Wednesday, March 5, 2014

John Deely on the Two Notions of Relative Being

We see then what is peculiar about the notion of relative being taken in its full extension thus divided: it includes everything that falls within our experience and so is difficult to grasp precisely because the implied term of opposition - nonrelative being, or absolute being - is at the concrete level a phantom of the mind, like the notion of "nonbeing" in general. It is not a question of some beings that are relative and other beings that are not relative, but a question rather of beings all of which are relative, though relative in two sharply contrasting though connected senses: Every being that exists in its own right is, by virtue of that very fact, subjectively relative throughout its existence; but, in addition to this subjective relativity according to which a being proximately depends on some things more than others and influences some things but not others, etc., there is the further relativity according to which the subjects are here and now intersubjectively connected actually to this thing rather than that, and later to another rather than to this, until such time as they cease to be. There is, in short, a twofold dimension or level to the relativity of being: on the one hand, there is an underlay of subjective relativity according to which everything ultimately implies everything else but not in equally direct or proximate ways at the level of possibility or intelligibility, even though everything is not actually related to everything else at the level of existence and physical interaction; and, on the other hand, there is at the same time an overlay of intersubjective relations, both physical and objective, according to which some things are actually interactive with some things but not with others in this or that way.

We are now in a position to answer our question about the living parent whose child has died. The parent remains a parent at the level of transcendental relation, while ceasing to be a parent at the level of physical relation, although this physical relation continues to exist objectively to the extent that the parent or anyone else thinks about it. The same relation formed now only in thought formerly existed also physically, and it is by virtue of that same relation that the parent is a parent.

Of course, if, as happens, a supposed father, say, was deceived into thinking that a child was his when in fact it was begotten by another, the objective relation according to which he was called and thought to be, perhaps even by the child, "father", continues without ceasing in any sense upon the death of the child. It is thus by the relation on its physical side that the father is in fact the father, while it is by that same relation (or by what is thought to be that relation even though it is in fact a different relation owing to the nonexistence of a physical relation for the objective relation to be the same as) that the father is called "father". Thus is the truth of dicisigns a consequence of the relations they embody according to whether what is asserted objectively coincides with or deviates from what exists relative to another order of being than the objective.


Source: John Deely, "Chapter 4: Signs: The Medium of Semiosis," in Basics of Semiotics (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990),

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