Behind Episode 205: Metaphysics & Philosophy

Pythagoreans, and Cicero repeats this claim: “They say Plato learned all things Pythagorean.” It is probable that both were influenced by Orphism, and both believed in metempsychosis, transmigration of the soul.

Pythagoras held that all things are number, and the cosmos comes from numerical principles. He introduced the concept of form as distinct from matter, and that the physical world is an imitation of an eternal mathematical world. These ideas were very influential on Heraclitus, Parmenides and Plato.

Metaphysics, which is a branch of philosophy, is concerned with understanding and describing the nature of the world and being, approaching many of the same concepts as theology, but from a strict philosophical position that does not accept any reliance on a higher truth. Unlike theology, metaphysics relies on man’s own rational ability to investigate the world. Certain metaphysical language problems and issues of logic led to what many philosophers agree was its “death” in the mid-twentieth century, which resulted in the birth of other modes of philosophical inquiry such as “deconstruction” and “ordinary language philosophy.”

Metaphysics as explained is the branch of philosophy that studies the fundamental nature of reality, the first principles of being, identity and change, space and time, causality, necessity, and possibility. It includes questions about the nature of consciousness and the relationship between mind and matter, between substance and attribute, and between potentiality and actuality.

The word “metaphysics” itself comes from two Greek words that, together, literally mean “after or behind or among [the study of] the natural”.

Metaphysics studies questions related to what it is for something to exist and what types of existence there are. Metaphysics seeks to answer, in an abstract and fully general manner, the questions:

What is there?

What is it like?

By the time Aristotle was writing, the tradition of Greek philosophy was only two hundred years old. It had begun with the efforts of thinkers in the Greek world to theorize about the common structure that underlies the changes we observe in the natural world. Two contrasting theories, those of Heraclitus and Parmenides, were an important influence on both Plato and Aristotle.

The word ‘metaphysics’ is notoriously hard to define. Twentieth-century coinages like ‘meta-language’ and ‘metaphilosophy’ encourage the impression that metaphysics is a study that somehow “goes beyond” physics, a study devoted to matters that transcend the mundane concerns of Newton and Einstein and Heisenberg. This impression is mistaken. The word ‘metaphysics’ is derived from a collective title of the fourteen books by Aristotle that we currently think of as making up Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Aristotle himself did not know the word. (He had four names for the branch of philosophy that is the subject-matter of Metaphysics: ‘first philosophy’, ‘first science’, ‘wisdom’, and ‘theology’.) At least one hundred years after Aristotle’s death, an editor of his works (in all probability, Andronicus of Rhodes) titled those fourteen books “Ta meta ta phusika”—“the after the physicals” or “the ones after the physical ones”—the “physical ones” being the books contained in what we now call Aristotle’s Physics. The title was probably meant to warn students of Aristotle’s philosophy that they should attempt Metaphysics only after they had mastered “the physical ones”, the books about nature or the natural world—that is to say, about change, for change is the defining feature of the natural world.