Chapter 6

Existence as finite

It would be interesting if we could conclude that a given existence (the cause of a given form of consciousness) is a finite case of existence. There would be no contradiction in this, as there was in assuming that another form of consciousness caused a given form of consciousness. In that case, the "cause" was by definition identical with the effect, which would have made it the "cause of itself," which is impossible. But if the cause of a form of consciousness is finite existence, then it would not be identical with its effect. They would both be finite; but the effect in question is not the general one of finiteness itself, but consciousness as finite (in this way); and hence, the fact that the finite existence is existence could be the cause rather than the fact that it is finite.

Actually, we are going to conclude to just this; but it is not going to be an easy road to travel, and even the destination, as you can see from the above paragraph, is not all that pellucid. So in spite of the fact that it is "obvious" that the beings we are conscious of are limited, we have to be very careful what we are doing, because, as we saw, not every sense of "finite" or "limited" contains the problem of "being less than itself" that would demand a cause, and we mustn't let terminology mislead us; not least because, of course, if the existences "out there" are finite in the technical sense, then this will probably be evidence for something that deserves the name God--and it is very, very easy to leap to a conclusion one way or the other as soon as the name "God" is mentioned.

We can begin, I think, with a couple of definitions:

Existence is the cause of each "formed consciousness" as "formed consciousness" and therefore as the same as any other "formed consciousness."

Essence is the cause of each "formed consciousness" as this case and no other, and therefore as different from any other "formed consciousness."

That is, we are now giving the name "existence" to that "aspect" of the cause of "formed consciousness" by which it causes the "common aspect" of our "formed consciousness," and "essence" is now the "aspect" of the cause by which it causes the "distinctive aspect" of the effect.

Since we know that all existences are analogous, what we are now saying is that the cause of the form of consciousness is being, really, not existence; and being has two aspects: existence and essence, or the aspect of being by which every being is identical with every other, and the aspect of being by which every being is uniquely itself.

But we must not be over-hasty here. We got into trouble by assuming that the form of consciousness had two "aspects," the form (by which it is distinctively itself) and the consciousness (by which it is the same as any other case of my consciousness); but we found out that these two "aspects" were not two distinct "somethings" which were interrelated somehow, but a single something which left some of itself outside itself. In other words, a distinction between the "consciousness" and the "form" is a nominal one that has some foundation in the (limited) consciousness, but not the one it seems to have.

So we can't immediately say that just we can put two names on the different "aspects" of being, there really are two distinct aspects in it; it may be that essence is not an "aspect" at all, but just the fact that the existence in this case is finite, or "leaves some existence out of itself." And, in fact, that is what we will conclude.

And the reason we have to say this is the following: If we look at the effects these causes cause carefully, we will see that in fact they are not distinct from each other. If that is the case, then existence and essence cannot be distinct from each other either.

Existence, then, is supposed to be the cause of the form of consciousness as a form and as such as identical with every other form of consciousness; and essence is supposed to be the cause of the form of consciousness as this one and different from any other.

Now, does it make any sense to talk about the "common aspect" of all forms of consciousness as forms? But how could it? First of all, we saw that the form itself is precisely nothing at all; it is not a "something," let alone a something which can have distinct aspects such as "formness" and "thisness." If you think of the form as a "something," then it is a "something" that is different from the consciousness and "outside it but inside it as outside."

Talking about the "common aspect" of the form of consciousness would be like talking about the "temperatureness" of temperature as opposed to the "distinctiveness" of this particular temperature; as if the "temperature" were--as distinct from the heat--what all "temperatures" had in common, and the particular degree was distinct not only from the heat but the "temperatureness" of the temperature.

But this is completely absurd. The temperature is not a "something" which is different from the heat, let alone a "common something" which is different from both the heat and the particular degree. The temperature is the degree of the heat; it is the fact that the heat has a degree, which of course is this one. The temperature is simply, as we saw, a way of describing the heat, and simply says that the heat stops at this degree.

Similarly, we saw that the form of consciousness is simply the fact that the consciousness "leaves off" being consciousness and is not something "added" to the consciousness at all. Therefore, there can be no question of "formness" here; all there is to the way of being conscious is consciousness; the "form" is simply the way the consciousness is not; it is its self-negation, its stopping, its leaving some of itself outside itself.

True, all forms of consciousness (i.e. all cases of "formed consciousness") are similar in the fact that at any moment, consciousness "leaves some of itself outside itself," but this fact means something different in each concrete case. So the form is not an aspect of consciousness, but a fact about it; and what the forms "have in common" is that in fact that consciousness at any moment is not all that it could be at that moment.

But there is no way that you could distinguish this fact as a kind of general fact from how the consciousness stops at this given moment, any more than you can distinguish the temperature (the fact that the heat is not all that it could be) from the concrete temperature. The temperature is the definite temperature. Similarly, the "leaving off" of consciousness at any given moment is the actual "leaving off," which is actually identical with the consciousness as less than itself.

Another way of putting it is that the three different types of finiteness can be put in this way: (a) at all times my consciousness is less than "consciousness as such" (or is just "mine," and so can be said to leave some "consciousness" outside it--that of other people); (b) all during this period my consciousness is less than "my consciousness as such," (or it is just today's); and (c) at this particular instant of this period of my consciousness my consciousness is less than itself (or is less than it now could be). These are three different facts about my consciousness, not three different "somethings" that "attach themselves" to my consciousness. And the fact that the third fact applies to any and every moment of my consciousness does not mean that it refers to an aspect each moment "has" that makes it the same as every other, such that the actual "lessness" is different from this "factness."

One final way of putting it. The form of consciousness is another way of saying that at the moment, the consciousness is a definite one (looking at the page). Now obviously the "definiteness" is not different from the "lookingness," as if the "definiteness" were what looking at the page and listening to a symphony "had in common," while the "lookingness" and the "listeningness" were different from the "definiteness as definiteness." This would make the "definiteness" just "generalized definiteness as such" and so it would be indefinite "definiteness," which makes as much sense as "common uniqueness."

I think all of this discussion establishes pretty well that the "formness" of the way of being consciousness and the "thisness" are just two different ways of talking about what in reality is one and the same problem: the fact that the consciousness at any moment leaves some of itself outside itself. Hence, the "formness" and the "definiteness" are in fact the same effect. It isn't that they are two "phases" of the same effect, it is just the same effect approached from different directions.

Then what does this mean? Obviously, since identical effects have identical causes, and these "two effects" are actually one and the same effect, then what it means is that the "two causes" are actually one and the same cause.

Conclusion 12: Essence is identical with existence as the cause of "formed consciousness."

That is, since "formed consciousness as formed" (which is caused by existence) is in fact "formed consciousness as this way of being conscious" (which is caused by essence), then "existence" is just a generalized, abstract way of saying "essence."

That is, essence is what causes the consciousness to be this way of being conscious (i.e. the page you are looking at is what causes the way you are now conscious; and so it is an essence.); and existence as distinct from essence would mean "the cause of thisness in general in consciousness." But there's no such thing as "thisness in general," and so there's no existence which is in any way distinct from essence.


Conclusion 13: Essence is different from itself in each case, and is less than what it means to cause "formed consciousness."

Obviously, the page you are looking at isn't the cause of the form of perception of your mother; that form is a different "thisness" from the perception of the page. Hence, essence means something different both times; both times it means the "cause of the thisness of the way of being conscious," but the "thisness" is different each time.

But in the case of seeing the page, it is also obvious that the page can't produce the other form of consciousness; or in other words, the essence can only cause this "thisness" and not the other "thisness." So in spite of the fact that it causes "thisness," it leaves some of itself as "the cause of the thisness" of a way of being consciousness outside itself.

But since the term "existence" was used for "the cause of formed consciousness as such," (which in the concrete means the same as essence, because the form is the "thisness" and the "thisness" can't really ever be anything but "this thisness"), then what essence "leaves out" of itself obviously is some of existence.

Conclusion 14: Essence is simply a name for the fact that existence is finite.

That is, you can use either term for "the cause of formed consciousness." The cause is "existence" if you are looking at it as "the cause of formed consciousness"; but if you are looking at as "the cause of this case of "formed consciousness," it is "essence." Or, in other words, "existence" is "essence in general"; or, "essence" means "the definite existence."

Let me state a possible exception to this, connected with the possibilities of non-finite consciousness I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, and then I will discuss the question of whether St. Thomas or Francisco Suarez was right on the question of the "real distinction" between essence and existence.

The exception is this: If ever there occurs a moment of consciousness which is equal to "what it is for me to be conscious" (in which all possible ways I could be conscious are "wrapped up" in this consciousness), this would still be my consciousness and this instant of my consciousness, and so it would still be finite in those two senses; but it would be a non-finite way of being conscious, and so the "way" in this case would not be a limitation or a "leaving out" of consciousness at all.

There would probably have to be some cause of this--I suppose you could call it "expansion"--of consciousness into its "full potential" at this moment; and so presumably some being would be responsible for this (supposing it to be possible). In that one hypothetical case, the only essence that could do this job is one which would cause a "thisness" which is equal to "thisness as such" or "all thisnesses rolled into one"; or in other words, the essence that could do this would have to be an essence which would be equal to what it means to exist, or a non-finite existence. Hence, if anyone were ever able to have that "absolutely full consciousness" I talked about at the beginning of the chapter, it would presumably be the experience of a being whose essence is identical with existence itself, or which would be the "absolute fullness of existence."

But--at this stage at least of our investigation--this is just something that can't be ruled out; we have no clear evidence either (a) that such a "total consciousness" has ever actually occurred in anyone, nor (b) that it is even possible in practice, let alone (c) that it would have to have a being of some sort as its causer (since as non-finite it might not be an effect at all). So let us drop this for now as just speculation.

But then it would seem that Francisco Suarez was on the right side of the "essence/existence" question when he said that there was no real distinction between essence and existence, and Thomas Aquinas, who held that essence was "really distinct" from existence (except in God's case) was wrong(1).

St. Thomas's reasoning is based on the fact that the answer to the question, "What is X?" is different from the answer to the question "Is there an X?"; and this, he says, implies that what it is that allows us to answer one of the questions must be distinct from what allows us to answer the other one.

But especially in this case, this is very dangerous reasoning, because it implies that there can be "essences" that don't exist, like the "essence of a unicorn." That is, you can answer the question, "What is a unicorn?" by saying that it's a horse-like animal with a single horn on its forehead and cloven hooves and a curly mane and tail; but there aren't any unicorns, and so you've got an essence but not an existence.

But of course, as we have stressed so often, there is no essence of a unicorn, because there isn't any unicorn, even as a "possible being." All there is is a bunch of nerves that had been used before being reactivated at the same time. There is no such thing as an essence that doesn't exist. How could there be? It would be the essence of nothing at all.

Nevertheless, Suarez does not necessarily have the last word. Essence (a definite existence) is really distinct from existence, because some existence is left out of essence in any given case. If essence were identical in every sense with existence, then every existence would be this essence, which of course would mean that every perception would be the one this essence causes (you would never be doing anything but seeing this page). Essence, as the "thisness" of existence, is (a) nothing but the existence, but (b) is not the existence.

That is essence as such, if you can put it that way, is the "surface" of the existence. What is really "there" is existence, the cause of "formed consciousness"; but in this case, the existence leaves some of itself outside itself, and this "leaving off," this "stopping," is the "surface," the "essence as such." "Essence as such" then, has the same function as temperature as opposed to heat; temperature in that sense is the non-heat inside the heat. Similarly essence is the non-existence inside the existence, the real nothing.

Temperature can be said to be "really distinct" from heat in that heat (though it has to be some temperature) doesn't have to be this temperature in order to be heat. So this particular temperature leaves some heat outside this case of heat, and so it is not what it means to be heat; it is heat as finite.

Similarly, essence can be said to be "really distinct" from existence in that existence (though in every case but conceivably one it has to be some essence) doesn't have to be this essence in order to be existence. So this particular existence leaves some existence outside this case of existence, and so it is not what it means to be existence; it is existence as finite.

The upshot of this is that in the sense above, essence is really "distinct" from existence, because it means "existence as finite in this way" and not simply "existence"; and in that sense St. Thomas wins the debate; but in the concrete, the existence is nothing but this particular case of existence; and so it is essence, and there is no real distinction of essence from existence.

That is, finite existence is obviously an effect: it is existence as different from itself, existence as containing non-existence (the essence-as-such) within it, existence as leaving some of itself outside itself, or existence as less than what it is to exist. And since it is an effect, then if you "fudge" your description of it a bit so that it seems to make sense, it isn't surprising that you can "fudge" both ways and make out a case that essence is really distinct from existence, and also a case that essence is not really distinct from existence.

Of such are philosophical disputes born. Of course, if Hegel is right, somebody should come along and show how both sides of the dispute are "suspended moments" of a point of view that in one sense repudiates each of them and in another sense preserves them as superseded. Needless to say, I think I have done this, and so made the "essence/existence" debate otiose. Both sides are both right and wrong; they are ways of misdescribing an effect in such a way that the description seems to make sense, rather than revealing the "contradictoriness-in-itself" which characterizes an effect as such.

That the "real distinction" as described by St. Thomas was "fudging" the data is clear from the Scholastics' reference to "principles of being and not beings" when they talk about essence and existence, and when they mention their "transcendental relation," such that the "meaning" or "reality" of the one is contained within the other. They are then "distinct" in such a way that they are "in" each other while not being each other, so they both are and are not each other--or in other words, the real distinction is a kind of non-distinct distinction. I think my description of the finite and the analogy with temperature and surface is a little more understandable than the "transcendental relation between really distinct principles of being," which (to me at least) masks what it is saying. So even if the Thomists would agree with my actual description of finite existence as what they were getting at in this type of "real distinction," I prefer my approach and my results.



1. Incidentally, Suarez had Aristotle on his side, though you'd never know it from the translations of Aristotle. What Aristotle obviously intended to mean "existence" (to ti en einai; literally, "what it was [for something] to be") has been translated "essence," not "existence"; and what he intended as "essence" (ousia, lit. "beingness" or "reality") was translated "substance." And so the discussion in the Metaphysics on whether there is a real distinction between essence and existence appears in the translation as a discussion of whether essence is distinct from substance or not.