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Monday, November 16, 2009

Philosophy of Actus Essendi - One Universally Valid Philosophy Recommended by Fides et Ratio (VI)

Entry 0096: The Philosophy of the Actus Essendi: The One Universally Valid Philosophy Recommended by Fides et Ratio (VI)
The proliferation of philosophical systems with their claim of universality is no guarantee that they are true. Many of them are patently false. In fact, almost any 'combination of color' can be found in the philosophical positions that thinkers have advanced throughout the centuries.

Can one then conclude that philosophers are free from constraints because a point of reference for philosophical speculation is nowhere to be found?

The issues involved here are fundamental ones and cover a tremendous amount of ground. It is indeed possible to argue at the level of the particulars involved in the different philosophical positions. But the general outlines of an answer can and should be given.

Here I would like to stress the fact that some fundamental aspects of the 'philosophy of being' have been proposed as reference point for the different philosophical schools.

A most authoritative statement in this regard is recorded in the encyclical letter "Fides et Ratio" of John Paul II: "The 'philosophy of being' is strong and enduring because it is based upon the very act of being itself ('ipse actus essendi'), which allows a full and comprehensive openness to reality as a whole." (1)

Pope John Paul II (1920-2005) explains the dynamism and openness of the 'philosophy of being' as follows:

"What is meant by this characteristic 'openness' of the 'philosophy of being' is an 'openness' to the whole of reality in all its parts and dimensions, without either reducing reality or confining thought to particular forms or aspects (and without turning singular aspects into absolutes), as intelligence demands in the name of objective and integral truth about what is real.

"The basis and source of this openness lie in the fact that the philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is a 'philosophy of being,' that is, of the 'act of being' ('actus essendi'); it is the philosophy of the proclamation of being.

"It is from this affirmation of being that the philosophy of Saint Thomas draws its power to justify itself from the methodological point of view, as a branch of knowledge that cannot be reduced to any other science whatever, and as one that transcends them all by establishing itself as independent of them and at the same time as bringing them to completion in regard to their true nature.

"Only in this way does the intellect feel at ease (as it were 'at home') and therefore it can never abandon this way without abandoning itself.

"In so far as methodology is concerned it would be hard to exaggerate the importance of this discovery for philosophical research, as indeed also for human knowledge in general.

"Is it to be feared that by favoring the philosophy of Saint Thomas one will undermine the right to exist that is enjoyed by different cultures or hinder the progress of human thought?

"Such a fear would clearly be groundless because the methodological principle invoked above implies that whatever is real has its source in the 'act of being' ('actus essendi'); and because the perennial philosophy, by reason of that principle, can claim in advance, so to speak, all that is true in regard to reality.

"By the same token, every understanding of reality — which does in fact correspond to reality — has every right to be accepted by the 'philosophy of being,' no matter who is to be credited with such progress in understanding or to what philosophical school that person belongs.

"Hence, the other trends in philosophy, if regarded from this point of view, can and indeed should be treated as natural allies of the philosophy of Saint Thomas, and as partners worthy of attention and respect in the dialogue that is carried on in the presence of reality.

"This is needed if truth is to be more than partial or one-sided.

"That is why the advice given by Saint Thomas to his followers: 'look rather to what was said than to who it was that said it' ('ne respicias a quo sed quod dicitur'), is so much in keeping with the spirit of his philosophy." (2)

Endorsement and laudatory words directed towards a philosophical system such as the ones just presented are rare. With unmistakable clarity John Paul II has directed attention towards the 'philosophy of the actus essendi.'

With the caliber of a philosopher and the authority of a teacher, Wojtyla has indicated the code of discipline for philosophers, for he emphasized the self-correcting capacity of true philosophy.

"Once reason successfully intuits and formulates the first universal principles of being and correctly draws from them conclusions which are coherent both logically and ethically, then it may be called right reason or, as the ancients called it, 'orth(o-)s logos, recta ratio.'" (3)

In other words, through philosophy's work and the ability to speculate, the human intellect has produced a rigorous mode of thought. The most precious fruit of this process is the notion of 'actus essendi' which carries with it an intrinsic and inseparable methodology.

Those who proclaim the 'philosophy of being' as the one universally valid philosophy are few. The position is surely rejected by those who sustain that John Paul II did not adhere unconditionally to the doctrines of Saint Thomas Aquinas.

Needless to say, the answer to this is plain and obvious, and calls for applying the saying that "When someone confront things in the most eminent way, it is unavoidable to find the opposition of those who confront them in particular ways." (4)

We must therefore insist, paraphrasing John Paul II, that beyond different schools of thought there is one that transcends them all, the 'school of the actus essendi.' The 'school of the actus essendi' transcends all other schools of thought because the methodological principle on which it rests, is "regulative of thinking as such." (5)

The 'actus essendi' is an all-embracing point of reference on which the power of reason must rely to correctly exercise its functions. Orientation towards the 'actus essendi' is an inherent, essential dynamism of the human mind.

An image from C.S. Lewis should prove helpful here.

It is the story of an aborigine who, "having learned several other languages, was asked to write a grammar of the language used by his own tribe. He replied, after some thought, that it had no grammar. The grammar he had used all his life had escaped his notice all his life. He knew it—in one sense—so well, that—in another sense—he did not know it existed." (6)

This example illustrates how the methodology of the 'actus essendi' operates. Concerning this methodology, the essentials are so basic that they tend to remain unnoticed and generally what one expresses does not reflect the richness and fullness of what is implied.

The act of being inherent to sensible things of nature is constantly making an impact on the intellectual faculty. The intellect's response to that impact is knowledge, but not explicit knowledge. The intellect's response to that impact grows as a personal possession of an implied, non-explicit, intellectual habit.

The proper content of this natural habit is given by the actuality in being of the things of nature in such a way that without explicitly thinking about it—even without ever explicitly thinking about it—you and I and everyone know that actuality in being cannot be affirmed and denied at the same time. This is the intellectual habit generated by the 'actus essendi.'

This habitual intellectual knowledge caused by the 'actus essendi' is the most obvious and primary habit there is. Take away this habit and there is no foundation for human knowledge at all. And yet, this is precisely the habit that is most easily forgotten—"forgotten not because it is so remote or abstruse but because it is so near and so obvious" that we don't even know it exists. (7)

The 'philosophy of the actus essendi' establishes itself as the one true philosophy on the grounds of its own premises and not on the relationship it necessarily has to have to particular thinkers, places and times, nor on the historical and cultural circumstances which allowed it to appear and in which it must live.


(1) John Paul II, "Fides et Ratio," 14 September 1998, "Acta Apostolicae Sedis," 1999, vol. 91, pp. 5-88, no. 97.

(2) John Paul II, "Address at the Angelicum, The Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Rome," 17 November 1979. The original in Italian was published in "Acta Apostolicae Sedis," 1979, vol. 71, pp. 1472-1483. English translations can be found in "Angelicum," 1980, vol. 57, pp. 133-146, and in "L'Osservatore Romano English Weekly Edition," 17 December 1979, pp. 6-8.

(3) John Paul II, "Fides et Ratio," no 4.

(4) John G. Roberts, "Senate Judiciary Committee Hearings on Nomination, 13 September 2005," "New York Times," September 14, 2005, East Coast Late Edition, p. A26.

(5) Ralph McInerny, "Implicit Philosophy," in "Introduction to Faith and reason: the Notre Dame symposium 1999," Timothy L. Smith, ed., St. Augustine's Press, South Bend, Ind. 2001, pp. vii-xvii.

(6) C.S. Lewis, "Miracles," Macmillan, New York, 1978, pp. 40-41.

(7) C.S. Lewis, "Miracles," p. 41.