Essence and Existence

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The relationship between essence and existence poses a problem that was much discussed and controverted in the thirteenth century and continues to be important in the development of scholastic and Thomistic metaphysics. This article surveys the historical origins of the problem, examines in detail the solution proposed by St. Thomas Aquinas, sketches the use made of the doctrine in the Thomistic tradition, and concludes with a briefer account of other solutions.

Historical origins. The remote origins of the controversy over essence and existence are to be found in Greek philosophy, although the problem of the precise relationship between the two concepts was never stated there with the clarity to be found in its later formulations. For plato, the problem could not exist, for he conceived essence as the perfect and stable object of the intellect, devoid of the imperfections and changing character of the world of sense. For him, essence alone exists in the strict sense, and this in the world of Ideas; all else that is perceived by the senses is merely an illusion and the occasion for referring back to the world of separated substances or essences.

The rejection by aristotle of this teaching of his master led him to adumbrate the real distinction between essence and existence, if not to affirm it outright. In his view, essences do not exist in a separated universe but are to be found in the sensible beings of this world, where they have a concrete and singular mode of existence. The essence of horse exists in this individual horse, with the accretion of its particular qualities and of all other accidental determinations that make it to be this singular existent thing. There seems little doubt that, for Aristotle, essence and existence are distinct concepts, since he holds that "what human nature is and the fact that man exists are not the same thing" (Anal. post. 92b 1011). Whether his distinction is real or merely rational, however, is disputed (see distinction, kinds of). It may be that he affirms only that the singular essence man experiences is in a state of actual existence, and that this serves to differentiate it from the purely possible essence that man's mind may happen to conceive. [For the realistic interpretation, see G. Manser, Das Wesen des Thomismus (3d ed. Fribourg 1949) 510.]

Real Distinction. Among the Arab commentators on Aristotle, avicenna first brought the problem into focus by teaching explicitly that existence is a kind of accident of essence, although not in the sense that existence comes to essence as a predicamental accident comes to substance. Rather, Avicenna holds that essence, as ideally conceived, involves an element of necessity, whereas it itself is merely possible when viewed in relation to extramental existence. Existence comes to an essence under the action of the efficient cause, such as is found in the order of nature in generation-corruption or as is taught in the biblical account of creation. Thus, for Avicenna, essence and existence must be really distinct one from the other and not merely distinct in a rational or conceptual way. averroËs, it may be noted, disagreed with Avicenna's teaching on this point, reproaching Avicenna for proposing as philosophy what was essentially a theological doctrine of creation.

The first of the scholastics to adopt as his own the position of Avicenna was william of auvergne. Although a severe critic of much of Avicenna's thought, William accepted his teaching on the real distinction and employed it in his De universo creaturarum as a proof of the finitude and dependence of creatures (1.3.26;2.2.8). Gradually the list of adherents grew. To it were added the names of such luminaries of the thirteenth century as St. albert the great and St. Thomas Aquinas. But the list never became all-inclusive; an appreciable number of thinkers of the thirteenth and subsequent centuries continued to reject this manner of distinguishing between essence and existence.

Opposition to Real Distinction. Foremost among those who opposed the teaching of Avicenna were the heterodox Aristotelians who developed the doctrines of Averroës into the movement that came to be known as Latin averroism. But this was not an isolated group. Certain thirteenth-century theologians of the Augustinian school, among whom were the Dominicans ulric of strassburg, theodoric of freiberg, and harvey nedellec and the Franciscans peter john olivi and richard of middleton, took a firm position against the Avicennian thesis. Like the Latin Averroists, these theologians were motivated by a loyalty to their traditions; they viewed with alarm the tendency to incorporate into the science of theology elements drawn from Islamic and Aristotelian sources. Their opposition, however, although indeed embracing the real distinction, touched it only as part of the larger problem. Not until the advent of Giles of Rome and his controversy with Henry of Ghent did the question of essence and existence become in itself a major issue.

Giles vs. Henry. To giles of rome must go the credit for conferring on the problem a special prominence, for it was he who raised it from its previous ancillary role and treated it on its own merits. Giles saw essence and existence as farther apart than did St. Thomas. For St. Thomas, the two are really distinct; for Giles, they are also separable. Furthermore, Giles insisted, to the annoyance of all who disagreed, that the real distinction is fundamental to philosophy and theology. Without itand on this point N. del Prado holds that Giles's position is identical to that of St. Thomasthe way was barred against proof of such basic doctrines as creation, the analogy of being, and the distinction of substance and accidents. Never had so clear and so deliberate a challenge on this issue been hurled, and it did not want for an adversary willing to accept.

In a series of quodlibets (1st, 10th, 11th) directly aimed at Giles's position, henry of ghent countered with his teaching of a rational distinction between essence and existence. And along with his rational distinction, he implicitly rejected, as did all who subscribed to the rational distinction between essence and existence, the major role attributed to the real distinction by Giles. In this teaching he was joined by godfrey of fontaines, by peter of auvergne, and later by John Duns Scotus.

Thomistic doctrine. Although Giles is undoubtedly responsible for bringing the issue to the fore, it is not he, but St. thomas aquinas, who is recognized as the most important protagonist of the real distinction. Nor is this situation surprising, given the preeminence in theology and philosophy that is rightly accorded Aquinas. In fact, this preeminence not only guaranteed Aquinas a primacy among the defenders of the real distinction, but it constituted a source of embarrassment for those who favored the opposite view. This has not, of course, done away with opposition; in fact it has been the occasion for peculiar maneuvers to which opponents have resorted in an effort to offset St. Thomas's influence.

M. Chossat, for example, sought to erase the problem itself by seriously challenging the traditional understanding of St. Thomas's position, maintaining that Aquinas himself did not teach the real distinction and that the so-called Thomistic position was in fact borrowed from Giles. But with the unearthing of evidence to the contrary through the historical studies of P. mandonnet and M. grabmann this maneuver failed to convince.

Another position, traditionally Suarezian, consists in admitting that the rational distinction is in direct conflict with St. Thomas's teaching and then minimizing the force of the opposition by questioning St. Thomas's competence in dealing with the question. This is the approach of A. d'Ales, who, though accepting the Thomistic view as authentically St. Thomas's, states: "We believe that we must reject the real distinction of essence and existence as the foundation of all metaphysics, but we do not hesitate to affirm that it is the indispensable basis for a thoroughly Thomistic metaphysics." The challenge to Thomistic metaphysics embodied in this statement, namely, that it is a system whose fundamental position is vulnerable, does not find the Thomist submissive. Yet it does corroborate the traditional Thomistic stand by its admission that St. Thomas actually taught the real distinction.

Source of the Doctrine. One looks in vain through the writings of St. Thomas for a treatment of the relationship between essence and existence comparable to that given by Giles. Aquinas does discuss the relationship, but always in contexts that are devoted explicitly to the solutions of other problems. Yet there is abundant evidence of St. Thomas's teaching and his abiding consistency in proposing it. Maturity brought about a shift in St. Thomas's position on some matters, but in the matter of the real distinction the thought of St. Thomas remained unchanged throughout his scholarly career.

More interesting than the number of times that St. Thomas spoke of the real distinction is the question of the source whence he drew his conviction about the distinction. Here two possibilities suggest themselves, one clearly theological, the other philosophical. The first is the text from Exodus 3.14 ("God said to Moses: I am Who am"); the second, the doctrine on potency and act (see potency and act). The fact that the greater number of appeals to the real distinction occur in a purely theological context seems to make a good case for the first alternative. That God in a sense defined Himself in the terms "I am Who am" could very well be the source whence St. Thomas drew not only the inspiration to examine the creature in the light of essence and existence but also the assurance of the correctness of his position.

Yet the claim of potency and act is not without merit. Its strongest title to recognition is the constancy with which, and the contextual circumstances in which, St. Thomas the theologian associates potency and act with essence and existence. In the theological works in which he asserts the distinction of essence and existence, he makes frequent mention of the teaching on potency and act. This association of the two is not introduced as a proof of the real distinction. Rather, it is made to emphasize the fact that the essence-existence relation is an instance of the potency-act relation. This is significant, since it reveals that for St. Thomas the two dualities are to be compared with each other as the less known (essence-existence) and the more known (potency-act). Hence the latter could well be a source, if not the principal source, of the surety that distinguishes St. Thomas's commitment to the former.

Formulation of the Teaching. Whenever St. Thomas touches on the relationship between essence and existenceand the number of occasions is impressivethe object of his investigation remains unvaried, namely, the actual existent. His analysis of that object always reaches the same conclusion, although admittedly there are variations in his manner of expressing it. These variations range from (1) explicit identification of the distinction as real (In Boeth. de hebdom. 2.32; De ver. 27.1 ad 8), to (2) implicit identification of the reality of the distinction (Quodl. 9.4.1.; In 2 sent. 16.1.2. ad 5), to (3) the simple statement of a distinction (In 1 sent. 8.4.1 sed contra 3;8.4.2 ad 1; De ver. 10.8 ad 12). Such statements are troublesome only if wrenched out of context and understood in an absolute sense. As Aquinas employs them, they are but incidental to the development of some other point of doctrine; upon analysis, the content of each statement is seen to conform to the requirements of the principal question under examination.

St. Thomas's fuller teaching on the real distinction may be summarized as follows. Neither essence nor existence is a thing, nor is either to be identified with the actually existent thing, even though there could be no such thing without benefit of both. In themselves they are principles of being whence the actual existent thing is constituted (see principle). Each of these principles is incapable by itself of producing the total result, the actual existent. To effect the actual existent, each principle requires what the other contributes.

Viewed in isolation from existence, essence signifies a mode or manner according to which reality might be fashioned. Or better stillfor the essence about which St. Thomas speaks is the essence of the actually existent thingit stands for all the modes by which reality manifests itself. As a principle of the actual existing thing, it is the element that provides a full explanation of the whatness, or quiddity, of the existent as being, that is, as susceptible of the formal act of being (esse ). Existence, for its part, makes not the smallest addition to that whatness; moreover, there is no need that it should, since essence provides the complete explanation in its own order. The contribution of existence is in an order entirely different, but complementary, to that wherein essence exercises its influence.

Existence is not simply a factor; it is the primary component of actuality. It is not a form but an act. In fact, it is act par excellence, the act that perfectly fulfills the notion of act in its most formal sense. For whereas the form as act finalizes in a qualified sense, existence finalizes completely. It is the act that effects the release of essence from a most remote hold on actuality; prior to this release, essence's only claim to actuality is its susceptibility to receive it.

Do the notions of essence and existence represent for St. Thomas reflections of reality itself, or are they notions born solely of the mind's consideration? After the time of St. Thomas, as has been seen, two answers were given to this question. On the one hand, Henry of Ghent maintained that any plurality in this matter was a product of reason alone, that in point of fact there was only a real unity; on the other hand, Giles of Rome insisted not only on a real plurality but also on the separability of the two components. According to Giles, essence and existence are not only distinct independently of the mind's consideration but also capable of existential survival in the event of being severed one from the other. Neither represents St. Thomas's doctrine; Giles departs from it by excess, Henry by defect.

First, St. Thomas saw essence and existence as more than rationally distinct. Second, he never thought of conferring separability on them, either individually or conjunctively. For him, such an attribution would be a complete distortion of the character of essence and existence as principles. He taught merely that the two are really distinct and that their otherness is not the result of reason's consideration alone; reason does not make essence and existence to be two, but discovers that they are two. Despite this otherness, neither can survive the dissolution of their unification. Once their hold on each other is loosened, no trace of either remains in the order of the actual existent.

Supporting Arguments. St. Thomas has recourse to four separate arguments in the comparatively few instances in which he sought to substantiate his position on the real distinction: 1. The argument from the noninclusion of existence within the comprehensive content of essence (De ente 4; De ver. 10.12; In 2 sent., 1.1.1, 3.1.1).2. The argument that existence, as the difference distinguishing things that communicate in a generic (or specific) unity, must be really distinct from essence, or quiddity (In 1 sent. 8.4.2; De ver. 27.1 ad 8). 3. The argument from the identity of essence and existence in God to the distinction of the two in creatures. The real distinction is here emphasized as signifying the basic and universal mode of composition that removes all creatures from the level of perfect simplicity that is proper solely to God (De ente 4; In 1 sent. 8.5.12; In 2 sent. 3.1.1; Quodl. 9.4.1).4. The argument involving the notion of participation. Any perfection that is itself common and intrinsically unrestricted but is present in things in a limited fashion must be really distinct from the things in which it is found; this is the case of the perfection of existence (In 2 sent. 16.1.1 ad 3, 37.1.2; De ver. 21.5; In Boeth. de hebdom. 2.3135).

Although the notions of potency and act are frequently interwoven into the fabric of these arguments, these notions are never of major significance. But wherever potency and act are associated with essence and existence, St. Thomas makes no effort to substantiate the reality of the former composition. This procedure is unintelligible save on the supposition that the reality of the mode of composition of potency and act is better known than that of essence and existence. Indeed, the quasi equation Aquinas makes in the same contexts between essence and existence and potency and act sheds more light on the former than on the latter. To see essence as an instance of potency and existence as a kind of act enables one to understand the unity of the composite of essence and existence and to penetrate to some degree into the notion of existence under the formality of act.

Thomistic tradition. Throughout St. Thomas's writings, the appearance of the doctrine on essence and existence seems always dictated by circumstances other than the doctrine itself. Yet the frequency with which Aquinas made use of this doctrine and the prominence of the contexts in which he employed it are clear expressions both of his conviction and of the high value he placed on it. Nor were these facts lost sight of in his school. Taking their cue from St. Thomas's evaluation of the doctrine, but resetting it in a philosophical context and making explicit what St. Thomas had been content to treat implicitly, Thomists present the doctrine on the real distinction as an indispensable key to a realistic philosophy of being. Within thomism, this doctrine is seen as (1) offering a true image of the metaphysical structure of the actual existent, (2) providing a rational basis for the mind's ascent to God, and (3) providing a proof of God's transcendence. [For specific details on the teachings of various individuals, see F. J. Roensch, Early Thomistic School (Dubuque, Iowa 1964); G. Manser, op. cit. ]

Metaphysical Structure of the Actual Existent. The actual existent is a composite of essence and existence. Both are indispensable elements, each making valuable though distinct contributions to the actual existent. A primacy, however, must be granted existence. It is the sole source of the actuality that differentiates the actual existent from merely possible being. Though existence adds nothing to the formal content of essence, essence of itself is incapable of going beyond the range of possibility. Furthermore, it is only by its release from the order of possibility that essence is able to exercise the various functions that belong to it per se. Until actualized by existence, essence is only potentially the subject of the tremendous complex of accidental features that serve to perfect it entitatively and operationally. Existence affords essence the opportunity to function actually as the integrating principle for the sum total of realities that are its accidental modifications. (see subsistence.)

Rational Basis for Mind's Ascent to God. Because its essence is pure potency with reference to the order of actuality, the actual existent is contingent; hence an efficient cause is needed to explain its presence in the realm of existing things. In the final analysis, this efficient cause must be a Being in whom essence and existence are one and the same (see god).

Transcendence of God. That the actual existent is composed of essence and existence, while its First Cause demands in itself an identification of these two, does much to demonstrate effectively God's transcendence. The exclusion of entitative composition in God, the cause of being, places Him far beyond the limits of created existent being. This latter participates in actuality, whereas God is essentially actuality. In the created existent, existence is multiplied, whereas the existence of the First Cause is absolutely one and unique. The actual created existent is finite and caused in its existential act, whereas the existence of the First Cause is itself infinite and uncaused. In a word, the difference between the created existent thing and its First Cause in terms of the actuality appropriate to each is the difference between the finite and infinite, the measurable and the immeasurable. Any community discoverable between the two can be only analogical.

Other solutions. The doctrine of St. Thomas on the real distinction found its principal adversary in John Duns Scotus. For Scotus, who thought in perspectives that were somewhat Platonic, essence is existence; thus concrete essence is its own existence. Divine Being is the infinite essence in which all created essences participate; and created essences are real and really existing when God, from the state of simple possibility, puts them into the state of existence. Thus there is no real distinction between existing essence and its act of being (esse ); existence is only a mode of essence, a degree, an intensity, through which essence has become real. This mode is intrinsic to essence and puts it outside its causes. Existence is no longer the supreme value; it is a modality. Essence overtakes it and leads to a philosophy of essences in which existence plays only an accidental role. Scotus maintained, however, a modal distinction ex natura rei between essence and existence. (see scotism.)

F. suÁrez suppressed even this distinction; for him, esse signifies only the placing of essence outside its causes. In Suárez's view, whatever is real is, as such, existent. Man conceives of a distinction between essence and existence because of his own contingency and limitation; in reality, however, the actual essence of a creature is not really distinct from its existence. (see suÁrezianism.) Thus, with these two thinkers, scholasticism again turned to the direction given it by Henry of Ghent, holding merely for a rational distinction between essence and existence.

Modern Philosophy. As rationalism began to prevail in the modern era, under the influence of R. descartes, substantial forms and essences were gradually rejected. Nothing was left in the visible world but extension and movement; these took the place of essences. Existence, similarly, was the existence of extension and movementan existence recognized by the scholastics as accidental and thus not adequate to explain the ultimate constituency of being and substance.

For I. kant and the idealists who followed him, the world of nature interiorized itself more and more. The problem thus became one of knowing how a cosmos created by mind could come to acquire a real or extramental existence. But the philosopher who most transformed the reality of the world and of history into a logos that continually develops itself was G. W. F. hegel. For him, an ideal dialectic describes the course of events and enables one to see their ultimate development. The criterion of reality, or of existence, consists in a type of accord with the totality of experience: the true and the existent find their place in the unraveling of facts as synthesized by the mind. The mind proceeds from synthesis to synthesis until it arrives at the absolute, Itself the irrefragable guarantee of the real existence of all that is contained within It. Such a system leads to the ultimate form of idealism. Existential reality is there but a backdrop or, even less, a kind of concept that combines with concepts of essence to weave the abstract texture of the real.

Existentialist Reaction. The fact that individual existence has no place in this dialectic prompted the strong reaction of S. A. kierkegaard, who rose to the defense of particular existenceat least of his own existence as a man. The term "existence," for the Danish philosopher as for other existentialists, does not have the same meaning it had for the scholastics. In his view, existence reflects the manner of being proper to man. The prefix "ex" no longer signifies the emergence of beings from their causes and from nothingness, but the intentionality of consciousness going toward something different from itself. Still, beneath this "ex-sistence," with its psychological nuance, there is the implication of an ontological aspect that embraces what is or exists fully in extramental reality.

Martin Heidegger, in light of his attempt to situate Being with relation to the human Dasein, recognized that he still had not touched the problem of essence and existence as this was posed in the ontological tradition. In fact, Heidegger so separated Being from beings, he so dissociated the ontological from the ontic, that essences appeared to him not as real elements of nature but, after the manner of the idealists, as constructs of the mind. The question of the relation of these essences to real existence thus cannot even be raised in his philosophy. (see existentialism)

Nor does J. P. Sartre, scrutinizing the problem in the wake of Heidegger, provide a plausible solution. In his view, existence is pure actuality, the actuality of consciousness going out of itself and refusing to accept the other. By this action, the world exists, as do essences that make up the world, but whose existence is nothing more than the disinterestedness of consciousness. When this table exists, there is the being of table; but the table "exsists" only in the sense that it manifests itself to an annihilating consciousness. Things are not exclusively in the mind; they are back to back with being, without thereby having their own being as an ontological reality. It is ultimately consciousness that judges the reality of the type of existence one assigns to things; man has no criterion of truth apart from its ability to be known.

Such, briefly, are the solutions that have been proposed to the problem of the relation between essence and existence. The term "existence," like the term "essence," has been given very different meanings over the centuries. Admittedly, the problem of their relationship is one of the most difficult in philosophy. Yet, since so much depends on it, one might well wish that philosophers had not resigned themselves to so wide a divergence of views.

See Also: being; existential metaphysics; matter and form.

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[j. c. taylor]