Part II: Jean-Luc Marion, Beyond Conceptual Idolatry

Marion agrees with the basic contours of Heidegger’s critique of onto-theo-logy,[1] which for our purposes may be summarized as follows: (1) God or the divine principle is understood or thought in terms of Being, which means that God or the divine principle is wholly immanent; (2) God or the divine principle functions as both the ground of all beings (as an efficient cause in a univocal kind of way) and thus provides the conceptual foundation for the Being of all beings. Stated slightly differently, God or the divine principle and beings reciprocally ground each other in being; (3) God is both ens realissimum (the supreme or highest being) and the causa sui (self-causing cause).

In an excellent article entitled, “Aquinas, Marion, Analogy, and Esse: A Phenomenology of the Divine Names?”,[2] Derek J. Morrow sheds light on Marion’s current position on Thomas as reflected in his [Marion’s] article, “Thomas Aquinas and Onto-Theo-logy.” As Morrow points out, Marion argues that Thomas escapes all three aspects of Heidegger’s critique as set forth above. Regarding the first point, Marion argues that not Thomas but rather Giles of Rome, Duns Scotus, and particularly Francisco Suarez are the guilty parties. Suarez, e.g., claims that God is the adequate object of the science of metaphysics; whereas Aquinas makes the proper object of metaphysics esse commune. God then factors into the consideration of metaphysics in an indirect way, viz., as the causal principle of common being. For Aquinas in contradistinction from the thinkers mentioned above, God and creatures are not conceived under a common univocal concept of being (“Aquinas, Marion…” pp. 29-30).

Regarding the second point, Marion also exonerates Thomas because of his distinction between esse commune and esse divinum. Here Thomas distinguishes between the two ways that esse can be predicated when referring to common and divine being. As Morrow explains, the esse of common being can be predicated “without addition by means of an abstraction without precision that as such neither excludes nor includes any addition […] Similarly, to predicate esse ‘without addition’ is to predicate being in a manner that abstracts from all generic and specific differences obtaining among beings. Esse in this sense is therefore common to all beings, without thereby excluding their essential differences. Esse divinum, on the other hand, designates the predication of esse ‘without addition’ in a completely different sense: here ‘without addition’ means that God’s esse precludes any addition, in virtue of its simplicity and purity.” In short, because God’s esse is unique, “without addition” is at best predicated analogically (not univocally) of common being and divine being. God’s esse is wholly other than esse commune and is not included in the concept of the latter. Consequently, God is freed from the onto-logic of metaphysics, as he stands outside metaphysics as its principle (“Aquinas, Marion,” p. 30, 31). Though it is the case that Aquinas’ doctrine of analogy conceives God as the efficient cause of common being, Thomas still manages to escape the second aspect of Heidegger’s critique because his understanding of causality in creation is asymmetrical. In other words, God, does not stand in a reciprocal relation to his creation. Rather, the dependency is “one-way”—creation is wholly dependent upon God for its being and intelligibility. Regarding the third point, suffice it to say that for Aquinas, God is the uncaused cause.

If Thomas is exonerated as to all three aspects of Heidegger’s onto-theo-logy charge, then has not Marion completely revised his original position on Thomas as presented in God Without Being? Here we should recall what Marion states in the preface to the English edition of GWB, viz., his concerns with Thomas “would have to be resituated within the wider theological debate of the divine names (p. xxiii). More specifically, we should turn to what Marion says in chapter three of GWB—“[t]he whole question consists precisely in determining whether a name can be suitable ‘maxime proprie’ to God, if God can have an essence, and (only) finally if this essence can be fixed in the ipsum esse/actus essendi (p. 76). As we recall from our previous post, Thomas marks a departure from the Dionysian tradition when he substitutes ipsum esse for summum bonum as God’s primary name. In “Thomas Aquinas and Onto-Theo-logy,” Marion’s revised critique on the particular issue of the divine names separates Thomas from some of his commentators. That is, while Thomas’ naming of God as ipsum esse is interpreted by Marion in a way that this naming does not result in conceptual idolatry, some of his commentators have appropriated a version of ipsum esse that results in a loss of God’s transcendence.[4]

So how exactly does Marion interpret Thomas’s ipsum esse as a proper first name of God? According to Marion, “the Thomistic esse cannot be understood starting from ontological determinations, whatever they may be, but only starting from its distance with regard to all possible ontology, following instead the claims imposed by the transcendence of God on entity as well as on his own being. […] If esse truly offers the first name of God according to Thomas Aquinas, this thus signifies for him in the first place that God is called esse but as to name only and not as such. For in good theology, the primacy of esse implies especially that it is to be understood, more than any other name, starting from God, and not that God can be conceived starting from esse” (“Thomas and Onto-theo-logy,” p. 61). Marion then proceeds to discuss the many aspects of this “distance.” First, he notes that God’s esse is wholly other than created esse. Second, the divine esse “causes the entities because he causes also their entitativeness (their esse commune), their esse as created.” Yet, here again in order for God’s transcendence to be upheld, we must understand God’s esse as something completely different than created esse—as excluded from created being—“and consequently from all [that] we understand and know under the title of being. Therefore, God without being (at least without this being) could become again a Thomistic thesis (“Thomas and Onto-theo-logy,” p. 62). Third, we must see in God’s esse an excess given its identification by Thomas with (God’s) essence. Again we are confronted with esse which is not like that of any other being, as all other beings are esse/essence composites. Hence, given the uniqueness of God’s esse which is his essence (and which perhaps points to the complete absence of essence understood in the Aristotelian sense of providing a definition) “the excess of the proper esse of God disqualifies all metaphysical (conceptual) meaning of being” (“Thomas and Onto-theo-logy,” p. 62). Lastly, God’s unknowability points us to something beyond a metaphysics of being. “[T]he irreducibility of esse to any essence argues for the impossibility of articulating anything about God in a predicative way and, therefore, of speaking of it discursively or, in a word, of understanding it. Thus this pure esse reveals itself in principle as unknowable as the God it names. God known as unknown—this implies that his esse remains knowable only as unknowable, in sharp contrast to the esse that metaphysics has essentially set in a concept to make it as knowable as possible” (“Thomas and Onto-theo-logy,” p. 63).[4] In short, God’s unknowability cannot be bound by a metaphysics of being and to understand Thomas’ ipsum esse in a non-idolatrous way is to recognize it as such a “distant analogy” with created being that God, however paradoxical it sounds, proves not to be (i.e., as a being “is”). “Esse refers to God only insofar as God may appear as without being. […] The statement ‘God without being’ not only could be understood as fundamentally Thomistic, but it could be that no contemporary interpretation of Thomas Aquinas could retrieve its validity without assuming the unconditional exclusion of esse–therefore without the wise imprudence of such paradoxes” (“Thomas and Onto-theo-logy,” pp. 64-65).

[1] In short, for Heidegger onto-theology characterizes the Western metaphysical tradition and is expressed as an attempt by philosophy to use conceptual systems in order to control and master Being (and God/gods).
[2] Though I do not discuss this here, Morrow argues that according to Marion’s interpretation, Thomas’ doctrine of analogy, as well as the divine names function phenomenologically (not metaphysically) to manifest God as infinite goodness and excessive givenness. [See Derek J. Morrow. “Aquinas, Marion, Analogy, and Esse: A Phenomenology of Divine Names?,” International Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 46 (March 2006): 25-42].
[3] In footnote 57, Marion cites E. Gilson as one such commentator. E.g., Gilson writes in “Dieu et l’être,” )Revue Thomiste [1962], reprinted in Constantes philosophiques de la question de l’être [Paris: J. Vrin, 1983], 211, 377), “L’être de Heidegger est le vrai, non parce qu’il se définit contre Dieu, mais parce qu’il se définit comme Dieu, n’étant qu’un autre nom du Dieu judéo-chrétien de l’Exode” (“The Being of Heidegger is the true one, not because it is defined against God, but because it is defined as God, being just another name for the Judeo-Christian God of Exodus”) [“Thomas Aquinas and Onto-theo-logy,” p. 73].
[4] Marion lists the following quotes from St. Thomas as textual support for this interpretation: “Just as the substance of God is unknown, so it is for His esse” (De Potentia, question 7, answer 2, ad 1); “God is known through our ignorance, inasmuch as this is to know God, that we know that we do not know what He is” (In librum De divinis Nominibus VII, 4 [in Opuscula omnia, ed. Mandonnet, 2:534; in Expositio in librum Dionysii de Divinis nominibus, ed. Pera, line 731] ); “The highest and most perfect degree of knowledge in this life is, as Denys said in his book On Mystical Theology (I.3), to be united to God as unknown. “This is what happens when we know about God what He is not, since what he is remains profoundly unknown” (Contra Gentiles III, sec. 49 [see also I, secs. 11 and 12); “With the exception of a revelation of grace we do not, in this life, know about God what He is and therefore that we are united to Him as unknown” (Summa Theologia Ia, q. 12, a. 13, ad 1]) [“Thomas Aquinas and Onto-theo-logy,” p. 63, fn. 65].

9 thoughts on “Part II: Jean-Luc Marion, Beyond Conceptual Idolatry”

  1. Consequently, the doctrine of analogy and any notion of distance depends on the dictrine of simplicity. God is not being for Thomas only in the sense of simplicity. God is simple and creatures are many-Thomas is employing dialectic to set God and creation at opposing ends of a spectrum of being. God “be’s” the most and so he is the most One.

  2. I’m in a seminar at Notre Dame just now on Marion’s work, taught by Kevin Hart, and Marion himself was with us this evening to talk through a few aspects of his earlier work in particular: Idol and Distance, God Without Being, and the essay on Aquinas and onto-theo-logy.

    Something he said tonight while we touched on Thomas that I found helpful: Aquinas’ choice to call God the efficient cause was also carefully chosen to maintain God’s distance. Where Aristotle’s other three causes maintain some basic continuity between cause and the thing caused–either a material continuity, a structural continuity, or in the case of the final cause, an ultimate coincidence–an efficient cause is entirely equivocal with respect to its object: the only continuity is one of motion. This is a stronger case than what he made in the article: rather than having to concede God’s efficient causality and stress the asymmetry, the asymmetry becomes an obvious corollary of this most fitting kind of causality.

    If you feel capable, or if any readers are capable, I’d love to hear some critical reflections on Marion’s reading here. I am not nearly equipped to evaluate him on this point. Hart seems to have some questions, but Dave Burrell has somewhere given this new reading quite nearly absolute assent, or so I hear.

  3. Brian,

    Thanks for dropping by. Do you happen to know in what article/book (or whatever) Burrell presents his most recent assessment of Marion? I would love to read it.

    Also, it not clear to me in what way Marion’s new claim is really all that different than what he said in his article. At the end of the day, aren’t both readings stressing that God as efficient cause is to be understood in an analogical (which some consider a species of equivocity) way; hence the asymmetry (and the upholding of God’s transcendence)?


  4. I would hesitate to suggest that Thomas’s analogy depends upon his understanding of “simplicity.” Rather, I would say that Thomas’s teaching on analogy rests upon his understanding of being. That is, because of the nature of being itself (ipsum esse), it can only be one and therefore absolutely simple. Or put another way, God is simple because He is being, but Aquinas never argues that God is being because He is simple.

    On the other hand, creatures, because they are not ens per essentiam but per participationem, are not being itself (ipsum esse) but, as Thomas says, that which has being (id quod habet esse). Accordingly, they are not simple but complex.

    Now, because Thomas’s analogy of being must ultimately be understood in terms of degrees and communication of existential act (esse), it seems that any effort to suggest that Aquinas falls prey to ‘conceptual idolatry’ misses the point. Why?–because as any number of recent scholars have argues (esp. Gilson and Owens) esse, because it is an act, is not subject to the conceptualizing powers of the intellect after the manner of a nature or essence. Rather, the act of being, which is at the center of Thomas’s analogy of being, can only be confronted through judgment. Thus, when Thomas argues that we can know of God’s existence, such ‘knowledge’ only results after the process of metaphysical reasoning but doesn’t yield any quidditative or conceptual knowledge, but only existential knowledge. However, that conceptual knowledge, though a conception of the mind, is not produced or even re-produced in or through a concept. Thus, the famous Thomistic thesis that while we know that God is, we never know, at least not in this life, what God is. In fact, Thomas explicitly says in his Commentary on the Sentences (I’m sorry I forget the exact passage) that God escapes every effort at conceptualization.

  5. Anxietas,

    You are right to the degree that Unity and Being are related for Thomas, but I think the relation is symetrical. Being and simplicity provide the two critical features for the doctrine of analogy. Being for common ground and simplicity for distance.

  6. Dear Anxietas,

    Thanks for your comment. I read Owen’s book An Elementary Christian Metaphysics over the winter break and recall his argument (following Gilson) that you mention, viz., the idea that esse (=act of being) because it does not fall within the order of nature/essence cannot be conceptualized, yet through the process of judgment we can obtain a non-quidditative, “existential” knowledge of God (i.e., we can know that God exists but we cannot know his nature). There are a few questions/comments that come to mind from this that I think also “get at” Marion’s concerns. (1) It is not clear to me how we can call this existential knowledge, “knowledge” in the Aristotelian sense, but perhaps that is Thomas’ point and is his way of transcending Aristotle in an attempt to avoid making God a (conceptual) idol. (2) If we want to concede Thomas’ argument that we know that “God” exists, it seems that this “God” could be a number of possible divine beings/principles and in no way picks out the Christian God exclusively. No doubt Thomas was not trying to demonstrate the existence of the Trinitarian God (as the Trinity would be an article of faith for him) with his argument in e.g., the De Ente–but this whole scenario strikes me as being related to some of Marion’s concerns in GWB, viz., such a “God” is more appropriately denominated a “God” of metaphysics and not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

    Kind regards,

  7. Acolyte4236,

    If by “symetrical” you mean transcendental, then indeed, for Thomas, ‘being’ and ‘unity’ are convertible. Yet, despite their convertibility, Thomas always places a kind of priority in being (ens). Furthermore, in his treatments of the transcendentals (both in De ver., q. 1, a. 1, and Comm. De hebdo., c.2), it is worthwhile to point out that he articulates the various transcendentals in relation to the act of being (esse). Furthermore, simplicity is not a simple univocal term or one that can apply itself simply to God alone and not to creature. That is, as Thomas explains it, ‘simplicity’ can apply according to varying degrees according to an entity’s relation to its act of being. For Thomas, then, analogy is first and foremost understood according to his doctrine of being, which doctrine has at its heart an understanding of the act of being (esse) as act beyond form or essence.


    You bring up a number of very good points. I don’t think one can call “existential knoweldge,” knowledge in the Aristotelian sense. If as Parmenides says, “it is all the same, being and knowing,” then where being stops so too does knowledge. For Aristotle, the ultimate raison d’etre for being is substantial form, which forms are understood according to the various natures they instantiate. As such, they are suitable objects for conceptualization. For Thomas, on the other hand, given his metaphysics of creation, being is not exhausted from the perspective of substance, but has a deeper more fundamental dimension to it, viz., the act of being (esse). In short, if there is such a fundamental difference in metaphysics between Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, then one shouldn’t be surprised that their epistemologies will also have deep-rooted differences as well.

    Your second comment is a much more challenging one to the Angelic Doctor. In demonstrating the existence of ipsum esse subsistens has Thomas not fallen into the “God of metaphysics” way of thinking? Well, first of all what has Thomas demonstrated when he reaches ipsum esse subsistens? First, he has found the ultimate, efficient, sustaining cause of ALL that is not ipsum esse but id quod habet esse. Accordingly, there can be nothing metaphysically prior to ipsum esse subsistens. Moreover, because of the nature of subsistent being itself, it can–as Thomas also shows in c. 4 De ente (to which you alluded)–only be one–Thomas’s universe is neither pantheistic nor polytheistic.

    Undoubtedly you’ll still ask: while Thomas has demonstrated the existence of ipsum esse subsistens has he demonstrated the existence of the Christian God? Well, yes and no. No–in the sense that he has not shown ipsum esse subsistens to be a Trinitarian community of persons, one of whom became incarnate in a redemptive act for all humanity. Yet, is such a God demonstrable? As you yourself pointed out, Thomas and a good portion of the Christian tradition thinks not.

    Still, Thomas’s demonstrations for God’s existence do not occur within a vacuum but are already contained within a hermeneutical context or, one might even say, within the confines of a hermeneutic circle. Moreover, such a hermeneutic is one that operates within the horizon of Christian revelation. Often times, anthologies of philosophy start and end with Aquinas’s Summa theologiae, q. 2. They neglect the first question in which Thomas sets out his understanding of sacra doctrina–which clearly sets limits to unaided human reason in its ability to come to terms with the divine–and they also neglect the subsequent 41 questions in which Thomas fills out his philosophical-theological understanding of the divine in terms of Christian revelation. However, when Thomas offers demonstrations for “God’s” existence, it seems to me that one must keep constantly in mind that he is operating within a Christian hermeneutic that understands the exigencies of being in terms of creation and redemption. One finds hints of such a hermeneutic when, after demonstrating the existence of an “unmoved mover,” “uncaused cause,” etc., Thomas adds, “and everyone understands this to be or calls this God.” Merold Westphal explains this latter point much more fully and ably than I am capable at present in an article entitled “Aquinas and Onto-theology.” I know it was published in the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, but I’m sorry that I don’t have the exact publication data. At any rate, it does seem to me that Thomas is in fact operating with the “God of metaphysics,” but it also seems to me that, for Thomas, the “God of metaphysics” IS the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

    Again, kudos on a fantastic post.

    Best wishes,

  8. Dear Anxietas,

    I always enjoy my interactions with you—so thanks again for your comments! Your first point is well taken. Regarding the second point, I agree with just about everything that you stated, and with Thomas and the tradition, I, too, do not think that the Christian God is demonstrable, nor do I think it a desirable project to entertain. I also think that you bring up a good point in stressing the (Christian) hermeneutical context within which St. Thomas operates. Likewise, what you say regarding the neglect of question one of the ST in many anthologies is also something that I have wrestled with. Thomas says in question 1a, 1, 6 ad 2m, that this science of sacred theology is peculiar in that its knowledge is about truth which comes through revelation, not natural reason. So unlike other “sciences” its principles are rooted in God’s revelation (here meaning Scripture). A consequence of Aquinas’ re-formulation of what a science is in his explication of the science of sacred theology seems to be that it is absolutely acceptable to argue from authority in this science. As St. Thomas says,

    “Argument from authority is the method most appropriate to this teaching in that its premises are held through revelation; consequently it has to accept the authority of those to whom revelation was made. Nor does this derogate from its dignity, for though weakest when based on what human beings have disclosed, the argument from authority is most forcible when based on what God has disclosed” (ST, 1a. 1, 8 ad 2m).

    Thomas goes on to state that though the Fathers and the philosophers are of great benefit and helpful to the progress of theology, “our faith rests on the revelation made to the Prophets and Apostles who wrote the canonical books” (ST, 1a. 1, 8 ad 2m). Sometimes I wonder whether we have really taken this to heart and have not at times given priority to the philosophers.

    Your last statement more or less sums up where I am “with Thomas” at this time, viz., he seems to be a both/and, that is, there is no doubt that Thomas himself considers the “God of metaphysics” to be the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” but that he operates within the “God of metaphysics” framework makes me a little uneasy. I am in no way against “pillaging the riches of Egypt” when it comes to philosophy and the use of philosophical categories in theology—this kind of activity seems undeniable in the history of the development of Christian doctrine. Yet, just as there are no doubt benefits from our pillaging, so too, (it seems to me) that there can be and are dangers as well and perhaps Marion sees himself as issuing a call to be attentive to those aspects of philosophy that we have appropriated in our theology that in the end may do a dis-service to the faith. Whether he is right in his particular critique of Thomas is a question that I am at this time not able to adequately assess; however, I do resonate with the spirit of what he hopes to achieve.

    Thanks again for your comments,

  9. Cynthia,

    Many thanks for your thoughts too. I also agree with your reservations in proceeding too far down along the path of the “God of metaphysics.” In fact, I agree with much of what I find in Marion and also in large part with Heidegger, especially on the questions of theology and being. Now the latter in particular seemed to have in mind the onto-theological tendencies of the Enlightenment project, especially Hegel, and Marion began his own critiques of onto-theology in relation to Descartes. I wonder, then, if pursuing a postmodern project, such as Marion’s, requires a complete break with metaphysical thinking or only Enlightenment metaphysical thinking. It strikes me that it’s not necessary to overcome metaphysics if one returns to the medievals. Thomas seems to be at least one instance where faith is never subordinated to philosophy, which latter always retains its modest place as a “handmaid.” Rather than antithetical, I think Thomas and Marion can be extraordinarily complementary. You’ve done us a wonderful service, then, by bringing these issues to the fore.

    Again, well done!

    All the best.

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