Friday, January 15, 2021

McGinn on the question of being

Colin McGinn is a philosopher whose work I always find interesting even when I disagree with it, which is often.  His book Philosophical Provocations: 55 Short Essays is made to be dipped into when one is in the mood for something substantive but not too heavy going.  And it is accurately titled, since on reading it I was indeed provoked – specifically, by the article on “The Question of Being.”

McGinn characterizes the issue as:

the question [of] …what it is for something to have being.  What does existence itself consist in – what is its nature?  When something exists, what exactly is true of it?  What kind of condition is existence?  How does an existent thing differ from a nonexistent thing? (p. 211)

He makes several important observations about this question.  First, it is a serious philosophical question, but one that is distinct from the issues that analytic philosophers tend to confine themselves to when discussing existence.  In particular, it is distinct from questions about whether “exists” is a first- or second-level predicate, and it is distinct from questions about what sorts of things we should allow into our ontology (material objects, numbers, moral values, universals, etc.).  Analytic philosophers have a lot to say about those questions, but little to say about the question of being.

Second, McGinn says that the question is not plausibly addressed by philosophical views which are essentially anthropocentric (such as verificationism, pragmatism, and some versions of idealism).  Since human beings could have failed to exist, it cannot be correct to think of existence in terms of what we could empirically verify, or what is useful to us, or what we perceive.

Third, McGinn correctly notes that empirical science cannot answer the question either.  There can be a science of particular sorts of existing things – plants, animals, chemical elements, basic particles, and so on.  But “there cannot be an empirical science of existence-as-such” (p. 213).  He does not elaborate, but since part of what is involved in the question of being is whether what exists outstrips what is material or empirically detectable, it obviously cannot be answered by way of methods that confine themselves to matter and the empirical.

So far so good.  McGinn also correctly notes that even if we take the view that the notion of existence is primitive and unanalyzable, “it should be possible to say something illuminating about it – not provide a classical noncircular analysis, perhaps, but at least offer some elucidatory remarks” (p 211).

Analytic myopia?

So why was I provoked?  Because McGinn also claims that in the history of philosophy, the question of being “has been ignored, evaded perhaps” (p. 212).  Indeed:

There is a huge gap at the heart of philosophy: the nature of existence.  In fact, we might see the history of (Western) philosophy as a systematic avoidance of this problem.  We have not confronted the question of being, not head on anyway. (p. 211)


When philosophers started to organize and educate, a few thousand years ago, they would be tacitly aware of the problem but had nothing useful to communicate, so they left it alone, kept it off the syllabus, and discouraged students from raising it.  And today we still have no idea what to say, beyond the two questions I mentioned earlier. (p. 213)

Seriously?!  Has McGinn not heard of Parmenides?  Plato on being and becoming?  Avicenna?  Aquinas’s De Ente et Essentia?  Heidegger’s Being and Time?  Sartre’s Being and Nothingness?  Gilson’s Being and Some Philosophers?  Obviously he must have.  And that’s just scratching the surface.  Nor has the question in fact been ignored by all analytic philosophers, as evidenced by books like Barry Miller's The Fullness of Being and Bill Vallicella’s A Paradigm Theory of Existence.  So, what the hell is McGinn talking about?

Of course, Heidegger famously alleged that Western philosophy after Plato had evaded the question of being.  But McGinn can’t mean what Heidegger meant, since he cites neither the Pre-Socratics nor Heidegger himself as exceptions to the charge that philosophers have “ignored” or “evaded” the question of being.

My guess is that McGinn simply has the myopia stereotypical of analytic philosophers (even if not actually fairly attributable to all of them).  To be sure, McGinn’s work often does engage seriously with the history of philosophy, though his range of knowledge of and interest in it seems not to extend before the early modern period.  And it would be churlish to criticize him too harshly, since, as I say, he does take the question seriously (which a truly myopic analytic philosopher would not do). 

Still, the fact remains that it is hard to see how anyone even vaguely familiar with ancient and medieval philosophy could make the assertions he does.  And even analytic philosophers should know better – and as I have said, often do know better.  For example, thinkers like Wilfrid Sellars and Richard Rorty seriously engaged with the pre-modern history of philosophy.  Indeed, though they couldn’t be farther from Thomism, they knew of and to some extent engaged with the Thomist tradition as it existed in their day (mainly as filtered through writers like Gilson, Maritain, and Mortimer Adler).

One of the big themes of the Thomism of those days was the way that Thomism offered a deeper analysis of the nature of existence than the existentialism that was then all the rage.  For example, Maritain’s Existence and the Existent is devoted to that theme.  Now, as a Thomist whose training was originally in analytic philosophy, even I find Maritain’s style sometimes a bit hard to take.  So, you can be sure that McGinn would find it even more so.  All the same, such books evidence just how deeply the question of being was in fact being addressed by thinkers whose work earlier analytic thinkers engaged with.  And even some prominent contemporary analytic philosophers whose work McGinn would know are still engaging with them – consider, for example, Anthony Kenny’s book Aquinas on Being.

So, we’re not talking even six degrees of separation here.  Even given analytic myopia, it is remarkable that McGinn would make statements so bold, sweeping – and embarrassingly easy to prove false – as he did.  A few minutes of Googling should have dissuaded him.

The Thomist account

You don’t have to read far into a book like Maritain’s to see that he offers exactly what McGinn asks for – an account (drawn, of course, from Aquinas) that tries to be “illuminating” and “elucidatory” even if it takes being to be in a sense primitive.  We have the classic Thomistic themes:

- Being is a broader notion than existence.  After all, the essence of a thing has a kind of being or reality, but it is (as the classic Thomistic doctrine holds) really distinct from the existence of a thing. 

- Potentiality is a kind of being that is really distinct from actuality, and intermediate between actuality on the one hand and nothingness on the other.  Recognizing this distinction is essential to avoiding Parmenidean static monism on the one hand (which posits a world of pure being with no becoming), and Heraclitean dynamism on the other (which posits a world of pure becoming with no being).

- Connecting these two distinctions, the essence of a thing, considered in isolation, is a kind of potential being, and the existence of a thing is what actualizes that potential.

- Being is an analogical notion, where analogy is a literal middle ground usage between the univocal and the equivocal use of terms.  A substance, its attributes, its form, its matter, its essence, its existence, etc. all have being, but not all in exactly the same sense (even if not in equivocal senses either).

- Being is not a genus nor a universal of any kind.  The relationship between individual beings and Being Itself is not the relation between instances of a kind and the abstract kind of which they are instances.  It is rather a causal relation between that which requires that existence be added to its essence in order for it to be part of the world, and that which does not.

And so on.  You might reject all this.  You might judge that, at the end of the day, it doesn’t hold up, perhaps for reasons like Kenny’s.  (Though you shouldn’t – see my Scholastic Metaphysics for exposition and defense of the Thomist position.)  But you can’t deny that it amounts to exactly the sort of thing McGinn says we need and claims that philosophers have studiously avoided – a worked-out attempt to elucidate the nature of being.  And of course, Thomism is not the only school of thought that has tried to offer that, as the history of ancient and medieval philosophy (and even much modern philosophy) shows.

Contra antirealism

McGinn himself has some illuminating remarks to make in another article in the volume titled “Antirealism Refuted.”  To be sure, they’re not presented as an attempt to elucidate the question of being.  All the same, one of the ways that both common sense and philosophy try to understand reality is by contrast with thought.  For example, if you ask the average person what it means to say that unicorns are not real, he is likely to say that they are merely imaginary – that they cannot be found outside the mind. 

Now, antirealist views in philosophy treat various phenomena that common sense takes to be real as if they had no existence outside thought, or outside language, or outside cultural practice, or what have you.  For example, an antirealist about moral value might say that morality has no foundation in objective reality, but reflects only our emotional states or cultural practices.  An antirealist about physical objects might say that physical substances are mere fictions that allow us to organize our experiences, or that the very notion of a substance (physical or otherwise) is a shadow of the subject-predicate structure of language but corresponds to nothing in reality.

McGinn points out that an antirealist view about some subject matter is essentially an error theory.  It holds that we systematically just get things wrong about that subject matter.  But interestingly, none of the usual sources of error can plausibly explain why we would be subject to the errors antirealism attributes to us.  Nor do antirealist theories offer plausible alternative suggestions about the source of the purported error.

McGinn points out, for example, that errors in astronomy might arise from perceptual illusion, errors in morality from prejudices, errors in politics from indoctrination, and so on.  But none of these sources plausibly explain the sorts of errors posited by metaphysical antirealism.  For example, even when none of the usual sources of perceptual illusion are operating, the antirealist about physical objects says we are still erring in judging them to be real.  But how?  What exactly is the source of this error if it is not (say) bad lighting, refraction, malfunctioning eyeballs, etc.?  We might claim, with more or less plausibility, that some specific moral opinion arises from prejudice.  But how exactly would the more general belief that there is such a thing as objective morality in the first place arise from prejudice? 

McGinn’s basic argument against antirealism, then, is that it is an error theory that has no workable theory of error.  How might this elucidate the nature of being or reality?  Again, McGinn himself does not apply his argument to that particular question.  But it is relevant.  For error presupposes the distinction between truth and falsity.  And antirealism itself implicitly supposes that error – the failure to attain truth – entails a lack of correspondence between thought and reality, whereas there would be such a correspondence if we were not in error.

So, the realism/antirealism debate itself presupposes a conception of being or reality as something extra-mental, to which the mind conforms when it attains truth.  Being is a correlate of truth.  That gives us at least the beginnings of the kind of “illuminating” or “elucidatory” account of being that McGinn wants.  And here too the Thomistic tradition – which, in its endorsement of the medieval notion of the “transcendentals,” also says of being that it is convertible with truth (and with goodness, unity, etc.) – provides ingredients for developing the analysis further.

Related reading:

Does existence exist?

Fifty Shades of Nothing

Parfit on brute facts

Greene on Nozick on nothing

A first without a second

McGinn on mind and space


  1. Ed,

    Have you read Knasas recent book on cosmological reasoning? I'm looking to read a book dedicated to the De Ente argument and have boiled it down to Gaven Kerr and Knasas. Would appreciate your thoughts on either book

    1. I still like Bobik's "Aquinas on Being and Essence: A Translation and Interpretation. 1965

      The Paradoxical Structure of Existence by Frederick Wilhelmsen published in 1970 is also helpful.

    2. Personally, I thought Wilhelmsen's book was interesting as someone rather new to this subject matter, but I got the sense, having read it from page 1 again years later, that his points later in the book are obscured by his rhetorical flourish. Perhaps my own ignorance was at fault and I will revisit one day with a fresh pair of eyes and an understanding mind. In any case, it was from Wilhelmsen (later Gilson) that I first learned of "existence", the distinction between essence and existence, the latter's metaphysical priority and of the analogy between act/potency on the one hand and existence/non-existence on the other. I do not claim to fully grasp the latter, but that is where I learned of it. In any case, it's a thin book and worth the read.

  2. Feser wrote a review of Kerr's book which you can find here:

    I think the full review is locked behind a paywall though :/

  3. “So, the realism/antirealism debate itself presupposes a conception of being or reality as something extra-mental, to which the mind conforms when it attains truth.”

    And yet the antirealist/Nominalist goes on insisting it’s merely a word or mental category, sweeping it all under the rug of “the mind”, as Feser says in so many places, and pretending not to notice the bulge in the carpet. So much do they desire to avoid the consequences that follow admitting it.

    “What again could this astonishing thing be like which people were so anxious to contradict, that in doing so they did not mind contradicting themselves?” G.K. Chesterton

  4. Hi Dr. Feser,

    What do you think of this dilemma? Either a thing's existence exists or not. If it doesn't, then it is nothing, and nothingness cannot be that in virtue of which something exists. If it does, then existence has existence, and the dilemma repeats, ad infinitum (existence has existence has existence...).

    1. Pick up Jacques Maritain's Preface to Metaphysics, and then some books that discuss the essence existence distinction. It seems you're misusing the term "existence" as if it were an "essence." The dilemma thus fails. Existence is not something which exists or not.

    2. Hi Anon,

      I respond to that kind of objection at pp. 246-47 of Scholastic Metaphysics.

    3. Hi Dr. Feser,

      Thank you for your reply. I just read that passage in Scholastic Metaphysics, and I'm not sure how it addresses the objection. Even if essence and existence are inseparable, the law of excluded middle entails that either existence exists or not. If the idea is that existence does *not* exist, then it is nothing, and how can nothing be that by which a substance exists?

      If we deny that existence neither exists nor is nothing, then we need to posit a third category of being between existence and non-existence, which sounds mysterious.

    4. I think that Journey is right, existence is not a thing that can exist or not, it is rather more like a state. So asking if existence exists is like asking if boiled exists: it don't makes sense.

      Also, is not potentiality a third category between being(existence) and non-being(non-existence)?

    5. Hi Journey516,

      Thank you for the book recommendation. You write, "Existence is not something which exists or not."

      Doesn't this violate the law of excluded middle?

    6. Hi Talmid,

      You write, "existence is not a thing that can exist or not, it is rather more like a state."

      A state can exist or not, so I'm not sure what you mean.

      "Also, is not potentiality a third category between being(existence) and non-being(non-existence)?"

      Yes, but existence is not supposed to be potentiality. Rather, essence is in potency relative to existence. Existence is the actuality of the thing, so it cannot be seen as potentiality.

    7. Talmid,

      One could still think that even if its a state, that state has to be. So maybe the clearer question is: Does being have being? If yes, then we push the question back a step. If no, then we are back to saying being is non-being.

      If you try to avoid the conundrum by saying that being just is being itself, then we end up with Parmenidian static monism don't we?

    8. Part I: I can't help but agree with McGinn, no matter how hard I look into it. For example, in one corner, you've got Leibniz saying that the answer is God, which completely misses the point. The question is not why the created world exists, but why, out of two theoretical alternatives (and even this way of putting it is somewhat misleading), one being Nothing (obviously, in this case, not even God would be real because nothing would be) and Something, the latter one is true. We know that it is true, and we know that from Nothing, Nothing comes, so we also we know that Nothing is impossible. But we don't know WHY this is the case.

      Then in the other corner, you've got people speaking of possible worlds and asking why a world where something is obtains rather than a world where nothing is. Which is just as confused as what Leibniz was saying. Obviously, the very notion of a possibility or a world presupposes that a possibility or a world *be*, so this way of thinking about it completely misses the point as well.

      I haven't seen any good approach to this in the Scholastic literature I've read so far either. It all seems to be an analysis of a certain level and aspect of Being as we know it without tackling Being as such, even if the authors might think that's what they're doing.

      I've been reading this article:

      So far, it's just been one missed point after the other, "This survey starts with nothingness at a global scale and then explores local pockets of nothingness..."

      Nothingness at a scale? Pockets or nothingness?

      'Even if ‘Nothing exists’ were the uniquely simplest possibility...'

      Well, obviously it's not a possibility, since Something is, and out of Nothing, Nothing comes, so "after-the-fact", for lack of a better way of putting it, we know that. But *why* is that the case?

      'What really counts here is the probability of ‘There is something’ as opposed to ‘There is nothing’.'

      There's nothing "probabilistic" about it. This is as far from an issue of "probability" as it could possibly be, since a probability itself already *is* something.

      '..scientists also accept “equilibrium explanations”. These explain the actual situation as the outcome of most or all of the possible initial states.'


      'Most philosophers would grant Peter van Inwagen’s premise that there is no more than one empty world.'

      What in the actual heck is an "empty world"? If it's empty, it's not a world, and if it's a world, it's not empty.

    9. Part II: 'However, medieval philosophers differentiated empty worlds by the power of places within those worlds.'

      They differentiated different types of "nothings" from one another? Huh?

      'War of the Possible Worlds...'

      Oh, will it ever stop?

      '...some existentialists picture nothingness as a kind of force that impedes each object’s existence. Since there is something rather than nothing, any such nihilating force cannot have actually gone unchecked. What could have blocked it? Robert Nozick (1981, 123) toys with an interpretation of Heidegger in which this nihilating force is self-destructive.'

      Nothingness impedes? Nothingness is (self-)destructive?

      '...Heidegger objecting that the wrong question is being asked."

      Finally, some sense. This is the closest it gets to the actual point so far. However...

      'Heidegger does think freedom is rooted in nothingness...'

      How can anything be "rooted in nothingness"?

      'Heidegger thinks that animals do not experience nothingness.'

      Well, of course they don't. Nothing is not so it can't be "experienced".

      I could be wrong, but I haven't seen anyone to refute McGinn's claim yet. Even Heidegger seems totally confused.

      Perhaps the East is where to look. I don't know. But even there, one finds nonsense such as "true" contradictions and the idea that something can exist and not exist at the same time. It seems the East is even more confused than the West.

    10. @Anon

      What i mean is that there is not this thing called "existence" that can exist or not. Rather, you have a thing that is actual or not, so existence is more like a caracteristic of things that a thing in itself. Thus, asking if existence exists seems to me like a language failure really.

      Also, Leibniz point is that God is necessary, so there is not really the possibility of nothingness being the case, rather God could not fail to exist, so nothingness is impossible in principle, for at least He aways exists.


      I don't think that "being" is a thing in itself, so "being" can't "have being" if by that you mean that it have being in exactly the same sense things that are actual are.

    11. Talmid,

      Just to note, I'm basically on your side here. I'm merely trying to clarify what the conundrum people raise appears to be.

      Ultimately, what I take the problem to be is this: Either something exists (has being) in some sense or another, or it doesn't and is thus non-existent/non-being AKA nothing. To exist/be is to have existence/being. But if an existing thing has some property, then that property must have existence/being in some sense. If it didn't exist or have being, how can anything have it?

      So then what would it mean for something to have existence/being? That property of existence/being would have to exist/be. Therefore, we have to say that existence/being has existence/being.

      But that is incoherent no matter how you parse it out. So, the only option is that existence/being is simply existence/being itself. But then we are with Parmenides.

      There are different kinds of existence/being, so I guess the way around this is to say the property of existence/being in a certain sense has existence/being in another sense. I don't know if this solves the problem though.

      Another option is to cut things off at the start and say that for a thing to have a property, the property doesn't have to exist. But then in what sense can we say that it has the property (or accident if we wanna stick with aristotelian terms)? Seems to fall in to a kind of nominalism, which has its own serious preblems.

    12. I agree that this is not a easy subject at all, and we should expect that. But i insist that a misunderstanding caused by language is to blame here. To see why, remember Kant insight on being*:

      When i say that something exist i'am not really saying that it has, beside its properties, some property we call being. What i say is that this thing is actual, to use St. Thomas Aquinas language, i'am saying that it "has" the act of being, it is on the state "actual". So to me it makes no sense to ask if existence/being has being, for it is not a separate thing at all. You could say that is "has being", but in no way on the sense that we use the term normally, so better be careful here to not confuse anyone.

      The thing is that we talk of things as "having" being or existence, and this seems to lead us to infer that existence is just a property, but i don't see it that way, so anon question seems to me just a result of a language error really.

      *yea, citing the guy. still think that he failed to refute St. Anselm argument, though

    13. Hi Talmid, you write, "What i mean is that there is not this thing called "existence" that can exist or not."

      I think you misunderstand my point. I absolutely agree that existence is not a thing, but just because it isn't a thing, it doesn't follow that it's exempt from the law of excluded middle.

      Just because it isn't a thing, it's still true that either existence exists or not. Now it seems you think existence does *not* existence. If so, then it is non-existent.

    14. Talmid, I understand what you mean, but then you have to figure out what is different between something that does exist and something that doesn't. You can't say that one truly has something that the other doesn't.

      If one doesn't really have something that the other lacks, or one lacks something that the other has, then how do you provide an explanation for the difference?

      You place "has" in quotes regarding Aquinas' understanding, but what exactly do you replace that with? It seems similar to those biologists who reject teleology, but still say that the heart is "for" pumping blood around the body, or that an organism digests food "in order to" gain nutrition for the body. They want to claim its just shorthand and can be replaced with non-teleological language, but its never done because they can't do it. It seems the same when you say something "has" existence. Can you replace this with language that doesn't confuse it as a property, and, if so, what stops someone from applying that to every property?

    15. Well guys, we get here to the problem of what existing means. I don't think that to exist is to have some property, rather you first need to exist before you can really have properties, it is something more fundamental. If we don't know what existence is them we won't get very far.

      The thing is that i admit that i don't know what it means to say that something do exist. Like st. Augustine would say, we know what existence means except when we have to explain it to someone. So while i don't think that "does existence exists?" is a meaningfull question i can't truly explain why, it just look like you are applying the wrong category to existence. This means that i probably can't contribute much more to this talk...

      Also, Billy, the diference between a thing that exists and a thing that does not is not that the first one has one more property, it is rather that it truly has any property at all. A unicorn, for instance, has no real fur or horn, there is the potential in matter to be unicorn-matter, but that is a property of matter only. I could be wrong, but i see potential beings "properties" as being properties of things that are already actual.*

      *not that anything actual has the unicorn properties in the way it would have, my mental concept of unicorns, for instance, has horns, fur, legs etc only in a analogical way

    16. Talmid,

      What do you mean by "property"? By "property", I mean a constituent of a substance. Do you deny that existence is a constituent (a part of, is not extrinsic to) an existing substance?

    17. @Mikhail

      I guess that by "property" i mean something like "what a substance has". Something like a acident or a proper acident. A property them is aways dependent on the substance. For instance, i have the property "having hair", and the property is dependent on me in a way i'am not as dependent on it(of course, if i lose it i will change, so i do depend on it in a sense).

      What do you mean by "constituent"? Saying it is a part is kinda vague. Existence seems, like essence, more fundamental that the substance it is a part, so i don't see it as a property in the sense i use the word.

    18. "What do you think of this dilemma? Either a thing's existence exists or not. If it doesn't, then it is nothing, and nothingness cannot be that in virtue of which something exists. If it does, then existence has existence, and the dilemma repeats, ad infinitum (existence has existence has existence...)"

      The dilemma is based on a false presupposition i.e., that existence is ‘that in virtue of which’ something exists.

      The truth is that existence is ‘that’ something exists. If so, both horns are avoided.

  5. I’m reading an interesting paper on the eastern fathers ( which already had me thinking about this. Take a basic statement like this;

    “Hence, of metaphysical necessity, every creature is hylomorphic, or a compo-site of matter (hyl ē) and form (morph ē). “

    It seems to me that this doesn’t take into account that the soul can exist without the body. Ignoring my own experiences, you have hundreds of thousands of very sane and well educated people reporting ‘near death experienced’ and ‘out of body’ experiences.

    So I assume being is a more fundamental property, and after death the hylomorphic+being creature becomes something with just form+being? Is that post death soul still an “actual” in thomist terms? Apologies for the stupid questions but there are many things that seem clear until I try to put them into the Aristotle/Thomist metaphysics.

    Some people seem to kick the ball down the road on this to the new heaven and new earth etc, but that’s not helpful. I’m talking about the way the saints are now, as part of the ‘communion of saints’.

    1. Simon Adams,

      After death, the bodiless human soul exists in a diminished state, only made better through divine intervention. At the end of time, Scripture tells us that we shall be given new bodies that better fit the nature we were supposed to have had from the beginning.

    2. Simon Adams,

      In A/T, "the soul" is just the form of the body. That may effect how you think about your question.

    3. So how does something like the Intercession of the saints work?

    4. Simon Adams,

      Because of Jesus Christ. Thanks to Him, we're all a part of the same body, the Church.

    5. “Hence, of metaphysical necessity, every creature is hylomorphic, or a compo-site of matter (hyl ē) and form (morph ē). “

      Also, the statement seems to ignore creatures that are not material beings: angels. Not sure where the "metaphysical necessity" went there.

    6. Angels are a composite of essence and existence. That's why as they exist each is a seperate species of angel.

    7. @Simon Adams

      "So how does something like the Intercession of the saints work?"

      The saints souls still exists, it is just that with not the body the soul is crippled(since it was made for use the body), so God itself is giving the saints the information that they need to function normally. Of course, this will change after the ressurrection, for them they wll get their bodies back.

      I think that this Ed post can help visualize the state of a disembodied soul:

      The saints are like that right now, except that God is helping they directly, so they can still act thanks to His help. Like a man that lost a leg but got a cool cyborg one.

    8. Right, but not a composite of matter and form.

  6. For example, later in the same paper;

    “ The case against pre-existent matter reveals a Cappadocian commitment to hy-lomorphic metaphysics of the kind we find in Athanasius. Unlike some brands of Platonism, which grant to both matter and form independence existence, the Cap-padocians see matter and form as bilaterally dependent. And lest anyone suspect the dependence is unilateral—matter upon form, not vice versa—Gregory is clear that forms are just thoughts (
    ) or concepts (
    ) in God’s mind apart from material instantiation.
    Likewise, Basil describes the generation of divine concepts as God’s first act toward creating,
    but he is also clear that these divine concepts

    have no concrete existence apart from matter. It is the combining of form and mat-ter that produces a being.”

    This is the same thing again. So after death, what are we in a thomist sense? If we’re just being, then what distinguishes us as individuals? If god created us in his image, then it seems to me that we are something more than a thought in the divine intellect...

    1. Again: when a human being is created, a form and matter are conjoined, the form being a spiritual soul, i.e. soul with the capacity for act that is not per se material act: the act of knowing. When that individual human dies, (e.g. the body takes on damage that makes it no longer satisfactory matter for a human soul), the soul remains ordered to THAT BODY because it is, always, the form of that body only. It remains individual by reference to that body, even though it ceases to actualize that body. So, the creation of a human person is NOT a mirror image of the death of that person, in terms of the relation of soul to body, there is a one-way-street about the starting-to-be.

    2. Thank you Tony, that’s useful. It also makes a lot of sense...

  7. I remember a previous post that begin with this:

    In the second edition of his book Practical Ethics, Peter Singer writes:

    '[T]he first thing to say about ethics is that it is not a set of prohibitions particularly concerned with sex. Even in the era of AIDS, sex raises no unique moral issues at all. Decisions about sex may involve considerations of honesty, concern for others, prudence, and so on, but there is nothing special about sex in this respect, for the same could be said of decisions about driving a car. (p. 2, emphasis added)'

    I have long regarded this as one of the most imbecilic things any philosopher has ever said."

    I think McGinn's statement, "There is a huge gap at the heart of philosophy: the nature of existence. In fact, we might see the history of (Western) philosophy as a systematic avoidance of this problem. We have not confronted the question of being, not head on anyway" might be another statement that will go down in history as among the most ridiculous ever made by a philosopher (and especially by a really good one like McGinn.)

    1. I completely agree with what Singer has to say in your quote. Why do you consider it imbecilic? Singer is of course referring to general classes of concerns, not to particular, specific ones.

    2. Unknown,

      Here is the post from which Joshua was quoting, which will answer your question:

      Let's not pursue this further in this thread, however, because it is quite off-topic.

  8. Interesting and useful article, thank you.

    This in Professor Feser's OP, "Connecting these two distinctions, the essence of a thing, considered in isolation, is a kind of potential being, and the existence of a thing is what actualizes that potential," brings to mind Plato's Sophist. There the Eleatic Stranger and Theaetetus agree that if a thing has being, it has potency, δύναμις, either to act or to be acted upon (247e, 248c).

  9. The "essence" of a thing, considered in isolation is nothing at all.
    There are no non-existing essences.
    Claiming that essence is a kind of potential being is a reification of nothing.

    1. Well yes, Meinongianism should be rejected, but this is also not the Thomistic position, what you describe sounds like what can be found in Avicenna.

      The essence and existence of a thing are mutually dependent, much like a substance and its properties, it would be faulty though to thereby maintain that they can't be distinguished or don't exist at all.

      However potential essence can be taken in two ways here, one would be the Meinongian, the second one would be the instantiation of properties in a substance. Note that this of course doesn't presuppose haeccity properties, which I reject anyway. The actualization of the essence is the unification of properties, (Moreland; "Existence is not a property, it's the having of properties") or the actualization of a substance

    2. Potential being is not nothing though. Potential being resides in actual being.

    3. Yes, considered as separated from an act of existence, it is just pure potential and thus has no actual existence at all. But that doesn't mean that it is not distinct from existence, only inseparable from it.

    4. Billy

      But the question the is whether essence is potential being.
      If essence is 'not nothing' then it is something, IOW it exists. But something that exists doesn't need 'existence' added to it.

    5. Walter,

      Yes, it exists in one sense, but that doesn't mean it exists in the exact same sense that actual being exists. To exist in the sense that actual being exists, it needs to receive actual being. More being needs to be added to it, in a sense.

      Think of a blank white canvas, then add some blue to it. Its very spread out and the blankness of the canvas gets through a little, so the blue appears very light. You can say the canvas is blue, but its clearly not blue in the same sense that if you covered the entire canvas in blue completely.

      Clearly blue can be added to the canvas and its not leading to some major philosophical conundrum. To make the canvas completely blue simply requires that it receives a fuller blue. The analogy isn't perfect, but I hope you get the idea.

    6. Billy

      If that's true, then there is a sense of existence that doesn't require existences added to it. That is what I mean by a reification of nothing.
      The 'nothing' that things are created from is not nothing.

  10. Ed,

    I would love to have your take on Schopenhauer, who was a mighty thinker and a clear writer but who, to my mind, at the very beginning of his thought excludes the Being of reality (dismissing "speculative theology," as he puts it, as beyond the scope of rational enquiry) and deals, instead, merely with "the world", which for him results in a kind of metaphysical concordat between Plato and Kant. It is my view that much of his thesis can be salvaged, and with much benefit to the truth, by an attempt to reintegrate the concept of Being into his thought, yet I believe very few scholars have attempted such a thing.

    His learning is immense, including many references to Aristotle, and yet I noticed very few, if any, references to Aquinas; instead he represents a typical German hostility to the scholastics, perhaps throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In any case, his attempt at grasping fundamental truths of the world is not complete, though not in vain either, and so I wonder if, with your gifts, you might comment at length here at some point on either the "Fourfold Root..." or the "World as Will and Idea", given the influence of his atheistic or panentheistic thought on many subsequent philosophers, psychologists, artists et al. which, despite his lack of celebrity, continues today in myriad and plagiarised/bastardised forms.

    1. You may be interested in a new book by Dr Bernard Kastrup , titled 'Decoding Shopenhauer's Metaphysics', in which he offers an idealistic interpretation of that philosopher's world view. Kastrup contends that Shopenhauer has been almost universally misinterpreted and misrepresented.

    2. I like Peter Kreeft's argument that without real essences that exist there is no real grounding in being of the dignity of the human person. There are some people who are smarter, stronger, more beautiful, etc., so if the human soul and essence of a person are not real there is no reason for the equlaity in dignity of the human person, which few of us would deny.

    3. Unknown,

      Thank you for your reply and suggestions. I also believe that Schopenhauer has been misrepresented and misunderstood, but I think that his later writings are as responsible for that as the parallel utopianisms (Hegelianism, positivism etc) that discredited Schopenhauer and his realist system.

      As regards equality and other ethics, Schopenhauer's metaphysics arrives at the mostly the same practical conclusions as Christianity (with a fundamental disclaimer), Stoicism and Buddhism, insofar as the self is grounded in a shared essence, heretofore "the Will". Therefore, notwithstanding its unequal distribution as the Will manifests in nature, according to Schopenhauer man *ought*, by activity of the intellect, to recognise that the Will is the same essence in each object, and to therefore deny the Will as it manifests in us (as division, desires, motives, appropriation etc), in order to live united according to true reality.

      From there, however, his followers, Nietszche being the most prominent among them, rightly pose the question "why DENY the Will if the Will is the ESSENCE of each thing, and which in me demands MORE and not LESS life?". I think only a withdrawal from the conception of the Will as the "essence" of the world, in favour of Being, can redeem Schopenhauer from these charges. Nietzsche is more Schopenhauerian than Schopenhauer.

      As Christianity takes into it what is true in paganism, so it might make some use of Schopenhauer's theory (which is really only a theory of Creation as Will of the Creator, not a theory of the Creator as Being).

    4. I wonder if idealism is in any sense compatible with A-T metaphysics.

  11. Good evening, Mr Feser. I admire your work and the effort you put into spreading Saint Thomas' ideas in the modern ideological arena. This will be my first time commenting though. So I am studying Methaphysics, and our teacher posed these 2 questions
    last day. We have to answer them and show our reasoning. Any help would be appreciated:

    1. Does Aquinas' thought get to refute methaphysicial essencialism?
    2. Thomas' thought answers to all questions on the life of men, or can Kierkegaard contribute with anything new?

    I am trying to answer these with Gilson's "Being and some philosophers", but these seem really hard. Thanks in advance.

    1. Hi JM,

      Ed's Thomistic Metaphysics should take care of question 1, I just don't have the time right now to dig it out.

      Not sure about 2, but Aquinas over Kierkegaard for sure.

      Thank you for your contribution and questions.

  12. 'The flux interpretation of Heraclitus is wrong, and it's all Plato's fault. It's Plato, in his dialogue, the Theaetetus, who sets up this neat opposition between the unity theory of Parmenides and the radical flux theory of Heraclitus.

    He may have been doing so honestly. We know of people who lived in Plato's day who styled themselves as followers of Heraclitus, and they did apparently believe in this flux doctrine. One of the was Cratylus...

    ...Heraclitus did believe there was one and the same river on different occasions. We can see this from a different version of the famous saying, which from its language and point seems more likely to be what Heraclitus actually said. Or maybe he said both.

    In this version, he said, "Different waters flow over those who step into the same rivers." It is the same river on different occasions but with different bits of water each time.

    So if he did think that all things were constantly changing and in flux, he also thought that they remained the same and stable throughout change. This would explain his making War or Strife a kind of universal principle, but it would leave standing his idea that all things are one.

    In fact, it explains why he thinks all things are one. It's perhaps because he was so impressed by change and destruction that Heraclitus chose Fire for the fundamental element of his cosmology. In another fragment, he says, "All things are exchanged for Fire and Fire for all things, like gold for goods and goods for gold."

    His idea here is in part that Fire will consume things and actually turn them into itself. Think of a small blaze engulfing a whole forest and seemingly transforming it into flame until it is all used up and the conflagration dies out.

    But Heraclitus thinks it can go the other way too with Fire being turned into Water and Earth. In fact, he sees a fundamental opposition between Fire and Water. One is transformed into the other, though, like Anaximenes' Air which can become the other elements.'

  13. OP
    “human beings could have failed to exist”
    That assertion is a mere, and ultimately unsupportable, assumption.

    What would have prevented human beings, and everything else that does exist, from existing?

    If there is a necessary being then all that does in fact exist must exist as a necessary derivative of the primordial necessary being. What other alternative is there?

    Perhaps there is an element of intrinsic randomness in the progressions of that which exists? To assert so requires a rejection of the PSR, because intrinsic randomness requires that there can be an effect without any reason at all, much less a sufficient reason.

    The conclusion is as clear as it is simple: all that does in fact exist must exist necessarily and could not have been otherwise.

    1. Out of curiosity:what is your take on Spinoza? Your post made me remember the guy, he would agree.

  14. SP,

    You always end up at the false dichotomy that things are either determined or completely random. You use this same false dichotomy when discussing freewill.

    To throw it back at you, this false dischotomy "is a mere, and ultimately unsupportable, assumption". No one has to accept it.

    The moment you make an argument for it, and reason to that conclusion, you have successfully undermined that conclusion.

    "The conclusion is as clear as it is simple: all that does in fact exist must exist necessarily and could not have been otherwise."

    You could never successfully reason to any conclusion if everything is either determined or random. If you think you reasoned correctly, you are simply determined to, or as a matter of random occurrence, think that you reasoned correctly and you will never know otherwise. You can never even confirm if your conclusion has anything to do with your premises. Its all futile. Unless you can break out of that, you can never successfully reason to that conclusion, or any conclusion.

    You either accept that, or you consider that maybe you are making a wrong assumption where.