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.

David Bentley Hart on Existence

‘Physical reality cannot account for its own existence for the simple reason that nature – the physical – is that which by definition already exists; existence, even taken as a simple brute fact to which no metaphysical theory is attached, lies logically beyond the system of causes that nature comprises; it is, quite literally, “hyperphysical,” or, shifting into Latin, super naturam. This means not only that at some point nature requires or admits of a supernatural explanation (which it does), but also that at no point is anything purely, self-sufficiently natural in the first place. This is a logical and ontological claim, but a phenomenological, epistemological, and experiential one as well. We have, in fact, no direct access to nature as such; we can approach nature only across the interval of the supernatural. Only through our immediate encounter with the being of a thing are we permitted our wholly mediated experience of that thing as a natural object; we are able to ask what it s only in first knowing that it is; and so in knowing nature we have always already gone beyond its intrinsic limits.’ (David Bentley Hart, ‘The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss’, p.96)

Note on Being

What does it mean to grasp being? Being isn’t a ‘sensible quality’ (to use the technical jargon), so the five senses are out. If it’s not material, is it a concept, like triangularity? I think we’re getting closer, but I’m not sure. Suppose we say that being is ‘existence made manifest’. Being is when the existence of something is ‘revealed’ to us, when reality reveals itself, so to speak. When we know something, we grasp its being as it is revealed to us – our intellect grasps being as we come into a dynamic relation with the object of our knowledge. It is by virtue of dynamic relation that existence is made manifest to our intellect – or, to use my shorthand, our intellect grasps being. The intellect does not comprehend being in an exhaustive way, but it does grasp it nonetheless in a non-exhaustive way.

A Bit More on Christ, Bonhoeffer and Reality

If human existence is grounded in participation in the reality, and reality is grounded in Christ, then what happens if one does not participate in Christ? Thinkers like C.S. Lewis and N.T. Wright seem to head towards a less literal interpretation of hell – hell being a total loss of all existence and human identity. Effectively it means simply continuing on living without participating in reality – this is the road that I see Bonhoeffer ideas going down. The question is, however, does this fit with the Biblical data of the afterlife?

Given the Jewish understanding of the afterlife, which is the view that Christ and the Apostles would have held, it doesn’t seem much of a stretch to say that it does indeed fit with the data. The Jewish view of the afterlife was that of a shadowy sort of non-existence – think of the Nazgul (Ringwraiths) from ‘The Lord of the Rings’. I think this is a fairly solid view of the negatiove afterlife given Bonhoeffers view. It’s not a literal fire-and-brimstone kind of idea, but to my mind it’s a much worse kind of existence.

Christ, Bonhoeffer and Reality

I’ve been thinking on some of the consequences of Bonhoeffers thought on Christ and reality – briefly speaking, Christ is the center of all reality for Bonhoeffer, and true human existence only comes through participation in reality, which means that true human existence comes only through participating in Christ. This is the foundation of all his thought – but what are some of the consequences of such thought? What does it mean for those who don’t participate in Christ?

Bonhoeffer doesn’t spend tons of time on the afterlife (at least in what I’ve read) – and I’ve not yet read the parts of his works that do deal with the afterlife. But, based on my understanding of his works (and I may be wrong in this) I see only two options: universalism, or a kind of annhilationism. However, I don’t see universalism as a big theme in Bonhoeffer, so I’ll look at the more negative option.

If true human existence is defined by participating in reality (Christ) then the refusal to participate in it would mean a complete erasing of human identity and existence. This is a theme that C.S. Lewis spent some time on – that hell, rather than being a fiery pit, is a total loss of all identity. Non-existence, but perhaps still in a way, having to live. This would tie in with Bonhoeffers thought on existence – apart from God, we have to live as a command which we are unable to fulfill. It seems that the logical conclusion would simply be continual lingering under His command to live. I’m somewhat reminded of the Nazgul (characters from J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythology who simply continue to exist, but without really living), honestly.

Language and Reality

According to Christianity, God spoke the world into existence – and in the Gospel of John we are told that in the beginning was the ‘Logos’ (translated as ‘word’, typically). Erasmus translated this as ‘In the beginning was the ‘conversation’ which I find to be quite interesting – this would mean that on the Christian view, reality is inherently  linguistic in its essence – a view that Aristotle would have agreed with, given is theory that language mirrors reality.

Being the good Wittgensteinian that I am, this leads me to wonder: if reality is in its essence linguistic, is reality then also subjective in its essence? But if this is true, if reality  is linguistic, can we speak of it in any meaningful way?

‎’Propositions can represent the whole reality, but they cannot represent what they must have in common with reality in order to be able to represent it — the logical form. To be able to represent the logical form, we should have to be able to put ourselves with the propositions outside logic, that is outside the world.

Propositions cannot represent the logical form: this mirrors itself in the propositions.

That which mirrors itself in language, language cannot represent.

That which expresses itself in language, we cannot express by language.

The propositions show the logical form of reality.

They exhibit it.

(Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus 4.12-4.121’)

Science, Metaphysics and the Universe


‘Science is inseparable from that process of comprehending which is a conscious experience tying the real world and the knower into a unity. Once this tie is slighted, one is left either with solipsism or with physicalism. On the basis of the former one can build oneself up but not a world, on the basis of physicalism one will not have a physics which is a comprehension of the world.’
– Stanley Jaki (‘The Road of Science and the Ways to God,’ p. 261)

‘The singularity of the universe is a gigantic springboard which can propel upward anyone ready to exploit its metaphysical resilience and catch thereby a glimpse of the Ultimate and Absolute in the form of a unique inference. Catching that glimpse, or sensing the truth of that inference, is always transitory, nay momentary. Our need and hunger for the sensory quickly pulls us back to things tangible which, when properly touched, will again propel our minds toward the Absolute as the explanation of what is singular and contingent. The alternative to this continual surging upward is to envelop existence in a never-to-be-resolved mystery. Those who prefer this mystery-mongering to an explanation which is a surrender to the existence of the Creator, are right in stating that no surrender is without agony. As to the agony of surrendering to the Creator, it certainly does not have its source in that cosmology which more than any other branch of science showers nature in her powerfully strong, yet beautifully lucid singularity.’
– Stanley Jaki (‘The Roads of Science and the Ways to God,’ p. 278)