The moving force behind all philosophical thought is the concept of being. Apart from this concept itself, the metaphysician gives detailed examination also to the properties that necessarily accompany being and thus are found with every being. The most common of these are unity, truth, and goodness. Because such concepts transcend the categories of Aristotle, scholastic philosophers generally refer to them as the transcendentals. The development of these concepts is considered here both historically and systematically.
In the history of philosophy, greatest attention was given to the transcendentals in the Greek, medieval, and modern periods. The following details the principal developments relevant to the analysis of this concept to be given later.
Greek Philosophy. plato traced earthly things to their ideas and, through ascending levels, to the highest idea. The ideas, however, are the ὄντως ὄν, the being or true beings, in which the real essence of being shines forth untarnished. Here, being shows itself to be unity as opposed to plurality, truth as opposed to appearance, and good as opposed to evil. Since visible being has a share in the ideas and thereby a share in being, it partakes of these properties even though they are found in it only imperfectly.
Aristotle treated expressly of the properties of being as such. He examines the true and the one in Books 6 and 10 of his Metaphysics, the good in Book 1 of the Nicomachean Ethics, and thereby lays the foundations for much of the scholastic teaching on transcendentals.
plotinus, the main representative of neoplatonism, saw the ultimate source of all things as the One and the Good. From this emanates the νοũς (mind), which brings ideas to their perfection in thought; thus it also is the truth. The soul and all things participate in this, although the brightness of being and its properties grows dimmer and dimmer in descending degrees because of the influence of matter, which corresponds roughly to nonbeing.
Medieval Doctrine. During the patristic period, augustine expressed the essence of being in the precise formulas: Nihil autem est esse quam unum esse (Being is nothing more than being one)—Mor. Manich. 2.6; Verum mihi videtur esse id quod est (The true appears to me to be that which is)—Soliloq. 2.5; Inquantum est, quidquid est, bonum est (Insofar as it is, whatever exists is good)— Vera relig. 11.21.
Among the scholastics, alexander of hales and albert the great proposed the same three essential attributes of being, while the latter gave a clear systematic development. Albert also inquired whether thing (res ) and otherness (aliquid ) are to be enumerated among these properties; his answer was that thing is synonymous with being while otherness is already contained in the concept of unity. In this, one detects the influence of the Arabian commentator on Aristotle, Avicenna, who enumerated thing, being, and one (res et ens et unum—Meta. 1:6B) as attributes belonging to everything. Avicenna added that while being (ens ) and thing (res ) are two distinct determinants, being (ens ) and otherness (aliquid ) are synonymous (ibid. 6C).
With St. thomas aquinas one comes to the most advanced of the medieval theories on the basic attributes of being. In all, St. Thomas lists five properties as accompanying being, namely, thing, unity, otherness, truth, and goodness (ens, res, unum, aliquid, verum, bonum—De ver. 1.1; De nat. gen. 2). Admittedly in some texts he mentions only three attributes as essential to being, viz, unity, truth, and goodness (De ver. 21.1–3; De pot. 9.7 ad 6; In 1 sent. 8.1.3). St. Thomas does not include beauty in these enumerations. In other texts, however, he does see beauty as closely related to the good (Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 27.1 ad 3), considers physical beauty as intimately connected with spiritual beauty (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 145.2 and ad 3), and stresses that there is nothing that does not partake of beauty and the good (In Dion. de div. nom. 4.5; cf. In 1 sent. 31.2.1; De ver. 22.1 ad 12). On the basis of these texts some argue that St. Thomas regards beauty itself as coextensive with being.
With the renewal of scholasticism in the 16th century, F. suÁrez presented his doctrine of the basic attributes of being along systematic lines. Not wishing to multiply distinctions, he held that there are only three properties of being, namely, unity, truth, and goodness (Disp. metaph. 3.2.3); the other two attributes added by St. Thomas he considered in much the same way as did Albert the Great. The later scholastic development continued in the direction he inaugurated, and its influence was felt by the rationalistic philosophy of the 18th century, which flourished mainly through efforts of C. wolff.
Modern Thought. G. W. von leibniz was prominent in this development and actually contributed to it. His thinking culminated in the doctrine of monadology. Everything is there traced back to the monad, which presents itself as the original unity and which develops through perception and appetition, thereby also embracing truth and goodness. Briefly, Leibniz proclaims being as a monad and thus, implicitly, as unity, truth, and goodness.
A trace of the scholastic heritage is also to be found in Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. In the second edition, Kant discusses a "cornerstone in the transcendentalist philosophy of the ancients" that "features the sentence so widely acclaimed among the scholastics: quodlibet ens est unum, verum, bonum " (B 113). According to Kant, this sentence does not enumerate metaphysical attributes of being but merely logical conditions preliminary to the comprehension of any object; they are required to furnish a basis for categories of unity, plurality, and universality. [see transcendental (kantian).]
The way in which Kant elucidated this triad prepared the stage for the development of his ideas by G. W. F. hegel. The latter has resort to the metaphysical depths of being and to its properties as these manifest themselves in "Logic." His dialectical movement, of course, ultimately leads to pantheism.
In the second half of the 19th century only F. W. nietzsche is noteworthy. He attempts, in Wille zur Macht, to overcome the absolute opposition between unity and plurality, truth and falsehood, goodness and evil. The essential attributes of being thus no longer have primacy over their opposites, but become identical with them, as expressed in the Dionysian coming-to-be, in the "Will to Power," and the "Everlasting Return." With this notion there is an accompanying destruction of metaphysics and, ultimately, of being.
The position of Nicolai hartmann is characteristic of nonscholastic thought in the 20th century. Hartmann takes the categories as actual determinants of being, and indeed as its principal and innermost determinants. Consequently the essential attributes of being are not superadded to the categories but are included among them. Rather than being differentiated from the categories, they become categories themselves. Behind this development is the restriction of philosophical thought to finite natural being. If the supernatural Infinite Being, God, is ruled out, then the basic determinants of being, as well as those of finite being (namely, the categories), coincide.
The properties referred to as transcendentals necessarily accompany being; being manifests itself in them and reveals what it actually is. Just as being is never found without such properties, so these are inseparably bound up with one another in the sense that they include and interpenetrate each other. Consequently, according to the measure and manner in which a thing possesses being, it partakes of unity, truth and goodness; and conversely, according to the measure and manner in which a thing shares in these properties, it possesses being. This ultimately implies that subsistent being is also subsistent unity, truth, and goodness.
Properties of Being. Precisely as essentially given with being, these determinants are called its essential attributes; as transcending all particularities in the order of being, they are called transcendental; and as belonging to everything whatsoever, they are designated as the most common determinants of all things. Finally, their denomination as properties of being establishes their connection with the fourth of the predicables, proprium, with the following consequences:
- These are not synonyms for being, but rather characteristics that add something to being and are of necessity found with it.
- Neither are they accidents, such as properties usually are, but rather determinants that are formally identical with being. Thus they have the status of metaphysical properties.
- These properties do not actually arise out of being; being is their foundation, and is otherwise identical with them. Being is not their principle, therefore, and certainly not their cause.
- It follows from this that the distinction between being and its attributes is merely a conceptual one. On the one hand this has a foundation in reality, because the attributes either manifest what being is or add something to it; on the other hand, this distinction is the least possible one, because it excludes every type of development or division, since it is made within being itself. Therefore, the attributes add nothing to being but merely predicate fully what being itself is. (see distinction, kinds of.)
- Since the attributes are distinct from being as their foundation, one may speak of them, somewhat improperly, as a synthesis; since the attributes are all formally identical with being, however, this synthesis is a priori, or one that provides only an insight into an intrinsically necessary relationship. Such an a priori synthesis belongs to the metaphysical realm, and thus is essentially superior to Kant's synthesis, which is valid only for phenomena, i.e., for human knowledge.
As to the treatment of the individual transcendental attributes of being, all are agreed that unity, truth, and goodness are found in every being. We would add beauty to this, although those who regard beauty as pertaining essentially to sensible intuition do not follow us here. The four attributes named lend themselves to predication in either of two ways, depending on whether one emphasizes being itself (esse ), or what has being (ens ). The corresponding formulas read: (1) Being is unity, truth, goodness, and beauty, where the "is" expresses formal identity. (2) Every being, so far as existence comes to it, is one, true, good, and beautiful, all of which are implied by this formal identity.
Other attributes, some of which are ascribed to being, are either not actually transcendental, or are included under one of the attributes already named. Thus order and wholeness are not transcendental because they include multitude, which is not found in God. Duration and similarity can be reduced to unity, because duration is unity in time or surpassing time, while similarity implies a congruity or unity of various things in some substantial or accidental grouping.
Connection between the Transcendentals. The foregoing account of the transcendentals permits their intrinsic or essential connection to be seen. Through being, unity comes directly to an entity; it is given with being directly, without any intermediary, and for this reason can be referred to as a preoperative attribute of being. Truth and goodness build upon this; they are not merely reduced from the unity of being, but rather are given through a type of operation, and thus are referred to as operative attributes. Intrinsic to truth is a relevance to or conformity with a spiritual knower, and this comes to an entity in virtue of its being. In the same way, goodness implies a similar accessibility to or conformity with appetite, and this too comes to an entity in virtue of its being. Further, since in knowledge there is only an imperfect or still incomplete union of spirit with being, while in appetition or love this union is complete or perfect, truth is ontologically prior to goodness. What begins in truth, however, finds its completion in goodness. Beauty includes unity, truth, and goodness simultaneously, and in this sense is their completion and perfect harmony. Unity transforms an entity, making it a harmonious whole in which truth is so luminous that it is not merely grasped discursively, but is perceived directly. But the perception of truth also embraces goodness, which leads one from the disquiet of appetite to the quiet of pleasure or delightful enjoyment (fruitio ).
The two further determinants that Thomas Aquinas, following Avicenna, names as attributes of being, namely, thing (res ) and otherness (aliquid ), although transcendental, do not, it appears, stand out as special attributes in contrast to the others, but rather are reducible to these as coconstituted with them. Thus res goes with ens because being bespeaks "something" that accompanies being; this "something," or subject of being, is in fact exactly the same as thing or essence. In a similar manner unity includes otherness (aliquid, i.e., aliud quid ), because what is undivided in itself is necessarily divided from everything else or separate, for which reason unity as separation is already implied in intrinsic unity.
Demonstration of Properties. Proofs that the properties of being are actually transcendental are here sketched in summary fashion.
Unity. Every being either has parts or has not, and therefore either is divisible or is not. The indivisible is secure in its being owing to its simplicity, because it cannot be destroyed by separation. The divisible, on the other hand, is continually robbed of its being through separation, so that it either ceases to exist or at least no longer exists as an undamaged whole. At the same time the hierarchy of being shows how intrinsic unity grows correspondingly with separation from other things. By reason of His perfect simplicity, God is the Absolute (Absolutus ) when compared with creatures. Because the nonliving is least one in itself, it is also the least separated from others, or the least individual.
Truth. To the extent that the content of the concept is understood to penetrate to transcendental being as adding some type of determination, and thus as constituting such and such a being, it is capable of being known. In the judgment, on the other hand, a thing is capable of being grasped because it is seen as something to which being comes in this mode or that. Therefore, in virtue of the transcendental quality of being, everything that differentiates itself from nothing is either being or something to which being is added; thus it has the basis of intelligibility within itself and is fully intelligible. Furthermore, everything is implicitly grasped by spirit in the concept of being because of its transcendental quality; therefore, everything is open to spirit, and nothing is heterogeneous or absolutely inaccessible to it. This applies to every entity as a whole, as well as to all considerations relating to such an entity, since these are always being. Yet the human mind, because of its finiteness, cannot convert all that it grasps implicitly into knowledge that is comprehended and known explicitly.
Goodness. A thing is desired and loved because (and inasmuch as) it has being; thus being manifests itself as the basis of desirableness or goodness. For this reason every entity, in virtue of its being, is good and consequently to be sought. More profoundly, being is good for itself insofar as its degree of participation in being corresponds to its natural strivings; and it is good for another insofar as it is able to fulfill this striving. Free will, which alone can freely choose between limited goods as material objects, goes deeper still, since it is ordered to the good itself as a formal object, and ultimately to limitless good (summum bonum in genere ). It is evident here that goodness is not a limited aspect of being, but rather is as allencompassing as being itself, and consequently transcendental. Because of this identification of being and goodness, evil and vice can exist only in the absence of being, namely in the lack of perfection demanded by a being's natural ordination, and without which the being suffers a privation.
Beauty. As a condition for the fulfilment and perfect harmony of the one, the true, and the good, beauty may be included with these three transcendentals. Since our analysis applies as much to the spiritually perceptible as to the sensibly visible, there is a purely spiritual beauty. In the physical order, however, we usually apply the term "beautiful" only to what is intensely experienced, because beauty shines brightly in it. Yet metaphysical analysis finds at least a rudimentary beauty in every being, because the complete destruction of harmonious wholeness, which makes contemplation and pleasure possible, is equivalent to the annihilation of being. The more this disintegration spreads through something, the uglier it becomes; yet even the ugly always contains a residue of beauty because, according to what has just been said, there can never be anything radically or absolutely ugly.
See Also: beauty; being; first principles; good; thing; truth; unity
Bibliography: j. e. twomey, The General Notion of the Transcendentals in the Metaphysics of Saint Thomas Aquinas (Catholic University of America Philosophic Studies 195; Washington 1958). a. b. wolter, The Transcendentals and Their Function in the Metaphysics of Duns Scotus (St. Bonaventure, N.Y. 1946). l. elders, Aristotle's Theory of the One (Assen 1961). j. b. lotz, Metaphysica operationis humanae … (Analecta Gregoriana 94; 2d ed. Rome 1961); Ontología (Barcelona 1962). l. lachance, L'Être et ses propriétés (Montréal-Ottawa 1950). h. kuhn, Das Sein und das Gute (Munich 1962). m. saint-pierre, Beauté, bonté, vérité chez Hans Urs von Balthasar (Paris 1998). j. a. aertsen, Medieval Philosophy and the Transcendentals: The Case of Thomas Aquinas (Leiden; New York 1996). s. macdonald, "The Metaphysics of Goodness and the Doctrine of the Transcendentals," Being and Goodness (Ithaca, N.Y. 1991) 31–55. n. kretzmann, "Trinity and Transcendentals," Trinity, Incarnation, & Atonement, ed. r. j. feenstra and c. plantinga jr. (Notre Dame, Ind. 1989) 79–109.
[j. b. lotz]
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