Let’s get metaphysical (right)

Sometimes you can’t buy a break.  I spend a lot of my time involved in efforts to revitalize philosophy, in particular, metaphysics.  Metaphysics had a tough time in the twentieth century, but with “postmodernism” (if there really is such a thing) playing itself out and with religion manifesting a “return of the repressed,” it seems to me that we ought to seriously consider whether in fact we’ve really twisted free of metaphysics.  I think not.  And if not, we need to re-learn how to pursue it, chastened, of course, as we have been by various critiques against it but firm in the conviction that there will only be better and worse metaphysics and never none.

So it bothers me no end when this venerable word “metaphysics” gets used in a most unhelpful way.  I just got my copy of the latest Journal of the American Academy of Religion, which features a focus roundtable on “American metaphysical religion.”  The roundtable is introduced by Catherine Albanese, author of a new book on the subject, A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Mind and Spirit (excerpts here).

My complaint is not with Professor Albanese’s project, which seems fascinating.  She provides us with a history of an overlooked “third” element in American religious history.  In addition to Protestantism and Catholicism, there is also “metaphysical religion,” arising in the nineteenth century in opposition to both scientific rationalism and orthodox Protestantism.  Readers might also see the review by Richard John Neuhaus in First Things for an alternative view of the place of metaphysical religion in American culture.

My complaint is also not with Albanese’s particular use of the term “metaphysics” or “metaphysical” in the way she means it.  As she notes, there are good historical reasons for using it:  those who adopted the religious ideas, concerns, and practices on which she reports consciously used the term to describe themselves – sometimes specifically as a challenge to its critics.  In addition, she notes that there are current expressions of this same general religious approach.  As she reminds us, anyone who browses a Borders bookstore can find the “metaphysics” section (which, I have on good authority, does better business than the philosophy section) not with the philosophy books but near the religion section.  She also reports that “numbers of present-day Americans respond positively to descriptions of themselves as metaphysical.

What bothers me is that we’ve lost the primordial meaning of the word metaphysics as first philosophy.  Even Albanese, a respected scholar, misses the meaning completely.  She writes:

“Metaphysics” itself may at first seem an off-putting word.  With its etymological meaning of being “beyond the physical,” it comes with medieval Western scholastic trappings.  Metaphysics has signified ontology and, most notably, the work of the thirteenth-century scholastic philosopher Thomas Aquinas in the service of his age’s Catholic church and against Muslims across the Mediterranean Sea.

This is almost all misleading.  The etymological meaning of “metaphysics” does not mean “beyond the physical.”  The term “metaphysics” was first associated with Aristotle, even though it is a word he never used.  The term comes from an early compiler and editor of Aristotle’s works who catalogued his writings on first philosophy after (meta) his physics (ta physica).  See more detail about the origin of the term here.

Metaphysics was not primarily ontology in the work of Aquinas, although in many works of twentieth century philosophy the terms “metaphysics” and “ontology” are often interchangeable.  And it seems quite simplistic to say that Aquinas profound metaphysical vision was “against the Muslims across the Mediterranean Sea.”  Thomas’ works cannot be fully understood without reference to the Muslim translators and commentators on Aristotle’s work.

My point is that however justified Albanese’s use of the term “metaphysical” in contexts of both American religious history and present day commercial categories, this usage is idiosyncratic and, in terms of the history of philosophy, a misuse altogether.


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