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Metaphysics: Multiple Meanings
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The term metaphysics originally referred to the writings of Aristotle that came after his writings on physics, in the arrangement made by Andronicus of Rhodes about three centuries after Aristotle's death.
Traditionally, metaphysics refers to the branch of philosophy that attempts to understand the fundamental nature of all reality, whether visible or invisible. It seeks a description so basic, so essentially simple, so all-inclusive that it applies to everything, whether divine or human or anything else. It attempts to tell what anything must be like in order to be at all.
To call one a metaphysician in this traditional, philosophical sense indicates nothing more than his or her interest in attempting to discover what underlies everything. Old materialists, who said that there is nothing but matter in motion, and current naturalists, who say that everything is made of lifeless, non-experiencing energy, are just as much to be classified as metaphysicians as are idealists, who maintain that there is nothing but ideas, or mind, or spirit.
Perhaps the best definition of materialism is that of Charles Hartshorne (Insights and Oversights of Great Thinkers, p. 17): "the denial that the most pervasive processes of nature involve any such psychical functions as sensing, feeling, remembering, desiring, or thinking." Idealists assert what materialists here deny. Dualists say that mind and matter are equally real, while neutral monists claim that there is a neutral reality that can appear as either mind or matter. Philosophers generally are content to divide reality into two halves, matter and mind (extended and unextended reality) and do not emphasize such distinctions within the mind half as spirit and soul.
A commonly employed, secondary, popular, usage of metaphysics includes a wide range of controversial phenomena believed by many people to exist beyond the physical.
Popular metaphysics relates to two traditionally contrasted, if not completely separable, areas, (1) mysticism, referring to experiences of unity with the ultimate, commonly interpreted as the God who is love, and (2) occultism, referring to the extension of knowing (extrasensory perception, including telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, retrocognition, and mediumship) and doing (psychokinesis) beyond the usually recognized fields of human activity. The academic study of the occult (literally hidden) has been known as psychical research and, more recently, parapsychology. Both New Age and New Thought emphasize mysticism and its practical, pragmatic application in daily living, but New Thought discourages involvement in occultism.
The terms metaphysics and metaphysical in a popular sense have been used in connection with New Thought, Christian Science, Theosophy, and Spiritualism, as in J. Stillson Judah, The History and Philosophy of the Metaphysical Movements in America (The Westminster Press, 1967), as well as in the name of the Society for the Study of Metaphysical Religion (see below). Some of the varying understandings of metaphysics held by founders of New Thought and Christian Science are given in the opening pages of a monograph, Contrasting Strains of Metaphysical Idealism Contributing to New Thought.
Pure and Applied Metaphysics
Cutting across the division of the academic and the popular, there is another way of dividing metaphysics: theoretical and applied. This distinction is like the division between science and technology; one describes; the other applies the description to practical problems, putting knowledge to work. Gathering knowledge (or alleged knowledge, critics of metaphysics would say) in metaphysics traditionally is by rational thought; in a more popular understanding, knowledge gathering may be either mystical or occult; in either case the pure (?) knowledge is to be distinguished from the practical application of it.
Something of a halfway house is the academically-oriented Society for the Study of Metaphysical Religion, which has directed its attention to popular metaphysics, especially as found in the New Thought movement. See the SSMR site also for links to other resources in philosophy and religion.
Created October 3, 1995
by Alan Anderson
C. Alan Anderson