Wikipedia, the free
Metaphysics is a branch of
philosophy. It is notoriously difficult to define, but for purposes of
briefly introducing it to nonphilosophers, it can be identified as the study of
any of the most fundamental concepts and beliefs, on which many other concepts
and beliefs rest--concepts such as
event, and many others.
Part of the trouble with defining metaphysics lies in how much the field has
changed since it first received its name by
Aristotle's editors centuries ago. (See below for an explanation of what
metaphysics first meant.). Problems that were not originally considered
metaphysical were added to metaphysics. Other problems that were for centuries
considered metaphysical problems 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. It would require quite a long time to state all the
problems that have, at one time or another, been considered part of metaphysics.
What might be called the core metaphysical problems would be the
ones which have always been considered metaphysical and which have
never been considered not metaphysical. What most of such problems
have in common is that they are the problems of
ontology, "the science of being qua being" (see the
ontology article for an explanation of what this means).
The origin of the word 'metaphysics'
The ancient Greek philosopher
Aristotle wrote a number of books which together were called the Physics.
In an early edition, the works of Aristotle were organized in such a way that
there was another set of books that were placed right after the Physics.
These books seemed to concern a basic, fundamental area of philosophical
inquiry, which at the time did not have a name. So early Aristotle scholars
called those books "ta meta ta physika," which means "the (books that come)
after the (books about) physics." That, then, is the origin of the word
etymologically speaking, metaphysics is the subject of those books by
Aristotle which were called, collectively, the Metaphysics. So,
etymologically, 'metaphysics' just means 'the subject matter of Aristotle's
What were those books by Aristotle about? The Metaphysics was
divided into three parts, called (1)
theology, and (3)
universal science. (There were also some smaller, perhaps tangetnial
matters: a philosophical lexicon, an attempt to define philsophy in general, and
several extracts from the Physics repeated verbatim.) So ontology,
theology, and universal science are regarded as the three traditional branches
of metaphysics. (1) 'Ontology' is the study of
existence; it has been traditionally defined as 'the science of
being qua being'. (2) 'Theology' means, here, the study of
and of questions about the divine. (3) 'Universal science' is supposed to be the
study of so-called
first principles, which underlie all other inquiries; an example of such a
principle is the
law of non-contradiction: "A thing cannot both be and not be at the same
time, and in the same respect." A particular apple cannot both exist and not
exist at the same time. It can't be all red and all green at the same time. So
that was the Aristotelian conception of metaphysics. Universal science or first
philsophy treats of "being qua being"--that is, what is basis to all
science before one adds the particular details of any one science. This includes
matters like causality, substance, species, and elements.
It is sometimes difficult to understand what the issues even are, in
metaphysics. It might help to begin with a fairly simple example that will help
to introduce the problems of metaphysics.
Imagine now that we are in a room, and in the middle of the room there is a
table, and in the middle of the table there is a big, fresh, juicy, red apple.
We can ask many metaphysical questions about this apple. This will,
hopefully, help us understand better what metaphysics is.
The apple is an excellent example of a
physical object: one can pick it up, throw it around, eat it, and so on. It
space and time and has a variety of
properties. Suppose we ask: what are physical objects?
This might seem like the sort of question to which one cannot give an
answer. What could one possibly use to explain what physical objects are? But
philosophers actually do try to give some general sorts of accounts of what they
are. They ask: Are physical objects just bundles of their properties? Or are
they substances which have those properties? That is called the
problem of substance or
Here is another sort of question. We said that the apple has properties,
like being red, being big, being juicy. How are properties different from
objects? Notice, we say that things like apples have properties like redness.
But apples and redness are different sorts of items, of things, of entities. One
can pick up and touch an apple, but cannot pick up and touch redness, except
perhaps in the sense that you can pick up and touch red things. So how
can we best think about what properties are? This is called the
problem of universals.
Here is another question about what physical objects are: when in
general can we say that physical objects come into
being and when they cease to exist? Surely
the apple can change in many ways without ceasing to exist. It could
get brown and rotten but it would still be that apple. But if someone ate it, it
would not just have changed; it would no longer exist. So there are some
metaphysical questions to be answered about the notions of
identity, or being the same thing over time, and
This apple exists in
space (it sits on a table in a room) and in
(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? Some people say not--they say 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. There are many other metaphysical
questions to ask about space and time.
There are some other, very different sorts of problems in metaphysics. The
apple is one sort of thing; now if Sally is in the room, and we say Sally has a
we are surely going to say that Sally's mind is a different sort of thing from
the apple (if it is a sort of thing at all). I might say that my mind
is immaterial, but the apple is a material object. Moreover, it sounds a little
strange to say that Sally's mind is located in any particular place;
maybe we could say it is somewhere in the room; but the apple is obviously
located in a particular place, namely on the middle of the table. It seems
are fundamentally different from physical
bodies. But if so, how can something mental, like a decision to eat, cause a
physical event to occur, like biting down on the apple? How are the mind and
causally interconnected if they are two totally different sorts of things?
This is called the
mind-body problem, which is now typically relegated to a philosophical
philosophy of mind. The mind-body problem is sometimes still considered
part of metaphysics, however.
Those, then, are some examples of metaphysical problems. There are many more
problems, of course.
These are fields now or traditionally treated as part of metaphysics:
category of being --