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“Is”

A friend of mine told me that her knew hobby is to go around asking people what the definition of the word “is,” (sigh) is. Clinton once asked this question to the independent council and a majority of Americans believed him to be quibbling in an effort to stall out the proceedings. Perhaps he was, I don’t know because I don’t know the man. However those of us in the field of philosophy thought the question was brilliant. I was not in the field at the time, but nevertheless I was an acolyte. The question no matter what: “what would the definition of “is” be?” has some interest to it.

I wonder at some of the answers that she has received, I would bet that the most common answer being a substitute for the phrase “to be.” This of course makes sense. If I say that “Niccolo is a philosopher” what I am saying regards Niccolo and his position in history. “To be” means that something exists in a certain position. Dictionary.com gives several definitions of the word “is:” to exist or live, to take place, to occupy a place or position, to continue or remain as before.

While I could go one linguistically regarding the dictionary definitions of this word it would be remiss of me to tread where others with a computer and an internet connection already have tread. True or not, I expect that others have an expectation of me to possibly surpass the hoi polloi. In an attempt let me channel the spirit of the dead to show how arbitrary language and meaningless language actually can be.

Let us take the famous phrase of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: “God is dead.” We are saying, logically, “the subject “God” has the situation of “being dead.” We use the word “is” to link both subject and predicate. Yet if we take the first definition on dictionary.com “to exist or live,” clearly we have a contradiction. The phrase would then mean that “God exists dead” or “God lives dead” with the second two words in either case negating the third word.

To say that something “is” a certain predicate we are operating under the idea that it both endures and that it possesses that trait. How else can something “be” without it being in the present and not owning that trait? Thus the phrase “God is dead” is meaningless, because the agent “god” can not be both “dead” and in possession of that (or any) trait. Thus we cannot truly say that anyone has died as we would then succumb to the absurdity of the sentence’s meaning.

One cannot “be” “dead.” As an apparent counterpoint to this claim one might want to ascribe a secondary meaning to the word seeking to define it as “to take place; happen; occur.” In order to give them their point we might want to say that Zarathustra’s phrase means “there has been the occurrence that the one we call “god” is now dead.” This might give us our answer to the question but dead is a description of the present. It would be more linguistically accurate to say that “something has died,” as this definition being a temporal one has the implication of the past. Can something be presently no more? No. Or else what are we talking about?

The philosopher Parmenides once said that there are two paths “The one that is, is; and necessarily must be; for the other (is not) is needful to not be.”

What “is not” cannot be; for to describe what is not we would have to use what “is.” Is philosophically means “to exist” or “to exist as” if something does not exist, it is not and thus is needful that it not be. Technorati Tags:

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