Philosophy against Misosophy


Nature, Contemplation, and the One


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From The New Scholasticism, LXIII:2, Spring 1989, 229-40.  For a critique, see William Vallicella’s “John Deck's Contrast Argument Against the Philosophy of Being” on his blog.



Metaphysics or Logic?

John N. Deck


The enterprise of a realistic metaphysics is rendered extremely difficult by the ease with which a philosopher can mistake logic for metaphysics and the facility with which he can structure reality by the imposition of logical forms.

It makes sense to affirm of one thing or another that it exists.  It also makes sense to affirm, if only as a working hypothesis, that the things that exist form some kind of connected wholea community of being or of beings.

 Insofar as such affirmations express the state-of-affairs in the extra-cognitional world, they provide a basis from which metaphysical enquiry can begin.  Too often, however, these and similar statements serve only as a starting-point for the logical and imaginational manipulation of “being” and “community of beings” quite out of touch with the extra-cognitional world.

This paper examines what I consider to be just such substitutions of “logic” for metaphysics.  It deals first with the formulation of the problem of the “one and the many,” second with efforts to say something meaningful about being in the language of existence and essence.  Finally, it attempts to state conclusions about the approach to things which is required in a realistic metaphysics.

I wish to make it clear that I am using the world “logical” in the sense of cognitional or ideal.  I intend to hold in abeyance the admitted fact that the cognitional is itself real and to base myself on the judgment that the extra-cognitional order seems, in many ways to be different from the cognitional.

Perhaps the most obvious instances of the intrusion of logic into metaphysics are certain formulations of the problem of “the one and the many.”  For example, if the question is raised in some such form as “Being ought to be one, how then is it many,” the “ought” here is a logical demand.  Being “ought to be one” because the intellect is able, or apparently able, to form one concept which, in some fashion, covers all things.  At any rate, one word, “being,” can be applied to all things.  Without investigating whether this application is warranted or unwarranted, or delineating the nature of the pseudo-concept of being, I ask whether this situation indicates a demand for unity among things.  It would seem that in the face of the given manyness of things it is highly unlikely that they “ought” to be one.  It also appears redundant to enquire how they can be many.  In the face of a matter of fact the enquiry “How can this be?” seems beside the point.  It is.

The philosopher for whom being “ought to” be one, but is unfortunately many, finds himself involved in an exercise of logic and imagination which has no properly metaphysical content.  Being “ought” to be one, yet it is many, therefore there “must be” a second principle, other than being, which differentiates one being from another.

This second principle represents itself imaginationally as the disruptor of a primal unity.  The being which was one and, considered in itself, should have remained one, is pictured as being broken up, under the influenced of the second principle, into many beings.  It makes no difference whether the influence of the second principle be called active, or, as is more commonly the case, passive.  Independent of the wishes of the philosopher, the second principle necessarily represents itself to him as a force which his able to disrupt being, divert it from its rightful status, modify it to become this or that “limited” being.

To picture reality in terms of being and a differentiator of being involves a pseudo-history of being.  Being is pictured as originally one, but disrupted and altered in a temporal sequence by the work of the differentiator.  It may be objected that I am speaking here only of the necessary imaginational representation of the notion of differentiator: someone might hold that the oneness of being “as being” is not prior in time, but prior in nature, metaphysically primary.  But this attempt to rise above a history of being would compel one to say that being “as being” is both present and not present in “differentiated” being.  Present, because if the priority of being as being is an a-temporal priority, the differentiated being must now be or have being-as-being.  Yet not present, since the being of the differentiated being is a differentiated or modified now: it is not now being-as-being.

A way out of the above contradiction would be to view each differentiated being as a juxtaposition of being-as-being and the differentiator.  In this case, however, the differentiated being would have no unity, but would be a syncretion of two unreconciled elements.  The attempt to “explain” the many would have resulted simply in the internal doubling of each of the many thingsa further manyness.

But when the notion of a differentiator of being is forced back to a frankly temporal meaning, the situation is most unsatisfactory.  It is impossible to point to a time when a “differentiated” being, this cow for example, “was” being-as-being.  And it is of no value at this point to invoke the derivation (either temporal or a-temporal) of the differentiated beings from a First Cause taken to be being-as-being.  It may be true that a cause is in some fashion in its effect.  But if the cause is present in its full reality in the effect there seems to be no difference between them.  Thus the derivation of a differentiated being from a cause which is being-as-being cannot indicate the presence of being-as-being as a constituent of the differentiated being.  If one claims that being-as-being is present in the differentiated being due to the influence of the First Cause he must immediately deny it in order to maintain the difference between the cause and the effect.

The whole effort therefore to “explain” the many beings as differentiations of a being which “ought to” be one is seen to result in saying with or without disguises that being-as-being is both present and not present in the differentiated being.

Further since the “second principle,” the disruptor or differentiator of being must be other than being, it necessarily must be represented as non-being.  This involves according non-being some sort of reality, some status alongside that of being.  But non-being is not.  What non-being actually represents is the ability of the intellect to make true negative judgments.  A phenomenology and metaphysic of the cognitional order could perhaps show that negative judgments do not point to real non-being, even non-being in the human mind.  At any rate, there is no non-being in the world; therefore non-being cannot function as a real principle of differentiation among things.

My suggestion is that the search for a second principle, begun from the high ground of being, can never succeed.  Beings are plainly different from one another.  This does not mean that they are differentiated in the extra-cognitional order.

But are there not two distinct questions that can be asked about any thing: “Is it?” and if it is, “What is it?”  Do not all thing-that-are agree in that they are, and differ in their “What’s”?  Do not all things-that-are, agree in “existence,” and differ in “essence”?  Is not essence the differentiator of existence?

If it is to be maintained seriously that there is no non-being, the question “is it,” allowing for either a “yes” answer or a “no” answer, is inadmissible.  There is no alternative to being.  Everything is.  Thus there is no ultimate intelligibility in the contention that all things that are agree in this, that they are all opposed to, or even equally opposed to, non-being—they would be at one, as it were, in the non-non-being feature.

Palpable instances of coming-to-be and ceasing-to-be may encourage the acceptance of non-being as a real alternative.  But is it anything more than an imaginative luxury to imagine a thing as non-existent, then imagine it as existent, and thus to suppose that in the real world the giving of existence can be the giving of existence to the non-existent, which is not.  Or to suppose that a thing in the real world with the quality of non-existence loses this “quality” and gains existence—or, at the other end, loses existence to gain non-existence?  Can there really be a thing which is neutral in this way to existence or non-existence?  Is it not the case that everything exists?

If non-existence is not taken as a real alternative, if it be admitted that everything exists, it might still be possible to claim that all things are the same in that they exist, but differ in their what’s.  To say this, however, is to say no more than that there is a general notion of being and that there are more particular notions of individual beings or kinds of beings.

The distinction between “being” and, for example, “dog,” is then a distinction between the more general and the less general.  This is a logical or cognitional distinction, which does not necessarily reflect anything in the nature of things.  Nor does it necessarily point to any real composition within things.  It is analogous to the distinction made between “animal” and “dog” when it is said that Rover is a dog and Rover is an animal, which distinction does not point to two distinct principles within Rover—dog and animal.  Rover is a dog who is an animal, an animal who is a dog.  His being a dog and his being an animal are the same in him, even though there are other animals.  Similarly, Rover is both a being and a dog—there are other beings, but this does not change the fact that for him, to be a dog is to be a being, to be a being is to be a dog.

Suppose it is said that a thing must be before it can be a dog or a tree or whatever.  This formula shows only that there can be a concept of pseudo-concept of being (or thing or substance for that matter) which is more universal than that of dog or tree.

It might be said that essence limits existence.  In most applications this formula merely disguises the limitation or restriction or a more universal to a less universal, the contraction of a genus to a species by the addition of a specific difference.  Here the limitation of being by essence is a logical and not a metaphysical limitation.  It may be objected that being is not a genus, as Aristotle has told us.  But the citation of this Aristotelian bon mot does not insulate one from criticism if it goes hand-in-hand with a doctrine which treats being as though it were a genus.  As soon as it is said that being is diversified by essence or by anything else, being is being treated as a genus.  In the extra-cognitional world, there are no “principles of diversification.”  The extra-cognitional world is not diversified, but simply diverse.  The expression “essence limits existence” is only a variant of “being is differentiated”: as used in this and in similar phrases, “limit” is logical rather than real.

One may say that a dog is limited in not being a man, that he is limited in not being able to do the things which a man can do and conversely that the man is limited because he cannot do the things which a dog can do.  And both the man and the dog are called limited in that they are not “all being.”  These statements reflect the truth of the negative judgment “a man is not a dog” and “a man is not all-being” or, by the questionable process of obversion, “a man is a non-dog, a man is non-all-being.”  The danger in these formulas is that they may be taken to mean that the man has in him real non-doghood in a sense similar to that in which he has real intelligence.  There is however no real non-doghood in the man or real non-manhood in the dog.  There is no non-being in the extra-cognitional world.

Is limitation real?  Granted that a dog cannot read or write, is this a real restriction upon him?  Is he trying to read or write, but being prevented from doing so by something real?  If the latter were the case, the restriction the limitation might be real.  But it is no real restriction upon the dog that the negative judgment “This animal cannot write” can be applied to the dog.

The same criticisms apply to the limitation of the man or the dog in contrast to “all being” or to God.  Unless it could be shown that the man or the dog has an urge to be or to become “all being” or God, the fact that he is not these does not constitute a real restriction upon him.  It indicates only that a certain true negative judgment can be formed about him, not that there is real non-being in him.

But does the man, the dog or the tree not have existence and is not existence of itself unlimited?  Is not existence which is of itself unlimited contracted in him by essence to the existence of a dog, a man, or a tree?

To say that existence is, of itself, unlimited, has, after what we have just said, an unpleasant ring.  Is something trying to limit existence?  Is non-existence trying to get a foothold in reality, and is it being thrust back into the outer darkness?  Is there a counterforce which cannot inure existence “of itself”?  If, however we accept the phrase for a moment, we can conjure up two prima facie meanings: (1) That there is a subsistent existence, an Ipsum Esse Subsistens (God) which is unlimited; (2) That the universal notion of existence or being can be entertained by someone’s mind without being contracted to its subordinate concepts.  Now “unlimited” existence, in either of these two meanings, is not to be found in a tree.  There is no existence in a tree other than the existence of a tree.  If existence be taken as act of existing, the tree does not exercise any act of existing other than that of a tree.  It does not exercise existence which is unlimited per se, but is cut down to size, to a mere tree.  To say that existence is of itself not diverse and is diversified into that of a tree or a horse is an exercise in imagination whereby a primitively undiversified act is subsequently diversified.  The tree does not now have, and never did have, any existence other than its existence as a tree.  To regard a tree or a horse as diverse modifications of an act of existing which is of itself not diverse, requires either that the tree or horse be taken as modifications of the divine existence—a type of pantheism, or that they be taken as derivatives from someone’s universal notion of existence—logic creating the extra-logical world.  In either case, the primal unity—here the unity of “unlimited” existence—has been half-destroyed; this primal unity both appears and does not appear in the “differentiated” product, and only the vocabulary, the language of existence and essence, is new.

From “existence of itself unlimited,” which fits ill with essence, we may pass to “essence considered absolutely,” which has no existence.  It is argued that an essence such as doghood can have two modes of existence, one in the concrete physical dog, the other in the mind of the man who knows the dog.  Therefore, it is urged that doghood absolutely considered abstracts both from existence in the dog and existence in the intellect.  Since these are taken to be two possible modes of existence, it is urged that doghood in itself, doghood absolutely considered, abstracts from all existence.  As abstracting from all being it is in itself nothing.  This principle, which is in itself nothing, is then taken as a metaphysical constituent of the extra-cognitional world (and as an explanatory principle in a theory of predication: this nothing is said to be what is predicated for example of Rover in the judgment “Rover is a dog”).

There are many objections to this position.  It is said that essence abstracts from all existence.  But there is no abstracting without an abstractor.  Properly speaking, it is not that essence abstracts from all existence but rather that some intellects are apparently able to consider essence in abstraction from all existence (this consideration is in fact more imaginational than intellectual).  Essence in its absolute consideration is not a neutral element which enters into the dog in the dog, and the dog in the human intellect, but is rather firmly and solely located in the human imagination.

Second, it should be clear that the existence of dog in the dog and the “existence” of the dog in the human mind are not on a par.  To say that when man understands dog, dog exists in his intellect, is an expression which is useful in affirming the realism of human knowledge.  If it is used, one ought not lose sight of the fact that the “existence” of the dog in the human mind is derivative from and inferior to the existence of dog in the dog.

Third, there is a questionable logical procedure involved in saying that since dog can have two modes of existence, dog of itself has therefore no existence.  This would be analogous to saying that since a dog may weigh ten pounds or twenty pounds of fifty pounds, therefore of itself it has no weight.  The consideration that some dogs weigh ten pounds, some twenty pounds, etc., issues rather in the judgment that of itself or in itself a dog has weight.  Similarly, to say that dog can exist either in the dog or in the intellect would mean that dog in itself, or of itself, has existence.

These considerations invite an inquiry into the value of the phrase “of itself” for metaphysical purposes.  The phrase would not be used in such connections as those discussed above were it not for the attempt to give a metaphysical employment to the absolute consideration of essence.  To many minds the phrase “the dog of itself” probably conjures up the neutral dog abstracting from all existence.  It is clear that this dog, if he is a dog, has no role to play in metaphysics (or anywhere else).  It would be possible to take the phrase “dog of itself” as meaning the dog in virtue of being a dog and not in virtue of some concomitant attribute.  This would be a legitimate use of the phrase in metaphysics.  Otherwise, the phrase “dog of itself” like similar expressions, “dog per se” etc., is redundant.  For “dog of itself” it is better to substitute “dog.”  When this is done, there should be no particular scandal in saying the dog exists and that the dog has existence.

But there is an argument based on real causation, and therefore apparently non-cognitional in origin, which seems to say that a thing “in itself” or “of itself” does not exist, or does not have existence. A horse is a product of generation, he is cause—therefore he does not exist “of himself.”  (According to a similar line of reasoning, a horse is caused by God, and so does not exist “of himself.”)  So there is a horse-of-itself, which has no being whatever until or unless it is summoned into being by its generators or causes.

The position, and the meaning, of “of itself” has been shifted.  The expression “the horse does not exist of itself,” is not equivalent to “the horse-of-itself does not exist.”  In the latter expression the “of itself” has been attached, dubiously, to horse.  The former expression means only that all horses are generated.  The latter posits a non-existent entity.  The mistake seems to arise from considering, in some fashion (the force of metaphysical imagination is not meagre), a self-caused or uncaused horse.  It is not hard to see that there are no such.  Then this strange beast, the self-caused or uncaused horse which does not exist, becomes the “essence” of the horses which do exist.  The fairly simply observation that there are no ungenerated horses (a true negative judgment) gets twisted into the assertion of real non-being, the ungenerated horse who somehow explains or constitutes horses—all of which are generated!

Grammatico-logical analysis quickly “discovers” in the caused thing two elements, two constituents—the thing “itself” and its being-caused.  The thing “itself” is uncaused, or is perhaps neither caused nor uncaused, indifferent to cause.  The thing “itself” can then be represented as standing over against its cause.

It may first appear as a “floating possible” antecedent to the action of the cause.  When this imaginational picture is rejected, it appears as an element, concurrent in the caused thing with the effect of the cause, which escapes the causality of the cause.

But it may be seen that this characterization of the thing “itself” must likewise be false.  Causes, to the extent that they are causes, are responsible both for the derivation of the caused from them, and the difference of the caused from them.  There can be no causality unless the caused is different from the cause—and if the difference is not the result of the cause, but self-sufficient or the result of other forces, to this extent the cause is not a cause.  (Therefore, if there is a radical derivation of all caused things from a First Cause, that First Cause must be responsible both for their dependence of things upon Him, and their difference from Him.)

If the dialectic is actually carried this far, the element in the caused which escapes the effectivity of the cause may be seen to be—nothing.  But sad to say, too often a positive nothing.  The nothingness of the caused vis-à-vis the cause, the nothingness, perhaps, of the creature over against the Creator.  The thing “itself” is nothing—but is still present in the thing which is.

The conclusion, that a positive nothing is a constituent of existing things, should have shown that the original analysis, dividing the caused thing into the thing “itself” and its being-caused, was radically defective.  “Logical” as it undoubtedly was, it told us nothing about reality.  If we look at the caused thing, we can see why a distinction between it  “itself” and its being-caused had to be unfruitful.  To the extent that a thing is caused, it is through and through caused.  In a caused thing, to the extent to which it is caused, there is no “thing itself” over against its being caused.  Facile analysis was a failure.  “Horse in itself” either means nothing, or else is equivalent to horse—existent horse, caused horse—since all horses are existent and all horses are caused.

There is no good reason to shy away from the formula “It is of the nature of horses to exist.”  There is the old Kant-inspired argument that the imaginary horse also has horse nature, that it is every bit as horsy as the real horse—but just try to pull a wagon with an imaginary horse.  At this stage of the argument it is clear that to say that it is of the nature of a horse to exist does not have the fantastic implications that a horse is uncaused, or that a horse causes himself, or that there is a non-existent, but horsy, uncaused horse.  No, it is of the nature of a horse to exist as a caused thing, as a generated thing.

Many metaphysical efforts have been seen to be misplaced, and sometimes, erroneous, exercises in logic.  Should we infer from all this that any “deep-level” enquiry into being and beings either results from, or issues in, a confusion of the cognitional and the extra-cognitional orders?  No.  Rather, that there is no shortcut which brings us to an intellectual possession of being prior to a careful study of things in their extra-cognitional reality.  To profess to consider being, while considering things as slightly (and slightingly) as possible is to invite non-being, the logical counterpoise of being, to function as a “real” principle, to play endless games of “metaphysical hide-and-seek” with being.  Existentially neutral essences, essence absolutely considered, the thing “of itself,” the disruptor, the differentiator—all these are so many non-beings which this sort of “logic” sets up to make the metaphysical enterprise easy and (!) quick.

There is no reason for metaphysicians to give up their task, but they must rid their science of logical and imaginational intrusions.  This program has been seen to mean, principally, ridding metaphysics of non-being.  While it is possible to formulate true negative judgments, and while it is possible to imagine or pretend to imagine non-being as darkness, empty space, etc., the metaphysician can never compromise the principle that there is no non-being.  If he is obsessed with some supposed necessity to explain the world quickly, explain manyness, explain “contingency,” etc., he cannot get beyond a world of opinion in which is not takes its place as the partner of is.

Experience—the experience of metaphysics being subverted by logic—has shown that the metaphysician’s procedure must be more empirical, closer to things, and far more painstaking.  Let us examine these suggestions as they might be worked out in one prime case, that of causation.  It may be true that the interconnectedness of things is through causation, and that causing is basically a giving of being, a giving of existence.  Such considerations would have to be elaborated, however, in respect to concrete instances of causing, such as the generation of plants and animals.  Close cooperation would have to be maintained with Biology.  Further, generation would have to be taken, not as a causal “example” of causation (as though we know all about causation and had merely to “illustrate” our knowledge), but as an instance in which we may be able to see causation.

There is the obvious danger also that in approaching reality with a pre-conceived formula to test, we may find just what we want—either that the formula fits or that it does not.  Still there is a great gain if we do not take causation in a slap-bang fashion as “of course” the giving of being to non-being, to the non-existent, or to the existentially indifferent.  If it is fruitful to speak of a caused thing as a receptor of existence, we must realize fully that there can be no receptors of existence which are not receiving existence, no receptors of existence which do not exist, no receptors of existence which are not constituted by the existence which they receive.  It is possible, though, that such notions as “giving of existence” and “receptor of existence” may be too bold, or too inexact.  Perhaps these formulas are inseparable from the imaginational framework in which non-being “acquires” being.  If so, they would have to be surmounted, in the continuing effort to understand the causing of one thing by another.

Probably metaphysics has betrayed itself so often to logic through a passion for explanation.  Explanation is itself logical rather than extra-cognitional.  A cause produces its effect.  If I say that the cause explains the effect, or the effect the cause, the way is open to supposing that the world must explain itself to me—that the world must satisfy my logical and imaginational requirements.

In sciences which are more-or-less directed to practical results, to predictions which may be useful in controlling or modifying things, the intrusion of logical and imaginational elements perhaps does no great harm.  The furnishing of quick pragmatic explanations (that such are proposed as “tentative” should not at all blind us to their true nature) is to be expected; a confusion of the logical with the extra-cognitional may be not worth avoiding.  The metaphysical enterprise requires more care, and offers less immediate rewards.  It is not easy to know things as they are.

University of Windsor,

Windsor, Ontario, Canada

Note: Appended to the article was the following paragraph, which begins with a superscripted numeral “1” that oddly has no counterpart within the article's published version.  I asked Lawrence Dewan, O.P., Deck’s literary executor, who submitted the article to The New Scholasticism, about this.  He said the appended text is an “addendum” that should not have been numbered as if it were a reference note.  When I asked him about its beginning with “On pages 6-16,” which makes no sense given the printed article’s pagination, Father Dewan replied that the editor unfortunately ignored the published version's page numbering.  I thank him for these clarifications.  This online version is on one web page, so I have deleted the confusing phrase.

Anthony Flood

July 11, 2006

I have taken various attempts to describe, or to demonstrate, the distinction between essence and existence as instances of the substitution of logic and imagination for metaphysics.  The arguments and notions outlined are to be found, in various formulations and various combinations, in many neo-Thomistic authors.  It is to be noted that all neo-Thomists see this distinction as central to philosophy, and as “real” rather than, or in addition to, cognitional or logical.  My point is that the notions and arguments often employed by such writers, who are making a great effort to delineate a realistic metaphysics, are susceptible to the charge of logicism.  For the arguments and positions themselves, cf. e.g., Jacques Maritain, Existence and the Existent (New York, 1948), p. 36; Etienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas (New York, c.1956), pp. 35-38; Gilson, Elements of Christian Philosophy (Garden City, 1959), pp. 102, 191, 194; Gerard Smith The Philosophy of Being (New York, 1961), pp. 69-79; George Klubertanz and Maurice Holloway, Being and God (New York, 1963), pp. 111-114.  For the notion of the “limitation” or “restriction” of existence by essence, common to almost all neo-Thomists, cf. especially J. D. Robert, “Le Principe: ‘Actus non limitatur nisi per potentiam realiter distinctam,’” Revue Philosophique de Louain, XLVII (1949), pp. 44-70; W. Norris Clarke, The Limitation of Act by Potency: Aristotelianism or Neoplatonism?,” The New Scholasticism, XXVI (1952), pp. 167-194; Arthur Little, The Platonic Heritage of Thomism (Dublin, 1949), pp. 208-220.  For “Essence absolutely considered” cf. especially Joseph Owens, An Elementary Christian Metaphysics (Milwaukee, 1963), pp. 131-142; Owens, “Common Nature: A Point of Comparison between Thomistic and Scotistic Metaphysics,” Medieval Studies, XIX (1957), pp. 1-14.

Posted July 11, 2006


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