A Note on Metaphysics, in Partial Response to Peter Hacker’s “Why Study Philosophy?”

0. In “Why study philosophy?,” a note posted to his Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog, Brian Leiter points us to an article, also bearing the title, “Why Study Philosophy,” posted at iai news* and written by Peter Hacker, Emeritus research fellow at St John’s College, Oxford University. As Leiter’s note notes, it is “not to do metaphysics.” That is, one significant part of Hacker’s article is his rejection of metaphysics, as he understands metaphysics. In the present post, accordingly, I will first present his understanding of metaphysics and his reasons for rejecting metaphysics, at least as they are quite briefly set forth in the post at hand. I will then present an alternative understanding of metaphysics.

1. Hacker opens his piece with a contrasting of the subjects studied by physicists, chemists, and biologists with that studied by metaphysicians or, as he identifies them, meta-physicists.

Physicists study matter, motion, and energy. Chemists study substances and their forms of combination, interaction and decomposition. Biologists study living things. And so forth. But what is it that philosophers study? One answer common throughout the ages is that as physicists study physics, philosophers study meta-physics. Philosophers, or at any rate the deepest of philosophers, we are told, are meta-physicists. Physicists study the contingencies of the world – things that happen to be so. Meta-physicists study the essential, necessary features of all possible worlds.

He then tells us that this reply, that “[m]eta-physicists study the essential, necessary features of all possible worlds,” is “unconvincing for a number of reasons” and goes on to offer three.   The first is the lack of “well-established results.”

For one thing, if it were the case, it would need a great deal of explaining to vindicate philosophy. For while physics has produced libraries of well established results (and chemistry and biology yet more libraries), we can look in vain for trustworthy books entitled Established Truths of Metaphysics or A Handbook of Philosophical Facts.

The second is the “more than an air of absurdity” which he sees in the “discoveries” by the philosophers or meta-physicists that the merely contingent truths discovered by scientists are in reality necessary truths or truths which are “true in all possible worlds.”

Moreover, there is more than an air of absurdity to the thought that chemists discover that water consists of H2O, and that philosophers then discover that this is not a contingent truth, but a necessary one; or that physicists discover that E=mc2, and meta-physicists then discover that this is true in all possible worlds.

His third reason rather broadens his critique to include perspectives on metaphysics other than the one holding it to be the “study [of] the essential, necessary features of all possible worlds.”

Finally, if we look at the kinds of results that meta-physicists do produce, it is evident that they are little more than paradox (time is unreal; solid objects are not really solid; coloured objects are not really coloured), absurdity (we cannot know the thoughts or intentions of another; we are nothing more than a bundle of perceptions) and systematically contested to boot (there are or are not universals; moral truths are all absolute or all relative).

He concludes:

So let us discard this foolishness.

Metaphysics is an illusion that besets philosophers (and philosophically-minded scientists) from generation to generation, which it is the task of good philosophy to dispel.

2. a. As I indicated at the outset, there is a conception of metaphysics that differs from the one which has it as the “study [of] the essential, necessary features of all possible worlds” as well those which, on the one hand, adhere to theses like that of the unreality of time or those which, on the other, adhere to such theses as the one that “we are nothing more than a bundle of perceptions.” It is, of course, that conception of metaphysics which is found in Aristotle’s Metaphysics, the book from the title of which metaphysics gained the name, “metaphysics.”   Because, however, the name, “metaphysics,” has come to be applied to so many approaches and doctrines so very different in conception from that which Aristotle first identified, I prefer to adopt in its stead the name, “ontology.”

That said, in Book IV of his Metaphysics (1083a21) Aristotle spells out his conception of metaphysics or ontology as follows (in the revised Oxford translation**):

There is a science which investigates being as being and the attributes which belong to this in virtue of its own nature.

Now, reprising that which I said in an earlier post, the “Reading Alain Badiou’s Being and Event 5: Pluth on the Subject of Ontology” of October 21, 2013, the degree to which I have a command of Aristotle’s Greek can be very easily exaggerated, but I think it important that it be noted that the “being as being” of that translation is inadequate, for the Greek text itself*** speaks of τὸ ὂν  ὂν, with the definite article “τὸ” preceding the first “ὂν” of “τὸ ὂν  ὂν.” There is then a more complete translation of Aristotle’s statement; I offer it as a friendly amendment:

There is a science which investigates the being as being and the attributes which belong to this in virtue of its own nature.

I understand, further, that the “ὂν” and the “being” are participles and, accordingly, understand that that to which the “τὸ ὂν” or the “the being” at hand refer can equivalently be referred to by a “that which is.” That, then, which is the subject of the science of the being qua being is, quite simply, that which is. It is not the abstract being which, according to a theory like that of Aquinas, that which is has, rather than is.

Stepping back now, into the present post, I want to point out, first, that the science of the being qua being includes within the scope of its subject any realities, entities or beings whatsoever and thus those falling within the scope of the subjects of physics, chemistry, and biology. But it does not consider them as an empirico-mathematical science must, as countable and measurable entities. Rather, it considers such countable and measurable beings, not as countable and measurable, but precisely as beings.

2. b. Hacker is wrong in dismissing metaphysics or ontology as lacking well-established results. Indeed, in his “systematically contested to boot (there are or are not universals; moral truths are all absolute or all relative),” he brushes up against one of its “results,” one very familiar to Aristotle (and Shakespeare’s Hamlet as well), the “First” Principle of Excluded Middle, that:

Any being must either be, or not be, in any one respect and at any one time.

There is also, of course, the “First” Principle of Non-Contradiction, that:

No being can both be and not be, in any one respect and at any one time.

But I will close this post by claiming three “laws” of the theory of identity as results of metaphysics or ontology which stand as among the very bases of any rational understanding of any beings, possible or actual, and thus of any world, possible or actual, whether in the time of Aristotle or in the time of Hacker and Hawkings.

One is the thesis of the reflexivity of identity, that:



For any existent (or being) x, x is identical with itself.

A second is the thesis of the symmetry of identity, that (with apologies for the hokey implication sign):

(x)(y)(Ixy -> Iyx)


For any existent x and any existent y, if x is identical with y, then y is identical with x.

The third is the thesis of the transitivity of identity, that:

(x)(y)(z)((Ixy & Iyz) -> Ixz)


For any existent x, any existent y and any existent z, if x is identical with y and y is identical with z, then x is identical with z.

Such theses in the theory of identity are true of any and all beings, precisely as beings, and thus are theses belonging to ontology.


**Aristotle, Metaphysics, in Jonathan Barnes, editor. The Complete Works of Aristotle. The Revised Oxford Translation (2 vols.; Princeton, New Jersey, and Chichester, West Sussex, United Kingdom: Princeton University Press, 1984), Vol. Two, p. 1584.

***The Greek text is available online at the Tufts University’s Perseus Digital Library, at: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0051%3Abook%3D4%3Asection%3D1003a.

About Rchard E. Hennessey

See above, "About the Author/Editor."
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