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Chapter III: Ontological Exigence

At the end of the last chapter we took up a privileged position from which to consider the relation of being and existence; if we again avail ourselves of the same perspective we shall have to recognize not exactly that the question of their relationship is insoluble, but, more accurately, that it is lost in a cloud of ambiguity. We shall have to note, also, that it would certainly be illusory or misleading to attempt a definite and quite final answer and to say, ‘My existence is ordered towards being, I exist in order to be’. This statement is probably not entirely without truth, but it means that we force truth into a scheme which is much too simplified or cut and dried; whereas, on the contrary, the true connection is infinitely more rich, its depths are inexhaustible; and this is true of everything which touches upon being. In any case existence cannot be reduced to a mean or to a collection of means; in reality it comes to us as something which contains and also goes beyond everything to which we might seek to reduce it. But this is not all. We have already seen that the more my existence takes on the character of including others, the narrower becomes the gap which separates it from being; the more, in other words, I am. This amounts to saying that there is no way in which we can conceive of being as something cut off from existence, while it seems almost fatal to picture it to ourselves as an end, or something which is in some respects independent of the means which ensure its realization.

It looks as though the road we are to follow is becoming more defined, and we must follow it a long way further. Last year we saw in detail how difficult it is to throw any light on the depths which I call my past or my life, and what we saw then cannot fail to have a direct effect upon whatever idea I can formulate of my existence, of my exister. It is clear that in this connection the possessive adjective can and should be spiritualized to an increasing degree. There is a sense in which it is literally true to say that the more exclusively it is I who exist, the less do I exist; and conversely, the more I free myself from the prison of ego-centricism, the more do I exist. It follows that it would be philosophically absurd to say that my being may be reached through my existence. To the ear of a metaphysician or of a man of spirituality, the words my being always have a suspicious sound. It is true that Charles Du Bos speaks of my soul in the passage I quoted above, and I thought it opportune to identify provisionally my soul and my being; but I should not hesitate to admit that the words my soul are themselves also open to grave objections; I am constantly led to feel that they imply the possession of something which ought to be preserved, enlarged, which ought to be developed. For elementary religious instruction there may be some advantage in the use of the words, but it is clear that if we take a wider view of things, there is a danger of their degenerating into a sort of self-worship which has nothing in common with a religion worthy of the name; in fact it is an extremely dangerous perversion of religion. There are countless metaphors for describing my soul: I may see it as a pearl to be drawn from the depths of the sea, or as a statue to be released from the embrace of the raw stone, or as a garden to be tilled: but from whichever of these angles I look at it, I am in danger of failing to recognize the higher claims of intersubjectivity. To put it in simpler and more ordinary language, which will be more appropriate for what follows, I am in danger of sinning against love.

Even if we agree in general with what I have just said, it is true that, if thought works along these lines, it may be in danger of arriving finally at a de-personalized conception of being; it might look in the end uncommonly like a more or less disguised pantheism. We shall see more clearly as we proceed why there can be no foundation for this fear if we look at it from the point of view I have taken up. But it is well to reject once and for all and in the strongest terms, the idea that in order to avoid pantheism it is necessary to cling to the idea of a human person as rigidly circumscribed as possible. Here again is one of those pictorial representations, which are not only falsifications; they tend to a crude materialism. We have opposed them on countless occasions, and we shall probably again have occasion to point out the truth, which is that if we start from this sort of notion, which is that of ego-centric common sense, God cannot be thought of in any real way; or at least He can be thought of only as an idol and not as a spirit.

At the same time, I am afraid that we may now be in the embarrassing position of a traveller who has left the main road and taken a side turning which he thought was a short cut. When he comes out again into a wider road he is uncertain whether it is the one he left, in fact he does not know where he is. In other words, can we be sure that the progress we have made has really been in the right direction? Have we, perhaps, been rash in leaving our enquiry into being in general in order to examine what it is I envisage when I speak of my being?

We must, of course, note that we have just been obliged to deprive my being of the possessive mark which in a manner restricts it. But can we proceed from the point we have reached to a conclusion which embraces being par excellence? First of all we must realize the sort of interior resistance or protest with which my method of conducting these investigations is faced.

If we ask ourselves questions about being, are we not putting a question which concerns everything which is, so that the answer should have an universal validity? On the other hand, if we take a short cut as I have done, are we not most arbitrarily narrowing the field of application of the answer?

We must also, I think, concentrate our attention on the postulate which is implied in the objection. The objection rests ultimately on the preconceived idea that the ‘being’ whose nature we are trying to pin down is something like a predicate which is patient of being ascribed to no matter what. But the words ‘no matter what’ are significant; or rather they cannot be taken literally. There are things which, it is commonly agreed, do not exist. We need, then, a predicate which can be applied only to things which do exist. But we have already reached the conclusion that that road leads nowhere. Moreover, to take the opposite line and try to treat being as a subject in relation to every possible predicate, will not help us either in the least; on the contrary there is reason to believe, as we shall see later, that we are only wasting our time if we try to conceive of being in its reference to the categories of traditional logic. For if we proceed on these lines, it seems that we are inevitably led to betray the exigence of being: and it is to obtaining a more and more precise consciousness of this that our efforts are directed. Here it is that we find our indirect or negative justification for the attempt we have made to consider first my own being; remembering that it is my being and not my being which we are considering.

We are accordingly obliged by necessity to recognize that being, in the full sense of the word, cannot be treated as a datum. But we have had ample opportunity to understand also that the exigence of being is not a simple desire or a vague aspiration. It is, rather, a deep-rooted interior urge, and it might equally well be interpreted as an appeal.

In my Position et Approaches concrètes du Mystère ontologique, I mentioned, though rather too briefly, this problem; and I may well refer to it now. It has been translated into English and appeared in the collection of papers called The Philosophy of Existence. But I should mention that there is one point in which the translation may be misleading. The translation reads: being is, or should be, necessary. What I wrote in French was: ‘Il faut qu'il y ait ou il faudrait qu'il y êut de l'être’, which is quite a different thing. The il faut or the il faudrait refers to the exigence that is seated in me. Elsewhere the translator has used the word need, and this also distorts my thought somewhat, as it implies something that is wanted rather than something that is demanded. So that my meaning may be clearer, it will be well to give you the context.

At the beginning of the essay, as in the second of last year's lectures, I noted that the modern misuse of the idea of function tends to debase all human relations. A simple example—a foolish young man, a journalist, put to me quite frankly the idea that the mother of a family should be paid a wage. In other words, her activity should be treated as a function and remunerated as such. The modern worship of the state, again, is simply one aspect of the extension of the notion of function; an extension which is really pathological in its extravagance. The deadly boredom we find in the countries which are stricken by this cancer is bound up with a corresponding weakening of the sense of being, and with an increasing disappearance of joy.

It may be, however, that in that passage, which was written in 1933, I took it rather too much for granted that my readers would understand what I was referring to. The case of the artist is undoubtedly the most illuminating in this context, and it may be as well to start from that.

We cannot be wrong in admitting, even though the meaning of the statement may not be as clear as we should wish, that when any artist whatsoever creates something, he is, in fact, fulfilling a social function; but the trouble arises from the fact that if we stress the social function as such, we are considering his activity from a point of view which cannot and should not be his own; we are looking at the wrong side of it, and I may add that even the existence of the wrong side is problematical. For we must remember that the place for every function is in a certain given economy, and in the general framework of that economy the function is simply a working part. But the artist cannot make his creative activity subservient to anything which is outside himself—except perhaps in the specifically religious field, and in that field the notion of function, which is essentially profane and administrative, loses all significance.

We must go further. From the moment where the artist accepts the notion that he is the performer of a social function, or a fortiori a government servant, he abdicates his position, he signifies his readiness to accept every surrender that may be forced upon him in totalitarian countries. That amounts to saying that he ceases to be an artist. But at the same time he makes it impossible for himself to experience anything which approaches the joy of creation; for that joy cannot be divorced from true freedom, our views on which we shall have to express more precisely. To go back, however, to the example I quoted before, surely we can see that there is an intimate relation between artistic activity and the continuous cycle of gestation which is the full realization of motherhood? Even in these days, when so many ideas have run riot, it is difficult to imagine what a mother would be like who thought of herself, in the exercise of her maternal activity, as carrying out a social function. It would be better still, in that view, to take the child from its mother and have it brought up in a state nursery, which would amount to saying that the mother is simply the mechanism by which the child was brought into the world, and that she has accordingly no rights over the child. At least she has as yet the consolation that she will not see herself registered, regimented, and put on duty in an institution. These are, of course, only indications, but we could profitably give many more which would clarify what we are discussing. For example, there is the state nurse who is on duty for so many hours a day, like a lift; when her turn of duty is over, she does not scruple to leave her patient in the lurch, giving the excuse that she does not owe her state employer an extra five minutes; this woman is a state functionary to the marrow of her bones; she has failed to realize that to look after a sick person is something that goes beyond everything that can be defined as a function. Here we may anticipate an objection. It will be urged, I am sure, that the word ‘function’ may well be used in a less restricted sense and with less of denigration attached to it. After all, does not man's nobility consist in carrying out as well as possible the functions which are proper to him? That question implies that those functions do not necessarily make him into a machine. No doubt: but it is equally true that in a world as complicated as ours, in which division of labour has been pushed to extremes, function has been subdivided also—fragmented, I might say—with the result that it has lost both its value and its interest. In any degree of hierarchy of function you like, you can indeed conceive of beings who fulfil even the most subordinate functions with zeal and intelligence; in fact you have no need to imagine them—there is a very considerable number of such beings. But what is important to recognize is that in such a world the natural tendency becomes stronger and stronger for the individual to treat his function as a task which he cannot put his heart into. His heart, I repeat—a small and simple word, but here it reaches to the essence of the matter. It is perhaps from precisely that angle that we can best consider the problem we have been discussing.

One thing we, or at least some of us, feel acutely: it is this lack of something, this impoverishment, this aridity. We have already seen that it is by starting from that point that we can experience what I have called ontological exigence; but another difficulty may now arise. Is there not reason to fear that what we have found is purely and simply a sort of sentimental condition, to which the philosopher has no right to attach any real metaphysical significance? Is it no more than analogous to the nostalgia we sometimes feel when we recall what life might have been like in the time of stage coaches and oil lamps? In answering these criticisms, we must remember that we can nowadays in no way preserve the opposition between our different faculties which an old-fashioned psychology would try to establish. In his great work The Meaning of God in Human Experience, William Ernest Hocking has given an admirable analysis of the matter, and I am glad to quote from it; in his chapter, The Destiny of Feeling, he writes: ‘All positive feeling, I shall now say, reaches its terminus in knowledge. All feeling means to instate some experience which is essentially cognitive: it is idea-apart-from-its-object tending to become idea-in-presence-of-its-object—which is “cognizance” or experimential knowledge.1 Feeling, after all, is only the sum total of the relatively disconnected phases through which the idea passes in order to take cognizance of itself, in order to be in a position to formulate itself as an idea.

It is true that we do not seem to have made any definite advance; for we still have to ask ourselves whether the idea which reaches embodiment through the voicings of feeling is a true idea; to put it more deeply, whether it is legitimate to speak of truth in connection with such an idea.

We are now directly faced by the notion of value. An overfunctionalized world seems to us to be lacking in something, judged by the standard of certain values—and those values we should define more precisely. But are they not themselves very different from what we call truth? We could put the question even more simply. There are people who are dismayed by the idea that humanity is tending towards a type of civilization in which reduction to a level will be the rule, in which the advantages which the past has accorded to the comfort and mode of life of a privileged class are doomed to disappear: but can this dismay and regret be given any metaphysical significance? Is it not just a matter of preferences, of an order whose statements are of the type ‘I like’ and ‘I do not like’? You must note that we have imperceptibly shifted from what should be the consideration of being to the consideration of truth. Should we really have avoided that change of ground? I can hardly believe it. It is surely impossible for us not to have at any rate a vague assurance that being can only nominally be distinct from a certain fullness of truth. That fullness is in contrast with the partial, specialized, truths to which it is difficult to attach any ontological import. The word ‘fullness’ which I have just used is extremely important, but it must not be understood quantitatively, as though it implied the total of a sum. Of such a totality we might well enquire whether it is not a sort of a pictorial representation of fullness, whereas in fullness there is something which cannot be pictured, which will not tolerate such a projection. Is it not the need for this fullness which gives us a starting point to throw light on the problems we are discussing in this chapter? It is the fullness which is the contradiction at once of the hollowness of a functionalized world and of the overpowering monotony of a society in which beings take on more and more the appearance of specimens which it is increasingly difficult to differentiate.

The objection which we considered before comes back now in a very similar form. When we commend or condemn things in this way, are we not doing so at the instance of something which is only an ideal, only the aspiration of an incurably romantic sentimentality? Once more, it seems, we are back in the realm of pure subjectivity.

But this is precisely where secondary reflection should come in. We must certainly ask ourselves what we mean when we speak of mere subjectivity, and consider what is its opposite. It is clear that we distinguish the ideal, regarded as something more or less nebulous, from the hard reality of fact: the latter is the firm ground on which we stumbling creatures tread our painful road.

We must consider, also, whether we are not confusing the ideas of fact and factitious, whether, that is, we are not shifting into a plane which is really that of value and freedom; of a freedom, however, which turns against itself and provides its own negation. This is what happens when a cynical old realist argues with his revolutionary grand-children. He opposes the real world of vested interest to the reign of social justice which the grandchild would inaugurate: he imagines that he has fact on his side, but in reality he is supporting a world of vested interest which he thinks he can treat as a permanent physical or perhaps biological reality. There are different ways in which such a position may be taken up. One may be an active accomplice, or one may simply be resigned and acquiesce. But in any case it seems that what we have is simply a pseudo-reality which is presented to the will before the latter can even exercise its proper function.

All this certainly applies to the functionalized world. Such a world can exist only in so far as it is willed and accepted. But a man may be involved in that world and yet retain the power to reject it. He rejects it in the degree to which he succeeds in humanizing the relations which unite him to his superiors, to his equals and, most of all, to his inferiors. We have reason, therefore, to think that the traditional opposition between fact and ideal is, in this context, an illusion and that it misses out the essence of the matter. We might even make use also of the idea of a counter-value, which the realist affixes like a stamp or seal to the reality of the fact whose self-sufficiency he attempts to proclaim. But a counter-value cannot be thought of without a value; it presupposes it.

Even so, we cannot yet solve the difficult problem of discovering the relations between value and being. One thing now seems reasonably clear: being cannot, it is certain, be indifferent to value; it could only so be if one were to identify it as a crude datum considered as existing in its own right, and that we are not justified in doing; in fact we must resolutely reject the idea of the existence in its own right of such a crude datum. The datum can only be grasped—René Le Senne has seen this very clearly—as an obstacle against which something hurls itself, and this something is not included in the datum; it will be found to spring, rather, from desire or aspiration. It will be legitimate, then, to say in a certain sense that where there is an experience of being, it is always a direct contradiction of this consciousness of a divorce between the datum and the aspiration. I once wrote, ‘Being is the culmination of hope, the experience of being is its fulfilment’. The retort may be made that there is room after all, even in the world of the purely functional, for fulfilment. But in what does it consist? Most often it consists in having got through a task which is nothing but a task, with which, that is to say, there can be no interior identification. Let us imagine that I have answered so many letters today, or that I have sent out so many circulars in my day's work. It is true that I have done my work, but it has not been very different from a ticket collector punching tickets, or even a machine making so many revolutions. The human machine, indeed, is conscious of itself as a machine, and to that extent it is more than a machine, but there is no more real creation with one than with the other. I may add, to keep the thread of my argument clear, that any functionalized activity is manifestly the lowest depth of degradation to which creative activity can descend; and I cannot stress too emphatically that the word ‘fulfilment’ can take on a positive meaning only from the point of view of creation. Moreover, it is clear, as we have already suggested, that creation is not necessarily the creation of something outside the person who creates. To create is not, essentially, to produce. There can be production without creation, and there can be creation without any identifiable object remaining to bear witness to the creation. I think that we must all, in the course of our lives, have known beings who were essentially creators; by the radiance of charity and love shining from their being, they add a positive contribution to the invisible work which gives the human adventure the only meaning which can justify it. Only the blind may say with the suggestion of a sneer that they have produced nothing. Even so, when we say that being is fulfilment, are we perhaps still entangled in an ambiguity? The formula does not seem likely to satisfy a mind which insists on strict accuracy. The question is whether fulfilment can be considered on its own, or whether on the contrary it is involved in the life of a consciousness which finds in fulfilment something to satisfy a profound requirement. There is no doubt that the latter is the correct alternative. But if we do look at fulfilment in this light, shall we not find that it corresponds to what is only a phase in a development, and that this development involves, in relation to the fulfilment, a something which is this side of it and a something which lies beyond it—a preparation, a growth, but also a dissolution? Such an idea, which is after all relativist, can hardly be entertained if we identify being and fulness. It would seem better to admit that what we have called fulfilment should be interpreted in this context as a mode of participation in… —it is extremely difficult to find a definite word to fill this gap; or rather, although we can always avoid it by using an abstract word, there is a danger that the abstraction will be simply a stopgap. What does seem to emerge is that the problem presents itself very differently according to whether we are or are not in the domain of the spiritual. It is only analogically true to say of a plant which blossoms or fruits that it participates in the reality, the strictly ineffable reality, to which our tortuous and troublesome enquiry is directed. Without going into the almost insoluble complications contained in the theological notion of analogy, we may perhaps be content to say that the fulfilment realized in the flower or the fruit, is such only for an appreciating consciousness which apprehends the flower as a flower and the fruit as a fruit. Here the intervention of the appreciating consciousness is necessary for the fulfilment to be recognized as such; but this fulfilment is interiorized as soon as we enter the domain of either personal or inter-personal intersubjectivity. Now, perhaps, we can better understand why ontology, as we saw before, demands for its definition the addition of the dimension of intersubjectivity to that of objective knowledge. We could, in fact, say that fulfilment as such is meaningless if it is considered from the angle of an objective or descriptive knowledge. And so we meet again the mysterious dove–tailing (or articulation—I should use the same word in French) of being and value which we noticed before.

We must not, however, be misled by this word ‘dovetailing’ itself, as though we were concerned with a connection between two concepts that can be presented for our consideration; on the contrary, we must, I believe, be clear from the start that to look at things in this light will never lead us to any conclusion that will be metaphysically satisfactory. The peculiarly disconcerting nature of our enquiry rests upon just this point, that when we speak of being, we cannot but project before ourselves some sort of schema—however abstract it may be—and yet at the same time we must free ourselves from this very projection, we must recognize and expose its illusory nature. In my first series of lectures, I discussed the question of the exigence of transcendence, and you will realize that this is simply the conclusion we then reached.

There is, however, a traditional notion which dominates classic ontology, and it may be appropriate to introduce it at this point. I refer to the notion of perfection. At the same time we must consider whether the word perfection does not always fundamentally involve, explicitly or not, a reference to an activity which is plastic in its essence. The perfect thing is first of all essentially a work which has taken on its final and definitive form, a completed work and, we may well add, a work which presents itself as such to the observer. From that angle there is no doubt that it is easier to speak of the perfection of a statue or of a building than of a symphony, for example. But we must nevertheless realize that even here a certain abstract transposition is possible; in that case the judgment of perfection has reference to conformity with a certain canon, and this canon can be conceived without there being, properly speaking, any representation of it. Thus it is that one may praise the perfection of a fugue. But everything goes to show that the praise will refer rather to the construction of the fugue than to the quality of the motif on which it is based. It would be ridiculous to say of the motif that it is perfect; one should even perhaps say that its intrinsic quality lies outside the judgirient of perfection properly so called; and this because it belongs much more to the order of the lived than to that of the represented or conceived.

Must we then conclude that the notion of perfection is in reality bound up with a static view of the world? Push the matter to extremes, and it might be possible to admit that conclusion, but not without qualification. I have just quoted the fugue as an example of something which can attain perfection, and the fugue is not static in itself; what we can say is that it lends itself to that act by which we make ourselves a schematic and to some extent figurative representation of it.

I chose the fugue as an example because it belongs to the specifically aesthetic order, but one could as well take a geometric proof. Such a proof can obviously be perfect, and in this case we can attach a precise meaning to the word ‘perfect’. It is perfect in so far as it is not only compelling but also as simple as possible; which amounts to saying that it is neither vague nor extravagant—it is ‘well-cut’ in the sense we speak of clothes as being well-cut.

These examples help us to see the quality of being shut in, of being contained within oneself, which is involved in the notion of perfection. Perfection is self-sufficient, it has no need to send us on to something beyond itself. The theologians, indeed, have tried to reconcile the notions of the perfect and the infinite, but I should personally be inclined to think that this attempt is self contradictory, whereas when the ancients were so taken up by the nature of what is the te,leion, their depreciation of the infinite showed a fidelity to a deep-rooted logic. We might well, it is true, involve ourselves at this point in complicated developments, for in so far as the infinite of the moderns is a matter for mathematical speculation, it ceases to be the infinite of the ancients, it is no longer in any sense the a;peiron of the Greeks. But we may well doubt whether the differential calculus has any appreciable bearing on the problem with which we are now concerned, that is to say on the ontological plane. What does seem to emerge at this point is that to attempt to define being by perfection is in the end to run the risk of reducing it to no more than an abstract representation of itself. But when we spoke of fulfilment, it was not quite on the ground of form as form that we were taking our stand. It was rather that we envisaged what I called an experience of fulness, like that which is involved in love, when love knows that it is shared, when it experiences itself as shared. From this point of view to fulfil is not strictly speaking to accomplish, if by accomplishment we mean that something is finished or brought to a close; for we have seen that fulness is not to be confused with totality. With perfection, however, there is always the danger that it may be interpreted as a whole closed in on itself; indeed I should readily agree that in this respect the idea of perfection leads to a blind alley. Philosophers in the past have always been tempted down this blind alley, and theologians are never quite safe from the same temptation, unless they are wary of the snares of abstract representation.

These remarks, indeed, are purely critical: but they lead us to a point where we can match them with a subtle question. If we posit being as incapable of being reduced to what presents itself to us as perfection or totality, are we not ultimately refusing to posit it at all, that is, shortly, to substantify it? We have been struggling with almost insoluble difficulties; does not the root of these difficulties lie in our obstinate determination to speak of being, while at the same time we deprive this being of the characteristics which are essential to its make-up? Even a cursory examination of the ens realissimum which has been the core of traditional ontology, will show us clearly the vastness of the problem. The ens realissimum is thought of as concentrating all positive attributes in itself; it is like a solid flawless mass, which in some ways might make you think of the sphere of Parmenides—though the philosophers who make it the heart of their thought are by no means Eleatics, preferring no doubt stages of being to the crude alternatives of ‘to be’ or ‘not to be’. But we may well entertain grave doubts of the validity of the mental process which forms the ens realissimum, for in this process not only are attributes themselves treated as things, but they are in addition assimilated to elements which are capable of building up a whole. Here more than anywhere else we can see how the idea of totality can be misused. Bergson has said with admirable lucidity that there can be totalization only of that which is homogeneous; it is not by any means everything that can be treated as a unity susceptible of being added to other unities, though there can be no totalization where such an addition is not feasible. In no sense can either a chord or a melody be regarded as wholes of which the notes are elements. To believe that they can be is to have lost sight of the individual, qualified, reality of the chord or of the melody, substituting for it a schema which has no more relation to the melody than an anthropometric gauge has to the pictorial essence of a human face.

What is true of an individual being is true a fortiori of a universal being which the scholastics claim to reach through their clumsy abstract denominations: the contrary belief depends entirely upon the degree to which one keeps at the root of his thought the almost unacknowledged and obsolete idea that this universal being is generic. We must, indeed, agree with Spinoza's criticism of knowledge of the second genus; we must realize that to affirm being is absolutely to transcend ‘knowledge by genus and species’.

These considerations lend even more point to the question we put. Without using the words necessarily in the scholastic sense, we may now say that the object of our enquiry is being par excellence; but we must also admit that, in as much as it is being, this being refuses to allow itself to be posited as an object, as a quid, as something which can be garnished with a given number of predicates. On the other hand, if it is not a quid, if, that is, it is not a predicable, can we legitimately speak of it at all?

  • 1.

    Yale University Press, 1922, pp. 67–68.