Justifying the Priority of the "Ought" Over the "Is"

(Further updated—I know how Melanchthon felt about the Augustana now.)

I've come to the conclusion lately that Barth's "actualism" is none other than the quality that led Bonhoeffer to call his theology of revelation a positivism. And also to the conclusion that I love it, as an approach. There's an advantage to not having to justify what exists, which is that you then get to talk about how it works, what its effects are, and what it means. And, after all, modeling systems is the only real science of modernity. Metaphysics is always posterior in such a light: theory based on the model of reality.

But when it comes to ethics, we all run smack into what Hume called the "Is–Ought" problem. Whenever we attempt to model ethics on any empirical basis, we find that there's no ground; it's human action all the way down, and all the way out in every direction. This is a serious meta-ethical problem! Where does one stumble upon a reliable moral touchstone in this sea of human existential relativity? What grounds any claims to "ought," in this moral morass of "is"?

This leaves us with an ought-not from an is-not, namely that since there is no non-arbitrary moral basis in evidence, we ought not pretend as though there were. All moral bases are arbitrary. I'm cool with this; I've even managed to think divine command theory in accordance with it. And I'm pretty sure Barth has, too, or at least he's where I got the idea. But one of the best things about Barth's "actualism" here in ethics is that it lets him call foul on both idealism and empiricism as grounds for Christian ethics. And for more on that, I've been working my way through Barth's staple 1922 lecture, "Das Problem der Ethik in der Gegenwart," or "The Problem of Ethics in the Present Time." It says some very cool things, even right at the beginning, that touch on the problem.

About the Translation

Now, this lecture is translated already in two places: Douglas Horton's 1957 The Word of God and the Word of Man, and Amy Marga's new edition, The Word of God and Theology. But when one is working on Barth and ethics, it helps to do certain things yourself. (Also, when one is in the process of learning German—I'm taking the same approach I generally recommend because it helped me learn Greek.) So in just a moment, you'll find the German right along with my English, the same way I regularly do Greek here.

As translations go, Horton's strives intently for a kind of basic, Strunk and White punctuality in its English, not letting sentences drag on at length—which, of course, they naturally do in German to match the idea. Lower reading level, more comprehensible English, but at some cost to fidelity. Marga's translation is content with a higher academic tone that lets her stick closer to Barth's German—which was, after all, delivered mostly as continuing ed for pastors who were practically Barth's peers.

The effect is that, when I read Horton, I think I understand, but I'm not necessarily getting everything that's in the German, and when I read Marga, I think I'm missing some philosophical background due to certain terminological choices. I aim somewhere in between, and hopefully get the point across well. I've kept Marga's gender-neutrality and aimed for more plainly existential, rather than ontological, interpretations of most philosophical concepts here. It is my hope that discussion of "existence" comes across better—more directly relevant to discussion of ethics, in particular—than discussion of "being" does. (Corrections, suggestions, and requests for clarification are surely welcome, and I will attempt to incorporate them into the product along the way. Thanks!)

Translation (adjusted for comments)
Das Problem der Ethik ist die kritische Frage, unter die der Mensch sein Tun, das heißt aber sein ganzes zeitliches Dasein gestellt sieht. Gefragt ist nach Sinn und Gesetz seines Tuns, nach der Wahrheit in seinem Dasein, für deren Vorhandensein diese Frage ihn, den Menschen, verantwortlich macht. Sofern die Wahrheit des Menschenlebens auch in seiner Naturbedingtheit zum Ausdruck kommt, wird sie hier, im Licht der ethischen Frage, noch einmal problematisch. Das scheinbar Gegebene wandelt sich zur Aufgabe. Das als seiend Begriffenen mit seinem Anspruch höchster Würde und Geltung tritt in den Schatten eines Andern, Überlegenen, Nicht-Seienden. Das Wahre, und wenn es das Wahrste wäre, muß sich der kritischen Frage unterziehen, ob es dann auch gut sei.
"The problem of ethics is the critical question under which a person sees their actions—which is to say, their entire temporal existence—placed. It is asked about the sense and regulation of their actions, about what is true in their existence—and it makes them responsible for the presence of this truth. Even to the extent that the truth of human life comes to expression grounded in its natural situation, it still becomes problematic in light of the ethical question. What appears to be “given” transforms itself into a task. Such concepts as we have, with their claims to great dignity and prestige, step into the shadow of an Other, a Superior, a Nonexistent. What is “true,” especially if it wishes to be what is most true, must submit itself to the critical question: whether it might also be good."
Das Recht dieser Frage ist darin begründet, daß sie gestellt ist. Auch die logische Frage, die Frage nach dem Wahren im Sinn des Seienden, ist nicht zufällig und willkürlich, sondern notwendig, kein Gegenstand, sondern die Voraussetzung der sinnlichen Erfahrung, nicht in einem Andern, sondern in sich selbst begründet. Aber doch nur insofern, als sie die Rückfrage nach der Wahrheit des Wahren, das heißt aber die ethische Frage in sich schließt, in der der Gedanke des Nicht-Seienden, aber Sein-Sollenden des Menschen Leben in Anspruch nimmt als des Menschen Tat. In der Frage nach dem Nicht-Seienden, dem Guten, in der ethischen Frage ist die Frage nach dem Seienden, die logische Frage begründet als kritische, selber nicht mehr in Frage zu stellende Frage.
"The justice of this question [the ethical question, about relative goodness] is grounded in the simple fact that it is posed. The logical question, asked about the relative truth of our intuition about what exists, is also necessary, and not accidental or arbitrary. The logical question is the presupposition, rather than the object, of sensory experience, and it is grounded, not in something else, but in itself. But this is the case only insofar as it implies the question about the truth of what is "true"—which is to say, the ethical question, in which the thought of what does not exist, but ought to, seizes upon human life in terms of human action. If the logical question about what does exist is grounded precisely as a critical question in the ethical question about what does not exist—namely, the good—then asking the question is itself no longer questionable."
Keinen Sinn hat es also zum vornherein, die Frage nach dem Guten der Wahrheitsfrage in logischen Sinn zu unterwerfen, als ob sie nicht selber die Wahrheitsfrage wäre, die jene erst zu einer in sich selbst begründeten macht. Keinen Sinn, die Frage nach Pflicht und Recht, nach dem sittlichen Subjekt und Objekt umzusetzen in die Frage nach der Wirklichkeit und den Möglichkeiten des Menschen, der Gegenstand unsrer sinnlichen Erfahrung ist, als ob nicht mit der Frage, die aller sinnlichen Erfahrung letzte Voraussetzung ist, eben gerade dieser Mensch als solcher in Frage gestellt wäre. Keinen Sinn überhaupt, uns der ethischen Frage irgendwie betrachtend als Zuschauer gegenüberzustellen, als ob sie nicht gerade darin ihren Grund hätte, daß wir es beim Betrachten unsres Lebens, bei der Zuschauerrolle unsrem Tun gegenüber nicht bewenden lassen können, sondern in die Notwendigkeit versetzt sind, uns selbst als die Lebenden, als die Täter zu begreifen.
"So it makes no sense to start by making the question about the good logically subordinate to the truth question, as though it were not itself the truth question—which simply makes the ethical question one that is grounded in itself. It makes no sense to translate the question about duty and justice, about the moral subject and object, into the question about human actuality and possibilities, which is the object of our sensory experience—as though by asking this question, which is the last presupposition of all sensory experience, we could prevent exactly this person, as such, from coming into question. It makes no sense at all for us to consider the ethical question as though confronted with it as spectators—as though it did not have its basis in precisely the fact that we take our lives under consideration, that we take the role of spectators of our own actions. In the face of this fact, we cannot let the matter rest; instead, standing in this necessity, we are given to understand ourselves as the ones who live, and ourselves as the ones who are guilty."
Keinen Augenblick aus dem Gesicht zu verlieren ist freilich die Lückenlosigkeit des Seinszusammenhangs, in den verflochten wir uns unsre Existenz allein anschaulich zu machen vermögen und innerhalb dessen das Gute, nach dem in der ethischen Frage gefragt ist, nicht gegeben ist; was hier gegeben ist und gegeben sein kann, das kann ja als solches nicht das Gute sein. Aber das ändert nichts daran, daß offenbar eben diese unsre anschauliche Existenz in diesem Seinszusammenhang gemessen ist an einem Maßstab, der weder mit ihr selbst noch mit dem als seiend Begriffenen überhaupt gegeben ist. Ändert nichts daran, daß der Mensch als Mensch rettungslos in die Lage versetzt ist, sein Sein zugleich aufzufassen als sein verantwortliches Handeln, sein Begehren als fragwürdig, jenes Nicht-Seiendes als Sein-Sollendes, das als die Wahrheit des Wahren sein Tun in Beschlag nehmen will.
"This is, of course, not for a moment to lose sight of the seamlessness of our existential (inter)connectedness! When we are so woven together, we are only able to make our mode of existence visible to ourselves. In this situation, the good after which we ask in the ethical question is not given; what is and can be given here is only what really cannot be good as such. But that does not change the observable fact that exactly this, our visible mode of existence in this existential (inter)connectedness, is measured against a standard that is not given at all. The standard does not come with that mode of existence itself, nor does it come with such concepts as we have. Which does not change the fact that a person, as a human being, is inescapably put in this position: simultaneously, my existence is understood as my responsible conduct, my desire is understood as something worth questioning, and what does not exist is understood as what ought to exist, which—as the truth of what is true—wants exclusive control over my actions."

Commentary (adjusted for translation)

So, where does Barth leave us with the "Is–Ought" problem? He clearly speaks of the "ought" as the value of goodness, and talks about its non-existence in the face of everything that does obviously exist. And yet he pours water over the fire of the attempt to prioritize moral analysis of what does exist. The problem of the "ought" doesn't go away, and it cannot be explained in terms of the "is"—ethics always stands over against the world as we see and understand it. In fact, Barth tells us, the "ought" actively seeks to monopolize the "is," and declares that existence as we understand it is never good enough—and even that it cannot be good.

Any attempt to base the ethical question on human actions will result in the error Hume tells us is there: it will tell us that what we ought to do cannot be derived from what we actually do. That we must therefore do something else in order to be good, but that we have no positive way of deriving that something else. And, since even the "is" question reaches for the "ought" question, that tells us that it is senseless to attempt to predicate "ought" on the basis of "is"! While the question of what there is out there is self-justifying, as the basis upon which we deal with reality, Barth tells us that it also reaches for the question of value in order to ground itself critically. Empiricism beats idealism hands-down as a tool for understanding what there really is in the world, but not for questioning it. If we cannot answer the question of what ought to be there from it in any way without simply begging the question, then we must be able to ask the value question as its own primary question, in exactly the same way as we are able to ask about what is real.

And then Barth does some admirable things. He follows the Cartesian–Copernican insight out as far as it goes, which is to say that we are stuck embedded in the system that we are examining, and we have no better ground on which to stand. We cannot see the objective truth of our existence, only the way it looks relative to every other existence. It really is relative human agency all the way down. Which does not in any way excuse us from acting! We cannot get out of the reality of the "ought," or get a better grip on it, by getting more specific about the "is." We can only put ourselves further into a deficit with respect to our moral obligations in the world.

But even asking after the reality of the "ought" directly will not get us anything to stand on, any basis for escaping judgment. Barth will not go on from here to attempt to overcome the difference between the "is" and the "ought." There is no solution to the problem of ethics. It never ceases to be a question that stands over our total existence in the world. No law escapes it. No obedience escapes it. No form of morality escapes it. There is no escape in authority, no escape in the plans and progresses of institutions, whether state or church, and there is no escape outside of them, either, no matter how religious or spiritual—or not at all—your independent existence may be. The problem of ethics is always a problem in the present time.

By now you should be asking, "well, then, how exactly does resorting to God get us out of this problem?"

Barth gestures towards God as fundamentally Creator, and to there being a "Yes" for every "No," and this will increase in value as we go forward in his works, but in this lecture he lands somewhere else. Here, Barth uses the relationship with God as an eye-opener to the hubris of all ideal human goals of ethics. (Still no escape.) He names judgment against all orders, stations, and arrangements of the world in which we might try to hide. (Still no escape.)

There is in fact no escape from the question, from the problem of ethics—only salvation. Only the God who forgives sin. The God who sets aside judgment, and frees to new action, which is still subject to the problem of all human action. The God who is never not necessary in our need to escape, not the problem, but the righteous judgment.

And so Barth forces his audience, even today, to face and acknowledge and accept this inescapable fact. We are not given an "ought" to which we can cling as though it justified us. And our "is" will never be enough. We will never not be subject to judgment for the failure of our justice, for the lack of real truth in what we call truth. We will never not need to stand in relationship to the living God who alone, as creator, has the right not just to judge, but also to pardon—and who exercises this right. And we cannot simply count on this as a fact, as though it were a mechanism, as though God simply handed out forgiveness because it's his job. But we also can't make it dependent on any human "is," because there is no achievable human "ought" that could replace divine grace in this matter.

The gospel is that God gives grace, that God in Jesus Christ has created relationship with us (and, as Barth will later say, forges it anew and sustains it in each of us through the Spirit). And this will be the truth of Barth's insistence on "gospel and law" rather than "law and gospel": that freedom in ethics rests entirely on the fact of grace, and that it is this grace that sustains us as we face the ethical question every day. Barth refuses to answer the "Is–Ought" problem with an approach to and sense of the "ought" that could match our understanding of the "is," and leaves us in question, but saved from judgment and freed to act.


  1. This looks really interesting, Matt, but I need to save it for a day or two. I can't stay focused for more than two sentences. I think I'll be able to read again after tomorrow. See you then.

    1. Sally, people say that about my writing all the time. ;) Getting ordained is like that, especially followed by a move further north! Blessings as you settle into your new call; I'll see you this afternoon for the festivities!

  2. I only have a couple of comments about some of the translations, which are quite good. I hope the lack of substantive engagement with your commentary isn't too disappointing!

    die kritische Frage, unter die der Mensch sein Tun, das heißt aber sein ganzes zeitliches Dasein gestellt sieht.

    My rendering - The critical question under which one (a sensitive rendering of ‘der Mensch’) sees placed their action, meaning their whole temporal existence - a way of putting it that gives me the impression that I (helplessly?, vulnerably?) watch as my acts are placed under this question.

    Auch die logische Frage, die Frage nach dem Wahren im Sinn des Seienden…

    Rendered as: Even the logical question, asked about the relative truth of our existential intuition…

    ‘Existential intuition’ might be a bit too much, especially as this is a ‘logical’ question. Equally, I can see that ‘Sein’ and its variants are often translated as ‘existential,’ which might be a bit too loaded of a translation, especially as Barth had ‘existential’ and all its permutations already available to use in German.

    This sentence is simply ruthless German: Aber doch nur insofern, als sie die Rückfrage nach der Wahrheit des Wahren, das heißt aber die ethische Frage in sich schließt, in der der Gedanke des Nicht-Seienden, aber Sein-Sollenden des Menschen Leben in Anspruch nimmt als des Menschen Tat.

    Here is my best rendering, which I would stand down from pretty quickly and which assumes some elisions in the final relative clause: But this is the case only insofar as it implies the further question about the truth in the true, i.e., the ethical question, in which the thought of what doesn’t exist but ought to exist devotes itself to (a loaded reading of ‘in Anspruch nimmt’) the life of humanity, and for that reason, the action of humanity.

    I think this time period really is Barth at his linguistically most difficult.

    1. Not disappointing at all; you picked the better part! I will change my mind faster on the commentary than on the translation, and getting the translation right is more important. And yeah, I have to agree that Barth's not doing the translator any favors in this text! But I'm used to Attic and literary Koine, so I sort of fall into those habits to cope.

      Good insights, too, and I appreciate them; I'll touch on one at a time.

      The very obvious mistake in the first sentence: I somehow neglected to place der Mensch as the subject of the verb and turned the active verb passive instead. Whoops! And yet, because there's no impersonal "man" here in the German, I'd still be inclined to render it basically along the lines I have, with "der Mensch sein Tun ... gestellt sieht" as "a person sees their actions placed." Which has the advantage of letting me replace "one" as I have it, which felt fairly cumbersome as a replacement for "he," with a better pronoun. "Person" is my standard replacement for all those situations in which "human" is just a touch weird. :)

      Which somewhat nixes the direct personal vulnerability of your rendering, although that does go well with the spectator-role bit later. I think Barth does want his audience to feel that their actions, their personal existences, are under this question, but I also think he gets there more gradually. There's a rhetorical trick with grammatical person in which it is easier to unite your audience with you behind an external third-person point, and forge an implicit "we" that can then be accused. Paul does it in Romans 1-2, but he splits his audience from him in 2:1; Barth stays with his audience in their failure under the question as he introduces the "we" and "us" and "ourselves," so that everyone walks together toward the solution after agreeing on the problem, and that they have it.

    2. And yeah, "existential intuition" is a touch florid in its philosophical feeling. I admit to leaning on a kind of stripped-down Heideggerian language here to handle Sein, Dasein, and Existenz as they seem to be connected in the passage. Human existence, personal human existence, and mode of personal existence, basically.

      At any rate, I get the feeling, from "die logische Frage ... nach dem Wahren im Sinn des Seienden" in the context, that Barth is talking about the logical question of how we validate our intuitive, sensory understanding of what existence is like. I don't want to lean on "being" language because ontology feels distant from ethics. Though I'll grant that "existential" is loaded, it's also the adjective one can make, in English, out of the genitive. Hence the problem.

    3. And as to the "simply ruthless German," I missed quite a few things there. One of which is that I completely missed "in Anspruch nehmen" as an idiom, which seems similar to the last "in Beschlag nehmen." And I think "implies" may better convey the point of "in sich schließt" as Barth moves to the next sentence, though I'll have to go back through the whole thing to be sure. That definitely changes a few things in my interpretation.

      Trying again:
      "But this is only the case insofar as it implies the inquiry into the truth of what is "true," which is the ethical question, in which the thought of what does not exist, but should exist, in human life seizes upon the human deed."

      There's still the genitive chain "des _____ des Menschen Leben," even though Barth swaps in a second thing for the first genitive, and I'm stuck translating that together rather than separating out "human life" as an object.

  3. Thanks for the replies!

    I can understand the desire to personalize or existentialize the being language, but inasmuch as 'existential' in contemporary English no longer means the being of the existing person (as it originally did), but something like inner, subjective turmoil, then I think the occasional 'objective' rendering of being can be a salutary reminder. (But perhaps this is my own desire to stress the ontology at work despite Barth's 'post-' or 'anti-metphysical' prejudices, and my sense that it is not only after the Anselm book that Barth gets his ontology right, as in Timothy Stanley's recent response to McCormack.)

    As for: in der der Gedanke des Nicht-Seienden, aber Sein-Sollenden des Menschen Leben in Anspruch nimmt als des Menschen Tat.

    I do think that 'des Menschen Leben' and 'des Menschen Tat' are the objects of 'in Anspruch nehmen.' Grammatically, Leben and Tat are not in their respective genitive forms (Lebens and Tats), so they could be nom, acc, or dat (but definitely not genitive!). Also, the constructive is not 'des menschlichen Lebens' or 'des menschlichen Tat,' which one would expect for a 'chain of genitives.' So I take 'Leben' and 'Tat' to be accusative, and thus the objects of 'in Anspruch nehmen.' I vaguely remember this inversion of nouns and their genitive complements as being acceptable German (esp. in poetic registers), but just not the norm. )I quick look at Hammer's or another German reference grammar could clear this up.) This reading also has the advantage of giving the relative clause a noun (der Gedanke), a verb (in Anspruch nehmen), and an object for its active/transitive verb (Leben and Tat). As for the 'als,' I would take this as 'qua' or 'and therefore' and not as a part of another possible multi-part verb: 'in Anspruch nehmen als.'

    So I think the moral of the story is something like this: the logical idea of what doesn't exist but should exist implies or leads to ethics as soon as this question 'uses' or 'takes up' human life, meaning action, as its object. Viola!

    1. I will have to rehash that whole sentence with a good German grammar so I learn the right thing to do with it, and also with the existing translations. I'm leaning too Greek, obviously, and not German enough, which is a common weakness I have in basically every other language when I hit a gap. I go into discourse analysis mode for the hard stuff, and the classical grammars sneak in.

      Anyways, "als" as "qua" is promising. And I've attempted to right the English connotations by removing "existential" from that spot. Thanks again!

    2. Alright, the more I hash over this, the more I'm stuck thinking that what we have is "den X des Menschen" phrased as "des Menschen X". So you're right, Leben and Tat are the objects of "in Anspruch nehmen," but then the genitive complement can still be turned into an adjective in English. I don't see how this phrase is necessarily distinct from "den menschlichen X," but it is certainly not "des menschlichen X" as I originally took it.

      So "it seizes upon human life in terms of human action."

    3. With grammar (perhaps) out of the way, I'd like to do some justice to your comment about ontological vs. existential language games.

      I'm all about the idea that Barth's ontology isn't magically fixed by the Anselm book; I think he's grasping after proper ontology along with proper ethics basically from the start. (Of course, I'm also writing on the integral necessity of the doctrine of creation in the KD as the sine qua non of defining who the moral agent really is, and therefore the sine qua non of defining what moral agency really looks like.) I do think ontology is central to ethics in this way, and I think he's got these things happening in Göttingen, and that he had them happening before that.

      And, frankly, I look at Heidegger and I think the same things about ontology and ethics, but he simply has no use for the doctrine of creation in the process.

      I'll have a look at the Stanley article, but from the abstract, it sounds like he's on the right track. As I attempted to suggest in my opening, it's not that Barth is opposed to metaphysics as such; it's that he's opposed to the interference of metaphysics in data-questions. Metaphysics should never be allowed to self-grandfather! And so the question is, from the data, what kind of metaphysics is appropriate?

      Even though I grant the contemporary psychological subjectivity that gets applied to 'existential' as a term, I think that has a lot to do with the fact that we think of our existence—and therefore our being—as fundamentally psychological. It still means "the being of the existing person"—we just define that being gnostically, and treat the corpus in which it is embedded medically. So I don't really think it's an issue of separation between existential and ontological terminology.

  4. And by 'viola!' I mean, of course, 'voilà!' :)

  5. So "it seizes upon human life in terms of human action” -
    that seems pretty reasonable to me.

    As for the Barth, ontology, and ethics issue, I’m always interested when ‘Sein’ pops its head into Barth’s discourse. The reason for this is that Barth’s modern (in the technical sense) theological and philosophical training would have been pretty suspicious of ontological/metaphysical language, but not of ethical language. Barth’s more academic pieces from 1909-1913 often contain two explicitly different sets of arguments against metaphysics. Barth will offer ‘philosophical’ criticisms of metaphysics from a basically Kantian framework, and then turn around and offer ‘theological’ or ‘religious’ criticisms of the use of metaphysics within theology. The ethical impulse, though, was always there, and so Barth had to grow comfortable with using metaphysical or ontological terms and categories, but not with emphasizing the irreducibly ethical or historical character of human existence, or even the self-involving character of faith, all of which he could learn and did learn from 'the modern theologians.' Now I don’t think it’s a matter of subordinating ontology to ethics (a la Levinas) for Barth, but a matter of describing the existence of the human creature as always and already being-called-for or being-called-to, or being-called-with. There is, then, no sheer ‘being’ for the human being, but being-in-such-and-such-a-determination, and thus any general metaphysics or ontology is pursuing a phantom (Barth would say ‘Schattenmensch’) when it pursues being qua human being or is trying to adopt a third-person perspective when such a perspective has been deemed a form of resistance to God (i.e. a denial of my already being-called and addressed in the second person). Likewise, an ethics shorn of ontology could at most describe the human-in-this-or-that-action (which may be a praiseworthy or blameworthy action), but not the distinctly human in this or that action. Now I think this being of the human being is later cashed out in terms of the being of Jesus Christ (CD III/2), and Barth is pretty comfortable with using ‘being’ language later on. I was simply struck by its appearance in the early 1920s and thought it worth pointing out in the translation, hence my initial recommendation.

    All that to say, I'm in complete agreement with the intuition not to divorce the existential and the ontological, but in the name of 'showing your work' (and showing my own interests in Barth's development), I don't mind upscaling the ontological in this case.

    1. Gotcha. That makes a lot of sense with my (admittedly much smaller) working set—I haven't, after all, written a book on Barth on theology and philosophy. :) I'm working my way backwards in many ways, rejiggering everything as I understand how it got there and moving to the next piece further back. It's nice to know where I'm headed next!

      And I'd have to agree against Levinas. It never at any point seems to me that Barth is looking to make "is" depend on "ought," only to escape the thousand-and-one attempts to do exactly the opposite. But I do see him giving a different kind of priority to "ought" over "is." By the time he gets to the Church Dogmatics, it seems to me that Barth has determined to begin with the situated human, already faced with the ethical question, and move through ontology of God and creature in order to flesh out the existence of this situation.

      The ethical question is constant. It seems like Barth keeps moving metaphysics out of the way of ethics, and winds up using a kind of positivism in order to reach a point where he can describe the physics of the situation instead. I'm not sure he's so much allergic to discussion of being and existence, as he is allergic to the mode of such discussions.

      To that end, it's good to know that this is an early point in Barth's positive use of the Seinsfrage. Definitely worth noting. But it does seem like Barth is using the language in order to break it. In what I have as four paragraphs here, Barth knocks us from Dasein through Naturbedingtheit down to Existenz, and after this he keeps going until there is nothing of our being/existence that is not subject to the ethical question. It's like a wrecking ball swung through existential ontology, to the extent that anyone could think that subjective existential grounding could answer the ethical question better than objective ontological consideration. Which may be the best way I can "upscale" the ontological language here, is to make that trajectory clearer.

    2. It might be interesting to compare this discussion of das Nicht-Seiende with the later discussion of das Nichtige.


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