The Question of Being

When I began my thesis, I started with the naive assumption that most people knew what was meant by Heidegger’s ‘question of the meaning of Being’. Indeed, I thought I knew. The first two years were a systematic exercise in uncovering just how much others, and myself, had taken for granted that we understand what this question is, and simply proceeded to talk about other things, be it the specifics of Heidegger’s own philosophy or the relative merits of other attempts to answer this question.

There is a horrible irony in this. Heidegger raised the question of the meaning of Being in response to the fact that although we think we know what we mean by ‘being’, when pressed we are unable to say what it is precisely that we mean. Moreover, he showed that the fact that we did not see this as itself problematic indicated a historical trend of the forgetting of Being, perpetrated largely by metaphysics. Many of the thinkers who come after Heidegger acknowledge Heidegger’s diagnosis, and they go on to talk about Being in a properly theoretical register, but I get the sense that if they are pressed they are equally unable to say what it is they mean. Being thus becomes an almost empty concept in much philosophical discussion, used in a haphazard way that hinders real attempts at understanding and obfuscates its philosophical import. If anything, this is a worse forgetting of the issue than that perpetrated by metaphysics itself, because we have moved from mistakenly thinking that we know what ‘being’ means in a pre-theoretical way to mistakenly thinking we know what it means in a properly theoretical way. The former is a matter of familiarity while the latter is a matter of hubris.

Obviously, I’m not claiming that all post-Heideggerian thinkers are prone to this misunderstanding. However, I do think that much Heidegger scholarship, and some post-Heideggerian philosophical projects are simply not rigorous enough in delineating what they mean when they talk about Being or the question of Being. In this post I want to try and undo some of the obfuscation this causes by laying out what I take the question of the meaning of Being (or simply the question of Being) to be. Hopefully, this should also illuminate some things I have said elsewhere about the nature of ontology and its relationship to metaphysics (especially here).

One final warning: this post is very abstract. Such is the peril of thinking about Being. If you don’t want to deal with such heavy abstraction, my advice is to think about beings. This post is also very long, pushing 7,000 words this time. I thank anyone who takes the time to read the whole thing in advance, although it need not be consumed in one sitting.

1. The Manifold Senses of Being

I have elsewhere described the question of Being as asking after the unity of the different ways in which ‘being’ is said. Heidegger identifies this fact through his analysis of the origin of the question in Aristotle’s work. This is not to say that there was no concern with Being prior to Aristotle, but that the posing of the question proper can be traced to Aristotle’s work, in his problematization of the unity of the four different senses of ‘being’ that he had uncovered: accidental being, potential and actual being, the being of the categories, and being-true. What I have also mentioned is that despite identifying the question in this way, Heidegger does not directly set out to formulate it and answer it in these terms. Heidegger does at times put forward various senses of ‘being’ (which are quite different from Aristotle’s) but he never does give an exhaustive list which he intends to unify, or a strategy for how to unify them. This suggests that there is some different, more direct purchase that can be had on the nature of the question.

In briefly describing my own attempt to reformulate Heidegger’s question, I have mentioned my own breakdown of what I take to be the pertinent senses of ‘being’: existence, identity, predication, essence, reality (a recent addition) and ‘what is’ or ‘what is the case’ (for which I have no catchier name). I do indeed see the question as a matter of uncovering the structure which unifies these various notions, not by merely analysing the way we relate them (as in the explication of our pre-ontological understanding of Being) but by uncovering the underlying unifying structure of Being as it is in itself.

However, specifying my project solely in this way leaves me open to two serious questions, one which follows from the other:-

1) What is it about these different notions (identity, predication, existence, truth, etc.) that unites them over an above the fact that they can be referred to through the use of some variant of the word ‘being’ (e.g., a is b, a is F, a is, p is the case, etc.)?

Surely it could be contingent that all of these different notions used the same word (i.e., ‘being’ could be polysemic). There have even been attempts to perform a linguistic dissociation of them, such as the artificial language e-prime. If there is some reason for taking these to all be senses of ‘being’ proper, independent of the fact that they share the same word, then this reason is precisely what would lead us to choose this set of senses over another (say, Aristotle’s). To rephrase the initial question then: if the fact that all of these senses share a word (‘being’) in common points to something deeper, what is it?

2) If there is some deeper reason which unites all of these senses as senses of ‘being’ proper, then why not proceed by questioning after it than starting with this manifold of senses?

There is an obvious retort to this that I think many would be tempted to reach for, namely, that asking what the deeper connection between these different notions just is asking the question of the underlying structure which unites them, i.e., asking the question of the meaning of Being. This retort implies that all one does in raising these questions is restate the problem itself. I think this retort is at best misguided and at worst positively shallow. This is because the kind of unity that we are looking for in showing that this manifold of senses (or any other proposed manifold of senses) is not simply polysemic, is a formal unity, whereas what we are looking for in finding the structure which unifies these different senses as aspects of Being itself is a properly ontological unity. Indeed, it is the ontological unity par excellence. To put this in a different way, the former is a question about our pre-ontological understanding of Being, whereas the latter is a question about Being itself.

We must therefore take both of these questions seriously. I take it that the latter question indicates something correct, namely, that there is a more originary way of posing the question of the meaning of Being than as the question of the unity of the different ways in which ‘being’ is said. However, this does not mean that the latter way of posing the question is false, just that it flows from a more originary posing of the question.

2. Heideggerian Insights

Can we find this more originary posing of the problem in Heidegger? Yes and no. There would not have been the problems in the uptake of Heidegger’s philosophy I have claimed there are (and I would not therefore be writing this post) if Heidegger had ever succeeded in providing such a simple and originary formulation of the question. However, he does think around the area in a very rigorous fashion, and I believe his insights provide us with the resources to formulate it in a way he himself was unable to.

Firstly, we can garner from Heidegger what the question is not:-

1) The question is not ‘What is Being?’ as the ‘is’ in this question is something we can only understand properly through understanding Being properly. To put it a better way, although our pre-ontological grasp of the ‘is’ of essence seems adequate for dealing with ordinary ‘What is…?’ questions, the question ‘What is Being?’ is most certainly not an ordinary question of essence (we could rephrase this question as ‘What is the essence of Being?’). The only way to determine whether it even makes sense to talk of Being in these terms (i.e., in terms of essence) is to understand Being itself. This produces a terrible reflexivity in the question which prevents it from ever getting off of the ground. In principle there could be a consistent answer to it, which both gave the essence of Being and also gave the sense in which Being has an essence, but their is no way to proceed consistently in asking the question.

2) The question is not a question of meaning as opposed to a question of truth. I won’t say much here, but, as the above considerations indicate, we are not simply asking what we contingently happen to mean by some word ‘being’, as if a different society or culture would find a different answer to the question than us. The question is concerned with Being as it is in itself.

3) The question is not the primary question of metaphysics: ‘What are beings?’, ‘What is existence?’, ‘What is the essence of existence?’, or even ‘What is beingness?’. This indicates that Being and existence are not the same. (I’ve written more about this difference and the question of metaphysics here and here.)

Secondly, there is also a further question that, although no one has been tempted to equate it with the question of Being, Heidegger nonetheless takes to be related to it in an interesting way: ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’, or ‘Why are there beings rather than nothing?’. We need not veer off into Heidegger’s elaborate discussion of ‘Nothing’ in order to agree that there is indeed something interesting here. Heidegger takes it that this is an exemplary metaphysical question, and that, perhaps even moreso than the primary question of metaphysics, it thinks Being, if only in an indirect way. If we pull on this thread, then I think we will find it leads toward the more originary formulation of the question of the meaning of Being.

3. Why not Nothing?

What is it about this exemplary metaphysical question which touches on Being? I think the best way to articulate this is to begin with precisely the kind of quantificational terms that Heidegger would find so distasteful. In these terms, there is nothing logically special about there being no beings. If we have a box, and we ask how many balls are in the box, there is nothing paradoxical about the answer ‘none’. Put in more properly logical terms, the box is like a domain over which we quantify, and the balls are objects within that domain. Now, we can quantify over a restricted domain, for example, the domain of numbers, the domain of rational numbers, or even just the domain of objects in this box. The interesting issues appear when we scale this up to quantify over all beings. Whether or not the domain of beings is a restricted domain is open to question, and there are plenty of problems with unrestricted quantification (which, for instance, Russell and Whitehead tried to fix with their type system in principia mathematica). If one advocates a distinction between beings and pseudo-beings however, then this domain is definitely restricted in some sense (for instance, we might think that numbers aren’t beings, even though we can quantify over them).

Regardless of whether one takes such quantification to be restricted or unrestricted, what is important is that it analyses the issue of whether or not there are any beings at all in the same way it analyses whether there are any balls in the box – in strictly numerical terms – there can be any number of objects, and ‘none’ is just another number. However, when we scale up from the question ‘why are there some balls in the box rather than none?’ to the question ‘why are there beings rather than nothing?’, whereas the former question can be understood in a similar way to the question ‘why is there one number of beings rather than another?’, the latter cannot. What is intriguing about the question is precisely what Heidegger is often mocked for pointing out, namely, that ‘nothing’ seems to have some supra-numerical import here. That said, we’re not going to start talking about the ‘noth-ing of nothing’ just yet.

I would venture that the root of this intuition lies in the fact that any answer to the question ‘how many beings are there?’ with the exception of ‘an infinite number’ and ‘none’ (possibly with the additional exception of the Parmenidean answer ‘one’, but we are for the moment assuming that there are beings rather than nothing), appears contingent. The answer to a question that asked why are there is one contingent number of beings rather than another contingent number of beings would be one which appealed to other facts about specific beings. Unfortunately, this kind of answer is not open when answering the question ‘why is there a contingent number of beings rather than none?’ or even ‘why is there an infinity of beings rather than none?’ if there are only facts about contingently existing beings available.

The only obvious way out here is to posit the existence of a necessarily existing being, facts about which provide a reason for there being some beings rather than none, or a fortiori a reason for there being the number of beings that there actually are (be it infinity or something more pedestrian). This is obviously the root that classical onto-theological metaphysics takes. (I understand that Meillassoux has thought about this problem in much greater detail, but as I have yet to read After Finitude, so there is not much I can say too much about it.)

Moving on, I take it that there are in fact two distinct problematic intuitions which accompany scaling up from ‘why is there something in the box, rather than nothing?’ to ‘why are there beings rather than nothing?’:-

1) If we ask why there are some balls in the box rather than none, it inevitably comes down to an answer regarding the causal chain of events (amongst beings) which lead to there being these balls in the box. When we scale this up, we become uneasy when the reason why there are some existents rather than none is treated as a question of what caused those beings which just happen to exist to exist. To state this intuition simply: it seems that whether or not there are beings at all is a matter of pure necessity (interestingly, for Meillassoux, that there are beings is the only necessity, as without beings there is no contingency).

2) If we assume that there are no beings, then it still seems that there is something. When we scale up from the case of the balls to beings as such, we are drawn to think exactly what is analogous to the box. What is it that contains beings? When we think of there being no beings we think as if there is an empty universe. But then it seems as if we are dealing with an additional thing, the universe, the world, the cosmos, the absolute, or whatever you want to call it, in addition to beings. This is the structure of the totality of beings minus the beings which make it up.

Although the first intuition is helpful for understanding how onto-theological metaphysics emerges out of the question, I think that the second intuition is in fact more helpful to us. I think it is in this second intuition that we find where the question touches upon Being.

4. On What is the Case

Now, there are plenty who would dismiss this intuition out of hand. They would claim that we are guilty of faulty reasoning by analogy – moving from a physical container to some literally meta-physical container. Here, someone might simply maintain that there is nothing particularly interesting about the domain of beings (be it restricted or unrestricted) and that it should not be hypostatized into some kind of structure (as if it were an additional being). However, I think we can make good sense of the intuition in a way which avoids both such crude analogies and hypostatization.

To restate the intuition in a more rigorous way: we seem to think that there is more to the structure of ‘what is the case’ than what contingently happens to be the case, and that if there is any reason why there are beings rather than nothing, then it is to be found in this structure. This notion of ‘what is the case’ is deliberately a much more abstract notion than either universe, world, cosmos, absolute, or the other possible alternatives. All that we mean by ‘what is the case’ is what it is that is true, or the totality of truth. This is a purely formal notion, which has not yet been hypostatized or interpreted in any way (as either universe, world, cosmos, etc.). Moreover, it is entirely distinct from the notion of a domain, as it is not a set of entities (even the totality of entities), but a set of truths (namely, the totality of truths). In virtue of its formality, I take this notion of ‘what is the case’ to be part of our pre-ontological understanding.

The best way to demonstrate this is to examine structure of questioning. Any given question leaves something indeterminate – something which is to be determined by the answer to the question. If a question did not leave something undetermined then it would not properly be a question. The interesting issue then is whether the indeterminacy which is specific to each question is a determinate indeterminacy. If we ask ‘Where are my car keys?’, then what is to be determined by the answer to the question is delimited – what is indeterminate is the location of my car keys and nothing more. There is only one question where what is to be determined by the answer is unlimited: ‘What is the case?’ or ‘What is it that is true?’.

We will call this the limit-question insofar as any specific question is determined in relation to it, not as a part of it (the limit-question is not the sum of all possible questions), but precisely through being more specific than it, through determining what they leave indeterminate. The limit-question is a limit in this sense because it is the only non-specific question. The answer to the limit-question is the sum total of all answers to all other possible questions (not the sum of all possible answers to such questions). This is what we mean by ‘what is the case’ or the totality of truth: it is the correlate of the limit-question. Insofar as the limit-question is a purely formal possibility of the structure of questioning, the notion of ‘what is the case’ is a formal notion implicit within that structure.

5. Being and Beingness

We can now draw a really interesting distinction. Ontology is concerned with ‘what is’. However, there are two different senses of ‘what is’: ‘what is the case’ and ‘what exists‘. The former refers to the totality of truth, whereas the latter refers to the totality of beings. There is a very close and complex relationship between these two notions. For instance, if no beings exist then it would still be true that ‘there are no beings’. In this situation, even if absolutely nothing else were the case then it would still be the case that there are no beings, and there would thus still be ‘what is the case’. This tells us that although ‘what is the case’ is constituted by existential facts about what beings happen to exist, the structure of ‘what is the case’ is not constituted by such existential facts. This is very abstract and can be confusing, so I’m going to try to run through it again.

‘What is the case’ is essentially constituted out of existential facts and other facts about existents. This is a fact about the structure of ‘what is the case’. However, although existential facts and other facts about existents constitute ‘what is the case’, they do not therefore constitute its structure, they are not themselves facts about its structure. On the other hand, facts about existence which are independent of facts about beings (existential facts included), can be part of this structure. This means that whatever the essence of existence (beingness) is, it is part of the structure of ‘what is the case’. There is thus a good formal sense in which the structure of the totality of beings can be thought independently of the existence of any given being, insofar as it is an aspect of the structure of ‘what is the case’. It is important to note that when we are talking about structure here, we could equally talk about essence.

I can now lay my cards on the table an put forward my substantive thesis: Being is the structure/essence of ‘what is the case’. If we read ‘Being’ for what I have referred to as ‘the structure of ‘what is the case”, and ‘beingness’ for ‘the structure of the totality of beings’. This produces the right embedding, where beingness is an aspect of Being, but does not exhaust it.

I must head off an obvious but misguided criticism of this thesis straight away. This is not an answer to the question of the meaning of Being. This is an attempt to formulate the question adequately by determining what is formally indicated by the word ‘being’ in ‘the question of the meaning of being’. Indeed, this isn’t even yet the full formulation. There are more complications to work through. However, I will now try to present a simplified version of this position to make it easier to demonstrate what the complications are. I will then bring out these complications with reference to some of the Heideggerian issues talked about earlier, and try to work through them.

Now for the simplified picture. I take it that there are primarily two philosophically interesting questions:-

1) The Question of Ontology: “What is ‘what is the case’?”, “What is the essence of ‘what is the case’?”or “What is Being?” (not to be confused with the question “What is the case?”)

2) The Question of Metaphysics: “What is ‘what exists’?”, “What is the essence of ‘what exists’?”, “What are beings?”, or “What is beingness?” (not to be confused with the question “What exists?”)

There is a wonderful symmetry here, insofar as these questions each ask after one sense of ‘what is’. Indeed, they are the meta-questions of the two variants of the question ‘What is?’, namely, ‘What is the case?’ and ‘What exists?’, respectively. I find this symmetry astounding and stimulating at the same time. It indicates to me that we can neatly divide between philosophical ontology and scientific endeavour here, insofar as science is concerned with ‘what is‘, and philosophy is concerned with ‘what ‘what is’ is‘.

6. The Perils of Metaphysics

On the basis of this simplified picture we are now in a position to clear up precisely what the problem is with classical metaphysics. The metaphysical question thinks Being through thinking beingness insofar as beingness is an aspect of the structure of ‘what is the case’, but the metaphysical tradition has failed to think Being properly insofar as it does not explicitly grapple with beingness as an aspect of the structure of ‘what is the case’. It is important to note here that this deficiency in the tradition is not a necessary deficiency. The metaphysical question does not preclude the ontological question, but metaphysical inquiry might be a proper part of ontological inquiry.

Similarly, the exemplary metaphysical question (“Why are there beings rather than nothing?”) touches on Being in a way that the primary question (“What are beings?”) does not, insofar as it provokes us to think the structure of ‘what is the case’ independently of what happens to be the case. However, this moment of touching on Being can be appropriated by onto-theological metaphysics if it interprets this structure in terms of some particular being or set of beings.Two pertinent examples of this tendency are Leibniz and Spinoza (whose onto-theological metaphysics I have discussed here and here).

Leibniz metaphysically determines the structure of ‘what is the case’ insofar as he posits a necessary being (God) who then functions as the reason why there are beings rather than nothing, insofar as he chooses to actualise the best internally compossible world. It is important to point out here that the positing of a necessary being does not necessarily imply that Being is a being, i.e., it does not also posit the structure of ‘what is the case’ as some kind of being (like a meta-physical container). It simply makes a being part of Being. For Leibniz, we simply cannot understand Being without understanding a certain being, namely, God.

Spinoza on the other hand goes a step further, and actually thinks ‘what is the case’ as a being, namely, God as Substance. All modes and their given states are parts of Substance (not in the sense that Substance is composed of modes), and Substance is the immanent cause which causes both itself and modes to exist, thus functioning as both the reason why there are any beings at all, and the reason why there are those beings that there happen to be.

We might then say that there are in fact two forms of the ontological difference between Being and beings. The weaker form holds that Being is not itself a being, and is violated by Spinoza. The stronger form holds that Being qua structure of ‘what is the case’ is not constituted by any facts about particular beings or kinds of beings whatsoever, and is broken by Leibniz. We might say that Heidegger goes one step further than either of these forms of ontological difference in holding that Being qua structure of ‘what is the case’ is not constituted even by facts about beingness, which are compatible with the strong version of ontological difference insofar as they are not dependent on facts about any particular beings or kinds of beings. It is this hyper-ontological difference which precludes the possibility of reconciling metaphysics and ontology for Heidegger. However, although I endorse both the weak and strong forms of ontological difference, I see no reason to take the extra step and endorse Heidegger’s hyper-ontological difference.

We are also now in a position to understand Heidegger’s enigmatic equation of Being and Nothing. The standard complaint against Heidegger’s talk about Nothing is that he treats it as a substantive, i.e., that he treats it as something. However, precisely what was indicated by the problematic intuition we uncovered in relation to the exemplary question is that when we think nothing we nonetheless think something. However, this does not necessarily imply that what we thereby think is an additional being. That something which we think is ‘what is the case’ independent of what happens to be the case, or Being. If one maintains a strong adherence to the ontological difference (as Heidegger does) then one must deny (against Spinoza and others) that Being is a being, and (against Leibniz and others) that Being involves some being or beings. One then admits that one can think Being in abstraction from the existence of any beings whatsoever. It is not hard to see why Heidegger takes the additional step to equate what is thought when we think nothing (Being), and nothing itself.

Now, I don’t endorse this move. Meillassoux is another example of someone who doesn’t endorse it. The reason for this is that whereas Heidegger thinks that there can’t actually be an answer to the question ‘why are there beings rather than nothing?’, both Meillassoux and myself would hold that in virtue of the structure of ‘what is the case’ (Being) there necessarily must be beings. The existence of at least some beings is a necessary part of the structure of ‘what is the case’. I would take this a step further, and make the bolder claim that the existence of an infinite number of beings is a necessary part of the structure of ‘what is the case’, but I can’t back this up here. Regardless, if this is correct, then it is a genuine answer to the exemplary question, but it is not an onto-theological one. It is a genuinely ontological answer. The result is that if Being of itself implies that there are beings, then although we can think Being in abstraction from any given being, we cannot think being in abstraction from any beings whatsoever. This means that we cannot genuinely equate Being and Nothing.

7. Complications

Now that I have laid out the simplified version of my position, and shown how it can be used to understand the relation between ontology and metaphysics, I must now outline some problems that this simple picture faces. This section is far more difficult, and far less comprehensive than the rest of this post. There are three such problems which spring immeditately into view:-

1) The essence of ‘what is the case’ appears to be equivalent to ‘what is necessarily the case’.

This is certainly what appears to be the case, and Meillassoux (as far as I understand him) affirms it. Meillassoux takes the ontic to be what is contingent, and the ontological to be the structure of contingency, which is just what is necessary (including all of logic and mathematics). This is a perfectly consistent move to make, but I’d like to suggest that it is not the only move that can be made. For instance, if one were to oppose Meillassoux and adopt a version of the principle of sufficient reason, one would hold that there is a good sense in which everything is necessary, and that contingency is something relative to a situation, rather than absolute. I take this to be the Deleuzian position (which I’m still in the middle of elaborating: see here and here), and I endorse it. If one holds something like this position, and the structure of ‘what is the case’ is simply equivalent to ‘what is necessarily the case’, then there would be no discernible structure of Being independent of what beings there happen to be.

Obviously, simply stating that this implies that my other theoretical commitments are wrong is not really a good enough response here. I also can’t justify this in the way I might want to – through an examination of the formal structures of modality – not only because it would take too long, but also because I have not entirely worked out my opinions on the matter (not to say that I have no opinions). What I simply want to suggest is that it makes sense that someone could claim that Being as it is in itself does not really involve possibility or contingency (such modal notions could make sense only formally, not ontologically), without thereby collapsing the distinction between Being and beings. If you accept this, which I think you should, then you must reject the equivalence between the essence of ‘what is the case’ and what is necessarily the case.

2) Heidegger has already shown that the question of the meaning of Being is not ‘What is Being?’, and interpreting ‘What is Being?’ as ‘What is the structure of ‘what is the case’?’ does not change this.

This is a more awkward problem, as it directly undermines the simplified position put forward above. In response, the position needs to become more complicated. Interestingly, this is also the point at which we see how the formulation of the question as the unification of the manifold senses of ‘being’ relates to the more originary formulation I am trying to develop.

As I mentioned above, there is a reflexivity inherent in the question ‘What is Being?’ insofar as we take it that how we are to understand the ‘is’ in the question is itself to be determined by the answer to the question. This reflexivity is also present in the reformulation of this question as ‘What is the structure/essence of ‘what is the case’?’ insofar as the this structure is not only the structure of ‘what is the case’ but also is the case, i.e., it is part of the totality of truth. However, this second reflexivity reveals the problem of unifying the various senses of ‘being’ proper. For instance, the problem of how to both grasp the structure of ‘what is the case’ and situate this structure within ‘what is the case’ obviously touches upon the notion of truth, in terms of which we make sense of the notion of ‘what is the case’ as well as the notions of existence and essence, insofar as we need to determine how it makes sense that there can be an essence of ‘what is the case’ without it being a being. I won’t try to lay out all the different issues that one must deal with in trying to integrate these various different notions within an account of the structure of ‘what is the case’, because to do that would be to try to formulate the question completely, and I have no pretensions about doing such a thing here.

However, we can draw two important insights from the way this reflexivity is framed when we read Being as ‘the structure of ‘what is the case”.

Firstly, the question of the meaning of Being is indeed a question regarding the structural unity of the different ways in which Being is said, and that the deeper reason which determines precisely what these different senses are is their proximity to the formal notion of ‘what is the case’. The formal unity of these notions is to be found in the pre-ontological understanding of Being, whereas the ontological unity is sought through an interpretation of how these different aspects of Being constitute the real ontological structure of ‘what is the case’.

Secondly, the reflexivity of the question is indicative of what Heidegger calls a hermeneutic circle (indeed, it is a circle which is present in the project of Being and Time, but which most commentators miss). What the term ‘meaning’ indicates in ‘the question of the meaning of Being’ is just the fact that Being cannot be approached directly via a ‘What is…?’ question. It does not mean that the object of the question is anything different than the object of the question ‘What is Being?’. In both cases, what is sought is Being as it is in itself. What is indicated is that the only way to approach Being is through a hermeneutic inquiry that proceeds by unifying the various senses in which ‘being’ is said. The inquiry does not stop at our pre-ontological understanding (in which these ‘senses’ insist), but attempts to hermeneutically elaborate it into a conception of Being as it is in itself.

3) How is it that we distinguish between the structure of ‘what is the case’ as it occurs in our pre-ontological understanding from the structure of ‘what is the case’ in itself? And how do we proceed from a explication of the formal structure to uncovering the real ontological structure?

This is the most awkward complication, as it is one that I have not entirely mapped the contours of. I do have a preliminary answer to these questions, but although I anticipate objections to them, I am not entirely sure what the substance of the objections will be.

The preliminary answer to the first question is that we distinguish between the formal structure of ‘what is the case’ and the ontological structure of ‘what is the case’ through an appeal to the notion of truth. As I indicated in my previous post (here), I take it that there is a formal distinction between objective and non-objective truth. Whereas in that post I took this to be the basis of a further formal distinction between real existence and pseudo-existence (or as the basis of the formal notion of reality), my suggestion here is that we can make a similar formal distinction between ‘what is the case’ and ‘what objectively is the case’ (or what really is the case). This amounts to distinguishing between the totality of generic truth, which includes non-objective truths (e.g., ‘Harry Potter is a wizard’, or that ‘One should drive on the left hand side of the road in the UK’), and the totality of objective truth. Among other things, this has the merit of rigorously separating ‘what is the case’ from ‘what ought to be the case’, because what ought to be the case is a subset of ‘what generically is the case’, but not of ‘what objectively is the case’.

Although I have no catchier name for ‘what is the case’, we might call ‘what objectively is the case’ the Real. Once we have separated out a formal notion of the Real, we can perform a sort of conversion (which I sense many will find suspect), where we treat the inquiry into the structure of ‘what is the case’ as it is in itself, or the inquiry into the real structure of ‘what is the case’ as the inquiry into the structure of ‘what really is the case’, or the inquiry into the structure of the Real. At this point someone might astutely point out that because ‘the Real’ is a formal notion it has a formal structure just as the notion of ‘what is the case’ does. There is thus still the question as to how we grasp the real structure of the Real, as opposed to its formal structure. In short, the answer is metaphysics.

Because the Real is the totality of objective truth, and I define the notion of real existence (as opposed to pseudo-existence) as applying to those generic existents of which there is something objectively true (i.e., those which could be said to be in-themselves at all), the real is only constituted by existential facts about real beings. Moreover, insofar as the structure of the Real is constituted by facts about existence which are independent of any particular being or set of beings, these are facts about real existence, not generic existence. Beingness is thus part of the structure of the Real, but it is not a purely formal notion – it has content. Put another way, the essence of real existence, sought by the question ‘What are real beings?’, is not something that can be uncovered in a formal fashion. When we rephrase the metaphysical question in this way, we find that it demands that we inquire into beings in themselves and as a whole. Beings thus act as a constraint upon metaphysics which is external to our pre-ontological understanding. Given the fact that beingness is an aspect of the structure of the Real, and one which is not isolated from the rest of that structure, but is indeed determinative for the structure as a whole, this makes the totality of real beings a constraint upon ontology as such.

8. Conclusion: Ontology, Metaphysics, and Science

I can now justify what I said in my earlier post on post-Heideggerian metaphysics, when I said that not only does ontology demand that we do metaphysics, but that metaphysics completes ontology. We make the move to thinking the real structure of the Real, or Being as it is in itself, insofar as we make the move to thinking about beingness as it is in itself. Beingness has an ‘in itself’ precisely insofar as ‘what exists’ (or, what really exists) is not up to us, but is something which is objectively assessable.

This has a further consequence for the relation between science and philosophy which I find most important. Above, I said that one could describe the difference between scientific endeavour and philosophical ontology in terms of their different objects: ‘what is‘ and ‘what ‘what is’ is‘, respectively. What the above considerations suggest is that there is no way that philosophy can study ‘what ‘what is’ is‘, in isolation from ‘what is‘. If we are to do metaphysics properly, we must be sensitive to what really exists, in order that we can abstract a notion of beingness from it, rather than positing a notion of beingness in isolation from it. When doing metaphysics we must be sensitive to science – to complexity theory, quantum physics and evolutionary biology. It is only such sensitivity which gives us any purchase on Being as it is in itself at all.

In the above post I have not only tried to put forward an interpretation of what the question of the meaning of Being is, but I have tried to work out what the consequences of this interpretation are for asking that question, i.e., for doing ontology. I have also laid out my own strategy for navigating through the nest of abstract notions which underlie the project of ontology proper, a path which leads through metaphysics and back to science.

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Appropriate descriptors: (neo)rationalist, left-accelerationist, socratic wanderer, heretical Platonist, computational Kantian, minimalist-Hegelian, heterodox Foucauldian, dialectical insurgent, conceptual mercenary, philosopher of fortune.

28 thoughts on “The Question of Being”

  1. Fascinating as always, I’m particularly interested by your ontological/metaphysical distinction, I have a few points but first I’d like to try and clear something up:

    “The reason for this is that whereas Heidegger thinks that there can’t actually be an answer to the question ‘why are there beings rather than nothing?’, both Meillassoux and myself would hold that in virtue of the structure of ‘what is the case’ (Being) there necessarily must be beings. The existence of at least some beings is a necessary part of the structure of ‘what is the case’. ”

    I’m probably just being slow, but I couldn’t see in the entry (or a linked one) why you think that why, in virtue of the structure of what is the case there ‘neccesarily must be beings’, have you developed this line of thought? (Perhaps I missed it when I looked back; you may wish to consider changing the font and background colours of the page as they can be rather harsh on the eyes – especially when reading a longer post! I need to sort this out on my blog as well).

  2. This is in fact one of the claims that I haven’t yet provided any justification for. There are a few of them sprinkled around here and there for flavour. To be fair, most of my own actual ontological position (above and beyond my own methodological musings) is just what I take Deleuze’s to be, and this is a good example of that.

    I must point out though that the reason why I, following Deleuze, take the existence of beings to be necessary is very different from Meillassoux’s. His is a purely ontological reason, whereas mine flows from a certain metaphysical conception of the beingness of beings.

    For Deleuze and myself, beings are not discrete (like the balls in a box), but are processual fluxes that subsist in a material substrate. This is not to say that there is a separate thing, this material substrate, which beings are manifest in. Beings are always composed out of other beings, at a lower level, which are themselves composed out of further beings and so on. What this all amounts to is the fact that even though old beings are destroyed or dissipated, and their constituent parts go on to generate new entities, there is never an absence of flux. There is only a continuously self-differentiating material continuum. This doesn’t imply the necessity of complexification, as it is still possible that higher level order can always be eradicated, but the idea that all structure could be eradicated makes no sense.

    This isn’t such a great description of Deleuze’s metaphysics, and it needs work, which is a large part of the reason why I only said I endorse the claim, rather than exactly why.

  3. Ah – I’m glad that claim wasn’t justified as it means I haven’t missed your general meaning!

    I sympathise with your view on the re-forgetting of being, and the insidious of the phenomenon from a Heideggerean perspective. Perhaps Badiou is one of the most difficult cases, for although at first he seems atypical of the process of re-forgetting, perhaps his own mathematical ontology is the most developed form of it. For Badiou the key is to say what is sayble about any being, just insofar as it is a being. The ontological difference for Heidegger (as far as I can tell) is not the difference between this or that being and what is _sayble_ about this or that being (apparently Badiou’s position). Moreover, Badiou doesn’t seem to be a post-heideggerean metaphysician in the sense you described Deleuze as being a little while back…

    Though perhaps I am wrong here – I find Badiou troublesome for many reasons, not least of all his concept of inconsistent multiplicity.

    Having said this, the case of Badiou (or choose another philosopher if you find my comments on Badiou fishy) could be used to urge the opposite conclusion, the forgetting of the question of being really just is the proof of its obscurity or if not that, of the impossibility of it being answered in any satisfactory way. Worse still, forgetting always works in favour of those who would round the whole enterprise off at the head in an exercise in nonsense (Carnap). This is perhaps the unhappy fate of each generation of thinkers inspired by Heidegger, to have to insist upon the question time and time again. And Heidegger himself proves less than useful here sometimes, seeming to suggest that finding a convincing and proper way to pose the question once and for all is an impossible task.

  4. Terrific post, Pete. I can only respond briefly because, well, I’m falling over from exhaustion at the moment. I drove myself nuts for nearly a decade with the whole being versus existence question where the question of being is concerned. First, I would suggest that there is a massive difference between the question “what is the meaning of being” and “what is being”. The former question traps one in the correlationist rut, whereas the latter allows you to escape it. I finally came to deflationary conclusion– and this has been much of what we’re debating about –that the best move is to collapse the opposition between being and existence. In affirming that being is difference, we no longer draw a distinction between being on the one hand and existence on the other. If it makes differences then it is. I know that refrain gets old and irritating. Note that because we’re talking about differences this doesn’t prevent us from making all sorts of ontological distinctions. In your recent debate with Kvond regarding Harry Potter it turned out that we were actually rather close. My thesis has never been that Harry Potter eats dinner, that he defecates, that he casts spells or attends school and whatnot. This was one of the reasons I was so keen on drawing a distinction between physical objects and other types of objects. Harry Potter’s existence is a being qua fiction. What I refuse– and I wonder whether this isn’t a semantic disagreement –is the thesis that fictional existence is pseudo-existence. Being ontologically promiscuous in the way I am, I have no room for the category of pseudo-existence. There’s just existence within the framework of my ontology. However, that doesn’t undermine the possibility of all sorts of important differences among existences, such as the difference between “informational existence” or “replicators” and flowers.

  5. Rory: My knowledge of Badiou is not as good as I’d like, but I suspect he doesn’t fall into the re-forgetting of Being in the way that some do. You are also correct to point out that he is not a post-Heideggerian metaphysician in the way I am advocating. Indeed, neither him nor Meillassoux are. They are simply post-Heideggerian ontologists that each has their own take on the nature of Being and the problems of metaphysics.

    This doesn’t mean that Badiou is unproblematic. I see several problems in his work (insofar as I can understand it) and one in particular that we can analyse directly on the basis of the above considerations. I’m hoping to write something about it at some point soon. Loosely, Badiou draws a distinction between _what_ presents itself, and what _presents_ itself. Saying that the former is traditionally thought as One and the latter as Multiple. Using the insights above we could translate ‘what presents itself’ as ‘what is’ and then divide this into its two senses ‘what is the case’ and ‘what exists’. We then see that Badiou’s statement is effectively correct: ‘what is the case’ is traditionally taken to be One, insofar as truth is one, and what exists is traditionally taken to be multiple. Being is One, beings are multiple.

    This lets us do two things. Firstly, it lets us get a much better grasp on what Badiou means when he denies that Being is One (and its potential problems). Secondly, it allows us to see that the crucial term in Badiou’s formulation is ‘presents’, because it is not a given that ‘what is’ is ‘what presents’. My suspicion is that here we discover where Badiou is far too much like Heidegger for his own good, and has fundamentally yoked Being to givenness, even if givenness is understood as a givenness to bare quantificational thought which must be supplemented by some further structure of appearance (i.e., by the Logic of Worlds). I see no reason to give such a position to presentation.

    Larval: I think there are three points to respond to in your comment.

    Firstly, with regard to the ongoing debate over fictional existence, the point I would reiterate would be that if what you’re calling ‘Harry Potter’ is not a wizard, then there is a good sense in which it _isn’t_ Harry Potter. You need to give a reason why we’d want to think otherwise.

    Secondly, with regard to the difference between the question of the meaning of Being, and the question of the essence of Being (What is Being?), my point is that these two questions do not ask after anything different, they both want to know what Being is in truth. The reason we must add the word ‘meaning’ is not some act of relativization to ourselves, but is a matter of indicating the peculiar structure that such an inquiry must take, namely, through our pre-ontological understanding, but not ending with that understanding. I take the accusation of correlationism to be aimed at the suggestion that we start with pre-ontological understanding _at all_. However, I can’t see how we can do otherwise. Our shared pre-ontological understanding is the only thing that picks out a common object of inquiry at all, without it, we’re passing around empty words that are indexed to nothing. In addition, there is no solid reason for thinking that starting with pre-ontological understanding implies correlationism. Yes, if it was done incorrectly (through the making of illicit ontological assumptions about what that understanding subsists in) it could lead to correlationism, as it does in Heidegger. But it need not.

    Thirdly, I don’t think that one can collapse Being and existence. What I’ve been trying to show is that there is a good formal sense in which the questions regarding them are distinct. One can’t collapse these two formal sense into one another, the best one can do is say that ‘Being’ does not refer to the structure of ‘What is the case’ but that it is a synonym for existence (which is of course true). This doesn’t really answer any ontological question, all it does is get rid of ontology proper in favour of metaphysics, i.e., it performs the very forgetting of Being that Heidegger diagnosed.

    This does seem to fit with what I know about OOO, given that it is not concerned with any common structure that all objects partake it, in as much as it is concerned with the objectness of objects (i.e., beingness). This might be the right way to go, and asking after Being might be barking up the wrong tree, but I think it is important to recognise that they are structurally different kinds of projects.

  6. “Loosely, Badiou draws a distinction between _what_ presents itself, and what _presents_ itself. Saying that the former is traditionally thought as One and the latter as Multiple. Using the insights above we could translate ‘what presents itself’ as ‘what is’ and then divide this into its two senses ‘what is the case’ and ‘what exists’. We then see that Badiou’s statement is effectively correct: ‘what is the case’ is traditionally taken to be One, insofar as truth is one, and what exists is traditionally taken to be multiple. Being is One, beings are multiple. ”

    This is interesting, I’d like to know what you think of this little rut I keep seeing Badiou getting stuck in, whether or not you think its a real problem or not:

    Basically my worry is that, although Badiou is right to say that Being has been thought of as One, he is mistaken when he attempts to think of being qua being as inconsistent multiplicity. Take for example Deleuze’s claim that being is univocal. I always took this, perhaps naively, to be stating that although there are many beings, what it is to be – although being said of different things – remains the same. Now it seems to me that when Badiou attempts to escape the One he ends up asserting that there is more than one way, perhaps an infinite of ways, in which something can be said to be. But what this assertion actually ammounts to is a mystery to me, an obscurity…

  7. On Badiou: ““Loosely, Badiou draws a distinction between _what_ presents itself, and what _presents_ itself. Saying that the former is traditionally thought as One and the latter as Multiple. Using the insights above we could translate ‘what presents itself’ as ‘what is’ and then divide this into its two senses ‘what is the case’ and ‘what exists’. We then see that Badiou’s statement is effectively correct: ‘what is the case’ is traditionally taken to be One, insofar as truth is one, and what exists is traditionally taken to be multiple. Being is One, beings are multiple. ”

    Kvond: This, as I have argued before in other circumstances, is actually Plotinus’s Neoplatonic position.

    Rory: “Take for example Deleuze’s claim that being is univocal. I always took this, perhaps naively, to be stating that although there are many beings, what it is to be – although being said of different things – remains the same.”

    Kvond: It is for this reason that Spinoza (whom Deleuze is following) who is himself following Plotinus, irons out the Badiou position (Badiou’s argument against Spinoza is rather flimsy). The problem is that Badiou overstates the role of the “One” in nearly a Hegelian fashion.

  8. Rory: To be honest, although I know that Badiou does endorse some form of univocity, I can’t really comment on whether he lives up to it properly. We can definitely see that it doesn’t have the same consequences it does in Deleuze’s system. Indeed, although Badiou calls himself a materialist, the sense in which everything is for him material seems to be very much weaker than Deleuze’s sense.

    The important point to recognise is that, as I have said elsewhere, the thesis of univocity and the thesis of the Oneness of Being are distinct theses. People get the impression from reading Badiou’s book on Deleuze that they are somehow equivalent, when in truth Badiou himself endorses one and not the other. The important thesis is monism, and it is this which Deleuze accepts and Badiou rejects.

    To give a little flavour of Badiou’s rejection of the Oneness of Being, we can see that what he is rejecting is that Being is itself a situation. For Badiou, a situation is something that can be thought as a whole, both as a structural whole and as a totality of parts. I suspect that what he means is that there is a domain of its parts that we can quantify over. The establishing of such a domain is the operation of the count-as-one, in whose wake there is number. What Badiou denies is that there is a domain of all beings (which I suspect he equate with the set of all sets) and a way in which the entities of this domain would be structured. This means that although the thinking of different situations might be integrated, it can never be totalized.

    We can never end up with a unified picture of ‘what is the case’. The structure of ‘what is the case’ (Being) is thus not a structure which unifies beings (and the various situations they are found in) but the structure of presentation, the structure through which all situations are given, and tied back to some unintelligible locus which connects them in some minimal and unstructured way (the void). This minimal interconnection is very important, because one cannot get rid of the Oneness of ‘what is the case’ entirely unless one denies that Truth is One. This is why we see that in Badiou Truth is not something intra-situational, but precisely something which comes from the void.

    This is all very sketchy. I haven’t read Badiou in enough detail to back this up properly, but this is where my current thinking leads me.

    Kvond: I think we are mostly in agreement for once. The problem is indeed that “Badiou overstates the role of the “One” in nearly a Hegelian fashion”. Although I think allying Deleuze with Plotinus is a problematic move, because although there is indeed some connection, it should not be overstated.

  9. Deon: Badiou’s book on Deleuze does indeed seem to run together quite a few things, it is a generally suspect affair.

    My perpetual problem with Badiou is as follows: once his system (or at least the key parts of Being and Event) is taken ‘all at once’, so to speak, a harmonious picture of mathematical ontology and philosophy is formed. Yet whenever we study closely the rationale for mathematical ontology things turn out to be a mess. If the recognition of mathematics as ontology is based around the critique of the thinkers of the One then his account seems to be simply confused.

    Kvond: Have you written elsewhere about the Plotinus-Spinoza-Deleuze connection? The department I’m in has a Neo-Platonist/Arabic scholar (Peter Adamson) and although I’ve done cursory work around Plotinus’s One (which, despite its difficulties, I find much more understandable that Badiou’s One) I’ve never quite made the connection…

  10. Rory: I think we shouldn’t be too harsh on Badiou’s book on Deleuze, because it does at least treat Deleuze as a systematic philosopher in a way that much of the secondary literature does not. For instance, it’s one of the few (perhaps the only) places that anyone discusses the relation between Deleuze and probability. On the other hand, it does represent certain parts of his philosophy in a very disingenuous way that reeks of Badiou’s alterior motives, so we’ve got to take it with a pinch of salt (or a bucket full).

    I entirely agree that the thesis that mathematics is ontology is severely under-justified. It is the lynch pin upon which the rest of his philosophical enterprise rests, but its hard to understand why one should adopt it, other than that it produces such an impressive philosophical system. I think unpacking Badiou’s argument for the thesis involves understanding precisely what he takes ‘presentation’ to be. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to write something more on this.

  11. Deon: Yes, you’re right there, about Badiou’s book – perhaps my frustration is due to how close it comes to being very satisfying indeed! And indeed, it was one of the first works that treated Deleuze with the serious philosophical attention that his writings call for.

    The thesis of mathematics = ontology has been passed over too quickly by Badiou’s best critics. However, this is to be expected, Badiou scholarship, before it getting to this fundamental problem, has had to climb the general mountain of his overall system and the new competencies it demands. There is some cursory look at the justification of it in Sam Gillespie’s book (avaialable online in full from the publisher) but just a hint…

  12. de: “I think we are mostly in agreement for once.”

    kvond: I am surprised how much in disagreement we find ourselves to be, as you are a Deleuze-Heidegger-Brandomist, and I a Deleuze (Guattari)-Spinoza-Davidsonianist. But I suppose it shows how divergent the Heidegger/Spinoza divide really is (something one might not suspect)

  13. Rory: “Kvond: Have you written elsewhere about the Plotinus-Spinoza-Deleuze connection?”

    Rory: “Kvond: Have you written elsewhere about the Plotinus-Spinoza-Deleuze connection?”

    kvond: I’ve written on the Degree of Being conception a great deal, which is one of the main Spinozist Neoplatonic inheritances, in fact I touched on it in my last post, wherein the degree of Being affirmations of the body are the very things that for Deleuze and Guattari help compose the Body Without Organs (I state this connection only in passing, at the end):

    For Spinoza-Deleuze alliances it is a very important conceptual thread, and one that makes up any acute resolution of dualisms of all kinds (be they Substance Dualisms, or Being/Non-Being dualisms). A few of my posts.

    The history of the degree of Being conception:

    Plotinus uses the luminosity metaphor quite well to undermine the Being/Non-Being question:

    “But one must consider light as altogether incorporeal, even if it belongs to a body. Therefore, “it has gone away” or “it is present” are not used of it in their proper sense, but in a different way, and its real existence is an activity. For the image in a mirror must also be called an activity: that which is reflected in it acts on what is capable of being affected without flowing into it; but if the object reflected is there, the reflection too appears in the mirror and it exists as an image of a colored surface shaped in a particular way; and if the object goes away, the mirror-surface no longer has what it had before, when the object seen in it offered itself to it for activity.” (4.5 [29] 7.33-49)

    Deleuze writes on Plotinus and Spinoza here, but I think that Deleuze gets Plotinus a bit wrong:

    This is the Plotinus passage that perhaps best expresses the touchstone conception of a degree of Being, and I propose a better translation which shows something of Deleuze’s error:

    But, as Deont likes to emphasize, along with the Degree of Being conception the Scotist idea of a formal distinction also is important to the Deleuze-Spinoza evolution. He writes on it here:

    And here are some of the consequences:

    Spinoza’s strongest expression of a Degree of Being conception (apart from that found in his epistemology wherein falsity is a privation) occurs in his General Definition of the Affects,

    “But it should be noted that, when I say a greater or lesser force of existing than before, I do not understand that the Mind compares its Body’s present constitution with a past constitution, but that the idea which constitutes the form of the affect affirms of the body something which really involves more or less reality than before” (E3, General Definition of the Affects)

    This anchors his psychology and theories of human power. His definition is pure and systematized Plotinus, of which there are great consequences. Here is a longer treatments of this Plotinian power diagnosis, on the subtle but important difference between Heidegger and Spinoza:

    Much of this probably falls far afield of your question, but I thought I’d give you the broadest brushstrokes. If you have a more narrow, more pointed question, I’ll be glad to answer it. The currents that run from Plotinus to Spinoza to Deleuze are actually quite strong.

    1. Apologies, before I made the comment below about Plotinus’s One I failed to see you had replied here. Thanks for all the links; I feel the Spinoza/Deleuze connections you make sit well with my thoughts on these things, though I am still at odds with you I fear when it comes to Plotinus. Think Deleuze, in the passages quoted above, has pretty much hit the nail on the head.

      Though, of course, as your alternate translation highlights, Plotinus talks for all the world as though the One were not radically separate from what is created. I wrote something about this last year, I’ll dig it up and post it, or use it to form a post about this; as I recall there are some other considerations I’ve now forgotten as to why the radical separation thesis remains, for me, the most likely option.

      Thanks again

  14. Kvond: As they say, the devil is in the details, and that seems to be where we disagree for the most part. The details are crucial though, which often makes for much more ferocious argument than the big picture positions.

    I think our major two differences so far are as follows:-

    1) I take the ontological difference to be crucial, I take Spinoza to violate it, and Deleuze to embrace it in his advancement over Spinoza. Interestingly, the other thing I did in the post above was cash out an earlier promise to show how the ontological difference can be thought independently of the claim of the identity of Being and Nothing. We can have purely positive Being (with the necessary existence of an infinity of continuously differentiating and reciprocally constituted entities) and accept the ontological difference.

    2) I take the structure of representation to be fundamentally distinct from the Spinozistic notion of thought, i.e., I take it that the concept is not the idea. This is why I can hold that there is a concept of Harry Potter but no Idea of him, even if that concept is an Idea (but not all Ideas are concepts). This means that there is a distinction between what our thoughts are _about_ and what causes us to think them (although only in cases where what is thought about does not exist).

    Maybe further discussion will iron out more of the details from both our sides.

    1. Thanks de. As to 1) The Ontological difference is, in my view, a mistake of an overly optical metaphor of thought (Heidegger’s great inheritance). And I read Spinoza and Deleuze on the same page on this (as did Deleuze). As to 2), there is no “structure of Representation”, another product of the over-reading of an optical metaphor of thought.

      I don’t think that more discussion will iron these differences out because in your attempt to rescue Heidegger from himself you wish to preserve the very, in my view rather large, mistake he is essentially in continuity with (and if you remove the mistake, you simply don’t need Heidegger any more). This is decisive for me, and part of a general reading of the history of philosophy.

      Its perfectly acceptable for us to be on other sides of the aisle on this. It is towards the other aspects of your thinking that if anything I’ll try to direct myself.

  15. Kvond: I’m afraid I remain unconvinced on your problem with the ontological difference. I’m not arguing that there isn’t a problematic optical metaphor in Heidegger, there is, and he never gets rid of the basic phenomenological assumptions that doom his whole philosopher. However, I don’t see how this produces the ontological difference specifically. I’ve been trying to rework the whole question of Being, including the ontological difference in a purely formal register that makes no reference to givenness, presence, presentation or anything of the like, and as far as I can tell I’m succeeding (if the results of the above post are anything to go on.

    If you’re going to claim that the ontological difference is based upon such an optical metaphor, I’d like an argument for it, rather than an allusion to a pervasive underlying problem in Heidegger’s philosophy from which only some of his doctrines obviously follow. If you can give me an argument, then we can have an interesting discussion on this front.

    With regard to Deleuze’s endorsement of the ontological difference, read chapter 1 of Difference and Repetition, the section called ‘Note on Heidegger’s Philosophy of Difference’, this is page 77 in the continuum paperback.

    As for there being no structure of representation, I’m not sure how you can say that and claim to be a Davidsonian. Saying that there is a structure of representation is not the same as being a representationalist, which neither Davidson nor Brandom can be accused of being, but they both want to say something about representation. One need not think that representation is a metaphysical or ontological structure in order to think that it does have a structure.

  16. De,

    I’ll get back to you on Deleuze and the Ontological difference. As far as the so-called “structure of Representation” I have no idea what such a phrase would mean in Davidson’s thinking. It is practically non-sensical. If you would tell me, What is the structure of Representation for Davidson? Triangulation? Indexicality?

    “Structure” is one of those very slippery words in philosophy (used from a metaphor of architecture). It sounds like it is saying much more than it is (or, rather, it is importing all kinds of contraband under its blanket).

  17. De,

    as to the ontological difference and opticality (Deleuze and Spinoza), Deleuze imports a quite narrowed interpretation of Heidegger in order to shoehorn it into this rather Spinozist no-negation conception of philosophy, (and actually admits that Heidegger himself offers him little support at times, i.e. crossed-out Being etc., in other words Deleuze is doing his usual reinvention). Deleuze has got Heidegger wrong, as I have already pointed out in my post on Heidegger’s opticality in the translation of the core concept of Greek “truth” aletheia. Heidegger is ripe with negations, whereas Deleuze wants to read him as having no negations at all.

    But on the ontological difference and the reason why it is a product of the opticaliaty of philosophy. The very conception of the difference between Being and being is itself born of the opticality of presence. Heidegger’s notion of pre-ontological Being (which you seem to imagine is something original to Heidegger) is actually already in Plotinus quite richly. (Though in Plotinus the “Hen” , translated as The One, has no Being, because it is beyond predication, at least that is the way that he puts it.)

    This is what I write on the translation of Plotinus’ idea of the Hen:

    “To Hen: This is Plotinus’ crowning concept, and is universally translated as The One. Quite accurately of course. But because “hen” is also the aorist (past) participle of the verb “hiemi,” which means anything from ”to set in motion,” “to hurl,” “to let flow, burst” even in context “to speak”, the Hen is both The One, but also The-Having-Set-In-Motion. To restrict its conception merely to the former is to dramatically cleave its meaning. Even this simple translation difficulty I think has lead to a misreading of the very core conception of Plotinus’ view. So when thinking about the Hen, think of both a Oneness, but also a flowing out, an activity.”

    Now, the Oneness of the Hen is not a being at all, it is a one not in the one-two-three of counting. In a certain respect it keeps the ontological difference, so to speak. Deleuze is wrong about Plontinus when he wants to make of the Hen something that is separated out from creation, as I show in my translation of the above passage. Deleuze wants to say that the Hen is removed from those things that descend from it, and I think that there is not much textual support.

    But the reason why Deleuze wants to say that Plotinus’s Hen is removed from the world is to put out that Spinoza Substance is NOT, which is to say Substance is immanantly the world, and in no way separate from it. As Spinoza puts it, Substance IS and ACTS through the modes. The modes ARE the power of Substance expressing itself just as it is, as an Infinite expression.

    So Deleuze is wrong on Plotinus but right on Spinoza in this regard. But to read Spinoza’s Substance as “a” Being is a vast mistake. Spinoza’s own disregard of mathematics as imaginary products forecloses this. To put it in Badiouian terms it is not part of the Count. It lies beyond the count. So, one might want to say that he respect the ontological difference.

    But this would be wrong. The reason why it would be wrong is that the very “a” being designation in Spinoza is an illusion. Being (Substance) exresses itself determinatively and distinctly, but NOT in parts. Ultimately there are no “beings” other than the plethora of determinative and intimately connective expressions of Substance. Or, put another way, there are individual essences (which Deleuze in his perhaps too original interpretation of Spinoza calls “intensities”) which are expressing themselves everywhere, but essences are not “beings”.

    This is to say that Spinoza’s philosophy is ultimately apophantic, the leading to a vast awareness of the continguity of Substance. The very Being/being “difference” is not something that would occur to someone under the Spinozist regime. That is because the birth place of the distinction in the Heideggerian sense is the phenomenological uncovering of “beings”, and the pursuit for their explanation.

    What this means is that you are right about Spinoza, but instead of grabbing the trunk of the elephant, you have the tail. He does not abide by the ontological difference, NOT because Substance is “a” being for Spinoza, but because “beings” are not even beings, in the sense that the difference provides.

    I actually think that Deleuze is aboard with this, as he buries his “difference” (that he wants to find in a re-evaluated Heideggerian NOT), in the essences of Spinoza which he reads as intensities.

    I don’t expect you to find this convincing, because it would require you to abandon some hard-earned conceptions about Spinoza and Heidegger, but it is worth stating nonetheless.

    As usual, I’ll give you the last word on this if you like.

    1. Kvond,

      I think in fact Deleuze might be quite justified in separating out the One from creation, depending on what we mean by this. The One is posited as being utterly simple, and as beyond being. Consequently it is separated out from all else due to this. Moreover, it is utterly simple, and for Plotinus this means that it can’t really be said to ‘flow out’ in any real sense – such a flowing would create multiplicity within the One rendering it non-simple.

      Of course, the problem now arises of how the One does stand in relation to Nous, for it is clear that the One is in some sense generative of Nous. The idea seems to be that the One (for some reason never properly explained by Plotinus) cannot but help to create existing things. Strictly speaking this creation is ex nihilo, as the One doesn’t exist! But, of course, the One does exist as a kind of principle, one that seems philosophically required to explain Nous. On the other hand, Porphry seems to give the impression that Plotinus thought he had ‘attained’ the One at several times during his life – which seems to elevate it beyond the place of a speculative first principle.

      Obviously a lot turns here on whether there an be any intelligible difference between ‘beyond being’ and ‘non-being’. I personally don’t think there can be.

      At any rate – we can see why Deleuze would want to maintain the radical separation between the One and what is created. It is a consequence of the One’s beyond beingness and radical simplicity.

      1. Rory,

        Deleuze in my opinion is just plain wrong on Plotinus (and I don’t remember if he even uses textual support). He writes,

        “Plotinus, speaks to us at a certain level of the One as the radical origin of Being. Here, Being comes out of [sort de] the One. The One makes Being, therefore it is not, it is superior to Being. This will be the language of pure emanation: the One emanates Being. That is to say the One does not come out of itself in order to produce Being, because if it came out of itself it would become Two, but Being comes out of the One. This is the very formula of the emanative cause.”

        Whereas Plotinus clearly writes that the world “comes out of” the Hen, the very thing that Deleuze denies he claims. First off, at even the simplist grammatical level Plotinus uses the proposition “ex” which, as distinct from “apo”, denotes a “coming out of” something, hence our word “exodus” the road out. Apo on the other hand means to move away from. If indeed Plotinus wanted creation to be detached from the Hen he would never have used “ex”. This is an essential Greek concept of progeneration.

        Further, Plotinus states it literally, “It is because there is no-thing [oudèn] in itself that through this out of itself come
        all things,” (ex autou panta). All things, as Plotinus puts it, “run through” the Hen, and come out of it.

        This is no different than Spinoza own immanence (which Deleuze would like to contrast with Plotinus’s emanance. As Spinoza puts it:

        “God is the immanent, not the transitive, cause of all things. E1p18”

        Rory: “The idea seems to be that the One (for some reason never properly explained by Plotinus) cannot but help to create existing things. Strictly speaking this creation is ex nihilo, as the One doesn’t exist!”

        Kvond: The very concept of “generation” in Greek contains that which does the producing. It makes no sense for the Greek to say that the Father is not in the son (what is required for Deleuze’s interpretation. As for the supposed lack of an explanation for why the Hen produces the Nous, I’m not sure what kind of explanation you would require. Clearly something outside of the Hen cannot cause it to produce the Nous (an argument Spinoza appeals to), so any causal explanation would have to be self-caused. What kind of explanation would this be?

        Plotinus argues it this way. It is because there is “no thing” in the Hen, and because all things run through it (as a Deleuzian we might read these as pregnant intensities of the BwO), Out of some kind of “hyper-flowing” and “hyperplenitude” it produces out of itself the Nous. I’m not sure of just how satisfying this may be for you, but it is not merely the need for a grounding philosophical principle for Plotinus. The hyperflow/plenitude is the very feature that defines what Hen and ultimate reality is. And I’m not sure how this is any different than Spinoza’s reading of Substance as necessarily Infiinite and acting, or philosophies of “Becoming”. Or even if it is less satisfying than scientific explanations of what produced the Big Bang. For Plotinus the Hen is overflowing, and therefore when we are, we are best expressing the Hen (and have greater reality).

        Rory: ” Strictly speaking this creation is ex nihilo, as the One doesn’t exist!…Obviously a lot turns here on whether there an be any intelligible difference between ‘beyond being’ and ‘non-being’. I personally don’t think there can be.”

        Kvond: Well, as Plotinus puts it, the “existence” that you take as primary, is secondary. Creation is not out of “nothing”, rather it is out of “no thing”. I think that there is a difference. When thinking about the differnce between “beyond being” and “non-being” what Plotinus has in mind is that the Hen is beyond predication. Predication is not the ultimate determination of what IS. Non-being is simply the negation of something that is said to have being, but because there is no ontological negation in Plotinus’s visoin of plenitude it makes little sense to ascribe such a thing to the Hen.

        It has to be said as well though, that at the furtherest end of the spectrum Plotinus expresses himself in some conflicting ways about what “matter” is, that are at times not in keeping with his overall theme, I would guess probably due to something of a Aristotlean influence to which he wanted to justify himself. But that is another matter.

        Rory: “At any rate – we can see why Deleuze would want to maintain the radical separation between the One and what is created. It is a consequence of the One’s beyond beingness and radical simplicity”

        Kvond: Honestly, you may be able to see it, but I cannot. Besides the fact that Plotinus explicitly states what Deleuze claims he doesn’t (something that requires at least an explanation), there is the general sense that Plotinus’s position doesn’t seem all that different than that of Spinoza’s which Deleuze is championing. The Hen is both radically simple (without folds), but it is still run through with all things. There is no textual foundation for the claim that there is any radical break between the two. In fact Plotinus’s metaphor of light and mirrors (how images within a mirror disappear when the light is removed from them) distinctly gives us the opposite position. The Hen (analogized to light) fills the mirrors of the world, out of itself, such that if the mirrors ceaed to catch the light, there would be no phenomena, nothing to predicate being of.

  18. Kvond: Thanks, and I will take the last word as usual.

    I still don’t think you’ve understood Heidegger or Deleuze’s relation to him. I’m not going to say that Deleuze’s interpretation of Heidegger is therefore completely accurate, but I think he does understand what ontological difference is, and endorse it. As far as Deleuze’s reading of the Heideggerian ‘not’ as difference, the point is that this is a reading in opposition to Sartre’s explicit conception of Being in terms of negativity. Deleuze does not thereby read Heidegger as thinking being in a purely positive or productive fashion (the way he reads Spinoza), but reads him more like Duns Scotus (whom he explicitly allies him with, and for good reason given Heidegger’s work on Scotus), in espousing a neutral conception of Being. There is no indication that the ontological difference is need be a matter of negativity, and Deleuze takes it not to be.

    Moreover, I did read your post on Heidegger’s misreading of ‘aletheia’. His misreading of this has been documented for some time (although I think you take a slightly different tack to most on how precisely he misreads it). I personally think that the Heideggerian reading of Being in terms of unconcealing and concealing that comes out of his analysis of truth, as well as the analysis of truth itself, is deeply flawed. I also think that a lot of this is grounded in a mistaken phenomenological conception of what ‘beings’ are. For Heidegger, beings are fundamentally what is given, just as for Badiou beings are what is fundamentally presented. Both of these ideas are fundamentally mistaken.

    If we take Heidegger’s reading, then you are correct in saying that there are no beings in Spinoza, and that Substance is not a being, because neither Substance nor modes are understood in terms of presence. However, the notion of ‘a being’ need not imply what Heidegger takes it to, and I take it not to. It is a certain formal notion of existence which delineates whether something is treated as a being or not, and it is perfectly possible to make sense of the ontological difference between Being (which is not presencing) and beings (which are not presented), without appeal to illicit Heideggerian assumptions about ‘Truth’ or givenness.

    It is this santized notion of ontological difference that both I and Deleuze endorse, and that I take Spinoza to violate, precisely insofar as he talks of Substance (and indeed, defines it) in terms of its existence.

    I must also agree with Rory in affirming a distance between Deleuze and Plotinus. As I’ll hopefully get round to showing in part 3 of The Song of Sufficient Reason, the One in Deleuze (the whole) is nothing like a principle, and it does nothing like emanate or express its essence. It has no essence or intelligible content at all, but is a mere limit of determination.

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