Book review: The Fragmentation of Being

The Fragmentation of Being
by Kris McDaniel (2017)

McDaniel is a contemporary philosopher versed in his field’s arts of analytical hair-splitting who has taken upon himself to resurrect the scholastic doctrine of the analogy of being.  Substances, properties, events, abstractions, possible beings, and propositions clearly don’t all exist in the same way, but calling their different manners of existence by the same word “existence” is equally clearly no mere equivocation.

Being is only one possible instance of analogy.  In general, suppose we have a case of property X that extends across classes A, B, C.  Under what circumstances does X apply analogously (as opposed to univocally) to A vs B vs C?  McDaniel would say that in this case, there are more fundamentally three properties X_A, X_B, and X_C.  Of course, one could for any X just define X_A to be the property of X AND being an A, but for analogous properties, X_A is supposed to be more primitive, so it is preferable to say X = X_A OR X_B OR X_C is the derived property.  McDaniel sometimes formulates this in terms or restricted quantifiers, which I didn’t think really adds any clarity.  More helpfully, he suggests tests for recognizing metaphysical analogy.  For example, an analogous property or relation may require different numbers of terms to be fully specified (“saturated”).  Thus, for concrete objects–but not abstractions–existence might be relative to spacetime region, and for accidents–but not substances–existence is always inherence in a subject.

One way that McDaniel argues for the legitimacy of an analogy of being, and especially related ideas such as degrees or levels of being, is to show that contemporary philosophers are already implicitly using these ideas when they make claims about something being more fundamental or natural than something else, or about something grounding something else.  Armed with gradations of being, he returns to the question of the reality of persons/selves without requiring an all-or-nothing answer.  McDaniel would like to believe that we exist in the most fundamental sense but admits that the question remains open.

The final chapter, on being and essence, has some interesting discussion of the ontological argument.  Interpreting a being’s essence being identical with its existence (as they are said by various philosophers to be for God or Dasein) with its essence being identical with its way of being, McDaniel finds nothing unintelligible in the possibility, although by thus moving “existence” from the act to something more on the essence side, such an identification suffice for an ontological argument for the thing’s existence.  He also makes some points about the possibility of objects having existence claims in their essence.  Clearly, we should not be able to create necessary beings by tacking on “existing” to objects’ essential descriptions.

McDaniel is more interested in recommending the analogy of being broadly conceived than in any specific version of it, so he presents many versions without endorsing any.  In fact, much of the book consists of thinking through the consequences of various metaphysical options, in the end not clearly endorsing any.  I find this a lot in contemporary philosophers.  On the one hand, there is something admirably humble about not pretending to say the last word on any topic.  On the other hand, after a while it leaves me frustrated and despairing of anyone ever reaching any conclusions.

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