View Articles

Monday, November 30, 2009

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

Entry 0098: The Philosophy of the Actus Essendi: The One Universally Valid Philosophy Recommended by Fides et Ratio (VIII)

John F. X. Knasas writes:

One twentieth-century interpretation of Aquinas’ conceptually formulated philosophy can show itself to be the one true philosophy.

This is the Thomism about which Gilson and Maritain wrote.

John F. X. Knasas, Being and some Twentieth-Century Thomists, Fordham University Press, New York, 2003, p. 316.

Monday, November 23, 2009

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

Entry 0097: The Philosophy of the Actus Essendi: The One Universally Valid Philosophy Recommended by Fides et Ratio (VII)

Ambrose McNicholl writes:

What the Pope has in mind does not seem to be a particular fully-codified system of philosophy, nor any individual school of thought within the Scholastic tradition, but certain features of the philosophy of Saint Thomas himself which mark it as in some way rising above all particular perspective to one that is truly universal, with the result that it can be said, in some respects at least, to transcend all other philosophies while at the same time it is able to assimilate the more limited aspects of truth and reality which they express.

The openness of the philosophy of Saint Thomas is grounded in what E. L. Mascall has called “the openness of being.”

It is the human reflection of the transcendence of being itself understood primarily as existing and as explicitly grasped and affirmed.

Such openness is grounded on the intrinsic orientation of the human mind towards existence rather than on the nature of its first principles, especially if these are taken as conceptually formulated propositions.

Neither Leo XIII nor John Paul II have invited us to take the study of manuals; they want us to go back to the thought of Saint Thomas as found in his own works and re-read them in the light of the problems and context of today.

In fact, by referring twice to the actus essendi (“The Angelicum Address,” nos. 6, 7) one may gather that he [Pope John Paul II] thinks, with many others, that it will no longer do to rest content with the rather formalist and essentialist kind of Thomism that dominated the scene until quite recently.

In any case he invites the present-day Thomist to focus his thinking not just on essences or on being but also on what actually exists and on the act by which it is.

Saint Thomas offers, not just a Christian version of Aristotle, but a profoundly new and original philosophy; which means that the Thomist should see Aristotle through the eyes of Saint Thomas and not vice versa.

Having thus secured the existential underpinning of Thomistic theory, the Pope goes on to say that the mind can proceed to uncover “the inexhaustible richness” of what actually exists.

The adjective “inexhaustible” gives us one more clue as to the kind of openness which he has in mind, this time on the plane of concepts. Those used by Saint Thomas may not be adequate or sufficient to express the ontological density of reality.

There is room here for growth, as human knowledge progresses in various directions and on various levels; and its power to assimilate such new findings, without thereby losing its own nature, is perhaps the most striking characteristic of the philosophy of Saint Thomas.

Since man, in virtue of his openness to being, can know himself and his thought, he can see his thought – or, more correctly, his knowledge – in its primordial relation to being and so justify in the most radical way its claim to validity.

This claim would be contested by many, most notably by Husserl, who would accuse the Thomist of remaining within the context of the naturalistic attitude.

The Thomist might reply that it is really Husserl who is conditioned from the start by his “anti-metaphysical prejudice” which may be traced to his complete blindness to the ontological density and richness of esse ut actus as Saint Thomas envisages it; for Husserl quite uncritically takes “to be” as mere givenness and factuality.

This epoche and phenomenological reduction are indeed useful, perhaps indispensable, tools for critical reflection on the meaning that anything can have for man as it enters his experience; but they are no substitute for, much less do they rule out, the basic and intuitive drive of the mind towards what exists.

The reflections, already put forward in so concise a fashion, equip the reader to approach what must be the most commonly heard, if not also the most obvious, objection against any special favor being shown by the Church to any particular system of thought.

To act in this way, it is felt, would conflict with the catholicity of the Church; it would block enquiry along other lines or from different perspectives; it would, as the Pope puts the objection, rule out that pluralism which is implied in the factual diversity of cultures, since it would tie the thought of the Church too closely to one particular cultural tradition – the classical Greek one as developed in the Christian context of the European Middle Ages.

Quite obviously the Pope could not, on this occasion, deal with this problem under all its many complex aspects.

He goes straight to the main point at issue by noting that the philosophy of Saint Thomas differs from all others by its basic insight that the key to the full and proper understanding of reality is to be found in the actus essendi.

It is precisely the actuality of existing that transcends every possible form of being or reality.

A philosophy centered on this actuality is open, in principle, to accept all that any other philosophy can discover about the more limited aspects of reality which it takes to be fundamental; and only a philosophy so centered is capable of such universal assimilation.

No type or aspect of reality is excluded, in principle, by a philosophy centered on the actus essendi.

It is the peculiarity of esse (and of being in so far as it signifies esse) that it is at one and the same time the most universal and yet the most singular and concrete characteristic of all that is real. Everything that is real exists, but in every existing thing that which is unique and most fully singular in it is its actus essendi.

That is why the Pope can state that such philosophy is rightfully able to claim as its own all that can be known through other approaches to reality; and that, in the same way, all the truths which men can learn about reality can claim right of entry into such all-embracing philosophy.

This philosophy therefore does not exclude other approaches which uncover different aspects of reality. It does indeed regard them as insufficient of themselves, as partial and inadequate, if put forward as complete philosophies; but it can regard them as common allies and partners in the concerted effort of mankind to understand reality from every point of view.

A philosophy which sees everything in the light of the actus essendi will avoid eclecticism; it will not rely on the authority of any particular thinker – be it Saint Thomas himself or any of the “Greats” – but on the evidence of what shows itself as it is.

Hence it can claim to be realistic, both in the sense of looking first of all towards real beings as they exist, and then in the sense of fulfilling the real vocation of the philosopher.

It is saved from the unending and aimless adventure of exploring what is only phenomenal, of losing itself in the labyrinthine corridors of the mind, instead of finding its support and strength in the objectivity of the actus essendi.

Philosophy is not just thought about thought or about appearances; it is, above all, thought about what is.

The philosophy of being, as outlined by saint Thomas, can be what it appears, and appear as it is, because it starts in wonder that anything is, and only then tries to find out what it is.

As centered on is (esse ut actus), its central insights have lasting value; as concerned with what is, it is ever open to enrichment.

Ambrose McNicholl, “A Chant in Praise of What is”, Angelicum, 1980, vol. 57, pp. 172-196.

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.

Monday, November 9, 2009

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

Entry 0095: The Philosophy of the Actus Essendi: The One Universally Valid Philosophy Recommended by Fides et Ratio (V)

John F. X. Knasas remarks:

I will consider briefly the 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio in which John Paul II asserts “The Church has no philosophy of her own nor does she canonize any one particular philosophy in preference to others” (no. 49.)

It would be singularly tragic if Fides et Ratio is remembered as an assertion of philosophical pluralism.

Whatever the previously quoted line means, it does not mean that.

A wider reading shows John Paul II reiterating the Church’s commitment to the view that the human intellect can fashion “certain basic concepts [that] retain their universal epistemological value and thus retain the truth of the propositions in which they are expressed” (no. 96.)

Secondly, though John Paul reiterates the standard ecclesiastical recommendation of Aquinas as a model of how to synthesize faith and reason, the Pope is clear (no. 79) that he intends to go beyond this recommendation to something more substantial.

For the well-being of systematic and moral theology, the Pope recommends (no. 97) a metaphysics, a philosophy of being (philosophia essendi), that is based upon the act of being (quod actu ipso “essendi” sustentatur.)

If this sounds Thomistic, it does so because it is.

Affixed footnote 115 directs the reader to the Pope’s 1979 Angelicum address on the centenary of Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris. This address leaves no doubt that Fides et Ratio is referring to Aquinas’s central metaphysical notion of actus essendi.

The Pope says that through this actus essendi understanding of what is meant by the existence of a thing, Aquinas’s philosophy is so open to all of reality that the human intellect comes to know God (“The Angelicum Address,” no. 6.)

John Paul certainly appears to be presenting Aquinas’s metaphysics of actus essendi as an unsurpassable human achievement.

Everything else that is true will find a place within this metaphysics.

Nothing in the encyclical warrants saying that the Church teaches that no one true philosophy exists or that the Church has made the pluralist turn.

John F. X. Knasas, “Does the Catholic Church Teach That There Is No One True Philosophy?” in Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, vol. 77, 2003, pp 83-99.

Monday, November 2, 2009

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

Entry 0094: The Philosophy of the Actus Essendi: The One Universally Valid Philosophy Recommended by Fides et Ratio (IV)

Ralph McInerny writes,

In Fides et Ratio n. 4, John Paul II speaks of what he calls "Implicit Philosophy," the truths anyone can be expected to know. His reason for enumerating these truths is that he sees them as the means of overcoming the scandal of philosophy, the dozens of radically different philosophical systems competing for our allegiance. Anyone will detect the Thomistic echoes in the list of tenets of Implicit Philosophy. The Pope's procedure makes clear why he too points us to Thomas and why Thomism is not just another system. We are not being urged to be Thomists as opposed to Hegelians or phenomenologists or whatever. We are being urged to do philosophy well.

The great presupposition of doing philosophy well is that one begin well. The beginnings of philosophy are not acquired in Philosophy 101. They are had before one begins the study of philosophy. The principles or starting points of philosophy are the truths that any human person can be expected already to know. Philosophy moves off from them, not to replace or abandon them, but to develop their implications. Any philosophical position that is at variance with these starting points has gone off the rails.

Ralph McInerny, “Thomistic Natural Law and Aristotelian Philosophy,” in St. Thomas Aquinas and the natural law tradition: contemporary perspectives, edited by John Goyette, Mark S. Latkovic, and Richard S. Myers, The Catholic University of America Press, 2004, pp 37-38.