Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1271
Metaphysics as a branch of philosophy—concerning the most fundamental level of reality—originated with Aristotle, who produced a work that is known as the Metaphysics. However, Aristotle coined neither the title nor the term. Apparently, Aristotle bequeathed his writings and lectures upon his death to a person or persons who willed them forward twice more, and the philosopher’s work was eventually discovered and purchased by Apellicon of Teos, a scholar of the first century. Apellicon collected these manuscripts and organized them into the treatises that survive today and that are credited to Aristotle.
The work known as the Metaphyics is a compendium of fourteen books in the tradition of an Aristotelian metaphysics defined by wisdom, science, and theology—a form of philosophy that was barely two hundred years old at the time of its compilation. The work is arranged to present the principles and causes of the nature of being in general. In particular, the subject matter concerns cause, being, substance, and the nature of God as they are beyond or after physics.
Scholars tend to approach the work from two different interpretive positions. One position holds that the Metaphysics moves forward primarily by way of the science of “being qua being.” This interpretation focuses on the portion of book 1 in which Aristotle introduces a science of the first principle or causes of things, as well as passages in books 4, 6, and 11 that mention “being qua being.” In these passages, Aristotle is said to be offering a singular study of a singular subject. He investigates being (that is, existence) in the context of that singular existing thing alone. In this interpretation, qua is taken to mean “by way of,” or “whereby.” It is a term pointing to a study of an existing thing in terms only of itself, its own characteristics of beingness, and not any other characteristics or qualities.
The second interpretive position is arguably more generous in giving Aristotle credit for expansive thought. This position holds that three dynamics are at work in the Metaphysics: First, Aristotle is considered as investigating the subject of being, regarding being as being in and of itself, and regarding that act of regarding being. That is, this second approach sees Aristotle as delivering the very definition of metaphysics—in the sense that he is investigating not only a subject of study but also a way of investigating that subject. Aristotle is moving beyond physics to metaphysics by studying the study of being; he is moving beyond analysis to meta-analysis by thinking about the act of thinking about something—in this case, being.
This threefold purpose is demonstrated from the start of the Metaphysics, as Aristotle introduces the human desire for and degrees of knowledge. The degrees of knowledge are part of the initial inquiry into cause, and they are treated according to principles of reasoning, experience, memory, sensation, and perception. It is also in book 1 that one of Aristotle’s traditional strategies is begun: This strategy, which continues through the next seven books, involves Aristotle considering the thought of other philosophers who have come before him on the same subject and then refuting those previous philosophers’ ideas. The inclusion of the thought of prior philosophers leads to a historical survey of sorts, and Aristotle moves to emphasize the methodology of scientific inquiry in book 2 by discussing science as a means to consider specific truths—which means that it is difficult to use it to investigate the nature of truth as such. Aristotle dismisses early errors and recommends a less futile methodology, although he never specifically outlines this methodology.
In subsequent books of the Metaphysics, Aristotle presents his thought in a form that has frustrated many thinkers who came after him, a form that has come to be thought of as distinctively Aristotelian: The rubric of questions in the Metaphysics is presented to reflect Aristotle’s inquiry into the problems of defining being, cause, and substance. Those questions shape the work in a way that reiterates the difficulties involved in inquiry itself. That is, the Metaphysics poses questions with puzzling subtleties, dubious nuances, and no actual answers. Thus, preliminary questions about the nature of a thing or of being, such as those regarding cause, become a yet greater question. It is typical of Aristotle that straightforward questions such as “What is this object’s shape?” “What is it made of?” and “Who made it?” become a much more metaphysical question: “Is the fundamental nature of a thing to be found in its matter or its form?”
Such questions prompt book 4, wherein being qua being is broached as an intended subject, as the object of the work. These questions also lead to book 5, which Aristotle uses as a sort of lexicon, wherein the being discussed in book 4 is explained in terms of analogies not only to causes but also to properties and principles. In book 6, Aristotle reiterates that his objective is to understand being qua being, and he discusses being as it is distinguished by mobility or motion. Then, he returns to a discussion of science in general and particular sciences. This discussion informs his ongoing contemplation of truth, and Aristotle takes the opportunity afforded by it to further distinguish between authentic and inauthentic forms of being.
As they have been in the making throughout the first six treatises, books 7, 8, and 9 devote attention to substance as it is characterized by cause (especially formal cause), as it relates to motion (specifically change), and as it informs Aristotle’s contemplation of ontological potentiality and actuality. He again considers each of these topics in the context of the categorical considerations of substance by previous thinkers. Books 7, 8, and 9—like books 4 and 5—contain a subscript that Aristotle offers on the actual manner, or means, of conveying truth. He emphasizes that the truth of being can only be conveyed in words and that it is said in many ways. In this respect, others do not broach the subject of truth itself during their inquiry into the truth of being. Nevertheless, Aristotle does not come to any clear resolution, though his argument on potentiality versus actuality—one of the more renowned of Aristotle’s proposals—does come close to answering such questions of being as it exists in (and as a certain condition of) potency. This is the only kind of being that preexists another kind of being, being in act.
In book 10, Aristotle returns to what he asserted earlier (in books 3 and 4) as the primary principle of being: being’s identity of unity, or oneness. It is here that the philosopher insinuates a continued inquiry into the puzzle of being and of substance, asking a seemingly tautological question by challenging whether unity and being are a thing’s substance or whether the substance of being makes for an inherent characteristic of a thing. The definitive answer is not to be had in the subsequent books. Instead, in book 11 Aristotle not only offers a summative review of earlier Metaphysics principles, especially those from books 4, 5, and 6, but also hearkens further back to the work preceding the Metaphysics, now titled Physica (n.d.; Physics, 1812). Likewise, in book 12, Aristotle revisits the primary principles of being and furthers his account of theological notions of substance. He also discusses the attributes of motion that lend themselves to the supreme beings Aristotle maintains are the “unmoved movers” of the universe. Books 13 and 14 do not necessarily conclude Metaphysics but rather introduce the science of mathematics in an ontological context, returning Aristotle to his general consideration of mathematics as studying being qua quantitativeness, of natural science as studying being qua motility, and of metaphysics as studying being qua being.
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