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Ancient and MedievalTwo Main Questions Of Medieval Metaphysics

Another important debate in later medieval metaphysics was about whether essence—the sort of thing something is—and existence (esse) —the fact of the thing's actually existing—are really distinct. Aquinas held that they are, and that in everything except God there is a real composition between them. This theory allows Aquinas, who does not believe that every creature is a composite of matter and form, to identify one sense in which nevertheless God alone is noncomposite. Not many of his successors followed him, however, in this insistence that the distinction between essence and existence is real. Some, such as Duns Scotus, held the distinction to be more than mental, but less than real, while Ockham argues that "essence" and esse mean the same thing.

The same thinkers also considered whether "being" in a general sense is a notion under which fall both God and his creatures. Aquinas insisted that the notion applies only analogically (and so equivocally) to God, on the one hand, and created things on the other. Scotus (followed by many fourteenth-century thinkers) argued for a subtle form of univocal predication of "being," although he fully acknowledged that God's infinite way of being is unlike that of any creature.



Aristotle. Metaphysics. In The Complete Works of Aristotle, edited by Jonathan Barnes. Vol. 2. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985. Translations with extensive philosophical annotation of individual books of the Metaphysics can be found in the Clarendon Aristotle Series, published by Oxford University Press.

Plato. Dialogues. Various translations are available.

Aquinas, Thomas. Selected Philosophical Writings. Edited and translated by Timothy McDermott. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Contains a number of passages central to Aquinas's metaphysics, including the whole of De ente et essentia, 90–113.


Barnes, Jonathan. "Metaphysics." In The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle, edited by Jonathan Barnes, 66–108. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Dumont, S. "Henry of Ghent and Duns Scotus." In The Routledge History of Philosophy, Vol. 3: Medieval Philosophy, edited by John Marenbon, 291–328. London and New York: Routledge, 1998. The chapter is almost entirely on their metaphysics.

White, Nicholas P. "Plato's Metaphysical Epistemology." In The Cambridge Companion to Plato, edited by Richard Kraut, 277–310. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Wippel, John F. "Essence and Existence." In Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy: From the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Disintegration of Scholasticism, 1100–1600, edited by Norman Kretzmann, Anthony Kenny, and Jan Pinborg, 385–410. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

John Marenbon

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