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Metaphysics: In its main entry for ‘metaphysics’, the Oxford English Dictionary (3rd online ed.) gives four ways in which the word has been used:[1]
The branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things or reality, including questions about being, substance, time and space, causation, change, and identity (which are presupposed in the special sciences but do not belong to any one of them); theoretical philosophy as the ultimate science of being and knowing.
a1620 M. Fotherby: The Metaphysickes, considering the pure essence of things. | 1739 D. Hume: So far from being able by our senses merely to determine this question, we must have recourse to the most profound metaphysics to give a satisfactory answer to it.
The study of phenomena beyond the scope of scientific inquiry.
Questions of metaphysics as they relate to a specified subject or phenomenon; the underlying concepts or first principles on which a particular branch of knowledge is based. Usu. with of.
1790 E. Burke: I have nothing to say to the clumsy subtilty of their political metaphysics. | 1958 W. Stark: A metasociology which would be, not a metaphysics, in so far as metaphysics is divorced from the empirical, but a study of man as he appears in all societies.
Philos. Used by logical positivists and some other linguistic philosophers for: any proposition or set of propositions of a speculative nature, considered to be meaningless because not empirically verifiable.
1937 A. Smeaton tr. R. Carnap: The sentences of metaphysics are pseudo-sentences which on logical analysis are proved to be either empty phrases or phrases which violate the rules of syntax. | 1956 J. O. Urmson: The view of Wittgenstein that metaphysics was not merely outdated as the old positivism had it, but was a logically impossible enterprise, being excluded by the essential nature of language.
NB: See the entry in the Oxford English Dictionary for sources of the examples and for additional examples.[1]

Metaphysics (from Greek: μετά (meta) = "after", φύσις (phúsis) = "nature") is the branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the nature of the world. It is the study of being or reality.[2] It addresses questions such as: What is the nature of reality? Is there a God? What is man's place in the universe?

A central branch of metaphysics is ontology, the investigation into what categories of things are in the world and what relations these things bear to one another. The metaphysician also attempts to clarify the notions by which people understand the world, including existence, objecthood, property, space, time, causality, and possibility.

More recently, the term "metaphysics" has also been used to refer to subjects which are thought to be beyond the physical world. A "metaphysical bookstore," for instance, is not one that sells books on academic treatments of ontology, but rather one that sells books on spiritualism, spirits, faith healing, crystal power, occultism, or Wicca. Such stores are typically stocked with an array of Eastern or "New Age" philosophy such as Theosophy, Western esoteric writings such as Rosicrucian texts, hybrids of East/West such as Alice Bailey, and often purely Eastern writings such as Patanjali.

History of metaphysics

The word "metaphysics" is generally held to have come from the title given to one of Aristotle's works by the editor of his works Andronicus of Rhodes: Metaphysics, or in Greek, τα μετα τα φυσικά (i.e. the books after the books on physics).

Aristotle himself referred to the subject as "first philosophy". Among Aristotle's other works was Physics. The editor of Aristotle's works, Andronicus, placed the books on first philosophy right after Physics. So those books were called τὰ μετὰ τὰ φυσικά βιβλια, ta meta ta physika biblia, which means "the books that come after the (books about) physics." The name was first given to the work by Andronicus of Rhodes in c.70 B.C., referring to the customary organization of the Aristotlean corpus, but was misread by Latin scholiasts and became "the science of what is beyond the physical." The word comes to the English language by way of the Medieval Latin metaphysica, the neutral plural of Medieval Greek metaphysika.[3] declares its English origins to be between 1560 and 1570,[4] while the Online Etymology Dictionary finds its origins to be as early as 1387.[3]

The Metaphysics was divided into three parts, now regarded as the traditional branches of Western metaphysics, called (1) ontology, (2) theology and (3) universal science. There were also some smaller, perhaps tangential matters: a philosophical lexicon, an attempt to define philosophy in general and several extracts from the Physics repeated verbatim.

  • Ontology is the study of existence: the definition of entities and classes of entities, such as physical or mental entities; the nature of the properties of entities; and the nature of change.
  • Theology is the study of God (or the gods) and of questions about the divine.
  • Universal science is the study of first principles, which Aristotle believed underlie all other inquiries. An example of such a principle is the law of non-contradiction: A = A, A ≠ B, Not both A and B.

Universal science or first philosophy treats of "being qua being" — that is, what is basic to all science before one adds the particular details of any one science. This includes topics like causality, substance, species and elements. It also includes topics like relationship, interaction, finitude and a theoretically boundless infinity.

Metaphysics as a discipline was a central part of academic inquiry and scholarly education even before the age of Aristotle. Long considered "the Queen of Sciences," its issues were considered no less important than the other main formal subjects of physical science, medicine, mathematics, poetics and music. Since the Age of Reason, problems that were not originally considered metaphysical have been added to metaphysics. Other problems that were considered metaphysical problems for centuries are now typically relegated to their own separate subheadings in philosophy, such as philosophy of religion, philosophy of mind, philosophy of perception, philosophy of language, and philosophy of science. In some cases subjects of metaphysical research have been found to be entirely physical and natural, thus making them part of physics.

Central questions of metaphysics

Most positions that can be taken with regards to any of the following questions are endorsed by one or another notable philosopher. It is often difficult to frame the questions in a non-controversial manner.

Particulars and universals

The world seems to contain many individual things, both physical, like apples, and abstract such as the British constitution, Greek democracy, and the number "3". Such objects are called particulars. Now, consider two apples. There seem to be many ways in which those two apples are similar, they may be approximately the same size, or shape, or color. They are both fruit, etc. One might also say that the two apples seem to have some thing or things in common. Universals or Properties are said to be those things.

Metaphysicians working on questions of universals or particulars are interested in the nature of objects and their properties, and the relationship between the two. For instance, one might hold that properties are abstract objects, existing outside of space and time, to which particular objects bear special relations. Others maintain that what particulars are is a bundle or collection of properties (specifically, a bundle of properties they have).

Universals raise an interesting problem - how exactly can we talk about one thing being the same as another? What do we mean when we use language in such a way as to suggest similarity or difference?

Plato's solution to the problem of universals was to posit a realm of forms, which Plato was a realist about - he thought they existed outside of people's minds. Forms are transcendent - you cannot find them in a particular place or time, but they are universal. Forms are also the cause of the instance - that a crane is tall is because the Form of tallness made it tall.

Other philosophers reject this kind of realism and are nominalists - that is, they reject the existence of universals - instead, explaining the feeling of shared properties of objects through a variety of devices. Some nominalists explain properties as simply being class membership (this is the view, for instance, of Anthony Quinton). Others simply say that a property is the applicability of a linguistic predicate - so-called predicate nominalism. A slightly more sophisticated form of nominalism is resemblance nominalism, which constructs classes of particulars based on their resemblances - Michael Jordan is tall and a crane is tall. But there are a significant number of differences between Michael Jordan and a crane, and the pull of realism is that we want to say that there is some attribute that is shared between Jordan and the crane, and other properties which they do not share (there has yet to be a crane that has played for the Chicago Bulls).

A contemporary answer to the problem of universals has been given by trope theory (the most popular of a dizzying array of names for the same theory: abstract particulars, particularism, property instances, unit properties). Trope theorists have included D.C. Williams, G.F. Stout, John Cook Wilson and C.B. Martin. Here, rather than a universal being the source of the properties of particular objects, each particular has it's own tropes - that is, it's own particular properties. Michael Jordan would have his own tallness, that is numerically different from the particular tallness belonging to the crane. Of this, there are a number of varieties, just as with realism - substance-attribute or "kernel" trope theory, as compared with a "bundle" theory. The difference mirrors a similar difference with realism: the tropes with substance-attribute theorist thinks that if all the properties were removed, there is still a kind of raw blob of object left to distinguish it from other objects with properties that are exactly resembling, while the bundle theorist denies that there is such an underlying 'bare particular', and that particulars are just collections of tropes. If one wishes to deny Leibniz's Identity of Indiscernibles principle, the bundle-of-tropes view is an improvement on the bundle-of-universals view. Tropes have not been without controversy: Chris Daly and D.M. Armstrong have fiercely criticised trope theories in their writings on the topic.

Change and identity

Identity, sometimes called Numerical Identity, is the relation that everything bears to itself, and which nothing bears to anything other than itself. According to Leibniz, if some object x is identical to some object y, then any property that x has, y will have also. However, it seems to us that objects can change over time. If you were to look at a tree one day, and the tree later lost a leaf, it would seem that you could still go look at that same tree. Metaphysicians work to explain what it means for the same object to have different properties at different times, as well as the question of how objects persist through time. (See Also: identity and change)

Space and time

This apple exists in space (it sits on a table in a room) and in time (it was not on the table a week ago and it will not be on the table a week from now). But what does this talk of space and time mean? Can we say, for example, that space is like an invisible three-dimensional grid in which the apple is located? Suppose the apple and every other physical object in the universe were to be entirely removed from existence: then would space, that "invisible grid," still exist? René Descartes believed not—he thought that without physical objects, space would not exist, because space is the framework in which we understand how physical objects are related to each other.[5] There are, however, many other metaphysical questions to ask about space and time.

Necessity and possibility

Metaphysicians investigate questions about the ways the world could have been. David Lewis, in "On the Plurality of Worlds," endorsed a view called Concrete Modal Realism, according to which facts about how things could have been are made true by other concrete worlds, just like ours, in which things are different. Other philosophers, such as Gottfried Leibniz have dealt with the idea of possible worlds as well. The idea of necessity is that any necessary fact is true across all possible worlds; that is, we could not imagine it to be otherwise. A possible fact is one that is true in some possible world, even if not in the actual world. For example, it is possible that cats could have had two tails, or that any particular apple could have not existed. By contrast, certain truths seem necessary, such as analytic truths, e.g. "All bachelors are unmarried." The particular example of analytic truth being necessary is not universally held among philosophers. A less controversial view might be that self-identity is necessary, as it seems fundamentally incoherent to claim that for any x, it is not identical to itself; this is known as the principle of contradiction. Aristotle describes the principle of contradiction, "It is impossible that the same quality should both belong and not belong to the same thing . . . This is the most certain of all principles . . . Wherefore they who demonstrate refer to this as an ultimate opinion. For it is by nature the source of all the other axioms."

Abstract objects and Materialism

Apart from Universals, some philosophers endorse views according to which there are abstract particulars. Mathematical objects and objects in fictions are often given as examples of abstract objects. The view that there really are no abstract objects is called materialism.

One of the most necessary abstract objects is a definition of terms. If "the same quality should both belong and not belong to the same thing," there must be conflicting definitions. This renders definition abstract, and further discussion is irrelevant until the contradiction between definitions is resolved.


Metaphysics has been attacked, at different times in history, as being futile and overly vague. David Hume and Immanuel Kant both prescribed a limited role to the subject and argued against knowledge progressing beyond the world of our representations (except, in the case of Kant, to knowledge that the noumena exist).

A.J. Ayer is famous for leading a "revolt against metaphysics," where he claimed that its propositions were meaningless.[6]

One way of attacking a metaphysician who claimed to have knowledge of a reality which transcended the phenomenal world would be to enquire from what premises his propositions were deduced. Must he not begin, as other men do, with the evidence of his senses? And if so, what valid process of reasoning can possibly lead him to the conception of a transcendent reality? Surely from empirical premises nothing whatsoever concerning the properties, or even the existence, of anything super-empirical can legitimately be inferred.[6]

This was the viewpoint not only of Ayer, but of the whole branch of logical positivism.

Martin Heidegger often criticised metaphysics, yet his early work dealt with questions that many would consider metaphysical. British universities became less concerned with the area for much of the 20th century; the later work of Wittgenstein discredited metaphysical questions as nonsense on purely linguistic grounds.[7] However, metaphysics has seen a reemergence in recent times amongst philosophy departments.

A more nuanced view is that metaphysical statements are not meaningless statements, but rather that they are generally not fallible, testable or provable statements (see Karl Popper). That is to say, there is no valid set of empirical observations nor a valid set of logical arguments, which could definitively prove metaphysical statements to be true or false. Hence, a metaphysical statement usually implies a belief about the world or about the universe, which may seem reasonable but is ultimately not empirically verifiable. That belief could be changed in a non-arbitrary way, based on experience or argument, yet there exists no evidence or argument so compelling that it could rationally force a change in that belief, in the sense of definitely proving it false.

Metaphysical subdisciplines

Metaphysical topics and problems


See also

Some content on this page may previously have appeared on Wikipedia.


  1. 1.0 1.1 "metaphysics". Oxford English Dictionary. 3rd Online Edition. Oxford University Press. | Online access requires subscription.
  2. Geisler, Norman L. "Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics" page 446. Baker Books, 1999
  3. 3.0 3.1 Douglas Harper. Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved on August 29, 2006.
  4. Unabridged (v 1.0.1) - Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary. Retrieved on August 29, 2006.
  5. The Principles of Philosophy, Part II: of Material Things, see X to XVI.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Ayer AJ. (1936), Language, Truth and Logic, Penguin: London | Google Books preview of Dover 1952 edition.
  7. Wittgenstein, L (ed. Anscombe, GEM 1953), Philosophical Investigations, Blackwell: Oxford
  • Butchvarov, Panayot (1979). "Being Qua Being: A Theory of Identity, Existence and Predication." Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press.
  • Gale, Richard M. (2002) "The Blackwell Guide to Metaphysics." Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Lowe, E. J. (2002). A survey of metaphysics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Loux, M. J. (2002). Metaphysics: A contemporary introduction (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.
  • Kim, J. and Ernest Sosa Ed. (1999). Metaphysics:An Anthology. Blackwell Philosophy Anthologies.
  • Kim, J. and Ernest Sosa, Ed. (2000). A Companion to Metaphysics. Malden Massachusetts, Blackwell, Publishers.
  • Fillmore, Charles (1931, 17th printing July 2000). Metaphysical Bible Dictionary. Unity Village, Missouri: Unity House. ISBN 0-871-59067-0
  • Hans Wehrli: Metaphysik - Chiralität als Grundprinzip der Physik, 2006, ISBN 3-033-00791-0