Does Existence Exist?

That is not the case when you say “is” alone, for it is by itself “nothing…” – Aristotle (De Interpretatione I, 3)

ipsum esse nondum est.[1]– Boethius (De Hebdomadibus, rule II.)

In a previous post I explored what I had called “the glimpse of being” to discover that there is a distinction between what something is (essence) and that something is (existence). The study of being—at least as the metaphysician takes it up—is the study of existence. To inquire after essences is to study created reality at the level of beings, individual and concrete existing things. This is all well and good, but it leaves off the question of what “being” is. The metaphysician wishes to consider the reality of being as such. And to take up that question is to ask about existence itself.

That inquiry led us to a first conclusion of sorts—or perhaps better, a clarified concept by virtue of the process of reflection—that existence itself is actuality.

How should we further think about actuality, then? A good question to begin with—one that does not appear as obvious at first, but one which we learn through those who have come before us is indeed promising— is this: does existence itself exist? The answer to this yields two further insights, one of which (transcendentality) we’ll take up in the next few posts, the other (which I will only note at the end of this post) brings us to the brink of theology proper, and hence will be taken up later on.

Existence as quasi highest unity: transcendentality

Thomas Aquinas, commenting on Boethius’ De Hebdomadibus rule II, [23] (see the quotation cited at the beginning of this post), notes that “just as we can’t say that running itself runs, similarly we can’t say that existence itself (esse ipsum) is.” Existence itself does not exist. Another way of stating it is to say that existence is not a thing; rather, it is that by which all things are. And here, it must be admitted, the matter gets a bit tough to work through.

First, and to further the point, we note Aquinas again [24]: “Being itself is the most common. It is thus participated in by another while it doesn’t participate in anything else.” Being itself (esse ipsum), what we have termed existence,[2] cannot be drawn up into a higher unity because it is itself the highest unity. The ‘is’ by which all things are and the presumption of ‘isness’ (existence) by which we come to know all things is the “highest unity,” as was previously discussed. One moves upward from more specific unitive concepts (like “man”/”woman”) to higher concepts (like “human”), and those higher concepts specify what is common in the diverse lower concepts. “Man” and “woman” can be distinguished from each other, but both are “human.” Being, in the sense of existence, is the highest unity, for it comprehends what is common to all (not simply everything that is now, but is, was, and will be, as well as everything that could be, might have been, and may be).

But here we run into a problem. If existence is simply the highest unitive concept—i.e., the same as all other unitive concepts, just “higher”—then it turns out it is no unitive concept at all. Here’s what I mean. Notice how we move from lower to higher: “Man” and “woman” may be said to be human only by removing from their concepts what distinguishes them as “man” and “woman.” “Man” is not human on account of his physical anatomy, XY chromosome, etc. Rather, “man,” like “woman,” is “human” only insofar as those distinguishing characteristics of manhood and womanhood are laid aside and the broader characteristics of life, animality, rationality, etc., remain.

The same can be said moving further up, of “human” and “dog,” say. The specific characteristics of what distinguish “human” from “dog” must be laid aside for their respective concepts to come together under the higher unity of “animal.” The higher unity of “animal,” is not characterized by what is human and what is dog, but only by what is common to “human” and to “dog,” that is, by what is “animal.”

When we get to the highest unity of “being” (existence), however, we seem to have sawn off the limb we were sitting on. For, using that same process to reach higher unities, in order to reach the highest unity of existence what is distinctive of all kinds of beings must be laid aside. But this would mean that no kinds of being are left to characterize “being itself.” All kinds of being have been laid aside. There is “no thing” left to characterize being, which is to say that “nothing” characterizes being. And here, we seem to be left with only two choices: being is all one (and wholly indeterminate), indistinguishable, and all the diversity of “things” is mere illusion (Parmenides); or, being is indistinguishable from, thus identical to, “nothing” (Hegel). Neither of these is very satisfactory.

Following in the Christian Thomist tradition, however, there is a third option. As Thomas puts it,  “being is not a genus [what I’ve been calling a “higher unity”] properly speaking… but it is a quasi-genus because it has something of the aspect of a genus, insofar as it is common” (Commentary on Metaphysics, X.8.2092).[3] Being (existence) is very like a “highest unity” in that all lower unities find their commonality in it. Everything that is, is. Yet, it is unlike a higher unity in that it does not lay aside all the distinctive characteristics of the lower unities but takes them up into it as well. This similarity yet dissimilarity is very important for understanding actuality further.

“Man” is said to be “human” only insofar as XY chromosome, etc., is not considered. “Human” is said to be “animal” only insofar as rationality, etc., is not considered. But “man” and “human” are not said to “exist” only insofar as XY chromosome and rationality are not considered. This is because XY chromosome and rationality may also be said “to be” (exist).

Therefore, “existence” is a kind of highest unity, but a unique kind. It does not lose characteristics of lower unities, but extends over all of them; indeed, permeates all of them. And his permeation is what the ancients meant by the term transcendental. Being (existence) is a transcendental.

So far the notion of being has progressed from a kind of intuitive presumption to a consideration of things to the recognition that things are not being, they are a what: being is a that (actuality). And now we may add that “actuality” is a special, full and rich kind of actuality. This begins to clear what was initially a blur. When the process of reflection was begun, it was noted that because being is the highest unitive concept, it is also the most indeterminate. Now it may be noted that it is not simply the highest unitive concept; it is a unique highest unitive concept in that it permeates all lower unities. Thus, being (existence) may be further characterized in two directions: first, with respect to those lower unities (Aristotle’s famous ten categories), and second, by its convertibility with the other transcendentals. We’ll take those up in the next posts.

Not “exists” but “subsists”

Before closing out the question with which I began (does existence exist?), however, I’d like to make a note that at this point in our inquiry into being we begin to see pointers toward what is often called classical theism in our day. The answer given above to this question is pretty straightforwardly “no” (in the same way we don’t say that running itself runs). Yet, thinking of existence as that by which all else exists may lead our minds beyond the existence of created things (see footnote 2 above). It did for Thomas as well:

Now this alone will be truly simple: what does not participate in being (esse), not inhering but subsisting. This can only be one, since if being itself (esse ipsum) has nothing else mixed in beyond that which being is, it is impossible for that which being is itself to be proliferated through any diversifying factor. And since it has nothing else mixed in beyond itself, it follows that it underlies no accident. Moreover, this sublime and simple one is God himself. (Commentary on De Hebdomadibus, rule II [35]).

The point here is that, as noted above, existence itself does not exist; to say it does would mean that it “inheres” in a higher unity (i.e. gains its existence by participating in that higher reality; but there is no such higher reality). As Boethius says, “Existence does not exist.” But, notes Thomas, esse ipsum may be said to “subsist” in the sense that it is not “nonbeing.” It would be strange indeed to say that being does not exist and therefore it is nothing. Indeed, being is nonbeing’s very opposite. It is distinguished absolutely from nonbeing. To mark this absolute distinction Thomas uses the term “subsist” and says that as being itself subsisting it is none other than God himself.

If this is true, then God must be absolutely simple (omnino simplex) because there cannot be anything external to “being” (existence) by which it may be diversified.

To give an example: a particular human being has humanity as its essence. But this human is characterized by things external to her essence so as to distinguish this human being from that human being. In the case of existence itself (esse ipsum), however, the ‘essence’ (so to speak) simply is “to be.” And because nothing is above, or beyond, or outside of existence (esse ipsum), there is nothing to make it this existence itself as opposed to that existence itself. Esse ipsum subsistens can only be absolutely one—this esse ipsum. There cannot be a that esse ipsum. Or, in the words of Holy Writ: “I am that I am.”

I leave further exploration of this beginning for another time. Next we will continue with the categories and the transcendentals.



[1] “Existence itself in no wise is.”

[2] There is, it will come as no surprise to readers of Thomas and the Medievals, another distinction to be observed here between ens, the existence of concrete (created) things, and esse ipsum, existence itself. This is an important distinction for several significant questions in metaphysics. I have tried not to blur that distinction in my reflections in these posts, while also not bogging the considerations down by using different terms. I have most of the time opted simply for ‘existence,’ and note when further distinction is required.

[3] Here Thomas is referring to ens, rather than to esse ipsum, but the basic point remains the same.


Joshua Schendel

Joshua Schendel

Joshua is the executive editor of Modern Reformation magazine. He holds a PhD from St. Louis University, a MAHT from Westminster Seminary California. He, his wife, Bethanne, and their three kids live in Southern California.

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