Section 1: The Necessity for Explicitly Restating the Question of Being (pp.21-24)
In section 1, H is focused on clarifying what kind of a question the Seinsfrage is, and what challenges must be met to answer it. The question must in this sense be re-stated because he thinks that the neglect it’s suffered is due to the fact, as he sees things, that his contemporaries tend to frame the question in the wrong way.
H begins by pointing out that in his time, there’s a renewed interest in metaphysics—roughly, the philosophical inquiry into the most fundamental and general features of reality. However, this hasn’t so far, he thinks, led to a renewed interest in the Seinsfrage. And this is because there’s resistance to the very notion that it’s a real question at all. This resistance has various sources—i.e. is due to various ‘presuppositions’ about the Seinsfrage. H wants to inspire what he calls—quoting in Greek from, again, Plato’s Sophist (246a)—a “battle of the giants concerning concerning being”: a robust philosophical debate about the answer to the Seinsfrage. And so, here in section 1, he attempts to diagnose these presuppositions, and respond to them well enough to keep his readers from simply dismissing the Seinsfrage out of hand. In other words, his responses aren’t designed to refute these presuppositions. Rather, he simply wants to argue that the reasons for doubting them are strong enough that if we were to accept any of them uncritically, we’d be guilty of outright prejudice.
H discusses three such prejudices:
The first (let’s call it P1) is essentially that the answer to the Seinsfrage (the meaning of being) is trivial. So, we don’t need to undertake any robust philosophical inquiry: we can answer the question right off the bat. The answer is this: being is the most universal concept.
To see why someone might make this proposal, let’s consider what kinds of things we express using the verb “to be”. Specifically, let’s consider three different ways this verb is used:
(i) As the copula
In other words, the verb “to be” is used to attribute properties to things, by connecting subjects to predicates. For example, when I say “John is tall”, the word “is”—the present tense form of “to be”—connects the subject “John” to the predicate “tall”, and in doing so attributes the property of tallness to the man John. The same is true when we use the past and future forms of “to be” (e.g. “The car that just drove by was red” or “The package will be delivered”).
(ii) To make claims about numerical identity
For example, consider the sentence “Superman is Clark Kent”. Here, we find a different use of the verb “to be”: to say that a certain person (Superman) is one and the same as another (Clark Kent). Superman and Clark Kent are identical, but in a specific sense: namely, when talking about Superman on the one hand, and Clark Kent on the other, we’re talking about one thing, not two. This is why it’s called numerical identity.
The opposite of numerical identity is numerical distinction. We often make claims of numerical distinction using the verb “to be” plus some negation (most commonly, the word “not”). For example, suppose I say “Superman is not Bruce Wayne”. Here, I’m essentially saying that Superman and Bruce Wayne are two people, not one. Again, we can make such claims, not just using the present tense of “to be”, but also using its past and future forms.
True claims that assert numerical identity and distinction help us to identify a thing in the sense of understanding which thing it is. However, for all this to be clear, it’s also important to note that numerical identity contrasts with qualitative identity. That is, sometimes, when we say that two things are identical, we mean something different: that they have the same, or the same important, qualities or characteristics. For example, if I hold up two Snickers bars in front of you and say “These candy bars are identical,” I don’t mean to be saying that there’s one candy bar here. Rather, I mean that these two things have the same important characteristics: they’re the same size, the same shape, composed of the same ingredients, etc.
(iii) To make existence claims
For example, suppose a theist says “There is a God.” Or, suppose a zoologist says “Before they went extinct in the 17th century, there were Dodos.” Or, suppose I say “There will be a party at my place next Saturday.” In all of these cases, the verb “to be” is being used in a phrase of the form “There is/was/will be” to make a claim about the (present/past/future) existence of something.
Now, let’s refer to (i)-(iii) collectively as ways of using “to be” to make claims about what things (there) are. This, I think, serves as a useful way of summarizing such uses: we use “to be” to talk about what things are in the sense of what properties they have (use (i)); to talk about what things are in the sense of what they are numerically identical to (use (ii)); and about what things there are in the sense of what things exist (use (iii)).
H notes, quoting Aristotle (from Metaphysics B 1001a 21), that “an understanding of being is already included in conceiving anything which one apprehends in entities.” Why might someone come to this conclusion, simply by considering claims about what things (there) are?
Well, it seems pretty plausible to think that whenever we consider any thing at all (whenever we ‘conceive’ it), we’re concerned either with (i) its properties, (ii) which thing it is, or (iii) whether it exists—for example, when we intend for it to have certain properties; or wonder whether it’s numerically identical to this thing or that thing; or believe that it exists. But it would seem that in our concern for such matters, we’re making use of some understanding we have of them. For example, in intending for my child to be successful in school, I’m making use of some understanding I have of what it would be for her to be successful in school—to have that property. Or, in wondering whether Superman is Clark Kent, I’m making use of some understanding I have of what it would be for Superman to be Clark Kent—to be numerically identical to the latter. Or, in believing that Santa Claus exists, I’m making use of some understanding I have of what it would be for Santa Claus to exist.
But in making use of any of these kinds of understanding, I’m making use of some understanding I have of something expressed using the verb “to be”—specifically, when expressing claims about what things (there) are. When I understand what it would be for my child to be successful in school, I’m making use of my understanding of something much more general: namely, of what it is for a thing to have a property—i.e. what “to be” expresses in use (i). When I understand what it would be for Superman to be Clark Kent, I’m making use of my understanding of something similarly general: what it is for one thing to be numerically identical to another—i.e. what “to be” expresses in use (ii). And, when I understand what it would be for Santa Claus to exist, I’m making use of my understanding of yet another very general sort of thing: what it is for something to exist—i.e. what “to be” expresses in use (iii).
So, it would seem that whenever we consider any thing—any thing at all, in any way—this means we understand, and are making use of our understanding of, something expressed by the verb “to be”. In Aristotle’s terms, considering any thing ‘includes’ making use of ‘an understanding of being’. In the terminology of medieval philosophy influenced by Aristotle, this idea was expressed by saying that being is a ‘transcendental’—it ‘transcends’ all differences between things, no matter how dramatic those differences might be—e.g. the dramatic differences that Aristotle called differences of ‘category’. More specifically, it transcends them in the sense that we must employ our understanding of being whenever we consider anything of any kind or category at all. It’s in this sense that ‘being is the most universal concept’.
Notice that this, by itself, suggests that our understanding of being—i.e. of what’s expressed by the verb “to be”—is quite fundamental to our capacity to make sense of anything at all. This is an idea that H would agree with. In fact, he would judge that the case I’ve just made for this idea actually understates just how fundamental an understanding of being is for us. And, later in the Introduction, he’ll draw on this idea to argue that the Seinsfrage is the most fundamental philosophical question of all.
How though, does all of this shed light on P1? Remember that what’s being proposed in P1 isn’t just that ‘being is the most universal concept’ in the above sense. More than this, what’s being proposed is that this formulation gives us, all by itself, an adequate answer to the Seinsfrage. H has no objection at all to the former claim: he heartily accepts it. Rather, his objection is to the latter claim. That is, he doesn’t think that you’re done answering the Seinsfrage simply by saying that being is the most universal concept.
Why? Because he thinks that there are certain complications that must be accounted for in any satisfactory answer to the Seinsfrage. It was Aristotle who originally pointed out them out, in Metaphysics Γ. Once we understand them, it becomes clear that simply saying that being is the most universal concept doesn’t—as correct as it is—do anything to address them. And, this is a fatal shortcoming of P1, since these complications are quite serious. They are serious because they call into doubt whether whether the Seinsfrage is a real question at all.
To see how, let’s first consider a different example: the English word “bank”. This word is used in at least two different ways: to designate the sides of rivers, and to designate a certain kind of financial institution. Now, suppose someone came along and asked the question: what is the concept expressed using the word “bank”, such that this concept applies to both kinds of things? It seems as if the right response to such a person would be that their question is based on a confusion. There is no such concept. This person has been deceived by a superficial feature of the English language: the fact that the two uses of word “bank” are homonymous. That is, it’s just a coincidence of how English developed that we use one sound/series of letters to talk about these two kinds of things. In other words, the word is ambiguous: it expressestwo unrelated concepts, and so the question this person is asking is essentially a non-question.
With that in mind, let’s turn to the Seinsfrage. Suppose someone considers claims about what things (there) are, and comes to the same sort of conclusion we came to above about the word “bank”. They say to us: look, saying that something has a property, that x is numerically identical to y, and that something exists—all these are very different things. So, maybe there is no single concept expressed by the verb “to be”. Maybe, instead, these three homonymous uses of “to be” tell us that this verb is simply ambiguous: that it express three unrelated concepts, so that (just like with the word “bank”) there’s no real question as to what single, unified concept it expresses.
Aristotle famously presented a problem like this as the signature challenge of ontology. To meet this challenge, he proposed that, although “to be” is ambiguous, the different homonymous uses are systematically related; and, that their relation is tight enough that it’s still appropriate to say that there’s a single unified concept of being. The picture he proposed was that the ambiguity of “to be” is what he called a ‘pros hen ambiguity’. In Greek, pros hen means ‘in relation to one’. In other words, he thought that there’s a central or focal meaning of “to be”, such that the others are intelligible in terms of this focal meaning. When the other uses of a concept all relate to one of its uses (i.e. its focal meaning) in this way, Aristotle said the concept manifests a ‘unity of analogy’.
To explain this, he used another example of a pros hen ambiguity to illustrate: the term “healthy”. We can say, for example, that a human being is healthy, that an exercise is healthy, and that a person’s urine is healthy. However, what it is for a person to be healthy is very different from what it is for an exercise to be healthy; and both of them, in turn, are very different from what it is for a person’s urine to be healthy. These differences are so striking that someone might (as with the word “bank”) conclude that there is no single concept of health—i.e. that “healthy” expresses a number of unrelated concepts.
However, this is harder to accept than it is in the case of “bank”. These different uses of “healthy” all seem to be closely related to one another. Aristotle’s proposal was that the focal meaning of the concept was in reference to the health of a whole organism (e.g. a human being). The other uses, then, are intelligible in relation to this focal meaning. For example, for an exercise to be healthy is for it to safeguard the health of the organism; and for the organism’s urine to be healthy is for it to be an indication of the health of the organism; and so on. In this way, “healthy” is pros hen ambiguous: it manifests a unity of analogy.
What, if anything, speaks in favor of there being a unity (e.g. a unity of analogy) among, for example, uses (i)-(iii) of “to be”? In other words, can we say anything to evoke the sense that, just as with the various uses of “healthy”, there seems to be something in common among the various uses of “to be”? Well, consider a fourth use of the verb:
(iv) As a (pure) verbal noun
In other words, we use a certain form of “to be”—“being”—as a countable common noun. We can, for example, talk about ‘a being’, ‘the being’, ‘this being’, ‘two beings’, ‘many beings’, etc. This use is quite broad. For example, any individual thing (e.g. you, me, South Korea, Santa Claus, Mt. Everest) is a being.
Now, notice that claims about what things (there) are can be made using this form of the verb “to be”. That is, we can say, for example, things like “This being is a dog” or “This being is that being” or “There are many beings in the universe.” Of course, much the same could be said of many different nouns. It could be said, for example, about the noun “chimp”, and this doesn’t seem to suggest that there is a unified concept expressed by uses (i)-(iii) of the verb “to be” together with the noun “chimp”. However, there is a more striking connection between uses (i)-(iii) on the one hand, and use (iv) on the other: namely, anything about which we can make claims of all of the three types (again, types (i)-(iii)) is a being—i.e. falls under use (iv). (Note that in the McQuarrie & Robinson translation, beings are called entities [Seienden], and I will follow suit.) What matters, though, for the present purposes is that this connection among claims about what things (there) are provides some initial plausibility to the idea that there is some kind of unity among the various uses of “to be”. It suggests, in particular, that this unity has something to do with how uses (i)-(iii) all pertain to beings/entities. H takes note of this fact by at times calling being ‘that which determines entities as entities’. At other times, he does so by framing the Seinsfrage as a matter of understanding the being of entities, where “being” here is the gerund form of “to be”, so that understanding being is a matter of understanding how and why the various senses of “to be” apply to entities.
Again, Aristotle thinks there is the relevant sort of unity, and argues that it’s a unity of analogy. The details of his account aren’t important for now, though. All that we need to recognize is that, even if you accept P1, you’re not done doing ontology: you still owe some account of how the different uses of “to be” are systematically related. Otherwise, your ontology will be vulnerable to the objection made above with respect to the word “bank”.
H accuses people who fail to see this of thinking that ‘being is a genus’. The term “genus” here is a reference to yet more ideas from Aristotle. In actuality, I think there’s a more basic confusion of which H is accusing them. However, he states the point in this way in order to highlight the fact, as he sees things, that such people are making a mistake of which Aristotle was already aware.
To see the nature of this confusion, let’s call the target of H’s criticism here the genus theorist (GT). GT thinks of being as the most general kind concept. Think here of concepts expressed by common nouns—e.g. “living thing”, “animal”, or “human”. Such concepts are concepts of kinds—in the case of the latter examples, kinds of beings.
Now, suppose you’re trying to specify what it is to belong to a certain kind K by supplying a definition—in other words, a single set of necessary and sufficient conditions for belong to K. For example, to define animals, a biologist might say something like: “Animals are eukaryotic, multicellular, heterotrophic, motile, etc. living things.” In this proposed definition, what comes after the “are” is something like a list of properties necessary for being an animal—a list of properties that are (given we could fill in the “etc.”) jointly sufficient for being an animal.
As H is imagining GT, they are effectively thinking of being as a kind—the most general kind. Let’s imagine starting off from a fairly specific kind (what Aristotle called a species)—e.g. ‘man’. Aristotle thought that you can define a species S by pointing out what he called its genus G—a broader kind to which all things of that species belong—and then saying what particular quality makes something in G a member of S. He called this quality the specific difference of members of S. Drawing on this idea, we could say that men—members of the species ‘man’—belong to the genus ‘human’.2 But then, suppose we continue. Suppose, that is, that we treat ‘human’ as the species, and say that humans belong to the broader genus ‘primate’. Then, imagine we keep going—keep specifying broader and broader kinds: primates belong to the genus ‘mammal’, mammals belong to the genus ‘animal’, animals belong to the genus ‘living thing’, living things belong (let’s say) to the genus ‘material thing’. At this point, we might then say: material things belong to the genus ‘being’. In other words, living things are beings, and this is where we must stop: there is no more general genus than that of beings.
It’s this kind of thought process that drives GT to think that we can answer the Seinsfrage by giving a definition of the kind ‘being’ (where “being” is used as a verbal noun). What speaks in favor of this strategy? We noticed above that claims about what things (there) are (uses (i)-(iii) of “to be”) are tied together by the fact that they are all made of beings (use (iv), i.e. entities). So, it can seem plausible to think that the key to answering the Seinsfrage lies in defining what it is to be a being.
However, if you approach the Seinsfrage in this way, you would naturally conclude that there’s nothing more to be said about being than that it’s the most universal concept—the broadest, least specific genus. This is because anything more specific would seem to target some special, particular domain of reality—some particular kind of being. And, to do so would strike you as a problem, because a definition of beings shouldn’t target any specific kind of being: it should be a definition of beings in general.
Now, let’s step back from GT’s particular strategy for answering the Seinsfrage. It’s important to see that the endeavor of defining some kind K in the above manner requires making a key presupposition that doesn’t rely on accepting the specifics of this strategy. Namely, it presupposes that there is some one thing it is to belong to K, such that the definition of K specifies, in terms of other properties, what this one thing consists in. In thinking of beings as a genus, GT accepts this presupposition. But then, in doing so, they’ve failed to recognize the problem of ambiguity, as stated above: i.e. the fact that there are multiple distinct, very different uses of “to be”. In other words, GT behaves as if there’s only one sense of the term. But there isn’t, and that’s precisely the problem! It’s what Aristotle already recognized as the signature problem of ontology—a recognition that, as H points out, led him to reject thinking of being as a genus.
By pointing out the problem of ambiguity, H wishes to get us to recognize what kind of a question the Seinsfrage is—i.e. what kinds of challenges ontology must face head-on. The project isn’t that of taking a single sense of “to be” (e.g. the way GT takes use (iv)), and accounting for what something must be like in order for this sense to be applicable to it. If it were, then GT would be right in claiming that there could be nothing more to say about being than that it is the most universal concept. However, the real problem for ontology is a different one—i.e. the problem Aristotle tried to solve: what kind of unity, if any, do the various senses of “to be” enjoy among one another? H’s answer will be very different from Aristotle’s. However, he thinks Aristotle conceived of the problem—and understood the problem’s complexity—in roughly the right way.
The second prejudice (call it P2) is the idea that being is indefinable. H claims that this idea is in part the result of the same confused conception of being as P1: that it’s a genus—i.e. that “to be” has a single sense, which outlines a certain kind: the one that includes those things to which this sense applies. However, he adds some additional details to show how this same conception can lead someone to a different (but equally mistaken) prejudice about the Seinsfrage.
What’s important to recognize is that H in a certain sense agrees with P2. Being can’t be defined—at least, if you’re thinking of ‘definition’ in certain ways (e.g. according to the conception of defining a kind that we discussed above). What he wants to challenge is the idea that this entails that the Seinsfrage is unanswerable.
H begins by referencing (in an endnote) one kind of argument for the indefinability of being due to the 17th century French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal. Suppose we want to answer the Seinsfrage by offering a definition. Pascal pointed out that any such definition must use the very concept it purportedly defines—i.e. the concept expressed by “to be”. For example, suppose we offer a definition of the form ‘Being is (i.e. has properties) X, Y, etc.’ Here, “being” is used in its gerund form rather than as a verbal noun. But notice how such a definition of being uses a form of the verb “to be” in its formulation: namely “is”.
Why is this a problem? Because such a definition is circular. One way of clarifying the relevant notion of circularity would be as follows. A definition of a concept is supposed to illuminate that concept. Thus, in principle, it ought to be intelligible for those who don’t already understand that concept. But if we use that concept in its own definition, the definition can’t serve this purpose.
It might be objected here that there is genuine circularity here in only one case. That is, if, in ‘Being is X, Y, etc.’, “being” is an instance of use (i) of “to be” (i.e. in its gerund from), there’s a circularity problem. This is because “is” is also an instance of use (i): a use of “to be” as the copula. However, if we use ‘Being is…” to define being, where “being” is used as the gerund form of sense (ii) or (iii), we’re using one sense of “to be” (again, sense (i)) to define another.
But remember that the presumed goal of any of these definitions is to define the (single, unified) concept expressed by “to be”. So, defining one of its uses in a way that avoids circularity will, at best, address only one use of “to be”. Even if we were to formulate adequate, non-circular definitions of uses (ii)-(iv) in the above manner, our endeavor would still fall short in two respects. First, this, by itself, won’t illuminate how, if at all, these different uses are systematically interrelated. Second, any attempt to do so would be blocked by our inability to give a non-circular definition of use (i).
H takes all of this to speak against the viability of answering the Seinsfrage by formulating some illuminating definition of the form ‘Being(s) is/are…’ Here, he diagnoses the source of the whole idea that this is the only way of answering the Seinsfrage—specifically, the historically prominent presupposition that leads to this idea. This is the presupposition that being is an entity. This presupposition underlies GT’s endeavor to answer the Seinsfrage by accounting for what beings are, and hence by offering a certain kind of definition to do so.
Again, H agrees that GT’s endeavor is a doomed one. What he disagrees with is concluding from this that the Seinsfrage is unanswerable. Instead, as we’ve already seen, what ontology must do is to tackle the problem of ambiguity—to discern what unity, if any, there is among the diverse uses of “to be”.
The third prejudice (call it P3) is that there is no need to do ontology, because we already understand what being is, and so, already have an answer to the Seinsfrage. The basic idea here is that, since all of us understand how to use “to be” in all four ways, there is no mystery to solve here. H’s response is that this is true, but that in virtue of this understanding, being has for us only an ‘average intelligibility’. What he means by this is roughly that, although we all understand being in the above sense, this doesn’t mean that we are able to articulate this understanding.
Many kinds of understanding are like this. For example, in virtue of being competent speakers of English, we all have a grasp of its rules of grammar. In H’s terminology, those rules have an ‘average intelligibility’ for us. But of course, this doesn’t mean we can articulate this understanding: i.e. specify these rules in detail. Quite the contrary: it would take a great amount of effort doing advanced linguistics to do so. Most linguists would probably tell you that no one has a comprehensive handle on the rules of English grammar.
In the case of being, the fact that we are quite inarticulate is demonstrated by the fact that the problem of ambiguity is a highly puzzling one. How are the different uses of “to be” systematically related, if they are at all? The fact that it’s quite difficult to say makes being more mysterious, not less. In the case of health, it’s quite easy to figure out Aristotle’s point on our own—that all the different senses of health have to do with the most basic form of health: the health of an organism. And this is because we all understand the concept. All of us, though, understand being, including uses (i)-(iv). In fact, based on what we’ve seen so far, we are constantly using this understanding, which suggests we in some sense understand it quite well. And yet, we are hard pressed to know how to solve the problem of ambiguity that Aristotle’ pointed out. Being is perhaps what we understand best, but we are puzzled by what ought to seem (as in the case of health) like a basic question about that understanding. And so our puzzlement itself is highly puzzling.
H closes out section 1 by saying that the Seinsfrage is still “obscure and without direction” (p.24). This might come as a surprise. Even if we haven’t answered it, don’t we now have a handle on how to formulate it? For example, based on what I’ve said before, can’t we say that it’s the problem of finding some unity among uses (i)-(iv) of “to be”? H will say ‘no’, and this is because, as we’ll see, uses (i)-(iv) aren’t the only senses of being. Traditionally, they’re the only ones with which philosophers doing ontology have concerned themselves. However, in doing so, their whole endeavor has, as H sees things, been wrong from the start. In failing to account for a particular sense of being—one distinct from (i)-(iv)—they have failed to properly formulate the Seinsfrage in the sense that they’ve failed to recognize the full scope of the problem of ambiguity. In other words, the problem is not just to find some unity among uses (i)-(iv), but among (i)-(iv), together with another sense of being, which is central to the nature of beings like us. This will become clear, though, only after the Introduction.
1. All page numbers refer to the translation of Being and Time by John McQuarrie & Edward Robinson (New York: Harper & Row, 1962).
2. Notice here that we’re using the terms “species” and “genus” here in Aristotle’s original way, which is the origin of, but different from, their use in biology.