Metaphysics is the formal science of being qua being. ‘Formal’ here means ‘nonempirical’ and ‘science’ means a ‘system of understanding.’ ‘Qua‘ is Latin for ‘as.’
In the west, philosophers such as Parmenides, Heraclitus, and Plato preceded Aristotle in discussing the nature of reality; however, Aristotle was the first to write a book devoted to investigating being qua being.
After his death, an editor named the book ‘Metaphysics’ (meta ta physika, which literally means “after the things of nature’) simply because it came after Aristotle’s book on physics in the collection of his writings. Despite this origin, the name stuck-although today philosophers use it interchangeably with ‘ontology,’ which means the study of being.
To understand how fundamental metaphysics is, consider the following three questions:
C. What is a wise human being?
B. What is a human being?
A. What is being?
Many thinkers have attempted to answer question C; many thinkers have advanced theories of how to live wisely or well. Most of their theories, though, are vague and ungrounded. Why?
It’s because a coherent answer to question C depends upon a coherent answer to question B. If you don’t know what a human being is, it makes no sense to attempt to divide humans into those who are wise and those who aren’t. In other words, the answer to question B is more fundamental than the answer to question C.
There’s no issue about this. It’s simply a logical point. The answer to question C may be more important than the answer to question B, but that doesn’t alter the fact that the answer to question B is more fundamental than the answer to question C.
Similarly, many thinkers have attempted to answer question B; many thinkers have advanced theories of what it means to be human. Most of their theories, though, are vague and ungrounded. Why?
It’s because a coherent answer to question B depends upon a coherent answer to question A. If you don’t know what a being is, it makes no sense to attempt to divide beings into those who are human and those who aren’t. Again, there’s no issue about this, and it is doesn’t mean that the answer to question A is more important than the answer to question B.
To answer “What is being?” is to do metaphysics or ontology.
In practice, there are two questions to distinguish.
The logically first question is: “What is an entity?” The word ‘entity’ here refers to an existent, a real being. The task of proto-ontology is answering this question. [See the post “Define Reality” to find my answer.]
Traditionally, the task of metaphysics or ontology is answering this question: “What kinds of entities are real?” The word ‘kinds’ here refers to categories (sorts, divisions, groupings) of entities.
Proto-ontology is logically prior to ontology because it makes no sense to attempt to divide entities into various categories without first becoming clear about what it is to be an entity.
Different metaphysicians divide reality differently. To give reasons for and against various divisions is to participate in the classical metaphysical dialectic.
Reasons are required because a claim that some kind is real is worthless unless justified. This is why metaphysics and epistemology are two sides of the same coin. Real entities must be known to be real, and knowledge must be about something real. [See the post “Epistemology.”]
Together, metaphysics and epistemology are known as “first philosophy.” They may not be first in importance, but they are logically first in the sense that they are the most fundamental philosophical disciplines.