‘Existence precedes essence.’ This is the classic existentialist declaration – but I was recently thinking whether or not it makes sense to abstract existence from essence (not in relation to existentialism – that was merely the first thing I thought of on this topic) in this or in any other way. My first thought is that it doesn’t make much sense – how can the essence of something be separated from the thing itself? If we abstract and separate the essence of a thing from its existence, how do we have knowledge of the thing? I suppose another more roundabout way of asking the question is this: what is the primary object of our intellect (or intellectual activity), the thing itself or its essence?
Here I’ll quote from Thomas Torrance’s Reality and Scientific Theology:
‘All our knowledge in this or that science is not simply knowledge of a special field of experience, of a particular set of existents, or of some complex of relations, but in all such cases knowledge of things or events that partake of being. Hence every concept we have of things carries with it an epistemic relation to the being of beings. That is why, as Duns Scotus used to claim, the primary natural object of the human intellect is not the so-called essence or quiddity of a thing abstracted from its actual existence, but being (ens est primum obiectum intellectus nostril). Nor is it even this or that being, but being as such (primum obietucm intellectus nostril natural est ens in quantum ens). In particular beings being presents to us aspects of itself for our knowledge and as such makes itself accessible to us in such a way that it admits of signification, intention, description, and so on, in its objective reality independent of us.’ (p. 136)
There’s a lot going on there, but the reference to John Duns Scotus especially intrigued me, so I broke out my A Short History of Medieval Philosophy, by Julius R. Weinberg:
‘We must now raise the question of essence and existence. Scotus recognizes a distinction between the being of essence and the being of existence. But he is insistent on the following: that to be is not something added to essence, and that to be does not really differ from essence. There are several reasons for this. In the first place, we cannot maintain that the being of existence has differentiating characteristics which are different from the differentiating characteristics of essence…Furthermore, if existence were something added to essence, the existing individual would be an accidental unity, i.e., not a genuine individual but an accidental composite of several things. Yet we know that an individual is an essential unity. For these reasons, essence and existence are not really distinct things. They are, however, formally distinct. This means that in a single individual, the nature of the individual differs from its existence even though it is logically impossible for the nature and the existence to be separated even by divine power. Also the difference between nature (or essence) and existence in the individual is there before any activity of a mind which discovers and contemplates the difference. In other words, the formal distinction is in the thing prior to any operation of the human (or any other) intellect.’ (p. 217-218)
Basically, Scotus is saying that existence and essence aren’t distinct things – they’re simply formally distinct, objectively apart from any operation of any mind, in the individual. If they were distinct things, then the individual wouldn’t be a genuine individual – genuine individuals exist, therefore, existence and essence are not distinct, very very roughly speaking. The individual, then, partakes of being – or rather, perhaps we can say that being itself, objective being as such, is manifested in the individual and we come to know of being in its particular manifestations. This seems to me to be a rough but accurate summary of the two above quoted passages.
Among other things, there are some subtle points about realism being made – namely, that being as such exists independently of any perceptual activity by any intellect – in the above cases, we come to have knowledge of being as such by coming into relation with individuals, or to be more technical, particular beings.