Jacques Maritain Center : General Metaphysics / by John Rickaby, S.J.

General Metaphysics.

Book I.

Being, and the Ideas Most Closely Connected with Being.


(1) WHAT is the subject-matter of the science of General Metaphysics? Is it true that, according to the old sarcasm which is repeated with many variations, when Metaphysics is being discussed, teacher and learner can only put on a look of wisdom and pretend to a mutual understanding, but really have no precise idea what they would be at, with all their high-sounding phrases? There are, no doubt, some schools claiming the name of metaphysical that merit the contempt thus poured upon them; but the fault is in their treatment of the subject, not in the subject itself, which admits of most accurate and intelligible statement.

To learn what the metaphysical is we must start with an explanation of the physical. By things physical are very commonly understood, though not universally, the material objects around us, which, appealing to the senses, form the first and proximately proportionate objects of human intelligence; and this, at present, shall be our sense of the term. Whatever was the original meaning of that other word metaphysical, Metaphysics as a science now implies a passing beyond the physical, which passage may be effected with different degrees of thoroughness. Even the physical sciences themselves so far transcend or overstep physical conditions, that they go beyond the individual differences between things, and formulate laws for a whole class at a time. This much generality every science must have according to the maxim, "There is no science of singulars." The mathematician advances a step further; out of all material properties he retains only one, that of quantity or extension.{1} In a well-developed language there are numerals which, in their present state, bear no noticeable reference to anything beyond abstract quantity; though in their original force they have appeared as largely "immersed in matter." We may contrast, for example, such concrete measures as a nail, palm, hand, span, foot, cubit, with the more abstract metre and its multiples; or, better still, some Hindu symbols with our more perfect numerals. Mr. Tylor tells us that in the former the sun or the moon stands numerically for one; a pair of eyes, wings, or jaws for two; fire, with its supposed triplicity of qualities for three, and so forth. Similarly we find the ruder tongues betraying their imperfect power of abstracting numerals from the matters numbered in such phrases as, "boy five-man," for "five boys;" "man two-fingers," for "five men." Now the process of abstraction once begun in Physics and in Mathematics, needs but to be continued and it carries us to Metaphysics. It was a remark made by Hegel, that the Pythagorean attempt to apprehend the universe as number, was the first step to Metaphysics. In this latter science we reach not merely pure extension as an idea, but leaving even this remnant of materiality behind us, we arrive at conceptions such as Being, Existence, Essence, Unity, Substance, Accident, Action, which may be applied either to matter or to spirit indifferently, for they contain no necessary reference to one order rather than to the other. Here in fact we have got a real Metaphysics, and indeed the most metaphysical part of Metaphysics, such as Kant and our English empirics have declared to be impossible. But ab esse ad posse valet illatio -- "the inference from actual result to its possibility is valid."

The illustrations we have given belong to what is known under the name of General as distinguished from Special Metaphysics, the requirement for the former being that it should abstract from every character which is peculiar either to spirit or to matter. In the strict sense it should be an Ontology, treating only of what is common to all Being; and if ever this rigour is relaxed, it must be understood to be a relaxation, such as occurs in certain sections that apply to all created Being, but not to the Uncreated. The various treatises of Special Metaphysics consider properties, some distinctly material, others distinctly spiritual; but they keep up the claim to their title of Metaphysics, because they go beyond Physics in the narrow meaning of the word. Practically Physics trespass on the metaphysical territory; but if they remained within their closest bounds they would confine themselves to formulating the laws of sequence and co-existence among sense-phenomena without entering into the questions of substance, cause, and so forth. Very laudably physical treatises employ a little Metaphysics. Mathematics, also, we sometimes call metaphysical, not because they really soar beyond all that is sensible, but because the one sensible quality which they retain, is considered by them under a supersensible aspect, as the most abstract form of extension or quantity.

It would seem that Logic should come under Special Metaphysics; but because, while on the one hand Metaphysics deals with the real, Logic, on the other hand, is very largely concerned with what we shall soon have to speak about as "second intentions," for this reason, the logical is often contrasted with the metaphysical. For a different reason some would not rank Moral Science as a branch of Special Metaphysics. And yet the word metaphysical, if applied to Logic and Morals, might retain the meaning we have attached to it; for these are engaged upon considerations beyond the physical or sensible order. It is merely one out of many instances, where a word successively widens and narrows its signification.

(2) After broadly characterizing the study of Metaphysics, we may now go further and contend, that not only has General Metaphysics a position by the side of the other sciences, but that no other science can be real if General Metaphysics is not so. For obviously if Being, Substance, Cause, and such like notions are unreal, then no concrete fact can be seized in its reality and put into a real science. We do not say that there exists any object which is simply Being, or Substance, or Cause in general; but we do say that if these general notions are invalid, no notion of the singular and concrete object can be valid, for with the general is indissolubly bound up the fate of the particular. Hence it is worth the while of those who indulge in a deal of cheap wit about the superior security of Physics over Metaphysics, to remember that the two causes are not opposite, nor even independent, but most strictly interconnected. No Physics without Metaphysics; no Metaphysics without at least a sufficient starting-ground in Physics. It follows that Metaphysics has, not only the other requirements of Comte for "positive" knowledge, namely "reality," "certainty," and "precision," but also "utility," if we raise the meaning of the term above its lower level of gross materialism.

And here Metaphysics has distinctly suffered from some metaphysicians -- of course bad ones -- who have broken up the essential union of things. They have spoken of "empty Being," or more correctly, "Being in its most abstract form," as though it had a sort of distinct existence from physical nature, or entered as a really distinct component into concrete objects. Hence the magnificent utterance -- magnificent in its simplicity -- "I am Who am," has been taken to signify that the origin of all things should be regarded as a Being quite indeterminate to start with, having no attributes, no concrete essence, but a bare existence, which is the existence of nothing in particular." We, at any rate, disclaim all pretence to assert for every metaphysical abstraction of the mind a corresponding distinction in things themselves: we go on the principle that whether a mental distinction has its counterpart also in reality, is a point to be settled on the merits of each case in detail. We are satisfied if the character abstracted by the metaphysician is real, and we leave it to further investigation whether it is a reality complete in itself, or only one real character intrinsically bound up with other real characters, which together with it constitute a unity, not really divisible but only mentally distinguishable.{2} Thus we guarantee that objects are really Beings; we do not say that mere Being can be the whole of any reality, or even an actually distinct part.

(3) Metaphysics, then, in the proper understanding of the term, we have pronounced to be an essential for the foundation of all real science. Whereupon we fancy that we hear the plaintive appeal, If Metaphysics we must have, of course we will submit; but at least let us have Metaphysics in moderation, by which we mean mainly two things: first, that only positive doctrine, not controverted opinions, be presented to us, and secondly, that the positive doctrine confine itself to substantials, without making excursions into the nooks and corners that skirt the way, simply for the sake of peering into curious recesses.

Replying to the latter demand first, we promise that we will try to keep chiefly to the principal terms, such as Being, Essence, Existence, Substance, Cause, and explain them; next, as to the avoidance of controversy, that cannot be wholly attained without most serious loss. The man who will not listen to the main difficulties against a true theory, often fails to acquire a spirit of due caution; he has no fear of committing himself, no sufficient sense of the need of qualifications in statements, no thoroughness such as the real student always wants, and distinctly misses where it is not present. When, however, it comes to the question, Which are the adverse views which it will be profitable to notice? opinions are sure to differ, if only because the differences of interest that have been aroused. One man who sees no reason why Hegel should be mentioned, remembers sufficient of Mansel's lectures to feel a deficit when points raised by him are passed over without notice. Another man declares that Mansel's day is over, and perhaps ought never to have been; but that Hegel is a living power in the country, and ought decidedly to be reckoned with. Thus what to one is a very interesting quotation, to another is a vexatious impertinence. Without any offence we may be permitted the two remarks, that professed moderation of appetite for variety in philosophical opinions, may easily be a cloak for sluggishness -- a part of that shrinking from labour which is so common in intellectual undertakings; and next, that with an increasing breadth of knowledge there is an increasing need felt for yet wider information. The stream of Greek thought often flowed very clear and straight, but then it was, for the most part, a narrow stream; the current of modern thought, in its best examples, is also clear and makes straight for its purpose, but its broader expanse requires a greater range of vision in him who would watch its course, and a weak-eyed observer may easily fancy that it is but an aimless waste of waters. The honest critic will try to make sure that he is right, before he ventures to say that a complex line of discussion is wanting in closeness of reasoning.

In the effort to keep controversy within bounds we shall regard the aberrations of our native school of thought -- the school of Hume -- as calling for our most explicit notice; with some of its errors we must distinctly grapple. About Hegelianism we shall say less, but we cannot afford quite to ignore it, because it has a strong foothold in the Universities and in the recent edition of the British Encyclopoedia; read, for instance, the article entitled, Metaphysic. Just because we are not going expressly to combat Hegel, at the several points where we come into conflict with his theories, it is fitting, at the outset, to declare our general mode of opposition to him, which is one for the most part of indirect encounter. The matter which we treat in Metaphysics he gives in what he calls Logic. For, declaring the Logical Idea to be the Unity and Totality of Things, or God, and identifying Thought and Thing, he has consequently no separate place for an Ontology as distinguished from Logic. Accordingly the three divisions of his Logic are, the Doctrine of Being, the Doctrine of Essence, the Doctrine of the Notion. If the theory of knowledge already defended In another volume of this Series, First Principles, is correct, then Hegelianism is radically wrong and needs no further confutation: the doctrine of Ideal Realism, which identifies the Real and the Ideal, falls to the ground. If, however, we must here give some explicit reason why we reject the Metaphysics of Hegel, we may put in the plea of a laudable "impenetrability to his ideas" -- of an almost utter insusceptibility; his doctrines "pass by as the idle wind which we regard not." For he fails in presenting for our acceptance propositions in themselves sufficiently intelligible to be assented to with an intellectual assent; he fails in giving us clear reasons why his several propositions should be accepted, even as mysteries beyond comprehension, yet credible on extrinsic grounds; he fails in the very fact that he appeals to a Reason (Vernunft) which is above the plain Understanding (Verstand) and contrary to it. As to the last particular, we fully admit the limitations and the imperfections of the understanding; the many distinctions it has to make which are only mental and not real; its inversions of the order of nature in its own order of discovering the facts of nature; but our means of meeting these deficiencies is to recognize them and allow a proportionate discount for them, not to assume the existence of a higher function of mind, which shall set at defiance what are commonly regarded as essential laws of thought. We completely reject a Reason which contradicts the plain Understanding, and which, under pretence of supremacy over it, tries to impose upon us much unmeaning phraseology as though it were highest wisdom. Such is a brief statement of our case against Hegel on general grounds; in detail we shall occasionally make mention of his doctrines by way of specimen, or contrast, or suggestion.

We hope, therefore, on the plan laid down, to secure a certain degree of comprehensiveness in our treatment without passing the bounds of moderation; to present a course to our reader which will call for a steady effort of attention, but not for a strain that is excessive; to write something more than a compendium, or humdrum text-book, but not a disquisition painful in its minutiae.

{1} How quantity comes afterwards to be applied to things spiritual will appear in chapter iv.

{2} When we treat of distinction we will explain the doctrine here briefly indicated.

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