First published Sun Oct 8, 2000; substantive revision Mon Jun 9, 2008
The first major work in the history of philosophy to bear the title “Metaphysics” was the treatise by Aristotle that we have come to know by that name. But Aristotle himself did not use that title or even describe his field of study as ‘metaphysics’; the name was evidently coined by the first centuryC.E. editor who assembled the treatise we know as Aristotle's Metaphysics out of various smaller selections of Aristotle's works. The title ‘metaphysics’ — literally, ‘after the Physics’ — very likely indicated the place the topics discussed therein were intended to occupy in the philosophical curriculum. They were to be studied after the treatises dealing with nature (ta phusika). In this entry,we discuss the ideas that are developed in Aristotle's treatise.
* 1. The Subject Matter of Aristotle's Metaphysics
* 2. The Categories
* 3. The Role of Substance in the Study of Being Qua Being
* 4. The Fundamental Principles: Axioms
* 5. What is Substance?
* 6. Substance, Matter, and Subject
* 7. Substance and Essence
* 8. Substances as HylomorphicCompounds
* 9. Substance and Definition
* 10. Substances and Universals
* 11. Substance as Cause of Being
* 12. Actuality and Potentiality
* 13. Unity Reconsidered
* 14. Glossary of Aristotelian Terminology
* Other Internet Resources
* Related Entries
1. The Subject Matter of Aristotle's Metaphysics
Aristotle himself described his subjectmatter in a variety of ways: as ‘first philosophy’, or ‘the study of being qua being’, or ‘wisdom’, or ‘theology’. A comment on these descriptions will help to clarify Aristotle's topic.
In Metaphysics A.1, Aristotle says that “all men suppose what is called wisdom (sophia) to deal with the first causes (aitia) and the principles (archai) of things” (981b28), and it is these causes and principlesthat he proposes to study in this work. It is his customary practice to begin an inquiry by reviewing the opinions previously held by others, and that is what he does here, as Book A continues with a history of the thought of his predecessors about causes and principles.
These causes and principles are clearly the subject matter of what he calls ‘first philosophy’. But this does not mean thebranch of philosophy that should be studied first. Rather, it concerns issues that are in some sense the most fundamental or at the highest level of generality. Aristotle distinguished between things that are “better known to us” and things that are “better known in themselves,” and maintained that we should begin our study of a given topic with things better known to us and arrive ultimately at anunderstanding of things better known in themselves. The principles studied by ‘first philosophy’ may seem very general and abstract, but they are, according to Aristotle, better known in themselves, however remote they may seem from the world of ordinary experience. Still, since they are to be studied only by one who has already studied nature (which is the subject matter of the Physics), theyare quite appropriately described as coming “after the Physics.”
Aristotle's description ‘the study of being qua being’ is frequently and easily misunderstood, for it seems to suggest that there is a single (albeit special) subject matter — being qua being — that is under investigation. But Aristotle's description does not involve two things — (1) a study and (2) a subject matter (being qua being)— for he did not think that there is any such subject matter as ‘being qua being’. Rather, his description involves three things: (1) a study, (2) a subject matter (being), and (3) a manner in which the subject matter is studied (qua being).
Aristotle's Greek word that has been Latinized as ‘qua’ means roughly ‘in so far as’ or ‘under the aspect’. A study of x qua y, then, is a study of x that...