Encyclopedia of Medieval Philosophy

Living Edition
| Editors: Henrik Lagerlund


  • Andrew W. Arlig
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-024-1151-5_331-2


This entry surveys some of the major issues in medieval metaphysics. It examines at length medieval positions on the nature and scope of metaphysics, especially in relation to theology. This entry then briefly surveys some of the major topics that exercised the minds of medieval thinkers, including the transcendentals, the categories, existence, universals, ontological reduction, individuation, material constitution, identity, persistence, and modality.

In the collection of books known as the Metaphysics, Aristotle provided several characterizations of this science. In book I (A), Aristotle claimed that the fruit of the highest philosophical investigation is a “wisdom” concerning the first causes and principles of things. In book IV (Γ), Aristotle claimed that metaphysics is the study of being in so far as it is being (chapter 1), but given that all beings ultimately depend upon substance for their existence, metaphysics is primarily a study of substance (chapter 2). Finally, in book VI (Ε), Aristotle itemized the subject matters of the three theoretical sciences, which are marked off from the practical and productive sciences in virtue of the fact that the former are pursued for their own sake. The theoretical sciences are divided into natural science (“physics”), mathematics, and the “divine” science, or theology. Physics considered things insofar as they are changeable and inseparable from matter. Mathematics considered things, which are actually inseparable from matter, in abstraction from their matter and from change. Theology, however, considered things that exist separately from matter and are not subject to change. Aristotle noted that if there were only natural things, physics would be the first philosophical science. But given that there are eternal, immaterial substances, there must be a higher science that studies these. Hence, metaphysics comes after the study of physics. For the Aristotelian, one does not have complete knowledge of a science until one knows the causes and principles of the subjects of that science. In this sense, metaphysics is prior to physics. For these reasons, metaphysics is the first philosophical science.

While medieval philosophers were more than happy to parrot these Aristotelian formulae, there was considerable debate over the proper “subject” of metaphysics. For it is one thing to consider the x’s in a science, it is another matter for the science to have the x’s as its primary object of study. For example, one may have to consider substance in physics, but substance as such is not the subject matter of physics.

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Authors and Affiliations

  • Andrew W. Arlig
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyBrooklyn College of The City University of New YorkBrooklynUSA