Gideon Rosen’s Review

What may be the most remarkable feature of “Coming to Understanding” is not emphasized by its author. The work itself is an essay in speculative metaphysics, broadly in the tradition inaugurated by the first Ammonius. It is addressed to the question, ‘Why do contingent beings exist?’ and the answer it provides is teleological: Contingent beings exist in order that the structure of Being itself may be understood. The work defends this general proposal against various alternatives. But it also includes, in its second half, a detailed account of the structure of Being. And this means that if the overall view is correct, the work itself constitutes (at least in part) that for the sake of which the cosmos exists. This is the reminiscent of nothing so much as Hegel’s remarkable suggestions that the history of the world is the coming to self-consciousness of Spirit, which reaches its first fruition in Hegel’s own work. But as I say, the author of “Coming to Understanding” does not emphasize this reflexive feature of his text. What we have instead is a closely argued and altogether clear-headed attempt to describe a metaphysical framework in which certain ‘why’-questions which must otherwise remain intractable may be answered. I do not accept the framework, for reasons that will emerge below. But one can only admire the intelligence and the clarity with which it has been proposed.

The author’s questions, ‘Why do contingent beings exist?’ is a special case of the more fundamental-seeming question, ‘Why Is there something rather than nothing?’. But in the author’s view the more specific questions is more urgent. Why? The author is convinced that there might have been no contingent beings. Hence the question, ‘Why are there any contingent beings at all?’ is a question about why one possibility rather than another has been realized. The author is equally convinced, however, that a world in which nothing whatsoever exists is an impossibility. So in asking why there is something rather than nothing, we are not asking for an explanation of a contingent fact. There is something because there could not have failed to be something. To say this, and to make it plausible, is to answer the familiar question while leaving the author’s more specific question unaddressed.

Gideon Rosen
Princeton University