The Question of Being
When I began my thesis, I started with the naive assumption that most people knew what was meant by Heidegger’s ‘question of the meaning of Being’. Indeed, I thought I knew. The first two years were a systematic exercise in uncovering just how much others, and myself, had taken for granted that we understand what this question is, and simply proceeded to talk about other things, be it the specifics of Heidegger’s own philosophy or the relative merits of other attempts to answer this question.
There is a horrible irony in this. Heidegger raised the question of the meaning of Being in response to the fact that although we think we know what we mean by ‘being’, when pressed we are unable to say what it is precisely that we mean. Moreover, he showed that the fact that we did not see this as itself problematic indicated a historical trend of the forgetting of Being, perpetrated largely by metaphysics. Many of the thinkers who come after Heidegger acknowledge Heidegger’s diagnosis, and they go on to talk about Being in a properly theoretical register, but I get the sense that if they are pressed they are equally unable to say what it is they mean. Being thus becomes an almost empty concept in much philosophical discussion, used in a haphazard way that hinders real attempts at understanding and obfuscates its philosophical import. If anything, this is a worse forgetting of the issue than that perpetrated by metaphysics itself, because we have moved from mistakenly thinking that we know what ‘being’ means in a pre-theoretical way to mistakenly thinking we know what it means in a properly theoretical way. The former is a matter of familiarity while the latter is a matter of hubris.
Obviously, I’m not claiming that all post-Heideggerian thinkers are prone to this misunderstanding. However, I do think that much Heidegger scholarship, and some post-Heideggerian philosophical projects are simply not rigorous enough in delineating what they mean when they talk about Being or the question of Being. In this post I want to try and undo some of the obfuscation this causes by laying out what I take the question of the meaning of Being (or simply the question of Being) to be. Hopefully, this should also illuminate some things I have said elsewhere about the nature of ontology and its relationship to metaphysics (especially here).
One final warning: this post is very abstract. Such is the peril of thinking about Being. If you don’t want to deal with such heavy abstraction, my advice is to think about beings. This post is also very long, pushing 7,000 words this time. I thank anyone who takes the time to read the whole thing in advance, although it need not be consumed in one sitting.
1. The Manifold Senses of Being
I have elsewhere described the question of Being as asking after the unity of the different ways in which ‘being’ is said. Heidegger identifies this fact through his analysis of the origin of the question in Aristotle’s work. This is not to say that there was no concern with Being prior to Aristotle, but that the posing of the question proper can be traced to Aristotle’s work, in his problematization of the unity of the four different senses of ‘being’ that he had uncovered: accidental being, potential and actual being, the being of the categories, and being-true. What I have also mentioned is that despite identifying the question in this way, Heidegger does not directly set out to formulate it and answer it in these terms. Heidegger does at times put forward various senses of ‘being’ (which are quite different from Aristotle’s) but he never does give an exhaustive list which he intends to unify, or a strategy for how to unify them. This suggests that there is some different, more direct purchase that can be had on the nature of the question.
In briefly describing my own attempt to reformulate Heidegger’s question, I have mentioned my own breakdown of what I take to be the pertinent senses of ‘being’: existence, identity, predication, essence, reality (a recent addition) and ‘what is’ or ‘what is the case’ (for which I have no catchier name). I do indeed see the question as a matter of uncovering the structure which unifies these various notions, not by merely analysing the way we relate them (as in the explication of our pre-ontological understanding of Being) but by uncovering the underlying unifying structure of Being as it is in itself.
However, specifying my project solely in this way leaves me open to two serious questions, one which follows from the other:-
1) What is it about these different notions (identity, predication, existence, truth, etc.) that unites them over an above the fact that they can be referred to through the use of some variant of the word ‘being’ (e.g., a is b, a is F, a is, p is the case, etc.)?
Surely it could be contingent that all of these different notions used the same word (i.e., ‘being’ could be polysemic). There have even been attempts to perform a linguistic dissociation of them, such as the artificial language e-prime. If there is some reason for taking these to all be senses of ‘being’ proper, independent of the fact that they share the same word, then this reason is precisely what would lead us to choose this set of senses over another (say, Aristotle’s). To rephrase the initial question then: if the fact that all of these senses share a word (‘being’) in common points to something deeper, what is it?
2) If there is some deeper reason which unites all of these senses as senses of ‘being’ proper, then why not proceed by questioning after it than starting with this manifold of senses?
There is an obvious retort to this that I think many would be tempted to reach for, namely, that asking what the deeper connection between these different notions just is asking the question of the underlying structure which unites them, i.e., asking the question of the meaning of Being. This retort implies that all one does in raising these questions is restate the problem itself. I think this retort is at best misguided and at worst positively shallow. This is because the kind of unity that we are looking for in showing that this manifold of senses (or any other proposed manifold of senses) is not simply polysemic, is a formal unity, whereas what we are looking for in finding the structure which unifies these different senses as aspects of Being itself is a properly ontological unity. Indeed, it is the ontological unity par excellence. To put this in a different way, the former is a question about our pre-ontological understanding of Being, whereas the latter is a question about Being itself.
We must therefore take both of these questions seriously. I take it that the latter question indicates something correct, namely, that there is a more originary way of posing the question of the meaning of Being than as the question of the unity of the different ways in which ‘being’ is said. However, this does not mean that the latter way of posing the question is false, just that it flows from a more originary posing of the question.
2. Heideggerian Insights
Can we find this more originary posing of the problem in Heidegger? Yes and no. There would not have been the problems in the uptake of Heidegger’s philosophy I have claimed there are (and I would not therefore be writing this post) if Heidegger had ever succeeded in providing such a simple and originary formulation of the question. However, he does think around the area in a very rigorous fashion, and I believe his insights provide us with the resources to formulate it in a way he himself was unable to.
Firstly, we can garner from Heidegger what the question is not:-
1) The question is not ‘What is Being?’ as the ‘is’ in this question is something we can only understand properly through understanding Being properly. To put it a better way, although our pre-ontological grasp of the ‘is’ of essence seems adequate for dealing with ordinary ‘What is…?’ questions, the question ‘What is Being?’ is most certainly not an ordinary question of essence (we could rephrase this question as ‘What is the essence of Being?’). The only way to determine whether it even makes sense to talk of Being in these terms (i.e., in terms of essence) is to understand Being itself. This produces a terrible reflexivity in the question which prevents it from ever getting off of the ground. In principle there could be a consistent answer to it, which both gave the essence of Being and also gave the sense in which Being has an essence, but their is no way to proceed consistently in asking the question.
2) The question is not a question of meaning as opposed to a question of truth. I won’t say much here, but, as the above considerations indicate, we are not simply asking what we contingently happen to mean by some word ‘being’, as if a different society or culture would find a different answer to the question than us. The question is concerned with Being as it is in itself.
3) The question is not the primary question of metaphysics: ‘What are beings?’, ‘What is existence?’, ‘What is the essence of existence?’, or even ‘What is beingness?’. This indicates that Being and existence are not the same. (I’ve written more about this difference and the question of metaphysics here and here.)
Secondly, there is also a further question that, although no one has been tempted to equate it with the question of Being, Heidegger nonetheless takes to be related to it in an interesting way: ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’, or ‘Why are there beings rather than nothing?’. We need not veer off into Heidegger’s elaborate discussion of ‘Nothing’ in order to agree that there is indeed something interesting here. Heidegger takes it that this is an exemplary metaphysical question, and that, perhaps even moreso than the primary question of metaphysics, it thinks Being, if only in an indirect way. If we pull on this thread, then I think we will find it leads toward the more originary formulation of the question of the meaning of Being.
3. Why not Nothing?
What is it about this exemplary metaphysical question which touches on Being? I think the best way to articulate this is to begin with precisely the kind of quantificational terms that Heidegger would find so distasteful. In these terms, there is nothing logically special about there being no beings. If we have a box, and we ask how many balls are in the box, there is nothing paradoxical about the answer ‘none’. Put in more properly logical terms, the box is like a domain over which we quantify, and the balls are objects within that domain. Now, we can quantify over a restricted domain, for example, the domain of numbers, the domain of rational numbers, or even just the domain of objects in this box. The interesting issues appear when we scale this up to quantify over all beings. Whether or not the domain of beings is a restricted domain is open to question, and there are plenty of problems with unrestricted quantification (which, for instance, Russell and Whitehead tried to fix with their type system in principia mathematica). If one advocates a distinction between beings and pseudo-beings however, then this domain is definitely restricted in some sense (for instance, we might think that numbers aren’t beings, even though we can quantify over them).
Regardless of whether one takes such quantification to be restricted or unrestricted, what is important is that it analyses the issue of whether or not there are any beings at all in the same way it analyses whether there are any balls in the box – in strictly numerical terms – there can be any number of objects, and ‘none’ is just another number. However, when we scale up from the question ‘why are there some balls in the box rather than none?’ to the question ‘why are there beings rather than nothing?’, whereas the former question can be understood in a similar way to the question ‘why is there one number of beings rather than another?’, the latter cannot. What is intriguing about the question is precisely what Heidegger is often mocked for pointing out, namely, that ‘nothing’ seems to have some supra-numerical import here. That said, we’re not going to start talking about the ‘noth-ing of nothing’ just yet.
I would venture that the root of this intuition lies in the fact that any answer to the question ‘how many beings are there?’ with the exception of ‘an infinite number’ and ‘none’ (possibly with the additional exception of the Parmenidean answer ‘one’, but we are for the moment assuming that there are beings rather than nothing), appears contingent. The answer to a question that asked why are there is one contingent number of beings rather than another contingent number of beings would be one which appealed to other facts about specific beings. Unfortunately, this kind of answer is not open when answering the question ‘why is there a contingent number of beings rather than none?’ or even ‘why is there an infinity of beings rather than none?’ if there are only facts about contingently existing beings available.
The only obvious way out here is to posit the existence of a necessarily existing being, facts about which provide a reason for there being some beings rather than none, or a fortiori a reason for there being the number of beings that there actually are (be it infinity or something more pedestrian). This is obviously the root that classical onto-theological metaphysics takes. (I understand that Meillassoux has thought about this problem in much greater detail, but as I have yet to read After Finitude, so there is not much I can say too much about it.)
Moving on, I take it that there are in fact two distinct problematic intuitions which accompany scaling up from ‘why is there something in the box, rather than nothing?’ to ‘why are there beings rather than nothing?’:-
1) If we ask why there are some balls in the box rather than none, it inevitably comes down to an answer regarding the causal chain of events (amongst beings) which lead to there being these balls in the box. When we scale this up, we become uneasy when the reason why there are some existents rather than none is treated as a question of what caused those beings which just happen to exist to exist. To state this intuition simply: it seems that whether or not there are beings at all is a matter of pure necessity (interestingly, for Meillassoux, that there are beings is the only necessity, as without beings there is no contingency).
2) If we assume that there are no beings, then it still seems that there is something. When we scale up from the case of the balls to beings as such, we are drawn to think exactly what is analogous to the box. What is it that contains beings? When we think of there being no beings we think as if there is an empty universe. But then it seems as if we are dealing with an additional thing, the universe, the world, the cosmos, the absolute, or whatever you want to call it, in addition to beings. This is the structure of the totality of beings minus the beings which make it up.
Although the first intuition is helpful for understanding how onto-theological metaphysics emerges out of the question, I think that the second intuition is in fact more helpful to us. I think it is in this second intuition that we find where the question touches upon Being.
4. On What is the Case
Now, there are plenty who would dismiss this intuition out of hand. They would claim that we are guilty of faulty reasoning by analogy – moving from a physical container to some literally meta-physical container. Here, someone might simply maintain that there is nothing particularly interesting about the domain of beings (be it restricted or unrestricted) and that it should not be hypostatized into some kind of structure (as if it were an additional being). However, I think we can make good sense of the intuition in a way which avoids both such crude analogies and hypostatization.
To restate the intuition in a more rigorous way: we seem to think that there is more to the structure of ‘what is the case’ than what contingently happens to be the case, and that if there is any reason why there are beings rather than nothing, then it is to be found in this structure. This notion of ‘what is the case’ is deliberately a much more abstract notion than either universe, world, cosmos, absolute, or the other possible alternatives. All that we mean by ‘what is the case’ is what it is that is true, or the totality of truth. This is a purely formal notion, which has not yet been hypostatized or interpreted in any way (as either universe, world, cosmos, etc.). Moreover, it is entirely distinct from the notion of a domain, as it is not a set of entities (even the totality of entities), but a set of truths (namely, the totality of truths). In virtue of its formality, I take this notion of ‘what is the case’ to be part of our pre-ontological understanding.
The best way to demonstrate this is to examine structure of questioning. Any given question leaves something indeterminate – something which is to be determined by the answer to the question. If a question did not leave something undetermined then it would not properly be a question. The interesting issue then is whether the indeterminacy which is specific to each question is a determinate indeterminacy. If we ask ‘Where are my car keys?’, then what is to be determined by the answer to the question is delimited – what is indeterminate is the location of my car keys and nothing more. There is only one question where what is to be determined by the answer is unlimited: ‘What is the case?’ or ‘What is it that is true?’.
We will call this the limit-question insofar as any specific question is determined in relation to it, not as a part of it (the limit-question is not the sum of all possible questions), but precisely through being more specific than it, through determining what they leave indeterminate. The limit-question is a limit in this sense because it is the only non-specific question. The answer to the limit-question is the sum total of all answers to all other possible questions (not the sum of all possible answers to such questions). This is what we mean by ‘what is the case’ or the totality of truth: it is the correlate of the limit-question. Insofar as the limit-question is a purely formal possibility of the structure of questioning, the notion of ‘what is the case’ is a formal notion implicit within that structure.
5. Being and Beingness
We can now draw a really interesting distinction. Ontology is concerned with ‘what is’. However, there are two different senses of ‘what is’: ‘what is the case’ and ‘what exists‘. The former refers to the totality of truth, whereas the latter refers to the totality of beings. There is a very close and complex relationship between these two notions. For instance, if no beings exist then it would still be true that ‘there are no beings’. In this situation, even if absolutely nothing else were the case then it would still be the case that there are no beings, and there would thus still be ‘what is the case’. This tells us that although ‘what is the case’ is constituted by existential facts about what beings happen to exist, the structure of ‘what is the case’ is not constituted by such existential facts. This is very abstract and can be confusing, so I’m going to try to run through it again.
‘What is the case’ is essentially constituted out of existential facts and other facts about existents. This is a fact about the structure of ‘what is the case’. However, although existential facts and other facts about existents constitute ‘what is the case’, they do not therefore constitute its structure, they are not themselves facts about its structure. On the other hand, facts about existence which are independent of facts about beings (existential facts included), can be part of this structure. This means that whatever the essence of existence (beingness) is, it is part of the structure of ‘what is the case’. There is thus a good formal sense in which the structure of the totality of beings can be thought independently of the existence of any given being, insofar as it is an aspect of the structure of ‘what is the case’. It is important to note that when we are talking about structure here, we could equally talk about essence.
I can now lay my cards on the table an put forward my substantive thesis: Being is the structure/essence of ‘what is the case’. If we read ‘Being’ for what I have referred to as ‘the structure of ‘what is the case”, and ‘beingness’ for ‘the structure of the totality of beings’. This produces the right embedding, where beingness is an aspect of Being, but does not exhaust it.
I must head off an obvious but misguided criticism of this thesis straight away. This is not an answer to the question of the meaning of Being. This is an attempt to formulate the question adequately by determining what is formally indicated by the word ‘being’ in ‘the question of the meaning of being’. Indeed, this isn’t even yet the full formulation. There are more complications to work through. However, I will now try to present a simplified version of this position to make it easier to demonstrate what the complications are. I will then bring out these complications with reference to some of the Heideggerian issues talked about earlier, and try to work through them.
Now for the simplified picture. I take it that there are primarily two philosophically interesting questions:-
1) The Question of Ontology: “What is ‘what is the case’?”, “What is the essence of ‘what is the case’?”or “What is Being?” (not to be confused with the question “What is the case?”)
2) The Question of Metaphysics: “What is ‘what exists’?”, “What is the essence of ‘what exists’?”, “What are beings?”, or “What is beingness?” (not to be confused with the question “What exists?”)
There is a wonderful symmetry here, insofar as these questions each ask after one sense of ‘what is’. Indeed, they are the meta-questions of the two variants of the question ‘What is?’, namely, ‘What is the case?’ and ‘What exists?’, respectively. I find this symmetry astounding and stimulating at the same time. It indicates to me that we can neatly divide between philosophical ontology and scientific endeavour here, insofar as science is concerned with ‘what is‘, and philosophy is concerned with ‘what ‘what is’ is‘.
6. The Perils of Metaphysics
On the basis of this simplified picture we are now in a position to clear up precisely what the problem is with classical metaphysics. The metaphysical question thinks Being through thinking beingness insofar as beingness is an aspect of the structure of ‘what is the case’, but the metaphysical tradition has failed to think Being properly insofar as it does not explicitly grapple with beingness as an aspect of the structure of ‘what is the case’. It is important to note here that this deficiency in the tradition is not a necessary deficiency. The metaphysical question does not preclude the ontological question, but metaphysical inquiry might be a proper part of ontological inquiry.
Similarly, the exemplary metaphysical question (“Why are there beings rather than nothing?”) touches on Being in a way that the primary question (“What are beings?”) does not, insofar as it provokes us to think the structure of ‘what is the case’ independently of what happens to be the case. However, this moment of touching on Being can be appropriated by onto-theological metaphysics if it interprets this structure in terms of some particular being or set of beings.Two pertinent examples of this tendency are Leibniz and Spinoza (whose onto-theological metaphysics I have discussed here and here).
Leibniz metaphysically determines the structure of ‘what is the case’ insofar as he posits a necessary being (God) who then functions as the reason why there are beings rather than nothing, insofar as he chooses to actualise the best internally compossible world. It is important to point out here that the positing of a necessary being does not necessarily imply that Being is a being, i.e., it does not also posit the structure of ‘what is the case’ as some kind of being (like a meta-physical container). It simply makes a being part of Being. For Leibniz, we simply cannot understand Being without understanding a certain being, namely, God.
Spinoza on the other hand goes a step further, and actually thinks ‘what is the case’ as a being, namely, God as Substance. All modes and their given states are parts of Substance (not in the sense that Substance is composed of modes), and Substance is the immanent cause which causes both itself and modes to exist, thus functioning as both the reason why there are any beings at all, and the reason why there are those beings that there happen to be.
We might then say that there are in fact two forms of the ontological difference between Being and beings. The weaker form holds that Being is not itself a being, and is violated by Spinoza. The stronger form holds that Being qua structure of ‘what is the case’ is not constituted by any facts about particular beings or kinds of beings whatsoever, and is broken by Leibniz. We might say that Heidegger goes one step further than either of these forms of ontological difference in holding that Being qua structure of ‘what is the case’ is not constituted even by facts about beingness, which are compatible with the strong version of ontological difference insofar as they are not dependent on facts about any particular beings or kinds of beings. It is this hyper-ontological difference which precludes the possibility of reconciling metaphysics and ontology for Heidegger. However, although I endorse both the weak and strong forms of ontological difference, I see no reason to take the extra step and endorse Heidegger’s hyper-ontological difference.
We are also now in a position to understand Heidegger’s enigmatic equation of Being and Nothing. The standard complaint against Heidegger’s talk about Nothing is that he treats it as a substantive, i.e., that he treats it as something. However, precisely what was indicated by the problematic intuition we uncovered in relation to the exemplary question is that when we think nothing we nonetheless think something. However, this does not necessarily imply that what we thereby think is an additional being. That something which we think is ‘what is the case’ independent of what happens to be the case, or Being. If one maintains a strong adherence to the ontological difference (as Heidegger does) then one must deny (against Spinoza and others) that Being is a being, and (against Leibniz and others) that Being involves some being or beings. One then admits that one can think Being in abstraction from the existence of any beings whatsoever. It is not hard to see why Heidegger takes the additional step to equate what is thought when we think nothing (Being), and nothing itself.
Now, I don’t endorse this move. Meillassoux is another example of someone who doesn’t endorse it. The reason for this is that whereas Heidegger thinks that there can’t actually be an answer to the question ‘why are there beings rather than nothing?’, both Meillassoux and myself would hold that in virtue of the structure of ‘what is the case’ (Being) there necessarily must be beings. The existence of at least some beings is a necessary part of the structure of ‘what is the case’. I would take this a step further, and make the bolder claim that the existence of an infinite number of beings is a necessary part of the structure of ‘what is the case’, but I can’t back this up here. Regardless, if this is correct, then it is a genuine answer to the exemplary question, but it is not an onto-theological one. It is a genuinely ontological answer. The result is that if Being of itself implies that there are beings, then although we can think Being in abstraction from any given being, we cannot think being in abstraction from any beings whatsoever. This means that we cannot genuinely equate Being and Nothing.
Now that I have laid out the simplified version of my position, and shown how it can be used to understand the relation between ontology and metaphysics, I must now outline some problems that this simple picture faces. This section is far more difficult, and far less comprehensive than the rest of this post. There are three such problems which spring immeditately into view:-
1) The essence of ‘what is the case’ appears to be equivalent to ‘what is necessarily the case’.
This is certainly what appears to be the case, and Meillassoux (as far as I understand him) affirms it. Meillassoux takes the ontic to be what is contingent, and the ontological to be the structure of contingency, which is just what is necessary (including all of logic and mathematics). This is a perfectly consistent move to make, but I’d like to suggest that it is not the only move that can be made. For instance, if one were to oppose Meillassoux and adopt a version of the principle of sufficient reason, one would hold that there is a good sense in which everything is necessary, and that contingency is something relative to a situation, rather than absolute. I take this to be the Deleuzian position (which I’m still in the middle of elaborating: see here and here), and I endorse it. If one holds something like this position, and the structure of ‘what is the case’ is simply equivalent to ‘what is necessarily the case’, then there would be no discernible structure of Being independent of what beings there happen to be.
Obviously, simply stating that this implies that my other theoretical commitments are wrong is not really a good enough response here. I also can’t justify this in the way I might want to – through an examination of the formal structures of modality – not only because it would take too long, but also because I have not entirely worked out my opinions on the matter (not to say that I have no opinions). What I simply want to suggest is that it makes sense that someone could claim that Being as it is in itself does not really involve possibility or contingency (such modal notions could make sense only formally, not ontologically), without thereby collapsing the distinction between Being and beings. If you accept this, which I think you should, then you must reject the equivalence between the essence of ‘what is the case’ and what is necessarily the case.
2) Heidegger has already shown that the question of the meaning of Being is not ‘What is Being?’, and interpreting ‘What is Being?’ as ‘What is the structure of ‘what is the case’?’ does not change this.
This is a more awkward problem, as it directly undermines the simplified position put forward above. In response, the position needs to become more complicated. Interestingly, this is also the point at which we see how the formulation of the question as the unification of the manifold senses of ‘being’ relates to the more originary formulation I am trying to develop.
As I mentioned above, there is a reflexivity inherent in the question ‘What is Being?’ insofar as we take it that how we are to understand the ‘is’ in the question is itself to be determined by the answer to the question. This reflexivity is also present in the reformulation of this question as ‘What is the structure/essence of ‘what is the case’?’ insofar as the this structure is not only the structure of ‘what is the case’ but also is the case, i.e., it is part of the totality of truth. However, this second reflexivity reveals the problem of unifying the various senses of ‘being’ proper. For instance, the problem of how to both grasp the structure of ‘what is the case’ and situate this structure within ‘what is the case’ obviously touches upon the notion of truth, in terms of which we make sense of the notion of ‘what is the case’ as well as the notions of existence and essence, insofar as we need to determine how it makes sense that there can be an essence of ‘what is the case’ without it being a being. I won’t try to lay out all the different issues that one must deal with in trying to integrate these various different notions within an account of the structure of ‘what is the case’, because to do that would be to try to formulate the question completely, and I have no pretensions about doing such a thing here.
However, we can draw two important insights from the way this reflexivity is framed when we read Being as ‘the structure of ‘what is the case”.
Firstly, the question of the meaning of Being is indeed a question regarding the structural unity of the different ways in which Being is said, and that the deeper reason which determines precisely what these different senses are is their proximity to the formal notion of ‘what is the case’. The formal unity of these notions is to be found in the pre-ontological understanding of Being, whereas the ontological unity is sought through an interpretation of how these different aspects of Being constitute the real ontological structure of ‘what is the case’.
Secondly, the reflexivity of the question is indicative of what Heidegger calls a hermeneutic circle (indeed, it is a circle which is present in the project of Being and Time, but which most commentators miss). What the term ‘meaning’ indicates in ‘the question of the meaning of Being’ is just the fact that Being cannot be approached directly via a ‘What is…?’ question. It does not mean that the object of the question is anything different than the object of the question ‘What is Being?’. In both cases, what is sought is Being as it is in itself. What is indicated is that the only way to approach Being is through a hermeneutic inquiry that proceeds by unifying the various senses in which ‘being’ is said. The inquiry does not stop at our pre-ontological understanding (in which these ‘senses’ insist), but attempts to hermeneutically elaborate it into a conception of Being as it is in itself.
3) How is it that we distinguish between the structure of ‘what is the case’ as it occurs in our pre-ontological understanding from the structure of ‘what is the case’ in itself? And how do we proceed from a explication of the formal structure to uncovering the real ontological structure?
This is the most awkward complication, as it is one that I have not entirely mapped the contours of. I do have a preliminary answer to these questions, but although I anticipate objections to them, I am not entirely sure what the substance of the objections will be.
The preliminary answer to the first question is that we distinguish between the formal structure of ‘what is the case’ and the ontological structure of ‘what is the case’ through an appeal to the notion of truth. As I indicated in my previous post (here), I take it that there is a formal distinction between objective and non-objective truth. Whereas in that post I took this to be the basis of a further formal distinction between real existence and pseudo-existence (or as the basis of the formal notion of reality), my suggestion here is that we can make a similar formal distinction between ‘what is the case’ and ‘what objectively is the case’ (or what really is the case). This amounts to distinguishing between the totality of generic truth, which includes non-objective truths (e.g., ‘Harry Potter is a wizard’, or that ‘One should drive on the left hand side of the road in the UK’), and the totality of objective truth. Among other things, this has the merit of rigorously separating ‘what is the case’ from ‘what ought to be the case’, because what ought to be the case is a subset of ‘what generically is the case’, but not of ‘what objectively is the case’.
Although I have no catchier name for ‘what is the case’, we might call ‘what objectively is the case’ the Real. Once we have separated out a formal notion of the Real, we can perform a sort of conversion (which I sense many will find suspect), where we treat the inquiry into the structure of ‘what is the case’ as it is in itself, or the inquiry into the real structure of ‘what is the case’ as the inquiry into the structure of ‘what really is the case’, or the inquiry into the structure of the Real. At this point someone might astutely point out that because ‘the Real’ is a formal notion it has a formal structure just as the notion of ‘what is the case’ does. There is thus still the question as to how we grasp the real structure of the Real, as opposed to its formal structure. In short, the answer is metaphysics.
Because the Real is the totality of objective truth, and I define the notion of real existence (as opposed to pseudo-existence) as applying to those generic existents of which there is something objectively true (i.e., those which could be said to be in-themselves at all), the real is only constituted by existential facts about real beings. Moreover, insofar as the structure of the Real is constituted by facts about existence which are independent of any particular being or set of beings, these are facts about real existence, not generic existence. Beingness is thus part of the structure of the Real, but it is not a purely formal notion – it has content. Put another way, the essence of real existence, sought by the question ‘What are real beings?’, is not something that can be uncovered in a formal fashion. When we rephrase the metaphysical question in this way, we find that it demands that we inquire into beings in themselves and as a whole. Beings thus act as a constraint upon metaphysics which is external to our pre-ontological understanding. Given the fact that beingness is an aspect of the structure of the Real, and one which is not isolated from the rest of that structure, but is indeed determinative for the structure as a whole, this makes the totality of real beings a constraint upon ontology as such.
8. Conclusion: Ontology, Metaphysics, and Science
I can now justify what I said in my earlier post on post-Heideggerian metaphysics, when I said that not only does ontology demand that we do metaphysics, but that metaphysics completes ontology. We make the move to thinking the real structure of the Real, or Being as it is in itself, insofar as we make the move to thinking about beingness as it is in itself. Beingness has an ‘in itself’ precisely insofar as ‘what exists’ (or, what really exists) is not up to us, but is something which is objectively assessable.
This has a further consequence for the relation between science and philosophy which I find most important. Above, I said that one could describe the difference between scientific endeavour and philosophical ontology in terms of their different objects: ‘what is‘ and ‘what ‘what is’ is‘, respectively. What the above considerations suggest is that there is no way that philosophy can study ‘what ‘what is’ is‘, in isolation from ‘what is‘. If we are to do metaphysics properly, we must be sensitive to what really exists, in order that we can abstract a notion of beingness from it, rather than positing a notion of beingness in isolation from it. When doing metaphysics we must be sensitive to science – to complexity theory, quantum physics and evolutionary biology. It is only such sensitivity which gives us any purchase on Being as it is in itself at all.
In the above post I have not only tried to put forward an interpretation of what the question of the meaning of Being is, but I have tried to work out what the consequences of this interpretation are for asking that question, i.e., for doing ontology. I have also laid out my own strategy for navigating through the nest of abstract notions which underlie the project of ontology proper, a path which leads through metaphysics and back to science.
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