Metaphysics – What it is and why it matters

Here’s a short paper I wrote for my Introduction to Classical Philosophy class:

Recently, the Alberta Government released an 18-page document titled, “Guidelines for Best Practices: Creating Learning Environments that Respect Diverse Sexual Orientations, Gender Identities and Gender Expressions.” The anonymous authors of this document state: “For the purpose of accommodating the diverse needs of students and staff in a school, an individual’s self-identification is the sole measure of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.”[1] Such concepts of “self-identification” and “self-making”, so prevalent in contemporary culture, show the extent to which the classical understanding of metaphysics has become obfuscated. The “Metaphysics” entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy begins with the acknowledgement, “It is not easy to say what metaphysics is.” Classical, that is, Aristotelian metaphysics, concerns: nature (observable reality), first and ultimate causes (rationality and order), and unchanging things (insight into the transcendent structure of reality on the basis of particular experiences).[2] But, as the same article points out, “a philosopher who denied the existence of those things that had once been seen as constituting the subject-matter of metaphysics—first causes or unchanging things—would now be considered to be making thereby a metaphysical assertion.”[3]

I will give a brief overview of classical metaphysics based on the defense it receives in the The Lublin Philosophical School. Then, I will discuss the modern derailment from classical metaphysics, based on Emil Fackenheim’s 1961 Aquinas Lecture, Metaphysics and Historicity and Eric Voegelin’s Science, Politics, and Gnosticism. While most people are not having conversations about “being itself” and “real reality”, they do make metaphysical presuppositions that have anthropological consequences. Philosophical reasoning that is open to transcendence can help us resist the pulverization of man that happens as the result of attempting to replace the objective standards of truth and goodness with the subjectivism of values.

In The Lublin Philosophical School, Mieczysław A. Krąpiec and Andrzej Maryniarczyk discuss metaphysics as realistic philosophy: “Realistic philosophy is directed at the cognition of really existing persons and things. This is the traditional and classical object of philosophical cognition, as opposed to various forms of subjectivism that reduce philosophy to an analysis of cognitive signs, concepts, language, or the data of consciousness.”[4] The purpose of realistic philosophy, which Eric Voegelin discusses in terms of scientific analysis, is “the perception of the order of being unto its origin in transcendent, in particular, the loving openness of the soul to its transcendent ground of order.”[5] The practical consequences of those who attempt to destroy the order of being, rather than understand it, are ever-motivating a return to realistic philosophy in an effort to resist the reductionism that undermines man’s dignity and freedom. For this reason, and because of this aim, John Paul II stressed, “Every understanding of reality—which does in fact correspond to reality—has every right to be accepted by the ‘philosophy of being,’ no matter who is to be credited with such progress in understanding or to what philosophical school that person belongs.”[6]

However, even the classical understanding of metaphysics can be confusing. On the one hand, “Metaphysics as Aristotle intended it designates the type of philosophical thought that concerns things given to us in experience.”[7] On the other hand, as Aquinas puts it, “[Metaphysics] goes beyond physics, since for us it is what we do after physics, as we should move from what is knowable by the senses to what cannot be known by the senses.”[8] So which is it? Is the physical world of experience the proper point of departure? Or, should metaphysics concern timeless truth and reality as a whole?

John Paul II thought that “the person constitutes a privileged locus for the encounter with being, and hence with metaphysical enquiry.”[9] In our everyday lives, we find that there is more that can be discovered through our cognition than the knowledge of immanent particulars. It is an experiential fact that we can extrapolate our understanding through memory, thought, and imagination. The process by which we experience things from which we can gain insight into reality as a whole is described as analogical-transcendentalizing language.[10] That is, through analogy, we transcend the limits of our particular experiences and can understand things more generally. For example, through the experience someone has of his own mother, he may grasp something of the nature of motherhood generally. But, if he misinterprets some experience, then he diminishes his possibility for correct analogical cognition into reality as a whole. This is why Aristotle warned that an initial deviation from truth becomes multiplied later a thousandfold.[11] Although many attempt to absolutize either particular experiences or absolute principles, a careful look at reality (especially human nature) teaches us about the nuanced interplay between experiential facts and universal truth. As the next section explores, even those who attempt to shun metaphysics cannot ultimately resist the self-awareness that their experience and cognition straddle the finite and the infinite, the immanent and the transcendent, the temporal and the universal.

Delivering the Aquinas Lecture in 1961, Emil Fackenheim said, “For in its long and eventful career, metaphysics has made one claim without hesitation and with the utmost consistency: that the predicament of history, however grave, is not wholly beyond human remedy; that at least when engaged in metaphysical discourse, man can rise above history to a grasp of timeless truth.”[12] However, this longstanding claim is often disputed or rejected. We see attempts being made to substitute timeless truth and permanent human nature with the concepts of historicity and self-making through action:

If metaphysical truth is timeless, then man, the animal capable of recognizing this truth, must have a capacity which is itself timeless. This is an implication which traditional metaphysicians could easily accept; for they believed in a human nature which, though subject to accidental historical changes, was essentially permanent. But what if there is no such thing as permanent human nature? What if the distinction between permanent nature and historical change is a false distinction: if man’s very being is historical? All the metaphysicians just referred to, and many more, have rejected the doctrine of human nature, and replaced it with what may be called a doctrine of historicity.[13]

If truth is historical, not objective, then we cannot reasonably argue about it. Whoever controls history would control being. And, as Fakenheim points out, if man’s ‘nature’ is merely the product of his acting, it is not a proper nature at all.[14] A person’s nature, with its reason and freedom, threatens another’s capacity for control or manipulation. Eric Voegelin analyzes “the essential connection between the libido dominandi, the system, and the prohibition of questions” in attempts by such thinkers as Marx, Nietzsche, and Hegel to seize control of being. “History as a whole is essentially not an object of cognition;” Voegelin explains, “the meaning of the whole is not discernable. Hegel can construct, then, a meaningfully self-contained process of history only by assuming that the revelation of God in history is fully comprehensible.”[15] This is why systematic thinkers, in this sense, must deny God’s world-transcendence. Attempts at mastery, which tend to evolve into tyranny over human beings, demand the non-recognition of transcendence. The admission of mystery and unpredictability in human history or human nature is perceived as a threat, so questions about origins and purposes must be prohibited. However, attempts to create comprehensive systems abolishing questions about first and final causes that immanentize transcendence always fail. Fakenheim discusses such systems:

The historian’s history of Weltanschauungen [Worldview] is, to be sure, forever incomplete in one sense; but it is forever complete in another. It is forever incomplete because, itself written from a historical standpoint, it must be rewritten in every age. But it is forever complete in that it leaves no room, beyond the history of metaphysics, for an independent inquiry into metaphysical truth.[16]

Interestingly, historicism, like relativism, necessarily involves self-contradiction: “The very thesis ‘Being manifests itself differently in different periods’ cannot without self-contradiction be historicized.”[17] It grasps at a general truth that transcends any particular age. Like the moral relativist who says, “All truth is relative”, but obviously means to omit this thesis from being relativized, so the historicist, even in the attempt to deny unchanging nature, finds a need to affirm the absolute, the ground of man’s existence from which he takes his bearings. We can see an analogous prohibition of questioning and progressive view of history in the accusation that someone is “on the wrong side of history.” Such a view attempts to quash freedom and eliminate uncertainty from human affairs.

John Paul II recognized this problem of cutting off human nature and history from its transcendent source since it is this source “which makes it possible to ground the concept of personal dignity in virtue of [the human person’s] spiritual nature”. For this reason, he connected the contemporary disdain for metaphysics with the pulverization of man when, in a letter to Henri de Lubac, he wrote:

I devote my very rare free moments to a work that is close to my heart and devoted to the metaphysical sense and mystery of the person. It seems to me that the debate today is being played out on that level. The evil of our times consists in the first place in a kind of degradation, indeed in a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person. This evil is even much more of the metaphysical order than of the moral order. To this disintegration planned at times by atheistic ideologies we must oppose, rather than sterile polemics, a kind of ‘recapitulation’ of the inviolable mystery of the person.[18]

Based on his observation, John Paul II thought the greater metaphysical temptation to us currently involves absolutizing experience. And so, in Fides et Ratio said, “I want only to state that reality and truth do transcend the factual and the empirical, and to vindicate the human being’s capacity to know this transcendent and metaphysical dimension in a way that is true and certain, albeit imperfect and analogical.”[19] He affirmed “the need for a philosophy of genuinely metaphysical range, capable, that is, of transcending empirical data in order to attain something absolute, ultimate and foundational in its search for truth […because…] it is a requirement for knowing the moral good, which has its ultimate foundation in the Supreme Good, God himself.”[20] The extent to which we can seek the truth depends on the extent to which we open ourselves to reality. Our everyday experiences living and communicating with others teach us about the subjective and objective dimensions of human life. The simple fact that others are transcendent to our personal subjectivity can give us analogical insight into the transcendent structure of reality, the standard by which we judge subjective understanding and attune ourselves in order to become more receptive to what is true and good.

As “faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth”, so are phenomenology and metaphysics. Rocco Buttiglione says that together they constitute “the living body of philosophical experience”:

Phenomenology helps to disentangle the intricacies of human experience and leads us up to the fundamental questions which properly belong to the realm of metaphysics. Metaphysics, for its part, helps phenomenology not to get lost in the mazes of its interpretations. Metaphysics allows us to see, in a certain sense, the fundamental frame and the skeleton of experience while phenomenology shows us the tendons and muscles supported by this skeleton.[21]

After studying Thomas Aquinas and Max Scheler, Karol Wojtyła said, “I am led to conclude that the concept of a norm is justified in a system of moral philosophy that proceeds from an existential view of the good and is not really justified in a system of the philosophy of values.”[22] The Alberta Government’s “Guidelines for Best Practices: Creating Learning Environments that Respect Diverse Sexual Orientations, Gender Identities and Gender Expressions” document is an example of a current exaggeration of existential subjectivity we find in education and culture. The suppression or prohibition of metaphysical questions happens when there is a desire to swap an existential view of the good for subjective values. Since we can only value something insofar as we know the worth of it, knowing what is actually good is necessary for making a meaningful interpretation of our subjectivity and existence. Our own feelings and values cannot be this standard since, as Plato puts it, “nothing imperfect is the measure of anything.”[23] Given the current exaggeration of emphasis on experience and expression, to the neglect of the transcendent source from which existence and personality emerge, I can see the need for Aristotelian and Thomistic metaphysics in order to help us recover unchanging nature, timeless truth, and transcendence as we resist the pulverization of man whenever his spiritual nature is forgotten or denied.

[1] Alberta Education, “Guidelines for Best Practices: Creating Learning Environments that Respect Diverse Sexual Orientations, Gender Identities and Gender Expressions” (2016), 5.

[2] Peter van Inwagen and Meghan Sullivan, “Metaphysics“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Mieczysław Krąpiec and Andrzej Maryniarczyk, The Lublin Philosophical School, (Lublin: Polskie Towarzystwo Tomasza z Akwinu, 2010), 30.

[5] Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2004),16.

[6] Pope John Paul II, “The Angelicum Address”, Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Rome, Delivered on November 17, 1979.

[7] Mieczysław Krąpiec and Andrzej Maryniarczyk, The Lublin Philosophical School, 81.

[8] Ibid, 80.

[9] Pope John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, Encyclical Letter of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II: To the Bishops of the Catholic Church On the Relationship between Faith and Reason, (Vatican, 1998).

[10] Mieczysław Krąpiec and Andrzej Maryniarczyk, The Lublin Philosophical School, 33.

[11] Aristotle, On the Heavens, (The Internet Classics Archive: 1994), Part 5.

[12] Emil L. Fackenheim, The Aquinas Lecture, 1961: Metaphysics and Historicity, (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1961), 9.

[13] Ibid, 12.

[14] Ibid, 26.

[15] Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, 79.

[16] Emil L. Fackenheim, The Aquinas Lecture, 1961: Metaphysics and Historicity, 60.

[17] Ibid, 79.

[18] Quoted by Paweł Tarasiewicz in “The Common Sense Personalism of St. John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla)“, (Studia Gilsoniana: Volume 3, 2014), 623.

[19] Pope John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, Article 83.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Rocco Buttiglione’s “The Political Praxis of Karol Wojtyla and St. Thomas Aquinas”
quoted by Paweł Tarasiewicz in “The Common Sense Personalism of St. John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla),” 629-630.

[22] Karol Wojtyła’s “On the Metaphysical and Phenomenological Basis of the Moral Norm in the Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas and Max Scheler,” quoted by Paweł Tarasiewicz in “The Common Sense Personalism of St. John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla),” 626.

[23] Plato, The Republic, Translated by Benjamin Jowett, (The Internet Classics Archive: 1994), Book VI.


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