Increase your English vocabulary by learning the precise meanings of terms like metaphysical and metalanguage.

Bill Casselman

At the Wording Desk

Meta, Metaphysical & Their Manifold Meanings

What’s in this column? A brief discussion of how the prefix meta- is used in inherited Greek words in English science and everyday linguistic use, emphasizing the use and changing meaning in English of the adjective metaphysical. What does metaphysical really mean? Find out here.

A number of my readers claim interpretive confusion with the common prefix meta-, as it appears in many English words borrowed through French and Latin from Greek, words like metamorphosis, metaphysics and metaphor, plus modern uses of the prefix in 20th-century coinages like metalanguage.

American students in first-year college or university courses score very poorly on words like metaphysical. They vaguely know that cancer can metastasize but they can’t clearly define metastasis. So let’s clear up some meta- words right now.

Metaphysics is the philosophical study of basic principles of reality or things, e.g. first causes of time and being.

The Greek roots are μετὰ meta Greek preposition ‘after’ + ϕυσικά physika ‘physical things’ from Greek ϕύσις physis ‘nature, what is natural.’ The Greek verbal source is ϕύειν phyein ‘to make, to do, to produce. The Greek verb is cognate with the same Proto-Indo-European base that produced our English verb, to be.

Metaphysics, as a word, has the simplest of origins. The Metaphysics was a medieval title of a work by Aristotle. It was named μετὰ τὰ ϕυσικά “AFTER the physics” because Aristotle stated that physics should be taught first in philosophy classes and then the instructor should move on to teach ontology, the study of how and which things have being and existence. Again, that study ought to come “after physics,’ thus the next part of philosophy was referred to as metaphysics.

The basic sense of μετὰ meta- in Greek is ‘after, together with, across,’ a match for some of the meanings of the Latin prefix and preposition trans ‘across.’ The earliest use of meta is borrowed Greek words with a meaning of ‘change’ like metamorphosis whose literal sense is ‘the act of changing in form,’ very like the Latin-based borrowing transformation. Latin forma = Greek μορϕή morphe ‘form,’ and the two words may be cognate.

Another early borrowing was metaphor, a figure of speech that compares two things without using ‘like’ or ‘as,’ for example, metaphorically, “In battle, the general was a lion.” The comparison becomes a simile if like or as is used: “The general in battle was like a lion.” The idea occurs in the ancient Greek word itself μεταϕορά metaphora =μετα- ‘across’ + ϕορά ‘carrying’ ( o -grade of the verb ϕέρειν ‘to bear, carry’). The sense of the word ‘lion’ is ‘carried across’ to the behaviour of the general.

Latest Use of Meta- in New English Words
College students frequently encounter and are flummoxed by technical terms like metalanguage. No need for such confusion exists, once you understand the most modern use of the prefix. In such freshly created words, meta- may mean ‘with a subsequent development of the original condition suggested by the unprefixed word.’ Thus there is language and, in the vocabulary of modern logic and linguistics, the term metalanguage.

Metalanguage, coined in 1936, is a language or set of rules used to express data about or discuss or study another language.

The medical word metastasis (pronounced muh-TAS-tuh-sis) perhaps began this use of meta-. In ancient Greek μετάστασις metastasis first meant ‘removal, change.’ Its primary use in 16th-century English was as a term in rhetoric signifying the change from one figure of speech to another. It is still used in this way, though rarely.

In modern oncology (the scientific study and treatment of cancer) metastasis names the spreading of cancer from a primary bodily site to a new site. So a metastatic lesion would be a new cancerous growth at a site different from the original. Nodal lymphatic cancer in an armpit might spread to the chest. It might metastasize, to use the verb. Such malignancies may spread via membranes or blood too.

Return now to the adjective metaphysical, which has a long history in English of developed senses. At first it meant ‘concerning philosophical speculation, of an intellectual endeavour.’ Then it developed a pejorative sense of ‘too high-falutin’, too airy-fairy, too philosophical by half.’

In the twentieth-century philosophical pursuit named logical positivism we can discern another meaning, best done by quoting from one of its great tomes modestly entitled by its author, A.J. Ayer, Language, Truth & Logic: “We may accordingly define a metaphysical sentence as a sentence which purports to express a genuine proposition, but does, in fact, express neither a tautology nor an empirical hypothesis.” Oh.

In literary studies of 17th-century English, we encounter the Metaphysical Poets like John Donne and Andrew Marvell who used complex English and imagery to express abstract ideas.

The Metaphysical Painters of Italy named a group of early-twentieth century Italian artists like De Chirico (one of whose paintings adorns the top of this column) and Morandi who used strange alterations of normal perspective and odd images to impart a dreamy unreality to their works.

The word metaphysical may have a general sense in which it is synonymous with adjectives like ‘supernatural, imaginary, incorporeal, immaterial, lying beyond the present laws of science.’

We conclude with a few pithy quotations containing our word for today:

“In some mysterious way woods have never seemed to me to be static things. In physical terms, I move through them; yet in metaphysical ones, they seem to move through me.”
                                                                       John Fowles

“Dickinson is my hero because she was a joker, because she would never explain, because as a poet she confronted pain, dread and death, and because she was capable of speaking of those matters with both levity and seriousness. She's my hero because she was a metaphysical adventurer.”
                                                                   Helen Oyeyemi

“For me, Moby-Dick is more than the greatest American novel ever written; it is a metaphysical survival manual - the best guidebook there is for a literate man or woman facing an impenetrable unknown: the future of civilization in this storm-tossed 21st century.”
                                                             Nathaniel Philbrick

“All good children's books, I think, address metaphysical issues in some kind of way.”
                                                                       Duane Michals

“I think that when a film does its job, it poses questions rather than gives answers. It should act as a frustrating counselor who, at your bidding for advice, says, “What do you think?” I think that’s some of what the culture critic Greg Tate meant by art leaving a “metaphysical stain.”

                                                                        Aunjanue Ellis

Bill Casselman, October 05, 2016

Copyright 2016 by William Gordon Casselman

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