What is Metaphysics? We'll Tell You Here

Metaphysics is the need of human beings to fulfill our constant curiosity to know and understand the reality that surrounds us.
What is Metaphysics? We'll Tell You Here
Maria Alejandra Morgado Cusati

Written and verified by the philosopher Maria Alejandra Morgado Cusati.

Last update: 19 February, 2023

Metaphysics, in addition to resorting to empirical research, concerns itself with aspects and concepts that transcend experience (such as the nature of being, the soul, God, causality, and free will). These reflections are proper to metaphysics.

Metaphysics is a difficult concept to define. It’s a discipline whose objects of study have mutated throughout history. However, we could say that it’s the most basic branch of philosophy.

What does metaphysics study?

Metaphysics studies some of the fundamental notions with which we understand the world, such as the concepts of entity, being, existence, object, property, relation, causality, time, and space. At this point, one might ask how natural scientists differ from metaphysicians.

Do the natural sciences not study what is in the world and how it is structured? If so, then what role is left for metaphysics?

The difference is that natural scientists base their analysis on observation, experimentation, measurement, and calculation. Metaphysicians base them on reflection. This does not mean, however, that metaphysics ignores the results of empirical research, but goes far beyond it.

The danger is that any attempt to go beyond experience ends in nonsense. This is also according to Ludwig Wittgenstein and the logical positivists, who argued that all metaphysical statements are meaningless.

Metaphysics, for its part, comprises several branches:

  • Ontology: The study of being as being.
  • Natural theology: The study of God through rational methods.
  • Rational psychology or philosophy of man: The study of the soul or mind of the human being.
  • Philosophical cosmology: The study of the nature of space and time.
Experimentos empíricos.
Metaphysics isn’t unaware of empirical experiments, but seeks to provide reflection to go beyond measurements.

Metaphysics throughout history

To better understand metaphysics, it’s important that we take into account how it developed throughout the history of thought. Let’s take a closer look.

Metaphysics in antiquity

Already from the beginnings of philosophy in Greece, with the so-called pre-Socratic philosophers, we can appreciate the attempts to understand the whole universe from a unique and universal principle. In this case, Parmenides of Elea (6th-5th century B.C.) is considered the founder of ontology, since he used for the first time the concept of being/entity in abstract form.

Likewise, the moral philosophy of Socrates, the theory of ideas of Plato, and the study of the first causes of Aristotle are approaches to metaphysics. However, it’s worth mentioning that none of these authors used the word in their postulates.

This term is attributed to the first systematic editor of Aristotle’s work, Andronicus of Rhodes. He assumed that, because of their content, the fourteen books he grouped together by the Stagirite should be placed after “physics”. For that reason, he used the prefix “meta” (beyond).

Like this article? We think you may also like to read: St. Thomas Aquinas: Main Contributions and Thoughts

Metaphysics in the Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, the scholastic tried to reconcile the tradition of ancient philosophy with religious doctrine (Muslim, Christian, or Jewish). Based on Neoplatonism, medieval metaphysics set out to recognize “true being” and God on the basis of pure reason.

In this sense, the central themes of medieval metaphysics were the difference between earthly being and heavenly being, the doctrine of transcendental, and the proofs of God’s existence. St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas are considered representatives of medieval metaphysics.

Metaphysics in modernity and contemporaneity

Then, with the advent of modernity, human beings changed their way of perceiving themselves and perceiving reality. With the European Enlightenment, new interpretative theories of existence appeared, which broadened the field of study of metaphysics.

According to the German philosopher Christian Wolff, modern metaphysics is divided into general or ontology and special metaphysics. The latter is subdivided into three branches:

  • The philosophy of nature (also called cosmology)
  • The philosophy of man
  • Natural theology

In the contemporary period, some philosophers, such as Nietzsche, openly commented on and criticized metaphysical studies. However, Heidegger revised it under the pretext of rethinking it from its conception.

Problems addressed by metaphysics

Metaphysics began as a study of first causes and of being as being (ontology). Although it ended up addressing other issues about reality, such as the existence of God, the nature of the human mind, or space-time.

The reality of the external world

Is there an external world? If there is, do the senses provide reliable information about it? If they do, do human beings know, or can they come to know what it is like? Finally, if they can, what exactly is the source or basis of that knowledge?

The relationship between mind and body

Human beings seem to have properties of two very different kinds: physical, such as size and weight; and mental, such as feeling pain or believing that Rome is the capital of Italy. Now, there are many theories about the existence and relationship between physical and mental properties.

At one extreme are the idealists, who deny the existence of physical properties. On the other are the behaviorists and eliminative materialists, who deny the existence of mental properties.

We think you may also like to read this article: Spinoza’s Philosophy and His View of Nature

The question of existence

Although metaphysicians have had much to say about the existence of various things (of God, of the soul, of an external world), they have said less about existence itself, about the content of the concept of existence, or about the meaning of the word existence.

They have explored enough to make possible a taxonomy of theories of existence. Such a classification can be a list of pairs of opposing or contradictory theses about nature.

El mundo en la metafísica.
The world and the universe are two concepts that metaphysics approaches from a different perspective than empirical science.

Persistence through time

Some believe a thing persists through time if it exists in more than one moment of time. Because persistence implies that the same object exists in more than one moment, we often call it identity through time.

Some philosophical problems related to persistence or identity through time have more to do with identity itself than with time. Others have to do with time itself.

In the second case, theories or explanations of persistence divide into two broad types: those based on the idea that time is very much like space; and those based on the view that time and space are fundamentally different.

Metaphysics is part of philosophy

Metaphysics is one of the fundamental branches of philosophy. It’s given rise to a variety of concepts about ourselves and the reality that surrounds us, which have helped us understand and make sense of what exists.

However, throughout history, many philosophers and thinkers have labeled it as mystical, since it tends to deal with notions that have no empirical or verifiable connotation. So, what do you think about metaphysics?

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