What is Metaphysics, and Why Do Feminists Care?

What is metaphysics? Better: what is the subject matter of metaphysics? Historically speaking, the subjects Aristotle covered in Ta Meta ta Phusika are: the rational investigation of the nature of divinity, of being qua being, and of the most basic principles of logic and causality that underlie all of reality.

As the discipline of philosophy gets increasingly technical and specialized, its various sub-fields become divided up into more fine-grained classifications. Today we tend to think of each of the subjects in Aristotle’s Metaphysics, as well as subjects within those subjects, as their own fields of philosophy. Rational inquiries into the nature of divinity, we say, is philosophy of religion. Inquiry into being qua being—or the nature of whatever has being generally—is ontology. But it is the investigation into the most basic, fundamental, or ultimate principles that underlie all of reality that is closest to what we think of as metaphysics today, especially what is left over when we subtract the sub-fields of pure logic and physical causation.

Of course, there have always been debates about exactly what counts as metaphysics in this sense. But those disputes are best seen not as disputes about what metaphysics is (i.e., investigations into most basic and fundamental features of reality), but disputes about what the most basic and fundamental features of reality are.

Most philosophers today would think of the questions about the mind and its relation to nature as belonging either to philosophy of mind or epistemology; but for Berkeley or Bradley or even Leibniz, it was a preeminent question of metaphysics. Why is that? Because they thought of mind as a fundamental feature of reality, whereas most philosophers today do not.

And it was probably those debates over idealism that influenced the description of metaphysics, popular in the 20th century, as the attempt to get beyond mere appearances to reality itself. But even this description retained the core idea of metaphysics traditionally understood by implying that metaphysics is the attempt to  get at the deeper or more fundamental aspects of reality. So we have, and have had, a relatively stable core understanding of what metaphysics is, even if some Chisholming was required to state it as succinctly and clearly as, e.g., Koons and Pickavance do:

In metaphysics we puzzle and wonder about what exists and what existing things are like, in their most fundamental features and relationships. (Metaphysics: The Fundamentals, p. 1)

or, perhaps even better (and more reminiscent of Aristotle’s “First Principles”) is Sider and Conee:

[M]etaphysics is about the most explanatory basic necessities and possibilities. (Riddles of Existence: A Guided Tour of Metaphysics, p. 203)

Some (feminists, of course), however, are triggered by this understanding of metaphysics, and Sider—metaphysician par excellence—concedes:


The complaint seems to be that certain work in social ontology, such as on the ontology of race and gender, ought count as metaphysics, so the traditional understanding of metaphysics is not just inaccurate but suffers from the “moral vice” of wrongly implying that that work doesn’t count as metaphysics.

Well, it doesn’t. It is no doubt true that most exercises in metaphysics will involve doing ontology, and vice versa (though perhaps to a lesser extent). But there is a distinction between the two that I think the traditional understanding of metaphysics helps bring out: metaphysics is an investigation into the most basic or fundamental aspects of reality in particular, whereas ontology is an investigation into the nature of what exists generally. And work on the ontology of race and gender—when it isn’t just leftist propaganda scantily clad in philosophical jargon—are clearly exercises in ontology, not metaphysics. Sans a new, better proposal on how to distinguish metaphysics from ontology, or an outright rejection of any distinction, the traditional understanding of the former seems to me quite accurate on its own and in its implications.

But the claim that the traditional understanding is morally problematic is downright silly. What’s morally problematic about saying topics in social ontology are better classified under… ontology? What’s so special about metaphysics that would make it offensive to imply that some topics aren’t ideally so-classified?

Perhaps the offending assumption is this: the fundamental nature of reality is, in some normative sense, more important than non-fundamental aspects of reality. “So,” the offended philosopher says, “the traditional description of metaphysics implies that my pet projects about race and gender are less important.” As it happens, I agree with the offending assumption. The fundamental nature of reality is deeply normative and so more important than the non-fundamental. But that’s because I’m not a naturalist. I believe that at the fundamental level of reality is a morally perfect tri-personal being. It is for that very reason I do think certain topics in social ontology count as metaphysics (the ontology of race and gender are not among them).

But I wager that most philosophers working on topics in social ontology don’t agree with the offending assumption; i.e., they are naturalists. In fact, most contemporary metaphysicians themselves, as naturalists, wouldn’t agree with the offending assumption either. On naturalism, the fundamental nature of reality is not normative, and so can’t be more important than non-fundamental aspects of reality. So I just don’t know why they’d think that the traditional understanding of metaphysics suffers from a “moral vice.”

Rather, I suspect it is the offended philosophers who suffer from the moral vice here. Why else might they be triggered by the thought that their pet projects on the ontology of race and gender don’t count as metaphysics? Here’s a suggestion: they, in their own sexist stereotyping, think of metaphysics, with all its contemporary prestige of rigor and esoterica, as what the boys like to work on. So, in their eagerness to either join or refashion the metaphysics club, they simply announce that their pet projects should count as metaphysics, too. But the idea that the metaphysics club is a boys club is ludicrous. Membership is, and always has been, open to anyone who wants to philosophize about the fundamental nature of reality. Until they do that, they should quit their bitchin’.

Federal Philosopher

Federal Philosopher is a philosophy graduate student in New Jersey. She was awakened from her political slumbers after reading biographies of Margaret Thatcher—one of her heroes. She loves philosophy, but thinks the profession has been hijacked by a bunch of leftist bullies who are little more than partisan journalists that happen to know philosophical jargon. She carries a recurve bow and quiver full of arrows at all times, so as not to trigger leftists by saying she packs a .380 in her purse.

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  1. I wouldn’t separate metaphysics and ontology into separate categories. And Sider might technically have been wrong if he ever actually asserted that *the* central goal of metaphysics is only to inquire into what is “fundamental,” i.e., “at the bottom level.” I’m not sure about that claim, at least as a substantial metametaphysical thesis. Though, as his footnote indicates, he didn’t mean to imply this in the first place.

    But I agree it is entirely silly to assert that the “practice” of fundamental metaphysics “marginalizes” feminist metaphysics. The practice of contemporary metaphysics a la Sider, so far as I can tell, is not substantially different from the way metaphysics has been done in the past — either by the ancients, the medievals, the moderns, or the early analytics. And to that extent, the practice of metaphysics is *just fine*, in the first place because such questions are among the most significant philosophical issues that there are, and the attention they get is entirely commensurate to their value.

    If feminists object to this — and think that metaphysics as a discipline should stop worrying so much about the questions it presently does ask (and always has) — then they are wrong, and have simply failed to grasp the deep importance of knowledge about the most fundamental nature of reality. But if, instead, they have something more moderate in mind, e.g. that all metaphysicians can continue to think about these things as they always have, but must also talk more about feminist social ontology, then it’s unclear what the demand is: Is it that every metaphysician must be worried about the ontology of race and gender? Or that conferences must always include both talks about traditional metaphysical topics *and* talks about social ontology, maybe in equal numbers? Or that we must not make any distinction between fundamental metaphysics and social metaphysics at all?

    It seems that the demand, in that case, is simply that metaphysicians, in addition to their traditional concerns, also be constantly worried about social ontology. But is the failure to do so really “marginalization”? Is it marginalizing every time there’s a meta-ethics conference on reasons externalism without any papers on feminist virtue ethics? And must logicians begin to include feminist perspectives on relevance logic when organizing their semantics workshops? (And what are physicists, mathematicians, and biologists going to have to do? Will Terence Tao be forced to apologize in his next analysis paper for not talking about the number of genders instead?)

    As a matter of fact, I find the questions of the metaphysics of gender and race quite interesting (though I’m sure these feminists would not be happy about my substantive views; I wonder if they’ll complain about my marginalization?). But I don’t see any reason why the simple fact of traditional metaphysicians not talking about this all the time “marginalizes” these metaphysical topics, any more than their failing to always talk about the soul or about God or about moral ontology marginalizes the metaphysics of mind, the philosophy of religion, or meta-ethics.

    The fact is, social ontology is reasonably classified as a separate field dealing with different questions from fundamental metaphysics. The relation between social ontology and fundamental metaphysics is like the relation between applied ethics and meta-ethics. Just like the latter, there need not *always* be a strict separation. But also like the latter, it is patently silly to claim that distinguishing the applied area from the meta area results in “marginalization” to the detriment of the former.

    Add to all of this the fact that feminism is a preposterous ideology that skews the vision of its delirious proponents, so that they see the world in terms of (entirely imaginary) oppression and (entirely imaginary) oppressors, and it is clear that there is no real issue here at all; it is just more feminists getting triggered because someone else isn’t as constantly obsessed with their (imaginary) woes as they are.

  2. This post is rather annoying. Federal Philosopher denounces the assumption of Sider’s without investigating those papers by Barnes and Mikkola that animate Sider’s motives in the comment, and then it asks why does metaphysics suffer a moral vice without really ever reading about those concerns in the first place. You do not have to agree with everything you read in philosophy, but if we are gong to take issue with Barnes and Mikkola, we should give them an honest reading rather than insist rhetorically that they are “pet projects.” Why does the traditional understanding of metaphysics get a bad wrap? I dunno, and it’s clear you don’t either. Most feminists start with a critique of essentialism of varying degrees. Perhaps, start there?

    • Jim, do you really think you have to read a bunch of papers to evaluate whether, say, Conee and Sider’s definition of metaphysics suffers from a moral vice? Why do you think that? That’s silly! Come down from your ivory tower! It isn’t helping you.

      • The issue at work here is just exactly how feminist metaphysics is marginalized or not (and whether or not that’s fair to metaphysics in general as defined by Federal Philosopher), and the question is, I take it, if this marginalization is a moral vice? The fact that Sider footnotes both Barnes and Makkola should give us pause that the answer with the question FP is raising has to do with these two papers and accounts like them.

        So yes, Walter. The question was never just with Conee and Sider, but with the concession they’re giving to Barnes and Makkola. If FP wants her critique to have punch and bite, she should give a charitable presentation of those views rather than hand-waving critiques. Sometimes, good philosophy occurs by doing it well.

        More succinctly, it’s a difference between being an informed conservative philosopher arguing fairly and well for one’s philosophical critique or being a conservative ideologue who claims to be a philosopher.

      • Jim,

        First, note that not everything on this blog is or is intended to be a piece of philosophy. “We, as academics on the right, created this blog to share perspectives on politically related topics and current events that are rarely represented in other academic blogs, or anywhere else in academia for that matter. Some of our posts will be research oriented. Some of our posts will be critical replies and rebuttals. Some will be satirical and comical. Some will be expository and info-sharing. Some will be philosophically exploratory.”

        Second, it’s likely that in the future, works by (e.g.) Barnes and Makkola will be addressed in their own right.

        Finally, you’re missing the point of the post by Federal Philosopher. She thinks that what Barnes and Makkola are engaged in is social ontology and not metaphysics proper. This might not be correct; see Ideal Observers clarification or correction above. But FP needn’t take a stand on the overall merits of Barnes or Makkola’s work (soundness of their arguments, etc.) to make her point except to the extent that such work is not engaging with ultimate matters.

  3. “What is Metaphysics, and Why Do Feminists Care?”

    They don’t.

    What planet are you living on.

    What is wrong with you people.

    Stop walking the tight rope. You can’t keep your balance.

    This is insanity.

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