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Word Gems 

exploring self-realization, sacred personhood, and full humanity


Mortimer Adler,
Syntopicon Essay:




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Chapter 7: BEING


The words “is” and “(is) not" are probably
the words most frequently used by anyone.
They are unavoidable, by implication at least,
in every statement. They have, in addition,
a greater range of meaning than any other

Their manifold significance seems to be of a
very special kind, for whatever is said not to be
in one sense of being can always be said to be in
another of its senses. Children and practiced
liars know this. Playing on the meanings of be-
ing, or with “is” and “not,” they move smooth-
ly from fact to fiction, imagination to reality,
or truth to falsehood.

Despite the obviousness and commonplace-
ness of the questions which arise with any con-
sideration of the meanings of “is,” the study of
being is a highly technical inquiry which only
philosophers have pursued at length. Berkeley
gives one reason why they cannot avoid this
task. “Nothing seems of more importance,” he
says, “towards erecting a firm system of sound
and real knowledge . . . than to lay the begin-
ning in a distinct explication of what is meant
by thing, reality, existence', for in vain shall we
dispute concerning the real existence of things,
or pretend to any knowledge thereof, so long
as we have not fixed the meaning of those

In the whole field of learning, philosophy is
distinguished from other disciplines— -from his-
tory, the sciences, and mathematics— by its
concern with the problem of being. It alone
asks about the nature of existence, the modes
and properties of being, the difference between
being and becoming, appearance and reality,
the possible and the actual, being and non-
being. Not all philosophers ask these questions;
nor do all who ask such questions approach or
formulate them in the same way. Nevertheless,
the attempt to answer them is a task peculiar to
philosophy. Though it often leads to subtleties,
it also keeps the philosopher in deepest touch
with common sense and the speculative wonder
of all men.

As a technical concept in philosophy, being
has been called both the richest and the empti-
est of all terms in the vocabulary of thought.
Both remarks testify to the same fact, namely,
that it is the highest abstraction, the most uni-
versal of predicates, and the most pervasive
subject of discussion.

William James is in that long line of philoso-
phers which began with the early Greeks when
he points out that “in the strict and ultimate
sense of the word ‘existence,’ everything which
can be thought of at all exists as some sort of
object, whether mythical object, individual
thinker’s object, or object in outer space and
for intelligence at large.” Even things which do
not really exist have being insofar as they are
objects of thought — things remembered which
once existed, things conceivable which have
the possibility of being, things imaginary which
have being at least in the mind that thinks
them. This leads to a paradox which the an-
cients delighted in pondering, that even noth-
ing is something, even non-being has being, for
before we can say “non-being is not” we must
be able to say “non-being is.” Nothing is at least
an object of thought.

Any other word than “being” will tend to
classify things. The application of any other
name will divide the world into things of the
sort denominated as distinct from everything
else. “Chair,” for example, divides the world
into things which are chairs and all other ob-
jects; but “being” divides something or any-
thing from nothing and, as we have seen, even
applies to nothing.

“All other names,” Aquinas writes, “are

either less universal, or, if convertible with it,
add something above it at least in idea; hence
in a certain way they inform and determine
it.” The concepts which such words express
have, therefore, a restricted universality. They
apply to all things of a certain \ind, but not to
all things, things of every kind or type. With
the exception of a few terms inseparably associ-
ated with ‘being’ (or, as Aquinas says, converti-
ble with it), only being is common to all kinds
of things. When every other trait peculiar to a
thing is removed, its being remains— the fact
that it is in some sense.

If we start with a particular of any sort, clas-
sifying it progressively according to the char-
acteristics which it shares with more and more
things, we come at last to being. According to
this method of abstraction, which Hegel fol-
lows in his Science of Logic, ‘being’ is the empti-
est of terms precisely because it is the com-
monest. It signifies the very least that can be
thought of anything. On this view, if all we are
told of something is that it is— that it has being
—we learn as little as possible about the thing.
We have to be told that a thing is a material or
a spiritual being, a real or an imaginary being, a
living or a human being, in order to apprehend
a determinate nature. Abstracted from every-
thing else, ‘being’ has only the positive meaning
of excluding ‘non-being.’

There is an opposite procedure by which the
term being has the maximal rather than the
minimal significance. Since whatever else a
thing is, it is a being, its being lies at the very
heart of its nature and underlies all its other
properties. Being is indeterminate only in the
sense that it takes on every sort of determina-
tion. Wherever being is found by thought, it
is understood as a determined mode of being.
To conceive being in this way, we do not re-
move every difierence or determination, but on
the contrary, embrace all, since all are differ-
ences or determinations of being.

Aquinas, for example, conceives ‘‘being tak-
en simply as including all perfections of being ;
and in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, ‘being
without qualification is taken as the most prop-
er name for God. When Moses asked God His
name, he received as answer: ‘‘I AM THAT I
AM . . . Thus shalt thou say unto the children
of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.’ Used
in this sense, ‘being’ becomes the richest of
terms — the one which has the greatest ampli-
tude of meaning.

Both ways of thinking about being are rele-
vant to the problem of the relations among the
various meanings of ‘being.’ Both are also re-
lated to the problem of whether being is one or
many — the problem first raised by the Elea tics,
exhaustively explored in Plato’s Parmenides,
and recurrent in the thought of Plotinus, Spi-
noza, and Hegel.

The two problems are connected. If every-
thing that is exists only as a part of being as a
whole, or if the unity of being requires every-
thing to be the same in being, then whatever
diversities there are do not multiply the mean-
ings of being. Although he speaks of substance
rather than of being, Spinoza argues that
“there cannot be any substance excepting God,
and consequently none other can be con-
ceived.” From this it follows that “whatever
is, is in God, and nothing can be or be con-
ceived without God.”

Since “there cannot be two or more sub-
stances of the same nature or attribute,” and
since God is defined as a “substance consisting
of infinite attributes, each one of which ex-
presses eternal and infinite essence,” it is ab-
surd, in Spinoza’s opinion, to think of any
other substance. “If there were any substance
besides God, it would have to be explained,”
he says, “by some attribute of God, and thus
two substances would exist possessing the same
attribute,” which is impossible.

Spinoza’s definition of substance, attribute,
and mode or affection, combined with his axi-
om that “everything which is, is either in itself
or in another,” enables him to embrace what-
ever multiplicity or diversity he finds in the
world as aspects of one being. Everything
which is not substance, existing in and of itself,
exists in that one substance as an infinite attri-
bute or a finite mode. “The thing extended
(rem extensarri) and the thinking thing (rem
cogitanteni)f he writes, “are either attributes
of God or affections of the attributes of God.”

If, on the contrary, there is no unitary whole
of being, but only a plurality of beings which
are alike in being and yet are diverse in being
from one another, then our conception of being

must involve a system of meanings, a stem of
many branches. Descartes, for example, dis-
tinguishes between an infinite being, whose
essence involves its existence, and finite beings,
which do not necessarily exist of themselves
but must be caused to exist. The infinite being
which is God causes, but does not contain with-
in itself, other finite substances; and among
finite things, Descartes holds, “two substances
are said to be really distinct, when each of them
can exist apart from the other.”

In addition to God— “that substance which
we understand to be supremely perfect”— Des-
cartes defines two kinds of finite substance.
“That substance in which thought immediately
resides, I call Mind,” he writes; and “that sub-
stance, which is the immediate subject of ex-
tension in space, and of the accidents that pre-
suppose extension, e.g., figure, situation, move-
ment in space, etc., is called Body.” All these
substances, and even their accidents, have be-
ing, but not being of the same kind or to the
same degree. “There are,” according to Des-
cartes, “diverse degrees of reality, or (the qual-
ity of being an) entity. For substance has more
reality than accident or mode; and infinite sub-
stance has more than finite substance.” Its be-
ing is independent, theirs dependent.

The issue between Spinoza and Descartes — a
single substance or many — is only one of the
ways in which the problem of the unity or di-
versity of being presents itself. Both Plato and
Aristotle, for example, affirm a multiplicity of
separate existences, but though both are, in
this sense, pluralists, being seems to have one
meaning for Plato, many for Aristotle.

According to Plato’s distinction between be-
ing and becoming, only the immutable es-
sences, the eternal ideas, are beings, and though
they are many in number, they all belong to
one realm and possess the same type of being.
But for Aristotle, not only do perishable as well
as imperishable substances exist; not only is
there sensible and mutable as well as immaterial
and eternal being; but the being which sub-
stances possess is not the same as that of acci-
dents; essential is not the same as accidental
being; potential being is not the same as being
actual; and to be is not the same as to be con-
ceived, that is, to exist in reality is not the
same as to exist in mind.

Again and again Aristotle insists that “there
are many senses in which a thing is said to be...

Some things are said to be because they are

substances, others because they are affections
of substance, others because they are in process
towards substance, or destructions or priva-
tions or qualities of substance, or productive or
generative of substance, or of things which are
relative to substance, or negations of one of
these things or of substance itself. It is for this
reason,” he continues, “that we say even of
non-being that it is non-being”; and, in another
place, he adds that “besides all these there is
that which ‘is’ potentially or actually.”

All these senses of being, according to Aris-
totle, “refer to one starting point,” namely,
substance, or that which has being in and of
itself. “That which is primarily, i.e., not in a
qualified sense,” he writes, “must be a sub-
stance.” But when he also says that “that
which ‘is’ primarily is the ‘what’ which indi-
cates the substance of a thing,” he seems to be
using the words “substance” and “essence”
interchangeably. This, in turn, seems to be re-
lated to the fact that, although Aristotle dis-
tinguishes between actual and potential being,
and between necessary or incorruptible and
contingent or corruptible beings, he, like Plato
and unlike Aquinas, Descartes, or Spinoza,
does not consider whether the essence and exist-
ence of a being are identical or separate.

It may be held that this distinction is im-
plied, since a contingent being is one which is
able not to exist, whereas a necessary being
cannot not exist. A contingent being is, there-
fore, one whose essence can be divorced from
existence; a necessary being, one which must be
precisely because its essence is identical with
its existence. But the explicit recognition of a
real distinction between essence and existence
seems to be reserved for the later theologians
and philosophers who conceive of an infinite
being, as Aristotle does not.

The infinity of a being lies not only in its
possession of all perfections, but even more
fundamentally in its requiring no cause outside
itself for its own existence. “That thing,” says
Aquinas, “whose being differs from its essence,
must have its being caused by another. . . . That
which has being, but is not being, is a being by
participation.” Where Aristotle makes sub-
stance the primary type of being, and the
“starting-point” of all its other meanings,
Aquinas makes the infinite being of God,
whose very essence it is to be, the source of
all finite and participated beings, in which there
is a composition of existence and essence,
or “of that whereby they are and, that which
they are."

Since “being itself is that whereby a thing
is,” being belongs to God primarily and to all
other things according to modes of derivation
or participation. God and his creatures can be
called “beings” but, Aquinas points out, not in
the identically same sense, nor yet with utter
diversity of meaning. A similarity — a sameness-
in-diversity or analogy — obtains between the
unqualified being of God and the being of ail
other things, which have being subject to vari-
ous qualifications or limitations.

All other questions about being are affected
by the solution of these basic problems con-
cerning the unity of being, the kinds of being,
and the order of the various kinds. If they are
solved in one way — in favor of unity— certain
questions are not even raised, for they are gen-
uine only on the basis of the other solution
which finds being diverse. The discussion, in the
chapters on Same and Other, and on Sign
AND Symbol, of sameness, diversity, and anal-
ogy is, therefore, relevant to the problem of
how things are at once alike and unlike in being.

The Greeks, notably Plato and Aristotle,
began the inquiry about being. They realized
that after all other questions are answered,
there still remains the question. What does it
mean to say of anything that it is or is not ? After
we understand what it means for a thing to be
a man, or to be alive, or to be a body, we must
still consider what it means for that thing sim-
ply to be in any way at all; or to be in one sense,
and not to be in another.

The discussion of being, in itself and in rela-
tion to unity and truth, rest and motion, runs
through many dialogues of Plato. It is central
in the Sophist and Parmenides. The same terms
and problems appear in Aristotle’s scientific
treatise which makes being its distinctive sub-
ject matter, and which he sometime; calls first
philosophy” and sometimes “theology.’ It be-
longs to this science, he declares, “to consider
being qua being — both what it is and the prop-
erties which belong to it qua being.”

As pointed out in the chapter on Meta-
physics, it is an historical accident that this
inquiry concerning being came to be called
“metaphysics.” That is- the name which, ac-
cording to legend, the ancient editors gave to a
collection of writings in which Aristotle pur-
sued this inquiry. Since they came after the
books on physics, they were called “meta-
physics”, on the supposition that Aristotle in-
tended the discussion of being to follow his
treatise on change and motion.

If one were to invent a word to describe the
science of being, it would be “ontology,” not
“metaphysics” or even “theology.” Yet “meta-
physics” has remained the traditionally accept-
ed name for the inquiry or science which goes
beyond physics — or all of natural science — in
that it asks about the very existence of things,
and their modes of being. The traditional con-
nection of metaphysics with theology, discussed
in the chapters on Theology and Meta-
physics, seems to have its origin in the fact
that Aristotle’s treatise on being passes from a
consideration of sensible and mutable substan-
ces to the problem of the existence of imma-
terial beings, and to the conception of a divine
being, purely actual, absolutely immutable.

In a science intended to treat “of that which
is primarily, and to which all the other cate-
gories of being are referred, namely, substance,”
Aristotle says, “we must first sketch the nature
of substance.” Hence he begins with what he
calls “the generally recognized substances.
These are the sensible substances.” He post-
pones until later his critical discussion of “the
ideas and the objects of mathematics, for some
say these are substances in addition to the sen-
sible substances”; yet he directs his whole in-
quiry to the ultimate question “whether there
are or are not any besides sensible substances.”
His attempt to answer this question in the
twelfth book makes it the theological part of
his Metaphysics.

Though their order of discussion is different,
the metaphysicians of the 17 th century, like
Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibnitz, deal with
many, if not all, major points in the analysis
of being which the Greek philosophers initi
ated and the mediaeval theologians developed.
Later philosophers, whose main concern is with
the origin and validity of human knowledge,
come to the traditional metaphysical questions
through an analysis, not of substance or essence,
existence or power, but of our of substance
and power.

This transformation of the ancient problem
of being is stated by Berkeley in almost epi-
grammatic form. Considering “what is meant
by the term exhi," he argues from the experi-
ence of sensible things that “their esse is percipi,

["to exist is to be perceived"]

nor is it possible they should have any exist-
ence, out of the minds or thinking things which
perceive them.” Locke, too, although he does
not identify being with perception, makes the
same shift on the ground that “the first step
towards satisfying several inquiries the mind of
man was apt to run into, was to make a survey
of our own understandings, examine our own
powers, and see to what things they were

Once the problems of being are viewed first
in terms of the mind, the questions for the
philosopher become primarily those of the rela-
tion of our definitions to real and nominal es-
sences, the conditions of our knowledge of ex-
istence, and the identification of the real and
ideal with perceptible matters of fact and intel-
ligible relations between ideas.

For Kant the basic distinction is between
the sensible and supra-sensible, or the phenom-
enal and noumenal, realms of being. From an-
other point of view, Kant considers the being
of things in themselves apart from human ex-
perience and the being of natural things or,
what is the same for him, the things of experi-
ence. The former are unconditioned, the latter
conditioned, by the knowing mind which is
formative or constitutive of experience.

“The sole aim of pure reason,” Kant writes,
“is the absolute totality of the synthesis on the
side of the conditions ... in order to preposit
the whole series of conditions, and thus present
them to the understanding a priori.” Having
obtained these “conditions,” we can ascend
through them “until we reach the uncondi-
tioned, that is, the principles.” It is with these
ideas of pure reason that metaphysics, accord-
ing to Kant, properly deals. Instead of being, its
object consists in “three grand ideas: God,

Freedom, and Immortality, and it aims at
showing that the second conception, conjoined
with the first, must lead to the third as a neces-
sary conclusion.”

Hegel, on the other hand, does not approach
the problem of being or reality through a cri-
tique of knowledge. For Hegel, as for Plotinus
before him, the heart of metaphysics lies in
understanding that “nothing is actual except
the Idea” or the Absolute, “and the great thing
is to apprehend in the show of the temporal
and the transient, the substance which is imma-
nent, and the eternal which is present.” Plo-
tinus calls the absolute, not the Idea, but the
All-one, yet he tries to show that the One is the
principle, the light, and the life of all things,
just as Hegel reduces everything to a manifes-
tation of the underlying reality of the Absolute

Despite all such changes in terminology, de-
spite radical differences in philosophical princi-
ple or conclusion, and regardless of the attitude
taken toward the possibility of metaphysics as a
science, the central question which is faced by
anyone who goes beyond physics, or natural
philosophy, is a question about being or exist-
ence. It may or may not be asked explicitly,
but it is always present by implication.

The question about God, for example, or
free will or immortality, is first of all a question
about whether such things exist, and how they
exist. Do they have reality or are they only
fictions of the mind ? Similarly, questions about
the infinite, the absolute, or the unconditioned
are questions about that primary reality apart
from whose existence nothing else could be or
be conceived, and which therefore has an exist-
ence different from the things dependent on it
for their being. Here again the first question is
whether such a reality exists.

Enough has been said to indicate why this
discussion cannot consider all topics which have
some connection with the theory of being. To
try to make this Introduction adequate even
for the topics outlined here, under which the
references to the great books are assembled,
would be to make it almost co-extensive in scope
with the sum of many other Introductions— all,
in fact, which open chapters dealing with meta-
physical concepts or problems.

It is to be expected, of course, that the special

problems of the existence of God, of an immor-
tal soul, and of a free will should be treated in.
the chapters on God, Immortality, and Will.
But it may not be realized that such chapters
as Cause, Eternity, Form, Infinity, Idea,
Matter, One and Many, Same and Other,
Relation, Universal and Particular— all
these and still others cited in the Cross-Refer-,
ences below — include topics which would have
to be discussed here if we were to try to cover
all relevant considerations.

Reasons. of economy and intelligibility dic-
tate the opposite course. Limiting the scope of
this Introduction to a few principal points in
the . theory of being, we can also exhibit,
through, the relation of this chapter to others,
the interconnection of the great ideas. The var-
ious modes of being (such as essence and exist-
ence, substance and accident, potentiality and
actuality, the real and the ideal) and the basic
correlatives 6f being (such as unity, goodness,
truth). are, therefore, left for fuller treatment
in other contexts. But two topics deserve fur-
ther attention here. One is the distinction be-
tween being and becoming, the other the rela-
tion of being to knowledge.

The fact of change or motion — of coming to
be and passing away — is so evident to the senses
that it has never been denied, at least not as an
experienced phenomenon. But it has been re-
garded as irrational and unreal, an illusion per-
petrated by the senses. Galen, for instance,
charges the Sophists with “allowing that bread
in turning into blood becomes changed as re-
gards sight, taste, and touch,” but denying
that “this change occurs in reality. ’ They ex-
plain'it away, he says, as “tricks and illusions of
our senses . . . which are affected now in one
way, now in another, whereas the underlying
substance does not admit of any of these

The familiar paradoxes of Zeno are reductio
ad absurdum
arguments to show that motion is
unthinkable, full of self-contradiction. The way
of truth, according to Parmenides, Zeno s mas-
ter in the Eleatic school, lies in the insight that
whatever is always was and will be, that noth-
ing comes into being out of non-being, or
passes out of being into nothingness.

The doctrine of Parmenides provoked many

criticisms. Yet his opponents tried to preserve
the reality of change, without having to accord
it the fullness of being. The Greek atomists, for
example, think that change cannot be explained
except in terms of permanent beings— in fact
eternal ones. Lucretius, who expounds their
views, remarks that in any change “something
unchangeable must remain over, that all things
be not utterly reduced to nothing; for when-
ever a thing changes and quits its proper limits,
at once this change of state is the death of that
which was before.” The “something unchange-
able” is thought to be the atom, the absolutely
indivisible, and hence imperishable, unit of
matter. Change does not touch the being of the
atoms, “but only breaks up the union amongst
them, and then joins anew the different ele-
ments with others; and thus it comes to pass
that all things change”— that is, all things com-
posite, not the simple bodies of solid singleness
— “when the clashings, motions, arrangement,
position, and shapes of matter change about,’,’

In a conversation with Cratylus, who favors
the Heraclitean theory of a universal flux, Soc-
rates asks, “How can that be a real thing which
is never in the same state?” How “can we
reasonably say, Cratylus,” he goes on, “that
there is any knowledge at all, if everything is in
a state of transition and there is nothing
abiding” ?

When he gets Glaucon to admit in the Repub-
lic that “being is the sphere or subject matter of
knowledge, and knowing is to know the nature
of being,” Socrates leads him to see the correla-
tion of being, not-being, and becoming with
knowledge, ignorance, and opinion. “If opinion
and knowledge are distinct faculties then the
sphere of knowledge and opinion cannot be the
same ... If being is the subject matter of
knowledge, something else must be the subject
matter of opinion.” It cannot be not-being, for
“of not-being ignorance was assumed to be the
necessary correlative.”

Since “opinion is not concerned either with
being or with not-being” because it is obviously
intermediate between knowledge and igno-
rance, Socrates concludes that “if anything ap-
peared to be of a sort which is and is not at the
same time, that sort of thing would appear also
to lie in the interval between pure being and
absolute not-being,” and “the corresponding

faculty is neither knowledge nor ignorance, but
will be found in the interval between them.”
This “intermediate flux” or sphere of becom-'
ing, this “region of the many and the variable,”
can yield only opinion. Being, the realm of the
“absolute and eternal and immutable [Ideas],”
is the only object that one “may be said to

Aristotle would seem to agree with Plato
that change “partakes equally of the nature of
being and not-being, and cannot rightly be
termed either, pure and simple.” He points
out that his predecessors, particularly the Eleat-
ics, held change to be impossible, because they
believed that “what comes to be must do so
either from what is or from what is not, both of
which are impossible.” It is impossible, so they
argued, since “what is cannot come to be (be-
cause it is already), and from what is not noth-
ing could have come to be.” Aristotle concedes
the cogency of this argument on one condition,
namely, that the terms ‘being’ and ‘not-being’
are taken “without qualification.” But his
whole point is that they need not be taken with-
out qualification and should not be, if we wish
to explain change rather than make a mystery
of it.

The qualification Aristotle introduces rests
on the distinction between two modes of being
— the potentiality and actuality correlative
with matter and form. This makes it possible
for him to maintain that “a thing may come to
be from what is not ... in a qualified sense.” He
illustrates his meaning by the example of the
bronze, which from a mere lump of metal comes
to be a statue under the hands of the artist. The
bronze, he says, was “potentially a statue,” and
the change whereby it came to be actually a
statue is the process between potentiality and
actuality. While the change is going on, the
bronze is neither completely potential nor fully
actual in respect of fe/ng a statue.

Like Plato, Aristotle recognizes that there is
“something indefinite” about change. “The
reason,” he explains, “is that it cannot be
classed simply as a potentiality or as an actuali-
ty — a thing that is merely capable of having a
certain size is not undergoing change, nor yet
a thing that is aaually of a certain size.” Change
is “a sort of actuality, but incomplete . , . hard
to grasp, but not incapable of existing.”

If to exist is to be completely actual, then
changing things and change itself do not fully
exist. They exist only to' the extent that they
have actuality. Yet potentiality, no less than
actuality, is a mode of being. That potentiality
— power or capacity— belongs 'to being seems
also to be aflirmed by the Eleatic Stranger in
Plato’s Sophist. “Anything which possesses any
sort of power to affect another, or to be affected
by another,” he says, “if only for a single mo-
ment, however trifling the cause and however
slight the effect, has real existence ... I hold,”
he adds, “that the definition of being is simply

The basic issue concerning being and becom-
ing, and the issue concerning eternal as opposed
to mutable existence, recur again and again in
the tradition of western thought. They are in-
volved in the distinction between corruptible
and incorruptible substances (which is in turn
connected with the division of substances into
corporeal and spiritual), and with the nature of
God as the only purely actual, or truly eternal,
being. They are implicit in Spinoza’s distinc-
tion between natura naturans and natura naturata, and in his distinction between God’s
knowledge of things under the aspect of eter-
nity and man’s temporal view of the world in
process. They are relevant to Hegel’s Absolute
Idea which, while remaining fixed, progressively
reveals itself in the ever-changing face of nature
and history. In our own day these issues engage
Dew'ey, Santayana, and Whitehead in contro-
versy, as yesterday they engaged Bradley,
William James, and Bergson.

As ALREADY NOTED, Plato’s division of reality
into the realms of being and becoming has a
bearing on his analysis of knowledge and opin-
ion. The division relates to the distinction be-
ttveen the intelligible and the sensible, and be-
nveen the opposed qualities of certainty and
probability, or necessity and contingency, in
our judgments about things. The distinctions
between essence and existence and between
substance and accident separate aspects or
modes of being which function differently as
objects for the knowing mind.

Aristotle, for example, holds that “there can
be no scientific treatment of the accidental . . .
for the accidental is practically a mere name.

And,” he adds, “Plato was in a sense not wrong
in ranking sophistic as dealing with that which
is not. For the arguments of the sophists deal,
we may say, above all, with the accidental.”
That the accidental is “akin to non-being,”
Aristotle thinks may be, seen in the fact that
“things which are in another sense come into
being and pass out of being by a process, but
things which are accidentally do not.” But
though he rejects the accidental as an object of
science, he does not, like Plato or Plotinus, ex-
clude the whole realm of sensible, changing
things from the sphere of scientific knowledge.
For him, both metaphysics and physics treat of
sensible substances, the one with regard to their
mutable being, the other with regard to their
being mutable— becoming or changing.

For Plotinus, on the other hand, “the true
sciences have an intelligible object and contain
no notion of anything sensible.” They are di-
rected, not “to variable things, suffering from
all sorts of changes, divided in space, to which
the name of becoming and not being belongs,”
but to the “eternal being which is not divided,
existing always in the same way, which is not
born and does not perish, and has neither space,
place, nor situation . . . but rests immovable in

According to another view, represented by
Locke, substance is as such unknowable, wheth-
er it be body or spirit. We use the word “sub-
stance”, to name the “support of such qualities,
which are capable of producing simple ideas in
us; which qualities are corrimonly called acci-
dents.” The sensible accidents are all that we
truly know and “we give the general name sub-
stance” to “the supposed, but unknown, sup-
port of those qualities we find existing.” Some
of these sensible accidents are what Locke calls
“primary qualities” — the powers or potentiali-
ties by which things affect one another and also
our senses.

But to the extent that our senses fail to dis-
cover “the bulk, texture, and figure of the mi-
nute parts of bodies, on which their constitu-
tions and differences depend, we are fain to
make use of their secondary qualities, as the
characteristical notes and marks whereby to
frame ideas of them in our mind” Neverthe-
less, powers — which are qualities or accidents,
not substances — seem to be, for Locke, the

ultimate' reality we can know. “The secondary
sensible qualities,” he' writes, “are nothing but
the powers” which corporeal substances have
“to produce several ideas in us by our sense,
which ideas” — unlike the primary qualities —
“are not in the things themselves, otherwise
than as anything is in its cause. ”

Hobbes exemplifies .still another view. “A
man can have no thought,” he says, “represent-
ing anything not subject to sense.” Hobbes
does not object to calling bodies “substances,”
but thinks that when we speak of “an incorpo-
real body, or (which is all one) an incorporeal
substance,” we talk nonsense; “for none of these
things ever have, or can be incident to sense;
but are absurd speeches, taken upon credit
(without any signification at all) from deceived
Philosophers, and deceived, or deceiving.

He enumerates other absurdities, such as “the
giving of names of bodies to accidents, or of
accidents to bodies,” e.g., by those who say
that “extension is body.” Criticism of the fallacy
of reification— the fallacy first pointed out by
Ockham and criticized so repeatedly in con-
temporary semantics— also appears in Hobbes’
warning against making substances out of ab-
stractions or universah “by giving the names of
bodies to names or speeches.”

Whenever a theory of knowledge is concerned
with how we know reality, as opposed to mere
appearances, it considers the manner in which
existing beings can be known — by perception,
intuition, or demonstration; and with respect
to demonstration, it attempts to formulate the
conditions of valid reasoning about matters of
fact or real existence. But it has seldom been
supposed that reality exhausts the objects of
our thought or knowledge. We can conceive
possibilities not realized in this world. We can
imagine things which do not exist in nature.

The meaning of reality— of real as opposed
to purely conceptual or ideal being — is derived
from the notion of thinghood, of having being
outside the mind, not merely in it. In tradition-
al controversies about the existence of ideas —
or of universals, the objects of mathematics, or
relations— it is not the being of such things
which is questioned, but their reality, their
existence outside the mind. If, for example,

ideas exist apart from minds, the minds of men
and God, they have real, not ideal, existence.
If the objects of mathematics, such as numbers
and figures, have existence only as figments of
the mind , they are ideal beings.

The judgment of the reality of a thing, James
thinks, involves “a state of consciousness sui
" about which not much can be said
“in the way of internal analysis.” The focus of
this problem in modern times is indicated by
James’ phrasing of the question, “Under what
circumstances do we think things real?” And
James gives a typically modern answer to the

He begins by saying that “any object which
remains uncontradicted is ipso facto believed
and posited as absolute reality.” He admits
that “for most men . . . the 'things of sense’ . . .
are the absolutely real world’s nucleus. Other
things,” James writes, “may be real for this
man or that— things of science, abstract moral
relations, things of the Christian theology, or
what not. But even for the special man,
these things are usually real with a less real
reality than that of the things of sense.” But
his basic conviction is that “our own reality,
that sense of our own life which we at every
moment possess, is the ultimate of ulrimates for
our belief. ‘As sure as I exist!’— this is our utter-
most warrant for the being of all other things.
As Descartes made the indubitable reality of
the cogito go bail for the reality of all that the
cogito involved, so all of us, feeling our own
present reality with absolutely coercive force,
ascribe an all but equal degree of reality, first to
whatever things we lay hold on with a sense of

personal need, and second, to whatever farther
things continuously belong with these.”

The self or ego is the ultimate criterion of
being or reality. “The world of living realities
as contrasted with unrealities,” James writes,
“is thus anchored in the Ego. '. . . That is the
hook from which the rest -dangles,' the absolute
support. And as from a painted hook" it has
been said that one can only hang, a painted
chain, so conversely from a real hook only a
real chain can properly be hung. Whatever things
have intimate and continuous connection with my
life are things of whose reality I cannot doubt.
Whatever things fail to establish this connection
are things which are practically no better for
me than if they existed not at all.” James
would be the first to concede to any critic of his
position, that its truth and good sense depend
upon noting that word “practically,” for it is
“the world of ‘practical realities’ ” with which
he professes to be concerned.

We can in conclusion observe one obvious
measure of the importance of being in philo-
sophical thought. The major isms by which the
historians of philosophy have tried to classify
its doctrines represent affirmations or denials
with respect to being or the modes of being.
They are such antitheses as realism and ideal-
ism; materialism and spiritualism; monism, du-
alism, and pluralism; even atheism and theism.
Undoubtedly, no great philosopher can be so
simply boxed. Yet the opposing ism's do indi-
cate the great speculative issues which no mind
can avoid if it pursues the truth or seeks the
ultimate principles of good and evil.




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