Beginning Metaphysics: First Philosophy as ‘Lord of the Sciences’


“The least initial deviation from the truth is multiplied later a thousandfold” [1] wrote Aristotle in his De Caelo. It is to this that St. Thomas refers when he begins his own brilliant metaphysical treatise, De Ente et Essentia, by stating: “A small mistake in the beginning is a big one in the end” [2]. His point is that we must start our metaphysical inquiry from the right place (which for him means noting the distinction between essence and existence) or else we will go awfully awry by the time we reach the end. But on an even broader level, we might say that we must begin all rational inquiry with a solid metaphysical foundation, or else our entire understanding of reality will be, ultimately, completely skewed and fundamentally flawed. So despite the fact that the word “meta-physics” literally means after physics, Aristotle was right all along when he originally named it “first philosophy”, to which physics is “second”, with all other sciences proceeding therefrom.

This might seem, to many, to be misguided and entirely contrary to the apporpriate way of thinking. After all, it is physics that has given us the most quantitatively accurate, predictively fruitful, and overall complete description of physical reality that we have. It is physics, and the “scientific method” in general, that ushered in the modern era with all its magnificent achievements in breadth of knowledge and astounding technoligical advances. It is science that has given us modern medicine, computers and communication devices, extraordinary traveling capabilities, etc., etc. The list can go on and on. There is absolutely no denying it: modern science has completely transformed the entire world, both on theoretical (in terms of our understanding thereof) and practical levels (in terms of our experience and interaction therein). And thus, in contemporary academia and among the intellegentsia, it is science that reigns supreme. And physics, they say, is the king of the sciences.

So how could we possibly insist that physics is merely a “second philosophy” compared to the prior philosophy of metaphysics? For that matter, what even is metaphysics? Isn’t it just the esoteric, outdated, irrelevant ruminations of ancient thinkers and contemporary ivory-tower quacks who find value in asking meaningless, unanswerable questions but who rather ought to wake up to the reality of scientific progress as it victoriously sweeps over the entire range of human explanatory knowledge until it ultimately arrives, triumphant, at its long awaited, grand “theory of everything”? Even if metaphysics could raise “interesting” questions about our existence, is it not just preposturous to suppose that such an imprecise, illdefined, indefinitive branch of thought with absolutely no consensus ever arrived at even in basic, starting matters, could ever tell us anything siginficant about reality that science cannot?

These are all extremely pertinent questions which shall be examined in due course. This post is an introduction, the first in what will hopefully be a long and fruitful series about metaphysics in general, but, more specifically, aiming at a defense of a certain type and system of metaphysics. As most of my readers are aware, I am heavily impressed, influenced, and convinced by the Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophical (and thus metaphysical) tradition. Aristotelian-Thomism, with its rich depth and profundity, has had a powerful impact on my life and understanding. It would not at all be an exageration to say that Thomism has changed (in an extremely positive, flourishing sense) the way I think about almost every aspect of my life.

Most of the posts I’ve written thus far on this blog has just taken this metaphysical framework as a given, assuming it for the sake of a starting point from which to work through various other issues, rather than defending it itself. So here, in this series, is where I will be comprehensively laying out, explaining, and defending the metaphysical framework itself and its principles.

I think it best to think of this as a journey. While I am already myself fairly convinced of the veracity and truthfulness of Thomism, I am still somewhat of a beginner, following this intellectual path I’ve discovered to see to what heights and depths of knowledge and understanding it can lead. I invite all readers to come along with me, to interact, respond, push back, argue against, etc. The journey towards truth is best done in community; thus Socrates says to an inquirer: “I do not know . . . Nevertheless, I want to examine and seek together with you what [truth] may be” (emphasis mine) [3]. Truth cannot stand down to or be frightened of objection or argument; in fact, these are necessary tools for its establishment.

So where to begin? First we must ask: what is metaphysics and why do it?

Metaphysics: The Rightful Lord of the Sciences

In his debate with philosopher William Lane Craig, physicist Sean Carroll made these remarks about the principle of causation:

“The real problem is that these are not the right vocabulary words to be using when we discuss fundamental physics and cosmology. This kind of Aristotelian analysis of causation was cutting edge stuff 2,500 years ago. Today we know better. Our metaphysics must follow our physics. That’s what the word ‘metaphysics’ means. And in modern physics, you open a quantum field theory textbook or a general relativity textbook, you will not find the words ‘transcendent cause’ anywhere. What you find are differential equations. This reflects the fact that the way physics is known to work these days is in terms of patterns, unbreakable rules, laws of nature. Given the world at one point in time we will tell you what happens next. There is no need for any extra metaphysical baggage, like transcendent causes, on top of that. It’s precisely the wrong way to think about how the fundamental reality works.  The question you should be asking is, ‘What is the best model of the universe that science can come up with?’ By a model I mean a formal mathematical system that purports to match on to what we observe. So if you want to know whether something is possible in cosmology or physics you ask, ‘Can I build a model?’ [4].

In particular, note his statement that “our metaphysics must follow our physics”. This is the overwhelmingly dominant view of almost all modern and contemporary thinkers, especially scientists but even most philosophers as well. Unfortunately, it is the exact contrary of the truth. But in order to see this, we must take a step back.

Aristotle begins his own work Metaphysics by declaring: “All men by nature desire to know” [5]. Far from being a glib truism, this observation gives a profound insight into the very nature of what it means to be human: the essence of man is to know, and to desire to know. Man, by his rational intellect, is meant to seek truth and to understand the reality in which he exists. Philosopher W. Norris Clarke writes:

“The unrestricted drive to know gives rise to . . . the search for the ultimate intelligibility of all being. But if this drive to know on the part of the human knower is not matched by a correlative openness or aptitude of all being to be known, in a word, the intelligibility of being in itself, then the drive to know becomes a monstrous living absurdity, a cruel illusion, a deep natural longing that is part of our being, defines us as human, yet is in principle unfulfillable, a radical frustration built into the very nature of things. But this radical skepticism neither makes good sense in itself nor is an acceptable reading of the common experience of humankind” [6].

And elsewhere:

Mind and being are correlative to each other, made for each other, open by nature to each other, as the two great complementary poles of the universe . . . perhaps the fundamental role or mission of mind in the midst of being is to bring the whole of being into the light of consciousness, as far as we can, speak out its meaning” [7].

This will be considered in more depth later on. For now it will just suffice to note just the significance of this fact. Being is presented to our intellect, and our intellect reaches out, seeks it, desires to grasp and hold and plumb its depths, until it can fully understand and explain it.

This, to some degree, is the object of all the sciences. For all the sciences study what is real  in some sense. But all other sciences study only some partial or particular aspect of being, not being itself. If all sciences studied being itself as being, then there would not be different, distinct “sciences” at all, since all would be studying the exact same object; there would only be one science. But in fact there are many sciences, and each studies being in some unique way. Biology studes living organisms, their existence, nature, causes, etc. In effect, it studies the being of living things, or being as living. Chemistry studies being as chemical composition, relations, etc. Physics studies being as physical reality, or as matter in motion.

Now, obviously, if pure physical reality is all that exists, the entirety of reality, then one might consider physics as “first philosophy”, the primary, basic, most fundamental inquiry into existence. Aristotle himself admits as much:

“If there is no substance other than those which are formed by nature, natural science will be the first science; but if there is an immovable substance, the science of this must be prior and must be first philosophy, and universal in this way, because it is first. And it will belong to this to consider being qua being — both what it is and the attributes which belong to it qua being” [8].

But, from the start, there is just no way to know whether physical reality is the entirety of being. Furthermore, to even ask such is to immediatley move beyond the scope and realm of physics. For physics by definition is concerned with physical, material reality; so how could it possibly examine and discover any extra-physical being? Thus we are presented with the need for some science that is more fundamental than physics, and that is what metaphysics is. To see this, just look at the starting questions of these two sciences:

  1. Physics: what is the nature of physical reality?
  2. Metaphysics: what is reality?

It could be the case that the answer to the latter turns out to be “matter in motion”, in which case physics would then take over as the primary way to know about reality. But physics just takes for granted certain things which in principle it does not and cannot determine. Physics starts with matter in motion; metaphysics starts with being as real.

Philosopher George P. Klubertanz gives a list of the types of questions metaphysics deals with:

“What is it to be real? Why do we call a thing a being? Is there more than one kind of reality? What is change? Is every being changeable, or is there unchanging permanent reality? Is being simple or complex? Is being limited or unlimited? Is a limited being caused? How many kinds of causes are there? What are truth and goodness? What is an individual? A person? Is there a cause of the various beings we experience? Is this cause God? What kind of being is God, and what is His relationship to us? Even if we do not understand these questions now, it is easy to see that no other organized knowledge asks or answers them and that no collection or summary of other knowledge touches on them” [9].

Philosopher Ed Feser further writes about the relation between answers to these questions and scientific method:

“For scientific inquiry rests on a number of philosophical assumptions: the assumption that there is an objective world external to the minds of scientists; the assumption that this world is governed by regularities of the sort that might be captured in scientific laws; the assumption that the human intellect and perceptual apparatus can uncover and accurately describe these regularities; and so forth. Since scientific method presupposes these things, it cannot attempt to justify them without arguing in a circle. To break out of this circle requires ‘getting outside’ of science altogether and discovering from that extra-scientific vantage point that science conveys an accurate picture of reality” [10].

This is not at all to demean science as a method of inquiry, or minimize its astounding accomplishments. Quite the opposite, this is meant rather to properly recognize the right order of science–to allow science to be what it ought to be, and operate as it is meant to, in its rightful place, without forcing it to encroach on what is in principle beyond its domain and thus fall into tragic mistake. Metaphysics does not want to, nor can it, replace natural sciences. Rather, it wants to give them a ground upon which they can stand, and a summit to which they can reach. It wants to give them completion and fulfillment as the perfection of knowledge of being.

So St. Thomas writes:

“When several things are ordained to one thing, one of them must rule or govern and the rest be ruled or governed, as the Philosopher, teaches in the Politics . . . Now all the sciences and arts are ordained to one thing, namely, to man’s perfection, which is happiness. Hence one of these sciences and arts must be the [director] of all the others, and this rightly lays claim to the name wisdom; for it is the office of the wise man to direct others. We can discover which science this is and the sort of things with which it deals by carefully examining the qualities of a good ruler; for just as men of superior intelligence are naturally the rulers and masters of others . . .in a similar way that science which is intellectual in the highest degree should be naturally the ruler of the others” [11].

And this “ruler” or lord of all the other sciences, he concludes, must be metaphysics. So what is the aim of metaphysics? Joseph Owen writes:

“Knowledge of things from the standpoint of their being has as its purpose the scientific understanding of supersensible things, a grasp of the all-pervading order that unites everything into a single universe, and the general integration of the sciences by which both intellectual and practical life is guided. To these goals the natural human desire for knowledge tends strongly . . . It is shown to be the culmination of man’s deepest innate tendency as an intellectual being, the tendency to a comprehensive rounding off of human knowledge and to its uttermost penetration into things in the strictly human order. Today, as in fourth-century Greek civilization, the natural desire to know still points to metaphysics as its ultimate requirement on the properly human level” [12].

And Clarke says:

“Metaphysics fits into the overall project of philosophy as its innermost ground, as that part which focuses its inquiry explicitly on the vision of the whole, that is, what is common to all real beings and what constitutes their connectedness to the universe as a meaningful whole. It is the ultimate framework or horizon of inquiry, into which all other investigations, including all the sciences, fit as partial perspectives. Its work will then be to try to discern the great universal properties, constitutive principles, and governing laws of all that is real, in a word, the laws of intelligibility of being as such, including how all real beings interrelate to form an intelligible whole” [13].

In our time, the throne of knowledge has been usurped from metaphysics by the natural sciences. If, however, we want to truly and fully understand the overwhelming wonder of existence, being, and all reality, then we must let the rightful lord of the sciences return to its proper place.



[1]. McKeon, Richard, editor. The Basic Works of Aristotle. New York: Random House, Inc, 1941. Print, De Caelo 1.5, 271b9-10.

[2]. Aquinas, Thomas. De Ente et Essentia. Translated as Aquinas on Being and Essence:
A Translation and Interpretation. 1965. Adapted and html-edited by Joseph Kenny, O.P. <;.

[3]. Plato. “Meno,” in Plato: Complete Works. Edited and translated by John M. Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett, 879.

[4]. See the debate here: <;. Transcript taken from this blog post by Ed Feser: <;.

[5]. McKeon. AristotleMetaphysics 1.1, 980a1.

[6]. Clarke, W. Norris. The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001. Print, 16.

[7]. Ibid., 17-18.

[8]. McKeon. AristotleMetaphysics 6.1, 1026a28–33.

[9]. Klubertanz, George P. Introduction to the Philosophy of Being. 2nd edition. Eugene: Wipe and Stock Publishers, 2005. Print, 10.

[10]. Feser, Edward. Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction. Piscataway: Editiones Scholasticae/Transaction Books, 2014. Print, 10-11.

[11]. Aquinas, Thomas. Commentary on the Metaphysics. Translated by John P. Rowan.
Chicago, 1961. html-edited by Joseph Kenny, O.P. with addition of Latin and Greek. Prologue. <;.

[12]. Owens, Joseph. An Elementary Christian Metaphysics. Center for Thomistic Studies edition. Houston: Center for Thomistic Studies, 1985. Print, 27.

[13]. Clarke. The One and the Many. 5-6.

Cover Image: Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons <;.


3 thoughts on “Beginning Metaphysics: First Philosophy as ‘Lord of the Sciences’

  1. Harrison,
    Thank you for starting this series – This is great stuff, and I already have questions.

    1) You quoted Feser:
    “For scientific inquiry rests on a number of philosophical assumptions: … the assumption that this world is governed by regularities of the sort that might be captured in scientific laws ….”

    I thought that assumption had been proved, and is no longer an assumption, but fact. Why does Feser think otherwise?

    2) You quoted Aquinas:
    “When several things are ordained to one thing, one of them must rule or govern and the rest be ruled or governed … just as men of superior intelligence are naturally the rulers and masters of others….”

    First, I wondered why one thing must rule. Second, I disagreed with the second part of what I quoted above. So I followed your link to the internet translation to get a better idea of what Aquinas was talking about. As I read more I found something really puzzling.

    Aquinas wrote that the science which rules all others “is the one which treats of the most intelligible objects.” Then he describes three meanings of the term “most intelligible objects.” The first two are about causes and about universals. The third baffles me.

    Aquinas wrote:
    “For since each thing has intellective power by virtue of being free from matter, those things must be intelligible in the highest degree which are altogether separate, from matter. For the intellect and the intelligible object must be proportionate to each other and must belong to the same genus, since the intellect and the intelligible object are one in act. Now those things are separate from matter in the highest degree which abstract not only from signate matter (as the natural forms taken universally of which the philosophy of nature treats) but from sensible matter altogether; and these are separate from matter not only in their intelligible constitution (ratio), as the objects of mathematics, but also in being (esse), as God and the intelligences. Therefore the science which considers such things seems to be the most intellectual and the ruler or mistress of the others.”

    I don’t understand what he means by
    1) each thing has intellective power by virtue of being free from matter
    2) the intellect and the intelligible object are one in act
    The rest of it is meaningless to me.

    Forget my previous questions. I need a commentary on Aquinas’ commentary. Can you recommend a good one?

    Thank you,


    • Thanks for commenting!
      1) I think his point is not that the regularity of laws of nature cannot be proved, but that the scientific method itself does not do so. If we think of the scientific method as observing some feature of nature, then measuring, hypothesizing, testing, etc., all of this just takes for granted that the feature is a regularity in nature that is susceptible of measurement/testing. If this assumption were not made, how could we even conduct scientific inquiry? But, once the assumption has been made and the process is carried out, we come to find that our assumption was justified. But, as our current difficulties with quantum physics illustrates, once these types of “regularities” begin to break down, scientific method has some trouble accounting for what exactly is going on. Metaphysics, since it doesn’t operate by testing/measuring/predicting, doesn’t require the strict assumption that there are predictive regularities in nature. Rather, it just asks what we can know about being as such, and, by reflecting upon our experience of reality, asks what *must* be the case in order to make sense thereof (more on this when I write a post about act/potency).
      2) The thing about “one ruling” I think just refers to an idea in Aristotle’s writings that things which are ordered/directed to some end are ultimately directed to a “highest” end. Everything we do (Aristotle would argue) is either for its own sake, or for the sake of some further end. But that further end is either for its own sake, or for some even further end. And so on, until we eventually reach a “highest end”. Since Aristotle and Aquinas think that the purpose of all sciences is ultimately to know being as being, metaphysics is that “highest end” to which all other sciences are intrinsically ordered. The bit about more intelligent people ruling I think is just an (admittedly outdated) metaphor to make his next point, about which you ask:
      1) This gets into Aquinas’s theory of knowledge (which I’ll also be writing more about in this series). Aquinas distinguishes our “sense knowledge” from our pure “intellect”. He thinks that we can know something directly by sense knowledge (for example, when I touch a hot stove I “know” directly that it is hot and that it hurts, from my percieving such from my senses). But, he also thinks we can have a higher “intellectual” knowledge of things, and this is in our “rational intellect”. This is done, he thinks, by “abstracting” from our sense perception. He thinks our intellect is immaterial. Our sense perception is obviously of material things, so our intellect knows by abstracting the material sense aspects away until we know the “essence” or form of the thing in itself. So I can see a tree and have direct, “material” sense knowledge of it. But then my rational intellect takes that direct sense perception and abstracts from it, until I don’t just *see* some random object in front of me that’s brown and juts out from the ground and branches off and has green things hanging from it, but rather I *know* by abstraction that the essence of this thing is a “tree”. Since Aquinas thinks that all physical things have both matter and form, he thinks we come to know the “form” of the thing by abstracting it from its matter, and thus making it “free from matter”. When this happens, when we abstract in our minds the essence of the object in our intellect, the form (or intelligibility) of the object comes to, in a sense, “exist” in side our intellects. I think that is what he means when he says “the intellect and intelligible object are one in act”. As for a commentary on his commentary, I’m unfortunately not aware of one that gives a line by line examination, as helpful as that would be! Here’s a link to an article that gives just kind of a general overview of these things though:
      Hope that helps, and happy New Year!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s