Introduction to Metaphysics

METAPHYSICS. By D. Q. McInerny (Fraternity Publications Service, Griffin Road, P.O. Box 196, Elmhurst, Pa. 18416, 2004), 361 pp. PB $24.00 plus $3.00 for P & H.

This book is a beautifully written volume, intended to provide a thorough introduction to metaphysics in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition. It covers what scholastic thought calls “general metaphysics,” including the first principles of metaphysics, the analogy of being, the transcendentals, the categories, act and potency, and causality. By its final chapter it takes up the difference between finite being and infinite being and the difference between contingent being and necessary being. In this way it begins a philosophical consideration of the existence and essence of God, but the author defers a full treatment of natural theology for another time.

What is especially helpful about this volume is its straightforward challenge to the negative attitudes toward traditional metaphysics that have been dominant in much academic philosophy. In response to those logical positivists who regard metaphysics as a pseudo-science whose concerns are only the products of an uncritical imagination, McInerny shows how the principles and categories of metaphysics are not “meaningless” because “not subject to empirical verification” but rather the very conditions for any meaningful discourse. In response to those of a Kantian bent who regard reality as always in principle beyond the capacities of the human mind, McInerny provides solid argumentation for our confidence that a disciplined metaphysical approach can gain us reliable access. And to those who do express an appreciation for metaphysics but prefer an eclectic pluralism in their approach, McInerny shows the gaps that remain in one’s understanding of being without a systematic application of the basic principles of metaphysics.

There is good reason for the lengthy development that McInerny gives to the basic principles of metaphysics here. The principle of contradiction, for instance, is absolutely basic to all demonstrations in any subject. It is fundamental not only for understanding how good reasoning works but also for understanding how reality is. Likewise, the principle of sufficient reason needs to be understood with clarity: whatever exists has a sufficient reason for its existence, either in itself or in another. Without it, there could be none of the causal explanations needed for science nor even the possibility of an understanding of God as the ultimate cause of all things, whose sufficient reason resides not in any other but only in himself These basic metaphysical principles are the linchpin for the philosophical understanding of all else.

The middle chapters of this book wisely give separate consideration for each of the transcendental properties of being: unity, truth, goodness, and beauty. In Thomistic metaphysics the transcendentals refer not to the properties that make a being of one kind distinct from beings of another kind (that is, substance and the nine kinds of accident), but to the common properties of any being as being. To take “unity” as our example, every being as such is one being. If the being is physical in nature, this unity may be divisible into parts, whereas if the being is spiritual in nature, this unity may be simple and indivisible. Where there is no internal unity present, there is not a single being but only a pile, a heap, or some other kind of aggregation. There are countless applications of this fundamental principle, but one can begin to sense its importance on the practical level when one reflects on the way in which a newly conceived child, even one that is but a single cell, is already a new being, distinct from its parents, regardless of its state of dependency; and likewise, the internal organization principle of that new child as it grows makes it a unified being and thus quite distinct from the “clump of cells” to which it is sometimes mistakenly likened.

The sections on the transcendental properties of “truth” and “goodness” are absolutely crucial for being philosophically ready to respond to the anti-metaphysical challenges of certain trends in modern thought. While our sentences or thoughts are “true” or “false,” depending on whether they achieve or fail to achieve conformity with reality, transcendental “truth” refers to that aspect of any being that makes it possible for us to make a true sentence or to have a true thought about it. Unless any given being (independently of any effort on our part to come to know its reality) already has a form or intelligible structure, there would be nothing for us to know and to make true statements about. Unless things already had this intelligibility, we could not know them for what they are in themselves and thus we could not make a true statement about them. The transcendental property of “truth” is the intelligibility of a being (that is, the ability of a being to be understood). It is only on the rock of the intelligibility of being that philosophers in the realist tradition can withstand the attacks of skepticism and Kantianism. If one were to deny that beings are intelligible in this way, one would either have to deny that we can ever really know, or to insist that all we ever manage to know is our own perceptions.

Parallel with transcendental “truth” is transcendental “goodness.” Unlike those philosophies that reduce “good” to “value” and mistakenly think that things are only good when people choose them (a position whose unacceptable outcome is clear when one thinks about the rhetoric of the “pro-choice” position), Thomistic metaphysics hold that every being as such has a goodness, that is, a reality that can in principle become the object of desire because of what it is. This is not yet to assert anything about moral goodness, for moral goodness requires that our desires be conformed to the divinely established right order of love, just as propositional truthfulness requires that our statements be conformed to the reality of beings as they already exist prior to our coming to know them. But it is to assert that all being has a goodness of some sort, simply because created by God, who is all-good. Evil, by contrast, is some kind of privation of the goodness expected in a particular kind of being, and moral evil is a distortion in the order of our loves. In this portion of the book one thus finds the metaphysical support for resisting relativism in ethics as well as the excessive claims for autonomy typical of the Kantian tradition.

For those who are looking for a review of the subject of metaphysics, this book will be a blessing. It offers a healthy dose of traditional Thomism in contemporary idiom and will seem, I think, quite refreshing. For those who have never studied the subject before, the book will serve well, but one should note that it is not an entry-level introduction to philosophy as a whole. One will have done well to have gotten some experience with logic and with the theory of knowledge beforehand, and perhaps a general introduction to the history of philosophy, if only to appreciate how hard won these perennial insights have been.

Joseph W. Koterski, S.J
Department of Philosophy
Fordham University, Bronx, N.Y.

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