The word ‘metaphysics’ and the concept of metaphysics
The word ‘metaphysics’ is notoriously hard to define. Twentieth-century coinages like ‘meta-language’ and ‘metaphilosophy’ encourage the impression that metaphysics is a study that somehow “goes beyond” physics, a study devoted to matters that transcend the mundane concerns of Newton and Einstein and Heisenberg. This impression is mistaken. The word ‘metaphysics’ is derived from a collective title of the fourteen books by Aristotle that we currently think of as making up “Aristotle's Metaphysics.” Aristotle himself did not know the word. (He had four names for the branch of philosophy that is the subject-matter of Metaphysics: ‘first philosophy’, ‘first science’, ‘wisdom’, and ‘theology’.) At least one hundred years after Aristotle's death, an editor of his works (in all probability, Andronicus of Rhodes) entitled those fourteen books “Ta meta ta phusika”—“the after the physicals” or “the ones after the physical ones”—, the “physical ones” being the books contained in what we now call Aristotle's Physics. The title was probably meant to warn students of Aristotle's philosophy that they should attempt Metaphysics only after they had mastered “the physical ones,” the books about nature or the natural world—that is to say, about change, for change is the defining feature of the natural world.
This is the probable meaning of the title because Metaphysics is about things that do not change. In one place, Aristotle identifies the subject-matter of first philosophy as “being as such,” and, in another, as “first causes.” It is a nice—and vexed—question what the connection between these two definitions is. Perhaps this is the answer: The unchanging first causes have nothing but being in common with the mutable things they cause—like us and the objects of our experience, they are, and there the resemblance ceases. (For a detailed and informative recent guide to Aristotle's Metaphysics, see Politis (2004).
The Greek plural noun-phrase ‘ta meta ta phusika’ became in Medieval Latin the singular noun ‘metaphysica’—much as the Greek plural ‘ta biblia’ (‘the books’) became the Latin singular ‘biblia’ (‘the bible’). The word was used both as a title for Aristotle's book (now thought of as a single entity) and as the name of the “science” that was its subject-matter. The word for ‘metaphysics’ in every modern European language (‘la métaphysique’, ‘die Metaphysik’, ‘la metafisica’…) is an adaptation of the Latin word to the orthographic and phonetic requirements of that language. This is true even of the non-Indo-European languages (like Finnish and Hungarian) that are spoken in Europe. Works written in some non-European languages, however, use words constructed from native materials both to translate the European word ‘metaphysics’ and to refer to writings in their own philosophical traditions whose subject-matter is similar to the subject-matter of Western metaphysics. For example, the Chinese phrase that is the customary translation of ‘metaphysics’ is an allusion to a statement in the I Ching: “that which is above matter is the Tao”; the phrase can be literally translated as ‘[that which is above matter]-ology’, the final word of the phrase being a “discipline marker” that performs much the same function as the English suffix ‘-ology’. The word that is the usual Arabic translation of ‘metaphysics’ means ‘the science of divine things’. Unlike the Chinese phrase and the Arabic word, however, the European words derived from ‘metaphysica’ carry no internal indications of their meaning. (The word has, as we have seen, an etymology, but as is so often the case, etymology is no guide to meaning.) It is uncontroversial that these words all mean exactly what ‘metaphysics’ means in English—or, less parochially, that all the European words derived from ‘metaphysica’ mean exactly the same thing. But what is it that they all mean?
Can the origin of the word help us to answer this question? Can we say that the word ‘metaphysics’ is a name for that “science” (that episteme, that scientia, that study, that discipline) whose subject-matter is the subject-matter of Aristotle's Metaphysics? If we do say this, we shall be committed to some thesis in the neighborhood of the following theses: “The subject-matter of metaphysics is ‘being as such’”; “The subject-matter of metaphysics is the first causes of things”; “The subject-matter of metaphysics is that which does not change.” Any of these three theses might have been regarded as a defensible statement of the subject-matter of what was currently called “metaphysics” till the seventeenth century, when, rather suddenly, many topics and problems that Aristotle and the Medievals would have classified as belonging to physics (the relation of mind and body, for example, or the freedom of the will, or personal identity across time) began to be “reassigned” to metaphysics. One might almost say that in the seventeenth century “metaphysics” began to be a catch-all category, a repository of philosophical problems that could not be otherwise classified: “not epistemology, not logic, not ethics … ”. (It was at about that time that the word “ontology” was invented—to be a name for the science of being as such, an office that the word ‘metaphysics’ could no longer fill.) The academic rationalists of the post-Leibnizian school were aware that the word ‘metaphysics’ had come to be used in a more inclusive sense than it had once been. Christian Wolff attempted to justify this more inclusive sense of the word by this device: while the subject-matter of metaphysics is being, being can be investigated either in general or in relation to objects in particular categories. He distinguished between “general metaphysics,” (or ontology) the study of being as such, and the various branches of “special metaphysics,” which study the being of objects of various special sorts, such as souls and material bodies. (He does not assign “first causes” to general metaphysics, however: the study of first causes belongs to natural theology, a branch of special metaphysics.) It is doubtful whether this maneuver is anything more than a verbal ploy. In what sense, for example, is the practitioner of rational psychology (the branch of special metaphysics devoted to the soul) engaged in a study of “being”? Has a soul a different sort of being from that of other objects?—so that in studying the soul one learns not only about its nature (that is, its properties: rationality, immateriality, immortality, its capacity or lack thereof to affect the body …), but about its “mode of being,” and hence learns something about being? It is certainly not true that all, or even very many, rational psychologists said anything, qua rational psychologists, that could plausibly be construed as a contribution to our understanding of being.
Perhaps this development, this wider application of the word ‘metaphysics’, was due to the fact that the word ‘physics’ was coming to be a name for a new, quantitative science, the science that bears that name today, and was becoming increasingly inapplicable to the investigation of many traditional philosophical problems about changing things (and of some newly discovered problems about changing things). Whatever the reason for the change may have been, it would be flying in the face of current usage (and indeed of the usage of the last three or four hundred years) to stipulate that the subject-matter of metaphysics was to be the subject-matter of Aristotle's Metaphysics (or that it was to be “that which is above matter” or “divine things”). It would, moreover, fly in the face of the fact that, in the current sense of the word, there are and have been paradigmatic metaphysicians who deny that there are first causes—this denial is certainly a metaphysical thesis in the current sense—, others who insist that everything changes (Heraclitus and any modern philosopher who is both a materialist and a nominalist), and others still (Parmenides and Zeno) who deny that there is a special class of objects that do not change