Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Act and Fact: On a Disputed Question in Recent Thomistic Metaphysics

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Act and Fact: On a Disputed Question in Recent Thomistic Metaphysics

Article excerpt

Thomism seems to be different in every one of its proponents who is thinking authentically on the philosophical level.--Joseph Owens (1)

I WOULD LIKE TO DRAW ATTENTION to a question that has arisen in Thomistic metaphysics in recent decades, in a thread of discussion winding through remarks in three articles published in The Review of Metaphysics. The discussion began in 1974, when Cornelio Fabro said, not for the first time, that there is, according to Aquinas, a difference between "esse as act" and "existence which is the fact of being." (2) In 1976, Joseph Owens said, in response to Fabro's distinction, that, for Aquinas, it is the same existence (esse) that is conceptualized both as an "actuality" and as a fact. (3) In 1989, John F. Wippel, differing from Owens, said that there is a distinction in Aquinas's writings between "esse as facticity" and "esse as intrinsic actus essendi." (4) As may be seen, there are variations in the way in which these authors describe the distinction, whether to affirm or deny it. But Owens and Wippel evidently consider themselves to be concerned with the same question, the question raised by Fabro's claim. It is a question that would seem to be of no small importance for understanding what Aquinas means by esse, or to be. Perhaps, then, it will be useful to bring the differences between these interpreters on the question into sharper focus.


Fabro's La nozione metafisica di partecipazione secondo s. Tommaso d'Aquino (1939) includes a section, recently singled out for discussion by Wippel, on the participation of beings in the act of being. (5) Early in the section, Fabro introduces the notion of esse as actus essendi, calling it a simpler but more mysterious notion than that of essence. Our intellect, he says, directly comprehends only essence; it does not reach the existence that enters into an essence. Existence cannot be defined by us, not only because of its maximum generality or logical transcendence, but also because, of its nature, it has no distinctive way (modo proprio) of presenting itself to our intellect outside of the essence of which it is act. Aquinas "contents himself," Fabro says, with presenting descriptions of existence or esse, descriptions that give notably greater importance to the act of esse than to essence. (6)

We might wonder about the sense in which esse "enters into" (entro') and cannot present itself "outside of" (all'infuori dell') essence. The metaphorical "interiority and exteriority" evidently involves a likewise metaphorical "invisibility and visibility" to our intellect: the suggestion is that our intellect can "see" an essence, which is, as it were, "on the surface," "out in the open," in intelligible "space," but that it cannot "see" an esse hidden "deeply within" an essence, although it can try to describe it.

Fabro begins his discussion of Aquinas's descriptions of esse by making the distinction in which we are interested. He says that esse as act of being (atto di essere, "act of to be"), is not just the fact of existing, or "that by which something is constituted outside its causes."' This fact is rather the external effect of the act of being, which is of a deeper nature (e di natura piu prof onda)" The act of being is "that by which" (quo) every formality can be indicated as real, that is, as distinct from every other formality, and not just as notionally distinct, but as really separate in the nature of things. The act of being (atto di essere) is the act of the essence (l'atto dell'essenza). (9) "Act of being" here seems to be an appositional genitive, meaning the act that is being. "Act of the essence," on the other hand, is clearly a genitive of possession, meaning the act belonging to the essence, by which the essence is actual. Again, an "interiority and exteriority" is spoken of: the fact of existing is an "external" (and therefore evident) effect of the "deeper" (and therefore hidden) act of being. …

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