What is metaphysics for a contemporary philosopher? Is there agreement that it is still considered a valid field of inquiry within contemporary philosophy?
Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz
With all due respects to prevailing opinions on metaphysics, I’m going to be so brash as to say that most post-Aristotelian metaphysics is not metaphysics at all, but merely a philosophical veneer for theology, mysticism, spiritualism and other pursuits of this ilk. Under those terms it is easy to agree with anyone who calls it a waste of time (starting, incidentally, with Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan).
Let us therefore consider the meaning of the word! What is meta and what is physics, and how come they were compounded?
Well now: We all know what physics is, i.e. study of the physical world with a view to framing theories of “What is?”. Hence matter, energy, thermodynamics etc., some of which is amenable to being turned into technology. No issues.
What about “meta”? It means “with”, “after”, “around”, “belonging to” in some ways. Take note now: as combined, these words spell out that metaphysics is something that is in some way copulated with physics, but is not physics in itself.
So much for meaning. I think you (or anyone) would now have difficulty puzzling out where gods and angels, ghosts and witches fit in! Even for those believe(d) in them, they are exactly the opposite of what physics is concerned with.
But then, what is “meta”-physics really?
Answer: They are items that belong to physics, but are not existents. Such as: Cause, beginning, end, force, fundamental principle, element, necessity, contingency, substance, being, identity, difference, potential, quality, relation, limit etc etc. All these can be found in Aristotle’s “Philosophical Lexicon”, that is part of his book on Metaphysics. Today, this kind of research is called “Theoretical Physics”; but as you can see, it is metaphysics – the real metaphysics.
The philosophical discipline which goes under the same name is simply a hangover from the scholastic era when everyone, including theologians, firmly believed in the actual existence of spirit beings of all kinds; they believed moreover that earthly existence is not real and that physical existents were mere phenomena. Yet it is on these terms that the word “metaphysics” is still misconstrued, although for philosophers, even academics, there was certainly no warrant to persist with it for at least the last 200 years.
After this explanation, you might usefully approach your question from a different angle. Metaphysics is neither theology nor mysticism; therefore the pseudo-metaphysics targeted by your question has no place in modern philosophy. But the genuine article still has relevance, because its agenda is wider than theoretical physics alone; and you would not wish to dismiss the idea that Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Adorno, even Whitehead still made significant contributions to it. They are indeed heirs of the great metaphysical systems of the 19th century (Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer et al.), which finally linked up again with the authentic metaphysics of the men from Thales to Aristotle, and Descartes to Leibniz.
My hope is, that you may now feel an urge to correct your inadvertent misuse of a philosophical nomenclature and seriously involve yourself with some of the finest and most far-reaching accomplishments of the human mind in history, to which the title ‘metaphysics’ is attached with full justice.