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Metaphysics is traditionally regarded as the study of reality as it is beyond mere appearance. The three-fold purpose of this study is to find out (i) what the world is “really” like, (ii) why the world exists, and (iii) what our place is, as human beings, in this world. More recently metaphysicians have tended, in the main, to limit their investigations to (i) and (iii), thereby, in accordance with modern physics, regarding (ii) as largely unanswerable.

As a result of their attempts to answer all three of the questions of metaphysics, traditional metaphysicians have tended towards system building. They have attempted to explain the true nature of reality by constructing a model of that reality which integrates the answers to the three questions of metaphysics into a single, general and complete answer. Perhaps the grandest employment of this methodology was by Hegel, who held that the universe was just one substance which was in the process of coming to know itself.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to traditional idealist metaphysics comes from the work of Immanuel Kant in the form of his “transcendental idealism”. Kant held that the approach of the traditional metaphysician could never work because it tried to accomplish too much. His view was that although there was world beyond mere appearance, we can never know what that world is like in-itself because how we come to know that world will be restricted by what we, as rational creatures, bring to it. What we bring to the world is what Kant calls the “categories,” which are the conditions of our thinking about the world. In a sense, although there is a world independent of how we think about it, it is forever beyond our reach and, consequently, we must settle for investigating the world as it appears to us. Granted this point, it was the influence of Kant that first firmly bound the questions of metaphysics to those of epistemology.


Some philosophers have opposed the project of metaphysics altogether. Within analytic philosophy we have the logical positivists who claim that the metaphysicians could say nothing meaningful. More recently, there has been opposition to what Jacques Derrida calls the “metaphysics of presence”. Derrida has been interpreted as either denying anything as being exterior to the text or, less radically, simply showing the hopelessness of speaking of a reality outside of any particular interpretative framework.

If you are finding it difficult to keep all the philosophers straight, Monty Python created this aide-memoire: The Philosopher's Song.