Being and Nothingness

David Cowles

May 12, 2022

But there are holes in this Swiss cheese. First, while it is true that ‘events’ constitute the universe, what we’re calling ‘events’ (above) are rarely primordial events.

William H. Gass, in his Introduction to Gertrude Stein’s The Geographical History of America, wrote, “Life is rearrangement.” Gass attributes this idea, if not this exact sentence, to Ms. Stein. According to this view, our lives consist of elements (events) and many of these elements seem to be shared by other people: one other, many others, most others, perhaps even all others.

For example, growing up, we may be fed by a mother, punished by a father, taught by a teacher, babysat by a neighbor, etc. These ‘events’ are elements of my human life and, I assume, of many, but not all, other human lives; therefore, they are elements of ‘human life’ per se. The solidarity we experience as ‘society’ may be attributed at least in part to this vast network of shared elemental experiences.

How many such elements are there? The number is uncountably large, but it is many, many orders of magnitude smaller than the number of distinct human lives that these elements can generate. “Life is rearrangement.”

Think of the events that make up my life as words in a dictionary even larger than the OED. Only a few of these words are involved in the constitution of a single human being, but some of those same words turn up in others. The ‘rules’ by which these events can be combined to form a human life is the syntax of being human, while the number of unique human persons is analogous to an anthology of the complete works of an entire culture.

But there are holes in this Swiss cheese. First, while it is true that ‘events’ constitute the universe, what we’re calling ‘events’ (above) are rarely primordial events. Usually a ‘society’ of events come together to share a common ‘superject’, i.e., meaning. So an event in your life, ‘X’, can fulfill the same function in my life, ‘Y’; both event-clusters have a similar meaning, ‘M’, but the route to ‘M’ in ‘X’ is very different from the route to ‘M’ in ‘Y’. While two individual paths may result in a common superject, the differences in those paths will significantly impact the further evolution of ‘X’ and ‘Y’.

So,’X’ and ‘Y’ each emerge from their own unique Actual Worlds, they converge along the way to share a common superject, only to diverge again so that in the end, ‘X’ is entirely other than ‘Y’.

Second, while both ‘X’ and ‘Y’ project ‘M’ as it is viewed by ‘Z’, ‘M’ has a different function in ‘X’ than it has in ‘Y’. ‘X’, and ‘Y’ share ‘M’ in ‘Z’, but ‘M’ in ‘X’ is radically different from ‘M’ in ‘Y’. Like families on your cul-de-sac, our lives can look very much alike from the outside, but they are always radically different when doors are closed and the shades are pulled down (i.e., on the inside). In fact, ‘M’ in ‘X’ is always different for ‘X’ than ‘M’ in ‘Y’ is for ‘Y’. Therefore, while our lives, considered socially, may overlap, those same lives, considered ontologically, can share no elements in common.

Not only is every person unique, every primordial event that constitutes that person is unique; it has a unique function in ‘X’, though it may have a shared function for ‘Z’ (understood as all others, collectively). As Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in Being and Nothingness, being-for-others has nothing to do with being-for-itself. As being-for-others, we are helping to build an all-encompassing web; as being-for-itself, each of us stands, alone, on the edge of Kierkegaard’s abyss and and on that edge, none of us has anything in common with anyone else, except the abyss.


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