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Aristotle (384—322 bc)

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According to Bradley, metaphysics is the finding of bad reasons for what we believe on instinct, although as Broad remarked, to find these reasons is no less an instinct. Originally a title for those books of Aristotle that came after the Physics, the term is now applied to any enquiry that raises questions about reality that lie beyond or behind those capable of being tackled by the methods of science. Naturally, an immediately contested issue is whether there are any such questions, or whether any text of metaphysics should, in Hume's words, be ‘committed to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion’ (Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Bk. xii, Pt. 3). The traditional examples will include questions of mind and body, substance and accident, events, causation, and the categories of things that exist (see ontology). The permanent complaint about metaphysics is that in so far as there are real questions in these areas, ordinary scientific method forms the only possible approach to them. Hostility to metaphysics was one of the banners of logical positivism, and survives in a different way in the scientific naturalism of writers such as Quine. Metaphysics, then, tends to become concerned more with the presuppositions of scientific thought, or of thought in general, although here, too, any suggestion that there is one timeless way in which thought has to be conducted meets sharp opposition. A useful distinction was drawn by Strawson, between descriptive metaphysics, which contents itself with describing the basic framework of concepts with which thought is (perhaps at a time) conducted, as opposed to revisionary metaphysics, which aims for a criticism and revision of some hapless way of thought. Although the possibility of revisionary metaphysics may be doubted, it continues to the present time: eliminativism in the philosophy of mind and postmodernist disenchantment with objectivity and truth are conspicuous examples.

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