questioning which alone constitutes metaphysics. What did Kant expect, that we would just establish some truth forever and never question it again? The absolute core of the metaphysician is absolutely reflective inquiry. Perhaps some of them will find a basis and move on and others will not, but metaphysics as such must begin anew and from nothing in every man who practices it. This is the whole point of it! Obviously, this is a prescription for eternal dispute and no advance. But this is a price we are more than willing to pay for the thrill of contemplating the absolute basis of things for ourselves.



  1. CJ Wolfe said,

    September 12, 2012 at 2:38 pm

    I have a dispute over where the word “metaphysics” comes from. From what historical source was it reported that this book came “after” the Physics? Whose library?
    The text we have was passed on to Aristotle’s student Theophrastus, then they were handed on to a guy named Neleus who stored the scrolls in a cellar in Athens, then they went to Rome much later, and then the Byzantines and Arabs had them before they were translated into Latin in the 13th century.
    It just seems so flippant to merely say that the Metaphysics was the text that came “after” the Physics and had no other connection, at least based on the kind of convoluted philological evidence seems to be part and parsel with the great wisdom contained in the Corpus Aristotelicum.

    • CJ Wolfe said,

      September 12, 2012 at 3:08 pm

      Other than the stoic testimonia that is (which is still at least 3 libraries removed from Aristotle)

    • September 12, 2012 at 3:11 pm

      My source was Charles Young. His story follows yours at least in outline, and attributes the title to the Stoic division of philosophy into Logic, Ethics and Physics.

      I assumed that the evidence for it was that Aristotle did not refer to the science as metaphysics in the text of that name.

      • CJ Wolfe said,

        September 12, 2012 at 4:06 pm

        Ha! Chuck Young was my authority on Aristotle at Claremont, too. I am currently writing a proposal for a politics dissertation (Young’s going to be on the committee), but I took several classes and Greek translation groups with him. He’s an outstanding teacher and authority on Aristotle.

        I hadn’t heard the “Logic, Ethics and Physics” explanation before, that would make sense given the overall stoic philosophy with its denial of any being other than material being. This actually makes me even more suspicious about their testimonia.

        But the lack intertextual references to any book called “Metaphysics” in the other works of Aristotle (as you point out) is a strong point in the testimonia’s favor. There are numerous intertextual references to a book called “the Physics,” but none for “the Metaphysics.” I even spotted a reference to the Physics in the Eudemian Ethics when I read it recently

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