Put another way, what background knowledge do you suggest that I brush up on to make me more sensitive to the lurking philosophical issues when I read philosophical texts and papers? Particularly Greek philosophical texts.

I've found that a background in epistemology has helped me a lot in understanding and analyzing Plato and Aristotle. When papers on Plato refer back to an epistemological concept, I'm able to reflect on it to a greater extent then I would be able to without my background knowledge.

I understand that knowledge of epistemology and metaphysics is a spectrum. The more you know, the more it helps, and there is always more to learn. Even so, is it possible for anyone to suggest some very basic concepts (especially ones more relevant to Greek philosophy)? Or introductory books on metaphysics?

5 Answers 5


I think the best helps to understanding greek philosophy will be secondary sources like Christopher Shields's excellent book on Ancient Philosophy. What you'll find under the heading of contemporary metaphysics will be more likely to simply confuse issues for you, in my opinion, if your goal is to understand Plato, Aristotle and other ancient authors.


I think it will depend greatly on what you mean by the terms "metaphysics" and "epistemology." I agree with shane that studying large amounts of contemporary literature using these words will not necessarily elucidate what Ancient, Medieval, and Modern philosophers were doing. Part of the problem is that they undertook different projects than the use that their work is being put to. So for instance, there are those who understand Plato as philosophy of mind, but to get that sort of reading, you really need to change what he thought he was working on. Or reading Aristotle as "moral philosophy" (See Anscombe's essay "Modern Moral Philosophy").

This isn't to say that these modern uses are wrong nor is to say that we haven't benefited greatly in several areas by using more modern philosophical methods and categories. It's just to say that even a legitimate take-away -- like deriving a principle useful for moral philosophy from Aristotle -- not identical to understanding what Aristotle wanted that application for. (For instance, you could understand techne as know-how and episteme as know-that and not be wrong, but Aristotle's theory is richer than the contemporary distinction and organized for a different purpose).


Kant-Critique of Pure Reason and Hegel-philosophy of history.

  • If you are going to read Hegel's Phil. o' History you might also want to read Popper's "Poverty of Historicism"
    – MmmHmm
    Oct 4, 2016 at 3:07
  • 1
    @JohnAm No. Hegel, however, is not a philosopher, he is a poet proffering weltanschauung to be either agreed or disagreed with, not something to be rationally assessed a truth value. This is epistemically distinct from advancing a knowledge claim or the means to, for example, in Popper's Poverty of Historicism he advances the now confirmed hypothesis that it is logically impossible to know the past. Hegel, again, just offers his opinions and sentiments.
    – MmmHmm
    Dec 27, 2016 at 10:44
  • @JohnAm, and yet your opinion is not counter-argument to a confirmed hypothesis (nor the arguments for it). Did you learn this rhetorical technique by reading Hegel?
    – MmmHmm
    Dec 27, 2016 at 10:51

I would say Peter Van Inwagen's book on Metaphysics offers a good survey of the main topics.


What basic metaphysics should every philosophy student know?

The etymology of the term should suffice.

"Metaphysics" is not a term which either Plato or Aristotle used. It originated with Andronicus of Rhodes (~150CE). Lacking a significantly coherent statement in the beginning of the writings to work with, as would have been customary for a title in his day, Rhodes' organizing principle for the extant works of Aristotle (essentially categorizing a hodgepodge into a collection) was simply that they were placed on the shelf after the books on physics: ta meta ta physika biblia, i.e. "the books that come after the books on physics." Only later was this categorical placeholder naming considered taxonomic and thus began a pernicious history of metaphysicians soliciting agreement with weltanschauung and proferring the hermeneutical as if it were heuristic - all under the banner and misnomer of "philosophy".

See also: The Origin of "Metaphysics"
by Anton-Hermann Chroust
The Review of Metaphysics
Vol. 14, No. 4 (Jun., 1961), pp. 601-616

To be clear, philosophy - and this for 2500+ years - translates to "love of wisdom". "Love" in the context of initial utterance was akin to "respect", "virtue" or "reverence" - nothing to do with notions of romantic love common today. To the point, however, philosophy distinguished itself from sophistry and the professional counsel of wise people (think of lawyers, financial managers, doctors and such today) whose "wisdom" was often dispensed relative to the monetary or political circumstance available with its authority.

What then is wisdom apart from those deemed wise enough to dispense it? Some have said wisdom is the intelligent application of knowledge. This may be so, however, intelligent according to whom - and who would be the arbiter? No, wisdom simply obtains knowledge. And that is all. Philosophy is the virtue of obtaining knowledge; philosophy is respect and reverence for obtaining knowledge.

What then is knowledge? Knowledge is empirical verification of what is (else how do you "know" what is?) of which there are three kinds:

1) axiomatic, or self-evident knowledge, e.g. "2+2=4" or "all dividends require financing"

2) empirical knowledge, e.g. "brute" facts (pace Anscombe) such as "the Earth is ~93 million miles from the Sun" or "institutional" facts such as "Obama is President"

3) self-knowledge, e.g. "I feel glad"

At first glance, it might seem circular or redundant to consider "empirical knowledge" as "empirical(ly) empirical verification of what is" but I can only ask that you consider that it is just really, really basic. Think about it, eh? Is there any good reason to presume otherwise, much less entertain non-illuminating skepticism regarding the senses? It might wreak havoc with the outliers that we are all deceived by an "evil demon" but we did not build the internet by wondering if we are merely batteries for the matrix... So, ask yourself: do you "know" that Obama is President if you have not empirically verified the statement corresponding to what is the case in the world? Do you "know" that you feel fine if you have not empirically verified yourself feeling fine? Do you "know" 2+2=4 if you have not observed the calculation of, having done the calculation, what is a self-evidenced truth that 4=2+2 is 2+2=4? If you must, you can consider that which is observationally verifiable when it is verified by observation to be empirical knowledge: in short the world is that which is empirically verifiable (read: known).

Even so, is it possible for anyone to suggest some very basic concepts (especially ones more relevant to Greek philosophy)? Or introductory books on metaphysics?

The domains of philosophy are epistemology and ontology. In addition to studying logic, reason and rhetoric, if you are interested in the ancients, then you would do well to learn ancient Greek. Lastly, consider that it is logically impossible to know the past.

Kindest regards.

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