Question of Being Redux
I just delivered a short paper on the question of Being at our graduate work in progress seminar in Warwick. It goes over a lot of ground I’ve covered elsewhere on the blog, but there are a few new points, so I thought I should put it up.
Here it is then: ‘Explicating the Question of the Meaning of Being’.
For manifestly you have long been aware of what you mean when you use the expression “being”. We however, who used to think we understood it, have now become perplexed.
Heidegger opens his most famous work, Being and Time, by appealing to this quote from Plato’s Sophist. The point that Heidegger draws from this quote, which he builds his entire philosophy upon, is the idea that despite using the word ‘Being’, in a way that indicates we understand what we are saying, we are nonetheless unable to articulate this understanding when questioned.
Now, the word ‘Being’ has many variants, and they are used in different ways in different contexts. For instance, ‘Pete is’ / ‘Pete exists’, ‘Pete is a philosopher’, ‘It is the case that Pete is a philosopher’, ‘Clark Kent is Superman’, ‘Bachelors are unmarried men’, etc. These different variants of the word ‘Being’ are absolutely essential to our use of language. As such, there must be some sense in which we understand what we mean when we use them. The fact that we are unable to say precisely what we mean by them when questioned should therefore be somewhat perplexing. However, what Heidegger points out is that for the most part we don’t find this fact perplexing. What this indicates is that we do not really understand the question being asked.
The initial thrust of Heidegger’s philosophical project is thus to properly formulate the question of the meaning of Being (also simply called the question of Being), and thereby to engender the proper perplexity our inability to answer it calls for. However, what is most frustrating about Heidegger’s work, and most subsequent interpretations of it, is that it never produces the simple formulation of the question that it initially aims for. This isn’t to say that the question is a figment, or that Heidegger and his followers have been confused by their own language. Nor is it to say that Heidegger has said nothing illuminating about the question and how it should be approached. Nonetheless, to really take up Heidegger’s central insight we must be able to formulate the question in a way that he himself never managed, and it is the aim of this paper to make a first attempt at such a formulation.
1. Preliminaries and Problems
Before going any further, we have to clear up some potential confusions about the way in which Heidegger uses the word ‘Being’ which can be avoided, and make explicit certain other interpretational problems that cannot.
Firstly, it is important to note that although Heidegger begins by talking about the meaning of ‘Being’ wreathed in quotation marks, he very quickly disquotes the word, and proceeds to talk about Being itself. Similarly, Heidegger clearly specifies that the object of the question of the meaning of Being is not a word, or even a ‘meaning’ as opposed to the thing the meaning picks out. Rather, he explicitly states that the object of the question is Being itself. This has proved very problematic for some commentators. I will call this the problem of disquotation.
Secondly, it is important to get clear about a distinction in Heidegger’s German that isn’t always well marked when translated into English. This is the distinction between das Sein and das Seiende, which is usually translated as the distinction between Being and beings. When talking about beings, we might as well talk of ‘entities’, ‘existents’, or simply ‘what exists’.
For Heidegger, it is a fundamental point that Being is different from beings. This is what he calls the ontological difference, and it should be understood in two different ways:-
- Being (das Sein) is not a being (ein Seiend).
- The Being of a given entity is different from that entity.
This can produce some confusion, insofar as in the first case we’re talking about Being of entities as such (das Sein des Seiende), whereas in the second case we’re talking about the Being of a particular entity. It is important to get clear about the difference here.
When Heidegger talks about the Being of a particular entity, he is talking about how that entity is. This is to say that this table’s Being includes all the ways in which the table is, such as its woodenness, its size, shape and all its other determinations. This is broader than just what the entity is. A given entity’s Being incorporates more than just what we encounter it as. So, this table’s Being is more than just what makes it a table. Thus, when Heidegger talks of the Being of entities as such, he is talking about what it is for entities to have Being independently of what the Being of any particular entity consists in.
However, there is a tension here. Insofar as Heidegger discusses the Being of all entities, or what exists as such, there is often an ambiguity as to whether he is talking about some structure which is constitutive for each individual entity within the totality, or whether he is talking about some structure which is constitutive for the totality of entities as a totality. The former is a general structure which is instantiated by each entity, whereas the latter is a unitary structure which each entity partakes in. We will call this tension between Being as general and Being as unitary the problem of ambiguity.
We will aim to solve these two different interpretational problems by presenting a more simple formulation of the question than Heidegger was himself able to.
2. What the Question is Not
As I’ve already stated, Heidegger does not provide the simple formulation of the question that we’re looking for. However, he does provide some important insights into what the question is not:-
- The question is not an ordinary question of meaning.
This is apparent from what we have said about the problem of disquotation. Heidegger takes the question of the meaning of Being to ask after Being as it is in itself, as opposed to what the word ‘Being’ means in isolation from Being itself.
- The question is not the question of the essence of Being – ‘What is Being?’
If the question is not an ordinary question of meaning, insofar as it asks after Being itself, one might assume that it is effectively equivalent to the question ‘What is Being?’. We might call this the question of the essence of Being. However, Heidegger points out a problematic reflexivity in this question which excludes it as a viable interpretation of the question of Being. This consists in the fact that we can only understand what it is to ask what Being ‘is’, once we have understood the ‘is’ itself, which is to say once we have properly answered the question of Being.
Now, it might be objected to this that our ordinary grasp of the ‘is’ seems good enough for other claims we make, and so should be good enough for claims about Being. However, Being is manifestly an unusual case, and it is by no means obvious whether the ‘is’ functions in the same way in relation to it as it does with other things we talk about and ask questions about. Whether this is the case or not can only be determined by inquiring into the meaning of Being, and it is for this reason that the question has a peculiarly reflexive structure. Although this is not technically a problem for a complete answer to the question (because it would fully specify both what Being is and thus also what the ‘is’ here signifies), it is very problematic for any partial answer. Given that answers do not spring fully formed from the ether, but are the culmination of processes of inquiry that proceed via such partial answers, this makes a genuine inquiry into ‘what Being is’ impossible in virtue of its own form.
In short, the problem of disquotation consists in the fact that the question of the meaning of Being is neither an ordinary question of meaning, nor a question of essence.
- The question is not the question of metaphysics – ‘What are beings?’
This question might also be rephrased as ‘What is existence?’, ‘What is the essence of existence?’, or as Heidegger would put it ‘What is beingness (Seiendenheit)?’.
What Heidegger calls beingness is effectively the common genus of which all kinds of beings are species and all individual beings are instances. This is to say that developing a conception of beingness is to develop a conception of beings qua beings, or entities qua entity. Heidegger is clear that the process of arriving at such a conception of beingness is a matter of abstracting from the totality of entities what is common to them all, much as we arrive at a concept of any other general kind by abstracting what is common to its instances.
This seems to tie into the problem of ambiguity, insofar as beingness looks very much like what we called Being as a general structure, as opposed to Being as a unitary structure. It seems as if what it is to be an entity is to have Being, in the sense that all particular entities do. However, despite certain additional ambiguities regarding Heidegger’s relation to metaphysics in his early work, it later becomes clear that he thinks that Being and beingness are quite distinct. He makes this quite explicit, but moreover, he has elsewhere states both that Being is not a genus, and, more importantly, that we cannot understand Being through a process of abstraction, because entities are not instances of Being.
Thus, any sense in which Being is to be understood as a general rather than unitary structure must be quite different from the ordinary understanding of genus, species and instance.
3. The Fundamental Question of Metaphysics
There is a further question that Heidegger takes to be related to the question of Being, even if it is distinct from it. This is what he calls the fundamental question of metaphysics, or ‘Why are there beings rather than nothing?’. This fundamental question of metaphysics should not be confused with the central question of metaphysics – ‘What are beings?’ – but rather has the status of an exemplary metaphysical question. The reason Heidegger takes this question to be so important is that, although it does not explicitly raise the question of Being, in thinking through this question we nonetheless come to think about Being. It is through unpacking the features of this question that we will locate the simple formulation of the question of Being that we are seeking.
So, how exactly does this question – ‘Why are there beings rather than nothing?’ – touch upon the question of Being?
It is first important to note a point that Heidegger makes in his own analysis of this question. This is the point that although this question might seem equivalent to the question ‘Why are there beings?’, and thus that the phrase ‘rather than nothing’ is superfluous, this phrase is crucial to understanding the question’s proper import. The reason for this is that it makes the relevant difference between two different states of affairs apparent.
In order to show this, it is necessary to approach the question in precisely the kind of quantificational terms that Heidegger would find so distasteful. What is important about such quantificational terms is that there is nothing logically special about there being no entities. For instance, if we have a box, and we ask how many bunnies there are in the box, there is nothing special about the answer ‘none’. Put in more properly logical terms, the domain of objects over which we are quantifying is that of the things in the box, and to say that there are no bunnies in the box is to say that none of the objects in that domain are bunnies.
Now, one can quantify over a restricted domain, such as 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 try and scale this up to quantify over all entities. Whether or not the domain of entities 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). However, it isn’t necessarily the case that the domain of entities is unrestricted, so we’ll ignore these.
What is important about the attempt to scale up to the domain of all entities, is that it treats the state of affairs of there being no entities at all in exactly the same terms that it treats the state of affairs of there being no bunnies in the box. This is to say that it treats them in strictly numerical terms. There can be any number of objects in the domain, and ‘none’ is just another number.
Heidegger’s essential point is that in the case where we are talking about entities as such, the state of there being no entities – Nothing – has some supra-numerical import. It is not just another number. The reason for this is indicated by the attempt to provide a reason why this seemingly possible state of affairs is not actual.
Now, attempts to provide reasons for a given state of affairs are sensitive to the counterfactual situations those states are opposed to. For instance, if we ask why are there 5 bunnies in the box, rather than 2, we might appeal to a causal story about those bunnies themselves in providing an answer, perhaps by showing that there were originally two bunnies that had a litter of 3 more. However, if we are asked why there are some bunnies in the box rather than none, this kind of causal explanation which stays internal to the domain in question is not available. Instead, we must appeal to the series of events through which forces outside of the box conspired to place bunnies within the box.
Similarly, if we ask why there are a certain number and distribution of entities, rather than some other number and distribution, then we can provide an explanation in terms of chains of causation between entities. This is an explanation which is entirely internal to our domain. However, if we ask why there are some entities rather than none, we cannot appeal to any causal story about entities, and it is unclear what it would be to appeal to anything other than entities, precisely because other than entities there is Nothing. Heidegger thinks that it is precisely insofar as the fundamental question forces us to deal with this nothing that it touches upon Being. However, even more enigmatically, he claims that this Nothing just is Being. It is in explaining these widely mocked remarks that we will uncover the essence of the question of Being.
4. Problematic Intuitions
I take it that there are actually two distinct problematic intuitions that accompany the attempt to scale up from the question ‘Why is there something in the box, rather than nothing?’ to ‘Why are there beings, rather than nothing?’:-
- The first is based on the intuition that the existence of any given being seems to be, for the most part, a contingent matter. We can ground the necessity of any given contingent entity’s existence in facts about other contingent entities through ordinary causal explanation, but doing so never gets us any better than relative necessity. The problematic intuition is that it seems that whether there are some contingent entities at all must be a matter of absolute necessity. Classical onto-theological metaphysicians (e.g., the scholastics and the early modern rationalists) solve this problem by positing an absolutely necessary entity (God) facts about which provide the ground of the existence of some contingent entities.
- 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.
5. 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. Or, 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 an essential structure of ‘what is the case’ which is independent of 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 (i.e.., as 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). An easier way of thinking about this is simply to think about the most unspecific question it is possible to ask: ‘What is the case?’ or ‘What is true?’. This formal idea of ‘what is the case’ is simply the correlate of that question, what it asks about in the loosest possible sense.
The real value of the fundamental question is that in forcing us to think about a possible state of affairs without beings, it forces us to think this essential structure of ‘what is the case’, of the very fact that there is a state of affairs as such, independently of what beings there happen to be and what arrangements they happen to be in. The thesis that follows from this is that it is in thinking the essential structure of ‘what is the case’ that we think Being. Heidegger equates Being and Nothing precisely insofar as he holds to the ontological difference and claims that this essential structure is not an entity. Being is literally no-thing, and it remains in the absence of any-thing whatsoever.
6. Ontology and Metaphysics
On this basis, we can put forward a preliminary interpretation of the question of Being and its relation to the question of the essence of beings, which is to say that we can provide an interpretation of the relation between ontology and metaphysics, respectively. This stems from the idea that both are concerned in some sense with ‘what is’. However, there are two senses of ‘what is’, corresponding to the notions of truth and existence, respectively: ‘what is the case’ and ‘what exists’. On the basis of this difference we can conceive of ontology and metaphysics as asking the two sides of the meta-question ‘What is ‘what is’?’:-
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 beautiful symmetry to this schema. Moreover, if it is correct it gives us an interesting way of looking at the relationship between philosophy and science broadly construed. Insofar as science is concerned with ‘what is’, both in the sense of what exists and what is true of what exists, philosophy has the task of explicating not only the structure of this task, but also of grounding it is a conception of what ‘what is’ is.
However, it is not yet clear how this preliminary way of formulating the question of Being responds to the initial interpretational problems we posed.
7. Solving the Problems
First of all, the formulation of the question of Being as the question of the essence of ‘what is the case’ lets us solve the problem of ambiguity. This is because it lets us see how the conceptions of Being as a unitary structure on the one hand, and a general structure on the other, are not in tension, but are rather two sides of the same coin. Being is unitary insofar as ‘what is the case’ is unitary. ‘What is the case’ is a primordial totality of which there can be nothing outside. To deny this would be to deny that truth is one. However, Being is general insofar as the fact that each individual entity exists, and that it exists in a certain way, is the case. This is to say that each entity and its ‘how’ are situated within ‘what is the case’, as a part of it. What it is to be so situated is just a matter of the essence of ‘what is the case’ as such. Being thus has both a unitary and a general aspect.
Secondly, it should be obvious that our preliminary formulation has fallen foul of the problem of disquotation. By interpreting the question of Being as the question of the essence of ‘what is the case’, we have interpreted it as equivalent to the question ‘What is Being?’, and, as we discussed earlier, Heidegger rejects such an interpretation for good reason. Moreover, we can see that the same reflexivity present in the question ‘What is Being?’ is present in our preliminary formulation. This is because how we understand what it is for anything to essentially be the case is sensitive to how we understand the essence of ‘what is the case’, but, the essence of ‘what is the case’ is in some, albeit potentially unusual sense, something that essentially is the case. In short, what it is for ‘what is the case’ to have an essence can only be determined on the basis of asking after the essence of ‘what is the case’.
The key to dissolving the problem of disquotation is understanding what exactly this reflexivity signifies. What it indicates is not that the question of the meaning of Being aims at anything different than the question ‘What is Being?’. What it indicates is the peculiar structure of questioning that is required to aim at this subject matter. This structure is what Heidegger would call a hermeneutic circle. What this means is that inquiring into Being as it is in itself cannot be a simple linear process of working out the consequences of our ordinary understanding of Being. Neither do we have a starting point other than this ordinary understanding. Rather, the question of the meaning of Being is a question of meaning precisely insofar as it is a question which proceeds from our ordinary understanding, yet interprets it and develops it into an understanding of Being as it is in itself. This process need not retain that ordinary understanding, but can revise it on its own basis.
In short, the question of the meaning of Being is the question which proceeds from our ordinary understanding of ‘what is the case’ and its related notions, such as truth, existence, essence and so on, and tries to develop this into an understanding of the essential structure of ‘what is the case’ as it is in itself, independent of our understanding of it.