Some Preliminary Reflections on Metaphysics

I have over the past decade or so engaged often with friends who to one degree or another find so-called ‘classical theism’ to be suspect. More often than not, I find myself convinced in these conversations that their suspicions ought to be able to be cleared away with some careful definitions and distinctions. But, then, more often than not, my attempts at definitions and distinctions do not actually clear away their doubts. Why not? It may very well be that I’m no good at definitions and distinctions, or that I’m very poor at the art of persuasive rhetoric—or both.

But I think I’ve noticed a different reason. Nicholas Wolterstorff gestures toward it when he notes that the medievals seemed to have a “very different ontological style” than contemporary philosophers, of the more analytical persuasion at least.[1] That is quite evident in many of the conversations I’ve had. The disconnect seems to lie—at least in part—at the level of what Wolterstorff calls “ontology” and what I, following ancient practice, will call “metaphysics.”

I say Wolterstorff “gestures” toward the reason because his claim needs one serious qualification. It is not the case that metaphysical differences can be quite so neatly periodized. It is not as though there was an accepted way of doing metaphysics in the medieval period, but that way has now gone the way of the dodo (save for those poor intellectual historians who enjoy unearthing archaic conceptualities). Jacque Maritain famously opened his A Preface to Metaphysics with the line: “Thomism is not a museum piece.”

It’s not only Wolterstorff who gives that impression, unfortunately. Take as another example Peter van Inwagen’s entry “Metaphysics,” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. He says that the “old metaphysics” constricted itself—largely on account of the historical contingency that Aristotle’s influential Metaphysics so constricted itself—to “being as such” or to “the first cause of things” or to “that which does not change.”

But, he continues, metaphysics can no longer be taken in this constricted sense. The reason he gives is, first, that as a matter of historical development, in the seventeenth century the term ‘metaphysics’ began to be used more widely. But more importantly, there seem to be problems with the traditional constriction of the term. What about metaphysicians who deny that there are first causes? In writing to deny first causes are they not writing about metaphysics? But they would deny that first causes are the subject of metaphysics, for they deny that first causes exist. What about treating the issue of ‘non-being’? “It seems reasonable, moreover, to say that investigations into non-being belong to the topic ‘being as such’ and thus belong to metaphysics.” But then being as such is not the subject of metaphysics because one can look into non-being while doing metaphysics. And there are other similar problems with the ‘old’ definition.

These counterexamples reveal a deep confusion on what the science of metaphysics has been historically (and continues to be in some circles). But that is besides the point. More to the point, van Inwagen appears to be attempting an historical account of the term “metaphysics.” That is fine and good in its place. But when we want to know what metaphysics is, we need to push beyond how the term has been used in history and inquire about the inquiry itself. What is it that metaphysics has traditionally sought? And how has it sought it?

In his introduction to Metaphysics, van Inwagen runs with what he takes to be a broader working definition: “Metaphysics…attempts to get behind appearances and to tell the ultimate truth about things…about everything” (3). As such, it attempts to answer three fundamental questions:

  1. What are the most fundamental features of the World [i.e. everything that is], and what sorts of things does it contain? What is the World like?
  2. Why does the World exist—and, more specifically, why is there a World having the features and the content described in the answer to Question 1?
  3. What is our place in the World? How do we human beings fit into it? (4)

This, it seems to me, is far too broad. So defined, metaphysics just becomes something like the modern-day notion of a “world-view.” They are fine questions. But as inquiries they tend toward something like a method of assembly rather than a method of analysis. That is, asking what are the fundamental features of the world and whether we can come to know why the world exists as it does will push us to gather together data from the various disciplines (history, psychology, natural sciences, etc.), and attempt to spy out a ‘full picture’ in the data. And this is direction that van Inwagen seem to push. One attractive way to think of metaphysics today, he says, is that it “is primarily or exclusively concerned with developing generalizations from our best-confirmed scientific theories.”

I’m sure there is a place for that sort of meta-assembly of the fields of human knowledge. And I’m sure that there is to be some gain in human understanding by it. And if it is contemporary convention in some circles to label it ‘metaphysics,’ I won’t quibble about terminology. But we do need to be careful here of confusing conventions of terminology with inquiry: just because the contemporary conventional use of the term ‘metaphysics’ is different from prior usage, it does not follow that the prior inquiry, which ‘metaphysics’ used to designate, is now obsolete.

Here is what I mean. Aristotle defined the inquiry he called metaphysics as the investigation of “being as being.” Rather than a somewhat vaguely defined “ultimate reality,” which allows for a host of different types of questions, which then imply different modes of inquiry and different methods, this definition of metaphysics produces an inquiry, with its attendant mode of inquiry and method. So, is the investigation into being as being now obsolete?

It may be that classical theists have a different ontological style than many Modern philosophers and theologians. But to show that it is not just a case of tomayto vs tomahto, we’ll need to follow that ancient investigation. In posts to come (Deo volente) I want to take up this investigation, attempting to answer in particular the how and the why. How do we come to think of being as being? And why is this way of thinking important?



[1]. Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Divine Simplicity,” in J. Tomberlin (ed.), Philosophical Perspectives 5: Philosophy of Religion (Atascadero: Ridgeview, 1991), 531 – 552,” cited 540.

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.

Previous post

Saving Stormtroopers

Next post

Godforsakenness and Redemption Pt. 1: The Lynched Savior