Being, Identity, and Truth

Being, Identity, and Truth

Being, Identity, and Truth

Being, Identity, and Truth

Synopsis

Philosophers have met with many problems in discussing the interconnected concepts being, identity, and truth, and have advanced many theories to deal with them. Williams argues that most of these problems and theories result from an inadequate appreciation of the ways in which the words "be," "same," and "true" work. By means of linguistic analysis he shows that being and truth are not properties, and identity is not a relation. He is thus able to demystify a number of metaphysical issues concerning the meaning of the word "I," the relation between the mental and the physical, objects of thought, times and places, and the nature of reality. Williams presents his views clearly, with a minimum of technicality, and with rich and apt examples, so that they will be accessible to readers not versed in symbolic logic.

Excerpt

Tell people that you are reading, let alone writing, a book on existence and truth and identity, and they will say, 'Very deep subjects, those.' The implication is that it must be arduous to work so far below the surface, or, perhaps, that those who pretend to have thoughts about these topics are likely to have lost touch with the realities of everyday life. But the topics are not so much 'deep' as wide, that is, enormously general. You cannot say anything about any subject under the sun without using the concepts being, truth, and identity, without, that is to say, the word 'is' or the word 'true' or the phrase 'is the same as' occurring in the sentences you utter. Generality on this scale is very tempting to a philosopher. Philosophers are people who want to produce theories which have the widest possible application. They are interested not in whether it is right to increase taxes on petrol or subsidize energy conservation, but in what makes any sort of action or proposal right or wrong. They do not ask specialist questions, like 'How can you know that certain lizards smell with their tongues?', but more disturbing questions, like 'How is it possible for anyone to know anything at all?' And you cannot make an enquiry much wider than the enquiry into what being is.

However, the results of this enquiry have been pretty baffling. Parmenides, in the sixth century BC, took as his premiss 'What is is, and cannot in any way not be', and deduced that there was no change or movement in the world, and that nothing ever came into or went out of existence. Aristotle elaborated a most complicated theory of being, according to which only substances fully are, but other things such as relations, quantities, and times have a derived being, dependent on that of substances. He taught that matter has potential, but no actual existence, and that being true is itself a mode of being. Aquinas, in the thirteenth century AD, believed that God is pure being. He attached much importance to the doctrine, perhaps due originally to the eleventh-century Persian philosopher Avicenna, that in God essence and existence are one.

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