Being and Doing
Two highly general concepts run through the history of philosophy (and science): being and doing. They shape how the subject is conceptualized, yet they don’t tend to be considered in their own right. It is true that both concepts are hard to articulate, and their interrelations are obscure. Here I will describe in a sketchy way what they involve, so that we might gain a clearer idea of their role in philosophical thought. This will be impressionistic and abstract, an exercise in conceptual excavation. First, some verbal preliminaries: rough synonyms would include “existence” and “action”, “thing” and “event”, “substance” and “process”, “body” and “deed”. There is supposed to be a contrast between what something is and what it does—its nature and its activity. This general distinction receives more specific formulation in the following opposing pairs: structure and function, matter and energy, anatomy and physiology, competence and performance, reason and will, semantics and pragmatics, particle and field, extension and motion, property and power, categorical basis and disposition, logical form and speech act, meaning and use, mass and gravity, noun and verb. Perhaps the best way to understand the nature of the contrast is by reference to geometry and motion. Geometry deals with shapes and their properties: these are conceived as static entities characterized without reference to anything dynamic; we don’t concern ourselves with the movement of triangles and circles. Time does not enter into geometry, only existence in space. So, the geometry of an object constitutes at least part of its mode of being (some sort of stuff or substance constitutes the rest). Motion, by contrast, belongs to what the object does—how it behaves over time. This is held to be something over and above structure as defined by geometry. Once the division has been made, we can distinguish three different views of the relationship between the two levels: (1) doing reduces to being, (2) being reduces to doing, and (3) being and doing are independent realities. Thus: doing is just being-in-action not something additional to being; being is just a (misleading) way to talk about doing; and being and doing are separate compartments of reality. The primary realities are said to be either structured substances or processes and events occurring in time, or both are said to be sui generis and primary. We associate the first type of view (metaphysical system) with Plato and Aristotle, the second with pragmatism, process metaphysics (Whitehead and Russell), and existentialism. Descartes can be slotted into the third category given his view that matter is constituted by extension and mind is constituted by thought (something we do). Wittgenstein’s Tractatus is an example of a geometrical conception of meaning (the picture theory), while the Investigations falls into the category of theories that privilege doing (“In the beginning was the deed”). The correspondence theory of truth is geometrical, the pragmatist theory is action-centered. Is reality basically static and structured or is it essentially fluid and changeable—or is it both? General resistance to dualist ontologies recommends a monistic metaphysics: for how do we fit the two together into a coherent whole? But where do we get these basic concepts from? What is the primary mode of their presentation to us? What is their empirical manifestation? I suggest the answer is vision and hearing, respectively: these two senses represent the world in quite different ways that correspond to the being-doing distinction. Vision is the sense par excellence of geometry—of spatial form. It gives us a strong impression of structured being, often devoid of change or action (“still life”). On the other hand, hearing does no such thing: it is hardly geometrical at all. What hearing does is present sounds in time, generally resulting from the actions of objects: birds chirping, people speaking, thunder clapping, objects crashing, music playing, wind blowing. In hearing, the activity of the world is saliently registered; hearing alone could hardly convey to us the type of being that vision manifestly conveys. Vision offers a shape world; hearing offers a sound world. So, the emphasis on being (structure, form) naturally goes with vision, while the emphasis on doing (activity, change) naturally goes with hearing. An individual with one of these senses and not the other might be more inclined to favor one kind of metaphysics over the other. And someone who loves painting might prefer a being-centered ontology, while someone who loves music might prefer a doing-centered ontology. In any case, the two concepts apply differently to the two senses in question. What seems to me true is that the concepts of being and doing have a hold on our thinking and exercise a large role in shaping our metaphysical predilections. I myself would not favor one over the other but would seek a unified metaphysics that incorporates both. Structure is real and irreducible; process is also real and irreducible. I don’t believe that the deed is basic metaphysically, because there can be no deed without a body to do the deed (and a mind too if the deed is willed). But symmetrically, the idea of a static and powerless reality to which action must be superadded strikes me a metaphysical fantasy. Being and doing are two sides of the same coin, so that there is a fundamental duality at the heart of reality (“double-aspect” theory). This duality runs through our experience as it runs through the world independent of our experience. Reality is both being and doing.
 No doubt we also get the idea of doing from our own acts of will, but they alone will not give us the general notion of doing I am concerned with.
 So, I don’t think meaning is use or matter is energy or properties are powers or particles are fields or semantics is pragmatics or objects are events or character is choice, etc. In fact, I think all these are category mistakes. It is an interesting question whether dynamic capitalism, with its pace of change, makes people receptive to a metaphysics of doing, in contrast to the static essences of medieval religious thought. Is it an accident that pragmatism took off in America? Plato and Aristotle were more popular in hidebound Europe.