Chastened Etymological Humour

February 22, 2007

I am delighted to have made the following discovery:

Aristotle’s works were usually arranged in the following order: I. The Organon (tool) or works on logic. 2. The scientific works or phusika. 3. A book or books on God, Unity, Being, Cause, and Potentiality. 4. Works on human activities (Ethics, Politics, Rhetoric, Poetics). As it was not very easy to find a name for the things in the third section, they were named simply from their position and called ‘the things after the phusika‘ (ta meta ta phusika). When these ‘things’ came (no doubt wrongly) to be regarded as one book, this book was called ‘the Metaphysics‘.

- C. S. Lewis, Studies in Words, 2, XIII.

This is funny, it seems to me, because the word metaphysical, for all its grandiose suggestions, thus has no higher origin than a librarian’s practical device for indicating a subdivision — oh, dear. Lewis continues:

It would be easy to make an ironic point by saying that the word metaphysical, for all its grandiose suggestions, thus has no higher origin than a librarian’s practical device for indicating a subdivision of the Aristotelian corpus which nobody could find a name for. But the name is not so unhappy and certainly not so foreign to Aristotle’s thought as this sally would suggest. We have already seen that he believed in realities outside what he called phusis and made them the subject of disciplines distinct from phusike (or natural philosophy). If the names are superficial, the division they express is genuinely Aristotelian.

Suitably chastened, I yet venture to suggest that perhaps a slight residue of etymological humour remains. Even if we forsake the truly grandiose word metaphysical, a small yet detectable morsel of grandiosity still attends that lovely prefix meta-, and a prefix cannot defend itself by taking refuge in a grand philosophical scheme. I’m sure you will agree, therefore, that this revelation of the humble origins of this moderately grandiose prefix is truly, if moderately, funny.

UPDATE: Scott Carson expands on the origins of this word, and adds a little humour of his own, in a recent post.

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One Response to “Chastened Etymological Humour”

  1. Scott Carson Says:

    Just for fun you might want to check out my post here where I discuss, among other things, the origins of the word metaphysics.


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