Friday, October 19, 2007

Autumn, Week 4 Meeting

At Thursday's meeting, we covered a lot of ground, but also went very quickly. Unfortunately, that will probably be the norm for a two-hour, bi-weekly meeting about a lot of difficult text. But the blog is a place to continue the discussion and ask new questions that you didn't get to ask at the meeting, or that have occurred to you since the meeting.

We talked about:

1. The difference between entities (das Seiendes, the things that are) and being (das Sein, that in virtue of which they are as they are, that on the basis of which we understand entities as entities), and why being is not an entity (§2, §3).

2. The difference between ontic inquiry (which asks questions about entities, usually particular ones, e.g., the sciences) and ontological inquiry (which asks questions about the being of those entities) (§3). We further distinguished between regional ontology (which works out the basic concepts of being for entities of a particular sort, for instance, what it means to be a natural entity, or a physical one, or a historical one), on the one hand, and on the other hand, fundamental ontology (which works out the basic concepts of being for any entity whatsoever, asks what it means to be, in general).

We considered several answers to the question, 'What is the relationship between ontological claims and ontic ones?'. We suggested that ontological claims and concepts might have some sort of foundational relationship to ontic claims, grounding them in some way or other (which we didn't work out much further). We also suggested that the ontological claims answer a 'how possible?' question with regard to the ontic claims, explaining how it's possible to be, say, a physical entity, by giving the conceptual framework in terms of which our claims about physical entities are intelligible, make sense to us. We also wondered whether our discoveries at the ontological level, including, but not limited to, conceptual change brought about in a scientific revolution, might influence and change the claims we make on the ontic level, or whether, by contrast, the work we do to clarify and make explicit our ontological concepts is for the sole purpose of bringing us to understand our ontic claims better, even though we already do understand them to some degree (since, for instance, we can do physics, even if we might not have a completely worked out account of the being of physical entities).

This question was left hanging somewhat open, along with a corresponding question about the relationship between claims of fundamental ontology and claims of regional ontology. Is there a similar relationship of founding, making possible or intelligible, influencing or clarifying, between our claims about being in general and our claims about being an entity in a particular region of being?

3. The being question as a question not about semantics, but about what makes the difference between something that is and something that is not – that is, about what is going on when we relate to an entity as something that is. We also discussed (and, to a certain extent, experienced) the being question as a question that needs to be reawakened (Preface, §1).

4. The three dogmas about being – universality, indefinability, self-evidence (§1). These are theses that Heidegger points out to motivate his project of reawakening the question of being. We pointed out that the first two theses are connected, since the universality and indefinability of the notion of being both have to do with the fact that being (according to Heidegger) doesn't admit of analysis or determination by way of a genus and specific difference. Several people asked and tried to answer the difficult question why being is not a genus, a question also posed as, 'Why is being not a property?'. It was difficult to find a knock-down explanation, so this issue was also left somewhat open. We considered that for Aristotle, there are senses of being that have nothing to do with a genus/specific difference analysis, such as being possible vs. actual, being true vs. false, and being essential vs. accidental. If we agree that all these distinctions have something to do with being, then we might feel a philosophical urge to work out an account of what they all have in common with regard to the notion of being in general, as a whole. The issue of genus and specific difference, by contrast, only applies to the sense of being expressed by our use of categories such as number, color, human, quantity, quality, etc. Again, this discussion was interesting and provocative, but left inconclusive in the interest of time.

5. The formal structure of the being question – what is asked about, what is to be found out, that which is to be interrogated, as well as the fact that our seeking is guided beforehand by what is sought (the pre-ontological understanding of being) (§2). We mentioned Heidegger's claim that we ask the question about the meaning of being from within some everyday, pre-ontological way that we already understand what it means to be; in this sense, the question of being is "guided beforehand by what is sought." We made an analogy between a police investigation and the investigation into the meaning of being, in that both can be understood as asking about something, interrogating something and asking after something it seeks to find out. We found places in the text where Heidegger fills out each of those formal aspects for his own investigation into being: What it asks about is being (the being of entities, that in terms of which they are already understood and determined as they entities they are); what it interrogates are entities (especially, some people presaged, the entity called 'dasein,' which we did not discuss much in our meeting); what it asks after and seeks to find out is the meaning of being (we are looking for something that seems to count as a meaning, and for something that shows up in a special way, distinct from the way that entities show up, since – one of the points Heidegger is most adamant about – being is not an entity).

6. We did not discuss the reason that dasein has an ontical, ontological and 'ontico-ontological' priority with respect to the question of being, why dasein is the specific entity we interrogate first when we seek to clarify the meaning of being. That is, we did not discuss why fundamental ontology proceeds through the existential analytic (analysis of existence) (§4). We also did not talk about what dasein is, although this can be vexing and will probably be a live issue throughout the reading group. We also did not distinguish 'existentiell' and 'existential,' nor explain what it means to say that dasein's way of being is 'existence'.

* * *

Anyone is free to ask about or try to give a take on any of the issues left unresolved at the meeting. You can do this through the comments link below. We encourage you to continue discussion with each other outside our meetings on campus, especially through this blog. The best way to make sense of a text, beyond oral discussion, is to write something about it, whether that's by attempting to give an explanation of a term, claim or problem from the text, or simply writing about what confuses you or what doesn't make sense in the text or discussion. We have posted the blog in hopes of encouraging writing about, and thereby developing and refining, our ideas.

(Finally, note that we are changing rooms next meeting. We'll meet from 5:00-7:00 on November 1st in Cobb 102.)


nate said...

I found a brief quote from this site which gives Kant's and Russell's objection to thinking of being as a property or predicate, in the context of refuting ontological arguments for the existence of God:

"Perhaps the most highly regarded objection to the ontological argument was stated formally by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and made formally rigorous by Bertrand Russell (1872 - 1970). The objection holds that 'existence' or 'being' is not a property that can be attributed to objects. Rather, in order for an object to take a property, it must already exist. Here is Kant's explanation in Critique of Pure Reason:

'Being' is obviously not a real predicate; that is, it is not a concept of something which could be added to the concept of a thing. It is merely the positing of a thing, or of certain determinations, as existing in themselves. Logically, it is merely the copula of a judgment. [. . .]

If, now, we take the subject (God) with all its predicates (among which is omnipotence), and say 'God is', or 'There is a God', we attach no new predicate to the concept of God, but only posit the subject itself with all its predicates, and indeed posit it as being an object that stands in relation to my concept. The content of both must be one and the same; nothing can have been added to the concept, which expresses merely what is merely possible, by my thinking its object (through the expression 'it is') as given absolutely. Otherwise stated, the real contains no more than the merely possible. [. . .]

By whatever and by however many predicates we may think a thing - even if we completely determine it - we do not make the least addition to the thing when we further declare that this thing is. Otherwise, it would not be exactly the same thing that exists, but something more than we had thought in the concept; and we could not, therefore, say that the exact object of my concept exists. If we think in a thing every feature of reality except one, the missing reality is not added by my saying that this defective thing exists. On the contrary, it exists with the same defect with which I have thought it, since otherwise what exists would be something different from what I thought. When, therefore, I think a being as the supreme reality, without any defect, the question still remains whether it exists or not.

One way to think of 'existence' on the Kant/Russell picture, existence is what an object must have in order to have property. For example, a dog is brown, the table is flat, - in order to have properties, the objects must exist. Existence, however, is not a real predicate in the sense that it is like some quality things have like being brown or hard. Kant's view that existence is not property comes out in Russell's view, which holds that for any object X, when someone predicates a property of X, it means: 'There exists some X such that X has the property of such and such.' Now, on Russell's view consider what is would mean for X to have the property of existence: 'There exists some X such that X exists.' On this account, the property of existence is wholly superfluous. To predicate existence of something says nothing interesting since the very notion of existence is presupposed in the definition.

How does this problem plague the ontological argument? In Anselm's argument and the arguments given in Descartes's fifth Meditation, the analysis of the definition of God maintains that God must exist because God necessarily exists or because God's essence is existence. The trouble here is that 'being' or "existence" must be attributed to God as a property. But if Kant and Russell are correct, then existence cannot be a property (at least, not without already presupposing that the thing exists). As Kant and Russell see it, the ontological argument does not prove God exists; rather, it assumes that God exists. "

John Wisdom, A.J. Ayer, and C.D. Broad have also all given the objection that treating existence as a predicate leads to two kinds of absurdity: (1) "Affirmative instantials" (sentences expressing that something exists) become tautologous, for instance, 'Horses exist' would then just say 'If there exists anything which is a horse, then it exists'; and (2) "Negative instantials" (sentences expressing that something does not exist) become self-contradictory, for instance, 'Dragons do not exist' would then just say 'If there exists anything that is a dragon, then it does not exist' (I got this from this paper on JSTOR).

This objections arises from understanding existence as what's expressed through the existential quantifier, on the logical analysis of our use of language: '(∃x)(Fx)' means 'x is F' but also implies that x exists.

Daniel said...

This is interesting and I am wondering what is the relation between the inability to posit 'being' as a predicate of something and our discussion on genus/species. Mainly, by virtue of what does a species take part of its genus and how does this specifically differ for some entity taking part in being? When I say 'taking part' I think I mean (and vaguely so since I have a pretty bad headache from trying to think up an example) that a particular species can have its genus predicated of it as sharing in that property,i.e., researching ancient texts has the property of historical research or sexing fruit flies has the property of biology. These examples seem to point to the fact that it seems rather odd to posit a genus as property just as it seems to be difficult to posit 'being' as a property. Being or any particular genus each seem to be shared by their various subspecies in multifarious ways such that there is no uniform property one can say each subspecies has by virtue of their being under a particular genus or the property 'being'. So, I feel that, though it helps to illuminate the issue a bit, the answer that being cannot be a property because everything that is said to take part in it, shares in it differently, is not a satisfactory answer. This is because the same thing can be said about genus. I don't know if the explanation of why being cannot be a property that Nate posted does the trick either. If I say something like: 'there is an x such that x is a physical theory and has the property physics' then how has what I said any different from saying: 'there is an x such that x exists'? If it is the case that a particular species cannot be said to take part in its genus in a way that is uniform or correlates to the various others species, then how is the relationship between genus/species any different from being and existing things?

Kate said...

Let me expand on Nate's post a little bit, in a different vocabulary which some of you might find helpful. The issue is whether being is a genus. Let's think about this very slowly, from the beginning.

A genus is a way of grouping entities based on some shared property. This way of thinking about entities comes out of traditional metaphysics, in which entities are conceived as substances (ousia) that have properties (or accidents). Substances and properties differ insofar as substances are conceivable independently of their properties (even if they never occur without properties), whereas properties are essentially dependent on that of which they are a property, namely the substance. (Thus 'this table' is a substance because it is in some sense independent of its colour, shape, height, weight etc), whereas 'brown' is a property because it must always be the brown of something). Now, we can group substances in terms of which properties they have, and such a grouping is a genus (or species). A genus is a grouping of substances which picks them out by some property that they all have in common. It can be understood as that common property (eg. 'mammal').

Let me leave aside the issue of whether being is common, in the sense that it applies to all entities in the same way. Let me address the question of whether it is a genus. If being is a genus, then it is a genus that picks out all the things that are, all the things that have the property of being. This picture assumes that being can be a property. We have seen that to be a property is to be an accident of a substance, something that a substance has. So if being is a property (genus), then it is something that entities have. There are entities that have the property of being.

But wait – what is this, 'there are entities that have the property …'? In saying that there are entities with this property, we have already supposed that entities are, even before we have gotten around to attributing the property of being to them. In other words, if we are to say that being is a property, then we have to first appeal to things that are – and so to being – in order to be talking about something that can have a property in the first place.

This happens because a property is something that inheres in a substance (or, in reverse, something that a substance participates in). To have a property, something must first be a substance, and be so independently of its properties. So to have any property – including being – entities must first be, and be independently of this property. This shows that being is something that entities have prior to having any properties, since it is that which first makes them the kinds of things that can have properties. Thus being cannot be a property. If it were, then there couldn’t be anything to which we could attribute it. So if we think of being as a property, then we are too late in the story to grasp the being of entities.

This is a different way of making Nate's point about the existential quantifier / being is not a real predicate. To say that something has the property of existence is to say, 'there is something that is'. This doesn't say anything because we have already posited the entity as something that is ('there is something…') before – and independently of – our attribution of the 'is' ('…that is'). This is the same as saying that something must first be a substance before it can have a property. Thus being cannot be a property.

Further, treating being as a property looks to me like forgetting the question of being. If being is just a property like any other, then it looks as if we don't need to say anything more about it. Even if we notice that we are not saying anything when we treat being as a property ('there is something that is'), we can just conclude from this that being is an 'empty' predicate. Heidegger wants to show us that we should instead by noticing, questioning and thinking about the very first 'there is' ('there is something') which precedes any attribution of properties. In other words: if a substance with its property or predicate can be represented as 'S is P' ('the sofa is purple'), then if we want to ask about being we shouldn't be looking at the 'P'. We should be looking at the 'S' and the 'is'. Otherwise we come too late for being and miss it entirely.

(Note that Heidegger does not consider entities to be substances. I have had to run the two vocabularies together because the concepts of genus and property come from a substance metaphysics. That being (the 'is' in 'S is P') is overlooked in substance metaphysics is the reason that Heidegger has to break out of it, which accounts in large part for the originality and difficulty of his thought).

In sum: anything that has a property must have its being independently of this property. (This is just what it means to talk about properties, and by extension, genera). Hence being – that by virtue of which entities are in the first place – cannot be a property. So it cannot be a genus.

The next issue is whether a genus can be understood in terms of properties. Thus Daniel asks whether 'sexing fruit flies' has the property of '(being) biology'. Sexing fruit flies is biology – it counts as biology or is an instance of biology. Let us say that biology is 'a human endeavour undertaken by suitably trained persons using accepted scientific method that seeks to understand the structures and mechanisms of living things' (or whatever). Does sexing fruit flies have the property of being 'a human endeavour undertaken by suitably trained persons using accepted scientific method that seeks to understand the structures and mechanisms of living things'? I think so. If it doesn't, then it doesn't count as biology. I suspect that the weirdness of thinking of biology as a property is a product of the fact that we usually talk about properties in the context of substances, and talk about genera and species in the context of natural entities.

It is different with being. The reason – and the reason that being is unique – is that being comes first, before any attribution of properties, as its condition of possibility. Being is the ground of everything that is; it is that which makes something be in the first place rather than not. This means that to say that something 'is' is importantly different from saying anything else about it (ie. attributing properties). Heidegger is trying to get us to grasp that being is unlike other concepts and that we don't really know how to think about it, even if we manage to use it well enough every day. He wants us to be perplexed by this.

(Sorry for the long post!)

nate said...

If you're using a computer hooked up to the UChicago network, you should be able to access the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy online. Mark Okrent (who writes on Heidegger) wrote an entry on being which you might find worth reading; check it out here.