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Essence and Existence


It will avoid misunderstanding if the topic of essence and existence is expounded in an order other than chronological.

Seventeenth-Century View

Thomas Hobbes and John Locke insisted that definitions are not of things but of names. In so doing, they conceived of themselves as breaking with Aristotelianism. Hobbes said that the essence of a thing is "that accident for which we give a certain name to a body, or the accident which denominates its subject"; he had earlier denied that "the definition is the essence of any thing"; and his example of an essence is that "extension is the essence of a body" (De Corpore, II, 8, 23).

Locke distinguished the real essence from the nominal essence; the nominal essence is the idea of the property or properties the possession of which justifies the application of a given name; the real essence is as it is understood by "those who look on all natural things to have a real but unknown constitution of their insensible parts, from which flow those sensible qualities which serve us to distinguish them one from another, according as we have occasion to rank them into sets under common denominators" (Essay III, 3, 17).

The mistake that Hobbes and Locke ascribed to Aristotelianism was that of confusing the meaning of an expression with the nature of the object which the expression characterizes. In the empiricist tradition this separation of questions of meaning from questions of characterization continued to be influential. One consequence is that the concept of the real essence is dropped altogether. Another is that philosophy itself becomes defined as the study of meaning, as a linguistic inquiry. But will the Lockean separation of the real and the nominal, from which so much of this derives, bear scrutiny? Did Aristotle commit the error ascribed to him? Is it an error?

Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas

For Aristotle, the essence of an object (τ τί̑ν ε̑ναι ) was what finds expression in the concept that the object embodies, the concept under which it must be identified if it is to be identified as what it is. The natural response of someone trained in the empiricist tradition is to question this concept of an object. In any particular case the question "What is this? " can have more than one correct answerfor instance, "a coat" or "a piece of cloth." To ask further what the essence of the thing indicated is, is to miss part of the Aristotelian point, which is best brought out by considering problems of identity. If I ask whether this is the same coat that you wore last year, I am not asking the same question that I would be asking if I inquired whether this is the same cloth made up into trousers that you used to wear in the form of a coat. "The same coat" and "the same cloth" pick out different identities. When I pick out "this" as an object, I can do so only by identifying it under some description, and the object does not have a nature apart from being identified under a description. For otherwise I could not identify what was to be characterized. In other words, we cannot identify an object solely by means of pronouns like "this" or by pointing.

It might be thought a fatal objection to this view that I can apparently identify an object without knowing what it is (a case which Aristotle allows for). Suppose I pick up something in your room and simply ask, "What is this?" The range of possible answers includes "a piece of stone," "a carving," "an image of a saint." My ignorance may extend as far down the range of specificity as you please; I must still be able to find some description to add to my use of "this" or to my pointing. For if I pick it up twice, I must be able to identify it as the same object; and it is a condition of my identifying it as an object at all that I should be able in principle to pick it up, or otherwise indicate it, more than once. Possible reidentification is a necessary condition of identification. But if this is so, then I must, in picking it up, be able to characterize it, even if only as "that small colorless lump" or some such description. There is a limit to vagueness, at which such purely formal concepts as "thing" and "object" lie.

Insofar, then, as Aristotle is concerned with the minimal conditions for identifying and characterizing objects, he is justified in a view which makes understanding what something is, inseparable from understanding the meaning of the description which must be applied to it if it is to be identified as what it is. The nominal and the real cannot be entirely divorced. But Aristotle expresses all this in terms of the concepts of substance and of matter and form, and in so doing he appears to lay himself open to the Hobbes-Locke type of criticism. What Aristotle meant by τί ̑ν ε̑ναι is the subject of disagreement among translators and commentators. Hugh Tredennick in translating Metaphysics 1031a15 ff.) uses "essence"; Joseph Owens invents an arbitrary phrase, "the What-Is-Being" of a thing, and explains it in terms of the being of a thing which is the being of its form. The form is the necessary and unchanging element in a thing, in contrast with the matter and the composite, which may change, and the generic characteristics, which may belong to some other species (Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics, p. 94).

Aristotle thus made the concept, under which an object must fall if it is to be identified and characterized as what it is, express a timeless and necessary element in the nature of the object itself. And insofar as Hobbes, for example, wished to deny that this timeless and necessary element was what a definition could refer to, it would be difficult to disagree. But any further discussion of Aristotle could only proceed by analysis of the doctrine of matter and form.

What is clear is that Aristotle inherited from Plato the notion of a range of fixed and timeless Forms, natures or essences which are embodied in the changing physical world. Less pessimistic than Plato about the possibility of knowledge of the nature of particular material objects, he retained the view that what the intellect grasps is always a form which could have been embodied in other matter. The name given to the being that the intellect grasps is οσία, which W. D. Ross renders as essence, following Quintilian and Seneca, who translated it as essentia. Essentia comes to mean the nature of a thing, the answer to the question quid sit. Augustine used substantia and essentia without difference of meaning, and Boethius translated οσία as substantia. From then on the word substantia was used in this sense and essentia was reserved for a new context which was first found in explicit form in Giles of Rome. This contrast is that between essence and existence, which received its completest statement in the work of St. Thomas Aquinas.

thomas aquinas

A substance is composite; it is an essence upon which existence has been conferred. When existence is conferred on an essence, what was hitherto merely possible becomes actual. In the case of physical bodies, a form receives matter. Thus the concepts of essence and existence, potency and act, form and matter are mutually correlative. The notion of esse being conferred upon an essentia so that a substance is brought into being was foreign to Aristotle because the notion of creation was foreign to him. For Aristotle, analysis in terms of essence or substance was a way of approaching what already exists or is in the process of change. For Thomas, that anything at all exists must itself be explained. It is a purely contingent fact that any particular essence is an embodied existent. The only exception to this is God, in whom essence and existence are identical. But it does not follow that by grasping what God is, we can grasp that he is, as Anselm had supposed in his vision of the Ontological Argument. For we cannot grasp the divine essence.

Modern Views

The vocabulary of essence and existence was preserved after the seventeenth century both by late Scholasticism and by its intellectual first cousin, rationalist metaphysics. Christian von Wolff inherited, perhaps from Francisco Suárez, whose influence he acknowledged, a view of the universe as a system of essences on which God has chosen to confer existence. But his view of essence as what can be conceived as a clear and distinct idea points to the influence of René Descartes and in his version of the Ontological Argument we can see the confluence of John Duns Scotus and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Knowledge of essences is expressed in propositions which are necessary truths. But these necessary truths are truths about possibilities, and it is a contingent matter of God's will being what it is that these particular essences have been actualized.

A line of thought that is only superficially like that of rationalist metaphysics runs from Spinoza to G. W. F. Hegel. In Spinoza the essence that entails existence is that of the single substance. But this version of the Ontological Argument is only part of Spinoza's whole set of theorems determining the all-inclusive Deus sive natura. Hegel treated the transition from essence to existence as part of the logical play with concepts that is an essential preliminary to the world of becoming. Of course we cannot deny that being is; but that, for Hegel, is only because the assertion is so bare and empty. When we deal with the realm of becoming, we have the sharpest of contrasts between the Was-sein (essence) and the Das-sein (existence), as Friedrich von Schelling, the enemy of all clear distinctions, complained.

The notion of an essence as a fixed possibility whose character may be delimited apart from our acquaintance with the existence which embodies it was inherited from Scholasticism by Franz Brentano and Edmund Husserl, whose phenomenology is concerned with essences insofar as it is a study of what is involved in any act of judgment, belief, feeling, or willing, independently of the context of particular acts. The use of "essence" and "existence" by Jean-Paul Sartre is partly derived from phenomenology and partly from Scholasticism. The latter influence is apparent in the way in which Sartre uses the formula that existence precedes essence in order to deny that men are created by God. Sartre identifies such a conception of creation with the notion of God creating beings with fixed, already determinate natures who would therefore be unfree. Nothing of this appears to be entailed by Thomas's use of "essence" and "existence," but Leibniz and Wolff could be more convincingly convicted on this charge. Sartre wishes to convey by his formula that men do not have determinate natures, fixed in advance of their choices. By this he means that Smith does not have an existence determined for him which if he did not live out he would not be Smith; so it is Leibniz or Wolff, and not Thomas, whose propositions he is in fact denying.

What, then, is Sartre asserting? The contention that existence precedes essence may be interpreted as entailing various consequences, not all of which were necessarily intended by Sartre. Sartre clearly does believe that his contention not only constitutes the denial of one species of determinism, as has already been noted, but also involves the invalidity of any version of the Ontological Argument, whether Anselmian, Cartesian, or Hegelian. That is, no essence is such that it is a necessary truth that there must exist some individual embodying that essence. But unfortunately the Sartrian contention is so loosely stated that he might also be taken to implywhat he certainly would not want to implythat there are no essences, that is, no meanings, apart from existences. This is plainly false. Many meaningful expressions do not name or denote anything that exists, many descriptions do not characterize anything that exists, as the common examples of "unicorn" and "glass mountain" make clear. The chief difficulty with the Sartrian thesis, however, is not that it plainly entails absurd consequences. It is, rather, that the thesis is stated so generally, and is so inadequately developed, that it is not at all clear what does or does not follow from Sartre's contention.

See also Aristotelianism; Aristotle; Brentano, Franz; Descartes, René; Duns Scotus, John; Giles of Rome; Hobbes, Thomas; Husserl, Edmund; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Locke, John; Ontological Argument for the Existence of God; Ross, William David; Sartre, Jean-Paul; Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von; Seneca, Lucius Annaeus; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Suárez, Francisco; Thomas Aquinas, St.; Wolff, Christian.


primary sources

Aristotle. Metaphysics. Translated by Hugh Tredennick. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1944.

Aristotle. Metaphysics. Edited by W. D. Ross. Oxford, 1948.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. L'être et le néant, essai d'ontologie phénoménologique. Paris: Gallimard, 1943. Translated by H. E. Barnes as Being and Nothingness, an Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. L'existentialisme est un humanisme. Paris: Nagel, 1946. Translated by P. Mairet as Existentialism and Humanism. London: Methuen, 1948.

Thomas Aquinas. De Ente et Essentia. Edited by M. D. Roland-Gosselin. Le Saulchoir, 1926. Translated by Armand Mauer as Being and Essence. Toronto, 1949.

Thomas Aquinas. In Metaphysicorum Aristotelis Commentaria. Edited by M. R. Cathala. Turin: Marietti, 1935.

Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica. Ottawa, 19411945. Translated by the Dominicans of the English Province, 3 vols. New York, 1947.

Wolff, Christian von. Philosophia Prima Sive Ontologia. Frankfurt and Leipzig, 1730.

secondary sources

Anscombe, G. E. M., and P. T. Geach. Three Philosophers. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1961. Discussions of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and Frege.

Ayer, A. J. "Some Aspects of Existentialism." Rationalist Annual (1948).

Bobik, Joseph. Aquinas on Being and Essence, a Translation and Interpretation. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1965.

Owens, Joseph. The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1951; 2nd ed., 1957.

Alasdair MacIntyre (1967)

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