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Chapter II: Existence And Being

I must now try to push deeper my examination of what is commonly called the ontological problem. From what I said last year it must, I think, be apparent that the problem is actually a mystery. But unfortunately there is a risk that the words ‘ontological mystery’ may degenerate into a pseudo-philosophical catch-phrase. We are again exposed to the danger that continually besets us, of seeing the significance of words and of thought itself weakened or corrupted, and it is only by a strenuous effort of reflection that we can escape this trying possibility.

It has often been remarked recently, and Etienne Gilson in particular has reminded us of it in his recent L'Être et l'Essence1 that the first difficulties we must take into account arise from our vocabulary itself. These difficulties are not quite the same in English as they are in French, but they are none the less grave.

In French the word être has the great inconvenience of having a double meaning; it is both a substantive and a verb. The philosophers whose inspiration derives from Heidegger's ontology have tried to avoid this ambiguity by introducing the word étant, used as a substantive, but it now seems very doubtful whether the word étant will gain currency among philosophers. Gilson indeed, notes that a seventeenth-century author, Scipion du Pleix, headed the second book of his metaphysic with the title ‘Qu'est-ce que l'étant?’; he adds that philosophers have made of the word étant a pure noun, using it simply and absolutely for anything at all, so long as it exists in truth, reality and fact, like: Angel, Man, Metal, Stone etc. In French, however, it is the word être which has been current even in this sense, and one could apparently conclude, according to Gilson, that it is the verbal sense which has prevailed in the end. Nevertheless the ambiguity remains; when I say in French, ‘Qu'est-ce que l'être?’ do I simply wish to say, ‘What does to be (i.e. the fact of being) mean?’ or am I asking a very different question: do I by the word être really designate l'étant? If we use the Latin terms we say: does the enquiry bear upon esse or upon ens? We must realize that in English the ambiguity is even more embarrassing, as the word being corresponds exactly to ens, or to what I called in French l'étant. The difficulty then increases, unless we bring in another word such as fact or act to designate esse properly so called; and this springs from the purely grammatical fact that in English the present participle serves the same purpose as the infinitive used as a substantive does in Greek, for example, or in German.

I cannot help thinking that this ambiguity or amphibology is deep-rooted: we may even be tempted to believe that thought refuses more and more to face this enquiry; it is the most metaphysical of all enquiries, and it consists in asking ourselves what does to be mean, or again what is it that makes a being to be a being.

We can always, it is true, take refuge in the assumption that the reason why we spontaneously refuse to face this question is that it is indeed the most vain of all enquiries. But what does vain mean in this particular context? Do we mean to say that it is useless in an entirely pragmatic sense? If so, it is clear that no philosopher could be held back by such a consideration. Must we dig deeper and say that there is a veto on such an enterprise, that it amounts to an attempt at trespassing in a domain which should remain inaccessible to a creature, in as much as it is a creature? When everything has been taken into account, I am not quite certain, indeed, that there is not some truth in that attitude. On the other hand, how could the philosopher resign himself to admitting that his road is blocked by a notice, Vietato l'ingresso? How could he deny himself the search for a clearer definition of being as being?

It is clear, in the first place, that this is not a question of an ordinary predicate, perhaps even not of a predicate at all: we may have to avail ourselves of the Aristotelian notion of transcendentals. It calls for only a most elementary philosophical reflection to realize that to be cannot be a property, since it is to be that makes possible the existence of any property at all; it is that without which no property whatsoever can be conceived, though it is true that we must be careful to avoid the sort of scheme in which being exists in some way anterior to properties; nothing could be more fallacious than the idea of a sort of nakedness of being which exists before qualities and properties and which is later to be clothed by them. This, of course, has been seen with the utmost clarity by your eighteenth-century thinkers.

We should note in addition that we must establish a most intimate connection between being pure and simple on one side and the being of the copula, the verb of judgment of predication on the other side; though it is not necessarily opposite to being in the sense of the rather hoary distinction between analytic and synthetic judgment. For example, if I say ‘This stone is heavy’ or ‘This stone is white’, I am only stressing certain specific aspects of the comprehensive affirmation ‘This stone is’. One might even say that the judgment of predication is a special viewing of the indestructible reality of the stone which is transposed to the plane of logical affirmation. Remember, too, that we cannot be too distrustful of the examples which appear in treatises on logic; in these the propositions are isolated from their contexts and lose their correct emphasis and precise meaning; they lose, I mean, everything which in concrete reality is conveyed by intonation. For example if I pick up a chair and say ‘This chair is heavy!’ that is an exclamatory proposition. The exclamation is an integral part of what I say. I do not simply want to say ‘This chair has weight’; probably I want to say ‘This chair weighs more than I thought, I have a job to lift it!’ It is very seldom in the concrete life of thought that I have occasion to make what one could call an affirmation of being; the exceptional case is when a being has made its appearance in the world, has burst into life—a birth, for example, or the completion of a work of art. Then the affirmation becomes a sort of salute or greeting, as though I made a formal acknowledgment of some thing.

There is, of course, another example, a unique one, which we shall have to deal with at length when we come back to it; it is the affirmation which bears upon the existence of God Himself. Whatever audible form this thought may take, there are moments when in effect I say to myself, ‘God is’: if I am a mystic it may be that I am continually making this affirmation. But what is immediately apparent, and what we shall see more precisely later, is that this affirmation lies beyond every judgment of predication; we may well have to ask ourselves later also how far it is possible for us to have, in regard to the existence of God the partial or incomplete views, I should almost say the sidelights, which we can always get when we are concerned with a particular reality, a reality that can be designated, that is, with a this.

But on the other hand, have we not—especially when we have greeted a birth or the appearance of a work of art—used the word being in the sense of existence? This question of the relation between being and existence has always been a preoccupation of mine; I may say that it has always worried me. The time has come in these lectures to make a frontal attack on it, and the first thing we must succeed in doing is to find some starting points which are free from ambiguity: we cannot say some definitions, for we are now beyond the limits of the definable. I note that Gilson, at least when he is speaking of St. Thomas Aquinas, has no scruple in identifying being with existence; he translates the formula ens dicitur quasi esse habens as ‘being is that which has existence’ (‘l'être est ce qui a l'exister’). It is not without reason, he adds, that to that which possesses existence (esse habens) is given the name of being (ens); in fact the very word being is derived from that which designates the act of existing (esse). As St. Thomas says ‘Hoc nomen ens imponitur ab ipso esse’. We must understand by that, that the word ens which directly and in the first place signifies the thing (res), at the same time always signifies the act of existing. The ontology which bears upon being conceived in this light rests, then, from the start and of necessity on the firm foundation of essences which are grasped by their concepts and formulated by their definitions; but in the essence which is apt to be conceptualized, this ontology will always keep in view the act of esse, of which no concept can be formed, and which is signified by the act of judgment. That is why only judgment, which says what is and what is not, ultimately gets at the truth about things. It arrives at their truth because, in and through their essences, it arrives at their acts of existence.

Without at first committing myself to one side or the other in this matter, I think that we should recall to our minds what we said last year about existence properly so called. Remember in the first place the crucial distinction which I tried to establish between existence and objectivity. Later we shall have to ask ourselves what repercussions that distinction can have on the question of being as we are now considering it. ‘The more we lay stress on the object as such,’ I wrote in an article, Existence et Objectivité, which appeared in 1925 in the Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale, ‘on the characteristics which, in as much as it is an object, make it up; on the intelligibility with which it must be charged if it is to give a line of approach to the subject which faces it; the more we shall be obliged to leave its existential aspect in darkness. What will be deliberately left out will be the mode according to which the object is present to the person who is considering it; or, which comes to the same thing, the mysterious power of self-affirmation thanks to which the object can present itself before a spectator; and deeper than this will be the question of knowing how it can happen that this object is not simply an inarticulate spectacle, but is endowed also with the power of affecting in countless ways even the being of the person who contemplates it and experiences it. The sensible presence of the thing which, if it is not confused with its existence, seems, at least to unprejudiced reflection, as though it were its manifestation, its most immediate revelation—it is that which a philosophy which is directed at once towards ideas and towards objects, tends inevitably to slur over.’ When I re-read that passage I seem to detect a certain hesitation, a certain wavering. ‘The sensible presence of the thing, which if it is not confused with its existence seems at least to be its most immediate revelation’. What exactly does that mean? I think the effect of the reservation is to keep a sort of gap or interval between something which may be the being of existence or which may simply be its appearance. But I must admit that I should not now be willing to maintain this distinction. I believe on the contrary that to think of existence is ultimately to think of the impossibility of any opposition here between being and appearance: the reason for this became in time more and more apparent to me: it is that the existential aspect is inextricably bound up with my own condition of being not only incarnate but also a wayfarer—Homo Viator. When I recognize, when I salute the existence of anything, I recognize at the same time that before a day has gone it will no longer exist, in the sense that I shall no longer myself exist bodily. We can see this most clearly when we consider things which are bound up with human life: the house in which such and such a person was born no longer exists, it was pulled down at such and such a date, nothing remains in its place but elements that have been scattered to infinity, nothing but a handful of dust.

In reality, however, our problem is not quite so simple as it appears at first. Last year I tried to show that there is an existent, which serves as a central criterion to which must be referred all the judgments of existence which I may be led to pronounce; this central criterion is my own body, regarded not just as a body, as a corporeal thing, but as my own; or better as a presence whose mass makes itself felt in an all-pervading way. This presence will not, accordingly, allow itself to be reduced, as objects in so far as they are pure objects of knowledge are reduced, either to a simple aspect or to a co-ordination of inter-related aspects. We could put this another way by saying that my body is endowed with a density that is lived or felt; and in so far as I bring other things before myself as existents, I confer on them, too, by analogy, a density of the same order. The complication springs here from the sort of irreducible duality as a result of which the existent is at the same time a thing and yet in some way more than a thing. This is true first of all, of course, of my own body and of other people's bodies. To be more precise, let us note that in so far as my body is subject to accident, it can and should be treated essentially as a thing; to take an example that is unhappily only too familiar to us nowadays, it must be so treated in so far as it can be handled and ill-treated by those who would do it mischief. But we must hasten to add that the happening of these accidents or the infliction of this inhuman ill-treatment can be understood only in so far as the victim is thought of as a subject or, if you like, as a centre. They happen to a certain living somebody; nothing could possibly happen to a mere thing, because it has no interiority, no life of its own, it is ownless. Applied to a thing which was nothing more than a thing, these words would be meaningless.

In these circumstances the use of the words ‘to cease to exist’ presents a difficult problem. It is true that the thing which has been destroyed, or taken apart, or reduced to dust, has ceased to exist, but in the deepest sense of the word, has it ever existed? Should we not perhaps have good reason to say that it is only to the pseudo-existent (that is, the thing which is nothing more than a thing, which has been wrongly assimilated to my body), that it can happen to cease to exist? In that case how is the question to be applied to the true existent? What do we mean when we say that Victor Hugo or Napoleon no longer exists? To be exact, what we mean is that if we reduce Victor Hugo or Napoleon to a certain mechanism which functioned at a certain time, that mechanism is no longer functioning; it no longer even subsists, in the sense in which a carriage no longer subsists which is worn out and has been sent away as scrap iron.

I have purposely used the word ‘mechanism’. While we use that word, we stay in the domain of objects, or rather of what I have called ‘things’. But last year we saw that my body is a presence, and in virtue of that it cannot be reduced to being my mechanism, my instrument; I mean that it somehow transcends its being my instrument. I am my body, we said, whereas I am not my spade nor my bicycle. But if we take a concrete view of Victor Hugo or Napoleon, if, that is to say, we do not allow ourselves that crude reduction, it is extremely doubtful whether to say that ‘they no longer exist’ has any meaning at all.

I agree that this analysis is disconcerting; the conclusion to be drawn from it is not an easy one and appears paradoxical. It is that the idea of existence—if it is, anyway, an idea,—is fundamentally involved in an ambiguity. I should even go so far as to say that it is just as though we were faced by something lying on a slope; it tends to slide down the slope but at the same time it is precariously held in position—by a thread, perhaps; we are holding the thread and if we pull it, it may just be possible for us to haul it up the slope. How do I apply that comparison? In this way: our own inclinations impel us to treat existence as the fact that a thing is there and yet could after all be elsewhere, or could even be nowhere at all; to look upon existence in the light of every vicissitude possible in this order, every displacement, every destruction. But if I concentrate my attention on this simple fact: I exist; or again: ‘such and such a being whom I love, exists’, the perspective changes; to exist no longer means ‘to be there or to be elsewhere’; in other words it means that essentially we transcend the opposition between here and elsewhere. And this is, of course, an illustration of what I said about the necessity of transcending spatial categories.

But are we not beginning to find ourselves again, in this perspective, faced by the embarrassing question of the relation between being and existence? It may well be that there is an ambiguity at the root of existence, and that it is that which makes the problem so difficult. We may consider the existence of a thing regarded only as a thing—the existence which is already, in common with all the others, under the shadow of the threat of ‘ceasing to exist’; but we certainly cannot say that it is the existence of non-being; such a statement, I believe, means nothing at all. We shall do better to say that it is scarcely being at all; it is as though it rebelled against the demands which the word ‘to be’ brings with it. Later we shall have to examine those demands more and more closely. But if on the other hand, we climb up the slope again, existence will seem to us as having ultimately to be indistinguishable from authentic being. I am so bold as to hope that I shall be able to elucidate this later, but I think that a short digression may help us, from now on, to clarify our thoughts. Let us concentrate on the thought of something which no longer exists, in the sense in which the words are commonly used: a garden, perhaps, which has been done away with; in its place a six-storey house has been built. Is it not obvious that even in this example there is no way in which we can speak of non-being in a radical sense? However paradoxical it may seem, as soon as I can say of the garden, ‘it no longer exists’, then there is a certain sense in which it still is. I may be accused of playing on words; it may be urged that it is not the garden which still exists, it is an image of it which I have preserved. But we cannot be too careful of the confusions which lurk in the word ‘image’. We always tend to think of an image as a sort of facsimile which has existence, but the idea of a facsimile implies that something has been materially shaped to resemble another thing; in that sense the image of the garden is not a facsimile. I do not doubt that there is a way in which the garden subsists. How? In me? We must be extremely careful, for here there are worse confusions waiting to ensnare us; there is the tendency to think of myself as a sort of cupboard or drawer in which the facsimile may be kept. But the truth seems to be that these pictorial ways of looking at the matter should be altogether rejected

At this point I cannot but refer to two of the finest passages in contemporary literature—Rilke's ninth Duinese Elegy and his own comments on it in a letter to Witold Hulewicz, written, it appears, on 13 November, 1925. It is No. 108 in the Insel-Verlag edition of the Briefe aus Muzot. ‘We are the bees of the invisible. We madly raid the honey of the visible, to store it in the great golden hive of the invisible.’ When Rilke speaks of ‘us’ he is, naturally, thinking of poets. But we may well think—though I do not know whether he would have accepted the wider interpretation—that every human being, in so far as he is endowed with memory, shares in this activity which is proper to the poet: this alchemist's activity by which the visible is transmuted into the invisible.

Is it not precisely here that we may see how existence and being are dovetailed together?

Another thing emerges with great clarity from this discussion, particularly if we return to the metaphor I used earlier: it is that freedom comes into the picture at precisely the moment when being and existence are in fusion. It is only a free being that can resist the sort of bias which tends to drag it in the direction of the thing, towards the mortality which is inherent in the thing. Without doubt this is not the whole story, but equally without doubt it is by resisting the bias that freedom takes shape.

This way of looking at it is for me an illustration of the great advantage of rejecting the notion according to which existence could be considered as a modality of being; it is a crude notion and it is philosophically untrue. Moreover, to put it in this way would introduce the additional grave embarrassment of the notion that being is a genus. This notion is strictly untenable. More than this, if we were to see in existence a particular specification of being, we should also have to admit that non-existence—we may call it ‘absence’ if we wish—is another specification of being. But that would be a caricature of relations which are in reality entirely different. Absence can only be apprehended as in any way a mode of being, by the existent, by linking it up with its own existence and as though it were from the depths of its own existence. This comes back to saying that existence and non-existence cannot be treated as terms which are patient, if I may so express it, of being looked at simultaneously in a picture. Every synopsis implies, moreover, that the looker shall be at the outside in relation to the thing looked at: and such a relation cannot be envisaged in this instance. We can demonstrate this in another way. If we avoid the mistake of treating being and existence as qualities, we shall run the risk of thinking that existence is a sort of specification of a fundamental act; which act would be the act of being. To proceed on these lines would be to meet difficulties which pile up until they are quite unsurmountable.

Can we be quite certain that the words act of being are not in some way contradictory? However we may define the word act, it is evident that I cannot speak of the act of being unless I am ready to give up the idea of conceiving anything resembling a subject of the act, a someone who fulfils the act. We should have to admit that this subject itself is, and that would send us back again to a being which is anterior to the act of being. We must, then, lay it down as a principle that the act of being is itself this same subject, but that in some way it is its own creator. Let us admit that we can really think of this creation of self by self. But there does not appear to be anything there which could be regarded as capable of assuming specifications according to various differing modes, of which one would be what we call existence.

However, I think the time has come to leave this rather barren field of speculation, and to address ourselves, as hitherto we have constantly sought to do, to the concrete apprehension of existence. We have reached a point where the question that should concern us lies in knowing whether there is any way in which I can have experience of myself as being—being in a sense which is not that in which I can grasp myself as existing. When the question is first asked, it seems indeed an obscure one. A little light, I think, is thrown on it only if we stress the actual etymology of the verb ‘to exist’: if we emphasize, that is, that to exist is to emerge, to arise. But it is clear that if I can somehow rise up so that I become more readily perceived by others, so also I can withdraw myself into my own inner being; that, in fact, is what happens as soon as I am in a state of recollection. This act appears to be bound up with the foreknowledge of a reality which is mine, or perhaps, more exactly, gives me a foundation on which, in as much as I am myself, I can stand: the movement of turning towards this reality helps me to approach it, but it can never enable me fully to coincide with it. If it is true that I can in a certain sense take hold of my own existence, my own being, on the other hand, cannot be an object of my affirmation. We might be tempted to say that there is always a gap between me and my being; I can narrow the gap, it is true, but at least in this life I cannot hope to bridge it. There is an important passage in Charles Du Bos’ Dialogue avec André Gide, which I think is apposite. Du Bos starts, he says, ‘from a faith which has never been shaken, not even in the bosom of religious unbelief: a faith in the existence of the soul on the one hand, and on the other of the constant watch from above which the soul keeps over all the conditions and manifestations of me: I am never without the mysterious feeling of the presence and at the same time the distance of the soul at every moment of our life’. ‘The presence and at the same time the distance’—it is that sort of telling contradiction which helps me to define my relation to my own being. What Du Bos here calls the soul, is in reality my being: conversely, it must be apparent that the being which we are trying now to close in on can only be qualified as the soul. If that is so, we realize at once with what care the affirmation ‘I am’ must be approached: the affirmation which was cried on high by Descartes, who thought that he had proved its validity once and for all. I would prefer to say that it should not be put forward in any defiant or presumptuous tone; rather should it be whispered humbly, with fear and wonder. I say with humility because, after all, as we shall see more and more clearly, this being is something that can only be granted to us as a gift; it is a crude illusion to believe that it is something which I can give to myself: with fear, because I cannot even be certain that I may not make myself unworthy of the gift, so unworthy that I should be condemned to losing it, did not grace come to my assistance: and finally with wonder, because this gift brings as its companion the light, because this gift is light.

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    Paris, 1948