Friday, December 26, 2014

Martin and Murray on essence and existence


The real distinction between a thing’s essence and its existence is a key Thomistic metaphysical thesis, which I defend at length in Scholastic Metaphysics, at pp. 241-56.  The thesis is crucial to Aquinas’s argument for God’s existence in De Ente et Essentia, which is the subject of an eagerly awaited forthcoming book by Gaven Kerr.  (HT: Irish Thomist)  One well-known argument for the distinction is that you can know thing’s essence without knowing whether or not it exists, in which case its existence must be distinct from its essence.  (Again, see Scholastic Metaphysics for defense of this argument.)  In his essay “How to Win Essence Back from Essentialists,” David Oderberg suggests that the argument can be run in the other direction as well: “[I]t is possible to know that a thing exists without knowing what kind of thing it is. (Such is our normal way of acquiring knowledge of the world.)” (p. 39)

Which brings to mind this old Saturday Night Live skit with Steve Martin and Bill Murray:


(Transcript here.)  An SNL skit illustrating a key theme of Thomistic metaphysics?  Not so surprising given that Martin was a philosophy major and Murray is a fan of the Latin Mass.
 

38 comments:

Daniel said...

Ahh I have misgivings as to whether proving the Real Distinction may not in fact be far more difficult than proving the existence of God.

How do Thomists respond to the Scotist 'What is Existence?' criticism? I believe it goes something like: 'if Existence is super-added to/something different from Essence then it must be distinguishable, however if this is so it must have a logical identity in which case it will have an Essence which it turn will require its own act of Existence and thus we end in an infinite regress*'. It always struck me as more interesting and more challenging than modern belligerent appeals to authority a la Kant and Frege.

*One could of course accept this but argue that the regress is not vicious.

Hong Kong Fooey said...

Hey Daniel, I think you're being alittle irrational here. Whether the real distinction is harder or not to prove than God's existence is it so important that it would impel you to kidnap another human being?!

For the love of all that is good, please release Miss Givens now!

Irish Thomist said...

@Daniel

I'm really poorly informed when it comes to Duns Scotus. It's embarrassing. That's why I hope in a few months some writers at the Smithy might be up for some guest blogging (if they have time or want to). Yes I also brought up Scholastic Metaphysics as a topic (at this stage just fingers crossed).

This is interesting in relation to the Formal Distinction. Hang around for the Q & A.

@Thanks Prof. Edward. I think Gaven will be grateful for you mentioning the book (which I had promised to let people know more about on release). As you know from experience I'm sure, he has no power over the pricing. I certainly am looking forward to it if my conversations with him have been anything to go by.

Irish Thomist said...

Daniel if someone offers such an argument I think we can simply ask why would it require that? It begs the question as to whether there is anything implicit about saying that a thing is an act of existence united to an essence (or whatever way you want to word it)that then these in turn would need to be a composite of essence and existence. To me this seems like word play or talking past the Thomist Metaphysician.

Any real thing (that's essence is not simply the magnitude of being or existence) is an existent essence. A distinction can be made in reason and so on then we need to examine what 'actualizes' (speaking broadly) the thing that is from that which is not (not existing). The conclusion in my mind is a unity of the essence which exists and its/an act of existing.

Don W said...

I've always loved that skit... it reminded me of one of my favorite definitions of "philosopher" from Alan Watts (who I spent way too much time reading during my misspent youth): "A philosopher is a sort of intellectual yokel who gapes and stares at things ordinary people take for granted."

John West said...

Am I the only one who notices these strange poems that get put up, then taken down, like bad graffiti on cathedral walls?

Edward Feser said...

You're not the only one, John, which is why they get taken down. Just one of our regular oddball trolls.

Cyrus Pacquin said...

What is the difference between a logical and a formal distinction?

John West said...

Thank you, Dr. Feser.

Irish Thomist said...

@Cyrus Pacquin

I think a Scotist versus Thomist Metaphysical overview of this (distinction's) would be quite interesting.

I will leave that one for others to take up.

Aloysius said...

@Cyrus Pacquin

If you're asking about Scotism, you should give the fine Scotistic gents over at The Smithy a visit. Michael and Lee have a number of posts up explaining the formal distinction and its applications to things like Trinitarian theology. Just check the sidebar on the right, under the heading «Fundamental Positions of Duns Scotus».

lyfaber.blogspot.com

Irish Thomist said...

@Daniel

Since I cannot Speak for Dr. Feser I shall leave it for you to ask where exactly he stands on analytical philosophy. As you were asking over at my blog.

I think the Thomist stands in a really good position over defining existence Daniel. Although of course we can't have the two separated which I think is an interesting middle ground worth discussing.

Irish Thomist said...

@Daniel

Pardon me.

I meant since you were talking about the topic at my blog. I was the one questioning if you were correct.

Daniel said...

@Irish Thomist,


Since I cannot Speak for Dr. Feser I shall leave it for you to ask where exactly he stands on analytical philosophy.

Okay, there's also the post 'Corrupting the Calvinist youth' and the excerpted chapter from Aquinas on various forms of Thomism, the relevant section of which is up on this blog as 'The Thomistic tradition, Part II' (paragraph three in particular).

Still, Ed, help us settle a bet: You would identify as an Analytical Thomist (presumably of the third type as mentioned in the chapter) correct?

I think the Thomist stands in a really good position over defining existence Daniel. Although of course we can't have the two separated which I think is an interesting middle ground worth discussing.

I am sympathetic with this and of course one of the main points of dispute between Thomists and Scotists is about whether the Real Distinction entails seperability. Please do correct me if I am wrong here but I thought Scotists were happy to admit that there is a Formal Distinction between Essence and Existence (though is somewhat ironic as I know the fellows over at The Smithy are keen on interpreting the Formal Distinction as falling on the side of the Real). The degree that this actually helps with the issue is debatable since the criticism hinges on the fact that if can distinguish between two things then they are different and if we can ask 'what is Existence' we ask for its Quiddity i..e essence

So, yes, it’s definitely a debate worth having. It would have been most interesting to see Ed or another contemporary philosopher of a Thomist stripe engaging in a lengthily series of (civil) debates with the good people at The Smithy rather along the lines of those with Rosenberg or Oerter.

Irish Thomist said...

@Daniel

They seem busy (the contributors to the Smithy) when I asked to arrange just such an interaction. They were friendly enough and open to the idea.

I simply don't know [almost anything] about Duns Scotus in any great depth beyond some of the basics. Hands up on that one, I simply need to inform myself more of his metaphysics. He's not an easy thinker to grasp. I find you might need to read things more than once.

Edward Feser said...

various forms of Thomism, the relevant section of which is up on this blog as 'The Thomistic tradition, Part II' (paragraph three in particular).

Still, Ed, help us settle a bet: You would identify as an Analytical Thomist (presumably of the third type as mentioned in the chapter) correct?

Yes, I'm an "Analytical Thomist" of the third type.

Irish Thomist said...


Yes, I'm an "Analytical Thomist" of the third type.


I see very little influence of it and much more of a more shall we say traditional Thomism in your work (obviously not Scholastic Metaphysics).

I'll admit I question the emphasis of Analytical philosophy and don't adhere to any of it myself. Then again I'm a Thomist with personalist leanings... so yeah I'm a leper to some. lol.

Daniel said...

@Ed,

Thank you,

@Irish Thomist,

Well, Analytical Philosophy can be seen more as a methodological label than a particular set of shared premises. It's not a 'school' of philosophy like Positivism or Platonism for instance nor is it a particular area of interest like Existentialism or Personalism.

Irish Thomist said...

@Daniel

Well I have a very short blog post to ask people of their position on certain types of philosophizing on the market today. More to see what people think (had it written before now).

Edward Feser said...

I see very little influence of it and much more of a more shall we say traditional Thomism in your work (obviously not Scholastic Metaphysics).

Well, given the substance of my views I am a traditional Thomist. Certainly it is the "Thomism" that is in the driver's seat, not the "analytical." The "analytical" part has to do with my formal education, the kind of contemporary philosophical work I tend to engage with, the kinds of problems I tend to address, etc. See my characterization of the "third type" of Analytical Thomism here:

http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2009/10/thomistic-tradition-part-ii.html

Daniel said...

@Ed,

I see I missed the chance for a 'Thomist of the Third Kind' joke.

@Irish Thomist,

Great, I look forward to seeing it.

Online response times might be a bit slow atm as I've got to detox/catch up on sleep in the hopes of reading six months’ worth of Open University lecture transcripts (mostly introductory stuff e.g. telling students who B.F. Skinner was) by the end of January.

Irish Thomist said...

@Daniel

Thomist of the Third kind joke?

Irish Thomist said...

@Ed

Thanks Ed. I have seen those posts before. A lot of useful (condensed) information for a blog. ...Then of course there are Thomist's like Fr. W. Norris Clarke that are almost a little bit of everything (to some degree), obviously there can't be a category for every person.

Timocrates said...

I like how St Thomas follows up the essence and existence distinction in De Ente et Essentia by pointing out the impossibility of a thing's being the cause of its own existence (or its coming into being/existence). That really sealed the distinction as necessary and real for me.

Scott said...

@Timocrates:

I agree. Some readers have taken him to be providing an argument for the existence of God that is different from, and perhaps stronger than, any of the Five Ways. My own view, for whatever it's worth, is that it's a part of the First Way that he doesn't fully spell out in the relevant chapter of the Summa: essences (other than God's) stand in potency to existence, so even the continued existence of anything (other than God) involves a reduction of potency to act.

I think this may be what Ed was getting at on p. 75 of Aquinas in a passage that some of us were discussing a year or two ago as we tried to understand why Aquinas's unmoved mover must also be immovable.

Daniel said...

@Scott,

Isn't there a difficulty in using the term Potency here as it implies materiality (in the Prime Matter sense)?

Also for an essence to stand in potency it has to in some sense exist/have ontological status and if so then in what way - as a Platonic Form or an Exemplar in the Divine Mind? Does it presuppose Scholastic Realism in which we have already implicitly demonstrated God's existence?

Scott said...

@Daniel:

"Isn't there a difficulty in using the term Potency here as it implies materiality (in the Prime Matter sense)?"

I don't think so. It certainly doesn't do so for Aquinas, who holds that e.g. angels exist without matter but still require their existence to be actualized by God. He's not, in other words, a universal hylemorphist.

"Also for an essence to stand in potency it has to in some sense exist/have ontological status and if so then in what way - as a Platonic Form or an Exemplar in the Divine Mind? Does it presuppose Scholastic Realism in which we have already implicitly demonstrated God's existence?"

Aquinas would say that they're exemplars in the divine mind, but he doesn't use that as a premise in his argument and I wouldn't say it's presupposed. His argument is that anything whose being is distinct from its nature must receive its being from another, and that therefore there must be a first being that escapes this requirement, i.e., has its being of itself. I don't see that anything in that argument requires God's existence already to have been demonstrated.

Scott said...

(Incidentally, Aquinas does use the word cause at some points during this argument, so it's possible to read it as part of a more complete account of the Second Way too. I mentioned the First Way specifically because this was a point that came up in connection with it in a discussion way back when.)

Daniel said...

@Scott,

Okay, for what it's worth I do take that argument as a variation on the Second Way

angels exist without matter but still require their existence to be actualized by God.

I know of this and the controversies with Bonaventure that resulted. The distinction between Act and Potency proper is separate though from the more fundamental distinction between Existence and Essence - would Thomas admit Angels as beings of pure actuality albeit still logically contingent (so pure actuality in as much as being devoid of potency but still possessing essences separate from their existence)?

I wouldn't say it's presupposed

No, but the argument seems to presuppose a Realist theory of Universals stronger than pure Aristotelianism in that it makes statements about uninstantiated Universals (or am I going wrong in treating Universals and Essences as synonymous in this instance?) which may well be enough to get us two thirds of the way to God's existence anyway. Of course this is not an objection to the argument per say just an observation.

Scott said...

@Daniel:

"The distinction between Act and Potency proper is separate though from the more fundamental distinction between Existence and Essence - would Thomas admit Angels as beings of pure actuality albeit still logically contingent (so pure actuality in as much as being devoid of potency but still possessing essences separate from their existence)?"

Aquinas is quite explicit about intelligent substances having potencies that require actualization even though they're not material. See, e.g., from the work under discussion here, parts 70-80. (Let me know if you'd prefer chapter/section references from Maurer's translation published by the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies.) No, angels and other intelligent substances are not "beings of pure actuality" according to Aquinas; I'm not sure where you got that idea, and I explicitly disavowed it in my previous post.

Scott said...

@Daniel:

"No, but the argument seems to presuppose a Realist theory of Universals stronger than pure Aristotelianism in that it makes statements about uninstantiated Universals (or am I going wrong in treating Universals and Essences as synonymous in this instance?)"

Yes, according to Aquinas you are going quite wrong; essences are very definitely not "universals" on his view. That doesn't mean Aquinas is right (far from it; I disagree with him on the subject of universals).

"…which may well be enough to get us two thirds of the way to God's existence anyway. Of course this is not an objection to the argument per [se,] just an observation."

Understood.

Daniel said...

Okay, I spoke loosely there and should have specified that I was attempting to separate Act and Potency as traditional understood from the distinction between Essence and Existence. Thomas' denial of that claim relies on the point I am taking issue with (at least terminologically) though - what I am claiming is that we can only be using the terms Act and Potency in a different way if we apply them to Essence and Existence. So better phrase it like this: if we deny the applicability of those terms to the distinction and treat it Act and Potency in the 'material' sense then they are beings of pure actuality though logically contingent.

In answer to the question discussions about how Thomas' theory answered the apparent inconsistency of Aristotle's postulating multiple immaterial movers and one Prime Mover. Also Ed's discussion of Angels verses Kenny where he admits said beings are 'composites of Act and Potency in as far as they are composites of an essence with an act of existence'.

Yes, according to Aquinas you are going quite wrong; essences are very definitely not "universals" on his view. That doesn't mean Aquinas is right (far from it; I disagree with him on the subject of universals).

I know that the Universal is not the Form (Substantial or otherwise) of an entity, as Russell seemed to think, but the Common Nature shared by all Forms of that kind, one of the reasons the more moderate Scholastic Nominalists did not reject the notion of Forms as immanent intelligible determining structures and our having a capacity to grasp them. To talk of a being’s substantial Form as its essence sounds odd though.

Scott said...

@Daniel:

I'm having a great deal of trouble working out precisely what you're trying to say here, but I think in the end it comes down to this: you disagree with Aquinas that an as-yet-unactualized essence is in potency to existence.

I'm not sure why. As far as I can see, the only reason you've given is that in order to apply the terms "act" and "potency" to the immaterial, we'd have to use them in a different sense from that in which we apply them to the material.

But Aquinas wouldn't deny that. He would (and does) say that whatever receives something from another is in potency with respect to what it receives; that's pretty much what he means by "potency" (and it applies to the immaterial as surely as to the material). But he surely wouldn't claim that an unactualized essence is in potency to existence in exactly the same way that, say, a red ball is in potency to being painted blue, or that an angel is actualized in exactly the same way as an oak tree.

"So better phrase it like this: if we deny the applicability of those terms to the distinction and treat it Act and Potency in the 'material' sense then they are beings of pure actuality[.]"

From the denial that the terms "act" and "potency" can be applied to anything immaterial, it somehow follows that immaterial substances are pure act? How did we manage to apply that term to them, then?

Daniel said...

@Scott,

you disagree with Aquinas that an as-yet-unactualized essence is in potency to existence.

No!I don't think there's anything to be gained from prolonging this side of the conversation really as the issue is really terminological. It's not even that I disagree with Thomas' argument just that I'm uncertain whether it's wise to apply the term 'Potency' across the board without adding a qualifying term, like 'Ontic Potency' or something. I know Thomas does not deny its being used in a difference sense here (was looking through Being and Essence earlier).

But if you have time do tell me: what in a few words would Thomas understand an essence to be?

Scott said...

The principle by which something is what it is.

Lee Faber said...

A brief comment on Scotus. Scotus nowhere addresses the issue of the real distinction between es. and ex. He never says there is a formal distinction between them. Later Scotists posited existence as an intrinsic mode, and came up with a modal distinction to go with it. But this isn't in Scotus. The only time it comes up is in a throwaway remark talking about the Eucharist, in which Scotus says he "knows not the fiction" that being and essence are distinguished as res and res. No doubt a reference to Giles of Rome (Scotus was mostly interested in his contemporaries, Aquinas would have been from the previous generation and so less important than Giles, Henry, and Godfrey, Scotus' main interlocutors). So there just isn't anything on the topic. Later Scotists tried to fill in the gap with 11 or so kinds of esse, but you would have to read dusty old mss. for that.

Johannes said...

This is an already old post, but I will comment anyway.

One issue involved is whether what you know is the thing's essence or form or an abridged version thereof, i.e. a representation. As Thomists are adamant that the intellect holds the forms themselves, not their representations, I propose the following dialog between God and a Thomist:

God: So you think the very form, in a hylemorphic sense of course, of the camel resides in your intellect? Well, I will build a camel according to that form. Let's start with DNA. Give Me the aminoacid sequence.

Thomist: I can't, Lord. I know the camel at a macroscopic level only.

God: OK, then give Me the essence at the macroscopic level and I'll figure out the DNA. Let's start with the number and shape of the camel's teeth.

Thomist: Lord, I don't know the camel at such level of detail.

God: Then how can you possibly claim that the very form that makes the camel has come to reside in your intellect?

Johannes said...

The reason why I have come to accept the real distinction between essence and esse is the Encarnation.

First, the explanations at a philosophical level of why Jesus' human nature is not a human person that have been offered so far by the deniers of the real distinction are IMV completely unsatisfactory.

Let's take Suarez' "substantial mode". First, it is not evident at all that said mode is something real and objectively present and not just a spurious mental construct. Second, even if the mode existed, it is not evident why it should not be considered part of human nature.

Turning to Scotus, his view that personality is something negative, namely the negation of the hypostatic union in an existing singular rational nature, is just preposterous. Worse still, it does not even explain what the hypostatic union is. Suarez at least did that.

Therefore the unacceptable character of these proposed solutions argues, by reductio ad absurdum, for the real distinction between essence and esse. But there is a much stronger argument for that real distinction, namely the occasions in John's Gospel when Jesus said of Himself just "I Am", clearly in the same way as God (the Father) named Himself "I Am" ("Ehyeh") in Ex 3:14. E.g. this passage:

Jesus said to them, "Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I Am." (Jn 8:58)

In this passage it is completely clear that in Jesus there is only one Act of Being, the eternal, Subsistent Act of Being of the Word. Because otherwise He should have said "before Abraham came to be, I Am in my divine nature". Therefore his human essence does not exist by a created, contingent act of being, but by the Subsistent Act of Being of the Word.

This case, in which a created essence does not exist by its own contingent act of being, shows that there is a real distinction between essence and esse.

Turning now to the definition of person within the real distinction camp, there are basically two posibilities:

Cajetan & Garrigou-Lagrange: personality is a "substantial mode" between "an individual substance of a rational nature" and esse.

Billot: personality is the esse of "an individual substance of a rational nature".

I agree with Billot. IMV, the position of Cajetan & G-L suffers from exactly the same problems as that of Suarez.