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Any attack on metaphysics is an attack on the foundations of science;
any attack on the foundations of science is an attack on science itself.
 - E.G. Collingwood, An Essay on Metaphysics, p. 170.

An Essay on Metaphysics
by R. G. Collingwood

Aristotles's Metaphysics

In writing about metaphysics it is only decent, and it is certainly wise, to begin with Aristotle. Metaphysics, as known to all the peoples whose civilization is derived either wholly or to any considerable extent from Christian or Mohammedan sources, is still the science that Aristotle created. Unless we understand its motive in Aristotle's mind and its function in Aristotle's system we are not likely to understand its later history or the obscurities which surround its present position. The first step, therefore, towards clearing these obscurities away is to ask what the name stands for in Aristotle's writings.

The literally correct answer is that it does not stand for anything there, because it does not occur there. It is not Aristotle's name for an Aristotelian science. The word 'metaphysics'* [note 1] represents the Greek phrase τα μετα τα φυσικα, 'the [books] next after the Physics'; and this phrase was used not by Aristotle himself but by his ancient editors as a title for a certain group of treatises which they placed in that position in the corpus of the master's works. As to what those treatises contain, the phrase is entirely non-committal. In its first and most proper sense, therefore, as a title borne by one of Aristotle's works, 'metaphysics' is not the name of a science. It is the name of a book. It corresponds in modern usage not with such titles as Plane Trigonometry or The Origin of Species, but with such titles as Collected Words, vol. viii.

For us, no doubt, the word is no longer merely the name of a book by Aristotle. It is the name of a science. The word 'science', in its original sense, which is still its proper sense not in the English language alone but in the international language of European civilization, means a body of systematic or orderly thinking about a determinate subject-matter. This is the sense and the only sense in which I shall use it. There is also a slang sense of the word, unobjectionable (like all slang) on its lawful occasions, parallel to the slang use of the word 'hall' for a 'music-hall' or the word 'drink' for alcoholic drink, in which it stands for natural science.

Metaphysics is for us the name of a science, and has been for many centuries, because for many centuries it has been found necessary, and still is found necessary, to think in a systematic or orderly fashion about the subjects that Aristotle discussed in the group of treatises collectively known by that name. Towards the end of the eighteenth century Kant observed that logic had undergone no radical changes since it left the hands of Aristotle. The same observation can be made towards the middle of the twentieth about metaphysics. A great deal of work has been done in metaphysics since Aristotle created it; but this work has never involved a radical reconsideration of the question what metaphysics is. A great deal of grumbling has been done about it, too, and a great many people have declared the whole thing to be a lot of nonsense; but this, too, has never involved a radical reconsideration of what the thing is. On that question Aristotle bequeathed to his successors a pronouncement containing certain obscurities; and from his time to our own these obscurities have never been cleared up. To clear them up is the task of the present essay.

Aristotle calls the science of metaphysics by no less than three different names. Sometimes he calls it First Science, πρωτη φιλοσοφια, φιλοσοφια being his regular name for science as I have just defined the word. The word 'first' refers to logical priority. First Science is the science whose subject-matter is logically prior to that of every other, the science which is logically presupposed by all other sciences, although in order of study it comes last. Sometimes he calls it Wisdom, σοφια, with the implication that this is the thing for which φιλοσοφια, science, is the search; this again implying that in addition to their own immediate function of studying each its own peculiar subject-matter the sciences have a further function as leading to a goal outside themselves, namely the discovery of what they logically presuppose. Sometimes he calls it Theology, θεολογικη, or the science which expounds the nature of God.

By lavishing three different names upon the same science Aristotle has made it possible for any one who understands his vocabulary to grasp without further explanation how he conceived that science's nature. I will try to show what I mean by offering in the rest of this chapter a paraphrase of the three names I have quoted.

'The subject-matter of any science is something abstract or universal. Abstractness or universality is subject to degrees. Where a generic universal A is specified into two sub-forms B and C, as number is specified into odd and even, A will be more abstract, more universal, than B or C. In such a case A is the logical ground of B and C; that is, A by its own nature gives rise to its own subordinate forms, B and C. If you understand the nature of number you can see that it follows from this nature that there must be odd numbers and even numbers, and that any number must be either odd or even. This is another way of saying that number is the logical ground of oddness and evenness.* [note 2]

'Theoretically, there is or might be a science of any universal. Practically, one science means what it is convenient to regard as a single subject of study; so for practical reasons we regard geometry as one science and not a number of sciences, viz. trigonometry or the science of the triangle, cyclometry or the science of the circle, and so forth. But theoretically there are these sciences within the body of what we call geometry; and practically it might some day be found convenient to distinguish them.

'Wherever a generic universal A is specified into sub-forms B and C, and wherever B and C are respectively the subject-matters of two sciences, these two sciences have certain principles in common. These principles for the science whose subject-matter is the universal A. Let A be quantity. There are two kinds of quantity, continuous or measurable and discrete or countable. The special science of continuous quantity is called geometry; the special science of discrete quantity is called arithmetic. For the most part geometry and arithmetic run of different lines, each studying problems peculiar to itself. But there are some principles which they agree in recognizing. These principles, because they figure in both sciences, belong to neither; they belong to a general science of quantity as such, or general mathematics.

'This general science of quantity as such will not be studies by the young mathematician until he has found his way about in the special sciences of geometry and arithmetic. From the learner's point of view it comes after them. But from the logical point of view it comes before them. Its subject-matter is the logical ground of theirs. The propositions it affirms are presupposed by the propositions they affirm. Thus corresponding with the A B C pattern among universals we have an A B C pattern among the sciences that study them. The superordinate science A is always logically prior to the subordinate sciences B and C, but in the order of study it is always posterior to them.

'This A B C pattern among universals is not merely a pattern that crystallizes out among universals here and there. It is present in all universals. All such patterns are part of one single pattern. All universals whatever are to be found somewhere in a system which, according as you look at it, may be called a system of classification or a system of division. Every universal is potentially at least the subject-matter of a science. There is potentially, therefore, a system of sciences corresponding with the system of universals. Within this system any one science will be (i) co-ordinate with another or others whose subject-matter is a universal or universals co-ordinate with its own, as geometry is co-ordinate with arithmetic; (ii) subordinate to another whose subject-matter is a universal superordinate to its own and standing to that as a logical ground, as geometry is subordinate to general mathematics; (iii) superordinate to others whose subject-matter is universals subordinate to its own and standing to that as logical consequents, as geometry is superordinate to the special geometries of the triangle and the circle.

'I say this will be true of any one science 'within' the system, because it would not be true of the terminal sciences on the fringes of the system. The system does not go on for ever. At the top and bottom it stops. At the base of the system of universals there are universals which are infimę species, not giving rise to any further sub-species. At its top there are universals which are summa genera, not species of any higher genus. Or rather, strictly speaking, there is only one summum genus. The ten 'categories' recognized by logic are the ten species of the genus being; they are the γενη των οντων, the forms into which being is specified. Thus there is only one pyramid of universals, and at its peak the universal of being.

'The system of sciences will have the same shape. At its bottom will be sciences of all the infimę species, and these will be sciences not subordinate to any others. At its top will be a single science, the science of being; being in the abstract or being as such, pure being, το ον η ον. This will be the First Science in the sense that it is logically presupposed by every other science, although from a learner's point of view it is the Last Science, to be approached only when all the others have been to some degree at least mastered.

'As the Last Science it will be the ultimate goal of the scientist's pilgrimage through the realms of knowledge. The person who studies it will be doing what in all his previous work he was preparing himself to do. Hence if any particular science is described as some particular form of phase of or search for a wisdom which within its own limits it never quite achieves, the First and Last Science must be described not as φιλοσοφια but as σοφια, the Wisdom for which every kind of φιλοσοφος is looking.

'Lastly, since every universal is the immediate logical ground of those immediately subordinate to it, and hence indirectly the ground of the universals which are subordinate to those, the first and last universal, pure being, is directly or indirectly the ground of all other universals, and the First and Last Science is therefore the science of that which stands as ultimate logical ground to everything that is studied by any other science. The ordinary name for that which is the logical ground of everything else is God. The most adequate, explicit, and easily intelligible name for the science which in its relation to other sciences is alternatively called First Science or Wisdom, the name which tells us what it is about, is therefore Theology.'


1. 'Physics', 'metaphysics', 'ethics', 'politics', and 'economics', are plural in English because they are names of Aristotelian treatises, and a treatise which will go into one modern volume had to be spread over several Greek volumes. But because each of these represents only a single science, these plural substantives govern singular verbs: 'physics is . . .' not 'physics are . . .' We say 'logic' not 'logics', because there is no Aristotelian treatise τα λογικα. there is, however, a group of works collectively called τα αναλυτικα, and from this we have in English 'analytics'. Substantives like 'metaphysic', 'ethic', 'analytic', are solecisms, due to pedantic imitation or ignorant translation of forms which are correct in other languages.

2. The fact that according to Aristotle the generic universal A is the logical ground of its own specific sub-forms, B and C, may be expressed by calling the unity of A a 'self-differentiating unity'. We shall meet this phrase again on pp. 212, 219, 220.


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