Heidegger, Sartre, Aquinas?

The heyday of existential Thomism is well past, but Etienne Gilson and others were certainly not wrong to take note of a close connection, despite other large differences.

Heidegger in Being and Time (1926) famously claimed that philosophers since Plato had been preoccupied with questions about beings and had lost sight of the central importance of Being writ large. Many 20th century Thomists partially accepted this argument, but contended that Aquinas was an obvious exception, citing Aquinas’ identification of God with pure Being. Heidegger rejected that identification, and would have insisted that Being was not a being at all, not even the unique one in which essence and existence were identified. Nonetheless there is a broad parallel, to the extent that Heidegger and Aquinas each in their own way stress the dependency of beings on Being.

In some circles, Aquinas has been criticized for promoting a “philosophers’ God”. But according to Burrell, Aquinas argued in effect that on the assumption that there is only one God, the God of Summa Theologica and the God of common doctrine must be acknowledged to have the same referent even if they have different senses, like Frege’s example of the morning star and the evening star.

Sartre in his 1945 lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism” put forth the formula that “existence precedes essence”. Aquinas in Being and Essence had argued that God has no essence other than existence. Sartre argued in effect that the human has no essence other than existence. In his context, this is to say either that the human essence consists only in matters of fact, or that there is simply no such thing as a human essence.

Sartre’s use of the word “essence” reflects a straw-man caricature of bad essentialism. Whatever we may say that essence really is, contrary to Sartre’s usage it is supposed to be distinguished from simple matters of fact. On the other hand, in formal logic, existence does reduce to matters of fact.

What Aquinas, Heidegger, and Sartre have in common is that they all want to treat existence as something that transcends the merely factual and formal-logical. Speaking schematically, it is rather the analogues of essence that transcend the merely factual in the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions. Thus Aquinas made a major innovation in inventing a new, unprecedented concept of existence that transcends the factual. I’m inclined, however, to sympathize with Dietrich of Freiberg’s argument that the concept of essence could already do all the work that Aquinas’ new supercharged concept of existence was supposed to do.

What is important for practical purposes is that there is something that transcends the merely factual. I think the close connection of “essence” with form and ends makes it an ideal candidate. The big difference between form and ends on the one hand and facts on the other is that logically speaking, facts can be arbitrary, whereas any form or end or essence necessarily implies some nonarbitrary order.

For Aquinas, God is simultaneously a fact and more than fact, and is unique in this regard. Nothing else has this dual status. Sartre transferred this unique dual status to the human. By contrast, the neoplatonic One is strictly more than fact — in traditional language, the One as source of being was said to be “beyond being” altogether. The 20th century theologian Paul Tillich quipped that it could be considered blasphemy to say that God exists (because “existence” is mundane and factual).

The “To-Be itself” of Aquinas, while profoundly innovative with respect to previous tradition and certainly not strictly Aristotelian, is nonetheless arguably more Aristotelian in spirit than the neoplatonic One, insofar as it is less ambiguous about the goodness of the actual world. Plotinus struggled mightily to reconcile a commitment to the goodness and beauty of this actual world with an ascetic tendency to devalue all finite things in face of the infinite One. In Aquinas there is still some tension between the reality of secondary causes and the absolute dependence of everything on God, but I think it is fair to say that the way Aquinas sets up the problem makes the reconciliation easier to achieve. This was a huge accomplishment. Nonetheless, taking into account other factors like assertions about the place of omnipotence and sheer power in the scheme of things, my overall sympathies lie more with the neoplatonic “strictly more than fact” perspective, and even more so with Aristotle’s more modest view that the “First” cause is strictly a final cause.

Formalist Existentialism?

The English translation of Alain Badiou’s Being and Event III: The Immance of Truths has just been published. There is not much in this book that I would recognize as philosophy; neither other philosophers nor questions of interpretation are discussed at any length. Badiou primarily wants to assert that actual infinity is established by classical set theory as an “absolute ontological referent”.

Badiou’s deepest influences are Sartrean existentialism and what at first appears to be a kind of extreme formalist view of mathematics. For Sartre, what distinguishes the human is an ability to make utterly arbitrary choices. Such views have historically been justified by appeals to human likeness to an omnipotent God that, while commonly raised by religious sectarians, actually diverge from more broadly accepted views of orthodoxy in religion, which temper appeals to raw infinite power by emphasizing that God is good and more reasonable than we are, and therefore does not act arbitrarily. Sartre and Badiou, however, are both militant atheists who aim to ground the argument for human arbitrariness in some other, nonreligious way.

I think what we need for ethics is to recognize that we are beings who partake of an active character. We do things, and along the way we make choices between alternatives, but real-world decisions — the only kind there are — are never made in a vacuum. I think activity necessarily involves purposefulness (seeking some good, i.e., something judged by someone to be good in some way, even if we would completely reject the judgment). Any kind of purpose at all is incompatible with complete arbitrariness. (See also Beings.) But Badiou would disqualify this whole line of thought, because he doesn’t believe in ethics or in purposes that are independent of arbitrary decision.

I call Badiou’s appeals to formalism in mathematics extreme because — utterly contrary to the spirit of the early 20th century program of David Hilbert, which is usually taken as the paradigm of mathematical formalism — Badiou claims that his formalist arguments directly apply to the real world. Even so-called mathematical Platonism only asserts the independence of mathematical objects, and nothing like the immediate relevance to politics claimed by Badiou. The whole point of Hilbert’s formalism is that it doesn’t care about the real world at all. For Hilbert, mathematics consisted in purely hypothetical elaboration of the consequences of arbitrary axioms and definitions. He likened this to a kind of game.

Badiou’s use of purely formal elaboration from arbitrary starting points is decidedly not hypothetical; it is combined with an extreme realism. According to Badiou, Paul Cohen’s theorems about generic subsets, for instance, are supposed to directly lead to political consequences that are supposed to be liberating. We are supposed to get some enlightenment from considering, e.g., immigrant workers as a generic subset, and this is supposed to represent a kind of unconditional or “absolute” truth that is nonetheless immanent to our concrete experience. But the treatment of arbitrary hypotheses as unconditional truths is utterly contrary to what Hegel meant by “absolute” knowledge, which I would argue is really supposed to involve the exact opposite of arbitrariness. Hegel’s “absolute” is about as far from Badiou’s “absolute ontological referent” as could be. (See also Hegelian Finitude.)

I am only a moderately well-informed mathematical layman and claim no deep understanding of Cohen’s results, but the basic idea of a generic set or subset seems to be that it is an arbitrary selection of elements from some pre-existing set. Being arbitrary, it has no definition or characteristic function (other than by sheer enumeration of its elements). But in classical set theories, new sets and subsets can be formed from an arbitrary set. Badiou relates this to Georg Cantor’s proof that any set has more subsets than elements. In itself, I find the latter unobjectionable. But Badiou likes classical set theory because it gives a putative mathematical respectability both to arbitrary beginnings and to actual infinity. (See also Categorical “Evil”; Infinity, Finitude.)

According to Badiou, belief in actual infinity is revolutionary and good, whereas disbelief in actual infinity is conservative and bad. Infinity is supposed to be revolutionary precisely because it is unbounded. This just means that it can be used as a putative license for arbitrariness. I want to insist on the contrary that there is nothing socially progressive about arbitrariness! Badiou’s recommended political models are the chaotic Maoist cultural revolution of the 1960s and the ephemeral May 1968 Paris uprising. I don’t see that the oppressed of the world gained any benefit from either.

Badiou explicitly endorses arguments of the notorious Nazi apologist Carl Schmitt that were used to justify a permanent “state of exception” in which absolute political power is asserted. This intellectual red-brown coalition is unfortunately being taken seriously by some academic leftists. The unifying theme is the claim that metaphysical support for arbitrariness is the key to achieving social justice. There are much better ways…

Back to Ethical Being

I think Hegel’s notion of concrete “ethical being” (sittliches Wesen), which has been particularly well explicated by Robert Pippin, does an immeasurably better job of unfolding what I will provocatively call the human “essence” — which the explicit level of Aristotle’s notion of talking animals only extensionally picked out — than its more famous 20th century “ontologically” flavored competitors like Heidegger’s Dasein or Sartre’s “being for itself”. In an immeasurably richer and more subtle way, concrete ethical being addresses the order of explanation relevant to human life. It is also happily free of existentialist bombast and melodrama. (See also Beings; Hegel on Willing; Hegel’s Ethical Innovation.)

The Dreaded Humanist Debate

In 1960s France, there was a huge controversy among philosophers and others over so-called “humanism”. Rhetoric was excessive and overheated on both sides of the debate, promoting unhealthy and shallow polarization, but the topics dealt with were of great importance.

To begin to understand the various positions on this, it is necessary to realize that connotations of the word “humanism” in this context were quite different from what is usual in English. The third meaning listed in Google’s dictionary result, attributed to “some contemporary writers”, does at least have the virtue of expressing a position in philosophical anthropology, which is what was at issue in the French debate (in contrast both to Renaissance literary humanism and to explicitly nonreligious approaches to values).

Europe has an old tradition of self-identified Christian humanism. After the publication of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts in the 1930s, non-Stalinist Marxists began talking about a Marxist humanism. In France after World War II, even the Stalinists wanted to claim the title of humanist. In his famous 1945 lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism”, the notoriously anti-religious and individualistic writer Jean-Paul Sartre surprised some people by placing his existentialism under a common “humanist” banner with Christians and Stalinists. What they all wanted to assert under the name of humanism was a particular view of what it is to be a human, emphasizing the centrality of free will and consciousness, and identifying humanness with being a Subject.

In the 1960s, these views were sharply criticized by people loosely associated with so-called “structuralism”, including Foucault, Althusser, and Lacan. The “structuralist” views denied strong claims of a unitary Subject of knowledge and action; rejected any unconditional free will; and took a deflationary approach to consciousness. Sartre and others launched vehement counter-attacks, and the debate degenerated into little better than name-calling on both sides.

In my youth, I was exposed first to views from the “humanist” side, and accepted them. Then I became aware of the “structuralist” alternative, and for a while became its zealous partisan.

In the Odyssey, Odysseus had to navigate between the twin hazards of Scylla and Charybdis. Since the millenium, I have emphasized a sort of middle way between “humanism” and “structuralism” — inspired especially by Aristotle and Brandom, and now with added support from Ricoeur.

Now I want to say, there is no Subject with a capital “S”, but I am highly interested in the details of subjectivity. There is no unconditional free will (and I even doubt the existence of a separate faculty of “will” distinct from reason and desire), but I am highly interested in voluntary action as discussed, e.g., by Aristotle and Ricoeur. I prefer to sharply distinguish apparently immediate “consciousness” from other-oriented, mediate, reflexive “self-consciousness”, putting most of the philosophical weight on the latter.


Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) was a tremendously original, highly influential, and troublesome philosopher. What makes his work troublesome is not only conceptual difficulty and a deliberate practice of translating the familiar into the unfamiliar, but also his never clearly repudiated attempt to influence the Nazi movement in Germany. He seems to have been a cultural and linguistic chauvinist who rejected pseudo-biological racism, but nonetheless put hopes in an “inner truth and greatness” of National Socialism as an alternative to American and Soviet materialism. This identification puts a dark cloud over the interpretation of his writing, which was, however, generally very far removed from politics. The question is, how much it is possible to detach his work from a stance that seems worse than one of mere bad judgment.

A serious and innovative reader of Aristotle who also developed thought-provoking readings of Plato, Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche, Heidegger combined a sympathetic but critical take on Husserl’s phenomenology with an interest in the hermeneutics of Wilhem Dilthey. Widely read as an “existentialist”, he sharply repudiated Sartre’s appropriation of his work. In his later works, he approached philosophy as a kind of poetic meditation.

His most famous thesis was that Western thought largely lost its way from Plato onward, neglecting the question of the meaning of Being in favor of preoccupation with things. While he made good points about the preconceptions involved in our ordinary encounters with things, I think he too sharply rejected “ontic” engagement with empirical, factual concerns in favor of a purified ontology. He also promoted a valorization of what I would call the pre-philosophical thought of the pre-Socratics Heraclitus and Parmenides. I think Plato and especially Aristotle represented a gigantic leap forward from this.

Some of Heidegger’s very early work was on the medieval theologian Duns Scotus, who seems to have originated the standard notion of ontology later promoted by Wolff and others. In sharp contrast to the tradition stemming from Scotus, Heidegger argued that Being is not the most generic concept, and wanted to emphasize a “Being of beings” in contrast to their factual, empirical presentation. He did not follow the path of Aquinas in identifying pure Being with God, either, and Aquinas probably would have rejected his talk of the Being of beings.

I think his most important contribution was an emphasis on what he called “being-in-the-world” as a way of overcoming the dichotomy of subject and object. His associated critique of Cartesian subjectivity has been highly influential. In later works, he also recommended putting difference before identity, and relations before things. Although the way he expounded these notions was quite original, I prefer to emphasize their roots in Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel. (See also Being, Existence; Being, Consciousness; Beings; Phenomenological Reduction?; Memory, History, Forgetfulness — Conclusion.)


Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80), the name most associated with existentialism, was a leading literary figure, public intellectual, and political activist in mid-20th century France. He initially became famous for dwelling on things like nausea and absurdity.

Sartre propounded one of the most extravagant voluntarisms ever conceived, grounded in a novel, atheistic metaphysics rather than the extreme supernaturalism that has usually supported such views. “[N]o limits to my freedom can be found except freedom itself…. [F]or human reality, to be is to choose oneself; nothing comes to it either from the outside or from within which it can receive or accept…. Man… is wholly and forever free” (Being and Nothingness, pp. 439-441). We are “condemned” to freedom, are free even in prison, were never freer than during the Nazi occupation, and so on. For my own contrasting view, see Freedom and Free Will; Freedom Without Sovereignty; Choice, Deliberation; Structural Causality, Choice; Brandomian Choice.

Later, he developed a theory of what he called totalization. “If dialectical Reason exists, then, from the ontological point of view, it can only be a developing totalisation, occurring where the totalisation occurs, and, from the epistemological point of view, it can only be the accessibility of that totalisation to a knowledge which is itself, in principle, totalising in its procedures.” (Critique of Dialectical Reason, p. 47). This sounds like a nightmare of the sort of bad old metaphysical Hegelianism that would swallow everything, completely opposed to Hegel’s own acute sensitivity to context and the essential role of mediation.

What is common to Sartre’s notions of freedom and totalization is their inflationary character. This is not a sound basis for anything.

Pure Negativity?

I’m still hoping to arrive at a more constructive engagement with the Žižek school of contemporary Hegel interpretation. Žižek’s reading is more “metaphysical” than the Aristotle-and-Brandom-inspired one I’ve been developing here, and I’m not fond of his penchant for showmanship, but there is a broad proximity of concerns. I’m looking now at Sbriglia and Žižek, Subject Lessons: Hegel, Lacan, and the Future of Materialism (2020). The unusual “materialism” at issue here is openly proclaimed to be a development of German idealism. The contributors seek to distinguish themselves from other recent currents of so-called “cultural materialism”, “new historicism”, “new materialism”, and “object-oriented ontology”. I’ve briefly reviewed one of the representative works from which the Žižekians want to distinguish themselves.

Common to all these trends, the Žižek school, and the work pursued here is a rejection of a classic Cartesian Subject. As against the others, the Žižek school and I both also want to nonetheless affirm the importance of subjectivity. While I am not a Lacanian, I also think Lacan deserves serious engagement, and the Žižek school is pursuing that.

Sbriglia and Žižek write that “the self-limitation of the phenomenal that renders matter un-whole, the fact that the phenomenal field is in itself never ‘all’, never a complete, consistent whole, is strictly correlative to subjectivity as such” (p. 10, emphasis in original). Mladen Dolar in his contribution writes, “Subject is rather the very impossibility of substance to be substance” (p. 38). Žižek in his contribution adds, “when Kant asserts the limitation of our knowledge, Hegel does not answer him by claiming he can overcome the Kantian gap…. the Kantian gap already is the solution: Being itself is incomplete…. This dimension gets lost in Fichte and Schelling, who both assert intellectual intuition” (pp. 107-108, emphasis in original). This seems exactly right.

I would add that for similar reasons having to do with criteria of identity, there is an impossibility like Dolar’s (developed by Aristotle himself in the central books of the Metaphysics) for Aristotelian “what it was to have been” a thing to just be the kind of quasi-grammatical substrate that came to be commonly understood by Latin substantia. The above-quoted formulations are a big advance over notions of mere epistemic incompleteness due to the inexhaustibility of a naively conceived in-itself. In my more Aristotelian language, not only do we rational animals never have a completely univocal perspective on the whole, but we should not be afraid to speak of equivocal determination in the real. Equivocal determination is still determination, but it is incomplete.

My only caveat to Sbriglia and Žižek’s formulation would be on the Schellingian sound of “self-limitation of the phenomenal”. It seems to me the Žižek school sometimes wants to put a Schellingian spin on Hegel’s famous “substance is also subject” claim, which would be an unfortunate regression. I think Hegel not only wanted to sharply distinguish his perspective from that of Schellingian identity philosophy, but succeeded in doing so.

Sbriglia and Žižek use the picturesque Lacanian language of a “hole in reality” as a defining characteristic of subjectivity, commenting that “the inaccessibility of the transcendent In-itself… is a result of the inscription of the perceiving subject into reality” (ibid). I prefer to minimize implicit identity claims, and thus to say (some) subjectivity rather than “the” subject. In some contexts, I think this is merely a terminological difference. Insofar as they just mean a decentered subjectivity with roots in the unconscious, the formulation seems fine, provided “perceiving” is taken as referring to something like Hegelian “Perception” and higher levels of the Phenomenology, not to something like his intended-to-be-discarded starting point of putative empirical “Sense Certainty”.

I get less comfortable with their talk about “the” subject as an abyss of pure negativity. Here I hear echoes of Sartre. While this is neither a substantial Cartesian-medieval intellectual soul nor even a Husserlian transcendental Ego, talk about “pure” negativity or an “abyss” seems to imply a kind of immanent infinity, albeit stripped of traditional theological associations. Sartre used this kind of metaphysics of negativity to bolster an extreme voluntarist anthropology, ironically transferring claims from old bad theology to the service of a strident atheism. Alain Badiou, who is a significant influence on the Žižek school, began as a Sartrean, and is perhaps the most outspoken extreme voluntarist today. I think it is a disservice to bring Sartre and Badiou into the reading of Hegel. Voluntarism is at root a naked expression of the attitude of one-sided Mastery, and should have no place in a discourse that aims at emancipation. Emancipation cannot come from an imposition of will. It comes rather from the increase of justice through processes furthering concrete realization of the autonomy of reason and mutual recognition. (See also Independence, Freedom; Freedom Without Sovereignty.)

Claims of immanent infinity may get a bit of added credibility these days, due to circulating complaints against Kantian “finitude”. It is easy to superficially enlist quotes from Hegel that appear to support such complaints. Here I want to explicitly defend the Kantian perspective of the essential finitude of human reality, relating it back to the happily rather than unhappily finite perspective of Aristotle, and supporting that by an Aristotelian-Brandomian reading of Hegel. A perspective of human finitude can also draw on charitable understandings of much traditional wisdom.

I do also think there is an inherently good but distinctly inhuman Hegelian “negative infinity” that can be anonymously intimate to our finite reality and the formation of our values, through the mediation of second nature, without actually being “us” or “ours” or immanent in us. Even if that negative infinity is to be identified with the “pure Self” Sbriglia and Žižek mention from Hegel’s 1805-06 lectures, it should not be identified with any empirical or existentialist or common-sense self. The Žižek school’s way of expressing this is to speak of a “split subject” or a split in the subject. Various strands of traditional wisdom can be seen in retrospect to have bearing on such a distinction as well. Members of the Žižek school would probably eschew any favorable reference to “traditional wisdom” of the kind I am making here as incompatible with academic-leftist credentials important to them, but Hegel himself often showed an irenic and even valorizing attitude on matters of this sort. (See also Acts in Brandom and Žižek; Self, Subject; Empirical-Transcendental Doublet.)

Freedom and Free Will

Plato and Aristotle got along perfectly well with what many people think was no concept of a separate “will” at all. Aristotle nonetheless developed a nuanced account of deliberation and choice, which should have made it plain for all time that no extravagant assumptions are necessary to provide a basis for morality. All that is required for ethical development is that there be things within our power, not that we can somehow magically escape from all determination.

Curiously, the notion of a “freedom of indifference” emerged in Stoicism, generally thought to be a haven of determinism. The Stoic sage is claimed to be completely indifferent and unaffected by passions, therefore completely free. Some monotheistic theologians later applied an even stronger version of this to God. God in this view is absolutely free to do absolutely any arbitrary thing. Some even claimed that because man is in the image of God, man too is supernaturally exempt from any constraint on the will. Descartes claimed that the physical world was wholly determined, but that the human soul is by the grace of God wholly free. (See also Arbitrariness, Inflation.)

Others thought we are free when we are guided by reason. This view takes different shapes, from that of Aquinas to that of Spinoza.

Kant introduced another kind of freedom, based on taking responsibility. Where I decide to take responsibility, I am free in that sense, with no need for a supernatural power. I can take responsibility for things that are by no means fully within my control. Kant unfortunately confuses the matter by talking about freedom as a novel form of causality, while denying that this makes any gap in Newtonian physical causality. (See also Kantian Freedom; Kantian Will; Freedom Through Deliberation?; Beauty, Deautomatization; Phenomenology of Will.)

Hegel too reproduced some voluntarist-sounding rhetoric, but his version of freedom is a combination of both the reason and responsibility views with absence of slavery or oppression. (See also Independence, Freedom.)

Confusion continued into the 20th century notably with Sartre, who claimed that man is free even in prison, and attacked so-called structuralism for allegedly undermining said freedom.

Freedom as reason, freedom as responsibility, freedom as absence of slavery and oppression are all things we should want. As for the rest, see the Appendix to Book 1 of Spinoza’s Ethics (though unfortunately Spinoza is unfair to Aristotle in treating all teleology as supernatural in origin). (See also Subject; God and the Soul; Influence.)

Brandom explicitly mentions theological voluntarism as associated with what he calls the “subordination-obedience model” of normativity.