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  1. In the context of "philosophy": A philosopher who has developed a metaphysical system or theory.
    Thomas Aquinas was a notable metaphysician.
  2. In the context of "philosophy": A philosopher who specializes in the scholarly study of metaphysics.
    Professor Jones is an eminent metaphysician; she has produced more than one hundred refereed publications concerning metaphysics.


A philosopher who has developed a metaphysical system or theory
A philosopher who specializes in the scholarly study of metaphysics


Extensive Definition

For Aristotle's work, see Metaphysics (Aristotle). For Avicenna's work, see Avicennism.
Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy investigating principles of reality transcending those of any particular science. Cosmology and ontology are traditional branches of metaphysics. It is concerned with explaining the ultimate nature of being and the world.
The word derives from the Greek words μετά (metá) (meaning "after") and φυσικά (physiká) (meaning "physical"), "physical" referring to those works on matter by Aristotle in antiquity. The prefix meta- ("after") was attached to the chapters in Aristotle's work that physically followed after the chapters on "physics", in posthumously edited collections. Aristotle called some of the subjects treated there "first philosophy"
A central branch of metaphysics is ontology, the investigation into what types of things there 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 employed by non-philosophers to refer to "subjects that are beyond the physical world". A "metaphysical bookstore", for instance, is not one that sells books on ontology, but rather one that sells esoteric books on spirits, faith healing, crystal power, occultism, and other such topics which the philosophic pursuit of metaphysics generally does not include.
Before the development of modern science, scientific questions were addressed as a part of metaphysics known as "natural philosophy"; the term "science" itself meant "knowledge". The Scientific Revolution, however, made natural philosophy an empirical and experimental activity unlike the rest of philosophy, and by the end of the eighteenth century it had begun to be called "science" in order to distinguish it from philosophy. Thereafter, metaphysics became the philosophical enquiry of a non-empirical character into the nature of existence.

History of metaphysics

One of the first metaphysicians is Parmenides of Elea. He held that the multiplicity of existing things, their changing forms and motion, are but an appearance of a single eternal reality (“Being”), thus giving rise to the Parmenidean principle that “all is one.” From this concept of Being, he went on to say that all claims of change or of non-Being are illogical. Because he introduced the method of basing claims about appearances on a logical concept of Being, he is considered one of the founders of metaphysics.
Metaphysics, is called "first philosophy" by Aristotle. The editor of his works, Andronicus of Rhodes, is thought to have placed the books on first philosophy right after another work, Physics, and called them (ta meta ta physika biblia) or, "the books that come after the [books on] physics." This was misread by Latin scholiasts, who thought it meant "the science of what is beyond the physical." In the English language, the word comes by way of the Medieval Latin metaphysica, the neuter plural of Medieval Greek metaphysika. While its Greek and Latin origins are clear, various dictionaries trace its first appearance in English to the mid-sixteenth century, although in some cases as early as 1387.
Aristotle's Metaphysics was divided into three parts, in addition to some smaller sections related to a philosophical lexicon and some reprinted extracts from the Physics, which are now regarded as the proper branches of traditional Western metaphysics:
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. Essentially "being qua being" may be translated as "being insofar as being goes", or as, "being in terms of being". This includes topics such as causality, substance, species and elements, as well as the notions of relation, interaction, and finitude.
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 beginning of modern philosophy during the seventeenth century, problems that were not originally considered within the bounds of metaphysics have been added to its purview, while other problems considered metaphysical for centuries are now typically relegated to their own separate regions 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 scholarship have been found to be entirely physical and natural, thus making them part of physics proper (cf. Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity).

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.

Mind and matter

The nature of matter was a problem in its own right in early philosophy. Aristotle himself introduced the idea of matter in general to the Western world, adapting the term hyle which originally meant "lumber". Early debates centered on identifying a single underlying principle. Water was claimed by Thales, Air by Anaximenes, Apeiron (the Boundless) by Anaximander, Fire by Heraclitus. Democritus conceived an atomic theory many centuries before it was accepted by modern science.
Philosophers now look to empirical science for insights into the nature of matter.
The nature of the mind and its relation to the body has been seen as more of a problem as science has progressed in its mechanistic understanding of the brain and body. Proposed solutions often have ramifications about the nature of mind as a whole. René Descartes proposed substance dualism, a theory in which mind and body are essentially quite different, with the mind having some of the attributes traditionally assigned to the soul, in the seventeenth century. This creates a conceptual puzzle about how the two interact (which has received some strange answers, such as occasionalism). Evidence of a close relationship between brain and mind, such as the Phineas Gage case, have made this form of dualism increasingly unpopular.
Another proposal discussing the mind-body problem is idealism, in which the material is sweepingly eliminated in favor of the mental. Idealists, such as George Berkeley, claim that material objects do not exist unless perceived and only as perceptions. The "German idealists" such as Fichte, Hegel and Schopenhauer took Kant as their starting-point, although it is debatable how much of an idealist Kant himself was. Idealism is also a common theme in Eastern philosophy. Related ideas are panpsychism and panexperientialism which say everything has a mind rather than everything exists in a mind. Alfred North Whitehead was a twentieth-century exponent of this approach.
Idealism is a monistic theory, in which there is a single universal substance or principles. Neutral monism, associated in different forms with Baruch Spinoza and Bertrand Russell is a theory which seeks to be less extreme than idealism, and to avoid the problems of substance dualism. It claims that existence consists of a single substance, which in itself is neither mental nor physical, but is capable of mental and physical aspects or attributes – thus it implies a dual-aspect theory.
For the last one hundred years, the dominant metaphysics has without a doubt been materialistic monism. Type identity theory, token identity theory, functionalism, reductive physicalism, nonreductive physicalism, eliminative materialism, anomalous monism, property dualism, epiphenomenalism and emergence are just some of the candidates for a scientifically-informed account of the mind. (It should be noted that while many of these positions are dualisms, none of them are substance dualism.)

Objects and their properties

further Problem of universals The world seems to contain many individual things, both physical, like apples, and abstract such as love 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 concerned with questions about 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).

Identity and change

The Greeks took some extreme positions on the nature of change: Parmenides denied that change occurs at all, while Heraclitus thought change was ubiquitous: "[Y]ou cannot step into the same river twice".
Identity, sometimes called Numerical Identity, is the relation that a "thing" bears to itself, and which no "thing" bears to anything other than itself (cf. sameness). According to Leibniz, if some object x is identical to some object y, then any property that x has, y will have as well. However, it seems, too, that objects can change over time. If one were to look at a tree one day, and the tree later lost a leaf, it would seem that one could still be looking at that same tree. Two rival theories to account for the relationship between change and identity are Perdurantism, which treats the tree as a series of tree-stages, and Endurantism which maintains that the tree -- the same tree -- is present at every stage in its history.

Space and time

In the Middle Ages, Saint Augustine of Hippo asked the fundamental question about the nature of time. A traditional realist position in ontology is that time and space have existence apart from the human mind. Idealists, including Kant claim that space and time are mental constructs used to organise perceptions, or are otherwise unreal.
Suppose that one is sitting at a table, with an apple in front of him or her; the apple exists in space and in time, but what does this statement indicate? Could it be said, for example, that space is like an invisible three-dimensional grid in which the apple is positioned? Suppose the apple, and all physical objects in the universe, were removed from existence entirely. Would space as an "invisible grid" still exist? René Descartes and Leibniz believed it would not, arguing that without physical objects, "space" would be meaningless because space is the framework upon which we understand how physical objects are related to each other. Newton, on the other hand, argued for an absolute "container" space. The pendulum swung back to relational space with Einstein and Ernst Mach.
While the absolute/relative debate, and the realism debate are equally applicable to time and space, time presents some special problems of its own. The flow of time has been denied in ancient times by Parmenides and more recently by J. M. E. McTaggart in his paper The Unreality of Time.
The direction of time, also known as "time's arrow", is also a puzzle, although physics is now driving the debate rather than philosophy. It appears that fundamental laws are time-reversible and the arrow of time must be an "emergent" phenomenon, perhaps explained by a statistical understanding of thermodynamic entropy.
Common-sense tells us that objects persist across time, that there is some sense in which you are the same person you were yesterday, in which the oak is the same as the acorn, in which you perhaps even can step into the same river twice. Philosophers have developed two rival theories for how this happens, called "endurantism" and "perdurantism". Broadly speaking, endurantists hold that a whole object exists at each moment of its history, and the same object exists at each moment. Perdurantists believe that objects are four-dimensional entities made up of a series of temporal parts like the frames of a movie.

Religion and spirituality

Theology is the study of God and the Nature of the Divine. Is there a God (monotheism), many gods (polytheism) or no gods (atheism)? Is it impossible to know if any gods exist (agnosticism)? Does the Divine intervene directly in the world (theism), or is its sole function to be the first cause of the universe (deism)? Are God and the World different (panentheism, dualism) or are they identical (pantheism)? These are the primary metaphysical questions concerning theologians.
Within the standard Western philosophical tradition, theology reached its peak under the medieval school of thought known as scholasticism, which focused primarily on the metaphysical aspects of Christianity. While the work of the scholastics has been largely eclipsed in the wake of modern philosophy, key figures such as Thomas Aquinas still play an important role in the philosophy of religion.

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 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 propositions seem necessarily true, such as analytic propositions, 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 law of identity, a putative "first principle". Aristotle describes the principle of non-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 mathematics

Some philosophers endorse views according to which there are abstract objects such as numbers, or Universals. (Universals are properties that can be instantiated by multiple objects, such as redness or squareness.) Abstract objects are generally regarded as being outside of space and time, and/or as being causally inert. Mathematical objects and fictional entities and worlds are often given as examples of abstract objects. The view that there really are no abstract objects is called nominalism. Realism about such objects is exemplified by Platonism. Other positions include moderate realism, as espoused by Aristotle, and conceptualism.
The philosophy of mathematics overlaps with metaphysics because some positions are realistic in the sense that they hold that mathematical objects really exist, whether transcendentally, physically, or mentally. Platonic realism holds that mathematical entities are a transcendent realm of non-physical objects. The simplest form of mathematical empiricism claims that mathematical objects are just ordinary physical objects, i.e. that squares and the like physically exist. Plato rejected this view, among other reasons, because geometrical figures in mathematics have a perfection that no physical instantiation can capture. Modern mathematicians have developed many strange and complex mathematical structures with no counterparts in observable reality, further undermining this view. The third main form of realism holds that mathematical entities exist in the mind. However, given a materialistic conception of the mind, it does not have the capacity to literally contain the many infinities of objects in mathematics. Intuitionism, inspired by Kant, sticks with the idea that "there are no non-experienced mathematical truths". This involves rejecting as intuitionistically unacceptable anything that cannot be held in the mind or explicitly constructed. Intuitionists reject the law of the excluded middle and are suspicious of infinity, particularly of transfinite numbers.
Other positions such as formalism and fictionalism that do not attribute any existence to mathematical entities are anti-realist.

Determinism and free will

Determinism is the philosophical proposition that every event, including human cognition, decision and action, is causally determined by an unbroken chain of prior occurrences. It holds that no random, spontaneous, mysterious, or miraculous events occur. The principal consequence of the deterministic claim is that it poses a challenge to the existence of free will.
The problem of free will is the problem of whether rational agents exercise control over their own actions and decisions. Addressing this problem requires understanding the relation between freedom and causation, and determining whether the laws of nature are causally deterministic. Some philosophers, known as Incompatibilists, view determinism and free will as mutually exclusive. If they believe in determinism, they will therefore believe free will to be an illusion, a position known as Hard Determinism. Proponents range from Baruch Spinoza to Ted Honderich.
Others, labeled Compatibilists (or "Soft Determinists"), believe that the two ideas can be coherently reconciled. Adherents of this view include Thomas Hobbes and many modern philosophers.
Incompatibilists who accept free will but reject determinism are called Libertarians, a term not to be confused with the political sense. Robert Kane is a modern defender of this theory.
It is a popular misconception that determinism necessarily entails that humanity or individual humans have no influence on the future and its events ( a position known as Fatalism). Determinists, however, believe that the level to which human beings have influence over their future is itself dependent on present and past.

Cosmology and cosmogony

Cosmology is the branch of metaphysics that deals with the world as the totality of all phenomena in space and time. Historically, it has had quite a broad scope, and in many cases was founded in religion. The ancient Greeks did not draw a distinction between this use and their model for the cosmos. However, in modern use it addresses questions about the Universe which are beyond the scope of physical science. It is distinguished from religious cosmology in that it approaches these questions using philosophical methods (e.g. dialectics). Cosmogony deals specifically with the origin of the universe.
Modern metaphysical cosmology and cosmogony try to address questions such as:


Metaphysics has been attacked, at different times in history, as being futile and overly vague, or of no use entirely.
David Hume argued with his empiricist principle that all knowledge involves either relations of ideas or matters of fact:
Immanuel Kant prescribed a limited role to the subject and argued against knowledge progressing beyond the world of our representations, except 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 in his book "Language, Truth and Logic". Ayer was a defender of verifiability theory of meaning. British universities became less concerned with the area for much of the mid 20th century. However, metaphysics has seen a reemergence in recent times among some philosophy departments due to the perceived failure of verificationism.
Writers in so-called Continental philosophy have often elaborated views against metaphysics. Martin Heidegger sees the history of western philosophy as being constituted by "forgetfulness of Being" and calls this thought "metaphysical". Such thought looks beyond beings towards their ground (zum Grund), aiming at a fundamentam absolutum, such as the Platonic Idea or the Kantian thing-in-itself, "Ding an sich". For example, Descartes finds such a "fundamentam absolutum" through the "ego cogito", the self-certain subject. This thinking construes the world as object for this self-certain subject, but does not question or evaluate its own presuppositions about the nature of Being. For Heidegger, such thinking "forgets" the question of Being, and sees this "forgetfulness" as symptomatic of metaphysical thought, or of Western philosophy since Plato (but not including Pre-Socratic_philosophy). Jaques Derrida could be said to continue, if tenuously, Heidegger's project of "overcoming metaphysics". Crucially, metaphysics is seen by both thinkers as something one cannot simply step outside of or escape, since a rejection of this form is already in itself a metaphysical maneuver. Heidegger conceives of a process of "overcoming metaphysics" through, for example, what he calls Poetry ("Dichtung"), or "Thinking", or non-metaphysical "awareness of Being".
Another 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 an idea about the world or about the universe, which may seem reasonable but is ultimately not empirically verifiable. That idea 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 idea, in the sense of definitely proving it false.

Disciplines, topics and problems

Notable metaphysicians and critics of metaphysics

See also

Further reading Popular Metaphysical Forum with scientists, authors, researchers and new agers.

Notes and references


  • Butchvarov, Panayot (1979). Being Qua Being: A Theory of Identity, Existence and Predication. Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press.
  • Harris, E. E. (1965). The Foundations of Metaphysics in Science. London: George Allen and Unwin.
  • Harris, E. E. (2000). The Restitution of Metaphysics. New York: Humanity Books.
  • Kant, I (1781). Critique of Pure Reason.
  • 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. (2006). Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction (3rd 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.
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