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Ancient and MedievalWhat Is Metaphysics?

The word metaphysics is taken from the title, given by an editor in antiquity, to a treatise (or, rather, a set of material, not all of which belongs together) by Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.): the word may have been chosen just because the work was placed after (meta) the physics, or it may have meant that the work deals with things beyond the physical. Aristotle does, in most of the Metaphysics, seem to believe that he is engaged in a single, distinctive enterprise of "first philosophy"—but he characterizes its aim in a number of different, and arguably incompatible, ways: it is the study of first principles, or of being qua being, or the investigation of substance, or its main concern is with immovable substances, that is to say, with the gods. This final, theological aspect led many later ancient philosophers to envisage the Metaphysics as an investigation, not of being in general, but of the highest sort of supra-sensible being—an approach that fitted the overwhelming concern of late antique philosophers with the intelligible world and the general wish to syncretize Aristotle and Plato.

In the Middle Ages, the question of the subject-matter of metaphysics became more problematic. The two greatest medieval Islamic philosophers, Avicenna (Ibn Sina; 980–1037) and Averroës (Ibn Rushd; 1126–1198), knew Aristotle's Metaphysics well. Avicenna held that God could not be the subject of metaphysics, because it is in metaphysics that the existence of God is demonstrated, and no science can demonstrate the existence of its own subject. Metaphysics, therefore, has as its subject being qua being. Averroës disagreed. He held that the existence of God is demonstrated in physics, and so metaphysics can be regarded as the study of the first being, the separate substance that, as final cause, is the mover of all things.

Avicenna's view predominated among the Christian Scholastics, who saw metaphysics primarily as the study of being in general (ens commune) rather than of a particular, special being. But Duns Scotus (c. 1266–1308), at least, was willing to say that God is a sort of being, and so is considered in metaphysics along with all other beings. Thomas Aquinas's (c. 1224–1274) position had been, perhaps, more nuanced. God is not, he thought, contained under the notion of being in general, but he is included within metaphysics in that he is the cause of being in general, which the subject studies.

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