Six Grasses, colored etching by J. Pass, ca., 1807
What is Metaphysics?
Metaphysics is a philosophical term that denotes a number of varying perspectives. Metaphysics is the study of how we relate to the world and how ideas, concepts, facts and objects are related to one another. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, after his death sometime in the 4th century BC, left behind a great number of philosophical books on the nature of being, existence, causation, particularity, universals, potentiality, actuality, parts, wholes, identity, &c. Of profound significance is the topic of the categories which design the way in which we predicate things into subjects for consideration. Another way of thinking about this would be to focus on what qualifies and what quantifies something to be what it ‘is’. To consider what something ‘is’ provides us with relationships to us, and to things, and how all of these things are related—to us and to each other.
The ancient scholar (Andronicus of Rhodes) who categorized Aristotle’s works, placed these books ‘after’ Aristotle’s book on Physics. The term ‘meta’ (μετὰ) meaning: after, beyond, is simply after-physics, after that which is physical (φυσικά). This gives us insight into the content of the books on being, existence, causation, &c. as just that, beyond-the-physical. For you and I, this has do with what is relational, how ideas, concepts, facts and objects are related to one another. We should note that this is not a justification for relativism, given that metaphysics accounts for objectivity in relation to what is relative. To be clear, relativism is a metaphysical issue, yet it works within the larger structures of inter-subjectivity and objectivity.
For Aristotle, form and substance are related to each other given that a substance takes on a particular form to be what something ‘is’, i.e. what is something? Whether something is made of stone is different than if it is made of paper & a statue is a form of stone as much as a stone takes the form of a brick in a building. This is a metaphysical question and it is an ontological question–ontology is the study of being.
The limitation of physicality only serves to enhance our understanding of the metaphysical as beyond-the-physical. This summation of the beginnings of metaphysics as a fundamental feature of philosophical discourse would be missing something if we forget the significance of the negation of being, non-existence, what is not causal, what is not particular, non-identity, &c.
What else is Metaphysics?
A quick glance at a college text book will typically offer another way to study metaphysics as the relationship between free-will & determinism. Are we completely free? Are we completely predetermined? Is real life a composite of the two? What are the effects of biology and DNA combined with past events on our expressions freedom? Does our freedom derive from the physical world? Here we can see a series of relationships. If we are to consider freedom we must also consider what contradicts it. That is what freedom is not. To know what freedom is not, is to know what freedom ‘is’.
Metaphysics Faces the Question of Nothing
The controversial 20th century philosopher Martin Heidegger thought that metaphysics develops as a way for us to contend with the question: what is nothing? At first glance this appears to be a banality, yet when we stop to consider what ‘is’ is, as opposed to what ‘is not’ we get a sense of the profundity of such a question. This entails that we as living creatures have a tough time contemplating and conceptualizing nothingness. In fact, our fear of death encapsulates its philosophical weight into our basic consideration of the being we possess alongside the being that ‘is’ reality on the whole. A negation of being is nothingness—that which is not being. This elicits anxiety within us as well as our thoughts and actions. The fear of nothingness impels us to the action of living, of being alive, of authentically experiencing ourselves as a being that exists.
Metaphysics is the Study of Identity.
Another perspective of metaphysics is identity, personal and of concepts and objects, of who we are and what identifies the world around us. How does our identity uphold throughout the duration of time? How are things identified as unique or universal? Is our identity based in memory and/or the memory of others? We tend to think that immortality is only an issue for religious consideration, while overlooking the importance of the written words by which to either keep ideas alive or to ignore them, thus identifying ancient authors long since gone. This brings us back to issues of quality of life, ethical and otherwise. What is the identity of goodness? What is the identity of what is not good?
Religion is Metaphysical.
We are quickly reminded that all of religion is metaphysical. Religion is intertwined with what is physical, as much as a religious person looks beyond physical matters to take faith in what is real and practical in her life. If religious life serves its practitioners, it does so within the relationships between objectivity and subjectivity. Objectivity is all encompassing and religious life likewise has a similar scope and reach. The mistakes we make have to do with thinking that metaphysics is strictly limited to religious practice. I like to think of the reverse, that our metaphysical understanding of things gives rise to religious thought—yet I admit such conclusions cannot be strictly determined. Likewise, metaphysics leads our thought to the nature of evil as opposed to nature of goodness, and a way that pain, suffering and death can arise in the world.
We cannot leave this side of metaphysics without a sentence on a popular, common sense view of metaphysics as a way of predicting the future, and identifying character traits that accompany celestial activity, sheer chance, lucky destiny, superstition, fortune telling, &c. This is often an area of metaphysics that is not covered in philosophy textbooks. Given that such activities are not often called into question. This is unlike what we usually do in philosophy class, even if our concern is metaphysical, we still should be able to be skeptical and call into question its claims joined with the use of our critical thinking as these ideas are put into practical experience or not.
Metaphysics is Categorial.
Another area of metaphysical interest is the notion that we want to know what is the nature of ultimate reality is. What in our lives is real and what is not real? What do think of as something, and when do we think of something as not something? As mentioned earlier, In Aristotle’s Metaphysics we find the “categories” which are ways in which we predicate things. In the early 20th century, Heidegger’s teacher Edmund Husserl named this type of thinking ‘categorial intuition’. That is to indicate what something ‘is’. To predicate something, means to describe what a thing actually ‘is’. Essentially, when we predicate things we are also considering things as a subject of thought.
To name a quality of someone or something is a metaphysical activity. To count, measure, & weigh things is to quantify items to be understood metaphysically. To situate a relation of things in time and space is to think metaphysically. To determine if something can be of use or not is basically a metaphysical consideration. Indeed the need to categorize, give name to, to situate, to organize, to group, to isolate, to couple with, &c. all are metaphysical activities. Once we take these observations into consideration we suddenly recognize that metaphysics is not a useless artifact only handled within the confines of the written word. Put in the most basic terms: metaphysics is conscious thinking with, combined with, and without the physical world.