Modern Metaphysics, Morphed

This article, an exercise in my preparation for PhD comprehensive exams, is intended for philosophy and theology geeks, and them alone.

How does the meaning of the term “metaphysics” change from the premodern to the modern period?

As good a place as any to begin is Book VIII chapter 6 of Augustine’s City of God, where Augustine rehearses:

  1. The priority of simple being over all non-simple being.
  2. Because (unlike body and soul) simple being is beyond degree(s of comparison), it is that by which any apprehension of beauty is judged. Hence simple being must be a or the “primary form” that exists in the mind.

Two quick notes about this summary rendition of things. First, Augustine here builds upon Aristotle’s work of prôtê philosophia (subsequently named The Metaphysics) which conceives of the unmoved mover (which, as “that which is most knowable in itself,” is the ultimate pedagogical destination of Aristotle’s entire programmic “order of learning” or hierarchy of sciences, beginning with the Organon) as pure, fully “actualized” being, pure energeia. No matter, no potency at all can be said to be in God. Hence, for the Stagirite theos is utterly simple (haplax). Second, it is instructive, as we juxtapose this way of thinking with modern thought, to remember Avicenna’s determination of simple being as necessary, and complex being as contingent. Although not all pre-modern thinkers—Plotinus and Averroes come to mind—agree with this characterization, it is still conveniently helpful to regard all material, spatio-temporal being as contingent, for the pre-modern mind.

Enter Descartes, who changes things at the most fundamental level possible. The short version of things is that metaphysics is now cast in terms of res cogitans and res extensa. But that dichotomy lies at the far end of a series of moves which change the course of intellectual history precisely in their details.

Those crucial “details” begin with a move which I will characterize as: grounding the sciences in the irreducibility of the individual subject. Descartes agrees with Aristotle on the importance of “that which is most known or knowable[*] in itself,” but for Descartes, who thinks he’s doubted everything that can be, can no longer regard this “thing” to be God. Further, it is still for him—as also for Aristotle—this recursivity or reflexivity which alone can ground scientia. What, then, is the locus of this reflexivity? No longer nous noeôs, it is now: subject and object. The latter grounds the former and the former grounds the world.

No longer, then, is science—as was the case from Aristotle through the Scholastics—an ordered system of intellectual disciplines, each of which depends upon the former epistemologically (or pedagogically), and upon the subsequent ontologically. Now, with the birth of the modern, they are considered to be (grounded in) a reflexive relationship between subject / observer and object / observed.

So, if “metaphysics” refers to that which is beyond the natural (which, for Descartes is collapsed with culture, the domain of human poiêsis and technê), the that which is beyond is the human subject, res cogitans.

True, Descartes believes in God and math, but these things are arrived at and secured only after he convinces himself that the subject, the cogito, exists. Plus, while the subject is known for Descartes, God and math are for him likely objects of mere belief. (They are moments of his “way out,” back out into the world, subsequent to his “movement inward,” which hits “rock bottom” at the point at which he cannot doubt the existence of his self.)

Finally, it must be said that this metaphysical shift which we see in Descartes is not the end of a development, but only the beginning: thinkers such as Locke, Hume, Kant, Bergson and Husserl build on this foundation, in their various and unique ways. Just one example would be Husserl’s redefinition of “absolute being” (also for Bergson) and “dependent being.” According to Dermot Moran,

Husserl maintains that consciousness cannot be thought away in such an experiment and hence must be understood as having “absolute being” whereas reality has to be understood as dependent being. In this section [§49] Husserl styles the world of pure consciousness as “immanent being” and as absolute. (Dermot Moran, “Foreward,” in Edmund Husserl, Ideas (… ), xxiii.

[*] in Greek these two participles are morphologically identical.