Scholastic and modern formalism: a continuous path down

[Exposition in the Thomistic Studies 2014: ens­-esse; the return to the fundament]

This work is about Modern formalism or essentialism. After having seen some historical works about the sources of Saint Thomas Aquinas’ thought, these two works about scholastic and modern formalism are focused on showing a wrong understanding of the primacy of  the actus essendi in the ens.

The main thesis I want to show has three branches:

1) First, there is a continuous path of the forgetfulness of the actus essendi’s primacy in the ens from the scholastic formalism up to the modern formalism;

2) Second, the last and most radical consequence of these two forms of formalism is the modern principle of immanence. This principle leads intrinsically, by its own logic, to atheism;

3) Third, the principle of transcendence is opposed to the principle of immanence, and it leads to the primacy of the esse in the ens, and finally to God, the Ipsum Esse Subsistens.

So, let us begin with a short introductory comparison between Scholastic and modern formalism or essentialism.

1. Comparison between Scholastic and modern formalism

A. Scholastic Formalism or Essentialism

Francisco Suarez

As we have seen in the precedent work, in the Scholastic formalism the fundament of the ens is not the esse, but the essence. For them, the essence is the most important co-principle of the ens. Why? Because the essence, also called quiddity, is the object of our intellect, it can be comprehended, understood, but the act of esse cannot. The essence is the content; from the essence I can deduce the properties and components of the ens. So, if the essence is coherent in itself or not contradictory in itself (for example, a circle square) that essence is able to exist. The principal characteristic of the essence, is the internal coherence, the absence of contradiction, that is, finally the logical possibility (aptitudo ad essendi).

In this way, the existence is posterior to the essence, is like the last consequence of the internal coherence of the essence. Something that is self-contradictory, is impossible to exist, but something that is not contradictory in itself, is possible to exist. Therefore, the possibility of the essence is prior to the existence.

The ens is not what for St. Thomas is as “that which has esse” (id quod habet esse) but “that which has a possible essence” (id quod habet essentia possible, id quod potest existere). The ens is nothing else that a possible essence.

The difference between the essence as possible and as existent is a mere modal difference, that is, there is not a real distinction between essence and existence (Suarez).

And, what about the esse? The esse is reduced to existence, that is, a mere extrinsic act, whose unique function is to make it existent, “to set off” the essence “outside” from God’s Essence, since they think that God is the Supreme Essence, not the Esse subsistent.

B. Modern Formalism or Essentialism

From that primacy of the essence over the esse, derives the modern formalism. Even if there are many different modern philosophers, very often discussing between themselves, they are to be founded over the same principle: the primacy of thought or thinking over esse; the primacy of possibility over reality. Why? Because the essence or quiddity is the object of our knowledge, we can grasp it, we can comprehend it, we can deduce and explain its characteristics. So, if we said that the main element of the ens is the essence, we are limiting the ens to the “logical content” instead of the “act”. And latter on, the same laws of the thought will become the laws of the ens, as we can clearly see in Kant and the posterior idealism. In this way, the ens became “objectivity”, that is, another object of our knowledge, and Metaphysics was transformed into Logic. The last consequence of this formalism or essentialism, is the identification of thought and esse: our thought, our ideas and concepts, are identical with the reality, or even more, our ideas and concepts, are the center, the heart of the reality; the act of the reality is nothing else than the act of our conscience.

Difference between scholastic and modern essentialism

Let’s try to compare this two modes of formalism:

Theological extrinsic essentialism:

existentia is actuality (actualitas) of the essence in the sense of effectuality: is the fact of being created and put outside God. There is more metaphysical weight on the content of the essence, on its non-logical contradiction, that in the act of esse.


The possible essence receive a change of status from God, it becomes existent/extrinsic by the effectuality of the existence. What is the ens? It is the realization (realitas) of the possible essence based on God’s Essence.

Anthropological immanent essentialism:

existentia is the realization or appearance of the thing’s proper idea. Is the fact of being “mediated” and put outside the conscience. There is more metaphysical weight on the “mediation” of the act of thinking that in the proper thing’s consistency.

The possible essence/idea receive a change of status from the conscience’s act, it becomes real by the “mediation” of the act of thinking. What is the ens? It is the realization of the idea based on one’s own act of consciousness.

2. Continuous process


During the academic year 1929/30, Heidegger –the last great modern philosopher– was teaching at the university about Metaphysics. During his lessons, he said: “For the development of modern metaphysics… Saint Thomas and medieval philosophy… should be considered only in a minor part. A more immediate influence on the development of the modern metaphysics was exercised by a theologian and philosopher who in the sixteen century… assumes the task of reinterpreting the Aristotelian metaphysics: the Jesuit Spanish Francisco Suárez.[1]” “For sharpness and autonomy in the formulation of the question (about Metaphysic) he (Suárez) must be situated higher than saint Thomas.” Heidegger even says that Suárez was “the thinker who more powerfully influenced modern philosophy. Descartes depends directly on him and uses his terminology almost everywhere. It was Suárez who systematized for the first time the medieval philosophy, especially ontology.[2]

This statement is very important for our topic, because on one hand, Suárez should be consider as one of the most important supporters of the scholastic formalism, and his most important metaphysical thesis are incompatible with Saint Thomas’ thought; and on the other hand, Heidegger was one of the most important supporters of the modern formalism.

When we study philosophy, we insist on the fact that there is a rupture and a break down between the modern and the medieval thought, starting with Descartes. But that rupture is between the modern thought and Saint Thomas’ metaphysics, not with the scholastic essentialism. On the contrary, we should strongly emphasize the “continuity between the scholastic and modern essentialism”, because the former was the cause of the latter. About this Fr. Fabro says: “The passage from the anti Thomistic medieval formalism to the modern rationalism is continuous, because of the common essentialist perspective of the ens in the two states of possibility (essentia) and reality (existentia).[3]” The essence is the “possible idea” in itself; the existence is the “realization” or “appearance” of that idea.

Both essentialisms have the same consideration of the ens: the primacy is for the essence, not for the esse; the primacy is for the intelligible content (quiddity), not for the act; the primacy is for the possibility, not for the reality. Speaking about modern essentialism Fr. Fabro says: “the idea constitutes the truth and the realities of the esse… the thought’s immanent laws are therefore the same laws of the esse.[4]

Hegel: Essence is like reality, and existence like manifestation: all that appear is a manifestation of the Essence, of the Absolute. That is why Hegel says: “The truth of being is the essence.[5]” The relationship between man and God, between finite and Infinite, is the same as one of manifestation/appearance and Essence, which is a copy of the relationship of  the existentiaessentia inside the principle of immanence.[6]

existence – being Essence
appearance or manifestation Reality
finite Infinite
man – nature God – Absolute

III. Principle of immanence and pple. of transcendence.

As we have said, the last and most radical consequence of these two forms of formalism is the modern principle of immanence. This principle leads intrinsically, by its own logic, to atheism.

The first and main difference between transcendence and immanence, realism and idealism, is played in the basic attitude of our conscience in front of the esse and the reality. “The disjunctions and oppositions between idealism and realism… arise from inside conscience’s primary attitude towards the esse, through which the theory does its beginning.[7]

Fr. Fabro says there are only two possibilities: whether a) esse or reality proceeds from conscience, is the presence of conscience… or b) conscience proceeds from esse, is the presence of esse. That is why realism and immanentism are not, and can not be transitory positions or reducible to a third position. Non datur tertium. Any other solution is a tertium confusionis,[8] says Fr. Fabro.

In the immanence there is a circle inside the consciousness: the first step is an act of conscience (cogito; Ich denke…), then follows the mediation of the ens like a partial manifestation and moment, and finally we arrive at the self-consciousness, the truth of the conscience in itself.

About this Fr. Fabro says: “The modern thought has brought the fundament of ens to the activity of the conscience. The cogito or principle of immanence was defined by Hegel with the formula ‘the conscience’s truths is the self-conscience,’ that means that, there is an identity or return of the conscience to itself. There is not any distinction between conscience and ens, because the conscience should realize that everything, the multiplicity and the different things, are just appearances or representations of the same conscience.[9]

On the contrary, in realism there is a circle from the ens to the ens: the first step is the ens actuated by the esse, which appears to the conscience (primum cognitum); then follow the mediation of the idea, the thought and the conscience, and finally we come back again to the truth of the ens in itself. Fr. Fabro says that the esse and only the esse is the fundament of the thought, that is, like what makes the thought possible. This is the opposite of the Idealism.[10]

The virtual atheism of the principle of immanence

Why the principle of immanence leads directly to atheism? Because if we put the fundament of the ens in the act of the conscience, there is no way at all to arrive to the Ipsum Esse Subsistent. If we set the fundament of the ens -the esse– in our conscience, because our conscience is finite, we need to state that every esse is intrinsically finite (Heidegger says it explicitly,[11] Suárez as well[12]…), and therefore, we can not arrive to God. God is absolutely transcendent and infinite; he is not a finite immanent idea of our conscience.


Fr. Fabro firmly states: “It is the formalist plexus of essentiaexistentia which, above all by the influence of the Nominalism and that of Suárez in the culture of the Seventeenth century, that happens in the modern rationalism… the scholastic identity of essentiaexistentia inevitably overturns in the identity of thought and esse affirmed by the modern philosophy. When the truth of an ens is all resolved in the essence, it can be understood completely by the same thought and therefore it can be presented in its authentic form only in the thought.

Not for nothing Heidegger sees a continuity between Descartes and the further development of the western philosophy and specially among Leibniz, Kant, the transcendental Idealism arriving up to Marx. And we can add until the same Heidegger…[13]”, says Fr. Fabro.

P. Lic. Pablo Trollano ive

[1] M. Heidegger, Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik, Frankfurt, Klostermann 1983, 77-78.

[2] M. Heidegger, Die Grundprobleme der Phänomenologie, Frankfurt, Klostermann 1975, 112.

Cf. Also: L. Prieto López, “Suárez, crocevia nella filosofía tra medioevo e modernità,” Alpha Omega l (IX-2006) 3-38; Marco Bracchi; “Tra il medioevo e Suarez. Il retroterra del cartesianesimo;” for example page 407: “Che esista un nesso tra René Descartes e Francisco Suarez può sembrare, allo stato attuale delle ricerche, un’affermazione consolidata, persino scontata. Vedere una dipendenza in Cartesio dalle Disputationes suareziane, cogliere il fatto di una contemporaneità storica e culturale tra i due, è possibile, anzi doveroso.”

[3] C. Fabro, Partecipazione…, 25–26.

[4] C. Fabro, Giorgio G. F. Hegel. La dialettica, La scuola, Brescia 19834, xii.

[5] Hegel, Science of logic, § 807.

[6] C. Fabro, Il ritorno al fondamento, 103.

[7] C. Fabro, Giorgio G. F. Hegel. La dialettica, La scuola, Brescia 19834, xiii.

[8] C. Fabro, Giorgio G. F. Hegel. La dialettica, xvii, footnote 9.

[9] C. Fabro, Tomismo e pensiero moderno, 421; “the fundamental character of the modern philosophy is the overcoming of the opposition between thought and being [unifying and identifying them]… From here the exactly denomination of immanentism and philosophy of the identity… for the modern thought; and of realism, that is dualism…, for the classical philosophy,” 420.

[10] Cf. C. Fabro, Giorgio G. F. Hegel. La dialettica, xvi.

[11] “‘Pure being and pure nothing are therefore the same.’ This thesis of Hegel’s (Science of Logic, vol. I, Werke III, 78) is quite right. Being and the no-thing do belong together, but not because they are equally indeterminate and immediate, as in Hegel’s notion of thinking, but rather because being itself is essentially finite and shows up only in the human being’s transcendence, its being held out into the no-thing.” What is metaphysics.

[12] XXXI, 13, 18: seipso et ex vi entitatis suae esse limitatum et finitum, neque indigere aliquo limitante vel contrahente in re distincto a seipso, sed intrinsece natura sua esse tantae perfectionis per suam formalem entitatem, extrinsece vero limitari a Deo, vel effective, quia ab eo recipit tantam perfectionem essendi et non maiorem, vel ut a causa exemplari, quia commensuratur tali ideae divinae repraesentanti tantam perfectionem et non maiorem.

XXXI, 13, 18: Unde cum existentia nihil aliud sit quam essentia in actu constituta, sicut essentia actualis per seipsam vel per sua intrinseca principia est formaliter limitata, ita etiam existentia creata limitationem habet ex ipsa essentia, non ut est potentia in qua recipitur, sed quia in re nihil aliud est quam ipsamet actualis essentia.

[13] C. Fabro, Il ritorno al fondamento, 96-97.

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