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(in the philosophy of Aristotle) actuality
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005


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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a philosophical category designating a reality which exists objectively, independently of human consciousness, will, and emotions. The problem of interpreting being and its relationship to consciousness is central to a philosophical world view. Dialectical materialism proceeds from the assumption that material being determines consciousness and demands “an explanation of social consciousness as the outcome of social being” (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 26, p. 56). Since being is something external and preexisting for man, it imposes specific limitations on his activity and compels him to make his acts commensurate with it. Moreover, being is the source and condition of all forms of man’s life-activity. Being represents not only the framework, the limits of activity, but also the object of man’s creativity, which constantly changes being. It also represents the sphere of possibilities which man in his activity transforms into reality.

The interpretation of being has undergone a complex development. A general trait of this development has been the struggle between the materialistic and the idealistic approaches; the former interprets the fundamentals of being as material, and the latter interprets them as ideal. Several periods may be distinguished in the treatment of being. The first period is that of the mythological interpretation of being. The second stage is connected with the consideration of being “in itself” (naturalistic ontology). The third period begins with the philosophy of I. Kant; being was regarded as something connected with man’s cognitive and practical activity. In a number of schools of contemporary non-Marxist philosophy an attempt is being made to reinterpret the ontological approach to being, this time basing it upon the analysis of human existence.

The essence of the development of scientific and philosophical knowledge consists in the fact that man has become increasingly aware of himself as the subject of all the forms of his activity, as the creator of his own social life and forms of culture.

In the history of philosophy the first conception of being was provided by the ancient Greek philosophers of the sixth through fourth centuries B.C.—the pre-Socratics, for whom being coincided with the material, indestructible, and complete cosmos. Some of them considered being as unchanging, single, immovable, and self-identical (Parmenides); others as something constantly becoming (Heraclitus). Being was conceived of here in relation to nonbeing; moreover, an antithesis was set up between being in truth, which could be discovered in philosophical reflections, and being in opinion, which represented merely the deceptive, unstable surface of things. This was most incisively expressed by Plato, who set up an antithesis between sensory things and pure ideas which are the “world of true being” (Theaetetus, 176 E; Russian translation, Moscow-Leningrad, 1936). The soul was once close to god and “having raised itself up, gazed at authentic being” (Phaedrus, 247 C; Russian translation, Moscow, 1904), but now, burdened with cares, “it has difficulty in contemplating what is” (ibid., 248 B). Aristotle defined types of being in accordance with types of uses of the expression “it is” (see Metaphysics, V, 7, 1016, 13-18; 1017, 10; Russian translation, Moscow-Leningrad, 1934). But being was understood by him as a universal predicate, which applies to all the categories; however, he did not consider it to be a generic concept (see ibid., III, 3, 998, 22). Basing his thought on the principle (developed by him) of the mutual interrelationship of form and matter, Aristotle surmounted the antithesis between the spheres of being that was inherent in previous philosophy. He could accomplish this because for him form was an inalienable characteristic of being. Aristotle, however, also acknowledged the nonmaterial form of all forms (god). Such an interpretation was continued by Neoplatonism.

Christianity developed the distinction between divine and created being, between god and the world which he created out of nothing and which is supported by the divine will. Man is accorded the possibility of free movement toward the perfect, divine being. Christianity developed the ancient conception of the identity of being with perfection (goodness, truth, and beauty). Medieval Christian philosophy, following in the traditions of Aristotelianism, distinguished between actual being (act) and possible being (potency), as well as between essence and existence. Only god was considered to be a fully actual being.

A sharp departure from this position was initiated during the period of the Renaissance, when there was general acceptance of the cult of material being, of nature, of the corporeal. This transformation, which expressed man’s new attitude toward nature—an attitude conditioned by the development of science, technology, and material production—prepared the way for the conceptions of being held in the 17th and 18th centuries. In these conceptions being was regarded as a reality antithetical to man, as something independently existing that had to be mastered by man in his activity. Hence arose the interpretation of being as an object (in contrast to the subject), as an inert reality which is subject to blind, automatically acting laws (for example, the principle of inertia) and which does not permit interference by external forces of any kind. The point of departure in the treatment of being for all philosophy and science during this period was the concept of the body. This was connected with the development of mechanics, the principal science of the 17th and 18th centuries; in its turn, such a conception of being served as a basis for the conception of the world advanced by natural science during those times. The period of classical science and philosophy may be characterized as a period of the naturalistic-objectivistic conceptions of being, in which nature was considered apart from man’s relationship to it, as a kind of self-acting mechanism. With regard to the concept of substance in the works of the Dutch philosopher B. Spinoza, K. Marx noted in The Holy Family, that this was “metaphysically disguised nature separated from man...” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 2, p. 154). These words characterize one of the traits of all pre-Marxist materialism—the antithesis between nature and man, the highly naturalistic conception of being and thought. Another important feature of the conceptions of being in modern times is their substantialist approach to being, wherein one takes into consideration substance (the indestructible, unchanging substratum of being, its ultimate basis) as well as its accidents (properties), transitory, changeable elements which are derived from substance. With various modifications all of these features of the conception of being are to be found in the philosophical systems of F. Bacon, T. Hobbes, J. Locke (Great Britain), B. Spinoza, in the French materialists, and Descartes’ physics.

But Descartes’ metaphysics laid the foundation for a different method of interpreting being, wherein being is determined by means of reflective analysis of consciousness (that is, of an analysis of self-consciousness) or by interpreting being through the prism of human existence, of a being of culture, of a social being. Descartes’ thesis (cogito ergo sum —I think, therefore I am) means that the being of the subject is graspable in an act of self-knowledge. This line was developed by the German philosopher G. Leibniz, who derived a conception of being from man’s inner experience, and its extreme expression was reached in the works of the Irish philosopher G. Berkeley, who denied the existence of material being and proposed the following subjective-idealistic statement: “to be is to be perceived.”

Without denying the existence of things in themselves, I. Kant regarded being not as a property of things but rather as a copula in judgments. “Being is not a real predicate; in other words, it is not a concept of something which could be added to the concept of a thing. … In logical usage it is merely a copula in a judgment” (Soch., vol. 3, Moscow, 1964, p. 521). By adding the characteristic of being [or existence] to a concept, we do not add anything new to the concept. For J. Fichte authentic being is the free, pure activity of the absolute “I,” whereas material being is the product of this activity. In the works of Fichte cultural being, being created by man’s activity, was for the first time the object of philosophical analysis. This thesis was developed by F. Schelling, according to whom nature, being in itself, is merely undeveloped, slumbering reason, whereas “freedom is the only principle from which everything is derived, and even in the objective world we do not take into consideration anything existing outside of ourselves, but only the internal limitation of our own free activity” (Sistema transtsendental’nogo idealizma, Leningrad, 1936, p. 65). In G. Hegel’s system being is regarded as the first, immediate, and highly indeterminate stage in the ascent of spirit toward itself, from the abstract to the concrete; absolute spirit materializes its energy only for an instant, but in its subsequent movement and activity of self-knowledge it sublates and overcomes the alienation of being from the idea and returns to itself, since the essence of being consists of the ideal. For Hegel authentic being, coinciding with absolute spirit, is not a stagnant, inert reality, but rather an object of activity, full of unrest and motion, and fixed in the form of the subject, that is, actively. The historical interpretation of being, historicism, which had its beginning in German classical idealism, is connected with this conception. To be sure, both history and practice here turn out to be products of the activity of spirit.

The position of regarding being as a product of the activity of spirit is also characteristic of bourgeois philosophy at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. Moreover, being itself was interpreted anew. The basic tendencies in the development of ideas concerning being coincide with tendencies in the development of scientific knowledge, which has overcome both the naturalistic-objectivistic treatment of being as well as the substantialist approach to it. This is expressed particularly in the extensive penetration into scientific thinking of such categories as function, relation, and system. In many respects this scientific movement was prepared for by the criticism of the conceptions of being as a substance, criticism carried out in epistemology (for example, in the works of the German Neo-Kantian philosopher E. Cassirer).

In a number of philosophical conceptions there was a stress on a specific form of being—that of human existence. In the works of the German philosopher F. Nietzsche, for example, the concept of being is interpreted as a generalization of the concept of life. This thesis was developed even more incisively in the “philosophy of life” (Lebensphilosophie) by the German philosopher W. Dilthey, for whom authentic being coincided with the integral totality of life, which can be grasped by the humanist sciences(Geisteswissenschaften). The German philosopher H. Rickert, like all Neo-Kantians, made a distinction between being which has sensory reality and irreal being; if natural science has to do with real being, philosophy concerns itself with the world of values, that is, being which presupposes an “ought.” The phenomenology of the German thinker E. Husserl was characterized by the distinction between real and ideal being. Real being is external, factual, and temporal, whereas ideal being represents the world of pure essences (eide)which are authentically self-evident. The task of phenomenology consists in defining the meaning of being, reducing all naturalistic-objectivistic positions, and turning consciousness away from individual-factual being toward the world of essences. Being is correlative to an act of experience, to a consciousness, which is intentional, that is, a consciousness directed at being and drawn to being. The study of the interrelationship of being and consciousness is the central point in phenomenology. The German philosopher N. Hartmann, in setting up an antithesis between material being as transitory and empirical and ideal being as suprahistorical, made a distinction between the ways in which they are known. In accordance with this he understood ontology to be the science of what is, which consists of various strata of being: inorganic, organic, and spiritual. The German existentialist M. Heidegger criticized the traditional approach to being, which was based on a consideration of being as what is, or substance, as something external and antithetical to the subject. For Heidegger himself the problem of being makes sense only as the problem of man’s being, the problem of the ultimate foundations of human existence; fear in the face of nothingness is the most important expression of the general human mode of being.

In contrasting being-in-itself and being-for-itself, the French existentialist J. P. Sartre set up a boundary between material being and man’s being. For him material being is something inert, which serves only as an obstacle, in general not subject to human action and knowledge. “At every instant we experience material reality as a threat to our lives, as an impediment to our work, as a limitation of our knowledge, and also as a weapon which is already in use or which may be used” (J. P. Sartre, Critique de la raison dialectique, vol. 1, Paris, 1960, p. 247). The principal characteristics of man’s being consist in the free choice of possibilities: “for man to be means to choose himself …” (J. P. Sartre, L’Etre et le néant, Paris, 1960, p. 516).

Existentialism considers it incorrect to conceive of being as such or the being of something objective. In existentialism being turns out to be an instrumental field or horizon of possibilities, within whose limits human freedom exists and develops.

In Marxist philosophy the problem of being is analyzed in two directions. First of all, being is regarded as matter, as an object of science. On this level of analysis attention is focused on sorting out the various spheres of being; the chief among these are nonorganic and organic nature, the biosphere, and social being. The second direction in the analysis is connected with a consideration of social being. At this level of analysis the point of departure for dialectical materialism is practice, an examination of being as historical being, as a result of social practice. As distinct from metaphysical materialism, which fixes being in the form of object, as a world of blind, automatically acting laws, Marxism defends the historical conception of being, seeing in the being combined, living sensory activity of individuals. Moreover, being is understood as a real process of human life, as “the production of material life itself” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 3, p. 26). Marxism by no means reduces social being to an aggregate of economic relationships, as does economic materialism. “Quite the opposite is the case: the Marxists (materialists) were the first socialists to raise the issue of the need to analyze all aspects of social life and not only the economic …” (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 1, p. 161). Being is the world of culture and of nature which has been mastered theoretically and practically. Man appropriates the previous culture and expresses himself in cultural objects which he himself has created. His consciousness is directed at being, reproducing and creating it ideally. “Consciousness … can never be anything else but the bringing to consciousness of being … , and the being of people is the real process of their lives” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 3, p. 25). In the problem of the interrelationship between natural and social being, dialectical materialism proceeds from the primacy of nature, from an acknowledgment of the existence of a natural world which is independent of the social and practical activity of man. F. Engels wrote that being is a prerequisite for the unity of the world “as it must certainly first exist before it can be one. Being, indeed, is always an open question beyond the point whether our sphere of observation ends” (ibid., vol. 20, p. 43). The development of science allows us to extend the boundaries of the known and mastered world. In this sense, social being—the world of culture—reveals the essence and the structure of being as such. Thus, social being is not isolated from matter; the universal laws of matter are revealed in it. In his activity man realizes those possibilities that are inherent in being itself; he transforms the potencies of being into actuality.


Lenin, V. I. “Filosofskie tetradi.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 29.
Lenin, V. I. “Materializm i empiriokrititsizm.” Ibid., vol. 18.
Plekhanov, G. V. “O materialisticheskom ponimanii istorii.” Izbr. filosofskie proizv., vol. 2. Moscow, 1956.
Il’enkov, E. V. “Vopros o tozhdestve myshleniia i bytiia v domarksistskoi filosofii.” In Dialektika—teoriia poznaniia: Istoriko-filosofskie ocherki. Moscow, 1964.
Glezerman, G. E. “K voprosu o poniatii ‘obshchestvennoe bytie.’”Voprosy filosofii, 1958, no. 5.
Kelle, V. Zh., and M. Ia. Koval’zon. Istoricheskii materializm. Moscow, 1962.
Heidegger, M. Sein und Zeit. Halle, 1929.
Hartmann, N. Zur Grundlegung der Ontologie, 2nd ed. Meisenheim, 1941.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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