What is Metaphysics?
Metaphysics is mystical in the sense that it transcends the scope of ordinary understanding concerning the Universe and the nature of Reality. Metaphysics bridges the conventional and religious gaps when cosmology and ontology are understood esoterically as opposed to being understood exoterically, that is, as things appear on the surface, taken at face value and to the letter of the word. It is about understanding the mystical meaning encoded in symbology, metaphors, parables and allegories; the veil parts for the questor of esoteric Truth.
The History of Metaphysics ~
The history of western metaphysics differs from Eastern metaphysics in that it has its philosophical roots in pre-Socratic Greek antiquity, beginning with Anaximander of Miletus (c.610-c.545 BC), who is credited with being the first metaphysician on record. Other records of account consider Thales of Miletus (c. 624–c. 546 BC) as the first metaphysician because he is said to be the first to question the nature of reality without referring to mythology. Aristotle considered Thales to be the "Father of Science" because he was regarded as the first philosopher in the Greek tradition.
There is a long list of Greek philosophers to numerous to mention who followed in the footsteps of Thales and Anaximander in their efforts to unravel the secrets of the nature of reality and existence. They include such names as Anaximenes (c.585-cc528 BC), Pythagoras, the famous mathematician (c.570-c.490 BC), Heraclitus, Parmenides, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Democritus (who along with Leucippus proposed that matter was made up of tiny indivisible particles they called "atom" or in Greek "a-tomos"), and then onto what became known as the classical period of Greek philosophy. Please note that the term non-philosophical is not literal as both men were philosophers but that Nietzsche was considered non-philosophical because he was perceived as being “inconsistent and speculative, producing something other than "real" philosophy.”
This period of history occurred during the years 430 to 320 BC and began with Socrates followed by Plato who was Socrates most prized student and then Aristotle who was Plato's most prized student. Aristotle considered metaphysics to be the queen of the sciences because it was not barred by limitations or restrictions, as were all the other sciences, which were limited to the examination of particular regions of things, i.e. physics and math. Aristotle was given to the belief that everything in existence had a starting point and common principles. Consequently, he termed metaphysics as the "first philosophy" which all other philosophical, theological and scientific thought and inquiry whether speculative or empirical was built upon in response to man's innate desire to "know" the nature of reality and what is Being as being.
Throughout the course of history, metaphysics has been examined and re-examined, dissected, rejected and even reinvented by various schools of theology and philosophy. Its first rejection began with the Sophists leader, Protagoras, in the 5th century. The Sophists became known as the world’s first skeptics because they took on the belief that the material world was the real world and that philosophy should be used as a means of survival in the real (material) world, thereby, discarding the speculative essence of metaphysical inquiry into the immaterial world. For the most part we live by this same standard today, we experience our individual and collective realities in what we perceive to be the real (material) world without giving much thought to the existence of a greater reality just outside of the material world (see my article Why 3D?).
The path of metaphysical dissention leads right up to the 16th century where the essence of metaphysics in its inquiry of nature, Being and being, and the relationship between mind and body or mind and matter (aka dualism) becomes a revolution of modern approaches, which we are the heirs of today. It is from this period that history encounters the metaphysics of a long list of philosophers, mathematicians and other great thinkers whose metaphysical philosophies are far to extensive for the purpose of this discourse.
The list includes the English statesman and philosopher, Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), the founding father of modern political philosophy and Rene Descartes (1596-1650) who was famous for his mathematical innovations of investigating nature and human affairs, which earned him the title "father of modern philosophy." Descartes was the first to identify the mind with consciousness and self-awareness, "I think, therefore I exist" and to distinguish this from the brain - the seat of intelligence. The term "Cartesian" was attributed to the philosophy of Descartes’ dualism of mind and matter.
Descartes’ greatest critic was the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) who advanced the virtues of the new mathematical science of nature, which he pioneered through calculus. His metaphysics was that being or substance cannot exist where there is no unifying principle.
The English philosopher, historian and essayist, David Hume (1711-1776) was determined to restore metaphysics back to its true nature. However, what he perceived as an overhaul of the true nature of metaphysics was in fact an attempt to overhaul the whole of philosophy, which was actually anti-metaphysical in terms of a priori knowledge. Hume set in motion his anti-metaphysical aim of abandoning the a priori means of inquiry into the nature of reality by replacing it with an empirical method of inquiry that would provide scientific answers to the questions of what is the ultimate nature of reality. Hume presents his program in A Treatise of Human Nature and in the first Enquiry. The term a priori is knowledge that is not related to an actual experience but is known by intuition or by way of reason, whereas the term a posteriori is knowledge that is acquired by experience, is empirically proven and reproducible.
The German, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is the next great metaphysical thinker in the lineup. It is said that Hume caused Kant to be awakened from his “dogmatic slumbers” and “caused the scales to fall off.” He was regarded as the central figurehead of modern philosophy and is to this day. Kant pursued the restoration of metaphysics as the "architectonic of science" but on the other hand, his restored metaphysics denied the possibility of knowledge of things in themselves, or things, as they may exist apart from the framework of knowledge that the human mind supplies. In other words, reason cannot know "phenomena" as other than a sensory experience ordered by space, time and categories of thought. Anyone who utilizes their psychic abilities knows that phenomena is not related to sensory experience nor is it something that is ordered by space, time or any categories of thought. A phenomenon is experienced through extrasensory perception much like knowledge can be acquired by a priori, i.e. intuition.
To sort out the metaphysical tension that existed between antiquity and modern philosophy, was the German philosopher Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) and his constituents. Hegel considers his philosophy to be the completion of metaphysics, not limited by its moment in the historical process of embracing a system of reality but that his system is the final truth about “being.” It is interesting to note that there were no other philosophers who presented an impressive system of the whole being as Hegel did.
Hegel's system was a logical completion that would correspond to the moment in history when political and moral freedom attained stable recognition institutionally, and art, religion and philosophy arrived at their definitive forms. Its metaphysical significance is that when all distinctions have unfolded and the Absolute finds itself fully manifested in the world, it then fulfills its essence in "absolute knowing." No "otherness" remains outside itself to be overcome through further negations, the complete reality of freedom--mind being at home with itself--is attained.
But as has always been the nature of metaphysics, this final say so would, of course, be opposed by later philosophical thinkers in the twentieth century who would again turn the tide from innate speculative inquiry to anti-speculative and materialistic reproducible evidence. Thankfully, the twentieth century also herald in the non-philosophical likes of Dane Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche who stood in opposition to what had become the traditional manner of argument and logical procedures in philosophy.
In or around 1900 there arose what was known as the movement of phenomenology under the guidance of the German philosopher and mathematician Edmond Husserl (1859-1938). This movement stressed the need to return to pre-scientific explanations of the phenomena of ordinary life without the reliance of empirical evidence. This combined with the devastating effects of World War I triggered yet another renewal of metaphysics.
German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) is considered the greatest metaphysical thinker since Hegel. Heidegger claimed that western understanding of the nature of Being has been grossly misunderstood beginning with Plato and has left its traces in every stage of Western thought. Heidegger believed all investigations of being have historically focused on particular entities and their properties, or have treated being itself as an entity, or substance with properties. Outside of his affiliation or "error" with Nazism, he is best known for his book, Being and Time and is considered one of the most important philosophical works of the 20th century.
This philosophical journey of Western metaphysics, as described above, is not all-inclusive. All throughout history, there have been many notable names worthy of mention. These would include Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274); Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677); George Berkeley (1685-1753), “to be is to be perceived;” Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), metaphysical analysis of will; Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947); Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), one of the founders of analytical philosophy; Willard V.O. Quine (1908-2000), philosopher and logician, wrote an article in 1948 “On What There Is” published in Review of Metaphysics; David K. Lewis (1941-2001), philosopher, in metaphysics was regarded as the most important systematic thinkers of modern times and David Malet Armstrong (1926), well known for his work in metaphysics and the philosophy of mind.
Beyond the scope of western philosophy and metaphysics, is Eastern philosophy and metaphysics. As one can spend a lifetime researching esoteric metaphysics, philosophy, psychology, astronomy and physics in Hinduism, Taoism and the schools of Buddhism, as well as the Kabbalistic schools and other esoteric influences, writing on such an extensive body of knowledge would be insurmountable. Therefore, I refer you to Theosophy, which is the aggregate of this vast body of knowledge. Should you decide to explore esoteric metaphysics, don't expect to find all the mysteries of the ancient secret doctrines divulged; mankind is not ready to accept the mysteries of the universe safely or responsibly. For your convenience, the Theosophical Society's website address is www.theosociety.org.