From Metaphysics to Classification: The Epistemological Turn in the Seventeenth Century

In a previous post I noted that the classical understanding of metaphysics—by which I mean Aristotle and the subsequent and variegated peripatetic tradition—differs significantly from the Modern, analytical understanding. (Of course, such a note is admittedly a generalization which admits of many an exception.) Rather than thinking of metaphysics as a synthesizing and generalizing theory of all the various scientific fields of inquiry about our physical world and the human place and purpose within it, as a more Modern account has it, the classical account reckons metaphysics as the study of being as being.

Of course, even to put it this way—being as being—seems odd. What is meant by such a phrase? Can being be other than being? Does classical metaphysics, that is, study being as being in opposition to being as nonbeing? The whole thing seems a tangle. Because there is often real difficulty (I speak from personal experience) in getting pointed in the right direction, even before beginning the journey, I think an historical anecdote the beginnings of the move away from the classical conception of metaphysics may prove helpful. It will not necessarily point us in the right direction, but will aid in pointing out the wrong directions.

All That is Intelligible

In his 1604 Metaphysicae Systema Methodicum, the Reformed philosopher Clemens Timpler claimed that the subject matter, or object, of metaphysics is “all that is intelligible.” This definition may not seem a massive shift from the previously accepted object as “what is” or “being qua being.” One could make an argument, for example, that ‘what is’ is intelligible insofar as it is, and ‘that which is not’ remains in itself unintelligible. But herein lies a part of the problem. Timpler did not make such an argument. In fact, he proposed that under the heading of “all that is intelligible” lie two subcategories: ‘something’ (aliquid aut est) and ‘nothing’ (nihil).

Most Reformed, Lutheran, and Catholic theologians and philosophers objected to Timpler’s account of the object of metaphysics. For example, Reformed theologian, Johann Alsted, argued in his Philosophia Digne Restituta (1612) that a distinction ought to be drawn between metaphysics and what he calls archelogia. Archelogia, he says, deals with the principles or foundations of all the disciplines, and as such even encompasses metaphysics. But metaphysics, he insists, “contemplates being (ens).” His point was that Timpler had been right in thinking that there is a need for a meta-discipline, one that for the purposes of a university orders all the other disciplines. But he had been wrong to assign that to metaphysics. If metaphysics is really just the study of human studies, then what happens to the study of being?

On account of this problem, as Joseph Freedman has shown, there emerged a host of new “disciplines” during the first half of the seventeenth century, in order to try to capture what Timpler had assigned to metaphysics: archelogia: gnostologia, hexiologia, intelligentia, pansophia, technologia.[1] In the schools these did not really function so much as new and distinct disciplines. Rather, they were all attempts at creating a discipline which would order the steadily increasing school disciplines, fields of inquiry, and bodies of knowledge. This was the age of encyclopedias.

But increasingly throughout the middle and latter half of the seventeenth century, Timpler’s designation of metaphysics became the norm, and was added to: not only was metaphysics the study of all that is intelligible, but because it is so, it is foundational for understanding all the various academic disciplines.

“While ‘All that is Intelligible’ was generally considered by early seventeenth-century authors as too broad to constitute the subject matter of metaphysics, it appears to have evolved—in the course of the early seventeenth century—into an umbrella concept (which one could also refer to as a conceptual framework) that was utilized in, alongside of, and in connection with encyclopedias/other encyclopedic writings during (and beyond) the early seventeenth century.” (Freedman, “The Godfather of Ontology?”, 14).

Thus, metaphysics became preparatory to the other sciences and arts, rather than the capstone.

Despite many of the early 17th century’s attempts to rename a discipline which studied ‘all that is intelligible,’ metaphysics, or ontology, came to be the name of choice for this academic pursuit. Put another way, metaphysics was increasingly conceived as the interdisciplinary foundation for the various fields of human inquiry.

Study of Being to Study of Human Knowing

What seemed like a minor difference of definition in Timpler’s Metaphysicae, conjoined in the universities with a pursuit of encyclopedic knowledge, in the end developed into a very different field of inquiry. To sum it up, it was a move from the study of being to the study of human knowing.

To put it in its best light, this move is, in Jacques Maritain’s terms, a move from the study of existence (esse) to the study of essences (essentiae), or as Gilson might put it, from existential ontology to essential ontology. It leaves off the pursuit of the mystery of being (existence) and contents itself at the level of particular beings (essences).

But we need to be clear at this point. It is not as though the historical development of the academic study of metaphysics has made it so that no one contemplates being as being any more, or at least very few. In fact, all humans do by nature. What is left off is the disciplined study of the mystery of being. And because we are not instructed in the study of being (existence), we are left with what Maritain calls our rational instinct, which gets humans inevitably but only to a blurred vision of being.

So, in our next post, we’ll inspect this blurred vision, and ask how to bring it in to focus.




[1] See Joseph S Freedman’s Philosophy and the Arts in Central Europe, 1500-1700 and European Academic Philosophy in the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries.

Joshua Schendel

Joshua Schendel

Joshua is the executive editor of Modern Reformation magazine. He holds a PhD from St. Louis University, a MAHT from Westminster Seminary California. He, his wife, Bethanne, and their three kids live in Southern California.

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