A (Metaphysical) Rant

It’s not you, it’s that damn word.

Look, Bell Book and Candle, I’m glad you exist, I wish more people would get more in touch with the seasons and nature and the seen and unseen world. Just fucking stop calling it “Metaphysical“.

That word has a long history and a real meaning, and then it’s been co-opted to an entirely different meaning because it sounds like it should mean “beyond the physical”. I can see how you can make that mistake. Sure, it’s useful that you can create a word that means that. But please pick a different one, because that one, used as you use it, grates on my ears like chalk on a chalkboard. I’ll explain why in a moment, but first here’s the actual meaning of the word.

“meta” is Greek for, amongst other things, “after”. So when the first century Alexandrian scholars were arranging Aristotle’s collected works and they decided to put a particular set of his treatises after the “physics”, they called them the “after the physics”, the metaphysics. Aristotle was talking about the nature of being. Thousands of years of thought have gone into it, none of which relate to the unseen world.

But “metaphysics” is a really good name for the study of the nature of being because “meta” also means “above” in the sense of “I want to understand the physical universe not just in its own terms but as what can be understood from how it is to what it means that it should be that way.” Like looking at football not in terms of scores and players but as a human social activity which generates emotion and happiness and care. Metaphysical questions are questions like “is the world composed of things?”, “is something I see now really the same thing in an hour’s time?”, “is a number more real than a stone?”

Which is why I hate you using the word to mean something like “magical”. Magical is still physical in that it operates according to rules which can in theory be understood. It has patterns and relationships with respect to physical objects. If you call it “metaphysical” you do yourself a disservice, because you include your conclusion (that magical things are beyond rather than a part of the physical) in your premises. That’s a huge mistake, actually it’s the Christian church’s mistake, because by privileging the non-physical, the spirit, you damn the physical tactile sensory world as inferior. That’s why they burnt witches.

If you mean magical, say magical. If you mean unseen, say unseen. Don’t try and get some prestige by association from Aristotle, it makes you sound stupid and you have some things to say that people should hear.

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