Jacques Maritain Center : General Metaphysics / by John Rickaby, S.J.


(1) Essentia is not a word which we find in a select Latin Dictionary that contains only the most approved vocables of the classical period; but it certainly had its own period of high repute in the flourishing days of scholasticism, and even now, according to Martinus Scriblerus, it is faring better than most of its kind. "For," he says, "instead of being, like them, quite abolished, it has suivived in the chemists' shops, where it has even been raised to the rank of a quintessence." Ridicule, however, does not always kill; and we are going to show that the term "essence" is still alive, and must continue to live, if science is to have any life in it. The word has a wider and a narrower signification, each of which we have to examine.

It is asserted to be the prerogative of intellect proper, that it knows all its objects under the aspect of essences; and this its power is made a strongly distinguishing mark between the perception which is characteristically human and mere animal perception. A writer who was no schoolman, Lewes, more than once falls back on this distinction; saying, for instance, that "the animal thinks, but only in sensations and images, not in abstractions and symbols. The animal perceives no object, no causal counexion," that is, nothing as object, or as causal connexion; and this deficiency comes from want of the faculty to apprehend the whatness of things. Here is a virtual recognition of the broadest meaning of the word essence, though this is not the term which Lewes himself would have used to express his opinion. Still his doctrine, which is accepted in the recent work of Mr. Romanes, so far as it is true, implies that no animal can ask or answer the question, What? Man, on the contrary, even though uncultured, is ever employed on the investigation of the what in things, and his conceptions, however inadequate, take the form of a quiddity or essence. Substantially, at all events, he understands the force of the interrogative pronoun quid. Hence the lines of Hudibras have some truth:

He knew what's what, and that's as deep
As metaphysic wit can peep.

As a specimen of the scholastic teaching, the words of Father Lahousse will suffice: "Essence is the formal object of the intellectual act; for the intellect expresses all that it apprehends by terms in which it conceives other objects of a like sort, such terms, for example, as substance and accident, spirit and body, infinite and finite, existent and non-existent, singular and universal, present and absent. Now whoever apprehends that whereby a thing is placed in a certain definite order, apprehends an essence." So much for the meaning of essence in the widest sense, according to which Being is the most generalized essence: every object is a Being so far as in answer to question, What is it? the intellect must reply, It is a something, an Ens essentiae.{1}

(2) Up to the present point our doctrine will probably not provoke many dissentients, though really it does involve the assertion of a thorough-going difference between sense and intellect, such as the school of Hume flatly deny. Openly, the tug of war begins over our next claim, which involves higher pretensions to the knowledge of essences. The schoolmen held firmly, that those objects which they called natural, as distinguished from artificial objects -- a distinction which they must have felt they could not always draw with precision -- were not mere aggregates of cohering elements, but essences, each constituted strictly a unit by an indivisible substantial form: for it was only some writers who allowed the possibility of two or more substantial forms superposed one on another. How far the scholastic doctrine is demonstrable is discussed in Cosmology. Here it suffices to prove that we can, more or less, reach the essential constitution of a number of things -- find that which, as essentia, gives them their esse after the way in which a man's sapientia gives him his sapere. Where we cannot absolutely touch the goal, at least we can make approximations.

(a) Attacks upon our present position may be divided into three possible degrees. (i.) The fact of essence may be granted, but all further knowledge of it denied; (ii.) the fact may be declared doubtful; (iii.) the so-called fact may be pronounced a fiction of the mind. To borrow an illustration from the hidden personality of an Oriental monarch, who sometimes holds himself aloof from his people as the great, mysterious power in the background, we may find these three corresponding stages of belief and disbelief. One subject of the prince might say, "There is such a potentate, but that is all I know;" another, "I doubt whether there is such a potentate;" a third, "Such potentate certainly does not exist, and those styled his Ministers are our real and only rulers."

The three modes of attack are actually made, and we certainly shall not understand the important question of essences if we are too idle to go through the successive stages of the controversy. Adversaries shall state their own case, and we will reply.

(1) Hobbes{2} had made the sarcastic remark that "quiddity" was one of the words which God had not taught Adam in Paradise; but to Locke especially is traced the origin of the great revolution against the reign of essences. In praise of Locke, Voltaire says, "He alone has marked out the development of the human mind, in a book where there is nothing but truth, and, what makes the work perfect, every truth is clearly set forth." To this general commendation Mill has added his special approval in regard to the doctrine of essences:{3} "It was reserved for Locke to convince philosophers, that the supposed essences were merely the significations of their names; nor among the signal services which this writer rendered to philosophy was there one more needful or more valuable." Accordingly Mill teaches that definition can only be of names, not of real essences. Evidently, then, it is our duty to acquaint ourselves with Locke's doctrine, and to see whether we can accept Mill's judgment on its value. If we like to take the teaching first of all at second hand, we have it in the commendatory words of Reid, who makes the view his own:{4} "The works of God are all imperfectly known by us. We see their outside or perhaps we discover some of their qualities and relations, by observation and experiment, assisted by reason; but we can give no definition of the meanest of them, which comprehends its real essence. It is justly observed by Locke, that nominal essences only, which are the creatures of our own minds, are perfectly apprehended by us; and even of these there are many too simple in their nature to admit of definition." The reference which we give to the author himself bears out the above compendium of his doctrine, which explicitly is that "the essences of things are nothing else but our abstract ideas." Thus Locke grants that things have essences -- "real essences:" what he denies is, that we can know anything more than the "nominal essences," which Hamilton{5} says is only another phrase for "logical essences," or "the abstract notions worked out by general terms." In other words, Locke is here a nominalist or a conceptualist in his denial of reality to universal ideas; but he is most careful to insist, especially in his polemic with the Anglican Bishop of Worcester, that "there is an internal constitution of things, on which their properties depend." So much by way of stating the first antagonistic position, which is that our knowledge is limited to the fact of the existence of real essences, while for the rest we have to content ourselves with nominal essences.

(ii.) and (iii.) The two other positions may be dealt with together, as the step from agnosticism to positive denial is only one of audacity in making assertions. As a representative writer, we will take Mill, in weighing whose utterances we must bear in mind that he allows a knowledge of no substance, bodily or mental, and of no efficient causality, and of no metaphysically necessary truth; indeed, his theory of knowledge is what determines his rejection of essences. These are important items to keep in view while considering his assertions with respect to essences, the gist of which may be conveyed in a few passages.{6} "An essential proposition is one which is purely verbal; which asserts of a thing, under a particular name, only what is asserted of it in the fact of calling it by that name; and which, therefore, either gives no information, or gives it respecting the name, not the thing. Nonessential or accidental propositions may be called real propositions in opposition to verbal." In other words, no analytical proposition conveys any real information; and that to which we are at liberty to apply the word essential, is at most an explanation of the meaning of a word. With the understanding that the matter is a verbal one, we may claim to know the essence of classes: "The distinction between the essence of a class and the attributes, or properties which are not essential, amounts to nothing more than the difference between those attributes of a class which are, and those which are not, involved in the connotation (meaning) of a class-name." So much for what is allowed; now for what is disallowed: "As applied to individuals, the word essence has no meaning, except in connexion with the exploded tenets of the realists; and what the schoolmen chose to call the essence of an individual, was the essence of the class to which the individual was most familiarly referred." Here Mill falls into the ordinary blunder of attributing to the schoolmen generally, what was the extravagance of a comparative few; {7} and accordingly he goes on to identify the doctrine of essences with an error which most of the defenders of that doctrine thoroughly repudiate. "Aristotelians thought that ice was made ice, not by the possession of certain properties to which mankind have chosen to attach that name, but by a participation in the nature of a certain general substance."{8} Of course, Platonists rather than Aristotelians would be likely to commit such an extravagance; but Mill says boldly and without limitation, "Aristotelians." Next we come to a statement of Mill's own position: "The inmost nature or essence of a thing is apt to be regarded as something unknown, which, if we knew it, would account for all the phenomena which the thing exhibits to us. But this unknown something is a supposition without evidence. We have no ground to suppose that there is anything, which, if known to us, would afford to our intellect this satisfaction: would sum up, as it were, the knowable attributes of an object in a single sentence. Moreover, if there were such a central property, it would not answer to the idea of an inmost nature: for if knowable by any intelligence, it must, like other properties, be relative to the intelligence which knows it, that is, it must consist in impressing that intelligence in some special way; the only sense in which the verb to know means anything."

According to Mill, therefore, an essential property is one which is part of the very definition or meaning of the word which stands as subject in a sentence; and such essence is verbal, not real. As for any real essential nature in physical things, we know of none such, and in any case the relativity of all knowledge would be a bar to the knowledge of essences, such as the schoolmen assert. Here we have a doctrine common in the school of Hume: and we will illustrate it no further except by letting Lewes repeat its chief tenets. He likens the Aristotelian essences to the pure space which is supposed to be the background of all things; essences are empty as space, mere negations of all attributes or phenomena: indeed there can be no absolute thing in itself, for "nothing exists in and for itself," and the universe known to us is a system of correlated events.

Whether on the above principles, the attitude taken with respect to essences is one of agnosticism or of positive denial matters little for the refutation which we have to give of the whole doctrine: but at least the positive denial sounds not a little arbitrary.

(b) In doing something to rehabilitate a much discredited teaching of the schoolmen, we may start from less disputed points. At least in the abstract sciences, and notably in mathematics, it is maintainable that we can devise essential definitions which stand good amid accidental variations, and have a most unmistakeably real{9} significance. Reid confesses as much when he says, that from the essence of a triangle we are able to deduce its properties. We can determine exactly what constitutes the precise nature of certain figures, distinguishes them specifically from other figures, and enables us to infer their necessary attributes. In regard to this deduction we must not let ourselves be puzzled by the very narrow limits within which some have chosen to confine our data: as, for example, when it is declared that from the nature of a straight line we cannot infer that it is the shortest way between two points, because the notion "straight line" does not contain the notion "shortest way;" or again, when it is declared that certain conclusions are not a priori because we mentally construct a geometrical figure in order to follow out our reasoning, and thus institute a sort of experiment a posteriori. It is intolerable so to take out all meaning from the process of deduction as to deny that we are using it because, in arguing from essential definitions, we picture objects to the mind, or use terms not verbally identical with the terms which are explicitly set down as the data. On this rigorist interpretation no proposition in Euclid would give deductive results. We could not deduce from the nature of a triangle that its angles are equal to two right angles, because its definition does not say, for instance, what a right angle is. Remove these unwarrantable restrictions and it may be fairly affirmed that in mathematics we find examples of real essences,{10} and of their deduced properties. Moral science would furnish us with similar results; but we must hasten on to the main controversy, the essences of natural objects in the concrete.

To start with, it may be observed, that to fight out this battle to the end belongs, not to General, but to Special Metaphysics -- to Cosmology, which treats of such questions as the ultimate constitution of bodies, and to Psychology, which lays down what is meant by a spiritual substance. As to the essence of matter we may note two divergent tendencies. Those whose training, before they take up philosophy, has lain largely in chemical analyses and syntheses, and in reducing what they see in physical nature to mathematical formulae, are apt to assume without any hesitation that, given a few elementary atoms which are unaccounted for, all the other differences between bodies must be simply matters of arrangement between parts; all are accidental, none substantial; all are extra-essential, none intrinsically essential. Contrariwise with the man who takes up philosophy, without previous training in physical science, having his mind unfamiliar with the conceptions of chemistry and mathematics, his tendency is to regard all striking changes as replacements of one essence by another, never as rearrangements of the same elemental forces. Hence there is a difficulty to get the opposite sides fairly to weigh each other's arguments. While it is an undoubted want in a man's mind, if it has never taken up Descartes' great idea of applying algebraic symbols to material phenomena, on the other hand it is decidedly a mental twist to have Descartes' exaggerated notions about the sufficiency of algebraic symbols to explain matter. To represent the scholastics of the present time as men all ignorant of experimental science would be as inaccurate as to represent them as all clinging, without abatement, to the old multiplicity of essential forms in all their abundance. One point on which they are unanimous is, that the soul is not indeed the body, but the essential form of the human body; few would deny a similar office to a vital principle in the mere animals: very many affirm the like for vegetative life: and below this point the dissidents begin to multiply.

It belongs to another treatise to attempt an adjudication of this very difficult controversy: but we at present must try a simpler method of justifying the assertion that we can know something about essential natures. In the rough the form of expression could hardly be rejected, that science seeks to arrive at the very nature of things, and has some measure of success in the enterprise. Even Mill allows us this much; for in one of the very chapters where he has been scouting the doctrine of definitions which profess to give the real essences of things, he comes round,{11} at the close of his discussion, to these admissions: "Whenever the inquiry into the definition of the name of any real object consists of anything else than a mere comparison of authorities, we tacitly assume that a meaning must be found for the name compatible with its continuing to denote, if possible all, but at any rate the greater or more important part, of the things of which it is commonly predicated. The inquiry, therefore, into the definition is an inquiry into the resemblances and differences among those things; whether there be any resemblance running through them all; if not, through what portion a general resemblance can be traced; and finally what are the common attributes the possession of which gives to them all, or to that portion of them, the character of resemblance which has led to their being classed together?" So far Mill's words do something to relieve definitions from his charge that they are nominal, not real: and that "the simplest and most correct notion of a definition is, a proposition declaratory of the meaning of a word." What follows in the same extract will do something to relieve the definition from the further charge that its claim to be essential is a false pretence. "In giving a distinct connotation (meaning) to the general name, the philosopher will endeavour to fix upon such as are common to all the things usually denoted by the name, as also of the greatest importance in themselves; either directly, or from the number, the conspicuousness, or the interesting character of the consequences to which they lead. He will select as far as possible such differentiae as lead to the greatest number of interesting propria. But to penetrate to the more hidden agreement on which these more obvious and suferficial agreements depend, is often one of the most difficult of scientific problems. And as it is among the most difficult, so it seldom fails to be among the most important."

We express no surprise that Mill should have spoken so; he would have had to be egregiously ignorant of the nature of science if he had described its inquiries as anything less radical. It was his irrational denial of substance and efficient causality, and his equivalent denial of any knowledge beyond that of each one's own states of sensation, thought, and volition, that made him refuse to admit that the definitions of science were real and had some degree of success in assigning essences. In spite of his denials, a confession that definitions are more than nominal and accidental is clearly implied in such a sentence as this: "Since upon the result of the inquiry respecting the causes of the properties of a class of things, there incidentally depends the question, what shall be the meaning of a word: some of the most profound and invaluable investigations which philosophy presents to us, have offered themselves under the guise of inquiries into the definition of a name." So after all, nominal essences are only "incidental" objects of scientific inquiry, not the sole inquiries possible to men when they search into essences.

As it is highly advantageous to our cause to show our several adversaries in the act of conceding to us the foundations on which we build our argument, alongside of Mill's utterances we will place a sentence from one who is his closest colleague. Mr. Bain, who, however, says elsewhere that he is not sure that there is anything more in matter left for us to discover; that he is not convinced that there is a picture beyond what we call the veil, but that our veil may be the picture; nevertheless writes as follows:{12} "If we understood more thoroughly the ultimate arrangement of the atoms of bodies, we might not improbably find that one fundamental property was the foundation -- a real essence, of which the other characters are but the propria." It is something of this kind that we want to show.

The substantial gain to be got out of these quotations from adversaries is, not that they fully concede our doctrine, but that they supply corrections to errors in their own context: that they furnish us with a part of our argument; and that they are admissions which only need interpreting on better principles with regard to the nature of human knowledge, in order to lead to our conclusions.

We cannot lay too much emphasis on the fact that scepticism in the school of Hume about essences, does not begin at this point; it rests on utterly false theories about man's power of knowledge, which is logically reduced to a mere chemistry of ideas, or of the phenomenal states of self-consciousness. Of course on these shifting and unsubstantial grounds we can build up no knowledge of essences. Hence the brunt of the battle falls to the share of another manual in this series. Nevertheless, even here, where we presuppose our own theory of knowledge, we must put forth a defence of the doctrine that we can attain to some insight into essences.

Our claim is moderate. We fully admit that the human intellect has a very imperfect acquaintance with essences, and must often put up with make-shifts; or, in the words of St. Thomas,{13} "because the essential differences of things are frequently unknown, we use accidental differences to mark those which are essential." Thus on the hypothesis -- which we need not discuss -- that there is an essential difference between gold and silver, certainly we do not penetrate to this fundamental distinction, but have to discriminate it by such accidental characters as specific gravity, solubility, colour, and so forth. It is important to notice here, how St. Thomas himself removes that stone of stumbling which many fancy that they find over and over again in the scholastic system. He distinctly affirms that essences can often be indicated by us only in an indirect way, through nonessential characteristics. Here, perhaps, is the best place to enter a caution against a way of speaking, which often leads to fatal misconceptions on the part of hearers, and is not always without mistake on the part of the speakers. It is often said that "simple apprehension" seizes the essences of things, and that universal ideas also are about essences. The assertion is clearly true of essence in the wider sense, and often as clearly untrue of essence in the narrower sense. Certainly it is not the way of physical science to discover the inmost nature of objects by easy intuition, but rather by laborious methods of inference from phenomena; and as to universal ideas there are more of them that refer to "accidents" than to "essences."{14} Further it is to be noted, that if we take essences, not in the concrete, but for the generalized essences which are reached by mental abstraction, then frequently we do, at first starting, apprehend objects under the universal and essential ideas of Thing, Substance, Body, and even under more determinate conceptions that are essential inasmuch as they give the general nature of the object, as man, boy, sailor; all which are immediate perceptions only on the supposition of many previous experiences as to what outside appearances imply. Furthermore, the observation is to the point, that we must not confuse "simple apprehension," when it means mere apprehension as distinguished from judgment, with "simple apprehension," when it means apprehension of a simple, as distinguished from a complex object. Of a nursery rhyme we could say that it was "simple nonsense," meaning thereby a simplicity that could not be meant when a bitter opponent of Hegel affirmed that his system was "simple nonsense." One would be nonsense of a simple character, the other of a character anything but simple. If, therefore, we take "simple apprehension" to be, as St. Thomas calls it, intelligentia indivisibilium et incomplexorum, "the perception of what is indivisible and without complexity," then the notions so gathered are our most elementary intuitions; they form the very fundamentals or essentials of knowledge; they give us our first principles.{15}

After attending to these most necessary warnings we proceed with our vindication for man of some knowledge about essences in the stricter sense of the term; or about that in things which, as far as they are concerned, makes them what precisely they are, which, as far as our investigations into them are concerned, answers our question, What? and which, as far as their operations are concerned, is more particularly called their nature.

As a scheme for making our general position more readily understood, we will take the broad division of things into matter and spirit, and begin by asking what we know of material essences. At first we are struck by the apparent anomaly, that here we seem to know complex much better than simple essences. It appears that a chemist knows what the nature of water is, but not what is the nature of either of its component elements. The fallacy here is kindred with the common delusion that evident inference is satisfactory, while the evident intuition of simple, irresolvable truth is not. Undoubtedly, if the chemist assumes a certain number of ultimate substances, he can trace all other inorganic bodies, and in some sense all organic bodies, to his primitive components. The main point left for discussion in regard to the compound is, whether it is rigorously a new substance, or only a very intimate re-arrangement of old substances. Given the elements, it is known what are the elements that combine, and in what proportions, and under what conditions, they combine to produce what results; all these are whats or quiddities, known within certain limits. But if we fall back upon the assumed elements, which hitherto have been taken as mere data, then they are found all along to have demanded explanation, and not to have had properly assigned to them their essential definitions. Probably many of them are really compounds, resolvable into simpler constituents; but if we imagine ourselves at length to have arrived at our ultimate element or elements of matter, what do we know of essences there? Those who are convinced that the Aristotelian theory of matter and form{16} is correct, may call their doctrine a theory that goes pretty near to the root or essence of the question; those who hold one or other of the remaining theories which have gained credit in philosophy. vary in what, after a new sense of the word, we may call their radicalism; that is, their definitions of matter go, some more, some less, near to the root. Lastly, those who are unconvinced by any of the prevalent theories about the essential constitution of matter are in the case which we have heard St. Thomas describe: because to them "essential differences are unknown," they "use accidental differences to mark those which are substantial." They describe matter by its most general properties, weight, inertia, extension, and impenetrability.

If, therefore, it be asked what, after all, do the schoolmen know about the essence of matter, and if we frame our reply so as to keep clear of points controverted among them; then from the position of General Metaphysics we answer by telling the inquirer to consult two sources of information: first, books treating of cosmology, and arguing their case largely on metaphysical principles and in reference to matter in its most generic sense; and next, books treating of the several special sciences, and arguing their case on physical principles and in reference to matter in some specific order. Our contention is that, when together, these books do show some knowledge, more or less adequate, about essences; that they do furnish replies, more or less final, to the question, what is this, that, and the other. For example the laws of motion, of gravitation, and of combination by definite proportions; the reduction of light and sound to vibratory movements calculable mathematically; the doctrine of the transformation of energy; the assertion of comparatively few chemical elements -- all these are approximations to a knowledge of essences; they are the knowledge of what, with a certain looseness of expression, may be called secondary or derivative essences. Again, to know matter as substance and efficient cause is to know it under an essential aspect, though a highly generalized one. Even the classificatory sciences, such as botany and zoology, which in part at least are concerned with matter, so far as they go on "a natural system," point in the direction of essences. In short, the very admission that there is such a thing as physical science, and that science is cognitio rerum per causas -- a knowledge of things according to the rationale of them -- is tantamount to saying, that some manner of acquaintance with essences is possible; that the world does present its objects ranged according to at least a certain number of different kinds, and that we can do something to mark off one kind from another.{17} Whatever be the extent of "the law of continuity," at least it does not abolish every single specific difference in the world; and there are other differences that have established a character which is, if not in the fullest sense specific, at least is secondarily and practically specific: for example the difference between "chalk and cheese." To this moderate extent the schoolmen are justified in their pretensions to have knowledge of essences; but if we must signalize the points most provocative of debate within the modern scholastic camp, it is the multiplication of essential forms to account for what are called the substantial changes of chemical composition or decomposition, and the assumption concerning the irresolvable elements, that they are constituted by two real distinct principles, one active and the other passive, one form and the other matter.

Such is a short statement of what we claim to know about the essences of the material universe; and if the account is examined carefully, it will be found not to differ so very widely from the one which our more moderate adversaries give, when they are delivering, not their worse, but their better sentiments on the subject. Let De Morgan stand as an example: "The most difficult inquiry which one can propose to oneself is, to find out what anything is: in all probability we do not know what we are talking about when we ask such a question. The philosophers of the middle ages were much concerned with the is or essence of things; they argued to their own minds, with great justice,{18} that if they could only find out what a thing is, they would find out all about it: they tried and failed. Their successors, taking warning by their example, have inverted the proposition and have satisfied themselves that the only way to find out what a thing is, lies in finding out what we can about it." Precisely so taught Aristotle, and so teach we: it is quite false to say with Mill, that our doctrine of essences implies the ultra-realistic belief in universals a parte rei, or to say that it supposes a priori conceptions of essences, not gathered from experience. We may read of a mystic like Boehme, that walking one day near Görlitz, he had suddenly revealed to him the essences, the properties, and the uses of herbs, so that he was able to write his book De Signatura Rerum: yet even so it was from the outer appearances of plants that he argued what their curative powers must be. Many also of the antischolastic writers of the Renaissance, such as the Cabbalists, Reuchlin, and Cornelius Agrippa, or the physicists Cardanus and Paracelsus, are recorded to have claimed a sort of intuition into essences, or a discovery of them by other than scientific means. But we are quite content with De Morgan's system of inferring what a thing is, after observing what it does.

In beginning our sketch of the position which scholastic philosophy has been able to secure for itself, in regard to the actual knowledge of essences, we chose Matter for our first subject of examination: we have yet to consider the case in respect of Spirit. Those who accept the doctrine of Matter and Form as satisfactorily accounting for bodily substance, would assert that Spirit is Form without any Matter to act as a joint constituent with itself of the spiritual substance as such: though the spiritual part of man may take the place of form in regard to his corporeal part. Those who doubt the doctrine would yet have left, by way of approximations to the ultimate essence, the known characteristics of Spirit, which are that it is an inextended substance acting by means of intelligence and will, especially of intelligence, which shows itself to be perfectly self-reflective, and of will, which shows itself to be free. Then on De Morgan's principle that we can infer what a thing is from what it does, they would assert that the phenomena of Spirit give some information about its nature or essence: what manner of substance it is appears from its manner of action.

After the above statements, the proof that we can know something of essences may be put into a short syllogism.

Those persons can know something of essences who, first, have the power of genuine intellectual abstraction from the conditions of mere sense-cognitions, so that they can know things under the form of quiddities, or in answer to the question, What are they? and who, secondly, have a genuine power of inference, whereby from the modes of its activity they can calculate the nature of an agent.

But we have these powers.

Therefore we can know something of essences.

Thus it is an approach to essential knowledge when we know why the loudness of sound decreases with the distance from its source, and can trace this diminution to the laws of vibratory propagation in an elastic medium. Again, if planetary motion is really accounted for by an initial impulse and a central attraction, that again is at least an approach to the knowledge of an essence.

It may be urged, that "the plurality of causes," or the doctrine that like effects may spring from agents differing in kind, is against any certain conclusion drawn from actions to essences. The reply is, that this obstacle not unfrequently makes itself felt, and not unfrequently it does not. The principle, if pushed to its extremes, would forbid the certain identification of any criminal, because different individuals may present the same outside appearances. Such similarity is occasionally a bar to identification, but not always.

(3) For expressing the essences of things, there are two ways open, advertence to which will be a security against a not improbable source of confusion. We may take the constituent parts of an essence either according to physical, or according to metaphysical considerations; that is, so that the members are different in themselves, apart from any act of distinguishing thought, or so that the distinction made by our thought is not, and could not, exactly be realized outside thought. Thus, if we give body and soul as the components of man, the division is physical; if we give animality and rationality, the division is metaphysical, and the same is to be said of the distinction between a man's nature and his individuality. It is called metaphysical division inasmuch as it passes the power of the physical conditious of existence, and can be effected only by mental abstraction.

To connect what has just been laid down with what was previously said about "second intentions," we must recall how the test of the latter is, that they cannot be affirmed of objects as these exist, or might exist in themselves, but only so far as they receive a denomination proper to them as objects contemplated by the mind. An abstract nature regarded as common to several individuals is, on this criterion, a "second intention," for there is no universal a parte rei. When, however, we say that the metaphysical constituents of essences can be distinguished only by the mind, and have not an actual distinction in rerum natura, we do not thereby debar them from being predicated in "first intention" of the wholes to which they belong. Thus we can affirm "in first intention" or of the man himself, that he has "animality" and "rationality," "nature" and "individuality." There are some who include these abstract terms under "second intentions," but we have chosen the narrower definition.

(4) We have arrived at the place where a controversy is often introduced about the distinction between essence and existence in created objects. We shall not enter into the controversy, but we cannot leave it unmentioned because it affects some of our own doctrines up and down this treatise. Essence we have already explained; and existence, though it is too elementary a notion to be rigidly defined, can be described to mean "the complement of possibility," "that whereby a thing is placed outside its causes, and has its own actual presence in the universe," "the actuality of an essence." About essence and existence these are the rough outlines of the disputation to which we wish to call attention:

(a) The controversy has no point for those who do not believe in God as the sole self-existent Being, and in finite things as receiving the whole of their Being, possible and actual, from God.

(b) There is no controversy, but full accord among the disputants, about the perfect identity essence and existence in God; as also about a certain sort of real distinction between any creature in its merely possible state, and the same creature in its actual state; a possible Adam is really other than an actual Adam.

(c) What is controverted is, whether in an actually existent creature, the actuated essence is really distinct from its existence, the former being id quod existit (that which exists), and the latter, id quo existit (that whereby it exists).

(d) The affirmers of the real distinction appeal to the fact, that. only of God can it be said that existence is of His essence, and that the essence of any finite thing does not include among its constituent notes the note of existence. Opponents reply that so long as creatures are maintained to be totally created by God out of nothing, and not to have existence implied in their essence, when that essence is considered in the abstract, and metaphysically, for example, when man is considered as "rational animality;" so long the difference between the necessary existence of God and the contingent existence of anything else, is abundantly emphasized. The two sides of the question are argued respectively by Egidius, Tractatus de Esse et Essentia, q. ix., and Suarez, Metaphvs. disp. xxxi. sect. 4, 5, 6. A main difficulty felt by impugners of the real distinction, lies in their reluctance to allow, at least in this particular case, a distinct reality which is a mere quo and not a quod -- an existence which is not a somewhat, but only a whereby -- the whereby through which the somewhat exists.


(1) An outline{19} of the scholastic theory about material substance is needful to explain what has been said about our knowledge of essence, and is here presented for inspection:

(a) As a result not of a priori speculation, but of observed phenomena, it is contended that Matter presents a double series of manifestations; it is not only active but passive; not only one in its nature, but manifold in its extended parts; not only special in its own nature, but generically common in all natures; furthermore, it changes from one nature to another, and that by way of transformation, not of simple substitution, for there is something common to it before and after the change.

(b) To produce these opposite results it is argued that two opposite principles are required, one called primordial matter (materia prima, hê prôton hulê) the other substantial form (forma, actus primus, eidos, morphê, entelecheia, energeia). Matter is passive, indeterminate, but determinable, the principle of multiplicity, the constant under all changes; form is active, determinate and determining, the principle of unity, the variable under all substantial changes. While forms come and go, matter is the same throughout, not being liable to "corruption and generation."

(c) The opposition here is declared to be so real that the two principles must be really distinct, not as two distinct things, but as two constituents of one thing. Some scholastics indeed say that materia prima has a sort of incomplete entity of its own; but Aristotle's description of it is that it has{20} "neither quiddity, nor quantity, nor quality, nor any of the determinants of Being." Thus in completest contrast to God, who is pure act, it is pure potentiality or determinability, wholly actuated and determined by some form, in conjunction with which alone it can exist, and towards which its one function is to serve as subject or support, and constitute with it a single Being. Hence corporeal Being results from the coalescence of the two components, neither of which could connaturally exist apart: the form is the primus actus, actuating the pura potentia, and so giving rise to the primum esse rei. Each principle apart is rather id quo aliquid est, than id quod est: only the compound is id quod est.

The system of dynamism takes various shapes, but its tendency is to insist only upon the active or formal element, as centred at indivisible points;{21} whereas atomism, which also takes many shapes, in its cruder form tends to the assertion of mere passive matter-elements, upon which a certain quantity of motion has been impressed from outside, and is now handed about without change of total quantity, by some mode of transference which is left unexplained. These two are the extremes to which, however, neither of the systems need be pushed.

(2) It is impossible to disabuse the average British philosopher of Mill's delusive idea, that the doctrine of real essences is one with the doctrine that each species of thing has one ipsissima essentia physically common to all the individuals, which are specifically what they are only by participation in this single form. But if any honest Inquirer wants to satisfy his conscience on this point, let him look, if not directly at the treatment of Essence in the scholastic books, then at any rate at their treatment of Universal ideas. The same reference, especially if supplemented by a glance at what is said about the origin of ideas, will likewise satisfy him on another subject; for thus it will appear that essences are not supposed to be known a priori and to lead deductively to physical science, but they are inferred a posteriori . It would be rather a Platonist with his theory of reminiscence, than an Aristotelian, who would thoroughly chime in with Browning's verses in "Paracelsus:"

There is an inmost Centre in us all.
Where truth abides in fulness; and to know
Rather Consists in opening out a way,
Whence the imprisoned splendour may escape,
Than in effecting entrance for a light
Supposed to be without.

Yet this is vulgarly supposed to be the commonly accepted tenet of scholasticism. When, therefore, essence is sometimes defined as "that which is conceived first in a thing, and from which all the properties are conceived to flow," we must take "first" not in the order of time, not in the order of the acquisition of knowledge, but in the order of relationship between the several constituents of the object known. Or we must take first in the order truths, not in the order of our knowledge of truths.

(3) Essence and nature with the scholastics are often synonymous. Nature etymologically is that which a thing is, as it were by birth or genesis: thus it is a term apt to signify the kind to which a thing belongs. But as its special signification nature means the thing on its active side: and thus Aristotle gives the definition,{22} "Nature is the substance or essence of things, which have in themselves, as such, a principle of motion or activity." As it is only by the activities of an object upon us that we can know it, activities for us determine its nature. Hence, subject to our own interpretation, the words of Hume, the empiricist, will suit us:{23} "For me it seems evident that the essence (or nature) of mind being equally unknown to us with that of external bodies, it must be equally impossible to form any notion of its powers and qualities, otherwise than from careful and exact experiments, and the observation of their particular effects, which result from its different circumstances and situations. And though we must endeavour to render all our principles as universal as possible, by tracing up our experiments to their utmost, and explaining all effects from the simplest and fewest causes, 'tis still certain that we cannot go beyond experience."

(4) Mill admits distinct "natures" in the universe, so far as he admits differences between "real kinds." But instead of explaining these after anything like the manner of definite essences, he has recourse to the note of indefiniteness for his discriminating sign: so that a definable essence, giving rise to a deducible series of properties, from the very completeness of its self-revelation, would not be a "real kind." "There is no impropriety," writes Mill,{24} "in saying that of these two classifications," into real and not-real kinds, "the one answers to a much more radical distinction in things themselves than the other does. And if any one ever chooses to say that the one classification is made by nature, the other by us for our convenience, he will be right, provided he means no more than this: Where a certain apparent difference between things (though perhaps in itself of little moment) answers to we know not what number of differences, pervading not only their known properties, but properties yet undiscovered, it is not optional but imperative to recognize this difference as the foundation of a specific difference; while, on the contrary, differences that are merely finite and determinate, like those designated by the words 'white,' 'black,' or 'red,' may be disregarded if the purpose for which the classification is made does not require attention to these particular properties. The differences, howeyer, are made by nature in both cases; only in the one case the ends of language and classification would be subverted if no notice were taken of the difference, while in the other case the necessity of taking notice of it depends on the importance or unimportance of the particular qualities in which the difference happens to consist" Thus "the real kinds are distinguished by unknown multitudes of properties," the not-real kinds "by a few determinate ones."

Mr. Bain faithfully repeats the like ideas:{25} "A natural kind is distinguished by containing not one, two, three, or four features of community, but a very large, indefinite, and, perhaps, inexhaustible number. Oxygen has a great many properties; the aggregate of all these is properly the meaning of the word." Thus an object is defined by all its ascertainable predicates, not by select essential notes. For instance, "the technically correct form of predication would be as follows: There exists in nature an aggregate of these properties matter, transparency, the gaseous form, a certain specific gravity, active combining power, and so on: to which aggregation is applied the name Oxygen." It may be noted that to illustrate a specific definition, Oxygen is inconveniently chosen, because it is to us an irresolvable element, and can be designated only by such rather superficial marks as we have been able to discover.

(5) However much some may think such discussions obsolete, yet in his Types of Ethical Theory, Dr. Martineau gives us an instance of an Englishman, in the present century, still discussing the relation of Essence and Existence. His words show his disagreement with Hume's assertion,{26} "that the idea of existence is the very same with the idea of what we conceive to be existent, and makes no addition to it:" so that to declare a thing existent signifies only a "certain liveliness in the idea." Dr. Martineau says, "The relation between existence and essence is perverted if the former [in created things] is treated as one of the characters that make up the latter, and may be elicited thence. Every essence is the essence of something, and needs an existence to hold and own it, and you cannot depose existence from the place of substantive priority, and send it down to do duty as a property among the factors of the essence; a property, moreover, not generally found there, but only in the special case of uncreated things. The essence of anything is that which, being posited, gives the thing, and being withheld, excludes it. But this positing may be in either of two fields. Do you say it in the field of thought? Then it may mean that your idea of essence includes your idea of existence. Do you say it in the field of fact? Then it means that the essence cannot be real without the thing being real. But from the conceptual essence to the real existence there in no passage, except by the leap of a postulate. The logical constitution of our conception is assumed to be adequate security for the actual." These remarks are à propos of St. Anselm's argument for the existence of God as proved by the very idea of a most perfect Being. The force of the argument is discussed in Natural Theology, where most authors agree with Dr. Martineau that it does not suffice by itself alone, without calling in the aid of an a posteriori element,

{1} Psychologia, thesis xxvi.

{2} Leviathan, Pt. I. c. iv.

{3} Logic, Bk. I. c. vi. § 2.

{4} Reid on Aristotle's Logic, c. ii. sect. iv. See Locke, Human Understanding, Bk. III. c. iii.

{5} Note on Reid, l.c.

{6} Logic, Bk. I. cc. vi. vii. and viii.

{7} See First Principles of Knowledge, Pt. II. C. iii. n. 6.

{8} This crooked version of a chapter in the history of philosophy is repeated in the Examination, c. xvii. in initio.

{9} See our definition of real in chapter ii. p. 32.

{10} According to the definition of real given in the previous chapter.

{11} Logic, Bk. I. c. viii. in fine.

{12} Deductive Logic, Bk. I. c. ii. Inductive Logic, Bk III. c. ii. Comte said that the natural tendency of man was to ask with regard to anything, "What is the one persistent type that reappears in every member?" The search for types is the search for essences.

{13} In Lib. I. De Anima, Lect. i.

{14} First Principles, Bk. II. c. iii. n. 6.

{15} When in the first chapter we define Being as ens essentiae, essence is here taken in the highly abstract order -- indeed the highest -- and it refers primarily to substantial essence, secondarily to accidental; for analogously accidents have their essences.

{16} An outline of the theory is given in "Notes and Iflustrations." n. 1.

{17} "I have no sympathy with the oft-repeated attempts of philosophers to show that the fundamental ideas of Physical Science are inadequate, disconnected, and frequently inconsistent. Without attempting to determine how much of justice there is in this indictment I readily admit that it is in the main true, but I am not so much struck with these defects as killed with admiration at the manifold variety of consistent and trustworthy results which, with such imperfect means, science has established." (Lotze, Metaphysics, Bk. II. c. viii. § 21.)

{18} Unjustifiably, says Mill, in a passage already quoted. See De Morgan's Logic, chap. ix. in initio.

{19} Aristotle, Phys. Lib. I. c. v.; Metaphys. Lib. VIII. c. I.

{20} mête ti, mête poson, mête allo mêden legetai ois ôristai to on -- "Neque est quod, neque quantum, neque quale, neque aliud quidpiam coram quibus ens determinatur." (Aristotle. Metaphys. vi. (sl viii.) c. 7.)

{21} A dynamist would put his own sense upon Rosmini's definition of substance as an energy: "Quella energia in che si fonda lattuale esistenza deli' essere." (Nuovi Saggi, sez. x. Pt. II. C 2.)

{22} Metaphys. iv. c. 4.

{23} Treatise, Introduction, p. 308. (Green's Edition.)

{24} Logic, Bk. i. c. vii. § 4.

{25} Logic, Bk. I. c. ii. n. 7.

{26} Treatise, Bk. I. Pt. II. sect. vi.

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