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SOME THOUGHTS ON THE QUESTION "WHAT IS BEING ?”

            Having just finished the wonderful book Faut-il déconstruire la métaphysique?[1] by Pierre Aubenque. I was struck by a remark that he made near the end of his final chapter. He says, “Si je demande quel est le sens de la. [sic] vie, je n’attends pas – et je ne tolérerais pas – que l’on me répondre par une énumération, un catalogue. Or la réponse d’Aristote à la question du sens de l’être est catalogique. L’être, c’est l’essence, la quantité, la qualité, la relation, etc.; c’est aussi l’être par soi et l’être par accident, l’être en acte et l’être en puissance. »[2]  (I translate all french quotations in the endnotes.)

            This remark will immediately strike a chord with anyone who is familiar with Plato’s Socratic dialogues, particularly Euthyphro. In Euthyphro Socrates meets the young Euthyphro who is on the way to the courts, in order to prosecute his father for murder. Thinking that anybody who would prosecute his own father for such a grievous crime would know what virtue is, Socrates asks Euthyphro to explain to him the nature of virtue. After a first attempt, Socrates expands on the question. “Bear in mind then that I did not bid you tell me one or two of the many pious actions but that form itself that makes all pious actions pious…”[3] Socrates seems to be saying that giving a list of examples of the thing of which we are asking the question “What is X?” is not an answer to that question. For example, if I ask, “what is a human being?”, and you point to yourself, and the different members of your family, then you have not answered the question. The copula in the question “What is X?” seems to be a direct reference to the “being” of X. What is it that distinguishes X from all other things? What is it that allows us to say that this thing here is an X and not that thing there? The question “What is X?” seems to be asking for what philosophers typically call the nature or essence of X.

            The point that Aubenque seems to be making, and that Socrates seems to have made over 2000 years ago, is that the question, “what is Being?” cannot be answered by a list of beings (a catalogue). Rather, we must know, or point out, what is common to all things in the list of beings that we have given. This, however, seems to open up a literal Pandora’s box of difficulties.

            For example, the question “What is Being?” implies, at least, that Being has a nature or essence or form. Some philosophers would certainly agree. Stanley Rosen, for example, in his commentary on Plato’s Sophist, claims that Being is a form.[4] This would seem to contradict the notion that is held by other thinkers, such as Aubenque, that Being as an unlimited and undetermined principle. Aubenque tells us that “l’être, comme on va le voir, n’est pas un genre, c’est-à-dire une totalité définissable et differentiable.”[5]

            If Aubenque is right, and Being is not definable, then it seems plausible to assert that the question, “What is being?” is unanswerable. After all, if the question “What is being?” is asking for a limiting nature/essence, and if being is unlimited and undeterminable, then no answer can be given to the question “What is being?”, and, therefore, it is a nonsensical question that is based upon a misunderstanding.

            There are a number of possible ways around this difficulty. First of all, one could deny that Being is unlimited and undeterminable. If it is possible to truly define being (which implies delimiting being by distinguishing it from all other things), then the question “What is Being?” makes sense. However, it does seem somewhat strange to distinguish between Being and everything else. What is not Being? Nothing?

A second way of getting around the above conclusion would be to attempt to discover a way of defining a thing in such a way that it is not limited it in any way. That is, to claim that a definition/essence/nature is not necessarily a limiting or determining principle. Of course, this also seems to run into certain problems. What would a definition that neither limits nor determines that which it is defining look like? Even negations seem, to some thinkers at least, to be limitations.[6] However, it does seem that some negations are such that they remove limitations, such as unchanging, immortal, eternal, infinite, omnipresent, unity, etc.[7] Of course attribution by negation would not be considered definition per se, but, it might count as the beginning of an answer to the question “What is Being?”

This type of answer, however, seems to cause another difficulty. None of the things to which we would commonly attribute Being seem to have these negative attributes. If being is not changing, not mortal, not temporal, not finite, and not spatially limited, and I am all of these things, then would that mean that I am not-Being? This is the paradox of Being that Parmenides struggled with. It seems that a thing either is or is not. I’m not going to try to solve this problem here and now, or even hint at a solution. I’ll get back to it later, as I am limited by time!



[1]Is it Necessary to deconstruct Metaphysics.

[2]Pierre Aubenque, Faut-il déconstruire la métaphysique? (Paris : PUF, 2009), 73. « If I ask what is the sense of life, I am not expecting – and I would not tolerate – to be answered with a numbering, a catalogue. But Aristotle’s response to the question concerning the meaning of being is catalogical. Being, it is essence, quantity, quality, relation, etc.; it is also being by nature and being by accident, being in act and being in potency. » My translation. I removed the typological error that is in the French text.

[3]Plato, « Euthyphro, 6d », in Five Dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo, 2nd ed., Trans. G. M. A. Grube, ed., John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2002), 8.

[4]Stanley Rosen, Plato’s Sophist : The Drama of Original & Image (1983; repr., South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 1999), 43, 280.

[5]Aubenque, 73. “Being, as we will see, is not a genus, in other words a totality that can be defined or differentiated.” My translation. Cf. Ibid., 83.

[6]D. M. Armstrong, Sketch for a Systematic Metaphysics (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2010), 79-80.

[7]I am not listing attributes of divinity. I am quite simply pointing out that these terms, which are negative terms, do not imply any limitation. Rather, they seem to imply the removal of limitations.

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