Existence, Essence and Being

Avicenna was the first to posit the distinction between the existence of a thing and its essence, and the distinction was later refined by Aquinas – Etienne Gilson credits Aquinas as being a kind of forerunner of existentialism because of his use and development of the idea. John Duns Scotus would refine it further, developing one of his most original philosophical ideas, the formal distinction. Briefly, though the existence and essence distinction is this: a things existence (its ‘that it is’) is different from its essence (its ‘what it is’).

‘Existence, for Avicenna (at least as he was read in the thirteenth century) is not a constituent of the essence of anything, for we cannot infer from the knowledge of what a thing is the fact of its existence. Hence existence is an accessory accident which must be conferred upon a thing by an external cause in order that it may exist.’ ( Julius R. Weinberg, ‘A Short History of Medieval Philosophy,’  p. 184)

Aquinas disagreed in part, seeing that Avicenna seemed to be saying that there could be essences without existence:

‘…there is a feature of a thing, namely its essence, which can be understood without knowing whether such an essence has being in the universe of things. In the case of those things whose essences are not the same as their act of existing, the act of existing must be derived from something other than themselves.’ (ibid, p. 185)

The distinction made here between essence and existence is Scotus’ formal distinction that is, when two realities do not share a total and complete identity between them. An example might be, say, the attributes of wisdom and goodness in God (on a conception of God which holds to divine simplicity): while they aren’t two different properties (because in God all is fused into the most simple unity) there is a distinction between them. Scotus developed his formal distinction by saying that existence isn’t really different from essence, while still retaining the basic insight that existence does not follow from essence:

‘…while existence and essence are formally distinct, they are distinct to the extent that the existence of any created or caused thing cannot be deduced from its nature or essence.’ (ibid, p. 219)

Now, when it comes to knowing something, we first are aware of ‘being’ or ‘existence’ in a general way. Our knowledge of ‘what’ something is only follows after we are aware ‘that’ something is. Our awareness and of being and grasp of our existence come before our grasp of the essence of something. Our grasping of the essence is not a logical deduction – just as we cannot deduce existence from essence, we cannot deduce essence from existence:

‘As soon as it comes into touch with sensible experience, the human intellect elicits the immediate intuition of being: X is, or exists; but from the intuition that something is, the knowledge of what it is, beyond the fact that it is something, cannot possibly be deduced. The intellect does not deduce, it intuits, it sees, and, in the light of intellectual intuition, the discursive power of reason slowly builds up from experience a determinate knowledge of concrete reality.’ (Etienne Gilson, ‘The Unity of Philosophical Experience’, p. 252-253)

The common thread here is that existence and essence cannot explain each other and cannot exist without each other – a finite thing is a unity which derives its existence, or has its ground of being or however you wish to say it, in something else which gives being to finite things. Only an infinite thing in which essence and existence are the same act contains its own ground of existence – the unity of essence and existence in a pure act is an infinite of being.

8 thoughts on “Existence, Essence and Being

  1. SamL June 15, 2014 / 4:08 am

    So when you say that our knowledge of what something is (essence) cannot be deduced from its existence (that it is), is this like saying that the act of judgement by the intellect (the subsuming of a particular under a universal, predication, etc.) can always be wrong?


    • whitefrozen June 15, 2014 / 4:52 am

      Depends. Strictly logically speaking, yes – since the act of the intellect isn’t a logical operation, said acts dont have a logical certainty or infallibility. Scotus did hold that the intellect couldn’t err with regard to first principles, though. But common sense should seem to suggest that though the intellect isn’t infallible, it’s pretty reliable in its judgements.


      • SamL June 15, 2014 / 9:08 am

        I guess I’m just trying to get my head round the logic of the argument for a ground of existence. Seems to me that to say a thing’s being depends on something external to it is to make a judgement about WHAT it is. An army is ontologically dependent on its soldiers (no soldiers no army), but this is just because of what is essential to an army. That it is is something different entirely. I appreciate the argument from contingency is not appealing to the whole-component dependency, but it does proceeds by first making judgements about WHAT things are – it predicates them as contingent unities, and then makes judgements about what is true of contingent unities. But then surely such an argument is an appeal to essence, and fails at giving an account of existence – the that-ness of being?



        • whitefrozen June 15, 2014 / 10:26 am

          To say that a things being depends on something external to it is simply to say that it exists. It’s not making a judgement about its essence – a things essence isn’t its contingency. Things aren’t predicated as contingent unities, they are contingent unities. It’s only an appeal to essence if you redefine essence to mean ‘contingency’, like you did. To say that a things being depends on something external to it is to say ‘that it is’.


          • SamL June 15, 2014 / 12:33 pm

            I’m not trying to redefine anything, just to understand what’s being said. The point I was making didn’t hinge on a thing’s essence meaning its contingency, just that to say of a thing that it is contingent (or a unity) is to say something about what it is (there will likely be much more to what it is than that – some of it essential, some of it accidental).

            I really don’t see what you mean by “to say that a things being depends on something external to it is simply to say that it exists”. If this were true then there would be no content to a discussion about whether things exist or can exist dependently or not, which there clearly is.

            If I’m looking at something I’m confronted with its existence (though I have not yet judged that it exists). If I then go on to form judgements about it – that it exists, that it forms a unity, that it exists contingently, that it is blue – I’ve entered the ontic mode and am treating it as an entity with certain properties. It may be that I’m right about those properties, I may not. Doesn’t the argument from contingency just rest on taking that phenomenologically primitive ‘that-ness’ and then reading post-phenomenological significance into it?



            • whitefrozen June 15, 2014 / 1:12 pm

              Simply saying something about something (that it’s contingent, in this case) doesn’t have anything to do with its essence. The same goes for any property (colour, texture, whatnot). Properties aren’t in the same realm as essence. The essence of a thing is its quiddity, not any property that it may or may not have – essential or accidental. Essence is a principle (one of two) that explains a things being. It sounds like you’re confusing real essentialism with some of the more analytic forms of essentialism.

              The argument from contingency rests on the premise that nothing can explain its own existence.


            • whitefrozen June 15, 2014 / 1:58 pm

              Also, if I’m not being clear, I apoologize – I was on duty for twenty four hours and havernt really slept.


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