Philosophers have been chewing away for millennia on this topic and
show no signs of ceasing. Naturally, therefore, ontology ("being-talk")
has evolved into an extremely complex subject. Nevertheless, I maintain
that most people are capable of easily understanding those aspects of
ontology which matter.
Much ontological discussion revolves around the use of language. This
is because the word "being" is easily misused. To illustrate:
- I can say, "That is a teddy bear." When I do so, what I'm
really saying is that the object I'm indicating has the name "teddy
- But when I say, "That teddy bear is," I'm saying that the
object known by that name possesses some sort of quality, that of
existence or being. This amounts to making the word "being" into the
name of some quality.
An enormous amount of convoluted discussion about this sort of language
exists. The debate indicates that the meaning of the word "being" gets
[a] it's a participle not a noun (that is, it has
characteristics of both noun and verb) and must therefore be used with
[b] it's not a predicate. The word "white" in "paper is white"
is a predicate. It doesn't do to say, for example, "paper is is".
And again, we can say, "Large dogs growl" and (with some difficulty),
"Large dogs are" - but not that "Large dogs will be" - indicating that the
word is, from which the word "being" derives, must be carefully
Immanuel Kant said that being is not a valid predicate. Take the word
"wise". When I say that somebody "is wise " I'm first saying it exists and
then specifying what exists - in this case a "wise" person. But when I say
that something "is" I'm saying it exists but I'm not saying what
it is that exists. Being is not a component of anything. He added "... a
hundred real thalers contain no more thalers than a hundred possible
ones." In other words, to say that something is without specifying what is
to propose a possibility, not an actuality.
C J F Williams in A Companion to the Philosophy of Religion
notes that Gottlob Frege in 1950 pointed out finally why treating being as
a property of things isn't valid. Frege wrote, "Affirmation of existence
is nothing other than denial of the number nought." His argument involves
"second-level" predicates. When I say, "There are three cats here" it's
plain that "three" isn't a property of any one cat. But when I say, "There
are three ginger cats here" the predicate "ginger" does belong to each of
the three cats. The predicate "three" is a second-level predicate.
According to Williams "... it is as nonsensical to say of someone that she
is powerful and existent as to say that she is wise and numerous."
In the end, therefore, if being is considered either as an object or
some sort of special attribute, then the verb "to be" has to be used in
new and clumsy ways which cease to make good sense. As one author puts it,
"The outcome of the attempt to make what is mystifying clear is to make
what is clear mystifying." Predicates refer to properties. Being can't be
a property of anything.
Nearly 3 000 years ago, a Greek philosopher named Parmenides said words
to the effect that "What is, is and what is not, is not" - which seems
obvious (though it has its own complications). Plato later muddied the
water by maintaining that being belongs exclusively to an eternal and
perfect realm. In contrast, beings and things (including us) are copies or
shadows of the ideal realm. We're not "being" but "becoming" inasmuch as
we approximate perfect Being or Form.
Plato thought that there is a third category - what "is not". But
there's a problem with saying that something "is not". If it isn't, how do
we know what isn't - by what criteria or evidence? If I tell you
that there's no such thing as a zingzang how is either of us to know what
a zingzang is? To what entity or being does the word "is" refer if a
zingzang doesn't exist? If I say, "There's no such thing as a round
square" I'm maintaining that the definition of "round" is not the same as
the definition of "square". For that reason we can't imagine a round
square. A round square isn't - by which I mean that it's impossible to
find an instance of a round square.
Aristotle, on the other hand, said that things possess being.
But to "possess" being is to endow being with attributes. If I say, "Dogs
have being" is that the same sort of thing as saying, "Dogs have legs"? Or
when I say "Dogs are beings" am I saying they possess something called
"being" or perhaps that they inhabit a class of things called being? It
seems to me that when I say, " Dogs are beings" all I'm saying is that
"Dogs are" or "Dogs exist".
Aristotle also held that Plato's Ideal Forms are abstractions - mental
constructs with no necessary relation to the world of beings or things.
What do we mean, for example, when we say that a number "is the square
root" of another number? Does a square root exist in the same sense that a
particular dog exists? If I say, "That is a square root" is it the same as
saying, "That is a dog"? Aristotle would answer in the negative.
As far as I can tell later discussions of being generally fall into
either a Platonic or an Aristotelian category. None has shed much light on
the matter - a claim which would no doubt be vigorously contested by
various schools of ontology!
The Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria (20-50
BCe), studied Plato in relation to the Hebrew Bible (better known
as the Old Testament). He noted that in Exodus 3.14 God is revealed to
Moses as "I am who I am". Philo translated that into Greek, the lingua
franca of his time, as "ho on". This means "the Being" or "He
To the Jews, God is an active agent in human affairs. But when Philo's
rendering passed on from Judaism into the emerging Christian world, this
active God became a static, immutable entity. This conception proved
influential in the thought of theologians like Augustine, Origen and
Clement and on through to Thomas Aquinas. The latter defined God in Latin
as "Qui est" ("Who is"). C J F Williams notes that some other
languages have fewer problems with using "is". Latin, Greek and Hebrew
often do without it as do modern Russian and Japanese.
In general, there
have been two main streams of theological opinion. One regards God as
perfect Being, outside space-time, free from change and suffering,
unknowable. Perhaps one way of expressing this is to say that God as Being
is a category or class with only a single member. In contrast, the class or
category "animal" includes many instances of animals.
This absolute Being
may influence creation but can't in turn be influenced. Others, while
accepting this viewpoint, argue that we can guess at the nature of pure
Being by analogy. Creation serves as a guide to God's nature. This is the
foundation of what is usually called natural theology or "God-talk derived
The difficulty of moving from "Being" to "beings" when
using normal language is well illustrated in the way the matter was tackled
by the 20th century theologian Paul Tillich. He talks both of God as "being"
and as the "ground of being". He's accused of confused expression in this
regard. But it seems to me that he's saying both that God is the unknowable
absolute and at the same time that which supports creation in the same way
that the ground supports us. That God is the "ground" of our being is
clearly a metaphor.
The most influential philosopher in the 20th century
around the nature of being was probably Martin Heidegger. Unfortunately, his
writing is largely opaque to most ordinary mortals. Like Tillich, he
distinguishes between Being as the "absolute other" and beings as
expressions of Being. Being thus occurs at differing levels. A human being
is at a higher level than a stone. This difference is, however,
comparatively minor compared with the difference between beings and "being
as such". If God is a being, says Heidegger, then Being is not God.
Tillich and Heidegger give answers to the question, "What is being?" But
this presupposes that the question is a valid one. Its validity rests, it
seems to me, on the supposition that being is either a thing in itself and
unlike any other thing, or that it is a quality which is definitive of
everything. In the former case, it's possible to name the thing and call it
"being". Both senses take "to be" as essentially different from a verb like
"to walk". D A Drennan in A Modern Introduction to Metaphysics
suggests that there have been many answers to the question, "What is
being?" Parmenides says that being is "One"; Plato that it is "One and
Many"; Aristotle that it is "substance" and so on.
Coming down from the
rarified heights of philosophy allows me to make sense of being in another
way. I am obviously able to invent and use a noun "being", just as I'm able
to invent a noun "zingzang". But that doesn't mean that either being or
zingzang actually exist. I can point to a dog when I use the noun "dog". I
can't point to "being".
And yet in everyday terms things obviously exist -
that is, they "are". I can validly say, "That dog is." But when I say this,
what I mean is, "That dog is a real entity" as opposed to a false claim such
as "A zingzang is a real entity." I can produce a dog; I can't produce
a zingzang. And when I say, "Two is the square root of four" I maintain that
two has a certain relationship to four as part of a much larger system we
call mathematics. The word "is" can validly refer to two differing types of
existence, one concrete and the other abstract.
The concept of being
remains puzzling, especially when the philosophers and others get their
teeth into it. But for ordinary people, not much concerned with the
difficulties of language and thought, it's not that opaque. There's nothing
wrong with thinking of God (for example) as "that which is the fount of all
things which exist or have being". In other words, it is not preposterous to
think of such a "thing" as Being itself from which all beings take their