Metaphysics and Its Problems – Jonathan Dolhenty

By Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.

Life is a continuous succession of economic, moral, judicial, political, artistic, and literary phenomena, which are closely interwoven and constantly changing. Nature which surrounds us presents to our experience the same succession of ever-changing phenomena. This great tide of human and natural change, whether it be taken as a whole or in each single act of becoming, may be the object of two different judgments, the regarding the fact, the other regarding value.

Phenomena, because they are phenomena, have a beginning, duration, and end, and as such they are factual — economic, moral, political, artistic, natural, or human facts. In so far as they are facts they pertain to science of history. It is the scientist or the historian who undertakes the work of telling us how these phenomena, whether they be of the human world or of the world of nature, may have arisen and disappeared, and of linking them together in different outlines.

For example, the following facts may be distinguished and enumerated: the appearance of man upon earth and the succession of generations and of empires, the men of genius and of action who have appeared in different ages, as well as the facts of the laws which regulate nature and which give us day and night, heat and cold, and the whole endless series of physical and chemical phenomena. This is the material of science and history, which studies how the facts came about, how they endured, how they ended only to give place to new facts.

But we said that every phenomenon is presented not alone simply as a fact, but also as a value. That is, we can give a judgment on every phenomenon not only in so far as it has happened, but as to why it has happened. When we begin to formulate such a judgment by learning the cause from which the phenomenon has been produced, we know its value. It has value precisely because it has been produced from a cause.

Let us take an example for greater clarity. Let us suppose that a city has been destroyed. This is a fact. Let us refer this fact to the immediate cause which has destroyed the city, for example, an earthquake or the wrath of conquering enemies. It is easy to perceive that the judgment regarding the destruction of the city in these two cases admits a difference in value. In the case of the earthquake, the judgment will be to attribute the destruction to natural laws, and hence it is a judgment lacking moral value; in the second case, the judgment will have moral value.

The judgment of the value of a fact implies, therefore, knowledge of the cause. Causes are conditioned one on another. To go back over the series of causes to the first source from which the entire procession of causes took its rise, is metaphysical philosophy. Hence metaphysics is the science of the prime causes from which all the causes down to the phenomena trace their being. Metaphysics implies the twofold movement of grades of being, as ascent from being to being until the first being is reached, and of procession or descent from the first being to the world of phenomenal becoming.

The name metaphysics is due to the fact that in the edition of the works of Aristotle made by Andronicus of Rhodes the books which treat of the knowledge of the supreme causes of being up to the Prime Being, God, immovable Mover and final cause of all phenomenal becoming, were placed immediately after the books on physics. Still the word corresponds exactly to the scope of the science. Metaphysics begins where physics leaves off. Physics gives us facts connected with their immediate causes. To leave these and to ascend the series of causes to the most remote cause is the work of metaphysics. The ultimate end of physical science is being, considered in its operation of becoming. The work of metaphysics is to trace the levels of being, to go beyond the appearance of change, and to reach the being which does not change and which is the source of all lesser existing forms down to the level of becoming. In ascending the grades of being and before coming to the ultimate Source, metaphysics comes upon two immediate points: man, who constitutes the spiritual world; and nature, which constitutes the material universe.

Accordingly, metaphysics is usually divided as follows: metaphysics properly so called (the study of being as such; also called “ontology”), rational psychology (the study of man; also called “philosophical psychology” and sometimes “philosophical anthropology”), cosmology (the study of the material world or bodily being), and theology (the study of God; sometimes called “natural theology”). [Please note that “rational” psychology is the philosophical study of man, while “experimental” psychology is an empirical natural science.]

In fact, we can easily see that not everything which proceeds from us and which we fashion has its source in matter. Many phenomena arise from a spiritual principle within us, that is, from our intellect and our will. This distinguishes our actions from those of brutes and from those of material nature. To investigate this principle within us, which gives value to our actions, is the first office of metaphysics. Man is also spectator of a series of potentially infinite phenomena which are terminated in the world that surrounds him and which have their ultimate reason in matter and in the laws based on matter. Thus another part of metaphysics called cosmology follows after psychology. Neither man nor matter, however, can be assigned as absolute values, since they bear within themselves signs of their own dependence or contingency. Thus it is that metaphysics, for the theistic classical realist at least, ascends from the contingent to the absolute, from man and nature to God, the Ultimate Cause of all and the ultimate goal of metaphysics. The particular philosophical study which treats of God, the Ultimate Cause and Prime Mover, is theodicy. [Please not that theodicy or natural theology is not to be confused with “systematic” theology which is based on revelation; the “philosopher’s god” or First Cause is not a religious figure.]

As a preface to the various parts of metaphysics a very important problem has to be solved, namely, the question of the ability of our cognitive faculties to arrive at truth. The solution of this problem is of utmost importance, since it constitutes the basis for the whole field of philosophical investigation. This branch of study is called epistemology and deals with the problem of knowledge. A final, political-moral problem arises from metaphysics. This study, usually called moral philosophy or ethics, points out to man his actions, the practicality of life, his duty as established according to the reality of being and reason. [Please note that “politics” as a philosophical study is included here also.]

From this brief exposition it follows that philosophy is essentially metaphysical. To deny this is to cut off at the very roots every possibility of philosophical investigation.

To confuse philosophy with the sciences is as it were to renounce the knowledge of the ultimate causes of the sciences themselves and to confuse the how with the why, the judgment of the fact with the judgment of its value. To confuse metaphysics with history is to destroy that unity of understanding which is the very scope of philosophy and metaphysics. In history the facts are separated from one another and change according to the age and individuals. If metaphysics were identified with history there would be as many sciences of metaphysics as there are facts enumerated in history. Truth would no longer be one, but would be broken up into as many parts as there are episodes in history, each of which claims some principle as its justification.

As man cannot renounce being, of which he constitutes a part, so also he cannot, no matter who he may be, give up the idea of a system of metaphysics which is the science of being. And although metaphysics transcends time and contingency, it is made evident in time and contingency.

The history of philosophy shows us the launching of these attempts to deny even the possibility of metaphysics. If we scrutinize these attempts, we shall note that they can be reduced to substitutes (and not always good ones) for metaphysics understood as some kind of knowledge of the grades of being, apart from the Primary Being, God.

Having thus established the differential characters of philosophy and the office of its different parts, we can define philosophy as follows: Philosophy is the science of the primary causes for the purpose of solving the problem of life.

First of all, philosophy is a science because it is an understanding of man and of the multitude of things which surround him through an investigation of their causes. Philosophy is thus distinguished from common understanding or so-called common sense. Admitted that common sense very often coincides with reality, this kind of knowledge remains uncritical. It does not know how to give the reasons why things are as they are. Philosophy, on the other hand, by rising to the knowledge of causes, not only knows reality but knows the reason reality must be such as it is. It is for this reason that philosophy is a science and is not to be identified with ordinary common sense. [Please note that the term “science” in the above description is used in a general sense and means any organized order of knowledge; usually we use the term “science” to mean the “empirical” sciences such as physics, chemistry, biology.]

Furthermore, philosophy is the science of primary causes because it is metaphysical or transcends experience and does not rest until it has investigated the whole procession of causes from the ultimate source on. Philosophy, unlike the physical sciences, does not stop at the phenomena, which are the accidental causes of our sensations but never their ultimate causes. To ascend through the entire series of causes and not stop until the last step is reached is, as we have said, the office of philosophy, which is essentially metaphysical because it investigates the causes that do not fall under experience. It is hence the science of the roots of things, of the essences of their values. Philosophy regards the multiplicity of things from the highest point, from their prime causes, and as a consequence, it is a science explicative of multiplicity considered in the unity of cause.

Finally, philosophy is the science of prime causes, for the solution of the problem of life. The problem of life is contained in the question: “Why am I upon this earth?” Here is a speculative or theoretical problem for the solution of which metaphysics is necessary. It is a speculative problem; for reason, transcending phenomena, attains to reality and hence is able to tell us what our life really is. At the same time we have a practical problem, because life is an unceasing activity, and we must know what we must do, what our duty is, if we are to attain the end for which we are on earth. The practical sciences, considered in their twofold aspect as individual and social (the moral and political-moral problems) and moving on different planes, direct their efforts to resolve the same problem: “What is the purpose of my existence on earth?” Consequently they form a part of philosophy.


The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at The Moral Liberal. The Moral Liberal has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.