By Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.
PART ONE: Being and Reality
The foundational philosophic science for all metaphysical thought is called ontology, the philosophic study of being in its most general and widest aspects. During this introduction, we will be going to the very core of existence and being.
The term being means thing, reality. It means anything that exists or can be thought of as existing. Being is a very important term in metaphysics, indeed it represents the basis of all metaphysical thought.
We form the general concept of being by looking at the things around us. They are things or beings. All things have a common element; they are existible. This means they are either actually in existence or could be in existence (possible existence).
Since the term being is the expression of a concept, it has both a comprehension (or connotation) and an extension (or denotation). The comprehension or connotation of a concept is the sum total of all the attributes which constitute the concept, expressed in the definition of the content of the concept. The extension or denotation of a concept, on the other hand, is the sum total of all the individuals and groups to which a concept can be applied.
The comprehension of the concept being is the simplest of all concepts because it contains only a single element in its definition. Being means that which is existible, anything that is not nothing. The extension of the concept being is the widest of all concepts; it can be applied to absolutely everything that exists or can exist.
The beings or things of which we are usually immediately aware are those we contact through our senses. We see human beings, trees, chairs, dogs, and so on and we call all of these things, beings. This is the common-sense view of being. This common-sense awareness of being differs, however, from the metaphysical awareness of being. There is, in other words, another way to view being than just as sensible, material, physical reality.
BEING AND REALITY
We can differentiate between two types of abstraction. Common sense shows us the reality of material things and provides us with the means to group things together into classes based on what they have in common. For example, we group poodles, German shepherds, collies, bulldogs, and cocker spaniels into a class called dogs. Furthermore, we group dogs, cats, birds, fish, and elephants into a class called animals. We do this by abstraction, taking those elements a group of individuals have in common and joining these individuals together in a class. Classes can become larger and more universal as we go from dogs to animals to living things. This process can be called total abstraction, the abstraction of the universal whole in progressive stages.
It is possible for us, however, to grasp realities or beings in a different way. We can, for example, take a specific feature that makes a being to be what it is and concentrate on that. Our intellect, instead of merely contemplating reality in a simple fashion, can contemplate it in an intensive and penetrating way. The natural scientist does this when he deals with reality from a scientific point of view. The biologist doesn’t just use the concept of animal as we do in our ordinary awareness, he concentrates intently on the concept of, for instance, invertebrate animal. His use of concepts is more penetrating and, of course, more exact. This can be called formal abstraction.
Formal abstraction itself can take place on different intellectual levels as we penetrate further and further into reality. We can actually identify three levels of formal abstraction.
The first level of formal abstraction, which we’ll call physical abstraction, refers to our concentration on the material qualities of things. These material qualities include elements such as whether something is rough or smooth, hot or cold, its color, its shape, its size and so forth. We separate these material qualities from any individual thing in which they may be found. The color green, for example, must actually exist in some individual thing, but we can still contemplate the concept greenness apart from any specific thing. It doesn’t matter whether we first become aware of a green leaf or a green automobile, we can still deal with the concept of greenness in and of itself. This is physical abstraction.
The next level of formal abstraction, which we’ll call mathematical abstraction, leaves out all sensible matter and concentrates solely on the magnitude, extension, and quantity that is present in things. For example, we can use the terms line, square, point, and triangle without considering any material quality such as color, size, and so on. A circle can be thought of without any materiality at all. This is mathematical abstraction.
The highest level of formal abstraction, which we’ll call metaphysical abstraction, consists in divesting things of all that distinguishes one kind of thing from another kind of thing, selecting only those elements in which all things or beings agree and which they have in common. Such abstract concepts, then, will apply to all beings. The concepts being, substance, true, cause, and actuality, for example, can be applied to all things. This is the ultimate level of reality to which our intellect can penetrate. We can deal with being itself, without any conditions of individuality, or quality, or quantity. We can concentrate on what it means for a thing to be. This is metaphysical abstraction.
The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at Self-Educated American. Self-Educated American has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.