Is the ontological argument the source of modern thought?

When one begins to catalog all the differences between Anselm’s ontological argument and the ones given by contemporary philosophers, he is almost tempted to say that they are completely different arguments. Almost but not quite. The definitive element of the ontological argument remains constant: one concludes to being, that is, the first time one encounters a being that actually exists is as a conclusion. The ontological argument therefore either proves or presupposes that some thoughts are prior to being, and therefore that not every thought is necessarily dependent on being.

St. Thomas has very little to say about ontological arguments, but what he says makes far more sense when we see him as critiquing the idea that some thoughts are prior to being. We cannot say that the premises of the ontological argument presuppose any being, for then the argument would simply be a cosmological argument, concluding from the being of various creatures (effects) the existence of God (the cause). What then? We have either disengaged being and thought or we are claiming that “to be” or “being” does not first mean what actually exists. In either case thought is disengaged from being or real existence, which of course raises the problem of how we know when thought attains to it.

Seen from this angle, modern thought is simply a working out of the logic of the ontological argument. This shows us a fundamental logic of Descartes’s Meditations, where Descartes strives to attain to the actual world through an ontological argument. The very problem that Descartes is trying to solve is one that is implicit in the ontological argument itself.



  1. Kristor said,

    April 19, 2011 at 9:17 pm

    I’m not so sure about this. The fact that Anselm _argues_ from the structure of thought to the actuality of a being does not indicate that reality _moves_ from prior thought to posterior being. The form of the argument is not the form of the motion.

    “We cannot say that the premises of the ontological argument presuppose any being, for then the argument would simply be a cosmological argument, concluding from the being of various creatures (effects) the existence of God (the cause).”

    This would be so if the argument presupposed any particular being, but it needn’t do so. It may presuppose merely being as such and proceed from that basis. It may, i.e., proceed on the basis of the presupposition, “a thought exists,” going on from that presupposition of the thought’s actuality to characterize it further as being about something. So at a minimum Anselm has to be presupposing existence per se, in order to mount his argument; he could hardly begin with a thought that does not exist to have intensional properties. The only sort of thought that could be prior to a being is a thought that exists. And the existence of a thought is prior to any of its other characteristics

    Cosmological arguments proceed from the facticity of some fact. Ontological arguments proceed from the structure of being as such. Now, the structure of being as such is indeed “some fact,” so I suppose one could argue that ontological arguments are ipso facto cosmological. But then the same would go for any argument whatsoever, that had true statements – statements of fact – as premises.

  2. April 20, 2011 at 8:12 am

    I was always bothered by this post and was hoping that someone would object to it.. Another objection would be that the OA is based remotely on real existence, but just not proximately, and we judge arguments by their proximate causes.

    But to respond: I don’t agree that the OA is based on being as such. Being as such is the real existence of things in the world, but the OA is based on being as known: either Anselm’s “..nothing greater can be thought” or the contemporary “the possible is what is free of formal contradiction” (which is the logically possible, since things do not exist by being non-contradictory, that is, being unable to be affirmed and denied at once). That there is such a thing as being as known does not change its status as formally set apart from real existence, though I’d concede that I don’t have all the relevant details of the distinction worked out to my satisfaction, and that this part of my response is quite weak

    (My first thought is that to say that “a thought exists” is true in the same way as when we assert the existence of the world is to fail to notice that even this thought is mediated by real existence outside of the mind in a way that the judgment of real existence is not; and so to make the two the same sort of judgment overlooks the crucial role that mediation plays in the judgment “this thought exists”. Descartes, at least, sees the matter in a completely opposite way: the certitude of his judgment of his own existence is not mediated by the real whereas the certitude of the real is mediated by his own thought.)

    You are really defending that there is no ultimate difference between cosmological and ontological proofs. If this were true, all my claims here would fall apart, but, at the very least, I think there was a conviction in the history of thought that they were quite different, and so this might help to illumine some of the presuppositions that gave rise to modern thought.

%d bloggers like this: