Brief History of Metaphysics

Brief History of a Word and of a Subject

Metaphysics, as we understand it in the Western world, has two primary philosophical sources:

  • The speculative reference, which has been once and forever established by Plato;
  • The conceptual language of science, which has been once and forever established by Aristotle.

However, it took more than fifteen hundred years for the word ‘metaphysics’ to ultimately get its current meaning:

  • In the 4th century BC, Aristotle wrote 14 books on the subject but never used the word metaphysics. 
  • In the 1st century BC, an editor of Aristotle’s work1, used the phrase ta meta ta physika, which literally means “after the things of nature.”  
  • Finally, ‘metaphysics’ in one word occurs in the 6th century AD in a catalog of Aristotle work2.
  • Throughout the Middle Ages, ‘metaphysics’ designates Aristotle’s 14 books, but after the Middle Ages it designates the science of what is beyond the physical world.

Even though it took some 17 centuries for the word metaphysics to arrive at its current meaning, the subject was philosophically addressed in Plato’s work and scientifically defined in Aristotle’s original books. In Aristotle’s original work, the concept of metaphysics covers two main points of view:

  • One relates to being as being, meaning the being beyond any physical being,
  • The other to the First being, and can be called first philosophy or theology.

These two points of view together constitute a single science in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, but they will begin to be considered as separate sciences in the 15th century, when the term ‘ontology’ begins to be used to designate “being as being” aspect of metaphysics3. Nevertheless, today, metaphysics still necessarily encompasses both ontology and theology. God is the First being and, as such, He is the source of being which means that He is beyond both being and non-being.

The Death and Rebirth of Metaphysics

Kant reputedly killed metaphysics some 200 years ago, when he made his gigantic rational construction, which turned out to be a gigantic reduction. In brief, Kant elevated reason to be the highest function in man and swept away the idea of intelligence. Yet, today we understand that knowledge arises both through the five senses and through the intellect. The former is a knowledge by abstraction from what sensation; the latter is knowledge by participation as the intellect is open to the supernatural.  As Leibniz said, “nihil est in intellectu quod non fuerit in sensu” (nothing is in intelligence, which wasn’t before in the senses), “nisi ipse intellectus” (but the intellect itself).

The intellect in action (and in its metaphysical essence) is like a crystal. The crystal receives the light, but it doesn’t produce it4. That is “metaphysics as seeing”, as Wolfgang has put it in the collective book What is Metaphysics? Let us add that: of course, Kant was not the only one at fault here.  He was just reflecting the épistémè of his time. In the time of Kant, science had become independent from philosophy, and philosophy independent from theology.

In spite of Kant’s efforts, metaphysics never truly disappeared in the Western world, though it did definitely recede in the general thinking of the times. Philosophers from Kant to Derrida failed philosophically, to kill metaphysics because the reduction of man to his reason is not sufficient to explain man. Cartesianism, then Kantism and neokantism tries to reduce the human tripartition (corpus, anima, spiritus) to the duality body-mind. Derrida’s attempted to go even further by reducing man to body only because, for Derrida, there is not even a single or universal reason but a multitude of disparate reasons. Of course, he didn’t realize that this very sentence only makes sense if reason is unique and shared among men. This contradiction killed his philosophic system instantaneously. Metaphysics began to be resuscitated in the first half of the 20th century when the metaphysician René Guénon reestablished the possibility of a sacred intellectuality by very clearly presenting key metaphysical doctrines under a clear initial influence of the East (precisely the advaita vedānta either the Vallabha or Vijnanabhikshu branch, this being still discussed). We can say that just like the West benefited in the Middle Ages from the Arab metaphysicians who preserved and helped restore the work of Aristotle, the Western metaphysics revival similarly benefited from Eastern metaphysics via Guénon.

Modern Science and Metaphysics

What is Science?

Any science can be defined by its material and formal objects. For example, plants are the material object of both botany and pharmacology, but their curative virtues are considered by pharmacology, while their structures are studied in botany. Two different formal objects applied to the same material object produces two different sciences5. This is how science was classically defined, by its formal object.

Modern science is typically broken down into several branches – formal (e.g., logic and mathematics), natural (e.g. physics and biology), social (e.g., economics and sociology) and applied (e.g., engineering and medicine).  Modern sciences tend to define themselves primarily by their material objects today with little emphasis on their formal objects.  This has led to a vast multiplication of scientific disciplines as per the multitude of available material objects.6 Moreover, as the formal object of the generic science has blurred it is often replaced by ideology with the predictable result that the resulting knowledge is reduced to pure description. A description that does not confess its premises, provides limited knowledge, if any.

It is important to note that, when it comes to ideology in science, its source is not always found where we think it is.  Darwin, for example, expressly mentions that his theory doesn’t exclude God in anyway yet many rightly perceive that Darwinism today is an ideology that explicitly does exclude God.  Similarly, Descartes was not particularly Cartesian nor was Newton particularly Newtonian.

Finally, we note that modern science disperses into such an indefinite number of objects and related analyses that synthesis even is no longer even a remote possibility. (We could also say that analytical philosophy pursues a similar path and falls into the same trap.) Modern science has produced the specialist who, in the end, knows everything about nothing, which is certainly no better than the generalist who knows nothing about everything.

The Limits of Science

The main limit of science is the one it imposes to itself. It is the establishing limit set by its material and formal objects. For example, a science that studies an orange with a ruler will give at best all possible measurable dimensions of the orange but will be far from knowing the orange.

More and more, there are scientists who are not content to live within the limits set by the material and formal objects of their science and who begin to speculate beyond the boundaries of their science.  When a scientist passes the borders that limit his science, however, we lose the science and get nothing in exchange, because a scientist is rarely a philosopher. Wolfgang Smith gives us a compelling example of this in his review of Stephen Hawking’s last book.  Wolfgang shows decisively that Hawking is no philosopher and that in exceeding the limits of his science, Hawking produces not science but science fiction. 

There are 4 other limits of science which, interestingly, have now been established by scientists themselves:

  • Constructive limits:  There will never be a mathematical formal framework proved to be non-contradictory—Gödel; in physics, the scientific certitude has reduced to the limited trust in some hypothesis—Popper;
  • Predictive limits: In mathematics, this is the predictive horizon that limits the predictability of nonlinear dynamic systems, even if they are perfectly determinist; in quantum mechanics, the probabilistic nature of the measurement prevents any punctual certainty;
  • Ontological limits: We will never know, in a definitive way, which mathematical objects exist or not; in physics, the ontology of quantum mechanics being the universe as a whole, it is no longer legitimate to consider that reality is made up of independent individual objects; and
  • Cognitive limits: In mathematics, in whichever formal system, it exists an infinity of true statements that cannot be demonstrated; in physics, quantum mechanics leads to give up description of the reality.

This is why some scientists now seriously consider Plato’s geometry or Aristotle’s metaphysical concepts in order to better understand the physical world. Wolfgang Smith, for example, resolves the “quantum enigma” by applying the potentia & actus distinction from Aristotle and Aquinas.

What Does Christian Metaphysics Mean?

Christianity has absorbed both Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics. St. Augustine first merged the Platonic Ideas within the Word, the divine Logos, St. Thomas Aquinas then integrated Aristotle into Christian metaphysics while also preserving the Platonic legacy (in particular via St. Dionysius the Areopagite). The dialectic between both sources still is at work in the Church’s thinking. This relates to the way the soul has access to the immanence of God.

What is the Language of Metaphysics?

Metaphysics, by definition, is that which is “beyond” physics.  It points to the fact that anything that exists is always accompanied by an invisible root that is its cause or source and that is not part of the existence itself. This is where esotericism often enters the conversation as an indication that something valuable is hidden behind a veil.  But esotericism should not be confused with metaphysical doctrine.  Metaphysical doctrine actually lifts the veil rather than simply showing us that the veil exists.7 

Metaphysics uses language and logical reasoning to communicate abstract concepts and principles.  It is transparent and clear in a way that esotericism often is not. We must also always keep in mind that even though metaphysics employs language, it does so to ultimately point to something that is beyond language. In this respect, metaphysics is the ultimate hermeneutic, the last interpretation that cannot be again interpreted in turn. In fact, metaphysical language suggests its own erasure, its auto-abolition. This is because the language, the discourse, the words, the concepts are just tools for the intelligence to access the Reality beyond them, the light or the truth that do not reside in words.

Now, in complement to the intellectual mode, metaphysics may also employ the symbolic mode. According to Jean Borella, the symbolic makes us see, whereas the intellectual makes us hear. This is why religious metaphysics often has a greater emphasis on the use of symbols.  Symbols can help mitigate the limitations of language.

Now, a very fundamental point: if intelligence naturally deals with supernatural things, that is because intelligence is not part of the natural world. “Intellect comes through the door” or “from outside”, says Aristotle8. Therefore, there is an absolute necessity to renounce that, what we call our own intelligence, the vanity of our own little light and to leave the place empty for the real Light to appear.

Metaphysics and Religions

Religions are in fact the natural home of metaphysics because in the fullest sense, metaphysics is both a science and a journey. Metaphysics without mysticism stays at the level of reason and does not elevate to the intellect level where it is illuminated. This, by the way, is the ‘superiority’ of Plato over Aristotle. Aristotle founded science with the rigorous scientific discourse validated by logic (he also is the founder of logic), but he did so at the price of renouncing access to “Ideas” (the Platonic doctrine that he could never understand in spite of being Plato’s student for 17 years).

Modern science, seeking even further precision, went another step lower by reducing science to pure mathematical abstraction. Aristotle’s 4th cause (the final cause or the “why”) was abandoned and qualities disappeared to be replaced completely by quantities. Modern ideas such as morphogenetic fields, the entropic principle and intelligent design were born in reaction to the abandonment of final cause.

The language of metaphysics is just a tool, an access to the Light (capital L), as we said. So, it becomes obvious that any religion possesses its own theological and also metaphysical language. As such, each religion has developed specific conceptual tools and uses specific symbols to lead the faithful servants towards God. This is universal and illustrated by a Hadith: “I stay, says God, alongside the idea my servant has of me”.

Yet, if some intellectual tools and symbols are common to many religions, this is not the case for all, by far. Therefore, there is no such thing than some supra-metaphysics or “transcendent unity” or “Religio perennis” or “Sophia perennis” or “King of the world”. At best, we can talk of an “analogic unity of religion” (Borella), in which each religion is unique in its form and language.

This means then that metaphysics does not provide any supreme language above those of religions. As such, the language of a (revealed) religion is adequate to express universal metaphysic (or ultimate) notions, and vice versa.

And here we must also pause to point out that there is some arrogance behind the presumption of the “transcendent unity of all religions.”  The very notion presumes that the seer is above all religions – he sees and understands all religions and is essentially omniscient; he is God himself.  Such a posture is in perfect opposition to the humility and awe that all genuine religions foster in their sages and saints.

Christian Metaphysics

Christian metaphysics simply is metaphysics expressed in Christian language. But there is much more, it is the metaphysics you arrive at when using the Christian language, and to which you would never have accessed without the Christian language. For example, the Christian Holy Trinity leads us to the identity of person and relation.  In the Trinity, the persons of Father and Son turn out to be pure relations (fatherhood and filiation). Here as well is where the love and gift relationship happen to be a person: the Holy Spirit. Now you can switch from a metaphysics of being to a metaphysics of relation.


  1. Nicolaus of Damascus.[]
  2. Probably established by Hesychius of Miletus.[]
  3. Clauberg.[]
  4. In other words, the formula “nihil est in intellectu quod non fuerit in sensu” [nothing is in intelligence, which wasn’t before in the senses] requires the addition/rectification by Leibniz: “nisi ipse intellectus” [but the intellect itself].[]
  5. Same thing with the human body, material object of medicine, physiology, anatomy and philosophy, but considered either as object of cure, as seat of functions, as made up of organs, or as comprised of matter and form.[]
  6. Homological algebra, calculus, convex geometry, neurobiology, statistical mechanics, second-order cybernetics, quantum computing, digital humanities, homeokinetics, extragalactic astronomy, etc. up to several hundreds of distinct sciences.[]
  7. I follow here Jean Borella in Guenonian Esoterism and Christian Mystery, 2005.[]
  8. De la génération des animaux, II 3, 736 a, 27-b 12.[]