23. Being and its Discontents

In one of the first posts during my initial writing challenge, I made a sort of leap between the indubitability of our being, the fact that we can’t doubt our own existence, to talking about Being with-a-capital-B.  Fearing that this leap might seem illegitimate to some, this post is intended to justify that leap, rather to show it’s not a leap at all.  I’m leaning heavily on an argument from Bonaventure’s The Journey of the Mind to God here, and the secondary purpose of the post is to help myself better understand the argument he makes there.  We’re wrangling with some tough concepts, but I’m going to try and be as clear as possible.  Fair warning, I might just end up stumbling around and tripping over myself in the process.

Starting with the basics, we can’t doubt that something exists, because the very act of doubt requires something that is doing the doubting, namely ourselves.  Cogito ergo sum, and all that. I’d push Descartes further and suggest that we can’t really doubt the existence of a world outside ourselves, as our encounter with that world is primary, with doubt being a sort of secondary movement away from it.  In other words, we have to encounter some experience before we doubt it. 

Things, therefore, exist.  There are beings, and these beings can be the object of thought.  Said simply, we can think about stuff that exists.  More, we can think about things in a number of ways, we can think about things that don’t exist, we can think about things that might exist, and we can think about things that actually exist.  Concrete examples: we can think about a table that does not exist, we can think about a table that I might construct out of some wood, or we can think about the table that’s currently sitting in my dining room. 

This gives us three broad categories of conceptualizable beings: non-beings (non-existent tables), potential beings (the table which I might built from my stack of wood), and actual beings (the table that really and truly sits in my dining room). 

We quickly notice that the former two categories don’t actually exist.  There is no non-existent table, by definition, and my heap of wood is not a table yet.  It’s simply wood, though it could potentially be a table with the requisite sawing and hammering. 

But how can we know something if it doesn’t exist?  We know it through what actually exists.  This is easiest to see in the case of the unmade table.  Asked to explain it, we can simply point to the wood and then to the table in my dining room and say, “like that,” pointing to the table, “but made out of that,” pointing to the wood.  Potential being is, therefore, known through actual being.  Another example that may help here is a seed.  An acorn is potentially a tree.  How do we know the potential tree?  By reference to the actual existing acorn and an actually existing nearby oak. 

The case of non-being is a little trickier.  Here, I’d like to retreat a step and think about pure non-being, complete nothingness.  Nothing cannot exist.  After all, if it did, it’d be something and not nothing.  So, how do we conceive of nothingness?  By conceiving of existence and saying, “not that,” through negating existence. In the case of the table, what distinguishes the non-existent table from the actual table?  That it lacks existence. The conclusion here is that non-existence is only intelligible through existence.

Existence, though, seems to be the opposite.  It must be present, actual, by definition.  Just as nothing cannot exist, existence must exist.  The very idea of existence itself, Being with that infamous capital B, entails its existence, just as the very idea of complete nothingness, entails its nonexistence.  Being must exist and, more, must be present in our minds insofar as we are able to know any thing at all, because it is this quality (perhaps the wrong word), that must be present in order for us to know things in any capacity. 

Being is, therefore, the “that which first falls into the intellect,” it is from the recognition of the existence of a thing that we can begin to think about it, or, by contrast, from a recognition of its non-existence, which is dependent on a conception of existence already present within the mind. 

Thus, the encounter with any being-winding back with the indubitable fact of your own existence-not only leads us to a consideration, if only implicit, of Being but presupposes the presence of being.  Intuition of Being, therefore, precedes any encounter with beings. 

But wait, there’s more!  Because it seems like every being is characterized by a mix of potential and actuality.  The heap of wood is potentially a table, but the table in my dining room is potentially a heap of wood, were I to get overzealous in my hammering.  And it seems that the same is true of all particular beings, all things (not that they all potentially be tables or heaps of wood, but that they are all mixes of potential and actual).

So, Being itself cannot be any particular being, because it can’t, by definition, contain any aspect of potential/non-being.  It can’t lack anything.  It must be perfect. 

And therefore, it must be…


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