THE NOTION OF EXISTENCE
"If I am not asked, I know; if I am asked, I know not." This is perhaps true of most notions which seem to be self-evident. No sooner is the question put to us then we are at a loss to define it, or sometimes even to describe it.
"What is `existence,?" is such a question. I know that I exist, that this pen with which I am writing exists, that God exists, but what is existence? Does existence exist in the same way as selves, pens, or God are said to exist? The answer is not so clear as it might have seemed. Philosophers have expressed a variety of views that it is the `ergo, of the `cogito’; that to exist is to be perceived; or that it is the outcome of `dread, or `horror’. Others would smilingly put away the idea of existence, quoting Plato’s Eros, "Existence is the child that is born of the infinite and the finite and is therefore constantly striving"; they would say that it is fictitious, nonsensical or meaningless poetry.
Why is it difficult to answer such a simple questions?
If someone asks us: "What is hydrogen?" We can reply: "It is a gas" or "It is a gaseous element, which is colorless, whose atomic weight is 1 and whose atomic number is 1." There can be other answers, and all or any of them will satisfy the questioner. Suppose someone asks us, what is good, what is beauty or what is existence? The form of the question is the same, but it is puzzling and cannot be answered as straightforwardly as the previous question. We cannot find the meaning of existence from a dictionary or an encyclopedia, though the person who asked the question may want the same kind of answer as given in the case of hydrogen. Here lies the difficulty.
When we ask such questions as those concerning existence, what we actually seek is information concerning the nature or essence of existence. We could say, perhaps, with equal justification that when we ask questions about hydrogen we request in the same manner information about the nature or essence of hydrogen. But Noone would say that: though the questions are analogous. Traditional philosophy has long sought for the essence or nature of existence, and has tried to define, following Plato and Aristotle notion that the "definition is the formula of essences." But this magic formula which could resolve the various and contradictory state-ments of the philosophers about existence was never found, and if someone did claim to find it, very strangely it was so simple that it could be expressed only in words except recognized as synonyms of existence. Further all thought that we are perfectly familiar with its meaning and that everyone can at once perceive what is meant by it.
Had it been as simple as Moore thought, there would have been no difficulty, but where does the difficulty lie? It would seem to be in the basic assumption underlying the question as well as the answers, namely, that every existence in its various expressions possesses a common nature or essence which can be discovered; that there is something the same or common in the existence of this table, myself, God, ideas and imagination, unicorns, chimeras, whiteness or blackness, in the universal and in the particular. This ‘esse’ is elusive; it peeps through everything but escapes away when we want to seize it. It is the property of every content but we cannot find it. Surely there must be something common to them all, they say, or we should not call them all by the same name, "Unum Nomen, Unum Nominatum." And they ask, "What is that property of ‘existence’ which may belong to every content which I observe or may again belong to none? What is this property which may belong to the perception of a movement and yet belong neither to the movement perceived nor to my perception of it, or which again may belong to both or to neither?
The assumption that existence, despite its vast differences in manifestation, must possess some common characteristics or mark, something in its essence which must distinguish it and by which we can define it, constitutes the first mistake of traditional philosophy. The moment we start searching for the common elements, the nature or essence of existence which all things are supposed to possess, we become bewildered. We handle tables and chairs, we know our-selves, we believe in other minds, we have faith in God, and therefore we ought to encounter "existence" somewhere. We look, but we do not find. Like "substance" for Locke, we assume that it is something hidden or behind and that that should be its essence. That is why, unlike hydrogen, existence is hard to describe and why we have a philosophy of existence but of hydrogen.
It my be suggested that if we have patience, search diligently and continue to scrutinize, some day we might lay hand on existence as such. But there is still another possibility, namely, that we may be looking for something which is not there. There may be some resemblances and common elements between different things, but is we begin to push through these resemblances we meet insur-mountable difficulties. Is it the form which is common between "this" and "that" or is it matter? But what is matter and what is that matter which is common between matter and energy? If it is one and the same, then what is common between this and God? Is God energy; is my idea of the square root of minus one also energy? Must we draw a line between existence and subsistence?
It all seems to be the greatest the man has ever invented.
Then, should we say that the "notion" of existence is simply nonsensical, and the search for a common denominator and simila-rities among different existences is a fool’s errand? To say this requires great courage and some of the diehardiness of a logical positivist as well. The answer to this question depends upon what we expect to find after such a search. If we are after the myste-rious, evasive essence or nature, we are doomed. Perhaps we will never find such a common element.
But this search can be fruitful. On the one hand, it may be the search for a kind of family resemblances; on the other, it may enlighten us on different aspects of existences which at first glance may escape our view. This search may further be useful in dealing with things manipulating them, and differentiating them one from another. Taken in this light, the various conceptions and theories of existence, which different philosophers have put forward from time to time, are not nonsense, but have a significance and meaning in their own universe.
The history of modern philosophy provides ample proof of this. Take, for example, the problem of existence in modern philo-sophy. It is a cosmological problem, which arises with the question of what nature we must attribute to that existence of which we partake. This is a cosmological problem because it leads to the discussion of the possibilities of constructing a general conception of the world based upon the data of experience. Its actual value lies in the significance and comprehensiveness of experience upon which it is based or upon coherence and consistency of the construction as such. With the advent of the new age when Kepler, Copernicus and Bruno brought about a kind of revolution and a new outlook on different problems, a question strongly presented itself. The picture of the world given by immediate perception is totally different from what the world actually is, leading to an opposition between existence and knowledge. Galileo’s solution is that this difference between knowledge and existence disappears to a certain extent in the clearest knowledge we possess, i.e., mathematical knowledge. "Here human knowledge participates in the necessity with which God thinks the truths which underlie the content of existence."
The impact of scientific development, which created the problem of the subjectivity of sense qualities and a separation between knowledge and existence, crystallized over 50 years. A need was felt to systematize the wealth of facts, thought and new discoveries, on the one hand, and on the other, to reduce them to simple notions. This brought the problem of existence more forcefully to the fore. Bruno had already treated it from the point of view of the new world scheme, yet with the modern mechanical explanation of nature, thought was confronted with the problem of mind, and the relation between the physical and the mental. At the same time there were demands that religion should be reinterpreted in the light of new knowledge. Descartes had to face this difficult and important problem. His training at the Jesuit College may have oriented him toward saving the existence of God, and the impact of Renaissance compelled him to account for the causal and me-chanical world. To strike a balance between the two so that they might not clash, on the one hand, he had to save philosophy and thereby religion as well by finding some fundamental principle, some maxim, some starting point free from doubt, which could serve as the basis for further deductions, on the other hand, he had to account for scientific and mechanical reason he was forced to derive each and everything from a subjective and psychological maxim. This is true of nearly all great systems produced before the advent of the English empirical school: all proceeded from the conviction that clarity of thought was sufficient to account for existence.
The English empirical school reversed this order, and discussed the problem of knowledge before metaphysics. The nature of existence was not taken for granted but, proceeding according to clarity of thought as the norm, existence was now subservient to epistemology. Thus, the conception of substance melted in the hands of George Berkeley, and later totally disappears in the hands of David Hume. With substance the "notion of existence" is also gone, because it does not correspond to any impression. To think of a thing and to think of it as existing are one and the same. In this a thoroughgoing empiricism reached its climax.
Recently there have been some attempts to solve this problem that are opposed in intent to rationalistic constructive systems, on the one hand, and to the empirical approaches, on the other. When Heinmann bases existence on the formula of Respondo ergo sum, it has significance only in the context and for the purpose for which he is speaking. For him the central problem of our time (as against that of Hume and Descartes) is that human activities, whether in philosophy or in arts, have become too technical and have lost their grounding in human existence. They cannot regain this ground through instrumentalism an technology where ideas are definitions of operations or plans of activities, rather than a flow of subjective consciousness; where the quest for certainty with which the age began enters a new stage in holding that secure values can be realized only by perfecting methods of inquiry and action; where the knowledge of the greatest value is that of technique by which values can be reached or restored. This "irrational" system of thought and life developed by Western industrial society and its philosophical representatives has given birth to a logical and naturalistic me-chanism which challenges individual freedom; as an analytic ra-tionalism it transforms everything including man himself into objects of calculation and control.
This basically is not a problem of the description or definition of existence, but fundamentally the problem of human freedom; it is the challenge of modern technology to man, his self and his religion. How to save them; how to meet the challenge? Heinemann suggests returning to concrete experience and reality. It is this aspect of the problem which has disappeared in the dazzling light of the modern scientific methodology. The interpretation of existence as "an unconscious participation in reality" is not as ridiculous as a logical positivist would make us believe, provide we do not make the mistake of taking this as the definition of the "notion of existence".
Consider, for example, the following proposition. "The nothing exists," because "Anxiety reveals the nothing," and "we know the nothing." Apart from the article "the" before nothing, very in-geniously used, which contributes an air of mystery around "nothing", and to which existence is attributed in some extra-rational way, the whole of the assertion is a great confusion. The assertion that "nothing exists" quite plainly cannot be constructed as an utterance which is intended to state a fact about the existence of something. It cannot be construed as affirming the existence of a kind of a thing, or as denying the existence of everything. Even the way out that insists upon the "existence" of nothing as an "idea in the mind" is conducive to this confusion for it implies a double existence, that of being here, and in the mind. Such a confusion can be easily remedied by abandoning the notion that talking sense always necessitates there being things talked about.
The point here is that we can interpret different notions existence only as functional descriptions relative to the purpose for which they are used, and in the particular context in which they occur. Apart from that, and talk on the "notion of existence" as such is simply to talk of nothing.
Therefore a logical analysis of existential propositions must always attempt to seize upon the context in which it occurs. Devoid of context not a single word, let alone a general concept, is meaningful. The most general methodological mistake is the dis-junction of a concept or idea from the field of its being, treating it as an independent and self-contained. Hence, "existence" is meaning-ful only in a special context of being -- "non-existence" being its other aspect.
Moreover, every existent may be located in the extension of the context of its own specific existence. Our inquiry would then be a search after different and distinct contexts of existence. All these distinct contexts would appear to fall in the most general field of "the Existence" which must appear as a co-member with the "non-existence", in the universal context of Being.
In this manner we may work out a general theory of Being which would be formal in character and which could be fitted to any context of experience.