Literature Philosophy

The Question of Being

This is a final paper I wrote for my Philosophy of Being course in college. Old papers can be embarrassing but I think this one isn’t too bad. There is definitely a bit of philosophical jargon in it but I think it’s still comprehensible if you are new to philosophy. Let me know what you think.

The Question of Being (May 3, 2011)

“Silence accompanies the most significant expressions of happiness and unhappiness: those in love understand one another best when silent, while the most heated and impassioned speech at a graveside touches only outsiders, but seems cold and inconsequential to the widow and children of the deceased” (Anton Chekhov, Enemies 1887).

            It is human beings among all forms of life, and as far as we understand the world, for whom the question of Being is most engaging. Humans as teleological, social, and political beings stand on the edge of this question as if they stood on the edge of a gaping, mysterious void. No one is sure how deep it is, how dark it is, or where it leads. Yet eventually, we all find that we are a part of this void. We shift around uncomfortably and toss our hands wildly from side to side in an effort to grasp the thing nearest to us. Because we lack sight in the abyss, we convince ourselves that the effort is futile, and in a gesture of bewilderment, we simply shrug our shoulders and blow out a heavy sigh. This is our premature resignation of defeat, for although the world still turns, the soft rays of light that peek in on us every so often fall upon down-cast eyes, and the sounds of the world fall upon ears made deaf by years of desensitization.

The question of Being is the most fundamental question one can ask, for surely to ask any other question prior to it, we would be assuming a great deal about the nature of that which we speak. For example, one might compare this to asking a congenitally blind person his favorite color. Since he has no experience of color, he will not be able to relate to the question, and his understanding will only go as far as to wonder what the meaning of color is. Although this is an extreme analogy, it is intended to demonstrate the absurdity of our backwards reasoning. It is not uncommon for a person who has little to no knowledge or experience of a subject to engage in discussion of it or to ask another person about it. In fact, we humans do this on a daily basis. What does this imply about us, the insatiably curious beings who display some of the most peculiar behaviors of any life form?

It is an audacious desire to touch the very threads of meaning and existence, and to ask what can be fashioned of them. Even then, we find that only a particular type of individual is well suited for examining such questions. By common societal standards, the individual must be able to communicate intelligibly in a human language, including comprehensive speaking, reading, writing and receptive hearing. In certain cases, however, some skills may be compensated by others. These abilities are thought to be indicators of reasoning, the pinnacle of Western philosophy. If one possesses a masterful, enticing skill of reasoning through language (like that of the sophist), he is likely to persuade even the staunchest of skeptics.

In the Metaphysics, Aristotle claims that Being is necessarily “metaphysical,” literally meaning that it is beyond physics, the study of material substance; Metaphysics is the inquiry into first principles (1029a28-31). His discussion not only proposes that the question of Being itself is metaphysical in nature, but also makes excessive attempts to draw out the truth of Being. He does this through elaborate theoretical arguments based on semantics and thought experiments, although he had already expressed doubt about the human capacity to understand even the slightest portion of such an abstract concept.

Nevertheless, Aristotle develops his argument into a war of the material versus the form. Both are persuasive opponents which can easily trick a person into favoring their side, but Aristotle posits that Being is instead the dynamic combination of the two known as “substance.” He specifically addresses substance in book VII, providing arguments claiming that substance is matter and that substance is not matter. He states that “when everything else is removed, clearly nothing but matter remains,” indicating that the two are one and the same, whereas he insists that “separability and individuality belong especially to substance,” making a distinction between the two (1029a14, 27). He appears to support the distinction between matter and substance further through his discussion of composites and generation. His example of the bronze sphere (a composite of bronze and sphere) illustrates that before the object existed in actuality, it existed as a potential substance in the mind of the artisan who produced it (1034b10-15).

The concept of mind in Aristotle’s discussion of Being is limited based on what one defines as “mind.” If by “mind” one means “intelligibility” (indicating the use of applied reason) then perhaps the form or essence of a thing are most pertinent to the question of Being, for “learning is always acquired in this way, by advancing through what is less intelligible by nature to what is more so” (1029b5-7). What one readily perceives is the material through sight. The essence of a thing, however, is knowable only when one has “knowledge of the individual” (1031b21-22).

As a conclusion to the Metaphysics, Aristotle argues the point of Being in the sense of truth: “truth and falsity are as follows: contact and assertion are truth (for assertion is not the same as affirmation), and ignorance is non-contact” (1051b24-26). This statement presents a unique challenge to the question of Being, as it responds in a manner similar to Heidegger’s response (one may certainly interject that it is Heidegger’s account which resembles Aristotle’s). Both cite a particularly critical connection between Being through beings and the observer or [in Heidegger’s language,] the Dasein, yet fail to clarify whether this connection is an experiential, sensible (and therefore material or physical) state or an automatic, transcendent state of reconciliation between the two. According to them, the answer once again seems to lie somewhere in the middle, a moderation stranded from certainty and absoluteness.

Furthermore, Aristotle describes that which is true as a particular unity (the “what-it-was-to-be”), and of truth itself, he says “truth means to think these objects, and there is no falsity or deception, but only ignorance- not however, ignorance such as blindness is; for blindness is like a total absence of the power of thinking” (1051b34-1052a3). But how should we say that the blind cannot think and that they are inferior to the human ideal merely because we find the metaphor of the “mind’s eye” clever? Aristotle himself criticized the early philosophers for having poeticized their accounts, thus deifying and shrouding the origin of truth (982b13-15, 27-32).

Heidegger’s approach to the question of Being begins with a question of its own: why is there Being at all instead of nothing or non-Being? In a manner similar to Plato’s discussion of the alphabet of Being in The Sophist (of which Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics is a response), Heidegger examines the role and limitation of linguistic structures as the fundamental building blocks of this discourse. He insists that our language expresses and shapes what we think and that this influence is inseparable (rather crucial, in fact) from the questions we ask [42]. He radically deviates from Plato’s approach, however, since he would not consider the paradigm of the fisherman as an adequate means of transition into genuine questioning. He prefers to tackle the question of Being as it would naturally unfold according to the observer.

If one assumes that the world is, then one will ask how it “is” and why it “is.” Heidegger claims that it is through polemos (confrontation) that the world first comes into Being. He concludes that only under certain circumstances can something reveal itself as a being. Although it first comes to be through polemos, a being does not cease to be after polemos has ended. It is instead hidden in a sort of transitory state, and one considers it as a “finding” or an “object” rather than a being [48]. It appears then, that such a thing is never guaranteed to become or to always be considered as a being since it may only experience polemos for a limited time or even not at all. When it does come about, polemos is described as a “struggle” or “strife” [47, 48]. Heidegger cites a passage from Heraclitus to develop this idea, offering his interpretation of originary struggle, a concept he believed Heraclitus hinted at. Originary struggle is a coming to be of an unfolding being’s potentialities [47]. It makes opposition possible, and because of this, the world is allowed to come to be.

The originary force of polemos begins with the unfolding and emergence of the thing when the right conditions are met; this is when phusis “comes to a stand in what comes to presence” [47]. The foremost condition is the meeting of a natural force and an intelligent force. Each potential being (the natural force) requires the attention of a Dasein (the intelligent force), for it is the initial participation of the Dasein which coaxes the thing out of concealment and the interaction of the two which sustains Being itself [47].

Heidegger’s theory appears to give primacy to the Dasein since it must recognize a thing, interpret it, and decide whether to reach out to it. The Dasein’s action [or inaction] ultimately determines the possibility of Being (although once a being has revealed itself, the Dasein cannot change it [22]), whereas the potential being only needs to make itself accessible to the curiosity of the Dasein [63]. This suggests that the Dasein holds a far greater power and sway in the emergence of Being.

Aristotle, Heidegger, and Plato provide a vastly comprehensive survey of the question of Being, the nature of ‘that which is’ and the complications that it presents. Although they may overwhelm and confuse the reader as often as they enlighten him, each generally agrees that Being is not an eternal, static state that can be bound by a single, universal definition. In an effort to avoid taking a stand in favor of one definition or another, for fear that this choice might be wrong, many philosophers, statesmen, and sophists alike merely conclude their inquiry in a sweeping circumlocution of events. For human beings, the question of Being is the single most fundamental question we can ask because the world indeed pushes back when we apply pressure to it.

A great multitude of people attribute the world’s Being as the result of a celestial, divine force acting on (or interfering with) our daily lives. Human beings among all known beings are the only individuals with such creative, self-deluding, and inquisitive tendencies as to make gods of ourselves. By our own decision and at our own risk, we dive into the completely unknown. When we observe other beings, a shocking perplexity comes over us, and subsequently, we are inclined to examine them. Within our minds we artfully create and destroy as we please. Our reality melts into subjectivity the moment we ignore the world and turn into ourselves for a simple, pre-fabricated ideology dictated by society.

At the bottom of the abyss, it becomes obvious that we have weaved a most inconsistent fable from the threads of the world. Now we are finally alone to ourselves. Yet it is only through this state of isolation that we arrive at an indifference to our prejudice since, after all, we have lost ourselves in total aporia. Only from that moment forward can we begin to truly reflect on Being, for our inquiry reveals far more about us than it does of anything else. In this deepest, blackest void we startle at the bright beams of light that flicker in above our heads and the louder, bolder thumps of noise that reach us. To be awakened to the world’s life we must first take a stand, no matter what it may be. Our first step is always the precedent to our own unfolding being.

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