Philosophy is constantly in a state of having to defend its legitimacy to both the rest of the academic community, and to the world at large. This is evidenced by the common reply of people finding out that I study philosophy, “what are you going to do with that?” Our society assumes, with good reason, that advanced academic study should be career-oriented, and philosophy is a discipline where one’s career options are not obvious.
One of the most beleaguered sub disciplines in philosophy is that of metaphysics. Most people can get behind things like philosophy of science or aesthetics, and ethics is something that many individuals find at least somewhat useful. But metaphysics is abstract and not always readily applicable to some practical task or application. Thus, I will spend the next several weeks defending the legitimacy and importance of metaphysics, as well as discussing some of the key areas where its importance is central.
First, however, we need to get clear about what metaphysics is and why it receives such a bad rap. The history of the name metaphysics is actually somewhat interesting, as interesting as a story about the history of philosophy can be. Metaphysics literally translates to “before” physics, and the term was first applied to all of Aristotle’s works that came chronologically before his work entitled “Physics.” Thus, it is something of a misnomer to think that metaphysics is some sort of study of what comes prior to the science of physics. In some respects this is accurate, but many metaphysical questions need not be understood in this way.
It is difficult to give an accurate and complete definition of metaphysics, and I will try to get by with resorting to some broad statements about it. Metaphysics asks the “big” questions, the unanswerable deep questions that underlie a good deal of the other questions that we ponder. Perhaps this is part of why metaphysics is not well-regarded by many people. Its subject matter can seem vacuous and detached from real-world problems. Part of our task will be to demonstrate that this is not so.
Metaphysics might also be thought of as seeking answers to questions about what is, what sorts of things exist and what their relationship is to other things. I once made the mistake of describing metaphysics to a non-philosopher friend as “the study of the nature of reality.” His reply was priceless, and needless to say did not bode well for his long-term appreciation of metaphysics. It is possible that some of the ill-refute of metaphysics is related to the challenge of explaining what it actually is.
Perhaps the best way of understand metaphysics is to say a bit about what sorts of questions it tries to answer. The problem of universals, or how the world can have particular things and universal representations of those things in it, and the question of God’s existence are classic metaphysical questions. But questions concerning causal relations, freedom, and minds are also relevant to metaphysics, and our subsequent discussions will delve more deeply into how these issues are incredibly relevant not only to other questions in philosophy, but to our daily lives and how we understand them.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.