I’m impressed by Wikipedia’s definitions — a model today’s psychologies might want to consider. It defines metaphysics as “a branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world… notions by which people understand the world, e.g., existence, objects and their properties, space and time, cause and effect, and possibility.”
It sounds like what psychology and religion might be concerned with were they more attuned to the advancement of consciousness than cultivating subjective ideologies for purchase by consumers.
“Prior to the modern history of science, scientific questions were addressed as… natural philosophy.” Science is: “knowledge of, originating from epistemology. The scientific method, however, transformed natural philosophy into an empirical activity deriving from experiment unlike the rest of philosophy.” After the eighteenth century “… metaphysics denoted philosophical enquiry of a non-empirical character into the nature of existence.”
Etymology traces it through “Latin scoliasts” as “the science of what is beyond the physical” to the Greek “… science of the world beyond nature… of the immaterial.”
It evolved from the Greek skeptics, “How do you know?” to “epistemology (how we know)… and this led to science (Latin to know) and to the scientific method (the precision of which is still being debated). Skepticism evolved epistemology out of metaphysics. Thereafter, metaphysics denoted philosophical inquiry of a non-empirical character into the nature of existence.
“Since the beginning of modern philosophy during the seventeenth century, problems that were not originally considered within the bounds of metaphysics have been added to its purview, while other problems considered metaphysical for centuries are now typically subjects of their own separate regions in philosophy… In some cases [italics mine], subjects of metaphysical scholarship have been found to be entirely physical and natural, thus making them part of science proper (cf. the theory of Relativity).
Metaphysics then is the language of imagination, of the psyche. To think that anything could exist outside nature is an illusion with profound implications. There is no other reality; how human thought ever arrived at two distinct perceptions of it can be examined historically.
Because of the psyche’s fluid nature, we can’t observe ourselves with the same objectivity we apply to inanimate objects. The subjectivity of perception and thought, the unconscious exchange of projections, and the artificial conditions of test methods find psychological experiment to be so relative to unknown factors that it can be only superficially objective.
Jung transformed the studies of religion, philosophy, and epistemology into empirical activities; his method, however, derived less from experiment than the comparative study of ideas and symbols. The ever-changing flux of perception dictates that the only fixed reference-point by which psyche can be pinned down is an historical one.
One of his basic assertions was that the psyche is the medium of all experience; with no perceiving subject, there is only the timeless world of unconscious impulse. Natural functions translate psychic experience through images. To apply an empirical method to their study, they must be confined to that medium.
His subject was not what objects are in themselves, but the mind. There we have the possibility to understand the ideas we conceive: images reflect objects but also unconscious responses to them — their usefulness, our needs and desires for them — as well as reflections of the medium itself.
Jung’s psychology was the study of our mental functioning through images, not their literal forms. If you believe that only concrete objects can be real, you can’t conceive spiritual ideas as symbols of psychic functions.
The fantasy-thinking that led theologians in the Middle Ages to argue over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin was a formal stage of thought; it conceived ideas as concrete things, as many still do today. But, we can see how our thinking has changed since then. Jung conceived a new exploratory method for the age-old philosophical problem of fantasy vs. reality: a symbolic one.
He showed how the metaphysical world could be described empirically, just as natural science studies the material world. Since the unconscious is outside awareness, it’s a natural, objective reality no less observable than the external world. To understand its symbolic nature, however, we need broader concepts than conventional science can furnish.
Erich Neumann described the nature of them: “… the psychic image-symbol “fire,” as something “red,” “hot,” “burning,” contains as many elements of inner experience as of outer experiences. “Red” possesses not only the perceptible quality of redness, but also the emotional component of heat as an inner process of excitation. “Fiery,” “hot,” ”burning,” “glowing,” etc., are more emotional than perceptual images. We contend, therefore, that the physical process of oxidation, fire, is experienced with the aid of images which derive from the interior world of the psyche and are projected upon the external world, rather than that experiences of the external world are superimposed on the inner… In human development the object becomes disentangled only very gradually and with extreme slowness from the mass of projections in which it is wrapped and which originate in the interior world of the psyche.”
Jung’s method of disentangling ideas from objects was a great advance in our attempts to view ourselves with any objectivity. Neumann’s statement derived from in-depth studies of symbols and ideas, their evolutionary development, and how our perceptions of them compare and contrast over time: the only reference-point outside a given historical viewpoint.
Their studies provided a new perspective on epistemology, philosophy, and religion — based on empirical evidence. It’s no less scientific than black holes, the extra dimensions of string theory, or the parallel universes of theoretical physics. Wikipedia will be compelled to update its definition of metaphysics — when the rest of science catches up to Jung’s ideas.
For an example, based on Jung’s discoveries, of the analogical thinking required to come to terms with a symbolic reality, continue reading.