Existential Metaphysics

views updated


A metaphysics that is existence-oriented, as opposed to one that is essence-oriented. The term is usually applied to the 20th-century emphasis within thomism that stresses the existential significance of philosophical (and theological) ideas, i.e., the way in which such ideas ndicate or connote forms or aspects of that which either "is" or "can be" (see existence). Proponents of existential metaphysics have been concerned mainly with ontological doctrines relating to the nature of being and of God, of potency and act, of the transcendentals, of essence, analogy, causality, and substance, as well as with the notions of man, the soul, freedom, nature, time, eternity, morality, the good, love, charity, and grace.

Origins. According to existentialist Thomists, the assertion of the primacy of the act of existing and of the centrality of its significance throughout all areas of knowledge seems novel, not because it is absent from the thought of St. thomas aquinas, but because that thought was formerly not studied in its original context. As recently as 1929, they point out, marÉchal defined metaphysics in Wolffian fashion as "the science of essences, or of possibles" [Revue néo-scolastique de philosophie 31 (1929); reprinted in Mélanges Joseph Maréchal (Brussels 1950) 1:106], while three years later R. garri gou-lagrange held that the object of metaphysics is "the intelligible being of sensible things, their essence confusedly known" [Le réalisme de principe de finalité (Paris 1932) 30]. These and similar teachings accented essence as the absolutely certain, self-evident, universal, and necessary ground of the principles of identity, sufficient reason, and causality; they created the impression that scholasticism, and Thomism itself, was basically a rationalistic essentialism (see rationalism). Such a conception, they stress, missed the capital point, often made by St. Thomas himself, that the act of existing (esse ) makes anything "to be," and to be all that it "is": "esse est actualitas omnis formae vel naturae" (st, 1a, 3.4); "esse est inter omnia perfectissimum perfectio omnium perfectionum" (De pot. 7.2 ad 9). Therefore, considered maximally, the act of existing "includes in itself every perfection of being" (omnem perfectionem essendi ), while transcending them all (De spir. creat. 8 ad3). "Essence," or quiddity, on the other hand, is but "that through which and in which a being [ens ] has existence [esse]" (De ente 1). Thus the term essence in Thomism designates precisely a subject-measure of esse [seeG. Phelan, "The Being of Creatures," American Catholic Philosophical Association. Proceedings of the Annual Meeting 31 (1957), 118125; W. Carlo, "The Rôle of Essence in Existential Metaphysics," International Philosophical Quarterly 2 (1962) 557590].

Yet the type of Thomistic metaphysical doctrine that may be described as a rationalistic essentialism has never been universally accepted among Thomists. In the early 1930s Jacques Maritain presented Thomism as an "existential" philosophy, always tending toward and terminating in existence [Sept Leçons sur l'être (Paris 1934) 2831]. Somewhat earlier Aimé Forest expounded a "concrete" and "existential" approach to the metaphysics of St. Thomas [La structure métaphysique du concret selon S. Thomas d'Aquin (Paris 1931; 2d ed. 1956)], stressing the composition of essence and existence as constituting the primary form of the structure of created being, leading up to God as the universal cause of "being" (essendi ). At about the same time, André Marc argued that this same composition, or distinction, lies at the very core of the Thomistic notion of being ["L'Idée de l'être chez Saint Thomas et dans la scolastique postérieure," Archives de philosophie 10 (1933) 1144]. A few years later, in the work of Fabro and Geiger, one finds an elaborate interpretation of the Thomistic metaphysics of existential participation, according to which the distinction between essence and esse is not a simple application of the Aristotelian doctrine of potency and act, but rather represents an original insight of St. Thomas implying the primacy and centrality of esse. For Fabro, in particular, participation means the sharing of esse; the creature "is" that which shares esse [C. Fabro, La nozione metafisica di partecipazione secondo S. Tommaso d'Aquino (Milan 1939); L.-B. Geiger, La Participation dans la philosophie de S. Thomas d'Aquin (Paris 1942; 2d ed. 1952)].

For English-speaking audiences, however, it has been principally the work of J. Maritain and É. Gilson that his brought to the fore this notion of an existentially oriented metaphysics (see thomism, 2, 3). As already noted, Maritain had made this point in the 1930s. In the 1940s he developed it further (e.g., in his Court Traité de l'existence et de l'existent, [Paris 1947 Eng. tr. 1948]). Yet the fact remains that the difficulty and the profundity of Maritain's writing have obscured the point for many. In North America, especially, it was left to Gilson to make the matter clear in a series of scholarly works whose influence there, above all, has been unparalleled by that of any other writer. Indeed, the phrase "existential metaphysics of St. Thomas" (as opposed to "essential ontologies," scholastic or other) may be said to be the hallmark of the Gilsonian influence on this continent.

Gilson's Thesis. In the late 1920s and early 1930s Gilson was already insisting that the "philosophy" of St. Thomas could not be divorced from his theology since it in fact existed only within that context; that his integral thought is centered upon Beingwhich "is" God; and that since philosophy is necessarily about being, it cannot but be, ultimately, about God. For indeed God's self-given name is "He who is" (Ex 3.14), and this means precisely the very act of existing: ipsum esse, as St. Thomas explains (Summa theologiae 1a, 13.11). Thus Gilson, as early as the Gifford Lectures of 193132, was showing that Christianity, in raising man's thoughts to the consideration of the Self-subsisting Act of Being ipsum esse, or ipsum esse per se subsistens, had revealed to metaphysics the radically existential nature of its object. Accordingly, the problem of being, thanks to revelation, was expressly raised from the Platonic and Aristotelian "plane of intelligibility" to the "plane of existence" [L'Esprit de la philosophie mediévale (Paris 1932) 5455; Eng. tr. (New York 1940) 51, 80, 82]. As he later remarked, "to use our own modern terminology let us say that a Christian's philosophy is 'existential' in its own right" [God and Philosophy (New Haven 1941) 4:1]. Detailed application of this general Christian "existentialism" to Thomism was made soon thereafter, the author contrasting "essentialist ontologies," which equate being and essence, with "the existential ontology" of St. Thomas, which affirms "the radical primacy of existence over essence [Le Thomisme (4th ed. Paris 1942; 5th ed. 1944) part 1, chs. 1, 4].

Such an existentialist metaphysics, however, is not an "existentialism-without-essence"a formula that may be said to characterize much contemporary non-Thomistic, and especially atheistic, existentialism, or "apocryphal existentialism," ("l'existentialisme apocryphe" ) as Maritain calls it [Court traité (Paris 1947) 13]. Authentic existentialism is radically different; in fact it is simply the reverse because it affirms that esse is in no case without essence, but rather that esse is the "act" of which "essence" is the inseparable measure or mode, save in God, whose essence "is" esse. In other words, the primacy of the act of existing over essence cannot be understood as a primacy of esse over ens: to remove essentia from ens would be to take the "what" out of the "what-is." "There is no real being which is not an actually existing essence and an existent conceivable through the essence which defines it" [Gilson, "Existence and Philosophy," American Catholic Philosophical Association. Proceedings of the Annual Meeting (1946) 9].

Esse, of course, is not ens, except in God; but rather is the "act" that makes ens "to be," and to be totally; whereas essentia, in all created things, is the factor within ens, or created substance, that makes it to be "what" it is. And the "is" is prior to the "what" as "act" is prior to "potentiality," insofar as the latter term is understood to signify a certain receptive capacity relative to the esse, or act of existing, that is received (C. gent. 2.53; st 1a, 77.1).

Christian Philosophy. For Gilson, "a Christian's philosophy is existential in its own right." Such a philosophy, therefore, necessarily, even if implicitly, involves the consideration of being in terms primarily of esse. This is so because God Himself, who "is" Being, has taught man that His own proper name is "Esse" (Ex 3.14). To characterize a philosophy as Christian, Hebrew, Hindu, or Mohammedan is not to define its "essence," but rather to indicate its "state," or its actual condition in the person philosophizing [see Maritain, De la philosophie Chrétienne (Paris 1933) 3739]. For philosophy is a "work of reason"; indeed, philosophical wisdom, according to St. Thomas, is objectively a perfect work of reason: "perfectum usum rationis" (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 45.2). Nevertheless, reason is not any less reason for existing in a Christian, a Hebrew, a Hindu, or a Muslim. Thus it makes sense existentially and historically to designate a philosophy as Christian, Hebrew, Hindu, or Muslim. The concern here is only the first of these, and precisely as formulated in the question: What is the relationship of existential metaphysics to the notion of a philosophy elaborated under the aegis of Christian revelation in general and of the "I-am-who-am" in particular?

According to Aquinas, if God is self-subsisting esse and if the subject of metaphysics is that whose act is esse universally present in everything else ("common being"; Summa theologiae 1a, 105.5; C. gent. 2.45), then this science in its totality is radically "existential." But that God "is" Esse, although knowable by natural reason, was known, or known determinately, thanks only to revelation. This is a matter of historical fact. So, in saying that God is "He who is," or ipsum esse only this scholastic exegesis is metaphysically relevant here revelation, and not reason, was establishing the act of existing (esse ) "as the deepest layer of reality as well as the supreme attribute of the divinity" (gilson, God and Philosophy, 41). Consequently the Christian metaphysician henceforth could not adequately philosophize about being unless his thinking was focused upon the "act" (esse ) that alone makes his object "to be." Indeed, esse, as the "act" par excellence, is the source of all that deserves the name of "being." At the same time it is in all things the deepest, inmost presence: "esse est illud quod est magis intimum cuilibet, et quod profundius omnibus inest" (Summa theologiae 1a, 8.1).

These truths about being, and any others that are rationally ascertainable, are not regarded by Aquinas as withdrawn from the domain of philosophy because they happen to have been revealed. For truth about God is twofold, viz, that which can and that which cannot be investigated by reason; and it is fitting that both should be offered to man's belief through a divine revelation (C. gent. 1.4, 5). Now, knowledge of God under the aspect of being is accessible to reason because universal "being" is the adequate object of the intellect intellectus facultas entis; capax universi. This knowledge of God is, precisely, metaphysics about Him; and it is called natural theology.

Since the ultimate object of philosophy and of theology is the same, viz, God, or the Ens that is Esse, there is objectively no conflict between them [Gilson, Elements of Christian Philosophy (New York 1959)]. In this, however, there is no implication that their subjects are the same. God is not that of which metaphysics formally treats, which is "common being"; He is its Principal, or extrinsic Cause (In Boeth. de Trin. 5.4). Moreover, if metaphysics is ineluctably existential because it concerns that whose "act" is "to be," it does not follow that the pure "To Be," which is God, is its starting point. The opposite is true: metaphysics begins its investigation by considering the being of external, sensible things, and ends with God as the absolute Act of Being, who is their Cause.

See Also: christian philosophy; faith and reason; theology, natural.

Bibliography: "The Philosophy of Being," American Catholic Philosophical Association. Proceedings of the Annual Meeting 21 (1946) 1207. j. f. anderson, The Bond of Being (St. Louis 1949); "Some Disputed Questions on Our Knowledge of Being," Review of Metaphysics 11 (195758) 550568. thomas aquinas, An Introduction to the Metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas, tr. j. f. anderson (Chicago 1953), selected texts. c. a. hart, Thomistic Metaphysics (Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1959). É. h. gilson, L'Être et l'essence (2d ed. Paris 1962); Being and Some Philosophers (2d ed. Toronto 1952); The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, tr. l. k. shook (New York 1956). j. maritain, Existence and the Existent, tr. l. galantiÈre and g. b. phelan (New York 1948); A Preface to Metaphysics: Seven Lectures on Being (New York 1939). e. l. mascall, Existence and Analogy (New York 1949); He Who Is (New York 1948). e. g. salmon, The Good in Existential Metaphysics (Milwaukee 1953).

[j. f. anderson]