Metaphysics is one of the oldest, least explicit, and most controversial disciplines in Western philosophy as far as its evaluation is concerned. There has been no widely accepted definition, nor any strict delimitation of its subject and goal so far. In the last 2,500 years of its history, metaphysics was considered to be a basic philosophical discipline covering the question of “what really exists,” or dealing with the first principles of being and cognition of all things. On the other hand, it has been questioned and rejected as a useless and nonsense activity. Thus, all of its history can be seen as a process of continual transformations seeded in the tension between its acceptance and the cyclical recurrence of critiques proclaiming its “crisis,” “abolition,” “termination,” or “death.” One of the most significant motives of the critique of metaphysics was metaphysics’ prevailing tendency not to fully realize the role of time and temporality in the explanation of the world.
Origin of Name
The term metaphysics, handed down to the present, arose accidentally in the 1st century BCE when Andronicus of Rhodes, a peripatetic expositor of Aristotle, summarized his unlabeled treatises under the term ta meta ta physika, treatises that in his catalogue follow Aristotle’s work Physics. Aristotle himself most commonly referred to these teachings as “the first philosophy” (he prote philosophia) but also as “wisdom” (sophia) or “theology” (theologike). Late Aristotelians, especially Alexander of Aphrodisias in the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries CE, understood Andronicus’s classificatory meaning of the word metaphysics as matter of content— as a teaching dealing with what is beyond the physical world, a teaching about the supersensible, transcendent, and intelligible entities (including God). Also in this sense, Simplicius and Boethius used the one-word term metaphysica in the 4th and 6th centuries CE, respectively. European philosophical thinking acquired this understanding of the term during the 13th-century period of scholasticism.
History of Metaphysics
In ancient Greece, the development of metaphysics is connected notably with the names of Parmenides, Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus. Parmenides (540-450 BCE), by arguing that “being is, and nothing is not because nothing cannot be thought of, and so, the thought and the being are the same” and by his follow-up claim that being is one, continuous, changeless, and eternal, founded a qualitatively new variant of philosophical thinking about reality. His “thinking and being” correspondence principle, as well as his distinction between reality being ultimately true and appearing by sense perception, have become determining, and at the same time, limiting considerations for the entire field of classical metaphysics. Plato (428-348 BCE) elaborated on Parmenides’ reflections, and in his middle writing period, he argued for the division of the world into two realms. One was noumenon— which exists by reason, and therefore is real, being the perfect world of original, eternal, changeless, and intelligible ideas; and the other was fainome- non—the imperfect world of appearances and derived, changeable, perceptibles.
Because metaphysics transcends the perceptible and reaches the top of the hierarchically ordered world of ideas—where the Good dwells as an origin of everything, factual thinking about reality is associated with axiological and at last, epistemological aspects. For metaphysics examines the fundamental principles of specific sciences (mathematics) as well. However, for further development of metaphysics, Plato’s distinction of a privileged, timeless world of ideas and a disqualified temporal world of particulars became significant; time is understood there as something that metaphysics should overcome.
Aristotle (384-322 BCE), the founder of metaphysics as an independent philosophical discipline, critically elaborated on his predecessors’ initiatives. This became obvious in his tendency to rehabilitate the dynamic world of perceptibles. Time as “a number of movement in respect of the before and after” is the fundamental element of entities to which belong motion and becoming in this context. Considering Aristotle’s solution of this problem, as well as his delimitation of metaphysics’ subject and goals, the factual legacy of his work remained ambiguous. Notably, his understanding of metaphysics, understood at one point as ontology and at another one as theology, proved to be historically significant.
In the first case, Aristotle distinguished metaphysics as a universal science about “being” (entity) as being science dealing with being as such, from specific sciences always dealing with a specific kind of being (entity). However, his ontology did not declare being to be one and beyond the diversity of things as Parmenides did. It just gives us an account of the most universal kinds of entities in their plurality—that is a theory of categories. Existing means to exist in a certain way, that is, in quite a few differentiations—as substance (e.g., a man), quality (e.g., whiteness), quantity, relation, etc.
However, further inquiries led Aristotle to understand metaphysics as a specific science about an ultimate type of entity, that is to say, substance, which testifies what a thing is and has an important position among categories. In reality, however, there are various types of substances, and the most perfect and dignified is the divine one (the selfthinking, eternal, unmoved first mover). Thus, metaphysics becomes a special kind of substantial ontology—a theology. Another definition of metaphysics by Aristotle, as a “knowledge of first causes and principles” of entities, led to a similar conclusion. The most crucial of the four causes— material, formal, efficient, and final—is the last one: Everything is carried out for some purpose, due to some good. And because the highest purpose and good is God, metaphysics, as a study of first principles, is (natural) theology. Here, the roots of the idea of unity between ontology and theology, according to Heidegger’s so-called ontotheology, are to be found. This idea was later elaborated by scholastic philosophy.
It’s worth mentioning that Plato as well as Aristotle did not understand metaphysics as a strictly descriptive contemplation on reality. On one hand, there’s an axiological aspect—the cognition of reality is always interconnected with the cognition of the good and the values, and on the other hand, there’s an epistemological-logical aspect—categories and principles do not only relate to the reality but to our thinking about it as well.
For Plotinus (204-270), metaphysics is mainly so-called henology—a teaching concerning the unthinkable and unspeakable, the not-being and the above-being One as the basic principle of all things. Out of this One, the entire reality emanates following a degenerative descending process. Even time is only a movable, imperfect picture of the eternal spiritual principle. The aim of philosophy is to free man from empirical plurality and temporality and to unify him with the perfect One. Plotinus brought strong elements of mysticism into metaphysics.
There was an important transformation of metaphysics in the Middle Ages, especially with regard to the scholastic reception of Aristotle’s work. Creationistic elaborations of its ontotheological traits, mostly performed by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), were of determining importance. For Thomas Aquinas, metaphysics, as a constituent of philosophical wisdom (sapientia), is a science about being as to what extent it is being (ens inquantum ens); hence it is a science covering the entire reality. However, investigating is not restricted to the perceptible world. It gradually proceeds to examinations into the supersensible (soul, angels) and results in rational contemplation on God. For if metaphysics is to understand being as such, first, being’s cause must be understood. And the first cause is God, not only in Aristotelian terms as a final cause of becoming of things, but as a cause and principle of being of all things created. Metaphysics culminates in (rational) theology as in its ultimate ontology. Thomas Aquinas determines time likewise as Aristotle did, as a measure of changes that arise in bodies in respect of the before and after. It belongs to creature, not to God alone.
For such a concept of metaphysics, it was necessary to provide a rational evidence of God’s existence; especially an ontological argument was needed. The argument was put forward by Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), who deduced an inevitable fact of God’s existence out of the concept (essence) of God, understood as something that is the most perfect (and thus timeless and changeless also) and above which nothing greater can be conceived. Otherwise, there would be controversy. This proof, in its various forms, has become a constituent of great metaphysical systems of modern times.
The problem of universals led to serious consequences for metaphysics in the Middle Ages: Do the contents of universal concepts exist in reality or not? The answer to the dispute, with its prehistory in Plato, the Cynics, and Aristotle, resulted in the birth of realism (Anselm of Canterbury; William of Champeaux, 1068-1121) and nominalism (J. Roscelin, 1050-1120; Duns Scotus, 1264/1270-1308; William of Ockham, 1290-1349). According to the first, universals exist in reality, before particulars exist and apart from them, and only subsequently they appear in particulars, which are derived from them, or after particulars, in human mind. The opposite standpoint, in its most radical variation, supposes that universals are mere words (nomina), claiming that only particulars exist in reality. In its moderate variation, nominalism concedes the existence of universals in human mind (P. Abelard’s [1079-1142] conceptualism). This controversy has endured, in its various forms, up to the present-day metaphysics, philosophy of logic, and mathematics.
In modern times, the classical understanding of metaphysics as a dogmatic teaching covering the problems of soul, world, and God has undergone significant changes in terms of its understanding, which tends to be more critical. Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was at the beginning of these critical efforts, and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) concluded them.
Descartes considered the investigation of the highest principles providing certain knowledge of the world to be the goal of his philosophia prima. An epistemological motive, which had been of secondary concern for metaphysics until his time, became fundamental for Descartes. By means of methodological skepticism, he ended up asserting two principles. The first one, cogito ergo sum, anchors the certainty of every knowledge of the world not in the world itself, as it worked in the old metaphysics, but through intuitive self-evidence of a reasoning subject (res cogitans). This anthropological turn provides background for the second principle, the existence of a perfect God, as a source for the verity of the external world (res extensa). From these principles, like from roots, all efficient knowledge of humankind should grow (physics, mechanics, medicine, morals).
However, part of Descartes’s heritage was res extensa (material, incapable of spontaneous
motion, axiologically neutral) and res cogitans (spiritual, autonomous, evaluating) dualism. Primary, attributive determination of the first one is extension. Time (duration) is only secondary, moDalíly characteristic of unattributive motion (alteration of position). It was especially rationalists who tried to offer an answer to varied forms of mentioned dualism (the problem of subject-object relations, mind-body problem, absence of values and dynamics in reality, etc.). For Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), substance is one, that is, Deus sive natura, and metaphysics is identical to ethics. N. de Malebranche (1638-1715) presents an occasional correspondence of both substances through God. According to G. W. Leibniz (1646-1716), there are an infinite number of spiritual, that is, spontaneously dynamic and thinking substances.
Another division of metaphysics emerged in 1562 with the Spanish philosopher B. Pereira (1535-1610), who divided it into general (meta- physica generalis) and specific (metaphysica spe- cialis). This division was systematically completed by Christian Wolff (1679-1754) in 1730. While general metaphysics (ontology) is a basic philosophical science, rational cosmology, theology, and psychology are disciplines of specific metaphysics.
The Modern Ages empiricists, unlike the rationalists, took quite a rejecting stance on the possibility of metaphysics; they demonstrated the empirical groundlessness of its basic concepts based on the thought/being correspondence. Thus, for John Locke (1632-1704), substance is unconceivable apart from the bundle of its attributes. George Berkeley (1685-1753) denies the existence of the external substance (res extensa) and David Hume (1711-1776) denies the existence of both external and internal substance (res cogitans) and the concept of causality as well, taking it as a result of everyday habit.
Kant rejected all of the previous “dogmatic” metaphysics as a fictitious knowledge, because by exploring the problems of the soul, world, and God, it applied concepts of pure reason in an inadmissible and transcendent way and beyond the borders of possible experience to a thing-in-itself (noumenon), which is unconceivable. Thus, metaphysical reason, not being able even to justify the existence of its subjects, had to cope with insolv- able antinomies in all of its domains. As becomes obvious, an ontological proof of God’s existence is impossible. Existence is not an attribute and cannot be deduced. The cogito ergo sum proposition is a paralogism as well.
Thus traditional subjects of metaphysics do not belong to theoretical reason but, like its postulates (the postulate of freedom, immortality of the soul, the existence of God), to a practical one. However, a new critical metaphysics is possible. It is a transcendental theory that does not pursue the objects themselves, but, provided that such cognition is a priori possible, it pursues our forms of their cognition. It is a study of categories, but these are not perceived as the most universal aspects of things (ontologically) but as a priori forms of data being linked in experience, as a “logic” of experience. It includes also contemplations about time, which according to Kant does not belong to things themselves but is one of two a priori principles of pure intuition (the second one is space) that provide humankind with an inner experience and vicariously an experience of external phenomena.
- W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) took quite a different stance toward metaphysics. Although he blamed metaphysics for not being dialectical, he accepted and absolutized the thought and being correspondence principle. On its basis, he attempted to offer a dynamic, nondualistic view of reality in his absolute idealism. Within the evolutionary conception of reality, he identified ontology (general metaphysics) with (dialectic) logic. Here he describes the self-contradictory process of the selfrealization of the freedom of absolute idea, which is developing from the “in-itself and for-itself” stage (logics as the overcoming of rational theology), through the “otherbeing in nature” stage (philosophy of nature as the overcoming of rational cosmology), to the stage where idea “recurs back from its otherbeing” (philosophy of the spirit as overcoming of rational psychology). The essential medium of this process is time (“intuitive becoming”), in which self-realization of the spirit is realized until is rounded off.
Hegel’s influence on 19th-century metaphysics was strong but short-lived. In contrast to Hegel’s approach, the majority of 19th-century philosophical movements (positivism, neo-Kantianism, etc.), being under the influence of Hume’s and Kant’s criticism, rejected classical metaphysics as a theory of reality (scientism, gnoseologism). The implication of this was that similar stances toward metaphysics, though not epistemologically motivated, were taken by S0ren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Karl Marx (1818-1883), and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900).
In the 20th century, understanding of metaphysics’ subject and goals was considerably influenced by a linguistic turn in philosophy. The attitude of analytic philosophy, as a protagonist of this turn, changed. At its inception (until the 1920s), it offered a criticism of certain type of metaphysics (neo-Hegelian) for the sake of another one (G. E. Moore’s [1873-1958] realism, or Bertrand Russell’s [1872-1970] logical atomism). Later, in the 1950s and 1960s, under the influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) and the activities of logical positivism, analytic philosophy became radically antimetaphysical. Following Wittgenstein, who claimed that philosophy is not a theory but a criticism of language, logical positivists including Moritz Schlick (1882-1936) and Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970), who understood philosophy as a logical analysis examining the meaningfulness of the language of science, whereas a criterion for meaningfulness resides in the feasibility of the sentences to be empirically verified (verificationism). Metaphysical sentences are not verifiable and thus are meaningless, because they refer to something above or beyond any experience. They do not account for referential but only for expressive function; they reflect their authors’ personal sentiments and view of life.
Since the late 1950s, a renaissance of metaphysics within analytic philosophy has taken place, which was mostly associated with initiatives of Willard van Orman Quine (1908-2000) and P. F. Strawson (1919-2006). Quine recognizes metaphysics (or, to be more exact, ontology) as a reflection on what there is. However, it does not fall under the competence of philosophy (which was supposed to turn into so-called naturalistic epistemology) but belongs to (natural) sciences. This metaphysics concerns especially the so-called ontological commitment—a question as to which entities we are committed to adopt for a theory to be true—and Quine offers a specific criterion. Unlike Quine, Strawson allows for a possibility of an autonomous philosophical metaphysics. It resides in the clarification of the nature and relations between the key—the essential, the most universal and irreducible—concepts, which constitute a structural pattern of human thinking (both ordinary and scientific) about the world. Strawson also makes a distinction between descriptive and revisionist metaphysics. The former, which he prefers, settles for the description of the actual structure of our thinking about the world; the latter is engaged in rendering a better one.
The attitude of the 20th-century nonanalytic philosophy toward metaphysics was critical; however, there were efforts to propose a revised conception. Alfred North Whitehead’s (1861-1947) nonsubstantial process philosophy (in which there is the fundamental metaphysical unit—event— well-founded temporally) may be an illustrative case, but the formation of ontologies figures significantly as well—for example, the critical ontology of Nicolai Hartmann (1882-1950) or Edmund Husserl’s (1859-1938) eidetic science of intentional objects. One of the most important was Martin Heidegger’s (1889-1976) fundamental ontology (elaborating on Husserl‘s phenomenological method), the aim of which is to manifest temporality as the meaning of being. A later important case was Jean-Paul Sartre’s (1905-1980) phenomenological ontology.
An original critical response to the peripeties of this school of thought was provided by E. Levinas. According to Levinas, the fundamental weakness of previous metaphysics was that in finding the solution to its crucial question of the same and the other relation, it always turned into ontology. But ontology is egological and solipsistic in nature—in its efforts to master and usurp the other, it reduces it to itself (the same), canceling its peculiar (unique) otherness and exteriority. Such an identification of the other with the same occurs through the incorporation of a middle element between the two, a representative that the same finds in itself. This has been a universal concept since Socrates, including Berkeley’s individual perception but also Heidegger’s being, because Heidegger subordinates the relation toward the other (existing) to the relation toward its being. The path to the other is never direct; transcendence toward it is always embraced by immanence. However, metaphysics is not concerned with representations and thus allows the totalization of the other into the same. On the contrary, metaphysics’ main effort is to maintain radical exteriority, the totally other. The transcendence is provided by a face-to-face encounter with the other; another human being and the bond established is thus ethical. Metaphysics as ethics, in this sense, precedes ontology as a philosophy of power and constitutes a philosophy of justice.
Totalizing inclinations within philosophy were again rejected in the last third of the 20th century. However, this occurred not by reinterpreting metaphysics as Levinas did. It was postmodern philosophers, chiefly Michel Foucault (1926-1984), Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995), Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1998), and Richard Rorty (1931-2007) who started proclaiming the death of metaphysics as such. The days of metaphysics as a privileged human (philosophical) activity aspiring to acquire a mirror cognition of the Reality in a metanarrative, absolutely valid and ultimate system, are over. Its common topics— truth, reality, humankind, history, mind, language— are no more perceived as being noumenal or transcendental in status. They aretemporal—socially, historically, and linguistically determined. Metaphysics does not offer an absolute, genuine picture of reality; it is just one of the numerous narratives of reality, a mere rhetoric. “God’s eye view” realism submits to relativism, monism to pluralism, totalization and sameness to the otherness, eternity to time and temporality.
See also Aquinas, Saint Thomas; Aristotle; Becoming and
Being; Berkeley, George; Causality; Cosmogony;
Derrida, Jacques; Descartes, Rene; Dialectics; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Heidegger, Martin; Kant, Immanuel; Kierkegaard, S0ren Aabye; Marx, Karl; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Ontology; Parmenides of Elea; Plato; Plotinus; Postmodernism; Spinoza, Baruch de; Theology, Process; Whitehead, Alfred North
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