Critical Phenomenological Discussion of Some Traditional Theses about Being
Kant’s Thesis: Being Is Not a Real Predicate
§7. The content of the Kantian thesis
Kant discusses his thesis that being is not a real predicate in two places. One is a small essay, Der einzig mögliche Beweisgrund zu einer Demonstration des Daseins Gottes [The sole possible argument for a demonstration of God’s existence] (1763). This work belongs to Kant’s so-called pre-critical period, the period before the Critique of Pure Reason (1781). It falls into three parts. Our thesis is dealt with in the first part, which discusses the basic questions and divides into four considerations: (1) “On existence in general”; (2) “On inner possibility insofar as it presupposes an existence”; (3) “On absolutely necessary existence”; (4) “Argument for a demonstration of God’s existence.”
Kant discusses the thesis again in his Critique of Pure Reason (first edition, A, 1781; second edition, B, 1787), specifically in the “Transcendental Logic.” Our citations will henceforth be from the second edition (B). “Transcendental logic,” or, as we may also say, the ontology of nature, falls into two parts: “transcendental analytic” and “transcendental dialectic.” In the transcendental dialectic, book 2, chapter 3, section 4 (B 620 ff), Kant again takes up the thesis he discusses in the Beweisgrund essay. The section is entitled “The Impossibility of an Ontological Proof of the Existence of God.”
In both places, in the Beweisgrund
and in the Critique
, the thesis is treated in the same way. For the purpose of our exposition, in which we propose to examine this thesis in detail, we shall refer to both these works. We may cite them briefly as Beweisgrund
, references to the former being made according to Ernst Cassirer’s edition of Kant’s works. Before we
elucidate the content of the Kantian thesis, let us characterize briefly the pertinent essentials of the context in which it is discussed in both places.
First of all, however, a general terminological observation is required. As the title of the Beweisgrund indicates, Kant is speaking of the proof of the existence of God. He speaks similarly of the existence of things outside us, of the existence of nature. This concept of existence, Dasein, corresponds in Kant to the Scholastic term existentia. Kant therefore often uses the expression “Existenz,” “actuality” [“Wirklichkeit”], instead of “Dasein.” In contrast, our own terminological usage is a different one, which, as will appear, is grounded in the nature of the case. For what Kant calls existence, using either Dasein or Existenz, and what Scholasticism calls existentia, we employ the terms “Vorhandensein,” “being-extant,” “being-at-hand,” or “Vorhandenheit,” “extantness.” These are all names for the way of being of natural things in the broadest sense. As our course proceeds, the choice of these expressions must itself be validated on the basis of the specific sense of this way of being—a way of being that demands these expressions: things extant, extantness, being-at-hand. In his terminology Husserl follows Kant and thus utilizes the concept of existence, Dasein, in the sense of being extant. For us, in contrast, the word “Dasein” does not designate, as it does for Kant, the way of being of natural things. It does not designate a way of being at all, but rather a specific being which we ourselves are, the human Dasein. We are at every moment a Dasein. This being, the Dasein, like every other being, has a specific way of being. To this way of the Dasein’s being we assign the term “Existenz,” “existence”; and it should be noted here that existence or the expression “the Dasein exists” is not the sole determination of the mode of being belonging to us. We shall become acquainted with a threefold determination of this kind, which is of course rooted in a specific sense in existence. For Kant and Scholasticism existence is the way of being of natural things, whereas for us, on the contrary, it is the way of being of Dasein. Therefore, we might, for example, say “A body does not exist; it is, rather, extant.” In contrast, Daseins, we ourselves, are not extant; Dasein exists. But the Dasein and bodies as respectively existent or extant at each time are. Accordingly, not every being is an extant entity, but also not everything which is not an extant entity is therefore also a non-being or something that is not. Rather, it can exist or, as we have yet to see, subsist or have some other mode of being.
The Kantian or the Scholastic concept of reality
must be sharply distinguished from the Kantian concept of existence in the sense of presence-at-hand as a way of being of things and from our own terminology of extantness. In Kant as well as in Scholasticism, which he follows, the expression “reality” does not mean what is commonly understood today by the concept of reality in speaking, for example, about the reality of the external world. In contemporary usage reality is tantamount to actuality or
existence in the sense of extantness, presence-at-hand. The Kantian concept of reality is altogether different, as we shall see. Understanding the thesis that being is not a real predicate depends on understanding this Kantian concept of reality.
Before beginning the interpretation of this thesis, it will be worthwhile to characterize briefly the pertinent context in which it appears. This context strikes the eye on reading the title of the work first mentioned as well as the heading of the relevant section of the Critique of Pure Reason
. It deals with the proof of the existence, actuality, and—in our terms—extantness of God. We are confronted by the striking fact that Kant discusses the most general of all the concepts of being where he is dealing with the knowability of a wholly determinate, distinctive being, namely, God. But, to anyone who knows the history of philosophy (ontology), this fact is so little surprising that it rather just makes clear how directly Kant stands in the great tradition of ancient and Scholastic ontology. God is the supreme being, summum ens, the most perfect being, ens perfectissimum. What most perfectly is
, is obviously most suited to be the exemplary being, from which the idea of being can be read off. God is not merely the basic ontological example of the being of a being; he is at the same time the primal ground of all beings. The being of the non-divine, created entity must be understood by way of the being of the supreme being. Therefore it is no accident that the science of being is oriented in a distinctive sense toward the being which is God. This goes so far that Aristotle already called prote philosophia, first philosophy, by the name of theologia.1
We should take note here that this concept of theology has nothing to do with the present-day concept of Christian theology as a positive science. They have only the name in common. This orientation of ontology toward the idea of God came to have a decisive significance for the subsequent history of ontology and for ontology’s destiny. It is not our present concern to deal here with the legitimacy of this orientation. It is enough that there is nothing surprising about the fact that Kant discussed the concept of being or existence in the context of the possibility of our knowledge of God. More precisely, what Kant was occupied with was the possibility of that proof of the existence of God which he was the first to call the ontological proof. There comes to light here a remarkable phenomenon which we shall repeatedly encounter in philosophy before Kant and also in post-Kantian philosophy, and in its most extreme form in Hegel, namely, that the problem of being in general is most closely bound up with the problem of God, the problem of defining his essence and demonstrating his existence. We cannot here discuss the reason for this remarkable connection, which nevertheless is in the first instance not at all a mere matter of course, for that would require us to
discuss the foundations of ancient philosophy and metaphysics. The fact persists even in Kant and it proves, quite externally to begin with, that Kant’s mode of inquiry still proceeds wholly within the channel of traditional metaphysics. In the places mentioned Kant deals with the possibility of the ontological proof. A peculiar feature of this proof is that it tries to infer God’s existence from his concept
. The philosophical science which in Kant’s opinion starts purely from concepts and tries dogmatically to settle something about that which is
, is ontology or, in traditional language, metaphysics. That is why Kant calls this proof from the concept of God the ontological proof, where “ontological” is equivalent in signification to dogmatical, metaphysical. Kant does not himself deny the possibility of metaphysics but is in search precisely of a scientific metaphysics, a scientific ontology, the idea of which he defines as a system of transcendental philosophy.
The ontological proof is old. It is commonly traced back to Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109). Anselm proposed his proof in a short treatise, Proslogium seu alloquium de Dei existentia [Proslogium, or discourse on the existence of God]. In chapter 3, “Proslogium de Dei existentia,” the real core of the proof is presented. In the literature this proof is frequently called the Scholastic proof of God’s existence. The term is inappropriate because in many cases it was precisely medieval Scholasticism which challenged the logical validity and cogency of this proof. It was not Kant but Thomas Aquinas who first contested the logical validity of this proof, whereas Bonaventura and Duns Scotus admit the proof. But the Kantian refutation of the possibility of the ontological proof is much more radical and thoroughgoing than that given by Thomas.
The characteristic feature of this proof is the attempt to infer God’s existence from his concept. The determination that God is the most perfect being, ens perfectissimum, belongs to his concept, the idea of him. The most perfect being is the one that can lack no possible positive characteristic and that possesses every positive characteristic in an infinitely perfect way. It is impossible that the most perfect being, such as we think God to be in our concept of him, should not have any given positive characteristic. In conformity with the concept of it, every defect is excluded from this being. Therefore also, manifestly, or even before all else, that it is
, its existence, belongs to the perfection of the most perfect being
. God is not what
he is, in accordance with his essential nature as the most perfect being, unless he exists. That God exists thus follows from the concept of God. The proof declares: If God is thought according to his essence, that is to say, according to his concept, then his existence must be thought along with it. This readily suggests the question, Does it follow therefrom that we must think
God as existing, think his existence? We cannot here go into the provenance of this proof, which reaches back beyond Anselm to Boethius and Dionysius the
Areopagite, and thus to Neoplatonism; nor can we examine the various modifications it has undergone and the attitudes that have been taken toward it in the history of philosophy. We shall only in passing describe the view of Thomas Aquinas because it is suitable as a background against which to bring the Kantian refutation into sharpest outline.
Thomas Aquinas discusses and criticizes the possibility of the ontological proof of God’s existence, which he does not yet call by this name, in four places: (1) the Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, Sentences 1, dist. 3, qu. 1, art. 2 ad 4; (2) Summa theologica 1, qu. 2, art. 1; (3) Summa contra gentiles 1, chaps. 10–11; (4) De veritate, qu. 10, art. 12. The last mentioned is the most lucid of these accounts. In this place Thomas raises the question utrum deum esse sit per se notum menti humanae, sicut prima principia demonstrationis, quae non possunt cogitari non esse; “whether God is known to the human intellect by himself and in himself like the first principles of demonstration [the law of identity, the law of contradiction], which cannot be thought as not being.” Thomas asks: Do we know about God’s existence with the aid of God’s concept, according to which he cannot not exist? In section 10 we read: Ad hoc autem quod sit per se notum, oportet quod nobis sit cognita ratio subjecti in qua concluditur praedicatum. In Thomas’ discussion, too, something like a predicate appears, just as it does in the Kantian thesis that being is not a real predicate. “For something to be known in itself, to be intelligible of itself, nothing else is required save that the predicate which is asserted of the being in question is de ratione subjecti, from the concept of the subject.” Ratio is equivalent in meaning to essentia or natura or, as we shall see, reality. In this case the subject cannot be thought without that which appears in the predicate. But in order for us to have such a cognition, which Kant later called an analytic cognition, that is to say, in order for us to be able to infer a thing’s characteristics immediately from its essence, it is necessary that the ratio subjecti, the concept of the thing, should be known to us. For the proof of God’s existence this implies that the concept of God, his whole essence, must be discernible to us. Sed quia quidditas Dei non est nobis nota, ideo quoad nos Deum esse non est per se notum, sed indiget demonstratione. Ideo nobis necessarium est, ad hoc cognoscendum, demonstrationes habere ex effectibus sumptas. But since the quidditas, what God is, his whatness, his essence, is not known to us, since with respect to us God is not transparent in his essence, but requires proof based on the experience of what he has created, therefore, the demonstration of God’s existence from his concept lacks adequate grounding of the starting-point of the proof, namely, the concept.
According to Thomas the ontological proof is impossible because, starting out from ourselves, we are not in a position to expound the pure concept of God so as to demonstrate from it the necessity of his existence. We shall
see that it is at a different place that Kant tackles the ontological proof critically, attacks its real nerve, and thus first really unhinges it.
In order to discern more clearly this place in the ontological proof on which the Kantian criticism makes its assault, we shall give to this proof the formal shape of a syllogism.
Major premise: God, by his concept, is the most perfect being.
Minor premise: Existence belongs to the concept of the most perfect being.
Conclusion: Therefore God exists.
Now Kant does not dispute that by his concept God is the most perfect being, nor does he contest the existence of God. With regard to the form of the syllogism, this means that Kant leaves undisturbed the major premise and the conclusion. If he nevertheless attacks the proof, the attack can bear only upon the minor premise, which says that existence belongs to the concept of the most perfect being. The thesis of Kant, whose phenomenological interpretation we are taking as our theme, is nothing but the fundamental denial of the possibility of the assertion laid down in the minor premise of the ontological proof. Kant’s thesis that being or existence is not a real predicate does not assert merely that existence cannot belong to the concept of the most perfect being or that we cannot know it to belong to that concept (Thomas). It goes further. It says, fundamentally, that something like existence does not belong to the determinateness of a concept at all.
We must first show how Kant argues for his thesis. In this way it will become clear of itself how he explicates the concept of existence, in our sense of extantness.
The first section of the Beweisgrund divides into four disquisitions, the first of which is “On existence in general.” It discusses three theses or questions: (1) “Existence is not a predicate or determination of any thing at all”; (2) “Existence is the absolute position of a thing and thereby differs from any sort of predicate, which, as such, is posited at each time merely relatively to another thing”; (3) “Can I really say that there is more in existence than in mere possibility?”
The first proposition, “Existence is not a predicate or determination of any thing at all,” is a negative characterization of the nature of existence. The second proposition gives a positive definition of the ontological sense of existence—existence equals absolute position. The question enunciated in the third place takes a stand toward a contemporary explication of the concept of existence, such as was given by Wolff...