It is not hard to comprehend that there is a real difference between what something is and what something means. Even if that “something” is meaning itself, we can still distinguish between what meaning is and what meaning means. Or, if that “something” is being, it is simple enough to see that the question “what is being?” as quite different from the question “what does being mean?”
This distinction will not satisfy the Heideggarian, and for good reason: One could say much more about the foundations of reality and interpretation than this elementary distinction. For instance, when we ask “What is the meaning of being?” we seem to be asking both things (being and meaning) at once. However, it may be worthwhile to consider the simpler distinction in order to understand why a bare, descriptive sense of something is so often transformed into something axiomatic, normative, and prescriptive. In other words, when claims about what something is are confused with claims about what something means, the result is confusion at best and ideology at worst.
One example of this confused and ideological situation is the way that certain things are presented as if their very being implied an instant counterfactual meaning. In many conversations across journalism and the academy, any “difference” whatsoever implies exclusion and exclusion implies deficits and deficits are always harms and, therefore, the presentation of a “difference” amounts to a total and immediate falsification, a hot and ready counterfactual, built upon a tortured illogical progression of assumptions.
This quickly becomes a “gotcha” game of contradictions, built upon a rancid and infectious perfectionism. The key candidate for this game nowadays, and for some time in years past, is identity. Both right and left, liberal conservatives and conservative liberals, Marxists, Catholics, every anthropological or sociological group, all nations, states, and regions, all of these so-called “identities” leverage identity itself as exactly this sort of false counterfactual.
There is no difference in my mind between the identity politics of the Left that police the Academy and the clarion calls for Catholic identity with which readers here are surely familiar. Indeed, the language, rhetoric, and politics of identity amount to little more than a profound confusion between, on the one hand, what it is to be and, on the other, what being means.
Identity, in these formulations, is not about being. It is more and more a coded and reactionary set of strategic meanings. This is not to say that we should avoid or forget existential questions of who we are, but it does limit the range of those questions with regard to deploying their results for the sake of intellectual and cultural warfare.
The limit, in this case, is nothing more than a simple sense of the order between external reality as it is and the internal project of making sense of it. Again, this is a naively uncomplicated formulation of the way things are, but even the shadow of the sense that it has to offer gives a glimpse into my own growing sense: It isn't bad people who are most worrisome today—indeed this seems to be an age of an obnoxious altruism. Rather, the real problem is simply the result of extremely bad ideas, worst of all the absence of ideas in most discussions about anything. When we talk about X, there is almost no sense of what X is or means and no one seems to care to find out or give a guess about it either. In an arrangement such as this, the presentation of identity, difference, exclusion, and alike as immediate counterfactuals is bad enough, but the idea that somehow these counterfactuals demand repair through political substitution is perhaps even worse.
For instance, in the well known curricular debates about a “canon,” no one seems to agree about what a canon is. All a “canon” seems to mean is loosely attached to any number of tastes and fancies about what good books are, where they come from, how one’s identity might have something to do with them, and how we might address these questions of literary representation in coursework and culture at large. It is almost scandalous to suggest that perhaps we should have a canon of everything, or that canons routinely change and adapt to time and place, or that the work of arguing over a canon might be what a canon really is.
Another parting example of this substitutionary logic can be found in the exclusive use of etymology to describe things. In some cases a word’s history and meaning can be productively translated from its etymology. However, it does not begin to follow that an etymological understanding of a term is evidence of what it is that is being discussed. Meaning, in many cases, can bore out an understanding of being, but not in all cases; and ultimately there is a sufficiency to what is that cannot be conveyed by meaning. There is no shortcut to appealing to what a word means as a quick route to describing what is the case. Shortcuts and life hacks are not what ideas are about.
In the end, it seems reasonable and timely to bring attention to the basic difference between being and meaning—mutual inclusions notwithstanding—and hopefully avoid lazy and ideological appeals to false counterfactuals. It won’t make a difference to what is ultimately argued for or against, but at the very least we might this way achieve a more genuine argument. Indeed, we may even show more than we can say.