In popular discourse, the word ‘metaphysics’ is used derisively to refer to baseless mysticism. But that’s not how philosophers use the word. In philosophy, metaphysics stands alongside topics like epistemology, ethics, and logic as a major branch of the field. Put simply, for philosophers, the word ‘metaphysics’ refers to the field that concerns itself with the nature of being. Accordingly, this field asks extremely fundamental questions, like: At the lowest level, what is there in reality? What constitutes the identity of a singular thing? And how and when does one thing ever become a different thing?
Given such important and fundamental subject matter, it may surprise you to hear Immanuel Kant’s account of the state of metaphysics toward the end of the Enlightenment: “All false art, all vain wisdom, lasts its time but finally destroys itself, and its highest culture is also the epoch of its decay. That this time is come for metaphysics appears from the state into which it has fallen among all learned nations” (Kant Prolegomena 998).
In these words, and others like them, Kant mounts an attack on the metaphysical philosophy of both his contemporaries and of the centuries leading up to his lifetime. He felt that the field amounted to little more than a highly formalized version of what the word ‘metaphysics’ conjures among laypeople today: baseless mysticism. It was baseless, he felt, because it amounted to nothing but coherent guesswork (i.e. as long as folks kept their systems consistent, they were entirely unfalsifiable); and it was mystical, he felt, because it was completely disconnected from the actual grounds of all knowledge (i.e. it was not pertinent to our actual experiences in life, our possible experiences in life, nor the conditions that make experience in general possible).
But despite these glaring flaws he identified, Kant felt the field was not entirely beyond salvaging, and he himself made a concerted effort toward clearing away the centuries of mistakes in order to provide a new and firm ground from which to build anew.