The Heideggerian problematic and the Thomistic reduction to actuality

Let’s take Heidegger’s fundamental metaphysical question as being about what makes the being of entities possible. Whether one considers the being of beings (the entia, in St. Thomas’s Latin, or the Heideggerian ontic) or the very being of beings (St. Thomas’s esse) Heidegger wants to figure out something else, namely the condition of the possibility of ens/esse. Seen from this angle, Heidegger has ground to critique the Thomistic claim that the condition for the possibility of ens or esse is ipsum esse subsistens, for he appears to ask a more fundamental question that is simply not addressed by speaking of God as the cause of ens/esse. “Ontotheology” stops short of seeing the fundamental metaphysical question of how being as being can be given at all. That said, the mind completely fails out in the face of what could satisfy such a condition, for the critique of ontotheology cannot be contained to mere theology: any reality that might allow for the possibility of entities would fall by the same critique. And so being becomes an absolute abgrund of nothingness, dynamically giving birth to things from an unthinkable oblivion.

There are two obscure responses. The more familiar one – which is almost a reflex to contemporary Thomists – is to invoke analogous names. God is not some member of a set called “being” (whether ens or esse) just as the idea of a house is not some member of a class called “houses” (which might include, say, ramblers, colonials, split-levels, etc.) We can speak of a “house” in the mind without placing it among the class of houses. In fact, the closer an actual house gets to completion – the closer it gets to being an actual house – the further it gets from the sort of being that characterizes the house in the mind, for it gets closer and closer to existing by itself in matter. The fullness of its being thus consists in a separation in being from its source. At the limit of such a division, the very notion of being itself must admit of a division.

A better obscurity – and I say that it is better because St. Thomas considers it at greater length – is to point to focus on the notion of possibility. On the Thomistic account, the condition for the possibility of ens/esse reduces not just to the ipsum esse subsistens but also to the divine potentia, and St Thomas wrote a massive treatise on the power of God.  The first question God asks is whether God had power at all. This is a much thornier question than it first appears: power is a sort of indetermination (at the very least, it is an indetermination to the exercise of the power) but indetermination involves non-being, and so it seems that by making power intrinsic to God we make non-being intrinsic to ipsum esse subsistens- which is a pretty clear contradiction. St. Thomas here speaks in words that makes it clear that he appreciates the force of the difficulty:

It must be said that our intellect strains to express God as some most perfect being, because it cannot attain to him except from a similitude to his effects, and there is not found in creatures some highest perfection wholly lacking imperfection… and so we attribute power by reason of what remains [through the action] and what is its source, and not by reason of that which is perfected by the exercise of power [ed. or by the thing made].

Sed et sciendum, quod intellectus noster Deum exprimere nititur sicut aliquid perfectissimum. Et quia in ipsum devenire non potest nisi ex effectuum similitudine; neque in creaturis invenit aliquid summe perfectum quod omnino imperfectione careat… [and so] Potentiam vero attribuimus ratione eius quod permanet et quod est principium eius, non ratione eius quod per operationem completur.

QDP 1.1. co

To read the whole response one is struck by the uncharacteristic language of the intellect straining (nititur) to express itself. But note that the key thing it is trying to express is perfection. This is Aristotle’s great contribution to the question of being- he identifies act and perfection (to the extent of making them synonyms) and makes act knowable only by a pure intuition (though an intuition that is facilitated by comparisons and examples), and not in light of any other prior known or even more knowable thought. There is nothing more one can say about act than that it is what seeing is to the power sight, what the finished building is to the pile of building materials, what the oak is to the seed, what a meaning is to the sound of the word, and what God is to the universe. Act cannot be reduced any more than being can, since being is act.

And so a Thomist sees – at least claims to see – that the reduction of the question of being to the ground of its possibility can only be meaningful in the sense of a possibility which is active power. Given the status of our intellect, we conceive power as being both a source and fountainhead, and an incomplete and indeterminate sort of being, at least with respect to its exercise.  It is precisely the notion of perfection that allows us to make a division in these two elements, and if we did not reduce being itself to perfection it would be absolutely impossible for us to dissociate these two elements. But it is better to drop this last counterfactual and put the claim positively: it is because we understand being as a perfection, though in a hazy way, that, when we reduce being to the ground of its possibility, we are befuddled by whether this ground is absolute nothingness or the supreme existence. We haven’t yet purified the notion of possibility in light of being as perfection, which illuminates that our very notion of possibility is divided against itself and needs to be distinguished in light of the first and irreducible concept of actuality or perfection.



  1. patrokleos said,

    November 22, 2011 at 1:18 am

    I just saw this post now and am sorry I missed it earlier. Thanks for that remarkable quote from Thomas. Having been in pursuit of what Heidegger was thinking for some time now, I have become more and more convinced that the best way to introduce the peculiar nature of his Seinsfrage to an audience well versed in the strongest parts of the Western philosophical tradition is to have recourse to the modalities; I am pleased to see you saw fit to do so here. That being said, I think it is important to keep in mind that when Heidegger employs the Kantian transcendental turn of phrase “condition for the possibility” in regard to Being he has done only by transmuting the meaning of this phrase. Let me try to say why I think this bears directly on what you have said above.

    Heidegger knows well that, for example, any science of beings insofar as they are living (call it biology) is made possible by what is understood implicitly and prior to the actual founding of this science, namely life. in keeping with a familiar hierarchy, Heidegger also recognizes in what way this implicit understanding of life presupposes an implicit understanding of something else: beings insofar as they are at all. However, here is where one must pay careful attention to what seems to be a very traditional presentation of the objective order of the sciences which Heidegger is apparently rehearsing with approval. Continuing then, any understanding of beings in so far as they are at all (what Heidegger calls at times “beings as a whole as such”) also presupposes an implicit understanding of Being. Again, this is nothing new or different; nothing, no being, can be thought without a presupposing a prior of Being. But Heidegger will add one more thing to this acknowledgement that changes everything: not even Being itself can be thought without this presupposition. In other words, we think anything at all only by virtue of this implicit understanding of Being —and this is so a fortiori when we eventually bring ourselves to the task of thinking this very presupposition of all thought. To think Being explicitly is to thoughtfully presuppose it. Therefore to think Being properly is to think not an actual but a possible thought; Being itself must be thought precisely as that which makes the thought of Being –and thus also secondarily, the difference between ens and esse, possible. It is because the thought of Being presupposes Being in a manner altogether different from the thought of any being (seienden), that Heidegger maintains the ontological difference as the maintenance of a possible thought over against the actual thought of the highest Being provided by onto-theology, but made possible by a thought of Being which can only be kept if it is kept in its possibility.

    One way of touching upon the problem Heidegger has with the thought of Being as actuality is that this thought itself does not presuppose Being in the proper way.

    Maybe this sounds like pure confusion to you and I apologise for the rushed and ambiguous nature of the comment, but hopefully it touches on something pertinent.

    • November 22, 2011 at 10:40 am

      The point of discussion is whether the possible can be first. Neither side can say just yes or no, because “possibility” itself is pulls us in opposite directions. In Aristotle’s terms our concept of possibility is always subordinate to act, but in its first sense it is an act. Possibility (or power/potency) is both divided from act and, in its first sense, an instance of act. It seems to me that one can hear St. Thomas struggling with this problem in the quotation (he repeats twice that the intellect labors or strains (nititur) to articulate the problem) How do we articulate our notion of perfection so far as that notion must both include the notion of power or possibility, and also be divided from perfection? Ontotheology has perhaps not been sensitive enough to this problem, though it is difficult to accuse St. Thomas of this given the extreme pains he took to try to articulate the problem of the divine power/ possibility.

      Heidegger (at least the H. of SZ) maps another layer of interpretation over this by approaching the question of possibility from an existential point of view. The unstable character of possibility manifests itself though the unstable character of raising the question about being, since to question being is at once to know it and to be in the dark about it. How can something be both presupposed and to be disclosed? By articulating the structure of the one who questions about being we make one approach to what we’ve here called the problem of possibility (which, in my tradition, is a question of act and therefore of being). From a Thomistic POV, this raising of the one who questions being is necessary since metaphysics arises not from the accumulation of experience or data as such, but from meditation over what is first given in experience. There is an infinite mystery in the statement “I changed”, for example – so much so that it takes very little dialectic before one can convince himself that there either is no change, no I, both, or neither. But dealing with the question is, it seems to me, exactly what metaphysics is.

  2. patrokleos said,

    November 22, 2011 at 1:57 am

    For the sake or hope of clarity let me add one final paraphrase and return to my first point, namely that Heidegger’s condition of possibility is unique and can be helpfully distinguished from Kant’s use of the same phrase. That Being, when it is thought, is also presupposed –or in other words, that its proper thought must include the condition for its own possibility –this peculiarity does not lie on the side of an ordo cognoscendi over against an ordo essendi. Rather, it belongs to Being itself, properly thought. Where the Kantian condition of possibility is one which achieves its transcendental status by being entirely formal and lying exclusively within the ordo cognoscendi, Heidegger employs the phrase to speak of how we must think precisely something which is uniquely presupposed by this ordo –and is so presupposed not accidentally but per se.

  3. patrokleos said,

    November 24, 2011 at 1:41 am

    James, just a couple of remarks regarding your last comment:

    1.”The point of discussion is whether the possible can be first. Neither side can say just yes or no, because “possibility” itself is pulls us in opposite directions. In Aristotle’s terms our concept of possibility is always subordinate to act, but in its first sense it is an act. Possibility (or power/potency) is both divided from act and, in its first sense, an instance of act”

    You are probably aware but I thought it important to mention that Heidegger has devoted his complete attention (for a semester) to interpreting precisely these passages of Aristotle’s Metaphysics (Book Θ 1-3) –this is GA 33 in the Deutsch authoritative edition –in order to carefully tease out what he considers to be an unconsidered POSSIBILITY already latent in Aristotle’s account of possibility or rather his account of δύναμις. Here one of the main things Heidegger tries to show is that δύναμις is not extinguished by but remains with ἐνέργεια as the hidden innermost core of its essence, as it were. But of course already at the end of SZ Heidegger makes the famous statement “Higher than actuality stands possibility.” The key here is that in statement such as these, Heidegger is obviously not disagreeing, as if in some momentary lapse of reason, with the subordination of potentia to act, but neither is he only referring to that possibility which IS act, i.e. δύναμις in its primary sense. Subordinated possibility and active power are both possibilities of beings; they belong to what the Heidegger of SZ would call the domain of vorhandensein. Thus for example a rock may be possible (by virtue, for example, of the principle of prime matter) or it may actual. But then there is something which Heidegger wants to speak of as a possibility of Being (Seinsmoeglichkeit), for example, a being (seienden) may either BE vorhanden or zuhanden or it may have the Being (Sein) of Existenz. These are possibilities in the sense of Sein and not of a Seienden. In the case of the last mentioned possibility, namely Existenz, there belongs the possibility of disclosing that which gives unto all the possibilities of Being, i.e. Sein, (and derivatively of beings) their unified sense. For this reason in Existenz there is to be found a possibility other than those Aristotle has enumerated. Going back to the example I mentioned previously, one may have a possible rock or and actual rock, but in the case of an actual man one that same man will always, as actual, still have to be what he already is in a way that is basic to (and not, say, derivative or a super-addition to) his ontological structure. Man is not simply actually there and in addition must live his own life, nor is he possibly there in the sense that he is not yet actual until, for instance, he perfects his nature. Rather he is actually there in a way that he still has to be; he must yet be what he already is.

    2.)This brings me to your words again:

    Heidegger (at least the H. of SZ) maps another layer of interpretation over this by approaching the question of possibility from an existential point of view.

    This is certainly true, but this “possibility of existenz” or “existential possibility” (which I have mentioned above as a the unique possibility of man) is not only “mapped over” the traditional account as an addition. Rather, as I said before. to the existential possibility there belongs “the possibility of disclosing that which gives unto all the possibilities of Being, i.e. Sein, (and derivatively of beings) their unified sense”. This implies that the primary sense of possibility is not the existential one but rather one that belongs only to Being itself. The later Heidegger will come to show what this possibility is in his thinking of Seynsgeschichte, but in SZ he already leaves room for it with his projected but unaccomplished Third Division, Zeit und Sein. This division is not actually accomplished in the publication of SZ. However, even the existential possibility has, for Heidegger’s published SZ, primacy over Aristotle’s primary sense of possibility as active power –but not at all because of some subjective preference on Heidegger’s part. Rather the primacy is a result of the fact that existential possibility is essentially capable of disclosing the possibility of Being itself which gives unto all the possibilities of the Being of beings their unified sense.

    So I guess for me the point of discussion hinges on what we will call the primary sense of possibility. For Heidegger, possibility in the primary sense is neither subordinate possibility (whose unattained end is actuality), nor an active power (which coincides with act), nor existential possibility (which exceeds act and thus has already attained actuality in a manner which it still has to be). The primary sense of possibility is rather the possibility of Being itself (which makes existential possibility both necessary and possible.).

    • November 24, 2011 at 10:37 am

      Man is not simply actually there and in addition must live his own life, nor is he possibly there in the sense that he is not yet actual until, for instance, he perfects his nature. Rather he is actually there in a way that he still has to be; he must yet be what he already is.

      This is the fundamental datum that needs to be explained, and in talking about it I could shoot off in a hundred different ways. Let me pick one that looks fundamental.

      Think of the difficulty Plato had in his reductions of the natural world to something most real: in his middle career he reduced all the beings of the world (which were taken as changeable and unintelligible) to static and unchangeable forms; at the end of his career (say, book X of the Laws) he reduced the natural world (now seen as inert and pushed from without) to an essentially moving soul. Both are reductions to what is most perfect, but they are to opposite ontological categories. Aristotle solves the problem (if you want to call the invention of a term “solving”) by inventing the term(s) energia or entelekia, which mean just “perfection” (so far as we take them in light of the problematic of perfection as dynamic or perfection as static). In other words, Aristotle invented a term that meant both the perfection of activity and the perfection of stasis. Aristotle then went on to insist that either you see the reality of this single term or you don’t, but there is no getting to it from some prior idea. This is not exactly a cost-free start to a philosophy, since it requires us to see the fundamental unity of stasis and activity before we are allowed to go further. Further, I don’t see any way to read Aristotle except as insisting that one cannot explain this unity by reducing it to “the perfection of possibility”, as though we could start with possibility and move upward to act. Act is always first, even in thought. St. Thomas, it seems to me, accepts the most radical consequence of this in his Fourth Way, where he says that as soon as one recognizes that the various actualities around them are imperfect, that they can conclude immediately that they are existing secondarily to God. Gerrigou-Lagrange takes this sort of argument as being the fundamental structure of the all the Five Ways.

      The only exception to this priority of actuality seems to be in time. Temporal existence has as its peculiar characteristic (from the A-T perspective) that it inverts the order of being even while being an order of being, and so to the extent that one prioritizes the temporality of being he will place possibility before actuality. A-T theologians and philosophers think that they can see being outside of this temporal horizon, but if they are honest with themselves and with the texts they follow, they see that they do not gain this perspective so far as they are merely human knowers. When Aristotle says those famous lines in Nic.Eth. X about “straining every nerve” to get at what is most divine, this is not high-flying rhetoric but a crucial first principle of his whole metaphysics. Unless we have a truly divine principle in us, every philosopher from Plato until pre-Kant was completely wrong about being, and sought to explain it from a perspective they simply did not have.

  4. patrokleos said,

    November 29, 2011 at 12:59 am

    “The only exception to this priority of actuality seems to be in time. […} Unless we have a truly divine principle in us, every philosopher from Plato until pre-Kant was completely wrong about being, and sought to explain it from a perspective they simply did not have.”

    This “exception” that you mention makes plenty of sense, but, as you are quick to acknowledge, it is only an exception of inversion: time “inverts the order of being even while being an order of being.” Such an inversion, whereby possibility in the traditional sense of the word (and not either the existential nor Seynsgeschichtliche sense of it) is given primacy over actuality, is to be found in Kant to the extent that time, as pure intuition, is the antecedent condition for the possibility of objectivity, i.e. for the schematically facilitated application of the categories. Here your reference to Kant as the initiator of a manner of thinking which seeks to confine all thought about being to the aforementioned inverted order of being seems very appropriate, since the time to which Kant refers all objectivity (one mode of which would be actuality) is time understood as the form of succession. Heidegger agrees that Kant’s successors up to Nietzsche where committed to this general inversion of the traditional primacy of actuality, which can be stated in Hegel as the primacy of Der Begriff of Becoming over both Being and Nothing, and in Nietzsche as the Will to Power’s innermost imperative, or as Nietzsche says: “To stamp Becoming with the character of Being — that is the supreme will to power.”

    Why do I mention this extended confirmation of what your words already sufficed to indicate? Because Heidegger both 1.) acknowledges this inversion as an inversion and 2.) does not understand himself to be perpetuating this metaphysical inversion. Why not? Doesn’t he subject the order of being to that of temporality? Does he not regard the pre-modern ambition to think of supra-temporal things as a failure to regard human finitude properly? My answer to these to questions is “No.” Heidegger is instead proposing that the temporality of succession (or ontic temporality) which even Kant adheres to and which is the common term in the modern inversion of pre-modern ontology is preceded and made possible by an ontological temporality –i.e. one which does not, as in Kant, determine Being but which belongs to Being as the wake of its withdrawal and is as such detemined by Being. But lets just say that to the A-T tradition my last sentence is mumbo jumbo. Suspending that sentence, then, my point is only that Heidegger is not easily understood as one who simply inverts pre-modern ontology (I know you yourself did not directly claim this, but I wanted to mention that Heidegger explicitly denies this claim —I think this is important because it to touches upon what is interesting and unique about his prioritization of possibility).

    Now, after that claim of disassociation, let me briefly mention why I think your remarks on Aristotle’s super-human or (eu-)daimonic noetics are closer to the aim of Heidegger’s Sensfrage then any modern metaphysical inversion, even though Heidegger is introducing a new sense of possibility that he certainly prioritizes over actuality. The culmination of the SZ was projected in its prospectus to lie in the third division, namely Zeit und Sein. In the last public lecture Heidegger ever gave, a lecture which went by precisely the name of that third, missing division of SZ, something is conspicuously absent from his attempt to think Being: there is no mention of Dasein. Heidegger in this culmination of his entire life’s thought attempt to show HOW Being might possibly be thought according to a possibility which is not man’s but solely belongs to Being itself! Thus he says early in the lecture that it attempts to thing Being without regard for its being grounded in beings, and he later shortens this phrase as the attempt to “think Being without beings”. This possibility Heidegger does not regard as one proper to the temporal order of beings, namely of generation and corruption etc but rather to a temporality of Being –i.e. one that allows Being to make a possible showing of itself. This possibility safeguards rather than denies the uniquness and strangeness of Being overagainst human knowing. In human knowing Being is given as presupposition. But this gift of Being itself is also a refusal. For Heidegger the finitude of human thought lies precisely in the manner in which Being gives itself as ‘something’ already taken for granted before anything else –and anything at all. But this finitude is not merely negative. It is the hint or hinting (der wink) of how to think Being properly according not to how it is given to human knowing but how it withdraws from it. This is for Heidegger a finitude more primordial and profound than that of human knowing; it is a finitude proper to Being itself, to its truth, and not merely proper to the knower of Being.

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