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The word "essence" (Lat. essentia ) is related to the Latin term ens (being), which itself implies a relationship to esse (to be). Essence is what is, what exists. In this sense, it designates a concrete, singular reality in the act of existence. Essence is, moreover, a substantial reality (see substance). It is not, properly speaking, that which modifies an existing substance, such as weight, color, and operation, but that which exists in itself, that which sustains itself in existence without the aid of a substratum that receives and supports it. In fact, color, weight, and the like, do not exist: they are accidents; it is through them that substance, or essence, exists as colored, heavy, and so on. (see accident).

In another sense, essence answers the questions: In what does a particular existing reality consist? What is its definition? Taken in this meaning, essence expresses the quiddity of a thing, that by which it is immediately intelligible and on which the human mind can focus because it presents an immobile aspect, the stable form of what it really and fully is, viz, a thing.

Since the notion of essence has undergone an evolution in the history of thought and is not uniformly regarded by all philosophers, this article first explains the historical development of the notion, and then treats a problem of interest to scholastic thinkers, viz, the multiplication and individuation of essences. The more difficult historical and doctrinal questions concerning the relationship between essence and existence are treated elsewhere (see essence and existence).


The history of the concept of essence may be conveniently divided into periods corresponding to Greek, medieval, modern, and contemporary thought.

Greek thought. For plato, essences are the proper object, the only authentic object, of human knowledge. All else, that is, the world of sensible and moving appearances, is pure illusion: unintelligible in its constant mobility, it really is not; it does not exist. What exists is for Plato the essence of things divested of the various modes they manifest here below; this is realized in an intelligible world separated from the present one, where man may find it by reminiscence. The essence of horsefor example, what exists absolutely as horse, or horse in itself belongs to the world of archetypal Forms or Ideas, of which the horse sensed here below is only a deceptive partaker, an illusory reflection. Only essence is, with its characteristics of perfection and stability.

Such an idealistic theory found its refutation in the moderate realism of aristotle, one of Plato's disciples. Aristotle did not admit that what things are and what the mind perceives as unchanged in them exist apart in another world. Rather he extracted essences, definitions, and beings from this separated world and located them in the concrete realities of sensible experience. For Aristotle, essences say what things are; they are not what exists. What exists is concrete essence, that is, essence determined by adventitious secondary elements that make it individual and capable of existence. Horse in itself does not exist, but only particular horses with the essence of horse realized in them.

According to Aristotle, one may speak of essence also as common to all individuals of the same species. This essence, expressed by the definition, exists formally only in the mind, which abstracts from the individuating notes that clothe an essence in extramental reality (see abstraction). The universal character that essence receives from the mind is itself based on the real presence of the essence in things existing under an individualized mode.

Medieval thought. It is this latter theory that prevailed in Christian philosophy under the name of moderate realism, and to which St. thomas aquinas lent his support. The beings of the world, be they spiritual or material, are none other than realized ideas. Such realization, however, is no longer in the manner described by Plato, but according to a presence immanent within things and through participation in the divine essence, eminent model of all that exists. Essences come into being by way of creation or divine efficiency. The divine essence in its transcendent intelligibility is thus the remote foundation of every created essence.

St. augustine was the first to develop the theory of divine ideas as principles and causes of the ideas or essences incarnate in things. The divine ideas are nothing other than the divine essence itself, inasmuch as this is remotely and variously imitable by the beings of nature. This Augustinian conception of ideas is obviously different from that of Plato.

The Thomistic theory of moderate realism did not succeed in rallying all minds. Fourteenth-century philosophers such as william of ockham and nicholas of autrecourt asserted that the universal essences said to be abstracted from individuals are merely fictions. They refer simply to names, labels that are fixed to individuals of a certain, apparently homogeneous series, but to which no reality corresponds within things. These philosophers have been called nominalists.

Other thinkers, called conceptualists, did not go as far as the nominalists and regarded the common essence as a pure concept, a simple idea in men's minds without any foundation in nature. For them, the mind constructs this idea, starting from a certain sensible similarity, but without anything in existing beings that is really common to them. These two theories of nominalism and conceptualism gave rise to the famous problem of universals, which is concerned with the ontological status of the essences of things. The position of St. Thomas is realistic when compared to these theories, while avoiding Plato's exaggerated realism that attributes existence to the universal essence as such.

Modern thought. The fundamental positions adopted with regard to universals are found, with variations, in the philosophical systems of modern thought.

Nominalism underlies all the sensist and empirical systems. For J. S. mill and D. hume principally, the real is essentially diverse and is reduced to the purely sensible data of experience. The common essence, which is confused with nature, is no longer perceptible for them. They do not speak of species of things, but only of collections of individuals. Conceptualism takes its roots also and is found with various modalities in the different forms of idealism, ranging from methodical to critical and absolute idealism.

Immanuel kant was the first, after the success of empiricism, to admit to the exigencies of universality and determinism in the knowledge of the real. But for him universal essences are not in things, or, at least, man does not reach them in themselves. He grasps only the phenomena; the noumena, which are things in themselves, escape him. Thus the reality of nature comes to him necessarily by sensation, but is known by him only through the a priori forms of sensitivity and the categories of his mind. The essences of beings are reduced to purely subjective constructions that man imposes upon the formless matter of his knowledge. Extramental reality is itself no longer reached; all is contained formally within the knowing subject.

After Kant, the great German idealists, J. G. fichte,F. W. J. schelling, and G. W. F. hegel, rejecting Kant's "thing-in-itself" as a caput mortuum, placed all the reality of the world in mind or spirit. For Hegel, especially, essences are completely within man and come from him alone. They express, in their dialectical oppositions and provisional resolutions, the development of the human logos realizing itself progressively to become the Absolute Spirit, God. The Hegelian "concept" is certainly not to be confused with an abstract essence; it is a concrete concept in permanent evolution, but it is completely interiorized according to the demands of a radical idealism.

A salutary return to things themselves occurred with E. husserl. Idealism had been given the lie by the brutal realities of World War I. A reassertion of intentionality, borrowed by F. brentano from the scholastics, attempted to bring men back into contact with the real external world. The French thinkers Louis lavelle and René Le Senne, originators of the "philosophy of the spirit," also attempted to escape from the grip of idealism, and they made way for contemporary existentialism.

Contemporary thought. Karl jaspers and Martin heidegger, in Germany, and Jean Paul sartre, in France, continued the existentialist movement with its realistic tendency, as did M. merleau-ponty. These philosophers identified themselves as phenomenologists, and their preoccupation was to go to things themselves as these appear to the mind. They were at the same time fascinated by being, and they professed an ontology wherein being does not come from man; it is really opposed to the grasp of intelligence and is far from being confused with mind. Objective being is seen by them as a sort of milieu that is presented to the mind, but about which nothing can be said except that it is what it is. It excludes from its aggregate all types of distinction, of causality, and of relation: there is being, and that is all. What happens, then, to the essences that seem to divide being into determined portions, into limiting and circumscribing natures? Heidegger's answer is that being, the source of all, precisely as "historical" has its effect on the concrete beings of nature. Its effect is not in the manner of the Kantian categories, which are rejected, but no explanation is given as to how the ontological parceling demanded by experience is brought about. While being enjoys an extramental status, essences appear as associated only with the workings of the knowing mind.

The same difficulty of making philosophical contact with concrete reality exists in the ontological phenomenology of Sartre. The distinction of beings, and thus of essences, presents itself to the thinker as an effect of a sort of "decompression" of being that the mind carries out by its ability to negate. The mind, which is endowed with freedom, is in fact a being-for-itself that cannot be reduced to the massive being-in-itself of things; it has the power of denying itself, of annihilating, by a type of differentiation that results in the "ontic" multiplicity of the beings of nature. This solution does not completely escape from idealismat least the type of idealism that makes essences a simple determination of man's free activity.

Karl marx, in complete opposition to the idealist position of Hegel, placed dialectic in matter, which thenceforth became for him the only reality in the world. "Essences" evolve in matter according to the process analyzed by Hegel; the knowledge man has of essence is only a reflection, a superstructure. This explanation is incapable of transcending the limitations of dialectical and historical materialism, with its restrictive view of what is real.


For scholastics, one of the key problems relating to the notion of essence is that of explaining how one essence is shared or multiplied by many individuals. Since essence itself can be applied variously to immaterial entities such as angels, to entities that are composites of matter and spirit such as men, and to purely material entities such as minerals, the different ways in which essence is individualized in each of these categories are here explained, beginning with a consideration of the last category.

Material beings. Such entities appear to man, on the one hand, as obviously individual. On the other hand, they manifest common characteristics in their properties and activities that permit one to classify them scientifically into species, and, in some instances, to formulate certain traits of their underlying nature in definitions. Since essence is both what exists individually and what is common to individuals of the same species, one may, by a kind of abstraction, have a concept of essence that says nothing of the singularity with which it is cloaked within individuals, nor of the universality the mind confers on essence when considering it as present in such individuals. In this manner, essence is neither universal nor singular but is itself an abstraction in which only its constitutive elements are retained.

If one envisages now the multiplicity of individuals having the same specific essence, since the species is given by the formwhich is like a number and is not susceptible of more or less without ceasing to be itself individuality and multiplication can come only from the matter in which the form is received. The material form is not individuated by itself, since, in its contents, it presents only common principles; nor is it individuated by its accidents, either its own or those of the composite, for these are ontologically posterior to the individual essence. Only primary matter can furnish a principle of individuation for form (see matter and form; individuation).

Matter alone lends itself to potential determinations relative to a quantity about to be realized, which itself is the immediate principle of multiplication and number. Number is, in fact, founded on the numerical unity that accompanies actual and continuous quantity. This quantitative unity must be carefully distinguished from ontological unity, which is a transcendental aspect of being (see multitude). Discontinuous quantity receives its proper unity from an essence that is individualized by matter and is made one by its ontological unity. It is by this quantity, primordial accident of substance, that the individual, indivisible in itself, comes to be in the world of space and time.

Spiritual beings. Completely otherwise is the multiplication of created immaterial substances or angels; here quantity plays no role, and yet such substances are perfectly one with an ontological unity. This unity is relative to essence, which fully realizes a creative idea absolutely distinct from all others. It represents a degree of being that stands, in relation to existence, as a really distinct potency that receives and limits existence. Divine existence or esse divinum, which in God is supreme act, is thus participated according to the very measure that itself determines the essence. Act and potency are therefore components of all creatures, and at the level of substance itself. Here there is no longer informed matter; real essence plays the role of potency with respect to the act of being. God alone is simple. The immaterial creature is not only composed of an existing reality and its negative limitation; it is really composed of two distinct elements.

Individuation in the angels is thus not effected by a type of matter, as some have held. The ontological idea that such an essence represents, with its full richness, realizes itself in a single individual who is, henceforth, at the same time both species and individual when compared to what takes place in the material world. An angel, for example, Gabriel, is alone in his species, realizing this wholly at the level of singular being that is proper to his essence. Individuation thus proceeds, not from existence, but from essence; the latter adequately corresponds, in its unicity, to a creative idea of God that expresses, without real distinction in Him, the singular mode according to which the divine essence chooses to make itself participable.

The multiplication of spiritual substances has no other source, and their numberbetter indicated by the term "multitude"transcends the entire order of quantity. Multitude is proper to individuated immaterial being: ontologically it expresses nothing more than a group of spiritual beings, which man conceives as analogous to groups of material and numerical entities.

Human beings. Moving finally to individuation within the human species, one finds on a vaster scale what has already been noted concerning purely material species. The human soul, taken essentially and according to its specific definition, is something like the separated substance of the angel; it represents an idea of God that is rich in virtualities. But, in contrast to what takes place in the realm of the immaterial, this idea, to be fully realizedbecause situated on an ontological level that implies a substantial relation to matterrequires a number of individuals of the same essence, each sharing in the richness of the essence only to the measure determined for it by the particular capacity of the matter it must animate. Thus all human souls are of the same species; their essence is the same specifically. They become incarnate, while retaining their essential spirituality, in the portions of matter that individualize them through their particular relation to quantity. Primary matter and a spiritual soul thus constitute a singular essence, a limiting capacity of esse that is one in the order of existence and is numerically one in the quantity of the actually existing composite. The number of men is a number in the proper sense, by reason of the human body that situates individuals in space and time.

What distinguishes spiritual souls such as that of man from infrahuman forms, both living and nonliving, is this: souls individualized by their relation to quantified matter retain their individual character, with their own subsistence, at death. They do so because they are made in this way at the moment of their creation and infusion into matter; their number, in this state, more closely approaches the multitude of spiritual substances who have no matter in their constitution.

See Also: essence and existence; existence; act; potency; potency and act; idea; concept; nature.

Bibliography: a. gazzana, Enciclopedia filosofica, 4 v. (Venice-Rome 1957) 2:92103. r. eisler, Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe, 3 v. (4th ed. Berlin 192730) 3:538543. É. h. gilson, L'Être et l'essence (2d ed. Paris 1962). m. d. roland-gosselin, Le "De ente et essentia" de saint Thomas d'Aquin (Kain, Belg. 1926). r. jolivet, Les Sources de l'idéalisme (Paris 1936). m. j. adler, "The Hierarchy of Essence," Review of Metaphysics 6 (195253): 330.

[m. corvez]

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es·sence / ˈesəns/ • n. the intrinsic nature or indispensable quality of something, esp. something abstract, that determines its character: conflict is the essence of drama. ∎  Philos. a property or group of properties of something without which it would not exist or be what it is. ∎  something that exists; in particular, a spiritual entity: the position that names express essences. ∎  an extract or concentrate obtained from a particular plant or other matter and used for flavoring or scent.

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essence, in philosophy, the nature of a thing. Aristotle maintained that there is a distinction between the form of a thing—its intelligible, verbally formulable character—and the essence of a thing, i.e., what it is in itself, which is not common to anything else. The essence of a thing is what is formulated as a universal in the mind and in language. St. Thomas Aquinas distinguished between the essence of a thing and the fact of its being, or its existence. In modern existentialist thought Jean-Paul Sartre made use of Aquinas's distinction between essence and existence but reversed them by insisting that existence precedes essence. By this he asserted that people do not have predetermined natures; what a person is follows from the choices he or she makes.

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essence (theol.) substance XIV; †existence, being XVI; that by which a thing is what it is; chemical (etc.) extract of a substance; perfume XVII. — (O)F. — L. essentia, f. *essent-, assumed prp. stem of esse be, on the model of Gr. ousíā, f. ont-, prp. stem of eînai be.
So essential XIV — late L. essentiālis.

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essence (ess-ĕns) n. a solution consisting of an essential oil dissolved in alcohol.