Friday, June 6, 2014

How to Learn Metaphysics

In the forward to An Elementary Christian Metaphysics, Joseph Owens writes

The teaching of metaphysics is meant first and foremost to develop in the student's mind a living habit of thinking ... The presentation of its subject matter in a text for college use should therefore keep that purpose unswervingly in view. Metaphysics is primarily a vital quality or activity of the intellect, and not a collection or systematic organization of data either in print or in the memory. In its own nature metaphysics exists only in intellects, and not in books or writings, though the name may be used, in a secondary sense, to denote a body of truths known through the metaphysical habitus, and to designate a treatise or a course in which metaphysical thinking is communicated.

I agree completely. Philosophy is an activity, not a set of doctrines or propositions, and to become a philosopher is to develop the habit of performing that activity until it comes easily and naturally. So there's a big difference between "learning philosophy" in the sense of learning what it is that philosophers say, and learning what and how philosophers think. Both are needed, but in general surveys on the one hand and detailed scholarship on the other are aids to philosophizing in providing content to philosophize about, but less helpful for actually learning the habit of philosophizing. How do we do that?

Feser recently implied that I was an academic historian of philosophy. That's not really true, but it is true that I have always approached doing philosophy from a "historical" slant, if that means from the opinion that the best way to learn to philosophize is by reading and thinking through the philosophical classics rather than worrying about what the hip kids in philosophy departments are up to these days. That's why I went through the Great Books program at St John's College (the only undergraduate college I applied to) and the historically-oriented doctoral program of the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America (the only graduate program I applied to). At both institutions the best is privileged over the current and the primary over the secondary.

A couple of years ago I taught an undergraduate metaphysics course and spent a lot of time thinking over where the best place to start is for a beginner. Books like Feser's or Owens' can be quite useful and I've learned a lot from them, especially when I was a newbie. But they tend to give you information about what metaphysics concerns rather than help you learn to do what metaphysicians do. In the course I designed I wasn't able to do everything I would like, considering the limits of a semester and the average undergraduate. To someone really serious about learning to do metaphysics, this is the advice I would give:

1. Read Plato. Philosophy begins with Plato. After two and half thousand years no one has written better introductory texts: he's the Euclid of philosophy. Everybody should already know this, but it can't be emphasized enough. Autobiographically, my appetite for philosophy was whetted by C.S. Lewis' apologetic works, but I was lucky enough to start reading philosophy at the age of fourteen with the Britannica Great Books volume of Jowett's translations of Plato. Professor Digory Kirke would have approved, I think. Don't read a contemporary "Introduction", which are legion, read The Apology, The Republic, and the Phaedo. Get confused and excited. For methodology read Meno.

2. Now you're ready to start thinking about metaphysics. Sorry: read more Plato. Now it's time to step it up. Read more carefully this time. Think really really hard about what's going on. Try to figure out exactly what the problems are. Read the Trilogy: Theaetetus, then Sophist, then Statesman. You're going to be really and truly baffled, but if you have the makings of a metaphysician your bafflement will have a bracing, exhilarating quality. You're not used to the altitude and can't breathe very well but you can see the stars more clearly than ever before.

3. Read Parmenides and despair. Go back to Sophist and it will seem not so bad, or try something like Protagoras as palate cleanser. You haven't even read the word "metaphysics" yet, but you're confused and worried about being, and a lot of other stuff. You're ready for Aristotle.

4. Any Aristotle you read will be good for you. Maybe read the Ethics first, since it's not so hard and might get you used to thinking in his groove. But you need to read the Metaphysics. It will be very hard and confusing, but you'll start to understand Plato better and also start to understand reality better. I promise.

5. It's time for something different. The Greeks are an indispensable starting point, but you need to move on. You're not trying to become a scholar or a historian, after all. Greek philosophy is the foundation upon which good metaphysics is built, but it remains the foundation. Now, Aquinas. What I recommend is not one of the many decent Thomistic introductions to Thomistic thought, but this book, which is an anthology of texts from all over Aquinas, arranged systematically. I read this book over Christmas break of my freshman year in college, and it blew my mind. All at once the world seemed to make sense. This is what it feels like to move from aporiai to having answers. For all our complaints about "Thomism" here on The Smithy, Aquinas' metaphysics is a beautiful thing. It's also the easiest to learn of all the scholastic metaphysics. This modest 100-page book will be more difficult than many longer modern introductions, but it's all meat, not milk. Do you want to be a little wimpy-mind, or do you want to be STRONG?

Interlude. Think about that last question. If you want to be a little wimpy-mind but still think about philosophy, you have many options. There are lots of ways to "transcend" western metaphysics and feel superior about it without having to do any more hard thinking than what you've done so far. If you want to stay weak but imagine that you're strong, I suggest Nietzsche as your best option. If you want to BE strong, recognize that the hard work starts now.

6. Read Aquinas' Commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics . This, more than any other book that I know of in English, will give you the metaphysical habit that Owens mentioned in my quote at the top. As far as I'm concerned it's the best metaphysics textbook ever written, bar none. I've read through the whole thing three times, twice in English and once in Latin. I'll read it again. This is not a short or an easy book. However, the difficulties you had in reading through Aristotle the first time will start to clarify themselves. You'll finally start to get a handle on what you've been doing the whole time. You'll start to realize that metaphysical knowledge is possible, not merely questioning and confusion; even if at first it seems like the only thing uou can really be sure about is the principle of non-contradiction. Seriously, this book is a masterpiece and you should read it right now. Take it slow and let it really sink in.

7. Hume roused Kant from his dogmatic slumbers. When you read Plato, then Aristotle, then Aquinas, you felt that you were truly awake for the first time. Dicker around with Thomism as much as you like but eventually you need to realize that you've only reached the stage of lucid dreaming. Thomistic clarity is much better than, say, Cartesian clarity, but it is to a certain extent still an illusion. The Thomist synthesis is brilliant. It's better than any modern philosophy. But it is, alas, in some ways superficial and the shiny veneer of Aquinas' pedagogy papers over some serious cracks. To a certain extent the masonry in his marvelous cathedral of thought is trompe l'oeil where the marble and brick should be. It's not easy to see this at first and the longer you get used to living in the cathedral and admiring the buttresses and stained glass windows the less you want to notice. But it's time for a kick in the teeth. Suck it up and get hold of Scotus' Questions on the Metaphysics of Aristotle. Try to read it. I dare you. This version of part of it will help to some extent, but not as much as you'd like. I'm warning you, this book is not like Aquinas' commentary. Like Aquinas', it's one of the greatest books on metaphysics ever written. Unlike Aquinas', it is fiendishly, fiendishly difficult and, if you really think through it, will destroy your comfortable certainty that you've achieved a basic grasp on metaphysical issues, not through a rejection of the platonic and aristotelian and scholastic foundations you've built up, but from inside them. Figuring out what Scotus thinks is hard; figuring out if he right is harder. There should be many points at which you feel like you're back in the Apology, realizing that all you know is that you know nothing: with the consolation that now at least you have a better idea of what you don't know.

But. If you've really worked through Scotus' book, you will probably no longer be a comfortable naive Thomist (though of course you might remain a Thomist of some sort); you might not be a Scotist either; nobody could call you a straightforward platonist or aristotelian; but I guarantee that by now you've started to be a metaphysician.


lee faber said...

I had a sensation of wonderment and stupefaction just today. According to my library catalogue, we possess Feser's new book. He would approve: it is not kept on the 7th floor in the Medieval collection, or even with the Medieval books in the tower, no, it sits (well, it would if it were there) in the giant wall of pure metaphysics books, which bowls me over ever time I visit. Such vast tomes, and I with so little time to read!

Anonymous said...

The Aquinas books are online for free.

Anonymous said...

Are there any particular translations you would recommend regarding the ancient Greek philosophers?

Michael Sullivan said...

Anonymous 1, thanks for the hint. I prefer to read hardcopy books when possible but it's not always possible or feasible. Maybe someday somebody will put together a real (well-organized!) online library catalogue of what scholastic stuff is available for free.

Anonymous 2, the translations I recommend are linked to their titles in the post. You'll see that for Plato I recommend the Focus Philosophical Library. Good translations, good intros. and notes, cheap. I love that series. Some of the translators are former teachers of mine. For Aristotle I recommended Sachs. His approach is controversial and I've gone very much back and forth on it myself; I think it has a lot to recommend it BUT you have to learn the traditional Aristotelian vocabulary as well; but if you also read the Aquinas commentaries, these include a more 'traditional' translation of the Aristotle too, so you get both.

rank sophist said...

I should probably read Scotus's primary texts. What I know about him derives from secondary texts pretty much exclusively.

Also, I would recommend Ockham's Quodlibetal Questions to anyone who thinks that Aristotelianism is settled, but who doesn't have the fortitude for Scotus. His views are dangerous, to be sure, but they're well worth studying.

rank sophist said...


I'm always a bit baffled by the claim that Aquinas is a clear, easy writer. The more Aquinas you read, the more his vagueness and self-contradiction becomes apparent. What he really believed on many major issues (universals, analogy, free will, divine action, etc.) is an utter mystery, and only a naïve reading, or an appeal to the absurd Baroque Thomism, could make you think otherwise. To me, this is evidence of the impossibility of absolute logical rigor, although I can see why others would move on to even more convoluted writers. I, for one, prefer the Church Fathers.

Anonymous said...

Anon 2 here:
For some reason, I didn't see any hyper-link while reading off my phone, but back on my computer, I see them. Sorry about that, and thanks.

Anonymous said...

I hope the authors of the blog don't mind me recommending Glenn Coughlin's translation of Aristotle's Physics. The notes nd short articles in the back are immensely helpful.

Credo In Unum Deum said...

This was beautiful to read. Thanks, Dr. S.

Daniel said...

Might I request a future post on studying Scotus in English? There are a good number of translations, but some of them, I'm thinking Reportatio and Ordinatio, are formidable looking to the newcomer.

Apologies if such a post already exists.

Michael Sullivan said...

Anonymous, any translation recommendations are welcome.

Credo, Thanks!

Daniel, I think there is a post like that here somewhere. The book I would most recommend is Wolter and Franks' "Duns Scotus, Metaphysician" published by Purdue; but I think it's out of print.

Catholic Hulk said...

Can I ask, Michael, why not include Plotinus? Moreover, where would you recommend we turn after Scotus?

Robert Allen said...

Michael Sullivan,

To learn metaphysics, one must start with the pre-Socratics. One cannot even begin to understand Plato until one is familiar with the problems that exercised Heraclitus, Parmenides, et al. (How is change possible? What is the underlying nature of things?) I happened, because of my secular education, to come across these issues in Nietzsche, so some intellectual good did come of my otherwise ill-advised study of that (self-proclaimed of all things) shallow-minded thinker. But you are absolutely right to advise your students to say as far away as they can from lightweights such as the empiricists, rationalists, and idealists. (There wasn't an Index for nothing.) After I read your post I got to thinking: 25 years I wasted on those knuckleheads!

lee faber said...

No Albertus Magnus on the list?

Also, it seems the Wolter translation/commentary of De primo principio is now out of print. I can't find any trace of the publisher online.

Michael Sullivan said...

This post was supposed to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek, if that wasn't obvious, and in any case certainly not a complete reading list but a guide to developing a habit. In some sort of order, I would say

1) You start with the pre-socratics in starting with Plato, since he's engaging them constantly. Of course we need to start with their questions. I don't think it's necessary or advisable to start your learning of metaphysics with a thorough study of the presocratic fragments, say with a book like Kirk Raven and Schofield. Too much extraneous matter and unwieldy detours. Of course it's a good idea to look at the material sooner or later.

2) Plotinus is great, as is Augustine, etc. The post gives the short list.

3) Albertus Magnus isn't in English (right?) and the post was for English readers. Also I haven't read much Albert myself so what do I know?

As for the question, what comes after Scotus?, of course there are any number of things. One thing I've been meaning to get to for years is a careful reading of all of Suarez' Disputationes Metaphysicae, but that's a huge job and I haven't gotten to it. I have John of St Thomas' Tractatus de signis on the way right now because Deely has convinced me it's probably worth reading. Again the idea here was to provide tips to develop the habit of thought rather than a complete course of study.

Faber, it's really a shame if yet another Wolter book is now unobtainable.

Michael Sullivan said...

Also, Robert Allen, as I said in the post I started reading Plato as an teenager. I looked at Aristotle and Aquinas after that but found them too hard for me. (I had no secondary literature, no access to a good library, no educated people around me, and no internet. What I had at the time was an old 1952 edition of the Brittanica Great Books set.) Then I turned to Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant, and read a lot of their works. The Critique of Pure Reason which I read at sixteen was the first and one of the only books I ever took notes on just to follow the arguments. I also read a lot of Ayn Rand around this time. All this could have been disastrous, I suppose, but for me it formed a fascinating exercise. I knew most of what I was reading couldn't be right and the challenge was to find what was wrong with it. When I got to college I started studying Plato and Aristotle intensely in the curriculum and Aquinas even more intensely extracurricularly and I felt things starting to fall into place.

Anonymous said...

Michael, skip Poinsot for the time being and go straight to Suarez! Suarez was important for Poinsot himself and is simply amazing for the number of authors he (Suarez) has read and the organization he's put into the Disp. Metaph.! And to think, the man was denied admission to the SJs after two attempts!

P.S. Of course Deely will convince you that his/Poinsot's tractatus is of particular importance: he has a way of insisting upon himself, but at least he's a good scholar. :)

Scott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Stamps said...

Even though you said this blog post was "tongue-in-cheek," I decided to take you at your word anyway.

I checked out the first four Plato books you recommended through ILL and I bought "An Introduction to the Metaphysics of St Thomas Aquinas!" I am nearly finished with Bauerschmidt;s Holy Teaching and I thought I'd supplement him with your metaphysical suggestions. Maybe I'll finish your list by December 2014!

Michael Sullivan said...


although my tone was tongue-in-cheek my recommendations weren't; I do recommend all the books listed here. I hope you get some good out of them! Let us know how it goes if you care to.


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