Impediments to understanding the analogy of “being”

-The first problem is that “be” is an extremely irregular verb (with forms as diverse as “exists” and “am” and “are”) which turns into nouns that sometimes look very different (like “existence”) and at other times it looks the same, but has very different modes of meaning (“being” as a noun or a participle or a verb).

-Aristotle had help recognizing that the word “being” had many different meanings. He grew up hearing the sophists, who exploited the natural tendency we have to see a a single word as univocal. Consider these arguments:

John Smith is a species

a species is one thing predicated of many

John Smith is one thing predicated of many

All the terms of the argument stay the same, but the word “is” is not doing the same thing in both of the premises. This calls for a distinction of one kind or another. Likewise with an argument like this:

One meter cannot be greater or less than it is.

This rope is one meter.

This rope cannot be greater or less than it is.

The same is true of all quantities: weight, mass, size, etc. Meters and grams and watts and all other such units remain exactly what they are, while the things measured by them need not. Here again, the word “is” does not do the same thing in both premises. The relevant distinction is between the “is” of how much and he “is” that speaks to “what”. This same sort of distinction reveals eight other ways that “is” is used apart from the “what” and the”how much”. Another sense of “is” is teh “how” or what is now called “quality”:

Red is a kind of wavelength a billionth of a centimeter long.

A fire engine is red.

A fire engine is a kind of wavelength a billionth of a centimeter long.

Except it isn’t. This also speaks to the difference between saying “what” and saying “how”. The first sentence speaks in the mode of what and the second in the mode of how.

In all of this, we need to keep in mind that we are simply taking the word “is” as we find it. There is no need to reform the language so that every distinct meaning of “is” is indicated by a different word. Even if we had many words, we could only assign them in virtue of the unity that we find in our thoughts with respect to the word “is”. The unity is just there, and our job simply to acknowledge that the unity that we find in the word “is” is not the sort of unity that “animal” has with respect to apples and oranges.

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