A Glimpse of Being

As a concept, being is both the most universal and the most abstract of all. Its extension is the richest, its comprehension the most poor. – Étienne Gilson

It is the same with this object of thought, this primordial reality we call being. We have not looked it in the face. We think it something far simpler than it is. We have not yet troubled to unveil its true countenance. – Jacques Maritain

In two previous posts (here and here), I tried to sketch how Modern metaphysics has come to be thought of as a kind of synthesizing discipline, the study and organizing of all the fields of human knowing, that may be then put to questions about “ultimate reality.” And I’ve said that this is in contradistinction to the classical notion of metaphysics, as the study of being as being. And yet, one may still justifiably wonder whether I’m making too much of the difference.

Take, for example, Thomas Aquinas’s Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics. He claims in the prologue that the science of metaphysics “must be the queen (rectrix) of all the others” because it is to the science of metaphysics that all the others are ordered. Put another way, Metaphysics regulates all the other (natural) sciences into their proper order.[1] Is this not very close to the Modern picture of metaphysics that I’ve critiqued? Is Thomas straying from the classical notion of metaphysics? (Or, have I simply misconstrued the classical notion?)

Answering this question—what exactly the difference is between Metaphysics as the queen of the other sciences and metaphysics as the conjunction of the other sciences—will help to get us to what I’m going to call a glimpse of “being.”[2] And it seems to me that once one has taken particular notice of this glimpse of being, one can begin in earnest to make progress in the science of metaphysics.

Initial encounters

As noted in the opening citations, reflection upon “being” brings to mind something at once so very common and yet so foreign. I find it helpful to consider it alongside the way in which humans initially come into contact with and learn of reality. Of course, this consideration will be necessarily simplified. I’m not here after a scientific account of a child’s cognitive development. I’m more after the experience of coming into contact with and coming to think of ‘the world.’

Infants becoming more and more aware of the external world do so by coming into contact with concrete things: my mom, our dog, this coffee table—particularly its sharp corners!—that tree. (And this before they have names and terms for linguistically organizing these things.) Each of these concrete things is a thing in itself and separate or different from the other things. My mom, that is, does not for the developing infant blur into this coffee table just because she has her feet up on it. Growing infants learn to distinguish them as individual units, each quite easily distinguished from the other because of their many differences.

But then the infant encounters another mom. This mom is not exactly the same as my mom, but much more similar than this coffee table. That is, the two moms are different units, but something also binds them together as one kind of thing over against the table which is another kind of thing. Thus, they learn that moms are ‘woman.’ And then, further, that women are ‘human’; humans are ‘animal’, etc.

So in the development of a child’s awareness of external reality, as he bumps into concrete things, he learns to distinguish them as things, and then begins to organize them into higher conceptual unities. (By “conceptual” here I do not mean “constructed” or “not real.” I simply mean that those higher unities are understood by means of mental concepts—yes, I know, let the medieval debates commence.)

Notice, importantly, that with each successive higher level of unity, the characteristics which define that higher conceptual unity become sparser, while that higher unity characterizes more things than did the unity below it.

For example, there are a good many characteristics that define the unity of “woman.” There are, for example, characteristics that are essential to a woman as woman (as differing from male human): particularities of the female anatomy, xx chromosomes, differing neurocircuitry, etc. There are also characteristics that are essential to a woman as human (and so shared in common with male human): living, animal, rational, etc. This means that the higher unity of “human” (into which “woman” and “man” are both drawn up) will have fewer essential characteristics than the lower unity of “woman.” This is because in the unity of “human” those essential characteristics of woman as woman are dropped.  After all, men are also “human” but don’t typically have the characteristics of woman as woman. And this process can be repeated as we move up the ladder of higher unities. The still higher unity of “animal” above “human,” etc.

So as one moves up the unities, the number of characteristics that define that unity become fewer and fewer. Conversely, as one climbs, the number of kinds of things that the higher unity draws up into itself become greater and greater. For example, the unity of “human” only characterizes one kind of animal, both male and female. But the higher unity of “animal” characterizes not just humans but all the many different kinds of animals. So, though “animal” has fewer characteristics which define it than does “human,” it is applicable to many more kinds of things than is human.

What’s the point of all this? At the intuitive level, as we become more aware of external reality, we draw our knowledge of individual things upwards into higher conceptual unities. And with each mental movement upwards we lose specificity in the new concept. This is important for the next section.

But I need to register a caution at this point: the development of the child’s awareness of external reality is intuitive. It is therefore rough and unreflective. It is not, that is to say, metaphysics. It would be a mistake to take what I’ve said so far and conclude that humans are all naturally metaphysicians. We are not; we must learn to be. It would also be a mistake to conclude that metaphysics as I’m explaining it may simply be reduced to a child’s learning language or learning linguistically to order the world. This also is to miss the point.

The point here is rather to say two things: first, from the very first, we encounter the “real,” outside of us in the form of concrete individual unities, or “beings,” and then move quite naturally toward drawing those individual beings into higher conceptual unities. And that upward movement gains us perspective, but loses us conceptual specificity, and hence clarity.

Distinguishing Being from Beings

What then, we ask, is the highest unity that we can organize “beings” into? It turns out that the highest unity is “being itself.” This is because “is,” can be said and must be said of everything that, well, is. Getting this is really the first step toward an intuitive grasp on the beginnings of metaphysics. But it is a difficult thing to get a hold of at first.

Whatever concept of whatever we may have—and I mean whatever, even of ‘things’ like unicorns and flying spaghetti monsters—and whatever exists “out there” in reality, even if it only exists potentially, may be said to have “isness.” So, again, whatever is in my mind (or somebody else’s) or in reality outside of my mind, “It is” can be said of it, at least in some sense. And here the obscure words of the ancient Greek philosopher, Parmenides, come into their own: “It is necessary to say and to think that whatever is, is; for it is to be, but nothing is not.”

This ‘isness’ is what I’ll call “being” (singular) in distinction from the lower unities of “beings” (plural). “Being” is the highest unity that we can think when we follow the initial trail of our intuitions (again: we’re not doing metaphysics in any rigorous sense yet). And now to bring it all together: precisely because “being” is the highest conceptual unity, it is also the least precise concept. Commenting on Aquinas, Étienne Gilson says that the concept of ‘being’ “represents what St. Thomas has called many a time, ens commune: the abstract notion of being, understood in its universal and pure indetermination.” (The Christian Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, 44).

It is that ‘indetermination’ that gives us such trouble at this point. We well know that “is” may be said of everything, but what “is” is is very hard to say.

Our intuition at this point either attempts to think of ‘being’ (isness) as a massive conjunction of all the characteristics of all the beings under it (this kind of monism is, unfortunately, where Parmenides ended up), or to think of “being” as so unspecific as to be nearly unthinkable. Both actually end up at about the same place. We can’t get our heads around something that has all the characteristics of all of reality bound up into a singularity; so it becomes a great blur. And if ‘being’ remains only the barest of concepts, it too remains a blur. In either case, when we follow these intuitions, we get to a glimpse of ‘being,’ but a very blurred one.

And at this point, having had a glimpse of “being” that is quite blurred and indefinite, we tend to rush back to the realm of beings. But I think it is precisely at this point—having had a glimpse—that we need to remain and ponder.

In the next post, then, we’ll do just that in order to get a fuller answer to the question with which we began.

[1] Thomas does not mean, of course, that metaphysics, and not theology, is the queen of the sciences. But the relation of metaphysics to theology and of the various natural sciences to theology would take us into another discussion. Suffice it to say here, metaphysics in the sense Thomas is speaking of here may be said to be the queen of the natural sciences (i.e. all human inquiries into things in the order of nature and knowable by the light of nature), insofar as those natural sciences are in the order of nature drawn up into a unity in the science of metaphysics. There is another order, of course: the order of grace.

[2] I’m going to try to use parenthesis like this to indicate when I’m using terms to refer to more abstract notions than is indicated by the popular usage of that term. It will be cumbersome at times, but hopefully will lend some conceptual clarity where needed.

Joshua Schendel

Joshua Schendel

Joshua is the executive editor of Modern Reformation magazine. He holds a PhD from St. Louis University, a MAHT from Westminster Seminary California. He, his wife, Bethanne, and their three kids live in Southern California.

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