Metaphysics. The work of Aristotle which treats of the matters belonging
to this science, taking its name in the strictest sense has for its
title τῶν ματὰ τὰ φυσικά—Of the things after the physics.
Different opinions exist as to when and by
whom this title was first used for the book. It would be of more
consequence to decide if we could what was meant by it. Did it
mean that the work was to be placed after that on the physics?
or to be read after it? Or did it refer to the subject, so that
the things after or beyond such as are merely physical are to be
treated therein? Anyhow, this title of the work in question is
undoubtedly the origin of the word metaphysics.
By Aristotle his subject is called "the first Philosophy" as being
the ground of all especial sciences. It treats of Being as such,
independently of all particular determinations and accidents, and of its
necessary conditions. It is thus nearly identical with what we now call
Ontology, and includes pure Theology.
In recent times the meaning of the word metaphysics has been much
extended, and it has been made to include nearly if not quite every
branch of mental science. And as at the close of last century and
throughout the earlier part of this, psychology was the one most
studied, he was called a metaphysician who inquired into the origin of
our thoughts and beliefs, the laws of association, and kindred matters.
Stewart, though aware of the other sphere of science to which the name
had formerly been appropriated, yet announced his determination not
merely to include psychology under the name metaphysics, but mainly to
denote it thereby, and it is as a psychologist far more than as an
authority in other branches of philosophy that he has won his fame. He
tells us in the preface to his Dissertations that "by metaphysics he
understands the inductive philosophy of the human mind." D'Alembert
says that "the aim of metaphysics is to examine the generation of our
ideas, and to show that they all come from sensations." (1)
If the title metaphysics is to be bestowed on psychology at all, it can only be as denoting the genus of
which that is to be considered a species, the said genus being mental
science in general. In this case metaphysics in the old sense of the
word must be called as in the present day it very frequently is,
ontology. There is, however, a risk of error and confusion in setting
aside the nomenclature of ages, and I think it better to call all
speculations about the origin of our thoughts, the laws of association,
the phenomena of memory, and the like, psychological, and to use the
words metaphysics and metaphysical in their old sense, as denoting the
first philosophy of Aristotle, which is occupied with the subject of
Being as such, irrespective of all particular determinations or
Few I apprehend are found to speak sneeringly of this science, who have
not an incapacity greater than ordinary of following its investigations.
Without entering into a general defence and maintenance of their
importance, I must remark that they are in close connection with the
fundamental truths of the Gospel. And therefore, though no man would say
that those truths are not savingly embraced by multitudes of whom we
should not dream of demanding metaphysical knowledge or speculation, it
must needs be that when the Christian theology is to be set forth and
vindicated, an aptitude for and an intimacy with these are imperatively
The adjective metaphysical, as is known to his readers, is used by Shakespeare in the sense of
"Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem
To have thee crowned
Macbeth, act I, scene 8.
This use was not confined to Shakespeare,(2) and seems to have obtained
not only in English, but in later Greek and Latin as well. Though it
gives a different meaning from that with which we are engaged, it is one
in like accordance with the formation of the word.
To return to our subject, the young student may perhaps ask whether he
should say metaphysics or metaphysic. The latter form has been recently
imported to us from abroad. We are not very consistent in this matter of
singular or plural in our names of sciences formed in the same way as
metaphysic or metaphysics. Thus we say rhetoric and logic,(3) but not
often mathematic, and never, so far as I know, politic, mechanic,
dynamic, or optic. The case stands thus. These names in Greek are all
adjectives with substantives understood, and are therefore in the
singular or plural according as would be those substantives were they
expressed. If we suppose them singular, such as
the adjective will be singular; and if plural, such as
will of course be plural. Now we cannot preserve the sense of the names in question, as adjectives, and if
we did our adjectives take no plural form. We have been guided by no
fixed rule, and such being the case, it is more sensible to follow
custom than to aim at consistency which we shall not succeed in
reaching, and which would be but a trifling gain, supposing that we
could. Custom I apprehend still dictates saying metaphysics.
(1) FLEMING, Vocabulary of Philosophy, sub
(2) See JOHNSON'S Dictionary, sub voce.
(3) The University of Dublin, aiming I suppose at consistency, speaks of
Logics, or did so some time ago.