Gilson: Being and Some Philosophers

June 20, 2013

Being and Some Philosophers
Etienne Gilson
(PIMS, 1952; Second edition)
247 p.

The principle of principles is that a philosopher should always put first in his mind what is actually first in reality. What is first in reality need not be what is the most easily accessible to human understanding; it is that whose presence or absence entails the presence or absence of all the rest of reality.

So begins this ambitious and, for me, quite difficult exploration of the history of certain foundational questions in metaphysics. The thing that is “first in reality” is, Gilson argues, being, and his purpose in this book is to survey the many philosophical attempts that have been made to discern the relationships between being, existence, and essence. It is a serious and detailed engagement with the arguments. An incomplete list of “some philosophers” whom Gilson discusses includes Parmenides, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Proclus, Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, John Scotus Eriugena, Avicenna, Averroes, Siger of Brabant, Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Eckhart, Suarez, Descartes, Wolff, Kant, Hegel, and Kierkegaard. It assumes at least a basic familiarity with all of them, and often a good deal more.

I have before me, as I sit here tonight, a dozen pages of notes that I took while reading. Looking them over, I see that in attempting to draw up a summary I have set myself a hopeless task. I understood aspects of the argument, but I believe that I have largely missed the thrust of the overall argument. In the end, Gilson comes around to a defence of the Thomistic approach to these matters, and he devotes several concluding chapters to describing Thomas’ ideas, but this was the section of the book that I understood least.

One of his central arguments is that philosophers have tended to misconstrue the foundations of metaphysics because they have been, by their very nature as philosophers, tempted to try to conceptualize being, to ascribe it an essence, to treat it as a thing. But being, Gilson argues (following Aquinas), is an act, not a thing, and it has no essence, and it cannot be conceptualized: “the truth about it cannot be proved, it can only be seen — or overlooked.” This would seem to be the flip-side of the existential neutrality of conceptual knowledge: I can describe what a thing is in as much detail as you wish, but nothing I say will inform you whether that thing exists or not. Existence is not included in the concept of anything. Likewise, Gilson argues, there is properly no concept of existence considered simply in itself. To suppose that there is is a blunder.

In fact there is an ambiguity in the word “being”, for it can mean “that which is” (which is conceptual, and so intelligible) and also “that it is” (which is existential rather than conceptual, and therefore not intelligible in itself). Plato, Gilson argues, did not consider the second meaning and took being to be identical with intelligibility, yet in so doing existence, which is not amenable to philosophical analysis, was left out. Plato also argued that being and intelligibility are not supreme, but are presided over by the Good, but this raises the perplexing question of whether the Good, being higher than being and intelligibility, itself has being and is intelligible, and, if it does not and is not, where does that leave us?

Plotinus, at least, followed Plato into this realm above being where intelligibility is lost. For him, the Good or (as he called it) the One is formally both unreal and unthinkable. “[The] maker of both reality and substance is itself no reality, but is beyond both reality and substance.” Comments Gilson: “This is the authentic doctrine of Plotinus, and it is the very reverse of a Christian metaphysics of being.” It also seems, if I may editorialize for a moment, a tad odd.

Parmenides took another route, arguing that existence and being are identical. But this too is a problematic position, for the following reasons: a cause of being is inconceivable, for if something were to cause being it would have first to be, which is a contradiction. Furthermore if being is, then nothing can interfere with it, for nothing can have being apart from it. Being, therefore, has no beginning, no end, and is unchanging. Yet if this is also true of existence (as Parmenides argued), then nothing can truly be said to have existence which does not manifest those same properties. Thus the whole world of changeable, sensible things cannot be said to be. This is disastrous.

For Aristotle too the distinction between existence (“that it is”) and essence (“what it is”) was elided, and like Plato he was interested primarily in the latter. “The true Aristotelian name for being is substance, which is itself identical to what a being is.” But any realism that stops at the level of substance must confer the “really real” status on the species, not the individual. In a footnote Gilson elaborates: “This is why so many disciples of Aristotle will stress the unity of the species. The famous Averroistic doctrine of the unity of the intellect for the whole human species has no other origin. The species alone is substance. At the very extremity of the development, and beyond Averroes, looms the metaphysics of the substance: Spinoza.” (This unexpected connection between Aristotle and Spinoza is an example of the surprising pleasures to be had from reading an historian as perceptive as Gilson. In another place he describes Spinoza’s philosophy as “a revised version of Averroism rewritten in the language of Descartes”. Heh.)

The problem is in fact quite general: if the two meanings of “to be” are not distinguished, one falls into one of two traps. “If it means that a thing is, then individuals alone are, and forms are not; it is means what a thing is, then forms are and individuals are not.”

Christianity changed the metaphysical landscape in an interesting way, for Christian reflection on such matters must always contend with the voice from the burning bush: “I Am He Who Is” (Ex.3:14).

Now, no Christian needs to draw from this statement any metaphysical conclusions, but, if he does, he can draw only one, namely, that God is Being. On the other hand, the Christian God is the supreme principle and cause of the universe. If the Christian God is first, and if He is Being, then Being is first, and no Christian philosophy can posit anything above Being.

– thus, a break with what had come before. Curiously, this “only one” conclusion took time to sink in. Pseudo-Dionysius returned to the Platonic hierarchy, positing the Good above being, so for him “the Christian God had to be conceived as the supreme non-being”. Again, it sounds odd, but he was not alone: John Scotus Eriugena, that lonely tower, did the same. Meister Eckhart took a similar tack: if God is the cause of all being, he argued, being cannot be in Him (else He would have it, not cause it). Therefore he took as his foundation not Exodus 3:14 but John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word,” and Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” But if the Word and the One are, according to these terms, without being, it is not quite clear (to say the least) what is going on.

In Gilson’s view a Christian metaphysics must acknowledge a basic distinction between essence and existence, and it must do so because the Christian God is the Creator, through whose action creatures exist. But “…if creatures do not owe their own existence to themselves, there must needs be in each of them some sort of composition of what they are with the fact that they are. In short, the distinction between creatures and their Creator entails, in creatures themselves, a distinction between their existence and the essence of their being.”

Thomist metaphysics observes this distinction, but even after him Christian philosophers departed from the Thomist position: Duns Scotus, for instance, argued that being is univocal: “being is always said in the same sense and always means the same thing”, which implied that he again blurred the distinction between the two senses of “being” stated above: “what it is” vs “that it is”. As such, he did not (and could not) distinguish essence and existence. Francis Suarez followed him, and this was significant because Suarez is an historically pivotal figure: to at least some of the early modern philosophers, Suarez was the representative par excellence of medieval philosophy: “To Descartes, Scholastic philosophy was Suarez, and this is why, when confronted with the problem of existence, he flatly denied its distinction from essence.” Kant too knew little of medieval thought apart from what was in Suarez (whom Kant knew only at second-hand through the mediation of Wolff.) In short, Suarez was taken as an authoritative representative and tended to blot out those who had come before.

The relationship between medieval and early modern philosophy is a tangled one — more tangled than one might initially think — but relevant to the matter at hand. (It was a special area of interest to Gilson, who, if I remember correctly, wrote his doctoral dissertation on Scholastic influences on Descartes.) Gilson argues that Scholasticism was rejected in large part because “its philosophy of nature had been mistaken, by both itself and its adversaries, for a science of nature”. Since the new science was to be built on a mathematical foundation a universe of pure extension was needed, and so it was decided that the universe was indeed pure extension (Remember Burtt?). “Having taken this step, they did not very much bother about metaphysics itself.”

Not until Kant, Gilson contends, did philosophy return to an engagement with metaphysical questions in a rigorous and respectable manner. But for Kant “existence is not a predicate”; that things exist is raw data, not susceptible of philosophical analysis. Kant’s own critical method contributed to the denuding of existence: “Let us strip reality of what it owes to the categories of understanding and to the forms of sensibility, and what is left will be an I know not what, neither intelligible nor even perceivable, since it will be out of both space and time. In short, in will be an x, an unknown quantity. Such is existence in the final philosophy of Kant.”

This confuses me because it sounds as though Gilson is here criticising Kant, yet earlier he had argued that existence is, indeed, non-conceptual, and that the attempt to “know” it is a besetting sin of the philosopher’s guild. It seems to me that he ought to be largely nodding in agreement with Kant at this point. Or perhaps Kant should be understood in this way: he tried to “essentialize existence”, but found that no essence could be licitly attributed to it. For Kant this resulted in scepticism, but for Gilson it points up the wrong-headedness of the original objective. I am not sure.

Gilson’s chronological odyssey terminates with the Hegel/Kierkegaard dyad. My understanding of Hegel is poor; Gilson considers him, for his purposes, a speculative metaphysician of the familiar type: concerned more with essence than existence. Kierkegaard, on the other hand, is the original existentialist; he takes the opposite approach, stressing the primacy of existence and resisting the allure of abstract speculation about being. I call this duo a dyad, a Gilson sees them that way too, adding some interesting historical remarks that are worth quoting in full:

As was to be expected, the attack on Hegel’s absolute idealism came from religion. I say that it was to be expected, because it had already happened, and more than once. Four names will say it best, Bernard of Clairvaux against Abelard, Pascal against Descartes. And this will show us at once what is going to happen again, namely, that the reaction of existence against essence is bound to become a reaction of existence against philosophy. What matters, Bernard had said, is not to explain mysteries away, as Abelard was doing, but to believe them and thus actually to save one’s soul. And Pascal had only been following suit when, having elsewhere branded Descartes as “useless and ineffectual,” he had added that philosophy was not worth “an hour of trouble.” Now, if there is any proposition that sums up the manifold message of Kierkegaard, it is that what matters is not to know Christianity, but to be a Christian.

This counts, I think, as another good example of Gilson’s perceptiveness as an historian of ideas.

Finally, at long last, and casting a fond glance back to the time when I began these notes, when I was still young, we arrive at the closing chapters of the book in which, as previously mentioned, Gilson folds up his historical chart and delivers his verdict — that is, he returns to the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas, the philosopher whom he believes best understood these weighty matters, for “all other philosophies have advocated either a metaphysics of being minus existence, or a phenomenology of existence minus being.” But, as I said earlier, I failed to understand the arguments presented in these chapters. If I were to try to pluck a succinct statement of Thomas’ views from Gilson’s summation — and naturally I do so with some hesitation — it would be this:

Existence is not distinct from essence as one being from another being; yet, in any given being, that whereby a being both is and actually subsists is really “other than” that whereby it is definable as such a being in the order of substantiality.

But this seems little more than a roundabout way of saying that there is a distinction between essence and existence, and this strikes me as anti-climactic.

(Speaking of anti-climax, I cannot help quoting the very last sentence of the book, which caused my head to droop with dismay:

For, if “to be” escapes all abstract representation, it can be included in all concepts, and this is achieved through the judgment of existence, the always available response of an existent endowed with intellectual knowledge to other acts of existing.

Apparently Gilson felt he did not need to elaborate.)

Thomas seems to argue that there is, in particular beings, first a conjunction of matter and form to produce a substance (if I may, like him, lean on Aristotelian terminology); the form is, roughly speaking, the essence of the thing. This substance may be an object of thought, but does not yet, on these terms, exist in itself. Rather a substance must be further composed with an act of existence — the ultimate cause of which is God — in order to exist.

I realize that I have reached a point of diminishing returns, but let me add one final point: upon hearing the claim that no essence entails existence one might be bothered by a theological question. Has it not been argued that in God, and in God alone, essence and existence are indistinguishable, such that His essence is the cause of his existence? It has indeed. Gilson comments:

It seems then to be a fact that, in seventeenth-century classical metaphysics, essence reigns supreme. No two philosophers would then agree on their definitions of God, but they all agree that God exists in virtue of His own essence. It is so with Descartes, for whom the essence of God necessarily entails existence; so much so that, as he himself says in his Fifth Meditation, God is “cause of Himself.” It is so with Fenelon, who writes in his treatise On the Existence of God, Part Two, that God’s essence “entails His actual existence.” It is so with Leibniz, who says in his Monadology, n.44, that, in a Necessary Being, “essence involves existence,” so that it is enough for God to be possible in order that He be actual. And again, in Monadology, n.45: “The Necessary Being has in Himself the reason for His own existence.” It is so with Spinoza, who, taking up the “God, cause of Himself” of Descartes, says in the very first of the definitions which open his Ethics: “By cause of itself, I understand that whose essence involves its existence.

I had thought this an argument inherited from medieval theology, or even from the Church Fathers, but Gilson says it is not so. Adding a further comment to the above, he says instead something that surprised me: “[In the seventeenth-century,] The God Essence of the Middle Ages is everywhere carried shoulder high, and every philosopher of note pays him unrestricted homage. As to that other God of Whom it had been said that He was, not a God Whose essence entailed existence, but a God in Whom what in finite beings is called existence, is to exist, He now seems to lie in a state of complete oblivion.” Later, pursuing the same theme, he makes another enigmatic remark: “While no essence entails its existence, there might well be such an existence as is both its own essence and the source of all other essences and existences.” This latter view of God’s nature is, he claims, the authentic Thomistic view. It comes as a surprise to me, and I am not at all sure I understand it. The stress seems to be laid more heavily on existence than on essence. God is, and the word should be understood more in an existential sense than a conceptual one. Very intriguing, but it raises more questions in my mind than it answers.

My thanks, and apologies, to anyone who took the time to read through to this faltering conclusion.

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6 Responses to “Gilson: Being and Some Philosophers”


  1. Thanks for this note, Craig. It sounds like a good book—whether I shall ever have time to read it is a different question.

    I think what the final sentence of the book you quoted is saying is simply that existence is not essence. Gilson is highlighting the point that judgement of existence is not cognatively reducible to understanding essence. That is, grasping that something is is not a matter of understanding. Human beings are existing things that not only exist, but are capable of both understanding essences and judging that, in addition to ourselves, there are other existing things.

    As for “to be” being included in all concepts, I don’t think he means that it itself is a sort of pan-concept— after all, being is not a genus, as Aristotle proved. I think what he rather means is that being underlies and penetrates all concepts, because what is known is being.

    May I recommend Insight again? I think it might be a good follow-up, since Lonergan basically defends a Thomistic ontology.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Thanks, Adam. If that is indeed what Gilson is saying in that final sentence — and I agree that it might be — then you have put it much more clearly than he. Thanks.

    I take your recommendation of Insight under advisement. I should be unpacking my books again in the next two or three weeks, and no doubt I’ll find it then.


  3. It required two separate sessions, but I can report that I did read all the way through, and I think I’m justified in claiming to have understood some 50% of it. Sometimes my head nodded in comprehension, sometimes it merely spun. Interestingly, though, of the two quotations you have in close proximity, “Existence is not distinct…” and “For if ‘to be’ escapes…”, it’s the latter that seems more intelligible to me.

  4. cburrell Says:

    Well, thanks for reading, Mac, and I apologize for having taken so long to leave a follow-up comment: we were moving last week and things have been crazy.

    It is rather demoralizing to me to spend so much time with a book and come away with so little. Writing about it helps me to focus and clarify my thoughts, but even then I often (and in this case emphatically) come up short. It’s too bad, because I am an admirer of both St. Thomas and of Etienne Gilson (in decreasing order of ardour), and I am convinced there is something of importance to be learned from them.


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