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In philosophy, being means the existence of a thing. Anything that exists is being. Ontology is the branch of philosophy that studies being. Being is a concept encompassing objective and subjective features of reality and existence. Anything that partakes in being is also called a “being”, though often this usage is limited to entities that have subjectivity (as in the expression “human being”). The notion of “being” has, inevitably, been elusive and controversial in the history of philosophy, beginning in Western philosophy with attempts among the pre-Socratics to deploy it intelligibly. The first effort to recognize and define the concept came from Parmenides, who famously said of it that “what is-is”. Common words such as “is”, “are”, and “am” refer directly or indirectly to being.

As an example of efforts in recent times, Martin Heidegger (who himself drew on ancient Greek sources) adopted after German terms like Dasein to articulate the topic. Several modern approaches build on such continental European exemplars as Heidegger, and apply metaphysical results to the understanding of human psychology and the human condition generally (notably in the Existentialist tradition). By contrast, in mainstream Analytical philosophy the topic is more confined to abstract investigation, in the work of such influential theorists as W. V. O. Quine, to name one of many. One of the most fundamental questions that has been contemplated in various cultures and traditions (e.g., Native American) and continues to exercise philosophers is articulated thus by William James: “How comes the world to be here at all instead of the nonentity which might be imagined in its place? … from nothing to being there is no logical bridge.”

The deficit of such a bridge was first encountered in history by the Pre-Socratic philosophers during the process of evolving a classification of all beings (noun). Aristotle, who wrote after the Pre-Socratics, applies the term category (perhaps not originally) to ten highest-level classes. They comprise one category of substance (ousiae) existing independently (man, tree) and nine categories of accidents, which can only exist in something else (time, place). In Aristotle, substances are to be clarified by stating their definition: a note expressing a larger class (the genus) followed by further notes expressing specific differences (differentiae) within the class. The substance so defined was a species. For example, the species, man, may be defined as an animal (genus) that is rational (difference). As the difference is potential within the genus; that is, an animal may or may not be rational, the difference is not identical to, and may be distinct from, the genus.

Applied to being, the system fails to arrive at a definition for the simple reason that no difference can be found. The species, the genus, and the difference are all equally being: a being is a being that is being. The genus cannot be nothing because nothing is not a class of everything. The trivial solution that being is being added to nothing is only a tautology: being is being. There is no simpler intermediary between being and non-being that explains and classifies being.

Pre-Socratic reaction to this deficit was varied. As substance theorists they accepted a priori the hypothesis that appearances are deceiving, that reality is to be reached through reasoning. Parmenides reasoned that if everything is identical to being and being is a category of the same thing then there can be neither differences between things nor any change. To be different, or to change, would amount to becoming or being non-being; that is, not existing. Therefore, being is a homogeneous and non-differentiated sphere and the appearance of beings is illusory. Heraclitus, on the other hand, foreshadowed modern thought by denying existence. Reality does not exist, it flows, and beings are an illusion upon the flow.

Aristotle knew of this tradition when he began his Metaphysics, and had already drawn his own conclusion, which he presented under the guise of asking what being is:[5]

“And indeed the question which was raised of old is raised now and always, and is always the subject of doubt, viz., what being is, is just the question, what is substance? For it is this that some assert to be one, others more than one, and that some assert to be limited in number, others unlimited. And so we also must consider chiefly and primarily and almost exclusively what that is which is in this sense.”

and reiterates in no uncertain terms: “Nothing, then, which is not a species of a genus will have an essence – only species will have it ….”. Being, however, for Aristotle, is not a genus.

One might expect a solution to follow from such certain language but none does. Instead Aristotle launches into a rephrasing of the problem, the Theory of Act and Potency. In the definition of man as a two-legged animal Aristotle presumes that “two-legged” and “animal” are parts of other beings, but as far as man is concerned, are only potentially man. At the point where they are united into a single being, man, the being, becomes actual, or real. Unity is the basis of actuality: “… ‘being’ is being combined and one, and ‘not being’ is being not combined but more than one.” Actuality has taken the place of existence, but Aristotle is no longer seeking to know what the actual is; he accepts it without question as something generated from the potential. He has found a “half-being” or a “pre-being”, the potency, which is fully being as part of some other substance. Substances, in Aristotle, unite what they actually are now with everything they might become.

Some of Thomas Aquinas’ propositions were reputedly condemned by Étienne Tempier, the local Bishop of Paris (not the Papal Magisterium itself) in 1270 and 1277, but his dedication to the use of philosophy to elucidate theology was so thorough that he was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1568. Those who adopt it are called Thomists.

In a single sentence, parallel to Aristotle’s statement asserting that being is substance, St. Thomas pushes away from the Aristotelian doctrine: “Being is not a genus, since it is not predicated univocally but only analogically.” His term for analogy is Latin analogia. In the categorical classification of all beings, all substances are partly the same: man and chimpanzee are both animals and the animal part in man is “the same” as the animal part in chimpanzee. Most fundamentally all substances are matter, a theme taken up by science, which postulated one or more matters, such as earth, air, fire or water (Empedocles). In today’s chemistry the carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen in a chimpanzee are identical to the same elements in a man.

The original text reads, “Although equivocal predications must be reduced to univocal, still in actions, the non-univocal agent must precede the univocal agent. For the non-univocal agent is the universal cause of the whole species, as for instance the sun is the cause of the generation of all men; whereas the univocal agent is not the universal efficient cause of the whole species (otherwise it would be the cause of itself, since it is contained in the species), but is a particular cause of this individual which it places under the species by way of participation. Therefore the universal cause of the whole species is not an univocal agent; and the universal cause comes before the particular cause. But this universal agent, whilst it is not univocal, nevertheless is not altogether equivocal, otherwise it could not produce its own likeness, but rather it is to be called an analogical agent, as all univocal predications are reduced to one first non-univocal analogical predication, which is being.”

If substance is the highest category and there is no substance, being, then the unity perceived in all beings by virtue of their existing must be viewed in another way. St. Thomas chose the analogy: all beings are like, or analogous to, each other in existing. This comparison is the basis of his Analogy of Being. The analogy is said of being in many different ways, but the key to it is the real distinction between existence and essence. Existence is the principle that gives reality to an essence not the same in any way as the existence: “If things having essences are real, and it is not of their essence to be, then the reality of these things must be found in some principle other than (really distinct from) their essence.” Substance can be real or not. What makes an individual substance – a man, a tree, a planet – real is a distinct act, a “to be”, which actuates its unity. An analogy of proportion is therefore possible: “essence is related to existence as potency is related to act.”

Existences are not things; they do not themselves exist, they lend themselves to essences, which do not intrinsically have them. They have no nature; an existence receives its nature from the essence it actuates. Existence is not being; it gives being – here a customary phrase is used, existence is a principle (a source) of being, not a previous source, but one which is continually in effect. The stage is set for the concept of God as the cause of all existence, who, as the Almighty, holds everything actual without reason or explanation as an act purely of will.

Aristotle’s classificatory scheme had included the five predicables, or characteristics that might be predicated of a substance. One of these was the property, an essential universal true of the species, but not in the definition (in modern terms, some examples would be grammatical language, a property of man, or a spectral pattern characteristic of an element, both of which are defined in other ways). Pointing out that predicables are predicated univocally of substances; that is, they refer to “the same thing” found in each instance, St. Thomas argued that whatever can be said about being is not univocal, because all beings are unique, each actuated by a unique existence. It is the analogous possession of an existence that allows them to be identified as being; therefore, being is an analogous predication.

Whatever can be predicated of all things is universal-like but not universal, category-like but not a category. St. Thomas called them (perhaps not originally) the transcendentia, “transcendentals”, because they “climb above” the categories, just as being climbs above substance. Later academics also referred to them as “the properties of being.” The number is generally three or four.


The Essential Dialectic of Being is:

{Ground-of-Being ⇆ Being-of-Beings ⇅ Infinite-Being} ↻ Dasein


The Intermediary Dialectic of Being is:

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The Complete Dialectic of Being is:

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