John N. Deck is a highly interesting, if obscure, figure in the neo-Scholasticism of the 20th century. I first took note of him in 1989, ten years after his death, when his article "Metaphysics or Logic?" appeared in New Scholasticism (vol. LXIII, no. 2, Spring 1989, pp. 229-240.) Thanks to the labors of Tony Flood we now have a better picture of the man and his work. The case of Deck may well prove to be a partial confirmation of Nietzsche's "Some men are born posthumously."
I myself am neither a Thomist nor a neo-Thomist. My route to the philosophy of Being was via the transcendental philosophy of Kant, Husserl, and Heidegger. My dissatisfaction with the phenomenological approach to ontology as well as with the logical approach one finds in Frege and Russell led me to re-think in my own way and in my own terms the old Thomist idea of ipsum esse subsistens. I gave my thoughts a rough and provisional form in my 2002 book A Paradigm Theory of Existence to which I attached the perhaps excessively triumphalist subtitle, Onto-Theology Vindicated. The gist of the subtitle can be put in the slogan: Being is neither a phenomenological nor a logical notion, but an onto-theological one.
Not having discussed Deck in my book, I will make good that omission here in one or more posts.
It is a matter of experience that our world is a plural world, one consisting of a manifold of beings or existents. The manifoldness is undoubtedly real, but it is not a pure manyness but a plurality of things that are, that have Being or existence in common, that form a community of being. There are many beings, but each is. It is undeniable that Being is in some sense common to beings. As common, it must be distinct from each of them taken distributively and from all of them taken collectively.
The question in dispute, however, is whether both Being and beings are real in the "extra-cognitional order" to use a phrase of Deck's, or only beings are. I maintain that both Being and beings are extra-cognitionally real whereas Deck maintains that only beings are. Thus Deck's view is that beings exist outside the mind, but that their unity and commonality is merely that of a concept, and so is imposed by the mind to satisfy its own logical exigencies. Deck's view could be put as follows. When we say of a thing that it exists, what we say is true; but there is no real unity in things that grounds our application of the predicate 'exists' to them. There is no Being in the things that are that makes it true to say of them that they are: Being is a concept we impose. The diversity of beings is real (extramental, extra-cognitional), but their unity is merely conceptual.
One could say that Deck takes a deflationary line: there is no such 'thing' as Being outside the mind. Clearly, this must be opposed by anyone who, like me, sees merit in the notion of ipsum esse subsistens, self-subsistent existence. For to say that existence is self-subsistent is to say that it itself exists. But in philosophy it all comes down to the arguments one can adduce for or against. In support of his deflationism, Deck says the following:
There is no alternative to being. Everything is. Thus there is no ultimate intelligibility in the contention that all things that are agree in this, that they are all opposed to, or even equally opposed to, non-being — they would be at one, as it were, in the non-non-being feature. (232)
This passage suggests a Contrast Argument:
1. If a term T denotes something real, then there must be items to which T does not apply.
2. There are no items to which 'being' or 'existent' does not apply.
3. 'Being' or 'existent' does not denote anything real.
In point of validity, this argument is unobjectionable: it is an instance of Modus Tollens. But it is unsound. The following consideration suffices to refute the first premise. Since everything is self-identical, it is true to say of any particular thing that it is self-identical. 'Self-identical' is not rendered either senseless or reference-less by the plain fact that nothing is self-diverse. I don't think we need to waste any more words on the first premise. It is obviously false.
But even if you insist that (1) is true, there is still a problem with the argument. Although (2) is true, it does not have the implication Deck thinks it has. He seems to think that if everything exists, then it is unintelligible to suppose that there is a difference between existence and nonexistence. But this is a non sequitur. For although it is true that there is nothing that does not exist, a contingent being that does exist is possibly such that it does not exist. So there is a contrast after all. It is the contrast between (actual) existence and possible nonexistence.
It is quite clear that the difference between existence and nonexistence cannot be explained by giving examples of existents and examples of nonexistents. Pace Meinong and the Meinongians, there are no examples of nonexistents. But how it is supposed to follow from this that there is no real unity in things that grounds the application of 'exists' to them?
It seems to me that Deck is making a rather obvious mistake. He is assuming that existence or Being is a highest what-determination. He is thinking of 'being' as a maximally general term which, due to its all-inclusive extension, is virtually nil in intension. Here is what he has to say:
The distinction between 'being' and, for example, 'dog,' is then a distinction between the more general and the less general. This is a logical or cognitional distinction, which does not necessarily reflect anything in the nature of things. Nor does it necessarily point to any real composition within things. It is analogous to the distinction made between 'animal' and 'dog' when it is said that Rover is a dog and Rover is an animal, which distinction does not point to two distinct principles within Rover — dog and animal. Rover is a dog who is an animal, an animal who is a dog. His being a dog and his being an animal are the same in him, even though there are other animals. Similarly, Rover is both a being and a dog — there are other beings, but this does not change the fact that for him, to be a dog is to be a being, to be a being is to be a dog. (232-233)
This passage shows that Deck is thinking of being as a highest genus. Rover is a dog, an animal, a living thing, a physical thing . . . a being. On this way of thinking, being is the most general what-determination. But if anything is clear, it should be that Being or existence is not a summum genus as Aristotle pointed out at 998b22 of the Metaphysics. And as Kant pointed out in his famous discussion, Being or existence is not a reales Praedikat: Being or existence is no part of what a thing is.
I'll have more to say about this later. For now, the main point is that Deck's Contrast Argument above is unsound. Not only does it share the defect of every contrast argument, it also confuses Being or existence with a highest what-determination.