Nature and scope of metaphysics

In the 4th century BCE the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote a treatise about what he variously called “first philosophy,” “first science,” “wisdom,” and “theology.” In the 1st century BCE, an editor of his works gave that treatise the title Ta meta ta physika, which means, roughly, “the ones [i.e., books] after the ones about nature.” “The ones about nature” are those books that make up what is today called Aristotle’s Physics, as well other writings of his on the natural world. The Physics is not about the quantitative science now called physics; instead, it concerns philosophical problems about sensible and mutable (i.e., physical) objects. The title Ta meta ta physika probably conveyed the editor’s opinion that students of Aristotle’s philosophy should begin their study of first philosophy only after they had mastered the Physics. The Latin singular noun metaphysica was derived from the Greek title and used both as the title of Aristotle’s treatise and as the name of its subject matter. Accordingly, metaphysica is the root of the words for metaphysics in almost all Western European languages (e.g., metaphysics, la métaphysique, die Metaphysik).

Aristotle provided two definitions of first philosophy: the study of “being as such” (i.e., the nature of being, or what it is for a thing to be or to exist) and the study of “the first causes of things” (i.e., their original or primary causes). The relation between these two definitions is a much-debated question. Whatever its answer may be, however, it is clear that the subject matter of what is today called metaphysics cannot be identified with that of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. While it is certainly true that all the problems that Aristotle considered in his treatise are still said to belong to metaphysics, since at least the 17th century the word metaphysics has been applied to a much wider range of questions. Indeed, if Aristotle were somehow able to examine a present-day textbook on metaphysics, he would classify much of its content not as metaphysics but as physics, as he understood the latter term. To take only one example, the modern

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