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Introduction to Metaphysics

The following is a transcript of this video.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant once referred to metaphysics as “a bottomless abyss” and “a dark ocean without a shore” while the American philosopher William James called it “nothing but an unusually obstinate way to think clearly.”

In this article we are going to provide an introduction to metaphysics. To do so we will look at the history of the discipline, examine its subject matter, and discuss the 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s influential views on metaphysics.

Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy whose roots stretch back to the time of the ancient Greeks approximately 2500 years ago. Along with ethics, epistemology, and logic, metaphysics is considered one of the main branches of philosophy. While there is no agreed-upon definition of metaphysics, it is often described as the discipline which is concerned with the ultimate nature of reality. However, to those not familiar with metaphysics, such a definition will prove rather vague. So in order to better grasp its subject matter it will be helpful to examine the history of the discipline.

A few hundred years following his death, around the first century BC, Aristotle’s works were being published in the ancient city of Alexandria. One of the works published was given the title ‘Metaphysics’, which literally means ‘after the physics’. This title was not meant to reflect the content of the treatise, as Aristotle had referred to the subject matter of it as first philosophy or theology. Rather it was given this title because it had followed, or come after, the publication of a treatise by Aristotle titled “Physics”. However, due to Aristotle’s immense influence the word metaphysics soon evolved from merely being the title of one of his books, to becoming the name of an entire philosophical discipline.

While Aristotle’s work covered a wide array of topics there are two underlying themes to it which many have pointed to as constituting the essence of metaphysics. The first of these themes is the study of first causes, or in other words, that which does not change and from which emanates the things in this world we experience. The interest in first causes is why God has been a prominent topic of metaphysics throughout history. The second theme is the study of being or existence, in which an attempt is made to identify and delineate the fundamental categories of being. The study of being is simply the study of that which is, or that which exists.

While Aristotle’s conception of metaphysics continues to be influential up to the present day, the discipline did see some important developments in the 17th and 18th centuries. During this time a group of philosophers – known as the continental rationalists –  began to distinguish between what they called general metaphysics and special metaphysics.

General metaphysics, also referred to as ontology, is the study of being or existence and is in line with Aristotle’s conception of metaphysics. Special metaphysics, on the other hand was divided into three disciplines; cosmology, rational psychology, and natural theology. While general metaphysics was concerned with being at a broad, fundamental level, special metaphysics addressed more specific questions concerning existence. Topics addressed within special metaphysics included such things as immortality, freedom of the will, and the mind body problem.

The interest with these more specific issues continues to the present day. However, the problems of general metaphysics, or what is more commonly called ontology these days, remains the most prominent area of metaphysics. Present-day ontologists, it should be noted, are not generally concerned with what the concept of existence means. Rather, like Aristotle, they try to provide accounts or inventories of the things that do exist and in the process identifying the fundamental categories of being. Thus ontologists will try to determine whether such things as properties, numbers, events, relations, souls, material objects, or universals exist; and if they do what the characteristics of such things are. 

The question of whether universals exist is one of the oldest questions of ontology and has been debated since the time of the ancient Greeks. Universals are things which can be instantiated or shared by different individual objects. Examples of universals include redness, squareness, and beauty. Obviously there are many different things can be red, square, or beautiful, but the question is whether the universals themselves have any sort of existence apart from the particular things they occupy.

Along with these questions of ontology, metaphysicians today, like the continental rationalists also examine more specific questions. Topics addressed by contemporary metaphysicians include the nature of time and space, the mind-body problem, causality, what it means to be a person, and the problem of free will, amongst others.

The philosopher Peter van Inwagen in his book titled Metaphysics has put forth three questions which he believes encapsulates the subject matter of contemporary metaphysics:

  1. What are the most general features of the World, and what sorts of things does it contain? What is the World like?
  2. Why does a World exist – and, more specifically, why is there a World having the features and the content described in the answer to question 1?
  3. What is our place in the World? How do we human beings fit into it?

As should now be evident metaphysics deals with some very abstract questions, questions which many philosophers, metaphysicians amongst them, believe may not even be answerable. In fact, the 19th century philosopher FH Bradley wrote somewhat humorously: “Metaphysics is the finding of bad reasons for what we believe on instinct. . .”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the most influential philosophers of all time, was also skeptical about the ability to answer metaphysical questions. As he wrote:

“Most of the propositions and questions to be found in philosophical works are not false but nonsensical. Consequently, we cannot give any answer to questions of this kind, but can only establish that they are nonsensical. . . (They belong to the same class as the question whether the good is more or less identical than the beautiful).”

What did Wittgenstein, who it should be noted is by no means the clearest of philosophers, mean when he said that most philosophical propositions and questions are not false, but rather non-sensical? KT Fann provides an explanation in his excellent work “Wittgenstein’s Conception of Philosophy”:

“His point is simply this: Philosophical propositions are not false, they do not misstate facts which could be correctly stated, for they do not state or misstate any facts at all – they merely look like propositions but are in reality, not propositions in the strict sense. The attempt to say something (in the sense of stating propositions) about what transcends the world (the inexpressible) results in nonsense.” (KT Fann Wittgenstein’s Conception of Philosophy)

In other words, Wittgenstein did not believe that the questions posed by metaphysicians could be answered with the use of language. Instead, the problems of metaphysics according to him “transcend” the world, or as Wittgenstein put it, “The solution of the riddle of life in space and time lies outside space and time.” . . . or alternatively “There are, indeed, things that are inexpressible. They show themselves. They are what is mystical”.

However, it should be noted that even though Wittgenstein did not believe that most of the problems of metaphysics could be answered, he was not completely against the discipline. In fact, he was heavily influenced by the 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who put forth one of the most elaborate and extensive metaphysical systems in the history of philosophy. And to conclude this article we will provide a quote by Wittgenstein which reveals his appreciation of metaphysics:

“Don’t think I despise metaphysics or ridicule it. On the contrary, I regard the great metaphysical writings of the past as among the noblest productions of the human mind.”

Further Resources

Good Places to Start One’s Study of Metaphysics
A Very Short Introduction to Metaphysics (2012) – Stephen Mumford
An Introduction to Metaphysics (2010) – John Carroll & Ned Markosian
Metaphysics (2009) – Peter van Inwagen
Metaphysics A Contemporary Introduction 2nd Edition (2002) – Michael Loux
Metaphysics 4th Edition (1992) – Richard Taylor

Famous Works which Address Metaphysical Issues
Physics (384BC-322BC) – Aristotle
Metaphysics (384BC-322BC) – Aristotle
Meditations on First Philosophy (1641) – Descartes
Philosophical Essays (1646-1716) – GW Leibniz
An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) – John Locke
A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710) – George Berkeley
An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1739) – David Hume
Critique of Pure Reason (1781) – Immanuel Kant
Prolegomena To Any Future Metaphysics (1783) – Immanuel Kant
The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) – GWF Hegel
The World as Will and Representation (1818) – Arthur Schopenhauer

Further Readings