Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Negation and Being

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Negation and Being

Article excerpt

NEGATION IS SOMETHING THAT WE DO. It is typically a judgment that we make, a judgment that something is not the case, and it usually--albeit by no means exclusively--takes the form of a statement. We make negative existential judgments ("There is no longer a Cold War," "Inflation doesn't exist in this economy") and negative predicate judgments ("Two is not greater than three," "The suspect's not ready to talk"). (1)

Negations such as these are commonplace, in our lives and in our grammar, and they may well be a distinctive feature of human communication. Almost two decades ago Jon Barwise made the observation: "All human languages contain one or more mechanisms of a negative character; no animal communication does." (2) Even if this last observation overreaches, there can be no doubt about the foundational role that negation traditionally plays in thinking and knowing. Consider how Wittgenstein, with the Sheffer stroke, introduced a negation operation to generate all truth functions. (3) Whether one analyzes knowledge claims as suitably justified or as reliable true beliefs, it hardly suffices to show that someone believes what is the case; for both epistemological theories, it must be shown that either the reasons an alleged knower has for his true belief or the behavior he exhibits rule out beliefs to the contrary. (4) Thus, negation appears to be a primitive element of our processes of thinking and knowing anything.

Not surprisingly, negation also plays a central role in scientific reasoning in the form of counterfactuals. Moreover, even if we reject the notion that an absence signaled by a negation could be a cause, we have to contend with the fact that standard analyses of causation are forced to have recourse to negation inasmuch as they suppose that a process or fact can only be a cause if it is not the same as its effect. (5) So construed, causation requires a real distinction that is the counterpart of a negation.

Nor has the fundamental role of negation been lost on metaphysicians. For Aquinas, access to the very subject matter of metaphysics is crucially dependent upon the distinctive negative judgment he labels separatio. (6) The subjectivity of a living substance, Hegel tells us, is "sheer negativity" and his own metaphysics relies on what he calls "absolute negativity," that is, the absolute's "movement and activity of mediating itself with itself." (7) We hear echoes of this role of negativity in Whitehead's characterization of consciousness as "the feeling of negation" and "negative perception" as "the triumph of consciousness." (8)

Nonetheless, the status of negations presents well known problems. The very grammar of negation seems to point to its secondary status. Thus, negation typically takes the form of an adverb or adjective, requiring a copula or a predicate to modify, respectively. By contrast, the copula or predicate can fulfill its grammatical function without the negative modification. The grammatical structure of negation and what it modifies suggests that negation supposes the foregoing presence of what is negated, but the presence does not require negation.

Not surprisingly, given the hold of grammar on our thinking, negation, in the sense of a negative judgment, appears necessarily derivative, piggybacking on affirmations. In keeping with this apparently secondhand status, a negative judgment typically tells us a lot less than an affirmative judgment. Above all, if ontology is supposed to help us figure out what there is and what it means for anything to be, then negation appears to be spectacularly inept since negative judgments function to tell us what is not the case. In sum, negation seems to be a singularly inappropriate theme for elucidating what it means to be.

The purpose of the following paper is to contest this conclusion and to argue, to the contrary, that negation is fundamental to our understanding of what it means to be. …

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