As I understand it, most or all of philosophy can be put into the three main branches of philosophy: Epistemology, Metaphysics, and Axiology.

A devotee of reason, I have great affinity for, and believe that I get the core nature of, Epistemlogy: the study of how claims of knowledge are justified, or of how we know things.

I also think I get the basic idea of Axiology: the study of values, from ethics/morals to art and beyond.

After looking up (or asking people) what the core of the study of Metaphysics is, and while the words I read or hear have meaning, some kind of "blind spot" has heretofore obstructed me from understanding basically Metaphysics's purpose. In black and white, pragmatic, and discrete terms: of what is Metaphysics the study?

I appreciate answers not to add another layer of vague and undefined confusion on top; for every explanation to this question simply makes me ask what the explanation even means! (Metaphysics asks "what is the nature of reality?", but the question makes absolutely no sense to me! I do not understand the meaning of: "The nature of reality is what it is." So what else can you say without mystifying?)

Can anyone explain the purpose of the study of Metaphysics to someone like me with a pragmatic, rational personality and approach? Every time I think I have found an answer, it turns out to be more Epistemology, to the point that I am starting to wonder if fully embracing reason results in the elimination of Metaphysics! Thanks.


7 Answers 7


Metaphysics today, as a special sub discipline of philosophy considers a really large number of important topics. For instance, all of the following are live metaphysical questions:

  • The Mind/Body Problem: How is it possible that we have subjective experiences (like the feeling of seeing the colour red, or understanding a poem) given that the other things we observe in nature have only objective, physical properties (like mass, or charge)? Are minds something non-physical? If so, how do they manage to cause physical events in my body, such as moving the muscles of my arm?
  • Laws of Nature: What are laws of nature and are there really any such things, or are the regularities scientists discover in nature merely contingent counterfactual dependence? Why is the gravitational constant and other constants in the laws of nature just what they are? Is it metaphysically possible that those constants could have been different? If so, then why did the constants in the actual world get just the precise values they have?
  • Time: Do the past and future exist? Is it metaphysically possible to travel backwards in time without generating logical paradoxes? What are space and time, really? Are they objects or sets of relations between objects or what? Is time just like a dimension of space that you can travel back and forth in, or does have a privileged direction (Time's Arrow)? Is it possible for there to be more than one dimension of time?
  • Identity over time: How is it possible for one thing to remain the same over time when its parts are changing all the time? (The Ship of Theseus). What is "the object" really? Is the whole object present at a single instant of time, or is "the object" really a four-dimensional entity only one of whose 'time-slices' is ever present at a particular instant?
  • Universals: What are abstract objects like numbers or blueness? Do such things "exist" and why or why not? What is the difference between abstract objects and concrete ones?
  • Vagueness: One grain of sand is not a heap, but by adding grains, I get a heap. Is there a definite number at which the heap begins to be a heap?
  • Identity: Is identity (the relationship everything bears to itself) a necessary relation, or a contingent one? Is identity an "absolute" relation that we can understand as simply holding between two objects, or do ascriptions of identity require a stroll term "relative" to which the identity holds?

Now at first glance this collection of questions might look like a grab bag. And to some extent that is correct--the only single feature all of these questions share is their very high level of generality. However, there are important systematic connections between the various questions. For example, if you believe objects are actually four dimensional entities extended in time as well as space, then you should hold that at least the past is just as real as the present. Studying the systematic interrelations between these questions is just as important as coming up with new arguments and objections about the questions individually. So, there actually is a more cohesive body of study here than might appear at first glance.

  • 7
    OK, I'm the prototypical philosophy newb here, but I am going to put my head right into the lion's mouth: When looking at the above list of possible lines of inquiry, it seems to me that broadly speaking there are three categories of inquiry represented: scientific (or justifiable), definitional (or based in logic/reason), or vague/mystical/unprovable (else it would have been in one of the first two categories.) If that is true, doesn't that leave metaphysics in the third, never answerable category? PS: I am now realizing how hard it is to have this conversation in this format.
    – Sindyr
    Aug 22, 2015 at 1:02
  • 3
    @Sindyr Not all metaphysical questions can be solve empirically, although as I said above, sometimes empirical results are relevant. Why do you think the questions above can't have answers? there's nothing mystical or vague about any of the questions posed--they don't turn on spurious secret knowledge or magic. they are hard questions and very abstract, but I don't see why that should mean that they aren't capable of being answered. (now you should say--"ok, show me some definite results." and then i'll have to give you some additional song and dance about how progress isn't always quick.)
    – user5172
    Aug 22, 2015 at 1:13
  • 1
    @shane OK, but if that's the case, if those questions are answered, don't them leave the realm of metaphysics and enter the realm of epistemology by definition? If epistemology is the domain of how we know things, what we can know, and what we do know? Isn't any discrete justifiable truth or answer or discovery by it's very nature a child of epistemology, not metaphysics? This is probably where I am sounding accurately confused.
    – Sindyr
    Aug 22, 2015 at 3:15
  • 1
    @jowehler I don't think there is any criterion, beyond the trivial semantic one: metaphysical questions are the questions studied by metaphysicians. Pick up an anthology or a journal and look at how papers are categorized--the questions above are the kind of thing you'll see under the heading "metaphysics".
    – user5172
    Aug 22, 2015 at 11:49
  • 2
    @Sindyr epistemology is about what knowledge and other epistemically states (belief, understanding, etc) are and how to get them. But just because we know something does mean that the content of what we know is now epistemology. Think of the Pythagorean theorem: it is known to be true, but it still belongs to the domain of math, not philosophy.
    – user5172
    Aug 22, 2015 at 11:52

I agree that to define metaphysics as the study of the "nature of reality" is completely inadequate. It is a shallow definition, misleading, arguably circular.

You leave us with a very complicated mission, though, if you expect the answer to this question to be given in pragmatic ("black and white") terms. The first thing that comes to my mind is that the answer would have to be like a confusion-killing bullet, a short, almost poetic formula. Fearless as I feel today of the occasional downvote, I'll give it a shot.

Metaphysics is the study devoted to the "what is...?" question itself.

That would be my formula. You might say that this would be a futile endeavor, that to ask "what is...?" questions is as trivial as orange juice, and needs no justification, but I would have to disagree with you on that precise point. You may not believe me, but there was a time when the verb to be, with the meaning that it has today, didn't exist. It is possible to think without it, and without asking "what is...?" questions.

At some point, to be became a part of some (not all) human languages. The ancient Greeks tried to understand what it means in a purposeful and systematic way, and the rest is the history of metaphysics.

  • Would you please specify when there was a time when the verb to be, with the meaning that it has today, didn't exist? Do you mean before the human existence on this planet?
    – user8572
    Feb 1, 2016 at 22:26
  • Before it's indo-european origins, and more particularly before ancient greek philosophy. Feb 2, 2016 at 22:26

Metaphysics is the title of a collection of lectures by Aristotle. The name is not by Aristotle but due to a later librarian who edited all scriptures of Aristotle. The librarian arranged the scripts in question behind Aristotle's scripts on physics which in Greek means meta ta physica.

In his lectures, Aristotle deals with mostly general philosophical questions fundamental to all sciences. E.g. he asks for the first causes (aitia) and principles (archai), see Met. 981.b27ff.

Aristotle names two principles from logic, the principle of non-contradiction (Met. 1005b.17ff) and the tertium non datur, i.e. each proposition is either true or false (Met. 1011b,23ff).

Concerning the first causes of things Aristotle develops the doctrine of the four causes: To understand and to explain the objects around us one should ask four questions: What is the thing made from (causa materialis), what are its characteristics (causa formalis), why does it change (cause efficiens), what is its goal (cause finalis)? (Met. I 988a. 20f).

So far a short introduction to the origin of metaphysics in Europe. To me, a good point to start seems to be reading the first two books of Aristotle: Metaphysics.

Since the times of Aristotle, his teacher Plato and their precursors in Ionian, in Greek and in the Greek colonies in South Italy the subject of metaphysics occupied Western philosophers until today. I just reference two works Kant: Critique of Pure Reason and Heidegger: What is Metaphysics?


Given that metaphysics was originally a book of Aristotles; it might be worth turning to that to discover what this term may mean; since I don't have this text to hand, I'm going to quote from his Physics; which to be fair isn't vastly different.

In any subject which has principles, causes and elements, scientific knowledge and understanding comes from a grasp of these, for we think we know a thing only when we have grasped its first causes and principles and have traced it back to its elements.

So from this perspective it's about discovering the first principles of things; sometimes it's called first philosophy for that reason; this is why he discusses in this text the following:

  • The principles of nature
  • Change
  • Infinity
  • Place
  • Void
  • Time
  • Continuity
  • Permanance

And his method is:

The natural way to go about this is to start with what is more intelligible and clear to us and move from there to what is clearer and more intelligible in itself.

This is exactly the method of Descarte; his clear and distinct ideas; and his single, first and obvious starting point was a deduction: 'I think therefore I am'; this, in short is called the cogito (and leads into the modern theory of subjectivity and intersubjectivity - otherwise called the theory of the Subject).

Aristotle also adds:

The things that which are immediately obvious and clear to us are usually mixed together; their elements and principles only become intelligible later, when one separates them.

What he means by this is what is clear and obvious, on investigation becomes clouded and difficult; for we find that many things are mixed up; also as Parmenides complained to Socrates in the eponymous dialogue by Plato, much has been written, and rewritten; thus there are many positions, many badly expressed - though of course you do not know that at first; and many just minor, and inconsequential alterations - though again, one does not realise this; one has to 'wade through many pages'.

And this is especially true on first principles; for though they are first, they actually come last generally in terms of study; because they are not clear and distinct.

For consider two examples:

For a Christian or a Muslim the existence of God or Allah is a clear thing; but when they are pressed to explain the nature of God they will generally struggle; for many things are mixed up in explaining His nature.

And for most people now the existence of atoms or evolution - these being first principles - is clear and obvious enough; and one can hardly believe that this was once very difficult to establish; but again, when seriously pressed they become difficult, complex and mysterious.

Finally metaphysics shouldn't be confused with mysticism, which is generally a religous-philosophical attitude; or/and a literary genre - for example represented by poets such as Hafiz, Blake and Rumi.


I don't think the field is well defined. Metaphysics deals with the ultimate nature of things. Things like time and space, subsistence, living things, souls etc.

What are things ultimately?

Questions like do things change or do they stay the same? Are things physical or are things of a mental nature or both?

Are the kinds of questions we ask to get to know more about the ultimate nature of things.

Outside philosophy metaphysics can refer to the supernatural world, souls etc.


I used to divide philosophy into Epistemology, Ontology and Metaphysics. Epistemology is the study of knowledge, how our brain understands the world, how much of our understanding is credible, etc. Ontology is a description of the world outside (and inside) us, with its objects, particles, waves, living organisms and many other phenomena. Metaphysics is the branch of thinking about what may exist, but we're not sure. Many phenomena had first an explanation on the metaphysics realm (also called mythology by some, though mythology is more about the three realms at the same time); only later science described those phenomena in terms of known causes and quantities. Then we say science brought the subject from the realm of Metaphysics (what is beyond the physical) to the realm of Ontology (the physical, palpable or sensible in some other way, though Epistemology is always here to remind us that many of our divisions and concepts may be only apparent).

  • Besides other problems with this question, I don't think you actually say what metaphysics is anywhere here. Aug 21, 2015 at 20:17
  • "Metaphysics is the branch of thinking about what may exist, but we're not sure." What's wrong with this definition, in your opinion?
    – Rodrigo
    Aug 21, 2015 at 21:14
  • 1
    Ah, I see - would be helpful to start with that sentence. For that claim itself: Looking at, for example, the Wikipedia article on the topic, it gives as one example as a part of metaphysics questions about identity: what makes something itself. When applied to material objects, clearly (1) we are doing metaphysics and (2) the thing exists. Aug 21, 2015 at 21:42
  • What makes something itself? The chemical elements that constitutes it? If so, that's physics/chemistry = ontology, not metaphysics. If it's something beyond the scope of physics/chemistry/biology, than it's not ontology, but just theoretical assumptions, i.e. metaphysics. And my starting sentence was a different division than the one expressed by the author. So I think it's appropriate to begin with.
    – Rodrigo
    Aug 21, 2015 at 22:46

In short: imponderable nonsense and unjustifiable descriptions.

As the propositions comprising metaphysics are imponderable, i.e., cannot be rendered a truth value, they are epistemically vacuous. As they are epistemically vacuous, no claim to knowledge can be made. As no claim to knowledge can be made, no basis for wisdom can be derived. As philosophy means love of wisdom, and metaphysics is wholly incapable of providing it, metaphysics cannot be philosophy, and this no matter what Wikipedia or junior college philosophy courses may suggest to the contrary.

"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".

This is not to say that metaphysics are entirely without worth, just that they are not philosophy. Furthermore, any subject under the heading of "metaphysics" (whatever the term may be used to mean) is adequately addressed by epistemology (study of knowledge) and ontology (study of existence) and can be analyzed with the tools of logic, rhetoric and reason. Finally, it is worth pointing out that even the urgings of the sly little weaver to agree that the emperor is adorned with fine raiments of gold can be considered "metaphysics."

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .