Friday, February 14, 2014

I did mean to leave Facebook...

            ...but I didn't intend to take such a long break from the blog.  Wow.  I apologize for the almost-two-month-long break.  In my defense, it happened because I wanted my next post to be about free will, and I was fairly certain that I could wrap that up in about two weeks.
            But it turns out free will is a very complicated topic!  Who knew?
            And so, two months later, I still don't have the essay to end all essays on free will.  I am drafting something, but I also came across a bizarre little fun fact about the history of philosophy, so I thought I would share that with you for now.

            Free will is officially filed under the term "metaphysics," at least that's according to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  Which I guess makes sense.  Free will and its questions — whether or not we have it, and what it might even be — seem like they have to do with what we are, and the qualities of various things which exist in the world:  what is a human as distinct from, say, a squirrel, and why does it sound true to say that I as a human have free will, while the dainty-fingered squirrel does not?  Metaphysics is one category amongst several others within the domain of academic philosophy.  Others are epistemology (theories of knowledge and knowing), ethics, aesthetics, and various political and socioeconomic philosophical topics.
            When I was at university, it was in vogue to refer to self-conscious art pieces as "Meta."  As in, "Fellini is so Meta."  If anyone had bothered to ask me what the hell I meant, I would have said that "'Meta' is Ancient Greek for 'over, or above,' or something like that," and Meta art was art where the creator was reflecting on themselves qua artists.  So, taking Fellini as an example, when Guido is suffering from artist's block and keeps reflecting on memories that sound an awful lot like Fellini's own personal autobiography, it's Meta.  We could call Meta self-consciousness, though that term has an unfortunately negative connotation; it sounds like Fellini was shy over a bad hair day or something.  Other great film examples are Adaptation and Barton Fink.
            So we went with Meta.
            :  metaphysics

            Only I have just discovered that I have been using the prefix "meta" wrong this whole time.

            Meta (μετά), as with many words in many languages, can mean several different things.  According to Wikipedia, it can mean "beyond," "upon," or "after."  If you just type "translate μετά" into Google, you get "after."
            Enter the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
            One day I was just minding own business reading an essay on Plato's Middle Period Metaphysics and Epistemology, when I came across the following:
"In a collection of [Aristotle's] works, the most detailed treatise on the general topic of things that are comes after a treatise on natural things, ta phusika (from which English derives 'physics').  Since the Greek for 'after' is meta, this treatise is titled 'Metaphysics'."
            Did you catch that?  The "meta" in "metaphysics" doesn't modify "physics" in the almost spatial sense I meant it in.  It's a purely historical/chronological sense.  It seems to me that my friends and I were using the term to mean "beyond" or "upon."  "Meta" as Aristotle's editor used it could be re-applied to mean something like Metacolonialism:  "All the world is living after colonialism."  Or my new coinage, "Metabach."  As in, "We're all just living after Bach."  'Cause we are.
            I confess to having been the teensiest bit upset by this.  I like words, and I take a certain amount of pride in using them with a higher-than-average accuracy rate.  The salvation of my wounded ego, however, comes in the form of ambiguity.  Turns out, everyone uses the word confusedly!  The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has this to say in their article on metaphysics:
The word ‘metaphysics’ is notoriously hard to define. Twentieth-century coinages like ‘meta-language’ and ‘metaphilosophy’ encourage the impression that metaphysics is a study that somehow “goes beyond” physics, a study devoted to matters that transcend the mundane concerns of Newton and Einstein and Heisenberg. This impression is mistaken. The word ‘metaphysics’ is derived from a collective title of the fourteen books by Aristotle that we currently think of as making up “Aristotle's Metaphysics.” Aristotle himself did not know the word. (He had four names for the branch of philosophy that is the subject-matter of Metaphysics: ‘first philosophy’, ‘first science’, ‘wisdom’, and ‘theology’.) At least one hundred years after Aristotle's death, an editor of his works (in all probability, Andronicus of Rhodes) entitled those fourteen books “Ta meta ta phusika”—“the after the physicals” or “the ones after the physical ones”—, the “physical ones” being the books contained in what we now call Aristotle's Physics. The title was probably meant to warn students of Aristotle's philosophy that they should attempt Metaphysics only after they had mastered “the physical ones,” the books about nature or the natural world—that is to say, about change, for change is the defining feature of the natural world.
            So there you are.  Your fun history of philosophy fact for the day.  If you now realize that you have also been using the term "Meta" inappropriately, I think we may all console ourselves thusly:  nothing in Fellini or Joyce could have possibly come before a bloody thing.  But then again, neither could anything.  (Sooo deep, I know.)
            Happy Valentine's Day!


  1. But seriously, I like your breaking down of metaphysics as a word here. I'm older than you are, and in my college days, we didn't use Meta by itself. I think that is a fairly recent thing.

    We did use "metafiction" in a fairly clear and consistent way in our literature department, which is fiction that is aware that it is fiction, aware that it is artifice, a good example being someone like John Barth. This is very close to the film examples you've given here. (I didn't like metafiction, by the way. It scoffed at people who let themselves get lost in stories. Some of the style was impressive, but the snarkier than thou attitude was immediately offputting.)

    But as many times as I've heard (and used) "metaphysics" or "metaphysical" (including with poets like John Donne), I haven't really thought as precisely what its relationship is to physics.

    So, good precise thinking here. Also, ancient Greeks are awesome in general.

  2. Ah, yes, "metafiction." I think of metafiction — and really all "meta" stuff — as the 20th century's attempt to make itself feel original. The more old literature I read (hello Piers Plowman and Don Q), the more I realize that the idea of self-consciousness is probably as old as written language. At least. But I think you're right about the more modern version being VERY snarky. I think a lot of modern writing suffers from this. It's one of the things that makes me sad about Salman Rushdie, who I actually think is a wonderful writer. Unfortunately, he thinks he's much more clever than he is. If he stuck to writing the stories he's obviously brilliant at, he'd be flawless.

    1. I feel exactly the same way about Salman Rushdie, one of my very favorite writers still at work today. Except when I want to slap him.