Becoming and Being

Becoming and Being

A quality that distinguishes philosophers and sci­entists from the rest of humanity is a willingness to confront and systematically explore issues and ideas that, for most people, seem so fundamental as to be unworthy of attention. Basic to philo­sophical thinking and discussion is the effort to define the very terms of , including becom­ing and being and their relationship to time. This becomes clear in an overview of ’s idea of being and the thoughts of other major philoso­phers, including Aristotle, Gottfried Leibniz, , and Alfred North Whitehead, and their divergence from being with their own ideas of becoming and how this connects with ideas of time. Plato held that the notion of being was what constituted absolute reality. Being holds that true reality is fixed in nature, unchanging regardless of time and space, whereas a changing reality is the false reality of perception. Opposed to being is the thought of becoming, where reality takes on a process or a change in order to create the reality we perceive, often termed .


Reality is different for everyone, in the sense that to some degree we all perceive things differently. Perceptions can also change for an individual from day to day: Either the perceived entity has taken on a different form, or the person perceiving the entity has changed in some way—in terms of experience, knowledge, values, and ideas. Plato (c. 427-c. 347 BCE) held a dualistic view of real­ity: the perceived world of dynamic, unfixed, and fluctuating perceptual reality, or becoming; and the unchanging, fixed, absolute reality, or being. Plato claims that because humans perceive their reality through the senses, the reality they know is skewed. This is because the senses are inaccurate, making the knowledge of this reality erroneous. By Plato’s logic, true reality can be perceived only by the soul, or conceptual thought, and not the bodily functions that often alter a fixed reality. Plato refers to this fixed reality, which is perceived only by the soul, as the Idea or the Universal. The true reality of an object exists outside of the per­ceptions we gather from it through our senses. To Plato, the things that the senses perceive come out of a movement between the senses and the things perceived. Both are in a state of change, and where these changes meet, there is perception.

Becoming is subject to space and time. Our per­ceptions are rooted in time, as we see things change throughout time and perceive them differently throughout different periods within time. What we perceive are only particulars of an Idea; they can only represent an Idea, but are not the Idea itself. For example, when you see a horse you are seeing a perception of the Idea of a horse, and the “horse- ness” or Idea is separate from the particular horse that we have a sensory perception of. Being is not bound by time. It is fixed and unchanging for all eternity, thus making it absolute reality. According to Plato, this absolute and true reality is unchange­able and eternal. Time exists only as a moving representation of the eternal. Plato believes that when the heavens were created, so was this moving representation of them that we are able to perceive. Time has been around since the beginning, but it exists only in the perceptual world, as the eternal unchanging world is not subject to time. The past and the future are parts within the perceived time, that we understand the eternal to be within, but which it is not. The eternal simply “is” and never “was” or never will “be” as we understand our temporal space. The eternal is fixed and unchang­ing, not subject to the motion and change of time.


Major philosophers have since diverged from this Platonic way of thinking in terms of an absolutely fixed reality. The more commonly held view of today is that the world is a dynamic place and continually changing as things are becoming, not simply being. This becoming is also referred to as process philosophy. Process philosophy branches from metaphysical philosophies. Metaphysics is the study of reality and how we experience it in this world. Process philosophy offers a take on reality that claims that reality can be described in terms of processes and not things. It focuses upon the changes we perceive happening, rather than the unchanging or fixed. For a process philosopher, any type of change or process characterizes reality. Any type of change, whether it is physical, organic, or psychological, is made up of numerous phases. It flows from one thing to the next, rather then remaining stagnant or fixed within time.


Aristotle (384-322 BCE) was one of the first major thinkers to move away from the idea of being or fixed entities. Aristotle rejected Plato’s dualistic approach to Ideas and particulars. He did not agree that our senses show us a world full of copies or representations of the real universal Ideas. Aristotle claimed that Ideas and particulars, or forms, relied on one another for existence. He held that the form we see is the reality of an object within the matter of that object. The form to Aristotle is the same as the Idea of an object is to Plato. It underlies what the object itself is and not the perception we have of the object. The differ­ence is that Aristotle claimed the forms and matter of an object rely heavily on one another, whereas Plato believed they are separate from one another. For Aristotle, forms are able to change, but we can still acquire a reality from them. Although these changes take place, Aristotle taught that one part of an object’s matter always remains the same. The part that remains the same is the matter of an object, and the part that we perceive as changing is the form of an object. Thus, change can take place, with an object still remaining what it is, as its matter is still unchanged. Aristotle held that when a change takes place, the original form of an object does not change the object; rather, a new form will instigate the change. This “new” form was always present; it just reacted on the matter to create what we perceive to be a change. Forms or matter cannot be destroyed. Matter can be changed only by many different qualities or forms, depend­ing on what is present in its environment.

For Aristotle, these forms that we perceive are becoming or changing. Aristotle held that this change and time are linked, and time does not exist without change or motion. Aristotle related time to motion, or that which can be referred to as change, as in every instance of motion there is a change occurring. Time and change are perceived together, even if our physical senses do not per­ceive a change; a thought that enters the mind makes us think that a period of time has elapsed no matter how brief. Although time may measure changes, it is not change. It cannot be a change because it is everywhere and with everything. Time is a constant, and change can be faster or slower; thus they are not one and the same. Aristotle claimed that time is perceived in the present but, for the present to be there, there must have been a before and an after (even if we do not perceive these points in time). He claimed that some things that are not affected by time are not in time. These are the things that are eternal, such as heavenly bodies, which exist with time but are not a part of it. These eternal things are not affected by the before and after as the finite things are. The things that are in time are those that are changing or have motion and are finite.

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz

Leibniz (1646-1716) believed that we are able to perceive the ever-evolving reality and that it is a true reality to us. He went further to claim that if perceivers can see no contradictions in the reality they perceive, then it is in fact conceivable and therefore real. To Leibniz, the concept that some­thing that creates no contradictions is real opposes the Platonic thought that perceived things are not real. Leibniz claimed that by an object’s uncontradictory nature, if that is what it has, we are able to understand it, thus making it real or conceivable to ourselves. He makes an important distinction that these things must have some basis in reality; for if they do not, then they become imaginary. This realm of possibility exists within what Leibniz terms a region of Ideas. This region of Ideas is what Leibniz related directly to God, claiming that it is God who makes things perceiv­able to us in our world. Humans, being rational, are able to perceive a divine representation of things, thus having knowledge of them.

Leibniz maintained that reality resides within centers of force, all of which are different from one another. Leibniz termed these centers of force monads. Monads are in everything and cannot be destroyed; therefore they are eternal. They are each individual and can come together to make up larger things. Changes within monads themselves happen irrespective of other monads, because they change internally. According to Leibniz, the monad becomes what it was always meant to be, that is, as God meant it to become. The changes that con­tinually occur within a monad are simply allowing it to reach its full potential; that is, what it was always meant to become. Monads are present in different levels of a hierarchy, God being the high­est monad. This hierarchy is determined by the degree to which something can perceive the truth. Monads reflect the universe, with differing degrees of clarity, depending on where they fall within the hierarchy. The higher the form is, the more Godlike it is, and the lower the form is, the more mirror­like it is. The lowest form of a monad has uncon­scious perceptions and no memory. A monad that is more highly developed will possess a memory and has conscious awareness and perceptions. A higher monad, or one that is God-like, will contain all the aspects of the lower monads as well as self­consciousness and reason.

For Leibniz, time is an illusion because it does not exist as a dimension itself outside of a par­ticular monad. He does not think that time is only a series of moments strung together to create continuity. Leibniz’s explanation of time derives from his theory of sufficient reason: Everything that occurs has a reason for its occurrence, that reason being that it is the way God intended it to change and become. As monads go through change internally, so too is time internal to a monad. As Leibniz divided his monads, he also divided time into three respective categories. The first category is atemporal, free from any limitations of time, or God. The second category is a continuous change within the monad or a realization of actuality, as God intended. The third category, is an external framework of sequential order, or the “now.”

Henri Bergson

Bergson (1859-1941) termed reality as the elan vital, or a vital force, which is rooted in conscious­ness. He taught that there is change and evolution in everything at every time; nothing simply exists. Everything to Bergson was continually changing, including consciousness. We know our reality through consciousness and experience, not through scientific reasoning. Our consciousness constructs reality from past experiences and is continually moving and evolving forward. Experiences are never repeated, as they are unique to situations and time. Becoming is varied, and no experience is the exact same as another. To Bergson, becoming can be perceived as qualitative, evolutionary, and extensive. However, although it may appear to fit into one of these categories, each instance of becoming is the same regardless of how we per­ceive and categorize it. The real instance of becoming resides at the back of our knowledge centers and we only recreate it through our per- ceptions—we do not see its true essence. Bergson compared knowledge to cinematographic percep­tions. That is to say, we perceive things in static “snapshots” and put them together like a moving picture to create a reality.

For Bergson, this cinematographic approach addresses time. The approach takes instances within time and makes them presentable in frames, which we can view singularly or as a stream coming together. This approach includes duration, through which a series of images is per­ceived by the observer and understood only by our imagination and not through our real knowl­edge. The imagination allows us to experience real duration or time, as time itself is immeasur­able because it is constantly in motion. Bergson held that we do not perceive time as a fluid move­ment but rather as these glimpses of static occur­rences. Perception allows us to view a progression through time rather than seeing time directly within our perceptions.

Alfred North Whitehead

Whitehead (1861-1947) placed the temporal world into occasions of experience, meaning that what we perceive are simply multitudes of instances grouped together to form our percep­tions of them. These experiences can be placed into groups to create an interpretation of some­thing. This line of thinking would in essence allow an occasion to be broken into a series of smaller experiences. Everything is broken into experiences, including our minds. Therefore, for Whitehead, there is no separation between the mind and the body. They are interconnected through process. These occasions of experience rely on experiences or processes that have hap­pened before them, and they influence those that will come after them. This presents the idea that progress and duration and occurrences do not simply happen but rely on occurrences that have already taken place. These experiences are subject to free will, as each experience requires an under­standing and then a reaction in order to create the next experience.

For Whitehead, the past experiences are not determined through our senses. Whitehead terms these past experiences pastness, and they are pres­ent behind all the experiences we have in the pres­ent. Our reaction to these experiences creates our future. For Whitehead, things are continually moving and evolving. Our current perceptions emerge from what has come before them; they emerge and become. Each occasion is forever evolving and changing in order to reach self­completion. Whitehead claimed that each of these occurrences is not determined, but each happens in relation to another occurrence that directs the occurrence toward a future. Occurrences are con­tinually flowing into one another through a pro­cess. By this process, we perceive occurrences as the mind views them and turns them into percep­tions for our physical selves to understand.

Whitehead held that we view occurrences as separate from one another, not occupying the same space within time. For Whitehead, however, this is a false view. Instead, he claimed that for us to understand occurrences, we must relate them to past occurrences. Whitehead maintained that things do not exist separately within space and time. Time, space, and occurrences are related to one another; none can exist on its own, for the process universe is becoming within time.

What do you think?

Stephen Baxter

Stephen Baxter

Saint Bede the Venerable

Saint Bede the Venerable