Being is one of those ideas only philosophers worry about, and not even all of them. There’s a good reason for that. I’ve recently read a few philosophers who touch on the subject. Harman and DeLanda debate what being is in “The Rise of Realism” (2017), while Umberto Eco devotes a chapter to it in his “Kant and the Platypus (1997), and Meillassoux touches on it in “After Finitude” (2015). Eco’s essay ties the others together and points out that being appears to mind only against the possibility of “not being”, and that concept presupposes language that discloses limits to our capacity to rationalize experience. Eco is clear however in that being, should it be more than a mere fantasy of mind, must precede mind. It must be, ontologically, mind-independent, though it becomes visible only to mind and by way of a linguistic shadow.
I am not convinced of that last part. A shadow yes, a blindspot to mind like the blindspot on the human retina caused by the placement of the optic nerve. But it is a phenomenal blindspot and prelinguistic; a genuine epistemological limit. At the same time it is no mere coincidence the recognition, the conceptualization, of this blindspot happens only in humans who also notice that it necessarily reflects itself in language.
So what am I talking about? As philosophers discuss it this purported ontological reality splits into two levels, the particular, and the universal. In the particular philosophers speak of an essence that lies at the core of every particular in this universe, from quarks to all their assemblies both natural and artifactual taken as discrete objects. Every rock, grain of dust, star, animal, statue, and more. Harman extends object-ness to every mind, thought (even outright fantasy), and relation, even to such arbitrary sets as my right arm, the statue of liberty, and the present queen of England. The being of these particulars is what, in addition to their properties, histories and relations, makes up their individual existence.
This being is sometimes associated with what medieval scholars called “haecceity”, or “thisness”, distinguishing particulars from those otherwise identical. The question comes down to whether this impenetrable essence exists mind-independently, or is merely a mirage a product, ultimately, of the nature of human, language-using, consciousness. It has to be human mind specifically because there is no evidence that higher animals (who I take it have sophisticated subjective arenas adapted to their way of life) concern themselves with being. They do not recognize any blindspot.
Harman says every particular, even imaginary ones, have being. DeLanda denies this. In DeLanda’s view, if we could (and we cannot) know every micro detail about some particular object, if we could know its entire history, including details of all its relations with other objects, if we could literally exhaust all of what could theoretically be known about an object, then we would exhaust the object, encompassing all of what that object is leaving nothing left over. Harman insists that even that would not exhaust the object itself; haecceity is logically prior to everything else. So who is right here? It seems to me that ontologically this is a tossup. Both DeLanda and Harman concede that “knowing every micro detail” is an impossible goal. Mind comes up against a limit. We cannot ever know every detail so how can we be sure there is something left over? Perhaps DeLanda is right in that being lies at this asymptotic limit. It is nothing more than a word standing for “those details we can never know”.
An honest ontologist has no business insisting on residual being one-way or another. Epistemologically the situation is different. Like being itself, only humans, using language, concern themselves with epistemology. Recognizing a “limit to what can be known” about any particular is in part to accept that something more might lie beyond “what can be known”. To label that possibility ‘being’ is simply to name that which we cannot know but perhaps is. What this represents ontologically is indeterminate, but for human mind, recognizing that a blindspot exists, being seems a reasonable and possibly useful hypothesis. It is reasonable, because we cannot communicate (language) without presupposing existence. Useful because it gives us a reason to reject idealism, to assume there is a mind-independent world.
This brings us to the universal. As associate the particular with haecceity, the universal relates to something the scholars called quiddity. Quiddity is the aboutness of something, that which is common to its type. Kitty cats and lions are both feline. What justifies our carving out this class and assigning to it both kitty cats and lions but not poodles? Today most people would answer with DNA, jaw and tooth shapes, claws, and many other morphological features, but the scholars knew about most of those as well. Their interest was in the logical principles that characterize classes or kinds and what must be the case, ontologically, to make the classification work.
Like haecceity, quiddity might be no more than a stand-in for those principles and if we could theoretically know every one of them down to their finest detail, there wouldn’t be anything left. But what is interesting about quiddity is it applies up the whole chain of nested classes to the whole universe. It is the something in the question “why is there something rather than nothing?” What is common to everything there is (we can debate the details of that if we want) and does not belong to what is not? That would be being.
So what does everything that exists have in common? Trivially, they have existence. Is there anything more to it than this? Once again human mind cannot resolve the ontological question. At least everything that exists must, perforce, have existence. But are existence and being simply synonyms, or must something have being to exist? It doesn’t matter here any more than it did for particulars.
We cannot in principle exhaust existence (witness the endless debate in which philosophers engage on “what exists”) so how could we hope to discover, in any positive way, what might be left over if we did exhaust it! But in this case, we fare no better epistemologically. Mind at least can grasp the particularity of particulars. Human mind can become aware of a blindspot, the inability to encompass every detail, but at least as concerns the particular we are justified in creating a word for “that which we cannot know about this”. As concerns the universal, we cannot even to that or if we do, it cannot be justified.
As concerns the global being, even human mind has nothing to grasp onto. Metaphysically speaking there can be nothing to grasp onto because unlike a particular rock or even thought, mind itself is a part of that universal. Mind exists in some sense and so “has existence” (and so being if everything else has it) in common with everything else. This also holds for language which also exists and has existence (at least) in common with everything else. To be able to speak about something presupposes being able to distinguish that something from everything else. But as concerns universal being, that which everything has in common, is to presuppose a reality-foundation (or reality concept) for which in principle there are no distinctions to be made. Existence alone is uni-vocal, something everything has in common, how much more so being if there is indeed any such thing.
Where does this leave us on the matter of being? I would say in an ambivalent position. I believe every language has some equivalent to the English verb “to be”. In English this construct and its conjugates applies to material objects (“that is a horse”), and actions, attitudes, or states (“to be creative”, “to be good”, “to be a disaster”) whether those of the physical world or strictly the subjective arena (“to be depressed”). It might perhaps be this broad application that persuades Harman to grant equivalency of existence (being an object) to everything from rocks to thoughts and all their relations (“to be taller than”). But perhaps this is merely an affect of language and should not be counted in an ontology?
If I teach my daughter the word cat, and eventually she displays an ability to tell cats from other animals, has she implicitly understood quiddity or is she merely learning to identify the morphological characteristics that distinguish cats from other animals most of the time? Suppose if she comes to know a particular cat as “Ben”. Has she thereby grasped the notion of haecceity or merely understood that “Ben” is one particular cat easily distinguished from others by subtlties of size, coloration, and so on? Eco insists that all of human language automatically and necessarily involves a generalization from the particular to the class, at least as concerns naming things, but as it turns out in many other contexts as well. Even grasping the idea that Ben is a “particular cat” implies there are “other cats” who are not Ben.
From how we use ‘being’ and how we try to talk about it using language we should infer nothing more than that it names, by implication, or gives some reference to our mental blindspot, that which we suppose exists in the form of something we cannot know, something our cognitive capacities cannot in principle encompass. There must be such a blindspot. Why? Because everything that we are counting as subjective experience and the world in which it is immersed has existence in common. We cannot get outside this commonality to distinguish it from anything else. It is the something that we cannot name because it has no particular about which to generalize and applies equally to being in the universal and the particular. Is there anything in common between all cats besides their various biophysical properties (including for example being born of other cats), with characteristic behaviors and relations?
Concerning thinking and experience (including the experience of thinking) if there is a common factor besides the properties we could theoretically come to know (and bearing in mind that even in theory we cannot come to know every micro detail of those properties), it might as well not be there. ‘Being’ stands for the blindspot. It stands for something that might exist (ontologically) besides all the micro details of properties, relations, and history (Harman), or it stands for the theoretical sum total of such properties which we can only asymptotically approach (DeLanda).
As concerns anything that philosophy might explore it doesn’t matter. What the notion of being delivers, philosophically, is purely epistemological; there must be a blindspot, there are things the human mind cannot know and because we cannot know them (like Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns”) we cannot name them. We can only refer to them indirectly with being.
So why does this blindspot belong only to human experience? Eco thinks it is language, the necessarily limited product of limited mind, that reveals the blindspot we call being. I do not believe this is correct. It is only a coincidence that human beings recognize the blindspot and happen to have language that we use to try to make sense of it. I agree with Eco that only a “rational animal” with a sufficiently powerful language, can attempt some evaluation of the blindspot, but I think we develop the language, words like ‘being’, because there is something about our prelinguistic experience that suggests the need.
Does lion consciousness then lack such a blindspot? No, there is a blindspot in all animal consciousness, but it is invisible to even the higher animals. There is nothing in what it is like to be a lion that suggests anything like the need for an idea of being. It isn’t that lions don’t have “the language”. They don’t have any need for such language because there is nothing about the way they experience the world that suggests it.
If it isn’t language that reveals the blindspot, what then is it? The key here is personality, in oversimplified terms the agent that appears to itself as a locus of experience. As Hume famously noted (and thus put a stranglehold on philosophy since his day) we cannot find our personality when we look for it, we only find our own minds (perceptions, memories, and so on). Hume was technically correct. His mistake was concluding that therefore, there was nothing there. Hume also derided being. He is one of those philosophers who simply does not believe mind might have “blindspots”, a philosophical hubris shared by many philosophers down to the present day.
But the blindspot that makes personality invisible is not the same as the one obscuring being though the principle underlying both is the same. You cannot analyze that which you do not ‘transcend’ is the sense of “rising above” or in some sense being “distinct from”. We cannot evaluate being because everything in the universe, including mind, takes part in it equally. It might as well not be there because it, should it even be real, is a common denominator of all mind-dependent and mind-independent reality. By contrast, we cannot evaluate personality because we are it and we cannot distinguish ourselves from ourselves. But unlike being, personality must exist because it is that in our experience which is partially distinct from mind and thereby provides for the possibility of self-evaluation of mind. It is only “partially distinct” because it exists in some sense in and expresses only through mind. No matter what we, as agents, experience or choose we experience and choose in mind. This partial transcendence explains why a first person analysis of mind always ends in philosophically slippery speculations that are not ever definitively closed. Unlike lions, we are reflexively aware of mind, but because we are “personalized minds” we cannot distinguish the personal from mind as such.
I have written much more on the subject of personality and its relation to mind in other essays. See “Why Personality”, “Why Free Will”, and “Physics and the Evidence for Non-Material Consciousness” among others. My point of raising it here has only to do with why it is that humans, persons have any epistemological purchase on being at all. As I have already noted, this purchase is something of a negative quality. We experience a hole, an empty place in our examination of experience and unlike personality, we cannot ever know if that emptiness represents anything positive that belongs in our ontology.