What is the Metaphysics about? The question, ‘What is being?’
The work that we have here under the title ‘the Metaphysics’ (ta meta ta phusika) is a series of fourteen books, all or most of which were written by Aristotle (384–322 BC). They belong to his latest period of work. Therefore the Metaphysics belongs to what Aristotle wrote after founding (in 335 BC) his own school of philosophy in Athens: the Lyceum or Peripatos. This means that, even if we take into account that the Metaphysics must have been written over an extended period of time, Aristotle must have produced the work some years after leaving the Academy, Plato’s school in Athens; for he became a pupil of Plato (427– 347 BC) at the age of seventeen, and he remained in Plato’s school, first as a pupil and later as a relatively independent researcher, for some twenty years. But he left the Academy after Plato died.
However, Aristotle did not write the Metaphysics as a single work, and even the individual books (or sets of books) in it may not be finished works. Only after his death, and probably between 200 and 100 BC, were these fourteen books arranged and published in the order in which we now have them. The title itself, ‘the Metaphysics’, is not Aristotle’s, but was probably devised by Andronicus of Rhodes when he put together the edition of the collected works of Aristotle (first century BC). He probably devised this title (ta meta ta phusika, ‘the [books] that come after the Physics’) to indicate that, in his view, the Metaphysics belongs naturally after another work by Aristotle, the Physics. We may suppose that Andronicus thought that this is the natural place of the Metaphysics, because he thought that the study of all things and of things simply in so far as they are beings, i.e. metaphysics as characterized by Aristotle, comes naturally after the study of changing and material things, the things with which we are directly familiar from sense perception and experience, i.e. physics as characterized by Aristotle. For we will see that if there is anything that the fourteen books have in common, and that justifies collecting them together as a single work, the Metaphysics, it is the centrality of a single overall investigation. This is the investigation into all things and into things simply in so far as they are beings: things that are. So the title, ‘the Metaphysics’, may perhaps indicate what Aristotle’s Metaphysics is about, but it does so only in an indirect and not immediately perspicuous way. We have of course become accustomed to thinking that the Metaphysics is evidently about metaphysics, and there is nothing wrong with thinking this. But Aristotle does not himself use this term, ‘metaphysics’, and when he wants to indicate what his present study is about, he uses terms such as ‘wisdom’ (sophia), ‘first philosophy’ (prōtē philosophia), and ‘first science’ (prōtē epistēmē).
Still, the Metaphysics is about some one thing and there is a single theme. This is the question, ‘What is being?’ (tí to on; to on means ‘being’, ‘that which is’). The Metaphysics is about the question ‘What is being?’ in two ways. On the one hand, Aristotle raises this question; he undertakes a long search for an answer to it; and eventually he offers an answer. On the other hand, he also reflects on the question itself, what it is to raise it and to search for an answer to it, and even whether it is possible to search for an answer at all. As we would say, he also considers how metaphysics is possible. So let us begin by concentrating on the central question in the Metaphysics, ‘What is being?’
First of all, the question ‘What is being?’ is about being, not about the noun ‘being’ or the verb ‘to be’. It is about what it is for something to be, not about what it is for us to think or say of something that it is. Of course, how we think and speak, when we think or say of something that it is, may in various ways be important when we ask the question ‘What is being?’ and ‘What is it for something to be?’ But still, this question is not about how we think and speak when we think or say of something that it is; it is about being and what it is for something to be.
So what is this question about? Of what are we asking, ‘What is being?’ and ‘What is it for something to be?’ Aristotle evidently thinks that we are asking this question of beings (onta), things that are; i.e. we are asking of a being, something that is, what it is for that thing to be. But he also supposes that we are already familiar with beings, prior to our raising this question; and it is of such familiar things that he thinks that we may want to ask this question. So he thinks that we are familiar, pre-philosophically and from our ordinary experience, with beings; for beings are directly apparent to us and present to us, they are all around us and make up the world which we inhabit. It is of such familiar things that he thinks that we may want to ask ‘What is it for something to be?’: humans, plants, animals, which we encounter around us; the sun, the moon and other planets, which we see in the sky and which are central to our conception of motion, time and space; even the whole universe which appears to us to be made up of all these things. Of course, once we ask ‘What is it for something to be?’ of such familiar things, we may go on to ask this question also of things that are not directly apparent or present to us, but in whose existence we believe on other grounds. But this is a second step, and we must begin with the beings with which we are already familiar.
But it is important to recognize that when Aristotle asks, ‘What is being?’, he intends this question to be understood in a particular way. For, as he understands it, this is not primarily the question, ‘What is there?’; it is above all the question, ‘What is it for something to be?’ The question ‘What is there?’ asks for a complete general description of what there is; we may say that it asks for the extension of being. But the question, ‘What is it for something to be?’, asks of anything that is, what it is for that thing to be. It asks for an explanation of why something that is is, or in virtue of what something that is is. We may say that this question asks for the essence of being, and for an explanatory account of the essence of being. Aristotle says (e.g. at the opening of book IV) that he wants to investigate ‘being qua being’, by which he means that he wants to investigate beings, and to investigate them simply in so far as they are beings, things that are. But this is precisely to investigate what it is for something to be—the essence of being. So metaphysics, as Aristotle understands it, is not so much the search for a complete and general description of what there is; it is above all the search for an explanation of why something that is is, or in virtue of what something that is is.
From the very beginning of the Metaphysics (in book I, chapter 2) Aristotle characterizes metaphysics, or what at this stage he calls ‘wisdom’ (sophia), as a search for explanations (aitiai, which can also be translated as ‘causes’) and explanatory knowledge (epistēmē), i.e. knowledge why something is as it is. This kind of knowledge we may call ‘scientific knowledge’ and ‘science’; and Aristotle repeatedly speaks of metaphysics as a search for such knowledge (epistēmē). In particular, he says that metaphysics is the most fundamental science (prōtē epistēmē, see VI. 1, 1026a29), for it is the search for the most fundamental explanations. These explanations he calls ‘first explanations’ and ‘first principles’ (prōtai aitiai, prōtai archai); and he says that they are explanations of all beings (panta) and of everything there is. But he thinks that such fundamental and universal explanations are, precisely, explanations of what it is for something—anything—to be.
We will gradually become more familiar with the basic question of metaphysics, ‘What is it for something, anything, to be?’ But it is worth emphasizing that Aristotle from the outset associates the search for an answer to this question with a search for explanatory knowledge (epistēmē), i.e. knowledge why things are as they are. So the basic question of metaphysics can also be formulated as, ‘Why are the beings (ta onta) beings, things that are?’ This must not, of course, be confused with the question, ‘Why are there beings, things that are?’ In general, we must not confuse questions of the type, (1) ‘Why are there things that are F?’, with questions of the type, (2) ‘Why are the things that are F F?’ The basic question in the Metaphysics, ‘What is it for something, anything, to be?’, is associated with questions of type 2, not type 1.
Finally, it is worth noting that Aristotle does not think that this basic question of metaphysics, ‘What is being?’, is his own invention. On the contrary, in a memorable passage at the centre of the Metaphysics, he emphasizes that this question is as old as the trees, never ceasing to be ‘that which is sought after’ (to zētoumenon) and ‘a source of puzzlement’ (to aporoumenon):
Indeed, that which is always, both now and long ago, sought after and which is always a source of puzzlement, i.e. the question, What is being?,…
(VII. 1, 1028b2–4)
From the beginning of the Metaphysics (I. 3–10) it is clear that he thinks that earlier thinkers have just as much been engaged in the investigation of being in general and as a whole (see, e.g. I. 3, 983b1–3). Here (in I. 3–10) he enlists a wide variety of earlier thinkers in this shared search: Thales, Anaximenes, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Pythagoreans and, above all, Plato, who is only recently dead.
Sources of the question, ‘What is being?’
But why does Aristotle think that we may want to ask this question, ‘What is being?’? At the opening of the Metaphysics (I. 1), he argues that it is because we are human that we want to ask this question. He argues that all animals desire some kind of knowledge (to eidenai), and in particular sense perception (aisthēsis). But one thing that distinguishes us humans from other animals is that we desire not only any kind of knowledge of which we are capable, including knowledge that other animals desire, but also explanatory or scientific knowledge (epistēmē), which is knowledge of explanations (aitiai). But further, he argues that explanatory knowledge requires knowledge of what things are, their essence; for it is by knowing what a thing really is, its essence, that we can explain why the thing is as it is. For example (this is based on Aristotle’s example in I. 1), it is by trying to know what a certain illness really is, its essence, that a scientifically minded physician may try to explain why this illness is as it is and behaves as it does: why it has the symptoms, causes, and consequences it has; why it responds to one treatment but not another, etc.
So, in general, Aristotle argues that it is simply because we are human that we search for science and explanatory knowledge (epistēmē); and explanatory knowledge requires knowing the essence of things. But he also argues (in Metaphysics I. 2) that metaphysics is the most fundamental kind of explanatory knowledge; it is the knowledge of the most fundamental explanations and the explanations of all things. But this, precisely, is the knowledge of what it is for something to be, i.e. it is the knowledge of the essence of being and the answer to the question ‘What is being?’ So he argues that it is because we are human that we want to ask the question, ‘What is being?’ and ‘What is it for something to be?’, and that we want to search for an answer to this question.
However, in the course of books I and III of the Metaphysics there emerges what appears to be a different account of why we may want to ask this question, ‘What is being?’ For Aristotle argues (in III. 1) that what in general motivates us to ask questions about being, and to search for answers, are particular aporiai that present themselves to us about being— aporiai in the sense of particular problems and puzzles that we are puzzled about. He goes on (in III. 2–6) to set out some fifteen aporiai about being. But before doing so, he argues (in III. 1) that it is precisely such aporiai about being that motivate us to search for what being is, and that if we are not puzzled about such problems and puzzles, then we cannot even begin to search for what being is. This suggests that Aristotle thinks that the question, ‘What is being?’, is not some arbitrary question that we may or may not want to raise; it is rather a question that presents itself to us as a problem and puzzle (aporia), or as an immediate consequence of similar problems and puzzles which present themselves to us. In general, it will emerge that aporiai about being are absolutely central in the Metaphysics and indeed to the whole project of the Metaphysics, the project of searching for what it is for something, anything, to be. Aristotle’s method in the Metaphysics is fundamentally based in aporiai (see Chapter 3). So Aristotle thinks that the question, ‘What is being?’, is not just any kind of question, but an aporia; i.e. a problem and puzzle that presents itself to us and makes us puzzled about it. This fascinating view arguably goes back to Plato, especially in the dialogue Sophist (242bff.), where Plato argues that we are thoroughly perplexed and p...