The term metaphysics is believed to have originated in Rome about 70 BC, with the Greek Peripatetic philosopher Andronicus of Rhodes (flourished 1st century BC) in his edition of the works of Aristotle. In the arrangement of Aristotle's works by Andronicus, the treatise originally called First Philosophy, or Theology, followed the treatise Physics. Hence, the First Philosophy came to be known as meta (ta) physica, or "following (the) Physics," later shortened to Metaphysics. The word took on the connotation, in popular usage, of matters transcending material reality. In the philosophic sense, however, particularly as opposed to the use of the word by occultists, metaphysics applies to all reality and is distinguished from other forms of inquiry by its generality.
The subjects treated in Aristotle's Metaphysics (substance, causality, the nature of being, and the existence of God) fixed the content of metaphysical speculation for centuries. Among the medieval Scholastic philosophers, metaphysics was known as the "transphysical science" on the assumption that, by means of it, the scholar philosophically could make the transition from the physical world to a world beyond sense perception. The 13th-century Scholastic philosopher and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas declared that the cognition of God, through a causal study of finite sensible beings, was the aim of metaphysics. With the rise of scientific study in the 16th century the reconciliation of science and faith in God became an increasingly important problem.
Metaphysics Before Kant
Before the time of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant metaphysics was characterized by a tendency to construct theories on the basis of a priori knowledge, that is, knowledge derived from reason alone, in contradistinction to a posteriori knowledge, which is gained by reference to the facts of experience. From a priori knowledge were deduced general propositions that were held to be true of all things. The method of inquiry based on a priori principles is known as rationalistic. This method may be subdivided into monism, which holds that the universe is made up of a single fundamental substance; dualism, the belief in two such substances; and pluralism, which proposes the existence of many fundamental substances.
The monists, agreeing that only one basic substance exists, differ in their descriptions of its principal characteristics. Thus, in idealistic monism the substance is believed to be purely mental; in materialistic monism it is held to be purely physical, and in neutral monism it is considered neither exclusively mental nor solely physical. The idealistic position was held by the Irish philosopher George Berkeley, the materialistic by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, and the neutral by the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. The latter expounded a pantheistic view of reality in which the universe is identical with God and everything contains God's substance.
The most famous exponent of dualism was the French philosopher René Descartes, who maintained that body and mind are radically different entities and that they are the only fundamental substances in the universe. Dualism, however, does not show how these basic entities are connected.
In the work of the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the universe is held to consist of an infinite number of distinct substances, or monads. This view is pluralistic in the sense that it proposes the existence of many separate entities, and it is monistic in its assertion that each monad reflects within itself the entire universe.
Other philosophers have held that knowledge of reality is not derived from a priori principles, but is obtained only from experience. This type of metaphysics is called empiricism. Still another school of philosophy has maintained that, although an ultimate reality does exist, it is altogether inaccessible to human knowledge, which is necessarily subjective because it is confined to states of mind. Knowledge is therefore not a representation of external reality, but merely a reflection of human perceptions. This view is known as skepticism or agnosticism in respect to the soul and the reality of God.
The Metaphysics of Kant
Several major viewpoints were combined in the work of Kant, who developed a distinctive critical philosophy called transcendentalism. His philosophy is agnostic in that it denies the possibility of a strict knowledge of ultimate reality; it is empirical in that it affirms that all knowledge arises from experience and is true of objects of actual and possible experience; and it is rationalistic in that it maintains the a priori character of the structural principles of this empirical knowledge.
These principles are held to be necessary and universal in their application to experience, for in Kant's view the mind furnishes the archetypal forms and categories (space, time, causality, substance, and relation) to its sensations, and these categories are logically anterior to experience, although manifested only in experience. Their logical anteriority to experience makes these categories or structural principles transcendental; they transcend all experience, both actual and possible. Although these principles determine all experience, they do not in any way affect the nature of things in themselves. The knowledge of which these principles are the necessary conditions must not be considered, therefore, as constituting a revelation of things as they are in themselves. This knowledge concerns things only insofar as they appear to human perception or as they can be apprehended by the senses. The argument by which Kant sought to fix the limits of human knowledge within the framework of experience and to demonstrate the inability of the human mind to penetrate beyond experience strictly by knowledge to the realm of ultimate reality constitutes the critical feature of his philosophy, giving the key word to the titles of his three leading treatises, Critique of Pure Reason, Critique of Practical Reason, and Critique of Judgment. In the system propounded in these works, Kant sought also to reconcile science and religion in a world of two levels, comprising noumena, objects conceived by reason although not perceived by the senses, and phenomena, things as they appear to the senses and are accessible to material study. He maintained that, because God, freedom, and human immortality are noumenal realities, these concepts are understood through moral faith rather than through scientific knowledge. With the continuous development of science, the expansion of metaphysics to include scientific knowledge and methods became one of the major objectives of metaphysicians.
Metaphysics Since Kant
Some of Kant's most distinguished followers, notably Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Schelling, G. W. F. Hegel, and Friedrich Schleiermacher, negated Kant's criticism in their elaborations of his transcendental metaphysics by denying the Kantian conception of the thing-in-itself. They thus developed an absolute idealism in opposition to Kant's critical transcendentalism.
Since the formation of the hypothesis of absolute idealism, the development of metaphysics has resulted in as many types of metaphysical theory as existed in pre-Kantian philosophy, despite Kant's contention that he had fixed definitely the limits of philosophical speculation. Notable among these later metaphysical theories are radical empiricism, or pragmatism, a native American form of metaphysics expounded by Charles Sanders Peirce, developed by William James, and adapted as instrumentalism by John Dewey; voluntarism, the foremost exponents of which are the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer and the American philosopher Josiah Royce; phenomenalism, as it is exemplified in the writings of the French philosopher Auguste Comte and the British philosopher Herbert Spencer; emergent evolution, or creative evolution, originated by the French philosopher Henri Bergson; and the philosophy of the organism, elaborated by the British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. The salient doctrines of pragmatism are that the chief function of thought is to guide action, that the meaning of concepts is to be sought in their practical applications, and that truth should be tested by the practical effects of belief; according to instrumentalism, ideas are instruments of action, and their truth is determined by their role in human experience. In the theory of voluntarism the will is postulated as the supreme manifestation of reality. The exponents of phenomenalism, who are sometimes called positivists, contend that everything can be analyzed in terms of actual or possible occurrences, or phenomena, and that anything that cannot be analyzed in this manner cannot be understood. In emergent or creative evolution, the evolutionary process is characterized as spontaneous and unpredictable rather than mechanistically determined. The philosophy of the organism combines an evolutionary stress on constant process with a metaphysical theory of God, the eternal objects, and creativity.
In the 20th century the validity of metaphysical thinking has been disputed by the logical positivists and by the so-called dialectical materialism of the Marxists. The basic principle maintained by the logical positivists is the verifiability theory of meaning. According to this theory a sentence has factual meaning only if it meets the test of observation. Logical positivists argue that metaphysical expressions such as "Nothing exists except material particles" and "Everything is part of one all-encompassing spirit" cannot be tested empirically. Therefore, according to the verifiability theory of meaning, these expressions have no factual cognitive meaning, although they can have an emotive meaning relevant to human hopes and feelings.
The dialectical materialists assert that the mind is conditioned by and reflects material reality. Therefore, speculations that conceive of constructs of the mind as having any other than material reality are themselves unreal and can result only in delusion. To these assertions metaphysicians reply by denying the adequacy of the verifiability theory of meaning and of material perception as the standard of reality. Both logical positivism and dialectical materialism, they argue, conceal metaphysical assumptions, for example, that everything is observable or at least connected with something observable and that the mind has no distinctive life of its own. In the philosophical movement known as existentialism, thinkers have contended that the questions of the nature of being and of the individual's relationship to it are extremely important and meaningful in terms of human life. The investigation of these questions is therefore considered valid whether or not its results can be verified objectively.
Since the 1950s the problems of systematic analytical metaphysics have been studied in Great Britain by Stuart Newton Hampshire and Peter Frederick Strawson, the former concerned, in the manner of Spinoza, with the relationship between thought and action, and the latter, in the manner of Kant, with describing the major categories of experience as they are embedded in language. In the U.S. metaphysics has been pursued much in the spirit of positivism by Wilfred Stalker Sellars and Willard Van Orman Quine. Sellars has sought to express metaphysical questions in linguistic terms, and Quine has attempted to determine whether the structure of language commits the philosopher to asserting the existence of any entities whatever and, if so, what kind. In these new formulations the issues of metaphysics and ontology remain vital.