BEING AND EXISTENCE: A Brief Introduction into the Nature of Reality
by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.
* The Kinds of Being
The concept of being is the simplest, widest, and most indeterminate of all concepts. Being is anything and everything that does or can exist. Being is whatever is not nothing. This is being in its most general form.
Being itself, however, never appears in and cannot exist in an indeterminate way. Every being always appears as some determinate kind of being. Every being has a definite degree of reality as an individual being.
Every single thing in nature is a being, and the special sciences of biology, chemistry, astronomy, sociology, and so forth classify ordinary types of being which are found in the universe. Geology, for example, classifies being as minerals of various types, describing their specific kinds and structures. Anthropology classifies being as human beings of specific types, breaking these types down into further and further classifications. Botany deals with living beings called plants and classifies these beings according to their specific determinations.
The philosophical science of ontology, however, considers only those kinds of being which are present in all the special sciences together and is considered as being in general or being as such. From the viewpoint of ontology, then, being can be classified as real being, ideal being, and logical being.
A real being is anything that has, or can have, existence independent of our mind and our actual knowledge of it. It must be able to exist even though we may not know about it. There are a number of subdivisions of real being which are very important in metaphysics. A being can be actual or possible, substantial or accidental, necessary or contingent, finite or infinite, absolute or relative.
A being can be an actual being or a possible being. An actual being exists at this very moment. We are aware of ourselves as existing right now. We look around us and see all sorts of beings in our surroundings. These things actually exist whether we are thinking about them or not. There are also some actual beings we may not perceive, such as psychical states, spiritual beings, and other invisibles. But if they have existence here and now, they are actual beings.
A possible being is one that does not actually exist but could exist. A being of this kind is not present in any way at this moment, but it is possible for it to exist given the proper conditions and causes. Think of the farmer who is planting his annual crop of corn. The seed is an actual being because it exists now in the ground. The future crop of corn is not actually present yet, but it is a possible or potential being. The seed has the inherent power to bring the corn into reality so it can exist. If a being could exist, but does not do so at this moment, it is a possible being.
Being can also be categorized as substantial being or accidental being. A substantial being is one that exists in itself. It does not need any other being in which to exist. The ordinary objects we see all around us, such as tables, chairs, cats, dogs, people, rivers, lake, the sun and the moon, are all substantial beings. They exist in themselves and have a being of their own.
Accidental being cannot exist in itself. It must have another being to exist in. It requires a subject in which to exist. It needs a substance or substantial being to support it in its existence. Such things as color, motion, size, shape, position, sound and so forth require something in which they can exist. Color never exists in and of itself; it always exists in something. Motion never exists in itself; it requires some body that moves from place to place. This is accidental being.
Being can be either necessary being or contingent being. A being is said to be necessary when its non-existence is impossible. Necessary being can be either absolute or conditional. It is absolute if it never was produced and was, therefore, never out of existence for a single moment. There is, of course, only one such absolutely necessary being: God. A being is conditional if its non-existence is impossible under certain given conditions. A particular plant, such as a rose, doesn’t have to exist. But if it does exist, it must have life. Life is a conditional necessity for a plant; otherwise it is not really a plant, but just a bunch of chemicals.
A contingent being is one that doesn’t have to exist at all. Its non-existence is possible. Its actual existence is not demanded or required, and its existence is owed to some other being, which means it could not produce itself. Our own existence is contingent. It is certainly possible for any one of us to have not existed.
Being can be a finite being or an infinite being. A finite being is one whose reality is limited in perfection. This, of course, includes everything in the physical world, including us. We have all sorts of limitations, just as all the objects around us do. As long as there’s the slightest limitation of any sort in a being, it is finite.
An infinite being is one which has no limitations whatsoever regarding its perfection. An infinite being has supreme fullness and is complete in every respect. God is such an infinite being.
Being can be absolute being or relative being. An absolute being can be thought of or can exist without reference to another being. It is independent, self-sufficient, and doesn’t need another being. This can be of two types. If a being is ontologically absolute, it can exist without reference to another being. Only God is absolute is this sense. If, however, a being is logically absolute, it can be thought of without reference to another being. Ordinary objects fall into this type because we can form an idea of them without reference to another object. Objects such as cats, planets, silver, wristwatch and so on can be defined by themselves without reference to any other being.
A being is relative being if it can exist or be thought of only in reference to another being. This can also be of two types. If a being is ontologically relative, its existence is relative to some other being. The existence of all creation is of this type since it owes its existence to God. If, however, a being is logically relative, it cannot be thought of without reference to another being. A concept like father cannot be thought of except relative to the concept child. The concept “rear” is relative to the concept “front.” The concept “king” is relative to the concept “subjects.”
An ideal being is any thing in so far as it is known. We are aware sensually or intellectually of an object in our surroundings. We “know” this object. It is present to our awareness. This is ideal being and it appears in two forms, depending on whether the object is present to our senses or to our mind.
If the being is present to our senses, it is sensible ideal being. Our sense-images, resulting from sense perception, are always concrete, individual, and vague. We share sense-perception with other animals and they can “know” other beings as sensible ideal beings. That animals are aware of objects in their environment is obvious. But they are only sensually aware.
We, on the other hand, are human beings with a rational faculty, the intellect. We can “know” objects, not only sensually, but intellectually. We can, in other words, “know” as a result of sense-perception and as a result of intellection. We have sense-images, as other animals do, but we also have ideas or concepts, which other animals do not. If being is present to our minds, it is intellectual ideal being. It is abstract, universal, clear, and distinct.
Logical being is anything that has objective being only in the mind. There are a variety of beings which have no existence or being whatever outside our minds. Their existence is strictly a product of thought. They are creations of the mind and have no existence in the world outside of us. A logical being is really a thought-being.
There are two types of logical being: one type has no foundation in reality, and the other type does have a foundation in reality.
Think, for a moment, about these things: a square circle, a stick with only one end, one hand clapping, a non-existent being. None of these things could really exist. They could not represent a positive reality. Yet our minds can think such things. Such beings, however, can exist nowhere else but in our minds. They are without a foundation in reality.
The second type of logical being has a foundation in reality. It is a being which cannot exist in nature in the precise way in which it is thought, but there is a reason in the things of nature that explains why our mind can conceive of it. There are three subtypes of such logical beings: negative, privative, and relative.
A negative logical being is a concept representing the mere absence of being. Such concepts as vacuum, emptiness, sightlessness, and lifelessness are ideas of this sort. These concepts have a content which is negative and cannot, of course, be a reality which can exist outside the mind. And yet these concepts have a foundation in reality, simply because they are the negation of some being.
A privative logical being is a concept representing a lack of being. Such concepts as death, blindness, and paralysis are of this sort. These may seem similar to negative logical being, but they are of a different sort. For example, while sightlessness is the absence of sight, blindness is the privation of sight in a being which ought to have sight.
A relative logical being is a concept representing some relation between thoughts, sentences, inferences, and any part of them, considered as a being. There is a relationship between nouns and verbs in a sentence. There is also a relationship between premises and conclusions in an argument. In so far as we consider sentences and arguments as being, they are relative logical being. In so far as we consider nouns and verbs to be beings, they are relative logical being. The same is true for premises and conclusions.
A chart illustrating the various kinds of being is provided here so you can easily review the above information. We now turn our attention to the analogous aspect of the concept of being.
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 The Moral Liberal. The Moral Liberal has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.