Tuesday, September 24, 2013

D. M. ARMSTRONG’S DOCTRINE OF BEING

In Sketch for a Systematic Metaphysics, D. M. Armstrong sets out to give a basic, and simplified, outline of his metaphysical positions.[1] Armstrong does not make any explicit attempt to deal with the problem of Being qua Being. However, an attentive lecture of his book will reveal what could be qualified as a modified, and over-simplified, Aristotelian response to the problem of Being. The following survey and attempted systematization of Armstrong's doctrine of Being deals exclusively with the book mentioned in the first sentence.

 Armstrong is more worried about beings than Being, however, he does explain that Being simply is synonymous with Existence and Actuality. “The Actual may be identified as existence, as being.”[2] To be is, therefore, to exist or to be actual. In conjunction with this claim Armstrong also asserts that there are no gradations of being.[3] Either a thing is or it is not, it exists or it does not exist, it has being or it does not have being. Armstrong does not develop the question of being much further than this; rather he spends most of his time discussing the types of things that have being, or which do not have being.

The first important point that we must understand about Armstrong’s doctrine of being, if we can say that he has one, is that he assumes, as a starting point, that the sum total of all that has being includes no non-natural entities. In his own words, the first sentence of his book, “I begin with the assumption that all that exists is the space-time world, the physical world as we say.”[4] As such, the first thing that we need to know about Armstrong’s doctrine of being is that the only things that have being are entities that are limited by space and time, and empirically observable. Any being which by definition does not fit within these limitations is nothing more than a concept and has no being.[5]

With this important distinction in mind we can move on to the next distinction. Armstrong accepts the distinction between Necessity and Contingency. He argues that necessary being are impossible; that is, there is no being that corresponds to the description Necessary.[6] As such, the only beings that could possibly exist are those that fit under the concept of contingency. However, Armstrong distinguishes between possible contingent beings and actual contingent beings. He claims that only those contingent beings which are actual, actually have being. In his own words, “to be possible and no more is not to have being.”[7] Therefore, possible contingent beings do not have being, actual contingent beings have being.

With these distinctions in mind Armstrong moves on to populate his actual, contingent, all-natural, empirically observable, physical world with beings that fit this description. Things which count as possible contingent natural beings, according to Armstrong, are actually instantiated Universals,[8] states of affairs or ordinary objects,[9] totalities,[10] and properties.[11] The world, composed only of natural beings, is according to Armstrong, the totality of Being.[12] Therefore, there can be nothing more than the world, or, in other words, if X is not part of the natural observable world, then X is not. For Armstrong, only those contingent beings which are actual, or instantiated, have being.

Aside from some obvious difficulties, Armstrong’s view of being is complicated by his claim that the future is, or exists.[13] According to his earlier claims, the future, if it (including all the states of affairs, properties, etc. that would be included in it) exists, is not a possible being, but an actual contingent being. Contingent in that it could possibly not exist, actual in that it does. What, exactly, does it mean to say that the future is actual? What is the ontological status of the past? If the future can be construed as actual, is it not reasonable to claim that the past is also actual? What, then, distinguishes the future, the past, and the present, in light of the fact that they are all actual, except our awareness of the actuality of one particular moment? Armstrong does not deal with these difficulties in this book.

An analysis of Armstrong’s doctrine of being leaves us with the conclusion that, for Armstrong, Being is a property. Being, according to Armstrong, is existence, but existence is only a property of the world totality, which is the totality of existents or beings.  Which is to say that all the constituents of the world totality are endowed with the property of Being. As such, the world totality state of affairs simply is co-extensive with Being. Anything that is not a part of the world totality state of affairs (those things which are limited by space and time) does not possess the property of Being. The world, as the ultimate totality includes other, smaller totalities, all of which must be within the world totality if they Be. As Armstrong says, “there are all sorts of totalities extending throughout being.”[14] It would seem, therefore, that Being is nothing more than a property of those things which are actual. Of course, for this to be true one must assume ahead of time, as Armstrong does, the truth of Naturalism, that all that has Being is limited to the space & time world. Does this not beg the question? If I define my terms such that only those things which are limited to the space & time possess the property being, then I should not be surprise to come to the conclusion that only those things which are limited to the space-time world possess the property of being. It has not been proved, it has been assumed. The system is coherent, in itself (only those beings that are physical and temporal are actual), and true, so long as there is no being that is actual and that is unlimited by space and time. Having shut up all the windows, and locked the door, the owner of the house can now sit inside and happily claim that there is no outside world.

We are still left at the end of this study asking the question, if being actual is all there is to being, then what does it mean to be actual? Can we analyse these terms any further? Why is it not possible for there to be some form of immaterial actual being, or an a-temporal actual being? After all, according to Armstrong the future, at least, is actual. But, then, what does it mean for the future to be actual? Another question that we want to ask concerns concepts and ideas. Do these have Being? What is the ontological status of their Being? Armstrong admits that his metaphysical system, based upon his basic presupposition of Naturalism, has difficulty with the philosophy of mind.[15] I would suggest that his system also has difficulty explaining what it is that distinguishes a human corpse from a live human. How it is that rational animals are able to distinguish between universals, properties, states of affairs, and the physical world that present these concepts (are concepts physical) to the rational animal? Finally, Armstrong’s theory will also have difficulty dealing with change. For example, how is it that a thing maintains its identity through change?



[1]D. M. Armstrong, Sketch for a Systematic Metaphysics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), viii, ix.

[2]Ibid., 69.

[3]Ibid.

[4]Ibid., 1.

[5]This raises a further question: Does a concept have being?

[6]Ibid., 72.

[7]Ibid.

[8]Ibid., 17.

[9]Ibid. Cf. Ibid., 26. On page 17 he seems to equate states of affairs with ordinary objects.

[10]Ibid., 76, 78.

[11]Ibid., 16.

[12]Ibid., 98.

[13]Ibid., 104.

[14]Ibid., 76.

[15]Ibid., 105.