Modes of Being

The term “being” is used in many senses, but with reference to one thing and to some one nature and not equivocally.   — Aristotle

I claimed in the last post to have made some progress toward clarifying the notion of “being” (for the remainder of this post I will use the term “existence” so as to avoid an annoyingly numerous number of quotation marks). Following the train of thought whereby we come to know the world, we seem to end at a highest sort of unity: existence. Everything—and I mean everything—can be characterized by “is.” Existence, as it were, gathers everything into its fold.

Further, this highest unity mustn’t be confused with what things are. There are many kinds of things that can be distinguished one from another by the kinds of things they are, the differing characteristics that make them to be the kind of thing they are. But that they are is what unifies them at this highest level, not what distinguishes them. Or does it? Here we run into a new conceptual difficulty, this time with regard to the way, or mode, of existence that things are.

We cannot think of any “thing” without first presuming that it exists in some way or another. (Everything that is, is.) Yet, it is that phrase—in some way or another—that gives us pause here. One the one hand, it is quite evident that existence applies to every thing (whether actual or merely possible). Yet, it is not clear that it applies to every thing in the same way. In fact, it seems quite clear that it doesn’t apply to everything in the same way. It is one thing to say that a horse exists. It seems quite another to say that a unicorn exists. And still another to say that brown exists, a smile exists, a hole exists, etc.

Now, the difficulty does not have to do with the kind of thing these are. We are not saying that it is hard to tell a horse apart from a unicorn, or that there is great trouble in distinguishing the color brown from a smile. No, the difficulty has to do with the kind, or mode, of existence we are attributing to these.[1]

To make progress here, it seems we have to say that in each of these cases what is meant by “exists” is at once “something the same” and “something different.” Let’s see if we can get at this two-fold (and apparently inconsistent) meaning.


Perhaps somewhat ironically, in an attempt to get at what is often called the analogy of being (analogia entis), I think an analogy may help. Suppose I state the following three sentences to a friend:

(1) I went to the doctor last week and he told me I was healthy.

(2) He said he knew that because, among other things, my blood pressure was healthy.

(3) He also encouraged me to continue to eat broccoli, which, he said, is healthy.

All three of those sentences make good sense. But they don’t make sense because “healthy” means the exact same thing in each sentence. In fact, if we construe each case to mean the same thing, then the good sense disappears. Suppose that “healthy” means something like “the flourishing of a live organism.” Then, (1) makes sense:

(1*) I went to the doctor last week and he told me that I am a flourishing live organism. (As doctors are wont to speak.)

But (2) and (3) do not:

(2*) He said he knew that because my blood pressure is a flourishing live organism.

(3*) He also encouraged me to continue to eat broccoli, which is, he said, a flourishing live organism.[2]

What this example shows is that the same term may be used to indicate a kind of sameness in meaning as well as a kind of difference in meaning.

The first sentence carries the primary meaning (sometimes called the focal meaning). In a definitional sense, “healthy” has to do with the flourishing of a live organism. But there are other usages of the term “healthy” which are related to the definitional sense yet simultaneously indicate something other than it. Blood pressure as “healthy,” for example, refers not simply to a flourishing organism but also to the way a doctor, say, can tell that this particular live organism is flourishing. That is, “healthy” can refer to a sign of good health. Broccoli as “healthy” (in sentences like (3)) refers not simply to a flourishing organism but also to that which contributes to its flourishing.

In cases like these the same term has different senses, and yet those senses are not wholly unrelated. There is a primary sense and the other senses are related to that primary sense.

Existence is similarly to be regarded. We know from things like horse, unicorn, and brown that existence cannot refer to the exact same kind of “that-ness.” Yet, there must be a relatedness because there is a kind of unity—Everything that is, is.

A Twofold Sense of “Exists” and a Twofold Division

Here we need to carefully note a somewhat technical point about the unity of existence—existence considered as the highest sort of unity. When we say that a horse, a unicorn, and brown exist, we intuit that there must be something “the same” in the expressions. Even though we also intuit that each of them can’t mean the exact same thing in every way, there must be some basic sameness. Here it is easy to trip and fall. Many conclude from this intuition that “exists,” when stripped to the base, just means the exact same thing in every case (i.e. is a univocal predication). That is, it really only has one sense and there really is just one way, or mode, of existence.

I think this is a mistake for the reasons given below. But it still needs to be answered what is the “sameness” in the expression. When we say that a horse exists and that a unicorn exists, the sameness is not, I suggest, an identical existence.  Rather, in both instances there is an identical negative assertion: the horse and the unicorn are not nothing. The sameness that we intuit in these expressions, then, is that they first refer to our ability as rational creatures to apprehend that here is something and not nothing. It is in this narrow sense that we can speak of an identity of existence: to say that something exists is to say that it is not nothing. This, we might say, is the first sense of existence, and it accounts for our intuition that there is a sameness about our assertions of existence. Put another way, this first sense births in us the intuition of the utter extension of existence, that it is applicable to all.

But that is not to offer a positive characterization of existence. To offer a positive characterization of existence requires that one differentiate modes of being. This is because a horse exists differently than a unicorn exists. And here the above analogy is helpful.

There is a focal meaning of exists. This is clearly seen in the horse/unicorn example. In a strict sense, we cannot say that unicorns do not exist. They do, but only in the imaginations of silly humans, it would seem. Horses, however, exist of their own right, whether humans think of them or no.

And now we can make that sort of distinction pretty much across the board of existing things. A tree exist in its own right. Green never hangs out on its own. A human being exists in its own right. A smile is never to be found unless upon the lips of a human (or animal, at least). A father cannot exist unless there are two human beings with a particular relation between them. And so on.

So we now positively characterize the various kinds of being into at least two groupings: an existence which stands, as it were, on its own (i.e. a sub-stance), and an existence which can only be in something else (brown is in the horse, or father is in the man, or headache is in the human head, etc.). These latter modes of existence the ancients called accidents.

This, then, is the line of thought that leads to Aristotle’s famous ten categories, the ten genera of “being.” Once it is understood that existence’s focal meaning is most clear in the case of substances (horses, trees, humans, etc.), and that there is a different but related meaning in the cases of accidents, then the list of accidents may be developed.

Aristotle developed them as follows: quantity, quality, relatives, location, time, position, possessing, acting, and being acted upon. With these, Aristotle could take any of all the seemingly innumerable statements of existence and place them in their proper category. That is, he could sufficiently and positively characterize existence by showing that everything that is (whether actual or potential) exists in one of these ways.

Thus, by these categories we are able to account for what seems the same in our statements of existence and for what seems different. The sameness refers in the first place, negatively, to our distinguishing something from nothing. In the second place the sameness refers, positively, to a focal meaning, most clearly grasped in reference to substances. The difference is discerned by noting that the “that-ness” of substances and various kinds of accidents is not the exact same: substances stand on their own, accidents cannot.

The Significance of Various Modes of Being

This series on metaphysics is growing increasingly rarified, I’m afraid. The air is getting thinner. And it may seem that I am chasing flights of fancy to no purpose. Here, as with the last post, let me in closing draw attention back to the doctrine of God. Coming to see that existence is predicated of everything and yet is not predicated of everything in the same way is an important moment in coming to see that it is possible that God does not exist in the same way as creatures do.

There is a sense in which when we say that a horse exists, a human exists, and God exists, we mean the same thing. That sense, as above, is that in each case we mean that the horse, the human, and God are not nothing. But, when we desire to speak of the kind of the existence God has, we should pause and consider: if it is the case that down here, among creatures, existence is not exactly the same, could it be that God also exists in a different way—differently indeed from all his creatures?

It turns out, of course, that upon reflection this must be so. In fact, it is much better to say not “the existence that God has” but “the existence that God is.”



[1] This conceptual difficulty has tripped up philosophers both ancient and modern. Often, even when distinct modes of “being” are admitted (and they are often not admitted in the modern, especially analytical, strands of thought), the subsequent discussions confuse what we have called “being” with what we have called “beings.” That is, it is very easy at just this point to slip from distinguishing between various kinds (modes) of that-ness into discussing various kinds of what-ness. This slip is found over an again in treatments of being.

[2] It may be true, of course, that the broccoli stalks I eat are flourishing organisms (or were, until their lives were tragically cut short). But that is not the meaning of the doctor’s statement in (3).

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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