Metaphysics: Three Definitions

Metaphysics is not a dirty word. Neither does it consist of arbitrary choices that have no meaning or repercussions in the real world.  Rather, getting your metaphysics right – and you do have them – is the key to understanding anything and living well.

File:Le penseur de la Porte de lEnfer (musée Rodin) (4528252054).jpg
The Thinker in the Gates of Hell. Now, there’s a thought.

The dictionary says:

the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, substance, cause, identity, time, and space.

Which is OK, as far as it goes. More interesting is the philosopher John C Wright’s definition:

Metaphysics, as the name implies, is a study of the foundational beliefs that must NECESSARILY be true before any theory of physics can be proved true.

I tend toward the simplest functional definition:

Metaphysics is what must be true if anything is true.

Metaphysics requires the tacit acknowledgement of the goodness and desirability of Truth.  If you don’t care about truth, as in: “Truth? What is that?” then perhaps you could truly claim to have no metaphysics – although simple physics, such as is evident in sitting, standing and emitting sound orally is pretty difficult without metaphysics, if indeed the impossible can be called difficult.

Here I will state, in completely nontechnical terms, what any metaphysics that is at all useful for a seeker of truth must hold:

  • An objective world exists;
  • I am not the only person in that world;
  • It is possible to learn about that world and the other people in it through perceptions;
  • Meaning and truth can be conveyed by words

Notice a certain non-hierarchy here. In order to seek truth, it is not required that one make any metaphysical assumptions about the physical or mental world being in some sense primary truth – there is no mind-body problem. Aristotle’s standard approach was to proceed from what is most knowable to us – immediate particulars – to what is most knowable in itself – more general ideas. But this does not mean the particulars are any less real or true than the general ideas, or visa versa.


Two notes:

Mike Flynn had a neat definition, too (surprise, surprise!) which 15 minutes of searching didn’t turn up.  Something about the studying of being as being, as opposed to physics, which studies particular beings, but that’s not quite it. Must cut and past right when I see cool stuff.

Just Thomism points out that it’s wrong to think that modern philosopher mean the same thing by metaphysics (and other core terms) as the perennial philosophers do. I’d add that, in the case of Hegel’s use of ‘logic’, the meaning is opposite the traditional meaning.


Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

4 thoughts on “Metaphysics: Three Definitions”

  1. Please don’t confuse a definition with a statement. All I said was that it just so happens that Metaphysics is foundational to Physics. It is also foundational to all other disciplines, as epistemology, ontology, and so on.

    Elsewhere in my humble writings I attempt a more rigorous definition: Metaphysics is apodictic subjectivity, that is, metaphysics is the study of those axioms without which reasoning is impossible. Apodictic means that which is self-evident; subjective means not what is arbitrary or unmeaningful but that which is dependent on one’s coign of vantage.

    Every reasoning man, whether he admit it or no, by the very act of using reason, takes as an axiom that truth exists, and that conclusions validly deduced from axioms are valid, and that valid deductions from true statements about real things are true and real.

    I humbly suggest that each rational creature tacitly accepts that empirical evidence is probative, that prudential judgments are possible, that the will is free, that the conscience is sovereign, since without these axiomatic assumptions he cannot reason, cannot reason about what his senses tell him, cannot reason prudently, cannot reason freely, cannot reason virtuously (which includes reasoning honestly). Reasoning the lacks evidence, that lacks balanced judgement, that is compulsory or the result of inhuman forces intoxicating or damaging his brain, or that is dishonest, is not reasoning, or at least not what reason naturally aims to be.

    Which is a very long-winded way of saying I like your concise definition and wished I had thought of it.

    1. First of all, thanks. Your rigorous definition is wonderful, and contains a bit of the method by which one properly pursues metaphysical truths (apodictic subjectivity). In my simple (minded?) way, I might rephrase it as: Those things I must acknowledge as true if I’m doing anything AT ALL. This formulation includes all the key concepts: “I” (subjectivity); “doing” (an existence in which “I” can do things); “anything AT ALL” (generalization or abstraction of perception or thought => apodictic conclusion, since such truths cannot depend on particulars). But I’m rusty as all heck, in addition to all myriad other limitations.

      I borrowed your not-quite-a-definition because it segued nicely to my more flippant definition. I should know better than to take such liberties when definitions are involved (especially given the exquisite agony you’ve endured over definitions with the inscrutable Dr. A). I’ll be more careful in the future.

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