What is being? How general of a question can we ask about existence? Is there any hope for a solution to problems like these? We explore Aristotle’s approach to one of the most difficult areas of philosophy: metaphysics. First, we define metaphysics in general before moving on to a discussion of Aristotle’s own attempt to define metaphysics. We address a range of core Aristotelian concepts and distinctions and conclude by discussing how Aristotle’s metaphysics relates to his logic.
What is Metaphysics?
What is metaphysics? Like many philosophical questions, this question does not lend itself to a settled, definitive answer. One conventional response might be as follows: Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy that addresses fundamental questions concerning the nature of reality, existence, and the relationship between the mind and the physical world. It delves into concepts that surpass the scope of physical sciences and empirical observations, exploring subjects such as being, identity, causality, time, space, consciousness, and the nature of the universe.
Another viewpoint, put forth by contemporary philosopher and historian of philosophy Adrian Moore, posits that metaphysics is an endeavor to “make the most general possible sense of things” (with emphasis on the term ‘endeavor’). Numerous philosophers have extensively deliberated on the question “What is metaphysics?” and any response beyond a completely generic definition (such as the first one provided) or as cautiously formulated (though ultimately valuable) as Moore’s is likely to be highly controversial.
Aristotle’s Definition of Metaphysics
If we were discussing another philosopher instead of Aristotle, we would typically move on from the question of what metaphysics is and begin to explore that philosopher’s specific system. However, it is from Aristotle that the term metaphysics derives, although he did not label the work we now refer to as Aristotle’s Metaphysics with that specific title. Alongside Plato, he played a significant role in shaping the agenda of metaphysical philosophy thereafter. So, what does metaphysics signify for him?
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First, it literally denotes that which comes after physics, which can itself be understood as a systematic endeavor to comprehend specific things. This alludes to a crucial distinction in Aristotelian thought between particular things and general things, a distinction we will revisit. Metaphysics is often referred to as ‘first philosophy’ and is regarded as the study of “being qua being.” At times, metaphysics is described as theology or wisdom.
The concept of “being qua being” requires further explanation among these terms. In this context, ‘qua’ simply means ‘in the capacity of’ or ‘taken as.’ In other words, it suggests that while being may take various guises, roles, or manifestations, metaphysics primarily concerns itself with the analysis of being itself, rather than any specific manifestation of it.
The precise nature of this undertaking may not appear obvious, and indeed, it should not be. In fact, the tradition of studying metaphysics without being able to precisely define it seems to originate with Aristotle. This is not to imply that Aristotle’s account of metaphysics is necessarily muddled; after all, one can articulate sensible insights even if attempts to precisely define the subject matter prove elusive.
Aporia: Are There Irresolvable Metaphysical Problems?
Another crucial Aristotelian distinction that warrants careful attention is the division between things known to us and things known in themselves. Metaphysics concerns the study of entities belonging to the latter category, and underlying this assertion is the recognition that certain aspects of reality—fundamental principles or primary causes—despite their abstract nature and the inherent challenge of their generality, must still be apprehended in their own right. This is why metaphysics is to be pursued after physics.
The distinction between things known to us and things known in themselves reflects an implicit hierarchy of intellectual comprehension. Once we grasp the functioning of concrete entities, the explicit aspects of the world we can experience (such as the motion of bodies), we can then progress to metaphysics.
Aristotle believes that metaphysics inherently gives rise to seemingly irresolvable problems and perplexities, which he labels aporia. It is crucial to emphasize that there is a notable distinction between Aristotle’s understanding of aporia and that of Plato, who is closely associated with the term. For Plato, aporia denoted an obstacle within a discourse, whereas Aristotle asserts that aporia represents a broader intellectual impasse—it obstructs our understanding beyond any specific discourse.
Among these metaphysical perplexities, the most challenging one, according to Aristotle, revolves around the question of unity and the being of substances. In simpler terms, it concerns whether a given entity should be regarded as a part of a greater whole or as a complete entity in itself.
The Categories in Aristotle’s Metaphysics
Aristotle’s metaphysics heavily relies on his philosophy of categories and his analysis of the relationships among different categories of being. The categories are supposed to represent very general classifications of being. In Aristotle’s scheme, the first and privileged category is that of substance. All other categories depend on substances. For example, qualities (another Aristotelian category) exist as qualities of substance and cannot exist independently. All other categories are inherent in substance, not the other way around.
Another important relationship to consider is that of “being said of a subject,” which involves a relation from the more general to the less general within a particular category. For instance, an animal is “said of” man because man is an animal (credit to Marc Cohen and C.D.C Reeve for this example). Each category is arranged hierarchically, allowing Aristotle to introduce and meaningfully organize some of the most significant elements of his metaphysics, such as universals. This hierarchical arrangement can be envisioned as a family tree, with the most universal concepts as the progenitor and the most particular individual substances as the most recent offspring. For example, specific instances of men/horses are beings that are low in the hierarchy.
How do substance and its associated concepts relate to the core of Aristotle’s metaphysical project, namely the study of being qua being? The term “being,” as mentioned earlier, is ambiguous. In fact, there are several Greek words for being, each with various meanings that Aristotle himself was aware of. This awareness highlights the extent to which Aristotle grappled with methodological concerns, a struggle that persists in modern philosophy.
The Relationship Between Aristotle’s Metaphysics and Logic
Aristotle labels the ambiguity surrounding the meaning of being as “pros hen” ambiguity, which is a term signifying that the various meanings of being should be understood as interconnected rather than completely separate and independent.
Importantly, Aristotle identifies the primary sense of “being” as pertaining to substances, while other senses are considered secondary. Aristotle’s pointed self-consciousness regarding how he expresses these metaphysical considerations goes further; he recognizes the importance of analyzing both language and the way we reason.
Prior to studying substance, Aristotle examines the basic principles of reasoning, or axioms. Among these principles, the Principle of Non-Contradiction holds the highest certainty for Aristotle. It states that “the same thing cannot at the same time belong and also not belong to the same thing in the same respect.” For example, a thing can’t be both a cat and not a cat at the same time. The reason for discussing this principle within the context of metaphysics is that, according to Aristotle, metaphysics involves expressing certain beliefs about the world, andmaking assertions. Expression or assertion of a belief implies that it can be represented in a way that allows it to be judged as true or false, right or wrong.
Bernard Williams, a prominent philosopher of the 20th century, emphasizes the importance of “getting it right” when expressing or asserting beliefs. Without positing the Principle of Non-Contradiction, there would be no reason to consider any single assertion as significant as the opposite of a certain proposition (A) could be true at the same time. For example, if we came to the metaphysical conclusion that the soul exists, without the Principle of Non-Contradiction, we would have no reason to believe that the opposite proposition (namely, that the soul doesn’t exist) wasn’t true at the same time.
Aristotle’s concern with the properties of language and the attempt to make sense of the underlying structure of arguments are just a few examples of how his philosophy appears remarkably modern to contemporary readers. This modernity is partly due to the enduring influence of Aristotle’s metaphysics, which continues to shape the philosophical agenda and inform our exploration of intellectually intriguing and significant questions.