In short, what are metaphysics?

I literally have no idea what is meant by this term. Isn't everything in this answer already covered by philosophy? Specifically epistemology and ontology and philosophy of science, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, philosophy of society et al.

I understand the etymology of the term and its origination from the categorical decision of Andronicus of Rhodes, however, this does not seem to be the sense in which most use the term. So what sense are we to make of "metaphysics" (or, as it was once called "transphysics" - see p.2 note 5).

Considering the morphology of the term, I am tempted to an understanding of its use as if it meant physics about physics and the closest I can come to there is that metaphysics is redundant for "language" (read: intentionalistic acoustic blasts or other signifiers and symbols). Is not this already adequately addressed by linguistics and philosophy of language (writ short: rhetoric)? If we are to take the prefix "meta-" as "beyond" or "about", "transcending", or simply in the Greek sense of "with" "across" or "after", then is not the philosophy of science the domain of anything beyond, about, with, across or after... physics? As for "transcending" what is there to "transcending physics" other than poetry or the psychological? If the use of "meta-" prior to philosophy is meant to invoke some abstraction informing ("behind" or "fundamental to") philosophy, then where is the inadequacy of the term philosophy to address this purported abstraction? Are logic, rhetoric and reason inadequate to the task of what may otherwise, if a name for such is even warranted, be considered "meta-philosophy"? No.

Furthermore, it seems overwhelmingly the case - tho not necessarily so - that everywhere this term is employed it is used to solicit agreement and not to advance knowledge claims which can be rationally assessed a truth value. For example, from the start in "What Is Metaphysics?" Martin Heidegger asks us to accept as answer the not answering of a direct question. Instead the reader is presented poetry as if it were reasoning: "We can therefore call the truth of be[ing] the ground in which metaphysics as the root of the tree of philosophy is supported, by means of which it is nourished"; and the resulting imponderability of addressing statements such as "each metaphysical question always encompasses the whole problematic of metaphysics and in fact is the whole of metaphysics" is confounded by not answering the direct question, "what is metaphysics". Please note the difference between Heidegger's singular title and the grammar I have chosen for the title to my question here. I do not know if Heidegger's grammatical error owes to translation, however, I think it is worth noting the mis-use of the verb in the singular instance if anything to critique, in Russells words, the "eccentric" prose so typical of metaphysicians and what amounts to obscurantism - not unlike the sly little weaver's insistence upon the Emperor's fine raiments of gold.

Highly eccentric in its terminology, his philosophy is extremely obscure. One cannot help suspecting that language is here running riot. An interesting point in his speculations is the insistence that nothingness is something positive. As with much else in Existentialism, this is a psychological observation made to pass for logic.

From "Wisdom of the West: A Historical Survey Of Western Philosophy In Its Social And Political Setting" by Bertrand Russell (boldface my own).

As for my understanding of the primary redundancy noted above, I appreciate the obvious point that not all language use is in regards to physics, but it seems ridiculous to think that metaphysics means "my point of view" or simply means some such opinion, sentiment, way of looking at things, etc. and that this is considered "a branch of" philosophy.

I've read that metaphysics is about "the nature of nature" but isn't this just a bad pun? The "nature" of nature is natural, no? I've read that metaphysics is an investigation of the fundamental nature of reality, but what does "fundamental" even add to describing reality and the redundant phrase "nature of reality"? Isn't this the domain of physics - unless by "fundamental" you imagine there is something transcendental or mystical or just imponderably mysterious beyond rational comprehension (and even these words do not do justice to the feature I am trying to describe... for what would transcending what is even mean??)

"As long as there continues to be a verb 'to be' that looks as if it functions in the same way as 'to eat' and 'to drink', as long as we have the adjectives 'identical', 'true', 'false', 'possible', as long as we continue to talk of a river of time, of an expanse of space, etc. etc., people will keep stumbling over the same puzzling difficulties and find themselves staring at something which no explanation seems capable of clearing up. And what's more, this satisfies a longing for transcendence, because in so far as people think they see the 'limits of human understanding', they believe of course that they can see beyond these."

From "Culture and Value" by Ludwig Wittgenstein, pg. 15e, c.1931

If by metaphysics it is meant an investigation into the "nature" or "essence" of being, again - is not "being" enough? Is not "existence" enough? Furthermore, are not these domains adequately addressed by the study of existence and the study of what may be said about existence and the rationally assessing of the truth value of these statements? (read: ontology and epistemology).

Unlike Hume, I am not advocating commitment of metaphysics to the flames:

When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

From: "Enquiries Concerning the Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals" by David Hume, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge, M.A. 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1902).

Like Ayer, however, I question what relevancy metaphysics has to philosophy:

...although the greater part of metaphysics is merely the embodiment of humdrum errors, there remain a number of metaphysical passages which are the work of genuine mystical feeling; and they may more plausibly be held to have moral or aesthetic value. But, as far as we are concerned, the distinction between the kind of metaphysics that is produced by a philosopher who has been duped by grammar, and the kind that is produced by a mystic who is trying to express the inexpressible, is of no great importance: what is important to us is to realize that even the utterances of the meta-physician who is attempting to expound a vision are literally senseless; so that henceforth we may pursue our philosophi- cal researches with as little regard for them as for the more inglorious kind of metaphysics which comes from a failure to understand the workings of our language.

From "Language, Truth and Logic" by Alfred Jules Ayer (1936)

And so I ask, is there anything more to "metaphysics" than descriptions which are unjustifiable?

To be clear, I am not suggesting that metaphysics are useless or uninteresting. I ask because, as stated above, it seems quite odd to consider something which is so muddled and unclear "a branch of philosophy".

  • 1
    It's an interesting statement about the anti-pysicalist preferences of this site that a perfectly reasonable question which puzzles many people in their study of philosophy and is supported as a legitimate question by well respected philosophers (Russell, Carnap, Hume, Ayer) has, within just 5 hours, received 4 downvotes, with no explanation and one vote to close. If this exact question troubled the likes of Russell, Hume and Ayer, what on earth is wrong with it appearing on Philosophy.SE?
    – user22791
    Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 7:50
  • @Isaacson metaphysicians are legion amongst us.
    – MmmHmm
    Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 10:10
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    @Isaacson This is a manifesto, not a question. As such it is not suitable for a mere Q&A site.
    – E...
    Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 14:10
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    @EliranH I didn't get that feeling, possibly too much background on why the question has arisen, but there's plenty of cited philosophers to set the question firmly in the academic field and some attempt at balance, contrasting Hume's and Ayer's positions. Besides if it were just the tone, suggesting edits has previously been the accepted method of constructively improving a question, hence I suspect the subject matter is more the problem, the interventions being aimed a removing it and quickly moving on.
    – user22791
    Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 15:54
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    This is too broad and answered properly elsewhere. Please edit if there is something you don't understand about that or if you have a concrete question.
    – user2953
    Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 21:44

2 Answers 2


Is there anything more to "metaphysics" than descriptions which are unjustifiable?

I would agree with this definition, but I would then go on to debate the meaning of "unjustifiable". To put it otherwise: Yes metaphysics is just a bunch of unjustifiable descriptions, but that doesn't make them useless or uninteresting. They are just unjustifiable given the current level of empirical knowledge and physical methods available.

See my response to this thread for a more detailed argument as to why I think metaphysics is still worth it. In particular sections 2.1 and 3 of the response addresses the potential value of metaphysics, as well as the debate between Dennett and Krauss which is referenced in the response.

  • As I tried to make clear in the original posting, I am not suggesting that metaphysics are useless or uninteresting (after the initial response, I figured quoting an aphorism of Wittgenstein would drive this home). I do seek clarification as to what they are, however, because that of metaphysics which are relevant to philosophy are adequately covered without the ambiguous term (e.g. ontology, phil. o' language, et al.)
    – MmmHmm
    Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 22:18

I think Stack Exchange describes it quite well:

Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the essence of things, of the fundamental nature of being and the world and the principles that organize the universe. Metaphysics is supposed to answer the question "What is the nature of reality?"

I would describe it as philosophy of a the substance of things, for example: If a great man sailed a ship, and when he died his ship became a monument, if eventually every part of the ship had been replaced, would it still be his ship? (Sorry if this doesn't help)

  • And what is meant by "what is the nature of reality" other than a redundant question with a trivial answer or solicitation to agreement?
    – MmmHmm
    Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 6:45
  • I don't think it means reality itself, but the reality of any given thing, if that makes sense. Commented Jul 25, 2017 at 5:47

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