views updated May 23 2018


Philosophy proceeds in part by the asking of large, imprecise, and overgeneral questions. In the attempt to answer them, the questions themselves come to be reformulated with greater clarity, and one large question often comes to be replaced by several smaller ones. The history of pre-Socratic philosophy is the best example of this process, and Being first appeared on the philosophical scene as part of it. To the question "What is Being?" the Parmenidean answer that there is Being and nothing else besides Being appears to have the merit of truth, even if it is tautological truth. What is, is; and what is not, is not. But what Parmenides' question in fact contains is a nontautological demand for the characteristics of what is, to which the answer that Being is one, unchanging, and eternal is appropriate. Since the objects we perceive are many, changing, and transient, they do not belong to the realm of Being. Parmenides thus fathered in broad outline a doctrine of Being from which philosophers as diverse as Aristotle, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and John Dewey have tried to rescue us. This is the doctrine that Being is a name.

"Being" as a Name

"Being" may be thought to name a property possessed by everything that is. Or it may be thought to name an object or a realm beyond, above, or behind the objects of the physical world; in this case, physical objects somehow exist by virtue of their relationship to "Being." Or again, "Being" may be the name of the genus to which everything that is belongs in virtue of the possession of the property of Being or of standing in relation to Being. The doctrine that "Being" is a name implies some kind of dualism, according to which the realm of Being is contrasted with that of the merely phenomenal. Variations on this doctrine are general enough to be put to a number of different uses in the attempt to solve quite different problems. Nevertheless, the basic doctrine is founded on a false assumption, for it obscures the facts that the verb "to be" has a number of different uses and that in its central and commonest use it does not ascribe a property, a relation, or class membership in any way. "Being" is normally a participle, not a noun. To break with normal usage without special justification is to be gratuitously liable to confusion. We can investigate the type of confusion generated by the acceptance of "Being" as a name, and also the type of clarification that came to be needed, by considering what Plato and Aristotle make of Being.

Plato and Aristotle

Plato was anxious to mark the distinction between properties and objects that possess properties. He located the former in the realm of Being and the latter in the realm of the transient. One reason for this distinction was that Plato accepted the identification of Being with the unchanging (in this case, the unchanging meanings of predicate, the Forms). As a consequence, he was forced to deny that physical objects "are"they belong to a stage intermediate between Being and Not-Being, that of becoming. This is not the only paradox in Plato's analysis of the subject: The Form of the Good, which exists at a higher level than that of the other Forms, cannot just "be," either; it must exist "beyond being."

Thus, we can see in Plato one of the characteristic results of treating Being as either a special kind of object or a special kind of attribute, namely, that all sorts of ordinary uses of the verb "to be" must be qualified or rewritten. The outcome of the attempt to make what is mystifying clear is to make what was clear mystifying. The author who first attacked this kind of mystification was, of course, Plato himself. In the Sophist, the problem of negative judgment is handled in such a way that it is no longer possible to make Parmenides' mistake of supposing that when one speaks of what is not, one is speaking of what does not exist. Moreover, it is scarcely proper to speak casually of confusion and mistake at this stage in the development of philosophy. The first steps toward producing a logical grammar of the verb "to be" perhaps necessarily involved assimilating the different senses and uses of the words, and of consequently becoming caught up in paradox and learning how to free oneself. When Aristotle, in Book I of the Metaphysics, clarified earlier errors, he was able to do so only because he had learned from the efforts and missteps of Parmenides and Plato.

Aristotle made three crucial points about the study of Being as Being. The first is that the special sciences may make use of the concept of Being and of other similar fundamental concepts, but these concepts are not the objects of their inquiriesonly philosophy has such fundamental concepts as the proper object of its studies. The second point is that to inquire about Being as Being is to attempt to isolate the unifying strand of meaning in the multifarious senses in which the word "is" is used. The third point is that this inquiry can be carried on only as an inquiry into a whole range of closely related fundamental concepts, in which the different species of cause and the notions of unity and plurality are foremost.

Aristotle recognized that we use "is" to deny as well as to affirm, and to ascribe properties as well as to ascribe existence; and in various passages he makes use of these distinctions to clarify conceptual points. He recognized, as did the Scholastics, that in ascribing properties to a subject we sometimes imply the existence of that subject and we sometimes do not. But in his willingness to recognize the diversity of uses of "is," Aristotle almost too easily accepted the view that we can speak of abstract entities as well as of physical objects without allowing the former "separate" existence. Aristotle said very little, in fact, about the common thread that binds together the various uses of "is."

Scholastic Philosophers

The non-Aristotelian medieval writers who insisted on a single meaning for "is" unintentionally provided a reductio ad absurdum proof of the correctness of the Aristotelian approach. Both nominalists and realists, at least in their extreme and consistent versions, asserted that properties and objects exist in the same way: properties for the nominalists were merely collections of objects, and objects for the realists were merely properties of properties. For the nominalist Eric of Auxerre, "Being" was simply the collective name of all the individuals that exist taken together and was logically equivalent to "this and this and this ," while for the realist Odo of Tournai, individuals were accidents of properties that are substances, and the realm of Being was a realm only of properties.

Abelard to some extent reasserted the Aristotelian distinctions (and suggested some new ones of his own), but it was Thomas Aquinas who returned to the pure Aristotelian tradition. Thomas refuted once again the view that Being can be either a genus or a property.

In his Commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics, Thomas diagnosed Parmenides' mistake and applied his conceptual insights to related problems, notably in his refutation of Anselm's Ontological Argument. But Thomas's position necessarily has a complexity lacking in some other writers who have been equally careful, for although he could not accept Anselm's view that to know what God is is to know that he is, he also could not reject the identification of God's Being with his essence. According to Thomas, with all finite creatures it is the case that what they aretheir essenceis one thing, and that they aretheir existenceis another. But God simply is BeingEsse Ipsum Subsistens. Because this is so, Thomas was obliged to agree with Anselm that if God exists, he exists necessarily. But from this it does not follow that God does exist. That there is such a being, who is Being, is shown, according to Thomas, by a posteriori proofs. And of course in Thomist terms it is improper to think of God as just a being, one entity among others. The difficulty here, however, is derived from difficulties that are implicit in the notion of the God of monotheism and not from difficulties in the notion of Being itself.

Central Questions

We are now in a position to discriminate different kinds of questions about Being raised by the Greeks and the Scholastics.

is existence a predicate?

How should we characterize the difference between ascribing existence to a subject and ascribing a property to a subject? Is "is" ever a predicate? If it is, what sort of predicate? Later writers who have discussed this problem include René Descartes, in his version of the Ontological Proof; Gottlob Frege, with his clarification of the nature of predicates; G. E. Moore, with his argument that "existence" is not a predicate because we cannot, for example, significantly replace "growl" with "exist" in all the quantified and negated forms of "Tame tigers growl"; and W. V. Quine, with his analysis of Being as "to be is to be the value of a variable." This list of names points up the fact that these questions are susceptible of solution only within the philosophy of logic, and the solution depends upon an adequate characterization of names, predicates, variables, functions, and so on. It is also clear that it is of primary importance to discriminate the metaphysically noncommittal "is," formalizable by means of the existential quantifier, from other uses of the verb "to be" that are far more committed in their implications. Noncommittal uses of the verb appear in ordinary language in such expressions as "There is a prime number between six and eight," "There are three basic colors," "There is a mountain more than 29,000 feet high." Other uses of the verb "to be," however, are far more committed. For example, in the statement "Rachel wept for her children because they were not," "to be" is equivalent to "to be alive." Clearly, however, if I say "There is such-and-such a prime number," there is no such implication; hence, this sense of "there is" must be different.

One finds that all analyses of existential assertions that treat them as predicative are generally unsatisfactory. Briefly, the reason for this is that predicates refer to properties, and properties are what discriminate individuals from each other and enable us to pick out similarities and dissimilarities, and hence to classify. But Being cannot be a property in this sense, for it is not something that it is logically possible for two objects either to have or not to have in common. Two objects cannot be said to resemble each other in virtue of their both being, and since existence is not a shared property, it cannot characterize a class of objects. For this reason, Being can be neither a property nor a genus.

Of course some philosophersGottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, for examplehave talked as though Being were a property shared by actual objects but not possessed by possibilia. There is no objection to talking like this, provided that it is noticed that the word property is not now being used to refer to distinguishable characteristics of real things. Hence, the assertion by such philosophers that Being is a property is not compatible with the Thomas AquinasMoore view that it is not, given the two different senses in which the word is used.

abstract entities

How do we characterize the status of abstract entities, numbers, possibilities, fictions? These are all different problems, each of them complex. They are envisaged as part of the problem of Being, partly because of our ordinary use of "There is/are" in, for example, "There are two possibilities" or "There is a prime number between six and eight," and partly because of a misunderstanding involved in describing certain possibilities by such terms as "real." When we apply the adjective "real" both to possible states of affairs and to actual states, we suggest that there is a realm of reality wider than the merely existent. This is one source of the belief that there is a genus Being, of which the existent and the nonexistent (such as the possible) are species. Everything called real belongs to the realm of Being. The mistake lies in not seeing the difference between the way in which "real" functions as an adjective and the way in which "reality" functions as a noun. If I call a dollar bill real, I contrast "real" with "counterfeit." If I call a painting "a real Vermeer," I contrast it with a copy. But I do not ascribe to dollar bill and painting the common property of "being real," in virtue of which they belong to the same realm, that of "reality." To say that there is a kind of Being in which both what exists and what does not exist can share is obviously to commit the same mistake. But at this point we have returned to the question of whether Existence and Being can be properties, which belongs to our first group of questions.

the characterization of being-as-such

Can we find any characteristic that belongs to everything that is and that may therefore be said to characterize Being-as-such, rather than individual objects? Here again, one must distinguish two kinds of questions. Aristotle pointed out that of any object whose existence I affirm, I shall also be able to say that it is one, that it is an object. That is, by picking out something for the purpose of saying that it is, or that it is such and such, I pick it out as an individual. But just because this is so, individuality or unity is not something that it is logically possible for a given object to possess or not to possess any more than existence is; hence, they are not properties any more than existence is. The Aristotelian question of what concepts must be applicable to anything that exists must not, therefore, be identified with the question of whether there are any properties that belong to everything that exists.

There might, of course, have been some property that belonged to everything that existed just as a matter of contingent fact. The world might have been such that everything was green or cubic, or made of blancmange. But this would be philosophically uninteresting (quite apart from the fact that in most such worlds there would be no philosophers). It has been held, however, that it is necessary on, for example, metaphysically epistemological grounds that everything that is shall be of a certain character. Hence Plato's view in his middle period that only Forms exist, and hence Leibniz's view that there are only monads, and George Berkeley's view that to be is always either to be percipient or to be perceived.

absolute being

Is there a being who exists without the limitations of finite beings and who may therefore just be said to be? This is the question of God's existence.

realm of being-as-such

Is therebeyond, over, and above the being of individual objectsa realm of Being-as-such? If so, what is its character? The belief that there is such a realm has always haunted metaphysics. The notion that Aristotle held such a belief has pervaded the history of metaphysics. This misinterpretation of Aristotle has similarly been foisted upon Thomas, and a neo-Thomist myth of the history of philosophy has been constructed in which the four questions that have already been distinguished, all of which are genuine questions, are merged into this fifth question, whose character is much more dubious. It then becomes possible to suggest that there is a single problem: "What is Being?" to which different philosophers have given rival answers. The kind of metaphysics to which reference is being made can be found in Jacques Maritain's Preface to Metaphysics, where Maritain is ostensibly expounding Thomas. In order to treat Being as a subject matter, however, Maritain invokes what he calls the intuition of Being, a notion that cannot be found anywhere in Thomas. Thomas, as we have already seen, never treated "Being" as the name of an independent subject matter and thus had no reason to suggest any means of becoming aware of the existence of such a subject matter.

The kind of history of metaphysics to which reference is being made can be found in D. A. Drennan's A Modern Introduction to Metaphysics, which asserts that to the question "What is Being?" Parmenides replied that it was One; Plato, that it was One and Many; Aristotle, that it was Substance; Descartes, that it was Substance in the modes of thought and extension; and so on. Nevertheless, an awareness of the nonexistence of the single question of Being rids us of the misleading idea that we have here a set of competing answers to a single question.

The temptation to see the history of metaphysics in this light seems often to be provoked by an espousal of the metaphysics that makes "Being" a name. We can illustrate this point by considering two sequences in the history of modern philosophy. Hegel argued that Being is the most fundamental of concepts because the most elementary forms of judgment must involve some assertion of existence, no matter how bare. But, he continued, the notion of Being by itself is the emptiest of all notions. Merely to say of something that it is, is to say nothing at all about it; hence, the notion of Being merges into that of its apparent opposite, Nothing. It is not necessary to follow through the Hegelian scheme of categories to see that Hegel is, in fact, extremely cautious at this point. His extreme antidualism always led him to assert that there is nothing else beyond what we confront in experience. The Hegelian Absolute is the rational culmination of historical experience, not a power beyond and outside it. Similarly, for Hegel, Being is a concept expressed in our judgments of experience at a certain level, not the name of a realm beyond all judgments about experience.

In Nicolai Hartmann's philosophy, however, we find a misreading of Hegel parallel to the neo-Scholastic misreading of Thomas and Aristotle. In Grundzüge einer Metaphysik der Erkenntnis, Hartmann begins by stating a set of antinomies between, for example, the nature of consciousness as consciousness of what is other than itself and the nature of consciousness as self-contained, so that whatever consciousness is aware of is part of consciousness. That is, Hartmann describes consciousness in two ways that appear incompatible and then inquires how he may reconcile these two descriptions. Instead of asking whether the incompatibility is perhaps only apparent, however, he suggests that the problem arises, and is soluble, because both the knowing, conscious subject and the known object exemplify modes of Being, although different modes. Clearly, it is true that both knower and known are, but equally clearlyfor reasons given earlierthis is not a property that is open to further study and that has strange characteristics that enable us to resolve antinomies. This, however, was Hartmann's conclusion, and he attributed it to Hegel. He merged Hegel's classification of different subject matters and his scheme of concepts in order to read him as a metaphysician who understood Being as having different grades and modes.

Just as Maritain misreads Thomas and Hartmann misreads Hegel, so Martin Heidegger has misread the pre-Socratics. Heidegger's own views have a mixed ancestry. Søren Kierkegaard, one of the important influences on him, in the Concept of Dread writes of dread as an experience whose object is Nothing. Usually in Kierkegaard this sort of statement appears to be a dramatically effective and logically innocent way of characterizing dread as objectless, but at times it seems as if Kierkegaard is no longer saying that dread has no object. Rather, he gives it a particular object whose name is "Nothing," thus makingbut not as a jokethe mistake of the Red King in Through the Looking-Glass, who thought that if Nobody had passed the messenger on the road, Nobody should have arrived first. To treat "Nothing" as a name is like treating "Something" as a name and easily becomes a counterpart to treating "Being" as a name, as it does with Heidegger. Heidegger takes up Leibniz's question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" He objects that this question does not take seriously the fact that Being and Nothing necessarily exist together as contrasted and opposed powers. Heidegger allows that he is using "Being" and "Nothing" as names and is therefore involved in treating "Nothing" as if it were the name of something. He even allows that this is "unscientific," but he concludes that this is so much the worse for science and so much the better for philosophy and poetry. Being and Nothing are not objects, and Being is indeed sharply contrasted with beings. Logic presupposes Being and Nothing, but they lie beyond the grasp of logic. Heidegger treats what others have written of the indeterminateness of the concepts as evidence of the elusiveness of Being and Nothing.

Heidegger extends his metaphysics into the history of philosophy by finding his views anticipated in the thought of Heraclitus and Parmenides. The evidence for this claim depends partly on a set of unreliable etymologies that Heidegger thinks he has found for key Greek words, but even when Heidegger is plausible in his interpretation at the linguistic level, he is at the least anachronistic in his view of the kind of problem the pre-Socratics confronted. They progressively recognized as paradoxical, and therefore as needing reformulation, those very forms of utterance that to Heidegger are and remain fundamental.

If the philosophy of Being has bred not merely rival doctrines but rival views of the history of philosophy, it has also bred rival diagnoses of the errors involved in treating "Being" as a noun. A. J. Ayer has suggested that a misuse of the verb "to be" is the root of the error. This would imply, however, that standard forms of grammar embodied in ordinary usage are somehow philosophically normativeand this appears to get matters upside down. Linguistic distortion is certainly liable to breed confusion, but there is, in fact, nothing grammatically wrong with forming a verbal noun such as "Being" as an analogy with, for example, "riding." "Riding" is used as the name of an activity; why, then, should "Being" not be made into a name? It is surely because of the logical and metaphysical confusion involved that we want to criticize the linguistic construction and not because the linguistic construction itself is an error.

John Dewey diagnosed a twofold root of errors about Being. They are partly a survival from religious modes of thought, the retention of belief in a realm free from change and decay and separate from the realm of sense perception. This is explained by the fact that although mythological thought has been discredited, the impulses behind it still need satisfaction. Also, belief in changeless Being is a consequence of man's habit of abstracting truths from the contexts of practice and activity in which they were acquired (and where alone they have meaning) and treating them instead as belonging to a timeless realm in which they wait upon our apprehension. Dewey's diagnosis, however, while it may explain how we come to hold and retain confused views of Being, does not embody an explanation of why the views are confused, except perhaps to those who are already convinced in general of the truth of Dewey's pragmatism.

In order to clarify the issue, we must, in fact, make the sort of analysis of concepts that Aristotle used in the Metaphysics. We may expect any analysis of the concept of Being to vary with the general framework of concepts within which it is considered. Aristotelians, Hegelians, and Quineans will not all agree, but any analysis that fails to discriminate the different questions involved, and that fails to identify the confusion that results from merging them into a single question, will be doomed to conceptual error and very likely to a misreading of the history of philosophy as well.

See also Absolute, The; Anselm, St.; Aristotle; Ayer, Alfred Jules; Descartes, René; Dewey, John; Existence; Frege, Gottlob; Hartmann, Nicolai; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Heidegger, Martin; Heraclitus of Ephesus; Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye; Maritain, Jacques; Medieval Philosophy; Moore, George Edward; Nothing; Ontological Argument for the Existence of God; Ontology; Parmenides of Elea; Plato; Quine, Willard Van Orman; Time, Being, and Becoming; Universals, A Historical Survey; Thomas Aquinas, St.



Aristotle. Metaphysics. Translated by H. Tredennick. Cambridge, MA, 1945.

Aristotle. Metaphysics. Edited by W. D. Ross. Oxford translation. Oxford, 1948.

Cajetan. Commentaria in De Ente et Essentia. Edited by M. H. Laurent. Turin, 1934.

Cornford, F. M. Plato and Parmenides. London, 1935; New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1957. A translation of the Parmenides.

Dewey, John. The Quest for Certainty. New York: Minton, Balch, 1929.

Duns Scotus. Opera Omnia, 12 vols. Paris, 18911895. Vol. III, Quaestiones Subtillissimae Super Libros Metaphysicorum Aristotelis.

Hartmann, Nicolai. Grundzüge einer Metaphysik der Erkenntnis. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1925.

Hegel, G. W. F. The Science of Logic. Translated by W. H. Johnston and L. G. Struthers. New York, 1929.

Heidegger, Martin. Existence and Being. Translated by D. Scott, R. Hall, and A. Crick. Chicago: H. Regnery, 1949. Includes various works.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Norman Kemp Smith. London: Macmillan, 1934.

Kirk, G. S., and J. E. Raven, eds. The Presocratic Philosophers. Cambridge, 1960. Ch. 10, Parmenides texts. Also contains translation and commentary.

Plato. Platonis Opera. Edited by J. Burnet. Oxford, 18991906. The Theaetetus and the Sophist. Translated by F. M. Cornford as Plato's Theory of Knowledge. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1935; New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1957.

Quine, W. V. From a Logical Point of View. Cambridge, MA, 1953.

Thomas Aquinas. De Ente et Essentia. Edited by M. D. Roland-Gosselin. Le Saulchoir, 1926. Translated by Armand Maurer as On Being and Essence. Toronto, 1949.

Thomas Aquinas. In Metaphysicorum Aristotelis Commentaria. Edited by M. R. Cathala. Turin, 1935.

Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica. Ottawa, 19411945. Translated by the Dominican Fathers of the English Province, 3 vols. New York: Benziger, 1947.

Wolff, Christian von. Philosophia Prima Sive Ontologia. Frankfurt and Leipzig: Officina libraria Rengeriana, 1736.

discussions of texts

Gilson, Étienne. L'Ètre et l'essence. Paris: J. Vrin, 1947.

Gilson, Étienne. Being and Some Philosophers. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1949.

Martin, Gottfried. Immanuel Kant: Ontologie und Wissenschaftstheorie. Cologne: University of Cologne, 1951. Translated by P. G. Lucas as Kant's Metaphysics and Theory of Science. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1955.

Owens, Joseph. The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1951.


Geach, P. T. "Form and Existence." PAS 55 (1954/1955): 251272.

Geach, P. T., A. J. Ayer, and W. V. Quine. "Symposium: On What There Is." Aristotelian Society Supplement 25 (1951): 125160.

Moore, G. E. "Is Existence a Predicate?" Aristotelian Society Supplement 15 (1936): 175188.

Quine, W. V. "On What There Is." Review of Metaphysics 2 (19481949): 2138.

Weiss, P. "Being, Essence and Existence." Review of Metaphysics 1 (19471948): 6992.

Alasdair MacIntyre (1967)


views updated May 11 2018


Being (Lat. ens, esse; Gr. τò ν, ε[symbol omitted]ναι) may be defined as what is; that which exists; reality. The term "being" signifies a concept that has the widest extension and the least comprehension. Being is the first thing grasped by the human intellect, but it is also the principal interest of the philosopher in his capacity as metaphysician. It is necessary, therefore, to distinguish being as what everybody first knows from being as the subject of metaphysics. Generally speaking, the transition from the former to the latter is made in virtue of the recognition that not every being is sensible and material. No attempt can be made here to trace the history of philosophical doctrines concerning being (see existence; parmenides; plato; aristotle; plotinus; proclus; hegel, georg wilhelm friedrich; berkeley, george; kant, imman uel). The emphasis here is on the teaching of St. thomas aquinas.

Being as what is first known. Being is the first concept the human mind forms; that is, if one knows anything at all he knows being. The concept of being is not simply chronologically prior to all others; it is also analytically prior, insofar as every subsequent concept is some modification of this first concept. This does not mean, of course, that "being" is the first word uttered by a child. Man's first concept formed on the basis of sense experience of the things of this world is of something there, what is, being; it is involved in every other concept and is a latent content of the meaning of the first word he employs. Intellectual life begins in dependence on sense experience, since the mind comes into play in an effort to understand what has been seen, heard, tasted, smelled, or felt. The recognition of the "thereness" of what is so sensed underlies the formation of the concept of what exists, what is there, what is present to the senses. This does not mean that to be is to be perceived (esse est percipi ), as was proposed by berkeley, but that what is first called being is what is sensed. Things do not exist because they are sensed; rather they can be sensed because they exist.

The concept of what is, of what is there, thus enables the mind to embrace in a confused and universal manner whatever can be grasped by the senses. We can see from this why the concept of being is said to tell us the least about anything, but something of everything. As the first concept and the commencement of the intellectual life, it could hardly be otherwise. Man attains a more exact and precise knowledge the more he recognizes how one being differs from another. Being as first conceived is not the knowledge of the sensible singular as such, nor is it the knowledge of something apart from sensible singulars. The universality of the concept is in consequence of the way in which sensible things are grasped intellectually.

Being as the subject of metaphysics. Being as being is the subject of metaphysics. As the very name of this science indicates, it is after or beyond (μετά) the philosophy of nature (φυσικά), which is concerned with material and changeable being. If there were no immaterial beings, there would be no need for a science beyond natural philosophy. But if immaterial beings exist and if this is known, it becomes of interest to investigate the properties or characteristics and causes of being, not as material and mobile, but precisely as being. For reasons indicated below, this cannot mean that metaphysics is concerned with immaterial beings as a realm of entities other than physical entities; it particularly does not mean that God is the subject of metaphysics. Before these assertions can be justified, however, we must inquire into the various meanings of being.

Meanings of being. An investigation of the ways in which being is employed in philosophy will clarify the content of the first concept of the intellect as well as the subject of metaphysics.

Being and Essence. The term "being" sometimes designates positive being, sometimes propositional being (ens ut verum ) and logical being. Consider the following statements: (1) Peter is; (2) Uncle Sam needs you; (3) Definitions abound. Only the subject of (1) can be said to be without qualification; it signifies positive or extramental being. Uncle Sam exists in the sense that he can figure in statements like (2), for if we asked where he could be found the reply would be that he does not "really" exist. So too, logical entities like definitionas in (3) species, and the like, do not enjoy extramental existence. Thus, if there is a sense in which mythical or fictional as well as logical entities exist, in the full sense of the term they do not exist and are not beings. Only what enjoys positive or extramental existence has an es sence, meaning by essence that whereby something can exist in the real order (see essence and existence). Since the concern of the metaphysician is with positive being, with what enjoys existence independently of man's knowing, he is concerned with whatever has essence.

Substance and Accident. All real or positive beings, however, do not have essence in the same sense. Although essence is that whereby real being has existence, men, motion, colors, and sizes do not exist in the same manner. Motion, color, and size exist as modifications of a more basic type of existent; their mode of being is one of inherence, of being in a subject. A man, on the other hand, does not exist in a subject. Rather he is a subject in which motion, color, and size inhere in order to enjoy the mode of existence that is theirs. In short, the kind of being that has essence, positive or real being, is subdivided into two types, substantial and accidental being, and essence means either that whereby a substance exists or that whereby an accident exists. The doctrine of the categories of being is founded on this distinction.

Primary and Secondary Senses. If both substance and accident are instances of real being, the term "being" is not predicated of them equally. Substance is what is chiefly and obviously meant by "what has essence" and "what exists extramentally"; accident is rather in what existsit is a modification of what is in a more fundamental sense. The meaning of being as applied to accident therefore incorporates the meaning that is predicated directly of substance. In a precise sense, when predicated of accident, being takes on a secondary meaning. Thus Socrates, a dog, and a tree are said to be and to have essence in a primary and direct sense, while the activities of such beings, their colors and sizes, are said to "be" in the secondary sense that they exist in such beings as Socrates, a dog, and a tree.

Analogy of Being. That being is predicated unequally of substance and accident is emphasized in the traditional tenet that being is not a genus. A simple way of stating the grounds for this tenet follows: If being were a genus, substance and accident would have to differ in something other than being; but only nonbeing is other than being, and for substance and accident to differ in nonbeing is no difference at all (cf. Thomas Aquinas, In 3 meta. 8.433). Since being is not a genus, it cannot be predicated univocally of substance and accident. (A term is predicated univocally when said of several things with exactly the same meaning; it is predicated equivocally when said of several things with wholly different meanings; and it is predicated analogically when said of several things with meanings that are neither exactly the same nor wholly different.) Being is predicated analogically of substance and accident because its meaning as said of accident includes its meaning as said of substance, but not conversely. (see analogy.)

Transcendental attributes of being. The division of being into substance and accident gives rise to words whose scope is less than that of being itself. For example, while every substance is a being, not every being is a substance. There are other terms, however, whose range and scope are equal to those of being itself. Since what they mean transcends the division into categories, they are called transcendental attributes of being. Their predicable community equaling that of being, these transcendental terms are common in just the way being itself is, namely, analogically. That is, their meaning may vary as they are predicated of different categories, but there is a controlling or focal meaning which gives proportional unity to their diversity of signification (see transcendentals).

One, true, and good are examples of such transcendental attributes. Whatever is is undivided in itself; that is, it is one. To say of something that it is one "does not add something real to being but only the negation of division, since 'one' means only a being which is undivided. From this it is clear that one is convertible with being, since every being is either simple or composed and what is simple is neither actually nor potentially divided. What is composed does not have being so long as its parts are divided but only when they constitute the composite. Thus it is clear that for a thing to be involves indivision" (Summa Theologiae 1a, 11.1). The primacy of substance is strikingly clear in this analysis of St. Thomas. So too, whatever is is said to be true insofar as essence is a principle of intelligibility as well as of existence. Whatever is is good insofar as its existence is perfective of it. This is first and most obviously seen in the case of composed beings that result from change, for the product is the goal, term, or good aimed at by the process (see unity; truth; good).

Abstraction and separation. It was mentioned earlier that if all beings were material and changeable, there would be no need for a science beyond physics. Yet God, who is the immaterial and unchangeable substance par excellence, is not part of the subject of metaphysics. To understand this, one must compare the subject of metaphysics with those of other theoretical sciences. Two criteria for the object of a theoretical science enter into the distinction of such sciences. Given the mode of operation of the mind, the object of knowledge must be immaterial; given the demands of science, it must be necessary, that is, unchangeable. If, then, there are formally different references to matter and change in the definitions of objects, we can speak of different theoretical sciences. The objects of natural science include sensible matter in their definitions, but since such science studies mobile things in terms of common characteristics, there is a certain departure from the material singular. mathematics, in this context, is said to consider things in a way in which they do not exist extramentally. The geometrician's definitions of line, plane, etc., while doubtless suggested by the sensible world, do not refer to, nor are they verified of, physical things (see sciences, classification of).

Metaphysics is possible to the degree that scientific objects can be defined without sensible matter and that such definitions can be verified extramentally. The objects of natural science and mathematics can be attained by abstraction; they leave aside, simply do not consider, certain aspects of physical things (singularity and sensible matter, respectively), while in no way implying that things exist without the aspects left aside. The objects of metaphysics are not simply more general characterizations of physical things; rather the implication is that things exist that verify metaphysical definitions because they exist independently of matter and motion. For this reason metaphysics presupposes what are called judgments of separation; for example, the truth of such statements as "Not all being is material and mobile" and "Not every substance is physical." Since neither of these propositions is self-evident, they must be reached, if at all, by demonstration. When we know that some beings are immaterial, we have a warrant for a science beyond physics but unlike mathematics.

Being as Being. Metaphysics takes its rise from the recognition that there is a realm of beings, of substances, beyond the physical. Does this mean that metaphysics has God and the angels for its subject? The whole thrust of philosophy, in the traditional sense, is in the direction of natural knowledge of the divine, and yet simple substance cannot be the subject of any human science. If metaphysics is to be theology, this can only be indirectly. The only kind of being directly accessible to man is physical being, and it is to this that he turns when he sets out to do metaphysics. "There are some objects of theoretical science," St. Thomas writes, "which do not depend upon matter in order to exist because they can exist without matter whether because they are never in matter, like God and the angels, or because they are sometimes in matter and sometimes not, like substance, quality, being, po tency, act, the one and many, and so forth " (In Boeth. de Trin. 5.1). The second class of names enumerated by Aquinas indicates the bridge the metaphysician builds between physical substance and immaterial substance, qualities of material things and those of immaterial things, and so forth.

This effort accents what has been called the grandeur and misery of metaphysics. From the point of view of physical things, the concept of substance that the meta-physician forms seems inadequate and abstract, for he constructs a definition free of matter, and physical substance is material. From the point of view of separate substance, immaterial substance, such a concept is also representationally poor. In discussing the view of avempace, who held that in order to get concepts appropriate to immaterial things all one has to do is abstract from, or drop the material notes found in concepts of physical things, St. Thomas observes, "This would be cogent if immaterial substances were the forms and species of material ones. If this is not granted and it is assumedthat immaterial substances are of a quite different definition from the quiddity of material things, no matter how much our mind abstracts the quiddity of the material thing from matter, it will never arrive at something similar to immaterial substance" (Summa Theologiae 1a, 88.2). He concludes that any approach to immaterial substance from material substance falls short of perfect knowledge of the former. The difficulty is that no other approach is open to man. The metaphysician has no alternative to his attempt to "purify concepts" so that they provide him with an indirect, analogical, and always inadequate knowledge of immaterial substance.

God and Metaphysics. Metaphysics is often called theology because its principal concern is God. Psychological reasoning shows that God cannot be the subject of metaphysics. The proportionate object of the mind is the nature of sensible being; since man has no direct knowledge of God, God can enter into human science only as related to the subject of that science. A logical argument can also be given against immaterial substance's being the subject of a science. "Given that in any question we ask something about something, for example, we seek the cause of matter, which is the formal cause, or the cause of form being in matter, namely the end and efficient cause, it is clear that with respect to simple substances, which are not composed of matter and form, no questions are relevant. For in every question, as has been shown, something must be known and something must be sought. Such substances, however, are either wholly known or wholly unknown. Hence no question canbe asked concerning them and because of this there is no doctrine like that of theoretical sciences concerning them" (In 7 Meta. 17.166970).

Being and participation. Being is what has existence: "Being is that which finitely participates existence" (In lib. de caus. 6). From a logical point of view, one speaks of a common being (esse commune ) that is shared by substance and accident analogically. But God, too, is spoken of as esse commune, not as predicably common to created beings but rather as something numerically one whose causality extends to all creatures. God as common being is conceived of as the totality of perfections only partially reflected in each creature and indeed in the sum of creatures. By means of a subtle dialectical procedure, the metaphysician compares the real hierarchy to the logical one, but whereas in the latter the highest terms express the least, in the former God is conceived as a kind of limit, comprising all perfection (see perfection, ontological). Creatures are then seen as forming a hierarchy of being that reaches from the highest angel to the least material thing. This via descensus, which is considered the Platonic component of the Thomistic synthesis, is currently being explored and providing a deepening understanding of the achievement of Aquinas. In his metaphysics, Thomas is seen as the heir not only of aristotelianism, but also of Proclus, pseu do-dionysius, and john scotus erigena (see participation).

See Also: metaphysics; essence; existence; categories of being.

Bibliography: r. m. mcinerny, The Logic of Analogy (The Hague 1961). j. bobik, "Some Disputable Points Apropos of St. Thomas and Metaphysics," The New Scholasticism 37 (1963): 411430. e. h. gilson, Being and Some Philosophers (2d ed., Toronto 1952). j. maritain, A Preface to Metaphysics: Seven Lectures on Being (New York 1945). t. c. o'brien, Metaphysics and the Existence of God (Washington 1960). c. fabro, Partecipazionee causalita secondo S. Tommaso d'Aquino (Turin 1960). b. montagnes, La Doctrine de l'analogie de l'être d'après saint Thomas d'Aquin (Louvain 1963).

[r. m. mcinerny]


views updated May 21 2018

be·ing / ˈbēing/ • present participle of be.• n. 1. existence: the railway brought many towns into being. ∎  living; being alive: holism promotes a unified way of being.2. [in sing.] the nature or essence of a person: sometimes one aspect of our being has been developed at the expense of the others.3. a real or imaginary living creature, esp. an intelligent one: animals regarded as primitive beings. ∎  a human being: she felt anxiety about so small and vulnerable a being. ∎  a supernatural entity: a being who had made all things.