1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Metaphysics

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METAPHYSICS, or Metaphysic (from Gr. μετά, after, φυσικά, things of nature, φύσις, i.e. the natural universe), the accepted name of one of the four great departments of philosophy (q.v.). The term was first applied to one of the treatises of Aristotle on the basis of the arrangement of the Aristotelian canon made by Andronicus of Rhodes, in which it was placed “after the physical treatises” with the description τἁ μετὰ τἁ φυσικά. The term was used not in the modern sense of above or transcending nature (a sense which μετά cannot bear), but simply to convey the idea that the treatise so-called comes “after” the physical treatises.[1] It is therefore nothing more than a literary accident that the term has been applied to that department or discipline of philosophy which deals with first principles. Aristotle himself described the subject matter of the treatise as “First Philosophy” or “Theology,” which deals with being as being (Metaph. P. i., ἑστὶν ἑπιστήμη τις ἣ θεωρεῖ τὁ ὂν ἧ ὂν καὶ τἁ τούτῳ ὑπάρχοντα καθ’ αὑτό). From this phrase is derived the later term “Ontology” (q.v.) The misapprehension of the significance of μετά led to various mistaken uses of the term “metaphysics,” e.g. for that which is concerned with the supernatural, not only by the schoolmen but even as late as 17th-century English writers, and within narrower limits the term has been dangerously ambiguous even in the hands of modern philosophers (see below). In the widest sense it may include both the “first philosophy” of Aristotle, and the theory of knowledge (in what sense can there be true knowledge?), i.e. both ontology and epistemology (q.v.), and this is perhaps the most convenient use of the term; Kant, on the other hand, would represent metaphysics as being “nothing more than the inventory of all that is given us by pure reason, systematically arranged” (i.e. epistemology). The earliest “metaphysicians” concerned themselves with the nature of being (ontology), seeking for the unity which they postulated behind the multiplicity of phenomena (see Ionian School of Philosophy and articles on the separate thinkers); later thinkers tended to inquire rather into the nature of knowledge as the necessary pre-requisite of ontological investigation. The extent to which these two attitudes have been combined or separated is discussed in the ensuing article which deals with the various schools of modern metaphysics in relation to the principles of the Aristotelian “first philosophy.”[2] (X)


1. — The Science of Being

2. — Materialism

3. — The Rise of Metaphysical Idealism

4. — Noumenal Idealism in Germany

5. — Phenomenal Idealism in Germany

6. — English Idealism

7. — Realism


For authorities see the works quoted above, and the references in the articles on philosophers and philosophical subjects.

(T. Ca.)

  1. On the true order of the Aristotelian treatises see Aristotle.
  2. The article is supplemented by e.g. Idealism; Pragmatism; Relativity of Knowledge, while separate discussions of ancient and medieval philosophers will be found in biographical articles and articles on the chief philosophical schools, e.g. Scholasticism; Neoplatonism.