Être: To be (or more precisely — Being)

Être ou ne pas être
To be or not to be

For students of literature, the words “To be” almost always conjures up images of ghostly Hamlets with their haunting rhetoric.

But for students of language and philosophy, the words “To be” or more specifically “Être” [that most crucial French verb that lies at the center of the language and all its conjugation relations – see To be: Copula (linguistics)], where Être translates more precisely to Being, there sits the essence (“esse”) of an entire philosophical tradition:


Being (i.e. be+-ing, by synecdoche), is an English word used for conceptualizing subjective and objective aspects of reality, including those fundamental to the self — related to and somewhat interchangeable with terms like “existence” and “living”.


In abstract usage, “the being” or “one’s being” is the mind’s concept of the self as a whole entity —including both mind and body —wherein the being is in the mind, and the “body” is all sensory aspects within the being. Heidegger coined the Germanic term “dasein” for this property of being in his influential work Sein und Zeit (“this entity which each of us is himself…we shall denote by the term “dasein.””), in which he argued that being or “dasein” links one’s sense of one’s body to one’s perception of world. Heidegger, amongst others, referred to an innate language as the foundation of being, which gives signal to (and from, cf. cognition) all aspects of being.

In philosophy, being is the object of study of metaphysics, and more specifically ontology. In these contexts, the term “being,” is typically understood as one’s “state of being,” and hence its common meaning is in the context of human (personal) experience, with aspects that involve expressions and manifestations coming from a being’s innate being, or personal character.

In its most indeterminate sense, being could be understood as anything that can be said to be, which is opposed to nonexistence. For example one could ask: “why is there something instead of nothing?” where “something” implies being. For a metaphysician the main problem is not the scientific question of how the universe works, but why the universe (or anything such as a rock) is.

Thus, a reader of philosophy and linguistics upon reading the lines from Hamlet y Shakespeare,:

To be or not to be…

To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;

But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought

may see the Thomistic influence still prevalent in Shakespeare’s time, tracing towards Thomas Aquinas and his reinterpretation of Aristotle:

“Being (ie. to be) is not a genus, since it is not predicated univocally but only analogically (or in degrees).”

10.2 Analogous Names

Aristotle spoke of “things said in many ways”, a notable instance of which is “being.” One of the difficulties with assigning being, or being as being as the subject of a science is that a subject must be univocally common to the things that fall under it. But ‘being’ is not univocal, as it has a plurality of meanings. Aristotle solved this problem with his account of “things said in many ways,” by observing that while they have many meanings, these form an ordered set with one of the meanings as primary and regulative. Substance is being in the primary sense, which is why the science of being as being is effectively a science of substance. Thomas’s term for such names is analogy: ‘being’ is an analogous term and its primary analogate is substance.


Being (sic) rather loathe to delve into the stultifying and myriad Medieval Theories of Analogy, let’s just say I prefer Spinoza’s patient (and sadly carcinogenic) lens-grinding and his admirable formulation of conatus and modes (but also ultimately flawed).

Conatus (Latin for effort; endeavor; impulse, inclination, tendency; undertaking; striving) is a term used in early philosophies of psychology and metaphysics to refer to an innate inclination of a thing to continue to exist and enhance itself. This “thing” may be mind, matter or a combination of both. Over the millennia, many different definitions and treatments have been formulated by philosophers. Seventeenth-century philosophers René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, and Gottfried Leibniz, and their Empiricist contemporary Thomas Hobbes made important contributions. The conatus may refer to the instinctive “will to live” of living organisms or to various metaphysical theories of motion and inertia. Often the concept is associated with God’s will in a pantheist view of Nature. The concept may be broken up into separate definitions for the mind and body and split when discussing centrifugal force and inertia.


Spinoza (1632–1677) applies the idea of a conatus to the human body, psyche and both simultaneously, using a different term for each. When referring to psychological manifestations of the concept, he uses the term voluntas (will). When referring to the overarching concept, he uses the word appetitus (appetite). When referring to the bodily impulse, he uses the plain term conatus. Sometimes he expands the term and uses the whole phrase, conatus sese conservandi (the striving for self-preservation).

Spinoza asserts the existence of this general principle of a conatus in attempting to explain the “self-evident” truth that “nothing can be destroyed except by an external cause”. To him, it is self-evident that “the definition of anything affirms, and does not negate, the thing’s essence”. This resistance to self-destruction is formulated by Spinoza in terms of a human striving to continue to exist; and conatus is the word he most often uses to describe this force.

In Spinoza’s world-view, this principle is applicable to all things, and furthermore constitutes the very essence of objects, including the human mind and morals, for these are but finite modes of God.



In conclusion (and in direct opposition to Spinoza and to end this mindless lens grinding)…
Better to pass over, still my stirring conatus, and choose not to be, or un-Being.


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