THE REMARKABLE CATEGORY OF BEING

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“Being” is, on the face of it, a very odd category indeed. In order for people to get along in life they need to be able to identify things like chairs, people, light switches, friendships, political institutions, and harmful objects. They also need to have a great deal of basic knowledge about these things, if they are going to survive and flourish. But it seems extremely odd to say that they need to identify and have knowledge of “Being.” And yet this is what metaphysics defines as our most noble philosophic task.

We have been suggesting that Being, like every other basic philosophic concept, is a human category, the very articulation of which depends on a cluster of common folk theories and conceptual metaphors. Being, regarded as the fundamental ontological category, emerged historically, as we have seen, in pre-Socratic philosophy and was given an elaborate articulation and refinement in Plato and Aristotle. We have argued that Aristotle was able to create the field of metaphysics only by adopting and adapting these shared folk theories and metaphors. The logic of Plato’s and Aristotle’s doctrines of Being, and indeed their entire philosophic positions, are significantly based on metaphorical concepts and are made possible by folk theoretical assumptions.

Many of these folk theories and conceptual metaphors are so deeply rooted in our Western philosophical tradition that they may seem to us not to be folk theories or metaphors at all. Many people, for instance, take it as a self-evident metaphysical fact that things consist of matter organized by form, or that everything has an essence that makes it the kind of thing it is, or that reality is organized in a hierarchy of categories, with the category of everything that exists at the top.

Many people think it obvious that the world must consist of basic substances that underlie the properties we experience. But there is nothing ontologically absolute about either the form/matter distinction or the idea of substance/attribute metaphysics. Many philosophers, such as Merleau-Ponty, Dewey, Whitehead, and, more recently, Rorty, have shown that the form/matter model is only one possible way of understanding things, and a mostly distorting way at that. Likewise, the idea that substance must be the ontologically basic entity is today almost totally discredited by a large number of philosophical traditions.

Nevertheless, the quest for Being goes on, and it is still regarded in many quarters as the ultimate philosophical project. The metaphysical impulse remains strong because the metaphors and folk theories defining it are so deeply embedded in our shared cultural understandings. As long as we believe that the world consists of general kinds of things defined by essences, that essences are the source of all natural behavior, that the world is intelligible, and that there is an all-inclusive category also defined by an essence, we will continue the search for Being.

The search for Being is for many people the search for God. The issues surrounding the quest for Being have always been at the center of Western theology and are still there today. God is widely regarded by theologians and laypeople alike as the ultimate causal source and sustainer of all that is, as the ultimate source of all that is good, as present in every existing thing, as having a plan that gives purpose to the world and meaning to human beings, and as being not merely all-powerful but also all-knowing. Most of these are the properties of Plato’s Idea of the Good, that is, of the essence of essence. This is no accident. Most of the medieval conceptions of, and arguments for, the existence of God stem directly from Greek metaphysics, partly from Plato’s Idea of the Good, but especially from Aristotelian views of causation and change.

The forms of thought that we saw as emerging in the pre-Socratics and finding their most sophisticated expression in Plato and Aristotle are thus anything but quaint and archaic. They exist not only in contemporary philosophy and theology, but they lie at the heart of Western science. The Folk Theory of the Intelligibility of the World is a precondition for any form of rational inquiry. The Folk Theory of General Kinds is required in order to state any generalizations at all. Otherwise, all knowledge would be utterly specific and could never be projected to new cases. The Folk Theory of Essences is commonplace in virtually every science, because science is always looking for the properties of things that make them what they are and explain their behavior. The Folk Theory of the All-Inclusive Category is present in every mode of scientific explanation that seeks ever more comprehensive explanations to cover ever greater ranges of phenomena, for example, theories of everything in physics and theories of life in biology.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the flesh : the embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought.

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