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Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy , and related to the natural sciences , like physics , psychology and the biology of the brain ; and also to mysticism and religious and spiritual subjects. It is notoriously difficult to define, but for purposes of briefly introducing it tononphilosophers, it can be identified as the study of any of the most fundamental concepts and beliefs about the basic nature of reality , on which many other concepts and beliefs rest -- concepts such as being , existence , universal , property , relation , causation , space , time , event , and manyothers.

Part of the trouble with defining metaphysics lies in how much the field has changed since it first received its name by Aristotle 's editors centuries ago (see below). Problems that were notoriginally considered metaphysical have been added to metaphysics. Other problems that were considered metaphysical problems forcenturies are now typically relegated to their own separate subheadings in philosophy, such as philosophy of religion , philosophy of mind , philosophy of perception , philosophy of language , and philosophy of science . It would require quite a long time to state all the problems that have, at onetime or another, been considered part of metaphysics.

What might be called the core metaphysical problems would be the ones which have always been consideredmetaphysical and which have never been considered not metaphysical. What most of such problems have in commonis that they are the problems of ontology , "the science of beingqua being".

Other philosophical traditions have very different conceptions of the metaphysical problems than those in the Westernphilosophical tradition; for example, Taoism and indeed, much of Eastern philosophy completely reject many of the most basic tenets ofAristotelian metaphysics, principles which have by now become almost completely internalized and beyond question in Westernphilosophy, though a number of dissidents from Aristotelian metaphysics have emerged in the west, such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel 's Science ofLogic.


The origin of the word 'metaphysics'

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle produced a number of works whichtogether were called the Physics. In an early edition, the works of Aristotle were organized in such a way that anotherset of works was placed right after the Physics. These books seemed to concern a basic, fundamental area ofphilosophical inquiry, which at the time did not have a name. So early Aristotelian scholars called those books τὰμετὰ τὰ φυσικά, "ta meta ta physika", which means "the (books thatcome) after the (books about) physics." That, then, is the origin of the word 'metaphysics' (in Greek , μεταφυσικά).

Hence, etymologically speaking, metaphysics is the subject of those books byAristotle which were called, collectively, the Metaphysics. Technically, it was so named because it came after the bookof Physics. But the actual subject matter in the book, perhaps coincidentally, are on the topic of things that underly thephysical -- "beyond" the physical, so to speak -- therefore fitting the word in two ways.

The Metaphysics was divided into three parts, now regarded as the traditional branches of Western metaphysics, called(1) ontology , (2) theology , and (3) universal science .There were also some smaller, perhaps tangential matters: a philosophical lexicon, an attempt to define philosophy in general,and several extracts from the Physics repeated verbatim.

  • Ontology is the study of existence ; it has been traditionallydefined as 'the science of being qua being'.
  • Theology means, here, the study of God or the gods and of questions about the divine.
  • Universal science is supposed to be the study of so-called first principles , which underlie all other inquiries; an example of such a principle is the law of non-contradiction : A thing cannot bothbe and not be at the same time, and in the same respect. A particular apple cannot both exist and not exist at the sametime. It can't be all red and all green at the same time. Universal science or first philosophy treats of "being quabeing"--that is, what is basic to all science before one adds the particular details of any one science. This includes matterslike causality, substance, species, and elements.


It is sometimes difficult to understand what the issues even are, in metaphysics. It might help to begin with afairly simple example that will help to introduce the problems of metaphysics.

Imagine now that we are in a room, and in the middle of the room there is a table, and in the middle of the table there is abig, fresh, juicy, red apple . We can ask many metaphysical questions about thisapple. This will, hopefully, help us understand better what metaphysics is.

The apple is an excellent example of a physical object : one canpick it up, throw it around, eat it, and so on. It occupies space and time andhas a variety of properties . Suppose we ask: what are physicalobjects? This might seem like the sort of question to which one cannot give an answer. What could one possibly use toexplain what physical objects are? But philosophers actually do try to give some general sorts of accounts of what they are. Theyask: Are physical objects just bundles of their properties? Or are they substances which have those properties? That iscalled the problem of substance or objecthood .

Here is another sort of question. We said that the apple has properties, like being red, being big, being juicy. Howare properties different from objects? Notice, we say that things like apples have properties like redness. But apples andredness are different sorts of items, of things, of entities. One can pick up and touch an apple, but cannot pick up and touchredness, except perhaps in the sense that you can pick up and touch red things. So how can we best think about whatproperties are? This is called the problem ofuniversals .

Here is another question about what physical objects are: when in general can we say that physical objectscome into being and when they cease to exist? Surely the apple canchange in many ways without ceasing to exist. It could get brown and rotten but it would still be that apple. But ifsomeone ate it, it would not just have changed; it would no longer exist. So there are some metaphysical questions to be answeredabout the notions of identity , or being the same thing over time, and change .

This apple exists in space (it sits on a table in a room) and in time (it was not on the table a week ago and it will not be on the table a week from now). But what does thistalk of space and time mean? Can we say, for example, that space is like an invisible three-dimensional grid in which the appleis located? Suppose the apple, and every other physical object in the universe, were to be entirely removed from existence: thenwould space, that "invisible grid," still exist? Some people say not -- they say that without physical objects, space would notexist, because space is the framework in which we understand how physical objects are related to each other. There are many othermetaphysical questions to ask about space and time.

There are some other, very different sorts of problems in metaphysics. The apple is one sort of thing; now if Sally is in theroom, and we say Sally has a mind , we are surely going to say that Sally's mind is adifferent sort of thing from the apple (if it is a sort of thing at all). I might say that my mind is immaterial, butthe apple is a material object. Moreover, it sounds a little strange to say that Sally's mind is located in anyparticular place; maybe we could say it is somewhere in the room; but the apple is obviously located in aparticular place, namely on the middle of the table. It seems clear that minds arefundamentally different from physical bodies . But if so, how can something mental, like adecision to eat, cause a physical event to occur, like biting down on the apple? How are the mind and body causally interconnected if they are two totally different sorts of things? This is calledthe mind-body problem , which is now typically relegatedto a philosophical subdiscipline called philosophy ofmind . The mind-body problem is sometimes still considered part of metaphysics, however.

Metaphysical subdisciplines

Metaphysical topics and problems

Metaphysical jargon


A number of physicists deny the plausibility of a god but in their writings clearly suggests the contrary.

See also


  • Lowe, E. J. (2002). A survey of metaphysics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Loux, M. J. (2002). Metaphysics: A contemporary introduction (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.

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