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Being is an extremely broad concept encompassing objective and subjective features of reality and existence. Anything that partakes in being is also called a "being", though often this use is limited to entities that have subjectivity (as in the expression "human being"). So broad a notion has inevitably been elusive and controversial in the history of philosophy, beginning in western philosophy with attempts among the pre-Socratics to deploy it intelligibly.
As an example of efforts in recent times, Heidegger (who himself drew on ancient Greek sources) adopted German terms like Dasein to articulate the topic. Several modern approaches build on such continental European exemplars as Heidegger, and apply metaphysical results to the understanding of human psychology and the human condition generally (notably in the Existentialist tradition).
By contrast, in mainstream Analytical philosophy the topic is more confined to abstract investigation, in the work of such influential theorists as W. V. O. Quine, to name one of many. One most fundamental question that continues to exercise philosophers is put by William James:
"How comes the world to be here at all instead of the nonentity which might be imagined in its place? ... from nothing to being there is no logical bridge."
The deficit of such a bridge was first encountered in history by the Pre-Socratic philosophers during the process of evolving a classification of all beings (noun). Aristotle applies the term category (perhaps not originally) to ten highest-level classes. They comprise one category of substance (ousiae) existing independently (man, tree) and nine categories of accidents, which can only exist in something else (time, place). In Aristotle, substances are to be clarified by stating their definition: a note expressing a larger class (the genus) followed by further notes expressing specific differences (differentiae) within the class. The substance so defined was a species. For example, the species, man, may be defined as an animal (genus) that is rational (difference). As the difference is potential within the genus; that is, an animal may or may not be rational, the difference is not identical to, and may be distinct from, the genus.
Applied to being the system fails to arrive at a definition for the simple reason that no difference can be found. The species, the genus and the difference are all equally being: a being is a being that is being. The genus cannot be nothing because nothing is not a class of everything. The trivial solution that being is being added to nothing is only a tautology: being is being. There is no simpler intermediary between being and non-being that explains and classifies being.
Pre-Socratic reaction to this deficit was varied. As substance theorists they accepted a priori the hypothesis that appearances are deceiving, that reality is to be reached through reasoning. Parmenides reasoned that if everything is identical to being and being is a category of the same thing then there can be neither differences between things nor any change. To be different, or to change, would amount to becoming or being non-being; that is, not existing. Therefore being is a homogeneous and non-differentiated sphere and the appearance of beings is illusory. Heraclitus, on the other hand, foreshadowed modern thought by denying existence. Reality does not exist, it flows, and beings are an illusion upon the flow.
"And indeed the question which was raised of old is raised now and always, and is always the subject of doubt, viz., what being is, is just the question, what is substance? For it is this that some assert to be one, others more than one, and that some assert to be limited in number, others unlimited. And so we also must consider chiefly and primarily and almost exclusively what that is which is in this sense."
and reiterates in no uncertain terms: "Nothing, then, which is not a species of a genus will have an essence – only species will have it ...."
One might expect a solution to follow from such certain language but none does. Instead Aristotle launches into a rephrasing of the problem, the Theory of Act and Potency. In the definition of man as a two-legged animal Aristotle presumes that "two-legged" and "animal" are parts of other beings, but as far as man is concerned, are only potentially man. At the point where they are united into a single being, man, the being, becomes actual, or real. Unity is the basis of actuality: "... 'being' is being combined and one, and 'not being' is being not combined but more than one." Actuality has taken the place of existence, but Aristotle is no longer seeking to know what the actual is; he accepts it without question as something generated from the potential. He has found a "half-being" or a "pre-being", the potency, which is fully being as part of some other substance. Substances, in Aristotle, unite what they actually are now with everything they might become.
Some of Thomas Aquinas' propositions were condemned by the local Bishop of Paris (not the Magisterium) in 1270 and 1277, but his dedication to the use of philosophy to elucidate theology was so thorough that he was proclaimed a saint in 1328 and a Doctor of the Church in 1568. Those who adopt it are called Thomists.
In a single sentence, parallel to Aristotle's statement asserting that being is substance, St. Thomas pushes away from the Aristotelian doctrine: "Being is not a genus, since it is not predicated univocally but only analogically." His term for analogy is Latin analogia. In the categorical classification of all beings, all substances are partly the same: man and chimpanzee are both animals and the animal part in man is "the same" as the animal part in chimpanzee. Most fundamentally all substances are matter, a theme taken up by science, which postulated one or more matters, such as earth, air, fire or water (Empedocles). In today's chemistry the carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen in a chimpanzee are identical to the same elements in a man.
The original text reads, "Although equivocal predications must be reduced to univocal, still in actions, the non-univocal agent must precede the univocal agent. For the non-univocal agent is the universal cause of the whole species, as for instance the sun is the cause of the generation of all men; whereas the univocal agent is not the universal efficient cause of the whole species (otherwise it would be the cause of itself, since it is contained in the species), but is a particular cause of this individual which it places under the species by way of participation. Therefore the universal cause of the whole species is not an univocal agent; and the universal cause comes before the particular cause. But this universal agent, whilst it is not univocal, nevertheless is not altogether equivocal, otherwise it could not produce its own likeness, but rather it is to be called an analogical agent, as all univocal predications are reduced to one first non-univocal analogical predication, which is being."
If substance is the highest category and there is no substance, being, then the unity perceived in all beings by virtue of their existing must be viewed in another way. St. Thomas chose the analogy: all beings are like, or analogous to, each other in existing. This comparison is the basis of his Analogy of Being. The analogy is said of being in many different ways, but the key to it is the real distinction between existence and essence. Existence is the principle that gives reality to an essence not the same in any way as the existence: "If things having essences are real, and it is not of their essence to be, then the reality of these things must be found in some principle other than (really distinct from) their essence." Substance can be real or not. What makes an individual substance – a man, a tree, a planet – real is a distinct act, a "to be", which actuates its unity. An analogy of proportion is therefore possible: "essence is related to existence as potency is related to act."
Existences are not things; they do not themselves exist, they lend themselves to essences, which do not intrinsically have them. They have no nature; an existence receives its nature from the essence it actuates. Existence is not being; it gives being – here a customary phrase is used, existence is a principle (a source) of being, not a previous source, but one which is continually in effect. The stage is set for the concept of God as the cause of all existence, who, as the Almighty, holds everything actual without reason or explanation as an act purely of will.
Aristotle's classificatory scheme had included the five predicables, or characteristics that might be predicated of a substance. One of these was the property, an essential universal true of the species, but not in the definition (in modern terms, some examples would be grammatical language, a property of man, or a spectral pattern characteristic of an element, both of which are defined in other ways). Pointing out that predicables are predicated univocally of substances; that is, they refer to "the same thing" found in each instance, St. Thomas argued that whatever can be said about being is not univocal, because all beings are unique, each actuated by a unique existence. It is the analogous possession of an existence that allows them to be identified as being; therefore, being is an analogous predication.
Whatever can be predicated of all things is universal-like but not universal, category-like but not a category. St. Thomas called them (perhaps not originally) the transcendentia, "transcendentals", because they "climb above" the categories, just as being climbs above substance. Later academics also referred to them as "the properties of being." The number is generally three or four.
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Although innovated in the late medieval period, Thomism was dogmatized in the Renaissance. From roughly 1277 to 1567, it dominated the philosophic landscape. The rationalist philosophers, however, with a new emphasis on Reason as a tool of the intellect, brought the classical and medieval traditions under new scrutiny, exercising a new concept of doubt, with varying outcomes. Foremost among the new doubters were the empiricists, the advocates of scientific method, with its emphasis on experimentation and reliance on evidence gathered from sensory experience. In parallel with the revolutions against rising political absolutism based on established religion and the replacememt of faith by reasonable faith, new systems of metaphysics were promulgated in the lecture halls by charismatic professors, such as Immanuel Kant, Nietzsche and Hegel. Although influential for a time their popularity did not generally survive the horrors of ideological warfare, as the competing ideologies utilized their systems in their platforms. The late 19th and 20th centuries featured an emotional return to the concept of existence under the name of existentialism. These philosophers were concerned mainly with ethics and religion. The metaphysical side became the domain of the phenomenalists. In parallel with these philosophies Thomism continued under the protection of the Catholic Church; in particular, the Jesuit order.
Rationalism and empiricism have had many definitions, most concerned with specific schools of philosophy or groups of philosophers in particular countries, such as Germany. In general rationalism is the predominant school of thought in the multi-national, cross-cultural Age of reason, which began in the century straddling 1600 as a conventional date, empiricism is the reliance on sensory data gathered in experimentation by scientists of any country, who, in the Age of Reason were rationalists. An early professed empiricist, Thomas Hobbes, known as an eccentric denizen of the court of Charles II of England (an "old bear"), published in 1651 Leviathan, a political treatise written during the English civil war, containing an early manifesto in English of rationalism.
"The Latines called Accounts of mony Rationes ... and thence it seems to proceed that they extended the word Ratio, to the faculty of Reckoning in all other things....When a man reasoneth hee does nothing else but conceive a summe totall ... For Reason ... is nothing but Reckoning ... of the consequences of generall names agreed upon, for the marking and signifying of our thoughts ...."
In Hobbes reasoning is the right process of drawing conclusions from definitions (the "names agreed upon"). He goes on to define error as self-contradiction of definition ("an absurdity, or senselesse Speech") or conclusions that do not follow the definitions on which they are supposed to be based. Science, on the other hand, is the outcome of "right reasoning," which is based on "natural sense and imagination", a kind of sensitivity to nature, as "nature it selfe cannot erre."
Having chosen his ground carefully Hobbes launches an epistemological attack on metaphysics. The academic philosophers had arrived at the Theory of Matter and Form from consideration of certain natural paradoxes subsumed under the general heading of the Unity Problem. For example, a body appears to be one thing and yet it is distributed into many parts. Which is it, one or many? Aristotle had arrived at the real distinction between matter and form, metaphysical components whose interpenetration produces the paradox. The whole unity comes from the substantial form and the distribution into parts from the matter. Inhering in the parts giving them really distinct unities are the accidental forms. The unity of the whole being is actuated by another really distinct principle, the existence.
If nature cannot err, then there are no paradoxes in it; to Hobbes, the paradox is a form of the absurd, which is inconsistency: "Natural sense and imagination, are not subject to absurdity" and "For error is but a deception ... But when we make a generall assertion, unlesse it be a true one, the possibility of it is inconceivable. And words whereby we conceive nothing but the sound, are those we call Absurd ...." Among Hobbes examples are "round quadrangle", "immaterial substance", "free subject." Of the scholastics he says:
"Yet they will have us beleeve, that by the Almighty power of God, one body may be at one and the same time in many places [the problem of the universals]; and many bodies at one and the same time in one place [the whole and the parts]; ... And these are but a small part of the Incongruencies they are forced to, from their disputing philosophically, in stead of admiring, and adoring of the Divine and Incomprehensible Nature ...."
The real distinction between essence and existence, and that between form and matter, which served for so long as the basis of metaphysics, Hobbes identifies as "the Error of Separated Essences." The words "Is, or Bee, or Are, and the like" add no meaning to an argument nor do derived words such as "Entity, Essence, Essentially, Essentiality", which "are the names of nothing" but are mere "Signes" connecting "one name or attribute to another: as when we say, A man, is, a living body, wee mean not that the Man is one thing, the Living Body another, and the Is, or Being another: but that the Man, and the Living Body, is the same thing;...." "Metaphysiques," Hobbes says, is "far from the possibility of being understood" and is "repugnant to naturall Reason."
Being to Hobbes (and the other empiricists) is the physical universe:
The world, (I mean ... the Universe, that is, the whole masse of all things that are) is corporeall, that is to say, Body; and hath the dimension of magnitude, namely, Length, Bredth and Depth: also every part of Body, is likewise Body ... and consequently every part of the Universe is Body, and that which is not Body, is no part of the Universe: and because the Universe is all, that which is no part of it is nothing; and consequently no where."
Hobbes' view is representative of his tradition. As Aristotle offered the categories and the act of existence, and Aquinas the analogy of being, the rationalists also had their own system, the great chain of being, an interlocking hierarchy of beings from God to dust.
In addition to the materialism of the empiricists, under the same aegis of Reason, rationalism produced systems that were diametrically opposed now called idealism, which denied the reality of matter in favor of the reality of mind. By a 20th-century classification, the idealists (Kant, Hegel and others), are considered the beginning of continental philosophy, while the empiricists are the beginning, or the immediate predecessors, of analytical philosophy.
Some philosophers deny that the concept of "being" has any meaning at all, since we only define an object's existence by its relation to other objects, and actions it undertakes. The term "I am" has no meaning by itself; it must have an action or relation appended to it. This in turn has led to the thought that "being" and nothingness are closely related, developed in existential philosophy.
Existentialist philosophers such as Sartre, as well as continental philosophers such as Hegel and Heidegger have also written extensively on the concept of being. Hegel distinguishes between the being of objects (being in itself) and the being of people (Geist). Hegel, however, did not think there was much hope for delineating a "meaning" of being, because being stripped of all predicates is simply nothing.
Heidegger, in his quest to re-pose the original pre-Socratic question of Being, wondered at how to meaningfully ask the question of the meaning of being, since it is both the greatest, as it includes everything that is, and the least, since no particular thing can be said of it. He distinguishes between different modes of beings: a privative mode is present-at-hand, whereas beings in a fuller sense are described as ready-to-hand. The one who asks the question of Being is described as Da-sein ("there/here-being") or being-in-the-world. Sartre, popularly understood as misreading Heidegger (an understanding supported by Heidegger's essay "Letter on Humanism" which responds to Sartre's famous address, "Existentialism is a Humanism"), employs modes of being in an attempt to ground his concept of freedom ontologically by distinguishing between being-in-itself and being-for-itself.
Being is also understood as one's "state of being," and hence its common meaning is in the context of human (personal) experience, with aspects that involve expressions and manifestations coming from an innate "being", or personal character. Heidegger coined the term "dasein" for this property of being in his influential work Being and Time ("this entity which each of us is himself…we shall denote by the term 'dasein.'"), in which he argued that being or dasein links one's sense of one's body to one's perception of world. Heidegger, amongst others, referred to an innate language as the foundation of being, which gives signal to all aspects of being.
As nothing cannot be known by any means or method it must mean, in the context of the question, that a specific named object is present or not present in the observer's experience of a set of objects, conditions for which English uses "is" or "is not." The object therefore cannot be the same, at least in language, as its being present, as it may or may not be present. French Academy member Étienne Gilson summarized this long-known characteristic of the experienced world as follows:
"...the word being is a noun ... it signifies either a being (that is, the substance, nature, and essence of anything existent), or being itself, a property common to all that which can rightly be said to be. ... the same word is the present participle of the verb 'to be.' As a verb, it no longer signifies something that is, nor even existence in general, but rather the very act whereby any given reality actually is, or exists. Let us call this act a 'to be,' in contradistinction to what is commonly called 'a being.' It appears at once that, at least to the mind, the relation of 'to be' to 'being' is not a reciprocal one. 'Being' is conceivable, 'to be' is not. We cannot possibly conceive an 'is' except as belonging to some thing that is, or exists. But the reverse is not true. Being is quite conceivable apart from actual existence; so much so that the very first and the most universal of all the distinctions in the realm of being is that which divides it into two classes, that of the real and that of the possible."
Whether or not an object is present in a set; that is, exists there as a being, is based on universal experience or evidence of it. Existing objects are present to the experience of anyone. It is a legitimate goal therefore for philosophers of being to try to find a principle or element – a "something" – accounting for the presence of the object over the other possibility, its non-presence. Instead, the philosopher encounters a problem:
"Now, if the 'to be' of a thing could be conceived apart from that which exists, it should be represented in our mind by some note distinct from the concept of the thing itself .... In point of fact, it is not so. There is nothing we can add to a concept in order to make it represent the object as existing; what happens if we add anything to it is that it represents something else."
Where being, the noun, is readily accessible to experience and classifiable, being, the participle, is not:
"In short ... philosophy may perhaps be able to tell us everything about that which reality is, but nothing at all concerning this not unimportant detail: the actual existence, or non-existence, of what we call reality .... If he himself [the philosopher] did not exist, he would not be there to ask questions about the nature of reality ... on the other hand, this fundamental fact, which we call existence, soon proves a rather barren topic for philosophic speculation ... It certainly looks like a waste of time to speculate about an object which is clearly recognized as inconceivable"
This is not a rejection of existence by Gilson, a leading modern metaphysician in the classical tradition: "philosophers are wholly justified in taking existence for granted ... and in never mentioning it again ...." In Gilson's view, the participial being is a given, a primitive of experience, not subject to proof or investigation, as it is the grounds of proof. A thing must be real, or exist, before anything true or proved can be said about it.
However, Gilson concedes some doubt on the possibility of being wrong: "yet, this is taking a chance, for, after all, being itself might happen not to be existentially neutral. In other words, it is quite possible that actual existence may be ... an efficient cause of observable effects ...." He then launches into a history of attempts to conceptualize the inconceivable from the ancient Greeks to the present.
Under the heading ‘Individuality in Thought and Desire’, Karl Marx (German Ideology, 1845), says:
"It depends not on consciousness, but on being; not on thought, but on life; it depends on the individual's empirical development and manifestation of life, which in turn depends on the conditions existing in the world."
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