Meaning of Metaphysics & Its Relevance in the Contemporary Era
This philosophical article will discuss extensively the meaning of metaphysics, examine its philosophical foundation and most importantly indicate its relevance in the contemporary era.
Outline for the Discourse
- Introduction of Metaphysics from Philosophy
- Introducing Metaphysics
- Etymology and Meaning of Metaphysics
- Philosophic Foundation of Metaphysics
- Relevance of Metaphysics in the Contemporary Era/Society
Introduction of Metaphysics from Philosophy
Philosophy (as well as metaphysics), as an area of study is lately attracting a lot of lack of patronage for the singular reason that it does not put “food on the table nor does it build bridges”. This is a manner of describing the common place opinion that philosophy is an abstract “speculative reasoning or exercise about cosmos or reality and thus has no direct relevance or contribution to make in practical issues of human existence”.
For such people, philosophy has nothing to do with the real world. It is seen as mere speculations that have no practical significance. Some go further to say that philosophy is a study in futility. Others are of the opinion that the study of philosophy, especially in our tertiary institutions has no significant value.
Oftentimes, people think that students of philosophy are wasting their precious time in studying philosophy. Some non-students of philosophy do not understand what philosophy students do in their philosophy classes. Some people have rejected philosophy on the assumption that it plays no important role to human life and the development of human society.
On several occasions, young students of philosophy and other non-students of philosophy have posed some questions to their lecturers demanding to know the essence of studying philosophy: What is the value of philosophy?
On the other hand, Metaphysics is one of the major branches of philosophy and when most people neglect philosophy, they end up neglecting metaphysics.
This is because most people perceive philosophy as an abstract discipline, and abstraction in philosophy has to do with metaphysics which is the part of philosophy that studies the things that are unseen or things that are beyond the physical realm. This will be further explained in the definition and clarification of Metaphysics after this introductory section.
Now, because of the abstract nature of metaphysics (philosophy), many have questioned if metaphysics is of any relevance to our contemporary time. This is the heart of this article.
Metaphysics is a course that causes headache to almost everybody who tries to deal with it; this is because metaphysics, which is a study about the things beyond the physical, ought to be reached by non-physical beings.
Yes, since it is an abstract discipline, don’t you think that only abstract entities can understand it and its characteristics fully? So when physical beings (like human beings) try to access it, we end up studying till infinity (ad infinitum).
The Etymology of Metaphysics
Metaphysics, from its etymology, is coined from Greek words, ‘ta meta ta physika’, which means beyond physics or beyond nature.
The word “metaphysics” comes from the Greek words that literally mean “beyond nature“. “Nature” in this sense refers to the nature of a thing, such as its cause and purpose. Metaphysics then studies questions of a thing beyond or above questions of its nature, in particular its essence or its qualities of being. Metaphysics seeks to answer, in a “suitably abstract and fully general manner”.
The Philosophic Foundation of Metaphysics
The term ‘metaphysics’ was invented by the 1st-century BCE head of Aristotle‘s Peripatetic school, Andronicus of Rhodes. Andronicus was the person who edited and arranged Aristotle’s works, giving the name Metaphysics literally “the books beyond the physics,” perhaps the books to be read after reading Aristotle’s books on nature, which he called the Physics.
The Greek for nature is physis, so metaphysical is also “beyond the natural.” Proponents of naturalism deny the existence of anything metaphysical.
Aristotle never used the term metaphysics. For Plato, Aristotle’s master, the realm of abstract ideas was more “real” than that of physical. i.e., material or concrete, objects, because ideas can be more permanent (the Being of Parmenides), whereas material objects are constantly changing (the Becoming of Heraclitus).
Where Plato made his realm of ideas the “real world,” Aristotle made the material world the source of ideas as mere abstractions from common properties found in many concrete objects. Even Neo-platonists like Porphyry also inquire about the existential status of the Platonic ideas. They ask such questions as Does Being exist? What does it mean to say “Being Is“? ‘What is the difference between Being and being’?
In recent centuries then, metaphysical has become “beyond the material.” Metaphysics has become the study of immaterial things, like the mind, which is said to “supervene” on the material brain.
Metaphysics is a kind of idealism, in stark contrast to “eliminative” materialism. And metaphysics has failed in proportion to the phenomenal success of naturalism, the idea that the laws of nature alone can completely explain the contents of the universe.
Aristotle’s Physics describes the four “causes” or “explanations” of change and movement of objects already existing in the cosmos. Aristotle’s metaphysics can then be seen as explanations for existence itself. What exists? What is it to be? What processes can bring things into (or out of) existence? Is there a cause or explanation for the universe as a whole?
From the beginning, Aristotle’s books on “First Philosophy” considered God among the possible causes of the fundamental things in the universe.
Tracing the regress of causes back in time as an infinite chain, Aristotle postulated a first cause or he called the “uncaused cause.” Where every motion needs a prior mover to explain it, he postulated an “unmoved first mover.” These postulates became a major element of theology down to modern times.
Aristotle’s First Philosophy included theology, since first causes, new beginnings or genesis, might depend on the existence of God. And there remains a strong connection between modern metaphysicians and theologians.
Medieval Thoughts on Metaphysics
For medieval philosophers, metaphysics was taken as the science that is extra-sensible in nature. Albertus Magnus called it science beyond the physical. Thomas Aquinas narrowed it to the cognition of God.
Modern Thoughts on Metaphysics
Descartes made a turn from what exists to knowledge of what exists. He changed the emphasis from a study of being to a study of the conditions of knowledge or epistemology.
In Germany, Kant’s Critiques of Reason claimed a transcendental, non-empirical realm he called noumenal, for pure, or a priori, reason beyond or behind the phenomena. Kant’s phenomenal realm is deterministic, matter governed by Newton’s laws of motion.
Kant’s immaterial noumena are in the metaphysical non-empirical realm of the “things themselves” along with freedom, God, and immortality.
Kant identified ontology not with the things themselves but, influenced by Descartes, what we can think – and reason – about the things themselves. In either case, Kant thought metaphysical knowledge might be impossible for finite minds such as the human being.
Relevance of Metaphysics in the Contemporary Society/Era
This section is going to treat (in details) the relevance of metaphysics in our contemporary society/Era. However, following from the discussions above, one could easily say that metaphysics is of utmost important in the contemporary time. The relevance of metaphysics could be discussed by considering these attributes of Metaphysics to man and to the contemporary society. Metaphysics is the foundation of philosophy.
The relevance of metaphysics in the contemporary time therefore includes the following below;
- Metaphysics as the Study of Being and its Essence.
- Metaphysics constitutes the root of knowledge Physics (Rene Descartes).
- Metaphysics aids us to get to the knowledge of the things beyond physics.
- Metaphysics helps us to study the natural world.
- Metaphysics removes the fear of the unknown and religious inclinations.
Metaphysics as the Study of Being and its Essence
It is obvious that both in the contemporary era and other previous eras, beings exist. And if it is the fact that beings exist, then anything that studies the beings that exist is relevant to the beings that have existed, is existing, and will still exist.
Simply put, since the contemporary era of constitutes the existence and essence of beings, then metaphysics is very relevant because it studies being or reality or existence as well as its essence.
It is only those who do not know (but in one way or the other use) metaphysics that will say it does not have any relevance. Although many other disciplines like Biology can study the nature of the human eye (which is a being), but metaphysics grounds them (other sciences) all. This would be clarified in the discussion of the second point which will employ Rene Descartes’ Project.
As far as the study of beings is still ongoing (and even more focused on) in the contemporary time, metaphysics will continue to be relevant in our contemporary time.
In fact the center piece of metaphysical consideration is ‘being’. According to Izu Marcel O., in his book titled “Beginning Metaphysics”, he defines being as anything that is, or exists, or can be known, or that can be thought of; ANYTHNG that is not NOTHING.
He further explains that the definition of being cannot escape the association of ‘thing’. So as far as things exist (especially in the contemporary time), metaphysics will continue to study the existence and essence of things, and as far as metaphysics continues to study the existence and essence of things, it will continue to be relevant (even in the contemporary era).
2. Metaphysics Constitutes the Root of Knowledge
Metaphysics serves as a foundation to knowledge as a whole, by implication, metaphysics grounds the whole of knowledge.
Rene Descartes (1596-1650), represented his project as a tree. A tree, where the root is ‘METAPHYSICS’, the trunk is ‘PHYSICS’ and the branches represent the ‘SPECIFIC SCIENCES’ that includes Medicine, Morals and Mathematics (mmm).
In the close analysis of his (Descartes) metaphysics, he disclosed that Metaphysics constitutes the root of the tree of knowledge. For him, it is in metaphysics that an absolute sure foundation can be discovered from human knowledge. Metaphysics grounds the knowledge of geometry and properties of bodies.
The physics which is located at the trunk of the tree grows directly from the root and providing support for the other specific sciences. This entails that the root provides support for the other sciences through the physics (trunk).
The sciences of medicine, mathematics, and morals growing out of the trunk through the branches represent the application of his mechanistic model to particular subject areas.
The fruits of the philosophy and of human knowledge are found on the three branches of medicine, mathematics, and morals.
Talking about its relevance and applications in our contemporary time, metaphysics is relevant because it is the thing grounding the physics and the specific sciences as illustrated in the diagram above.
Metaphysics Aids One to Know the Non-physical Entities
Metaphysics is that branch of philosophy that studies the things beyond physics. In other words, it studies the non-physical, non-material or the abstract entities.
In this sense, metaphysics is relevant in the contemporary time because it has continued to help humans to simplify the ambiguous nature of the abstract realities in the contemporary era. Metaphysics goes further to relax our mind and reduce our fear of the unknown. It creates avenue for humans to reach the immaterial things.
On the other hand, metaphysics has played a role in the way and manner religion is understood and practiced among humans in the societies. From our knowledge of metaphysics, we see that everything that is, derives its being from the Being that is necessary.
This Being that is by necessity is called different names by different religions; God by Christianity, Allah by Islam, Buddha by Buddhism etc. This is a simple philosophical knowledge. The implication of this understanding is that there is only one Supreme Being that is approached differently. This is what is called “The Paradox of the One and Many in Religion”.
Religiously, metaphysics is relevance to the contemporary society because it helps people to understand and develop their religious and spiritual life as well as the society.
In the contemporary era, metaphysics challenges man to develop interest in things beyond the mundane issues thereby making man to discover new areas of knowledge, realize those lifelong goals and become more responsible citizens of the society.
Again, people who study metaphysics tend to seek things that are beyond the physical world and as such, pay little or no attention to material things which are the basis of most immoral activities like robbery, prostitution, kidnapping, child trafficking, child swapping, abortion, corruption etc. People like Nelson Mandela, Julius Nyerere, Martin Luther King Jnr., and few others are examples of those who shunned mundane things and preached uprightness.
The attempt of this research so far has been to justify the relevance of metaphysics in the contemporary era. However, the claim of the research is not that I have explored all the areas of relevance of metaphysics in contemporary era.
The value of metaphysics cannot be overemphasized. The point here is that this our contemporary era needs metaphysics; it is a human need. We cannot but do with it.
Any attempt to run away from metaphysics and philosophy at large will certainly portend doom for our contemporary time. Always call to mind that metaphysics helps to develop and transform the human mind and when the human mind is properly developed, it goes a long way to translate to human and societal development.
It is therefore recommend and encouraged for at least a little activity of metaphysical training to be observed for all and sundry in this the contemporary time.
- O. Donald, Lecture on “Landmark Philosophy”, on Thursday 3rd, May, 2018. 08:24 am.
- Izu M. Onyeocha “Beginning Metaphysics” pgs, 14, and 74.