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 VI: Jean-Luc Marion, Beyond Conceptual Idolatry

Section four, “The Indifference to Be,” is perhaps one of the most important sections of chapter three. In light of what he sees as an inherent connection between the Being/being framework and idolatry, Marion attempts to outwit Being by its own rules—which in essence means to outwit onto-theo-logy and the “ontological difference.” The phrase “ontological difference” is a reference to Heidegger and speaks of the difference between Being (as such) and beings. One aspect of the “difference” between Being (as such) and a being is that the former a dynamic process and is therefore not a being, yet the history of Western philosophy on the Heideggarian read has ossified/static-ized Being and made it a being (e.g., pure act, highest cause etc.), which is why Heidegger gives his critique as he does. This dynamic process (Being) reveals itself differently in different epochs and allows particular beings to manifest/appear as the beings that they are. Being as such then seems to provide the condition for the possibility of beings appearing. [This is my understanding of “ontological difference” as used in this context. However, as I have stated before, my knowledge of Heidegger is very basic, and I welcome criticisms and corrections to what I have said here].

In order to outwit Being, that is, to break out of the horizon of Being, we must find a new rule whose difference is not that of “ontological difference” and consequently, whose difference does not refer at all to the horizon of Being (which would involve us in the idolatrous gaze). Ontological difference has a built-in reflexivity and it is this very (idolatrous) reflexivity that Marion wants to avoid. This other difference turns out to be biblical revelation. In other words, Marion employs that which is “foolishness to the Greeks” to outwit the (wordly) logic of Being. E.g., appealing to two texts from St. Paul (Rom 4:7 and 1 Cor 1:26-29) and one from St. Luke (the prodigal son), Marion shows how biblical revelation is indifferent to Being. To elucidate what is meant by this, Marion writes, “one must distinguish, in fact, between two extremely different points. Incontestably, biblical revelation is unaware of ontological difference, the science of Being/beings as such, and hence of the question of Being. But nothing is less accurate than to pretend that it does not speak a word on being, nonbeing and beingness” (p. 86). Marion appeals to these texts because all of them speak about being (or ousia) in one way or another. Though Marion admits that some might be frustrated with his interpretation of these texts, he asks the reader to exercise patience and see his argument through to the end.

For the sake of brevity, I shall engage only one text, viz., Rom 4:17. In this text we read that Abraham was made “the father of us all, as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations,’ facing Him in whom he believed, the God who gives life to the dead and who calls the non-beings as beings” (p. 86). As Marion observes, we see St. Paul seemingly employing the language of the philosophers when he speaks of a movement from non-being to being. The Greeks of course were very much concerned with the possibility or rather impossibility of this transition; however, the transition that Paul has in mind does not depend on any human conception, nor is it solved by a movement of a being from potency to act. Instead, the transition comes to the (non)beings from the outside. As Marion puts it, the transition is an “extrinsic transition” and “does not depend on (non-)beings but on Him who calls them” (p. 87). Of course Marion does not mean that these “dead” individuals do not actually exist. Rather, his emphasis is that in the eyes of the world, they are non-beings. In contrast, God is indifferent to the world’s (ontic) determination of being and nonbeing. God’s call in fact “does not take into consideration the difference between nonbeings and beings” (p. 88)—nonbeings are called as if they were beings.

In the texts from St. Paul that Marion examines, we find that nonbeings (ta mē onta) do not mean that or those who are not, and as a result nonbeings in the context of revelation do not play according to the logic of Being and do not submit to the horizon of Being. (The same of course is true of beings (ta onta). Marion highlights an interesting point in the 1 Corinthians 1:26-29 passage, viz., that the wisdom of the world goes against its own logic. That is, it calls the brethren nonbeings, though strictly speaking they, as humans, exist. But as Paul points out, the “world” contradicts itself because it founds itself or is founded not as a result of the fold of Being but on its own works and therefore boasts in itself before God. So even in spite of itself, the “world” when bedazzled by the light of God, becomes so distracted that it, being revealed as a “forger of itself,” “acknowledges that its funding does not lie in ontological difference, but in the pretension to ‘glorify itself before God’” (p. 94). In the end, what counts here as to the debate between beings and nonbeings has little to do with ontic or ontological difference, but rather with the two opposing boastings—one which is founded on itself and one which boasts in the Lord because of God’s call (p. 94). Consequently, we now see how “being and nonbeing can be divided according to something other than Being” (p. 95).

Later in the chapter (after giving his interpretation of the parable of the prodigal son), Marion identifies this “something” as the “gift.” The “gift” not only outwits the Being game, but it makes possible Being/beings in the first place—it “gives Being/beings” (p. 100). As Marion explains, “[t]he gift crosses Being/being: it meets it, strikes it out with a mark, finally opens it, as a window casement opens, on an instance that remains unspeakable according to the language of Being—supposing that another language might be conceived. To open Being/being to the instance of a gift implies then, at the least, that the gift may decide Being/being. In other words, the gift is not at all laid out according to Being/being, but Being/being is given according to the gift. The gift delivers Being/being. It delivers it in the sense first that the gift gives Being/being and puts it into play, opens it to its sending, as in order to launch it into its destiny. The gift delivers also in that it liberates being from Being or, put another way, Being/being from ontological difference” (p. 101). This gift in fact is inextricably linked with charity/love itself, “which gives and expresses itself as gift” (p. 102). In sum, being is not a being because (the horizon of) Being has provided the condition by which it can become manifest [or said slightly differently, a being is not a being because of the “ontological difference”], rather a being is a being because it has received a gift (e.g. the “call”) from Love Himself.

Part IV: Jean-Luc Marion, Beyond Conceptual Idolatry

In section two, entitled, “Ontological Impediment,” Marion gives a fairly complex and detailed analysis of Heidegger’s onto-theology critique, pointing out both the insights and the shortcomings of Heidegger’s claims. (I have to say that given my very basic knowledge of Heidegger, I found this section extremely difficult and am not sure whether I have properly understood it. Hence, I welcome corrections). Having engaged and examined Heidegger’s position, Marion concludes that though Heidegger was correct in pointing out the onto-theo-logic that characterizes the Western metaphysical tradition, Heidegger himself does not escape his own critique.

Marion sees Heidegger as diminishing theology’s dignity by making it submit to the requirements of Dasein, which in the end for Marion means Being, as well as and the very ontology Heidegger himself criticizes. Heidegger wants to make a strict separation between philosophy and theology, the former constituting the science of Being (ontological science) and the latter an “ontic” science of faith, which studies a particular slice of reality (having the same standing as chemistry or mathematics) [p. 66]—it’s object is not Dasein or “God” but faith in Christ crucified. In other words, faith becomes an aspect or modality of philosophy and consequently remains a conceptual idol. “The invariant of Dasein appears more essential to man than the ontic variant introduced by faith. Man can eventually become a believer only inasmuch as he exists first as Dasein” (p. 68). In the end, theology as a mere ontic variant of Dasein remains subordinate to Dasein as such.

Second, according to Heidegger, it is valid and perhaps even preferred to speak of faith as “the experience of faith.” Yet, again faith must be understood according to the strictures or conditions of philosophy, particularly of Heidegger’s phenomenology, which means that faith cannot show itself or give itself as itself but is always filtered through Dasein (and the horizon of Being).
Marion, however, wants a theology that allows Gxd to reveal himself “without condition, antecedent, or genealogy” (p. 70). In other words, he asks, “why must revelation be determined by the strictures of a philosophy that says in order for Gxd to show himself he must do so as a being within the framework of Being? (p. 70). “Who then decides that that mode of revelation, about which the Bible emphasizes that it speaks […] ‘in many refrains, in many different ways’ (Heb. 1:1), should have to sacrifice, as a retainer fee, to Being?” (p. 71). Marion ends this section with a simple but profound question: “does the name of the Gxd, who is crossed because he is crucified, belong to the domain of Being?”

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].