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’.
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