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Metaphysical Traditions, Ancient and Modern (Level 6)


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 6
  • Convenor: Dr Sarah Patterson
  • Assessment: a 1500-word essay (40%) and 2000-word essay (60%)

Module description

Metaphysics has been part of Western philosophy ever since people began to wonder what the world is really like and how it can be accessed by the mind. In this module we explore metaphysical ideas in Ancient and Early Modern philosophy starting with the Greco-Roman world and ending in Europe in the eighteenth century. Later thinkers were inspired and influenced by the theories of ancient ones, and we will explore some of these many connections.

We begin with Plato and his opponents and collaborators. While he is famous for his theory of Forms, Plato also discussed the natural world and the role of matter within it. We will then turn to Aristotle, Plato’s student, who thinks of forms as instantiated in the objects around us; for Aristotle, the purposive growth and development of natural organisms indicates a broader teleological structure to reality. The final subject in the ancient period is the position of Epicureans and Stoics who argued about the nature of the material cosmos and the role of necessity and providence.

These Greco-Roman theories were part of the training of every educated man and woman in seventeenth-century Europe, but as the new physics began to supersede the older ways of understanding the material world, new metaphysical systems were required. The Early Modern period saw the development of a wide variety of views, from Descartes's dualism to the materialism of Cavendish, from Conway's Platonic hierarchy of being to Leibniz's reintroduction of Aristotelian forms.

Indicative syllabus

  • Plato’s metaphysics of forms
  • Platonic and Aristotelian teleology
  • God, the World Soul and the elements in Plato’s Timaeus
  • Aristotle on substance and essence
  • Aristotle’s cosmology and theology
  • Epicurean atomism: regularity without purpose
  • The Stoic worldview and cosmogony
  • Rene Descartes: soul as thinking substance, matter as extended substance, mechanistic explanation
  • John Locke: scepticism about substance and Aristotelian kinds
  • Margaret Cavendish: matter as animate and self-moving
  • Anne Conway: perfectibility of creatures and mutability of body and spirit
  • Gottfried Leibniz: monads as living atoms or spiritual automata

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will be able to:

  • understand different accounts of the material world, organisms and the structure of reality from Plato to early modern philosophers of the eighteenth century, as well as their interrelationships with scientific thinking
  • understand different ideas, contexts and frameworks deployed by ancient and modern contributors to debates over metaphysical questions, and recognise some of their strengths and weaknesses
  • undertake thorough critical analyses of different philosophical theories of matter and form, mind and body and necessity and providence as they develop from the ancient to the early modern period, and evaluate the outcomes
  • critically challenge ancient and early modern metaphysical systems and their relations to contemporary scientific thought.