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Distinguishing Philosophy And Scholasticism – Etienne Gilson

April 11, 2011

Does philosophy consist in these abstract essences taken in the state of abstraction in which we are right now considering them? To say yes is to become involved in a philosophy of the quiddity. We mean by this not simply a philosophy that calls upon quiddities, for this necessity is co-essential to all human knowledge, but a philosophy whose notion of the real reduces it to the essence, or quiddity. History shows us many such philosophies. Indeed their very classifications are innumerable, but there is no need to go into them here. This attitude concerns us primarily in that it expresses a natural tendency of the reason to think by “clear and distinct ideas,” and consequently to reject as obscure and confused whatever does not allow itself to be included within the limits of purely quidditative notions. From this point of view, the “simple natures” on which Descartes worked are no different from the essences of the tree of Porphyry which he denounced as sterile.

Let us go further. Whatever method we invoke, and even if we begin by admitting that the concept cannot be the ultimate object of philosophy, we end up in actual fact with a philosophy of the quiddities whenever we fail to carry research beyond the level of abstract notions. A simple glance at the history of the various philosophies leads to this same conclusion. Restricting ourselves to Thomistic philosophy, we have to choose between locating its ultimate object in the grasping of the essences out of which the concrete real is made up (in which case our highest mode of knowing is a sort of intellectual intuition of pure essences) or assigning to Thomistic philosophy as its ultimate term, rational knowledge of the concrete real through the essences engaged in the metaphysical texture of that concrete real.

Whatever we may think, there can be no doubting that the thought of St. Thomas, in first intention, turned toward knowledge of the existing concrete given in sensible experience and of the first causes of this existing concrete whether they be sensible or not. The whole philosophy we have been studying, from metaphysics to moral philosophy, bears testimony of this. This is why it is and remains philosophy in the proper sense and not, in the widely spread pejorative sense of the term, a “scholasticism.”

Every philosophy engenders its own scholastic presentation, its own school-doctrine, its own scholasticism. But the terms “philosophy” and “scholasticism” designate specifically distinct facts. Every philosophy worthy of the name starts out from the real and returns thereto. Every scholasticism starts from a philosophy and returns thereto. Philosophy degenerates into scholasticism the moment when, instead of taking the existing concrete as object of its reflections in order to study it deeply, penetrate it, throw more and more light upon it, it applies itself rather to the statements which it is supposed to explain, as if these statements themselves and not what they shed light on, were the reality itself.

To fall into this error is to become quite incapable of understanding even the history of philosophy. Because understanding a philosophy is not merely reading what it says in one place in terms of what it says in another; it is reading it at each moment in terms of what it is actually speaking about. An error like this is far more harmful to philosophy itself than to the history of philosophy. St. Thomas’s teaching has degenerated into scholasticism whenever and wherever it has been cut off from the real, the only object on which its illuminating rays can properly be focused. This is not a reason for believing that Thomism is a scholasticism, for its object is not Thomism but the world, man, and God, attained as existing beings in their very existence. It is therefore true that in this first sense the philosophy of St. Thomas is existential in the fullest sense of the word.

Beyond this first sense, there is another far more radical one which commands our attention even more imperatively. In this case, however, the very expression “existential philosophy,” which is so inviting in itself, lends itself to so many misunderstandings that we stand in dread of the birth and spread of new “scholastic” controversies if, that is, certain necessary precautions are not taken. It is a rather modern expression; and although it has arisen out of problems as old as Western thought, it can hardly be applied to the doctrine of St. Thomas without giving the impression of striving to rejuvenate it from without by fitting it up in modern dress. To attempt something like this is hardly wise. It even has the effect of aligning Thomism with philosophies which in certain fundamental points are its direct contrary.

To speak of “existential philosophy” today brings immediately to mind such names as Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Jaspers and so on. In these we find divergent tendencies. No Thomism conscious of what it really is itself could under any circumstances fully align itself with any of them. To do so would only lay it open to the charge of seeking artificial rejuvenation, of postponing its threatening dissolution by laying claim to a title generally conceded to recent philosophies still full of vitality. The whole undertaking would be undignified and profitless to all parties concerned and could only lead to misunderstandings which it would take generations to remove.

The first and most serious of these misunderstandings would be to give the impression that Thomism was one more existential philosophy; whereas what really ought to be the issue at stake is whether or not these philosophies to which Thomism is being likened have really any right to be called existential philosophies at all. Assuredly these are philosophies very much concerned with existence. But they really only deal with it as an object of a possible phenomenology of human existence, as though the primacy of existence signified chiefly that primacy of ethics which Kierkegaard so strongly insisted upon.

If we look here for a philosophy that passes beyond the phenomenological and establishes the act-of-being as the keystone of metaphysics, we shall look in vain. But this is just what St. Thomas has done. As philosophy of the act-of-being, Thomism is not another existential philosophy, it is the only one. All those phenomenologies which are on the hunt for an ontology seem unconsciously to be moving in its direction as though driven on by the natural desire of their own justification.

What characterizes Thomism is the decision to locate actual existence in the heart of the real as an act of transcending any kind of quidditative concept and, at the same time, avoiding the double error of remaining dumb before its transcendence or of denaturing it in objectifying it. The only means of speaking about the act-of-being is to grasp it in a concept, and the concept which directly expresses it is the concept of being. Being is that which is, that is, that which has the act-of-being. It is quite impossible to come to the act-of-being by an intellectual intuition which grasps it directly, and grasps nothing more.

To think is to conceive. But the proper object of a concept is always an essence, or something presenting itself to thought as an essence; in brief, an object. The act-of-being, however, is an act. It can only be grasped by or in the essence whose act it is. A pure est is unthinkable; but an id quod est can be thought. But every id quod est is first a being. And because there is no concept anterior to this, being is the first principle of knowledge. It is so in itself; it is so in the philosophy of St. Thomas. Such a philosophy has every claim to be called a “philosophy of being.”

If it is true that even the possibility of philosophy is tied up with the use of the quidditative concept, it is also true that the name which correctly designates a philosophy is drawn from the concept its first principle is based on. This cannot be the act-of-being because, taken in itself, the act-of-being is not the object of a quidditative concept. It must, then, inevitably be being. To call Thomism an existential philosophy does not call into question the legitimacy of its traditional title, but only confirms it. Since existence can only be conceived in the concept of being, Thomism is always a philosophy of being, even though called existential.

It seems proper to make this point because the abstract notion of being is, by its very definition, ambivalent. In a “that which is” (id quod est), or a “having being” (esse habens), we can spontaneously emphasize either the id quod and the habens or the esse and the est. Not only can we do this, but we actually do so and usually it is the “that which” (id quod) and the “having” (habens) which we emphasize because they place before us the “thing” which exists, that is, being as the object of the quidditative concept. This natural tendency to abstract and to confine ourselves to the abstract concept is so strong that it has been responsible for the appearance of several forms of Thomism in which esse, that is, the very act-of-being, seems to have no effective role to play. By yielding to this natural tendency, we abstract from esse and make Thomism a philosophy of the id quod. In order to rectify this situation, it is just as well to qualify Thomism as an “existential philosophy.” To recall in this way the full meaning of ens in St. Thomas’s language is to guard against impoverishing both ens itself and the philosophy whose first principle it is. It is to forget that the concept signified by ens implies direct reference to existence: nam ens dicitur quasi esse habens.[In XII Met., I; ed. Cathala, n. 2419]

It might be argued that a new expression like this is superfluous, because everyone is quite aware of what it is meant to express. This may be so. But it is not enough that everyone know it. Everyone must think it as well, and it is perhaps harder to do this than might be suspected. The history of the distinction between essence and existence and the endless controversies to which the same distinction is giving rise in our own day show that there is a very real difficulty. The very controversy itself is revealing. It shows how easy it is to substitute the abstract concept of existence for the concrete notion of the act-of-being, to “essentialize,” the act-of-being, to make an act into the object of a simple concept.

The temptation to do this is so strong that scholars began to do it in the first generation after St. Thomas. So far as we can tell from research done up to the present, Giles of Rome is the starting point of the controversies over essence and existence. Now it has often been noted that this resolute defender of the distinction spontaneously expressed himself as though essence were one thing, existence another. Whether he consciously went so far as to reify the act-of-being has not been adequately demonstrated. But for our purposes it is quite enough merely to observe that his language betrays a marked tendency to conceive of esse as though it were a thing, and consequently to conceive the distinction between essence and existence as between two things. Indeed, he actually writes: “Existence and essence are two things.” [Aegidius Romanus, Theoremata de esse et essentia, ed. Edg. Hocedez, S.J., Louvain, 1930, p. 127, r, 12. On the interpretation of this expression, see the Introduction to this work, pp. 54-56. As Father Hocedez puts it, the distinction inter rem et rem, taken literally, amounts to making the distinction between essence and existence a distinction between essence and essence (p. 55)] Many other professed Thomists since his time have expressed themselves in identical terms. But little is to be gained by making this distinction if existence itself is taken as an essence. To call Thomism an “existential philosophy” serves to focus attention on this very important point.

But we have still to come to the chief justification of the expression “existential” as applied to Thomistic philosophy. It is not enough to say of all being that its concept connotes its esse, and that this esse must be taken as an act. It must also be said that this esse is the act of the same being whose concept connotes it. In every esse habens the esse is the act of the habens which possesses it, and the effect of this act upon what receives it is precisely this — to make a being of it.

If we accept this thesis in all its force and with all its ontological implications we come immediately to that well-known Thomistic position: nomen ens imponitur ab ipso esse.[In IV Met., 2; ed. Cathala, S58] So we might as well say that the act-of-being is the very core of being since being draws everything, even its name, from the act-of-being. What characterizes Thomistic ontology thus understood is not so much the distinction between essence and existence as the primacy of the act-of-being, not over and above being, but within it. To say that Thomistic philosophy is “existential” is to stress more forcibly than usual that a philosophy of being thus conceived is first of all a philosophy of the act-of-being.

There would be no advantage in making a great to-do about the act-of-being to the point of forgetting about the reality of the essence or even in allowing oneself to belittle its importance. Essences are the intelligible stuff of the world. Hence ever since Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, philosophy has been one long hunt for essences. But the great question is to know whether we will bring home the game dead or alive. An essence is dead when it is deposited in the understanding as a quiddity, without preserving its contact with the act-of-being. It is certainly a lot easier to handle dead essences. Reason surrounds them from all sides through the definitions she can give them. The mind knows what each of them contains, is assured that none of them either is or can be anything other than it is, and is secure against surprise from any quarter. One can, without fear, deduce a priori the properties of essences, and even calculate beforehand all their possible combinations.

But a philosophy of the act-of-being cannot be satisfied by such methods. It wants to know which, among all the possible combinations of these essences, has actually been realized. This will very probably lead it to assert that many real combinations of essences are the very ones which would have been regarded as rather unlikely or perhaps even judged a priori to be impossible. No doubt living essences find in their own acts of existing a fertility and invention quite beyond the powers of the bare definitions of their concepts. Neither essence nor existence has any meaning apart from the other. Taken separately they are but two abstractions. The only finite reality which the understanding can fruitfully explore is concrete being itself, the original, unique, and, in the case of man, unpredictable and free actualization of an inexhaustible essence by its own act-of-being.

It is rather difficult to find in St. Thomas a single concrete problem whose solution is not ultimately based on this principle. He is primarily a theologian; and it is in constructing his theology with such striking technical originality that he best proves his fertility of mind. Wherever his philosophy touches his theology there is to be seen that new light with which the act-of-being illumines all it touches. Sometimes, when St. Thomas brings up problems and notions not central to his real interests, he allows them to stand like hardened essences in the margin, as it were, of his work. He neither takes the time to rejuvenate them by bringing them into contact with the act-of-being, nor appears to feel the need for doing so. But had he undertaken to do something like this, his philosophy would still remain with its face turned to the future. It will always be thus because the principle to which he makes his appeal is the fertile energy of an act rather than the fixed expression of a concept. A universe like this will never stop surrendering its secret unless, some day, it ceases to be.

This is because it is an ordered plurality of real essences perfected by their acts-of-being. Such must perforce be the case, since this universe is made up of beings, and since a being is “something having an act-of-being.” Each being has its own proper act-of-being, distinct from that of every other: Habet enim res unaquacque in seipsa esse proprium ab omnibus aliis distinctum.[Summa Contra Gentiles, I, 14, ad Est autem] Let us go further: it is by this act-of-being which it has that it is a being, because it is by it that it is — unumquodque est per suum esse.[Summa Contra Gentiles, I, 22, ad Item, unumquodque] And if we can say, as it is often said, that a being’s acting proceeds from its act-of-being — operatio sequitur esse — it is not merely in the sense of “like being like operation,” but also, and especially because the acting of a being is only the unfolding in time of the first act-of-being which makes it to be. It is this way that we get a notion of the efficient cause which is in agreement with the immediate certitudes of common sense and confers on them that metaphysical profundity which they lack by nature. There are many who feel that the efficient cause extends right to the very existence of its effect. And it is here precisely that they find complete justification: causa importat influxum quemdam in esse causati. [The bond tying the operations of substance to its act of esse has been well pointed out in a fairly recent work: J. de Finance, Etre et agir dans la philosophie de saint Thomas, Paris, Beauchesne, n. d. (1943). For the text quoted, see In V Met., i, i ; ed. Cathala, 751]

God is the only being to which this formula, which is valid for others, cannot as such be applied. Of Him it cannot be said that He is by His act-of-being, He is His act-of-being. Since we can only think in terms of being, and since we can only grasp a being as an essence, we have to say that God has an essence. But we must hasten to add that what in Him serves as an essence is His act-of-being: In Deo non est aliud essentia vel quidditas quam suum esse.[Op. cit., 2, 2 r, ad Ex his autem] The act-of-being is the act of acts; it is the primary energy of a being and from it all operations proceed (operatio sequitur esse). Since God is very Esse, the operation belonging to Him and only to Him is the producing of acts-of-being. To produce an act-of-being is what we call creating. Creating is, therefore, action proper to God: Ergo creatio est propria Dei actin. And as it is as Act-of-Being that He alone has the power to create; the act-of-being is His proper effect: esse est ejus proprius efectus. [2, 22, ad Item, omnis virtus]

The linking of these fundamental notions is rigidly necessary. As God is by essence the Act-of-Being itself, the created act-of-being must be His proper effect: Cum Deus sit ipsum esse per suam essentiam, oportet quod esse creatum sit proprius effectus ejus. [Summa theologiae  I, 8, 1] Once this conclusion has been reached, it becomes in its turn the principle of a long line of consequences, for every effect resembles its cause, and that by which the effect is most profoundly indebted to its cause is that by which it resembles it most. If therefore being is created, its primary resemblance to God lies in its own act-of-being: omne ens, in quantum habet esse, est Ei simile [Summa Contra Gentiles,II, 22, ad Nullo autem. See also, II, 53: "Assimilatio autem cujuslibet substantiae creatae ad deum est per ipsum esse."]

From this we see right away that it is the act-of-being in each being that is most intimate, most profound and metaphysically primary. Hence the necessity, in an ontology which does not stop at the level of abstract essence, of pushing right to the existential root of every being in order to arrive at the very principle of its unity: unumquodque secundum idem habet esse et individuationem. [Questiones. disp. de Anima, r, ad 2. To avoid possible equivocation, let us make it clear that this thesis does not oppose the thesis that, in corporeal substance, matter is the principle of individuation. For matter to individuate, it has to be; now it only is by the act of its form which in its turn only is by its act-of-existing. Causes cause one another, though under different relationships.]

Such is, in a particular way, the solution of the problem of the metaphysical structure of the human being. Where the essence of the body and the essence of the soul are taken separately, there can be no return to that concrete unity which a man is. The unity of a man is first of all the unity of his soul, which is really only the unity of his own esse. It is the same act-of-being which has issued forth from the divine Esse, which passes through the soul, which animates the body, and which penetrates even the tiniest cells of that body. When all is said and done, this is why, although the soul is a substance, its union with the body is not accidental: “It does not follow that the body is united with it accidentally because the self-same act-of-being that belongs to the soul is conferred on the body.” [22Op. cit., r, ad i. Let us note, for the theologian, that this solves the much-debated question about the point at which grace is inserted in the soul. See also, Summa theologiae, I-II, 550, 2, ad 3].

Thus that knowing being, man, is bound to God by its deepest ontological root, and has to look no further for the entrance to the paths which will lead it to the knowledge of its cause. If it pursues its metaphysical analysis far enough, any being whatsoever will place it in the presence of God. God is in everything as its cause. His action affects it in its very act-of-being. Hence it is at the heart of what it is that God is actually present: Oportet quod Deus sit in omnibus rebus, et intime. [Summa theologiae, I, 8, x.]

To prove God is to re-climb by reason from any finite act-of-being whatsoever, to the pure Act-of-Being which causes it. Here the knowledge of man reaches its ultimate terminus. When God has been established as the supreme Act of-Being, philosophy ends and mystical theology begins. More simply put, reason asserts that what it knows depends in its very root upon the God it does not know: cum Deo quasi ignoto conjungimur [Et hoc est ultimum et perfectissimum nostrae cognitionis in hac vita, ut Dionysius dicit in libro De mystica theologia (cap. i) cum Deo quasi ignoto conjungimur: quod quidem contingit dum de eo quid non sit cognoscimus, quod vero sit penitus manet ignotum." Summa Contra Gentiles, III, 149].

To understand St. Thomas in this way is not at all to de-essentialize his philosophy. It is rather to restore real essence to it, to re-establish it in its full right. Essence is far more than the quiddity which satisfies reason; it is that by which, and in which, being has existence: quidditatis nomen sumitur ex hoc quod diffinitionem significat; sed essentia dicitur secundum quodper earn et in ea ens habet esse [De ente et essentia, cap. i ; ed. Roland-Gosselin, p. 4] There is nothing further to be said. But it is worth repeating, because the human mind is so constituted that anyone is quite capable of forgetting it.

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