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.

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Some More Metaphysical Musings

‘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.