Gadamer’s Dialogue with Augustine and Aquinas on the Verbum

In sharp contrast with a number of postmodern thinkers engaged in philosophical hermeneutics, Gadamer believes that we still have something to learn not only from Hegel and Heidegger but from Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas as well.  In fact, in his magnum opus, Truth and Method, Gadamer spends several pages discussing the Christian doctrine of the verbum, seeking to mine certain truths from the tradition in order to formulate his own position on the intimate relationship between language and thought.  Though at this point in my study of Gadamer, I in no way understand the intricacies and implications of Gadamer’s analysis and appropriation of this aspect of Trinitarian theology, I do find the possibilities intriguing.  In one of his claims, for example, he compares the relation between the inner mental and thought as akin to the consubstantial relation between the Father and the Son (Truth and Method, 421).[1] Here, as well as in several other passages in this section, Gadamer wants to stress the unity of (human) thought and language.  Just as the Father and the Son are of the same substance (hence, the unity part of the unity-in-diversity of the Trinity), so too language and human thought are essentially one; nonetheless, they can be distinguished.  Gadamer rejects any account that gives priority to thought and then conceives language as something “added later” and used as a mere “tool.” Rather, thought and language have a kind of originary unity.  This in no way means that all thought is thought in the same language.  Clearly, that isn’t the case.  But language is, as it were, thought’s voice, which is a polyphonic—that is, language comes in many varieties, but in all its varieties it works harmoniously with thought to make reality, which is intelligible in itself,  more intelligible for us (Gadamer, contra Habermas, is expressly not a linguistic constructivist!)Gadamer in Study

Though appreciative of Augustine’s contributions to the theory of the verbum, Gadamer seems to reject certain aspects of his account, particularly as applied to human thought and language.  For example, Gadamer says,

[t]he ‘language of reason’ is not a special language.  So, given that the bond to language cannot be superseded, what sense does it make to talk about an ‘inner word’ that is spoken, as it were, in the pure language of reason?  How does the word of reason (if we can translate ‘intellectus’ here by ‘reason’) prove itself a real ‘word,’ if it is not a word with a sound nor even the image of one, but that which is signified by a sign—i.e., what is meant and thought itself? (Truth and Method, 421).

Gadamer explicitly states that the “inner word” is not the Greek logos, “the dialogue that the soul conducts with itself.  On the contrary, the mere fact that logos is translated both by ratio and verbum indicates that the phenomenon of language is becoming more important in the Scholastic elaboration of Greek metaphysics than was the case with the Greeks themselves” (Truth and Method, 421-22).

Next, Gadamer turns to St. Thomas’s contribution to the theory of the verbum.  Thomas took the Christian doctrine based on the Prologue to St. John’s Gospel, combined it with Aristotelianism,[2] and more or less drops any talk of the variety of languages.  As Gadamer explains (and here I take him to be referring to St. Thomas’ doctrine of the verbum as applied analogously to humans):

For him the doctrine of the ‘inner word’ is the self-evident premise for investigating the connection between forma and verbum.  Nevertheless, even for Thomas logos and verbum do not completely coincide.  Certainly the word is not the event of utterance, this irrevocable handing over of one’s own thinking to another, but the word still has the ontological character of an event.  The inner word remains related to its possible utterance.  While it is being conceived by the intellect, the subject matter is at the same time ordered toward being uttered (similitude rei concepta in intellectu et ordinata ad manifestationem vel ad se vel ad alterum).  Thus the inner word is certainly not related to a particular language, nor does it have the character of vaguely imagined words that proceed from the memory; rather, it is the subject matter through to the end (forma excogitata).  Since a process of thinking through to the end is involved, we have to acknowledge a processual element in it.  It proceeds per modum egredientis.  It is not utterance but thought; however, what is achieved in this speaking to oneself is the perfection of thought.  So the inner word, by expressing thought, images the finiteness of our discursive understanding.  Because our understanding does not comprehend what it knows in one single inclusive glance, it must always draw what it thinks out of itself, and present it to itself as if in an inner dialogue with itself.  In this sense all thought is speaking to oneself (Truth and Method, 422).

What does he mean by the word still having the “ontological character of an event”?  I’m not exactly sure, but I take his point here to be that the inner word (whatever that is) has an ordering toward manifestation—as he says toward “utterance.”  The inner word in some sense has to be completed or formed, which is what (I think) he means by the processual character or the discursive nature of our thought.  If so, the natural question is, what then is the common ground of the analogy, since no temporality enters into the intertrinitarian relations?  To this Gadamer responds,

the successiveness characteristic of the discursiveness of human thought is not basically temporal in nature either.  When human thought passes from one thing to another—i.e., thinks first this thing and then that—it is still not just a series of one thought after another.  It does not think in a simple succession, first one thing and then another, which would mean that it would itself constantly change in the process.  If it thinks first of one thing and then of another, that means it knows what it is doing, and knows how to connect the one thing with the next.  Hence what is involved is not a temporal relation but a mental process, an emanation intellectualis” (Truth and Method, 423).

As Gadamer explains, Thomas, having grasped this processual character of human thought, employs a Neoplatonic concept to articulate both the “processual character of the inner word and the process of the Trinity” (Truth and Method, 423).  By drawing from Neoplatonic resources, Thomas is able to convey via emanation the idea of flowing out that does not involve a depletion of its source.  That is, just as the One is not lessened or deprived when it issues forth emanations, neither is the Father deprived when he generates the Son.    Gadamer then concludes his discussion of Thomas’ contribution to the verbum theory with a few final remarks about how the analogy (for Thomas) applies to human thought.  Similar to the way in which the Father is not depleted in the generation of the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity,

this is likewise true of the mental emergence that takes place in the process of [human] thought, speaking to oneself.  This kind of production is at the same time a total remaining within oneself.  If it can be said of the divine relationship between word [Son] and intellect [Father] that the word originates not partially but wholly (totaliter) in the intellect, then it is true also that one [human] word originates totaliter from another—i.e., has its origin in the mind—like the deduction of a conclusion from the premises (ut conclusion ex principiis).  Thus the process and emergence of thought is not a process of change (motus), not a transition from potentiality into action, but an emergence ut actus ex actu.  The word is not formed only after the act of knowledge itself.  Thus the word is simultaneous with this forming (formatio) of the intellect (Truth and Method, 423-24).

Thomas seems to capture the relation of logical dependence that obtains between the Word (Second Person of the Trinity prior to His incarnation) and the Father.  That is, the Son depends upon the Father in a way analogous to how a necessary conclusion depends on the necessary axioms from which it is logically deduced.  In both cases, the processual character or what follows logically is not a temporal “movement.”

However, Thomas’ account doesn’t seem to explain what is most relevant to Gadamer’s inquiry into human understanding and the relations between (diverse natural) language and thought. For example, the relation between any human concept and the multiple discursive and interpretive practices in which the concept is applied is not purely logical.  Just because Ivan grasps the concept “tree,” nothing logically follows as to how he will apply it or what natural language he will use in his discourse about trees in a given context.  In short, once we turn to actual dialogue and application of concepts as expressed in natural languages, we encounter a great deal of plurality and variability that comes into play.  In contrast, the procession of the Word is unitary, eternal and necessary.   Toward the end of Truth and Method, Gadamer returns to some of the themes discussed in this section and further articulates his understanding of the relation between language and thought and language and reality, thus, addressing certain areas where Thomas’ account either falls short or is simply silent. Hopefully, I’ll have time to post more on that and other related items in the near future.


[1] Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 2004.  Truth and Method, 2nd ed. trans. and rev. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall.  New York:  Continuum.    All citations from Truth and Method are taken from this edition.

[2] Cf.  Commentarium in Johannem, ch. 1, titled De differentia verbi divini et humani, and the difficult and important opusculum, compiled from genuine texts by Thomas, called De natura verbi intellectus.  [Gadamer draws on the latter work in this section of Truth and Method].

Is Our Ultimate Perfection a Knowing or an Unknowing?

I am currently taking a very interesting course at UD on Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius. Below is a brief comparison of St. Thomas and Dionysius in regard to our ultimate perfection. In his treatise, The Divine Names, Dionysius writes,

“[w]e now grasp these things in the best way we can, and as they come to us, wrapped in the sacred veils of that love toward humanity with which scripture and hierarchical traditions cover the truths of the mind with things derived from the realm of the senses. And so it is that the Transcendent is clothed in the terms of being, with shape and form on things which have neither, and numerous symbols are employed to convey the varied attributes of what is an imageless and supra-natural simplicity. But in time to come, when we are incorruptible and immortal, when we have come at last to the blessed inheritance of being like Christ, then as scripture says, ‘we shall always be with the Lord.’ In most holy contemplation we shall be ever filled with the sight of God shining gloriously around us as once it shone for the disciples at the divine transfiguration. And there we shall be, our minds away from passion and from earth, and we shall have a conceptual gift of light from him and, somehow, in a way we cannot know, we shall be united with him and, our understanding carried away, blessedly happy, we shall be struck by his blazing light. […] But as for now, what happens is this. We use whatever appropriate symbols we can for the things of God. With these analogies we are raised upward toward the truth of the mind’s vision, a truth which is simple and one. We leave behind us all our own notions of the divine. We cal a halt to the activities of our minds and, to the extent that is proper, we approach the ray which transcends being. Here, in a manner no words can describe, preexisted all the goals of all knowledge and it is of a kind that neither intelligence nor speech can lay hold of it nor can it at all be contemplated since it surpasses everything and is wholly beyond our capacity to know it. Transcendently it contains within itself the boundaries of every natural knowledge and energy. […] And if all knowledge is of that which is and is limited to the realm of the existent, then whatever transcends being must also transcend knowledge” (The Divine Names, pp. 52-53).

I certain do not pretend to understand nor to be able to unpack everything in this passage; however, I do want to focus on some of the differences that come to the surface between Dionysius and St. Thomas. In the passage above, three different activities are discerned: seeing, knowing, and unknowing (union). Both Thomas and Dionysius would agree that the senses will be used in the life to come (hence, above we read of a “sight of God”). Likewise, both would agree that we will engage in intellectual activities—as Dionysius puts it, “we shall have a conceptual gift of light from him.” However, Dionysius adds that the highest “activity” will be an unknowing, a union—that which is beyond nous. Thomas of course does not agree with this last addition, as he believes that our perfection is a kind of knowing. In other words, for Dionysius our perfection comes in a non-cognitive union with God (an unknowing or that which is beyond knowing altogether). Whereas for Aquinas, our union with God is a form of understanding, different (and superior) from the way that we understand now. In addition, for Thomas, we will (in our future state) know God’s essence (not in the sense of comprehending God). In Dionysius as well, we do have knowledge of God’s essence; however, that is an inferior knowing which is surpassed by a non-cognitive experiencing of God who is beyond being. This has to be the case for Dionysius given what he states in the last sentence of the passage quoted above, viz., “if all knowledge is of that which is and is limited to the realm of the existent, then whatever transcends being must also transcend knowledge.”


Pseudo Dionysius. Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works. Trans. Colm Luibheid. New York: Paulist Press, 1987.

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.

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

Since I am scheduled to present on this topic for one of my classes at UD, I thought that I would revisit Marion’s take on St. Thomas as reflected in his article, “Thomas Aquinas and Onto-theo-logy.”[1]


In this article, Marion retracts a good deal of his former criticism of St. Thomas as found in God Without Being. Specifically, he withdraws his former claims that Aquinas’ naming God ipsum esse¬ makes an idol out of being, and that Aquinas is guilty of onto-theo-logy. So what is meant by onto-theo-logy? According to Heidegger onto-theo-logy characterizes the Western metaphysical tradition and is expressed as an attempt by philosophy to use conceptual systems in order to control and master Being (as well as God). Marion is sympathetic to Heidegger’s critique, yet he sees Heidegger making an idol out of Being. For the purposes of this article, Marion highlights three foundations at work in onto-theo-logy.

First, there is the Gründung, i.e., “the conceptual foundation of entity as such by being.” Whatever serves as the conceptual foundation—be it “God” or whatever—must be inscribed within the domain of metaphysics. That is, it itself must become thinkable as an entity (or according to a [univocal] concept of entity). To illustrate his point, Marion turns to one of the ways (there are other ways as well) in which Descartes exemplifies this Gründung. In Descartes, being is defined on the basis of thought. Consequently, being grounds entities conceptually, “to be is to think or to be thought” (esse est cogitari aut cogitare). All entities, including the “first” or “highest” rely on this foundation through being (p. 41), and all entities including the “highest” or “first” are thought according to a (univocal) concept of being. In sum, the first characteristic of onto-theo-logy amounts to inscribing God (as subject or object) within the domain of metaphysics and making God subject to a univocal concept of being.

Second, we have the Begründung. That is, “the foundation of entities by the supreme entity according to efficient causality.” Here we have a reciprocal grounding between the “first entity” and all other entities. That is, there is a reciprocal grounding between whatever serves as the “first entity” (e.g., Pure Act) and all other beings, and this grounding reciprocally perfects/establishes both the first entity and all other entities. E.g., according to Aristotle, beings “are” to the extent that they are in act. The “Unmoved mover” of Aristotle’s system is of course “Pure Act.” Here we find a kind of mutual “grounding” principle. That is, the Unmoved mover is not only the final cause toward which all beings move, but is established in a preeminent way by the (same) principle by which beings “are,” viz., by the principle of actuality (“to be is to be in act”). This principle founds the Unmoved mover as highest being, that is, as Pure Act, just as it establishes all other beings in so far as they are. Or returning to Marion’s Cartesian example, the ego as preeminent being thinks itself as res cogitans and therefore grounds its own existence. Likewise, it also “grounds in reason” the other entities “which are, only insofar as they are thought by it” (pp. 42-43). In sum, the “God” (or highest being) functions as the (efficient) causal foundation for all entities. This founding relationship is reciprocal, i.e., the “God” grounds beings and beings ground/establish God.

Third, there is the self-grounding of the ground or the causa sui. That is, “the foundation of the conceptual foundation by the efficient foundation” (p. 42). The preeminent being is defined by its function as causa sui. Here you have a supreme being that “grounds by grounding itself through itself” (p. 42). In other words, the conceptual foundation is grounded in the (efficient) causal foundation, which in the case of our Cartesian example is the ego or res cogitans. In sum, the “God” founds itself, just as it founds all other beings.

In the next post, we shall see how (according to Marion) Thomas escapes all three characteristics of onto-theo-logy.

[1] As found in in Mystics: Presence and Aporia eds Michael Kessler and Christian Sheppard, (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 2003), pp. 38-74.

Part V: Jean-Luc Marion, Beyond Conceptual Idolatry

In chapter three, section three, “Being or Else (the Good),” Marion enters the debate concerning the issue of the primary name for God, which St. Thomas claims (based on Ex 3:14) is ens and Dionysius claims is bonum. Marion links agape with bonum because certain texts of the Denys (Dionysius) seem to justify such a connection. Hence, the debate between ens and bonum is likewise a debate between ens and agape (1 John 4:8, ho theos agapē estin). We should here emphasize that when Dionysius privileges Goodness as the first divine name, he is not simply replacing one category for another, which would be to replace one conceptual idol with another. In fact, Goodness as the first name for God speaks against any categorical statement concerning God. As Marion explains, Dionysius “does not pretend that goodness constitutes the proper name of the Requisite [aitia=cause], but that in the apprehension of goodness the dimension is cleared where the very possibility of a categorical statement concerning Gxd ceases to be valid, and where the reversal of denomination into praise become inevitable. To praise the Requisite as such, hence as goodness, amounts to opening distance. Distance neither asks nor tolerates that one fill it but that one traverse it, in an infinite praise that feeds on the impossibility or, better, the impropriety of the category. The first praise, the name of goodness, therefore does not offer any ‘most proper name’ [contra Thomas and ipsum esse as ‘maxime proprie’ name of God] and decidedly abolishes every conceptual idol of ‘God’ in favor of the luminous darkness where Gxd manifests (and not masks) himself, in short, where he gives himself to be envisaged by us” (p. 76).

For the Denys, Gxd is the principle of beings from which both beings and existence itself derives. Moreover, this Gxd gives Being to beings but himself is greater and beyond the gift of Being that he gives. Being is a gift which is disclosed in the act of giving and this act is goodness, a goodness which in fact gives itself. [For the Dionysian tradition, the denomination “Goodness” allows for a Trinitarian vision of God—after all Christ as ultimate gift gives Himself on our behalf]. Moreover, for Dionysius the good is preferred because it extends not only to beings but to non-beings. According to Thomas, Dionysius goes this route because it takes “God” into view not only as efficient cause [the Creator of beings] but also as final cause and hence desirable even by non-beings (p. 78). [Question: Would those versed in the Dionysian tradition help me to understand what is meant by non-beings here?] For Thomas this becomes a question of whether the good indeed “adds” something and becomes primary or not. If not, then ens must be established as primary.

Thomas takes the second path and attempts to establish the primacy of ens. Thomas does this, according to Marion, by introducing a “new point of view”—a point of view that “limits one’s view to the measurements of the ens” and from this certain point of view, the ens becomes a “solid-point.” In other words, though convertible with the other transcendentals (one, good, and true), ens exhibits a primacy because “the ens finds itself comprehended in their [i.e. the transcendentals] comprehension, and not reciprocally.” Ens is both the “first term that falls within the imagination of the understanding,” and the primary and proper object of the intellect and is primarily intelligible because “everything is knowable only inasmuch as it is in actuality” (pp. 79-80).
In addition and somewhat summing up Marion’s point, “[t]he primacy of the ens depends on the primacy of a conception of the human understanding and of the mind of man. The primacy of the ens has nothing absolute or unconditional about it; it relies on another primacy which remains discreetly in the background. But it is this second primacy that one must question, since it alone gives its domination to the ens, to the detriment of the good (and of the Dionysian tradition)” [p. 80]. Ens as an object of the human intellect and hence as a representation seems a prime candidate for an idol. In fact, Marion does not see how Thomas’ doctrine of analogy can uphold God’s transcendence given that the “primacy of ens over the other possible divine names rests on primacy of human conception” (p. 81).

According to Marion, if theology is to be understood as a “science” that proceeds by the apprehension of concepts, then ens will be primary and the human being’s point of view normative as to method. However, if theology wants to be theo-logical, it must “submit all of its concepts, without excepting the ens, to a ‘destruction’ by the doctrine of divine names, at the risk of having to renounce any status as a conceptual ‘science,’ in order, decidedly nonobjectivating, to praise by infinite petitions” (p. 81). Thomas seems to attempt a both/and (maintaining both the primacy of ens as the first conception of the human understanding and a product of the faculty of imagination and a doctrine of divine names), which makes his view (as Marion sees it) idolatrous (see pp. 81-82).

Near the end of the section, Marion asks whether a new path, viz., agapē can “transgress Being” […] Can it manifest itself without passing through Being?” Again, Marion states that he does not want to simply substitute one divine name (goodness or agapē) for another (ens), rather in order to free Gxd from Being he will attempt to show “how the Gxd who gives himself as agapē thus marks his divergence from Being” (p. 83).

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].