Part II: Marion on Aquinas and Onto-theo-logy

As mentioned in the previous post, in Marion’s more recent work, St. Thomas escapes all three characteristics of onto-theo-logy. Regarding the first characteristic, viz., inscribing God within the domain of metaphysics, Thomas is “acquitted” because for him (unlike Scotus and Suarez) esse commune (common or created being) is the proper object of metaphysics. Hence, God only factors into the consideration of metaphysics in an indirect way, viz., as the causal principle (Creator) of common/created being. For Aquinas in contradistinction from the thinkers mentioned above, God and creatures are not conceived under a common univocal concept of being.

Regarding the second characteristic, viz., that the “God” establish a causal foundation of all the common entities (which turns out to be a reciprocal founding of sorts), Thomas is likewise “not guilty” because of the distinction he makes between esse commune and esse divinum. Esse as used in these two designations is not understood univocally (either metaphysically or predicatively), but analogically. That is, the “esse” in esse commune is received from God and is common to all created beings—beings that are esse/essence composites. In contrast, the “esse” of esse divinum has only one referent, viz., God who is the “act of being” and whose esse is identical to his essence. Thomas, then, given this distinction, upholds God’s transcendence. Though it is the case that Aquinas’ doctrine of analogy names God as the efficient cause of common being, he escapes the second characteristic of Heidegger’s critique because his understanding of causality in creation is asymmetrical. In other words, God (the “ground” of esse commune) 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, but God is in no way dependent on creation for either.

Regarding the third characteristic, Marion highlights two arguments of St. Thomas’ against the idea of God as causa sui. The first appeals to a logical contradiction that such a claim would involve. That is, given that nothing can cause itself, God cannot cause himself because God would have to exist prior to and in some way distinct from himself (p. 56). Secondly, (and Marion thinks that this argument is more significant), in order to maintain his transcendence as efficient cause (in the redefined Thomistic sense), God must “withdraw Himself from causality.” In other words, God exercises causality toward beings but he himself is not part of this causality—a causality extended only to created beings whose existence and essence are distinct and composite. Created, composite beings receive their esse from God whose esse and essence are identical. Stated in a slightly different manner (and basically the argument of the De ente), given that all created beings are esse/essence composites, there must be a first whose esse is his essence and hence whose esse is both wholly other from created esse and the principle (Creator) of created esse, lest we have an infinite regress. In this schema, causality only applies to created beings and clearly does not apply to God [pp. 56-57].

Marion ends the article by suggesting that even though Aquinas privileges being (ipsum esse) instead of the Good (as in the Dionysian tradition), there is still a way in which this may be interpreted such that Aquinas is exonerated from the onto-theo-logy charge. At this point many Thomists have concluded that Marion seems to suggest that we read Aquinas as promoting a radical apophaticism—God is esse in name only. In other words, because God’s esse is so wholly other than created being, it can be revealed or known only as unknown. As Marion explains, “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” (p. 63). A few lines later, Marion writes, “[Thomas] does not think God in a univocal way according to the horizon of being. Or simply: the esse that Thomas Aquinas recognizes for God does not open any metaphysical horizon, does not belong to any onto-theo-logy, and remains such a distant analogy with what we once conceived through the concept of being, that God proves not to take any part in it, or to belong to it, or even—as paradoxical as it may seem—to be. Esse refers to God only insofar as God may appear as without being—not only without being as onto-theology constitutes it in metaphysics but also well out of the horizon of being, even as it is as such (Heidegger)” (p. 64). Such an interpretation would suggest that given the radical transcendence and incomprehensibility of God’s esse, Thomas’ naming of God ipsum esse should be taken as a negative name without any conceptual content; hence, Thomas’ understanding of the divine names, as well as his doctrine of analogy should be understood in a radically apophatic way. However, others[1] have argued that on Marion’s read Thomas’ doctrine of analogy, as well as the divine names, function phenomenologically and indeed reveal something truly (yet not exhaustively) about God. In other words, following Denys, the divine names are a kind of “iconic speech” that unfolds and discloses God to us in the context of the liturgy. Here (idolatrous) predication of God in the sense of defining God is ruled out and in its place a new discourse springs forth—the discourse of praise as the proper response to Him who makes Himself known as Goodness, as Love, as Gift.

[1] See e.g., Morrow, Derek J. “Aquinas, Marion, Analogy, and Esse: A Phenomenology of the Divine Names?” International Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 46, no. 1 (March 2006): 25-42.

6 thoughts on “Part II: Marion on Aquinas and Onto-theo-logy”

  1. Dear Cynthia,

    Once again, a very nice post on a subject near and dear to my heart. I have a question, though, not about your interpretation, but about Marion.

    Inasmuch, as the Thomistic understanding of esse exonerates Aquinas from the charge of onto-theology in Marion’s eyes, how then can Marion claim that Thomas is really operating outside of metaphysics? Thomas seems to understand that what he is doing is metaphysics (cf. In Metaph., Proemium & De Trinitate, q. 5, aa.3, 4) and develops his understanding of the esse/ens relationship as well as his notion of God as ipsum esse subsistens (and not a member of esse commune) within the context of defining the subject matter of metaphysics, i.e., ens commune. If (1) Aquinas is right, if (2) he doesn’t fall prey to onto-theology, and IF (3) he’s doing metaphysics (the subject matter of which is ens commune), then how can Marion claim (1) that being (again, which for Thomas is analogical) is inadequate to a discussion of God and (2) that we are philosophizing in a “post-metaphysical” age (cf. Being Given)? Why the desire for prefering a P.-Dionysian meontology rather than a metaphysic of being?

    Keep up the good work.
    All the best,

  2. Dear Anxietas,

    As always, good to hear from you. I have had a similar question and am not sure what the answer is, but here is my best guess (at the moment). It seems to me that the metaphysics that Marion tends to have in mind in his criticisms is modern metaphysics; however, Scotus is also included. So perhaps he sees what Aquinas is doing as having much more resonance with P.-Dionysius (PD) than has been previously acknowledged. That is, it seems to me that Marion sees a different “logic” at work in PD–something that falls outside the univocity/equivocity framework. Do I mean analogy? Well, yes and no. Scotus as well as many moderns after him see an either/or option–either univocity or equivocity. For them, analogy is just a subcategory of equivocity, which means there is no third way. However, for Aquinas and (in my opinion) for Marion, the paradox of analogy is the only way. That is, we have to accept the fact that given who God is, there will be an incommensurable relation between Creator and creature and this then must be taken into account in regard to our speaking of God.

    I hope that some of this makes sense.


  3. Dear Cynthia,

    Thanks for your reply. I suppose I still have some questions about Marion, though. Is it Aquinas’s analogy of being, serving as the middle route between equivocity and univocity, that gets him off the hook, or is it his own unique doctrine of being? That is, while it is certainly true that Duns Scotus takes the history of philosophy in a different direction through his thesis of the univocal concept of being, Scotus, and those scholastics following him (e.g., Francisco Suarez), never deny an analogy of being. Rather, it’s just that the (univocal) concept of being is divided analogical within itself.

    But even if the post-Scotistic metaphysicians are too governed by the univocal concept of being, then what about those pre-Scotistic philosophers? Traces of the analogy of being can be found within Augustine, Anselm, Alexander of Hales, Bonaventure, and Albert the Great. So, is it analogy or being? That is, if Thomas is off the hook, it seems that it’s because of his own unique understanding of being in the “analogy of being.” But, then, insofar as the issue of Aquinas’s analogy of being turns on his understanding of being, why should one be so eager to toss aside being in favor of the gift? It doesn’t seem that the two have to be at odds.

    Again, thanks for your thoughts. Please forgive me if I’m being too dense in coming to terms with Marion. I find a great deal of what he has to say very intriguing and would rather see him continue the metaphysical thinking of the perennial tradition, than hail its end.


  4. Dear Anxietas,

    I don’t in any way think that you are being “too dense,” as your questions are excellent. I certainly do not claim to have answers for them, but here are a few thoughts. Perhaps Marion is not so much tossing aside being in favor of the gift, but is instead emphasizing gift/love in order to correct what he sees as a major mis-step or wrong turn taken by metaphysics where the mystery, transcendence, and Trinitarian character of God is lost and a “science” of God is given priority.

    Warm regards,

  5. Fair enough, Cynthia. Many thanks for your thoughts and for the exchange of ideas. Again, I find a great deal of Marion stimulating!

    Best wishes,

  6. Fantastic website!

    When people ‘exonerate’ Thomas of the charge of ontotheology they must be talking of ontotheology in a Gilsonian sense, as a conceptualist approach to being and to God. Heidegger seems to use it in a wider sense, as coterminous with metaphysics itself, notably in Aristotle, and he does not see it as something to be exonerated from or as based on some metaphysical mistake. He wants to step back to another kind of thinking in which the phenomenon of being and beings is allowed to breathe more freely (along with the phenomenon of the divine and gods). Ontotheology or metaphysics is true and valid, but there is an urgent need to get back in touch with the soil from which the great tree of the sciences spring (with metaphysics as its trunk) and metaphysics cannot accomplish this.

Comments are closed.