Evidence Against a Divine Whatness

Aquinas' claim that God ultimately is said not to have essence according to Avicenna has textual warrant. In the medieval Latin adaptation of Avicenna's al-Ilahiyyat (Divine Science) of the Kitab al-Shifa' (Book of Healing), namely the Liberdephilosophiaprima sive scientia divina, Avicenna states, "The first therefore, does not have a quiddity, rather being (esse) flows from it onto those things having quiddity. He himself is denuded being (esse exspoliatum/mujarrad al-wujud), in a condition that negates privations and other properties from him" (PP 8.4 [2:402/A347]).8 In the present context, Avicenna speaks of quiddity (quidditas/mahiyya) as being distinct or aside (praeter) from anity (anitas/"whetherness") (PP 8.4 [2:401/A347]).9 Here, the term "anity" has to do with being. As such, Avicenna views the being (esse/wujud) of something that is created as extrinsic to its quiddity. Avicenna explains, "Therefore, everything having quiddity is caused. Other things, with the exception of necessary being, have quiddities which are through themselves possible beings (mumkinat al-wujud), to which being does not happen except extrinsically" (PP 8.4 [2:402/A347]). Being (esse), then, is not part of the quiddity of a composite thing. Rather, it is derived from the first existent and is added to the "whatness" of that thing. Accordingly, quiddity can be understood independently of whether it exists.10

Yet, quiddity (mahiyya), insofar as it is understood as distinct from anity (anniyya) or being (esse/wujud), cannot be applied to the divine. As Avicenna states, "For I say that the necessary being is not able to have a quiddity that accompanies (comitetur) the necessity of being (necessitas essendi)" (PP 8.4 [2:399/A344]). Avicenna supplies a number of reasons for why a quiddity that is other than being (esse) cannot pertain to the necessary being. As suggested above, a quiddity which stands aside (praeter) from being (esse) would imply a reality that has a cause for its being. Yet, Avicenna had argued earlier that the necessary being is without cause (PP 1.6 [1:44/A38]). Furthermore, inasmuch as the distinction of quiddity from being entails composition, it cannot relate to the utterly simple character of the divine (PP 8.4 [2:399/A345]; cf. 8.4 [2:402/A3471).

There is additional evidence for Avicenna's denial of a divine "whatness." In reasoning that God is without a genus, Avicenna again states in the Liber de philosophia prima that primary being is without quiddity, "Also, the first does not have a genus. For the first does not have a quiddity, and as it does not have a quiddity, it does not have a genus. For a genus answers to the question: What is it?" (PP 8.4 [2:402/A347]). Avicenna goes on to note that the first existent cannot be defined for the simple reason that a definition requires a genus and differentia (PP 8.4 [2:403/A348]). The difficulty in attributing a genus to the necessary being is that it possesses no likeness to anything else with which it could share a genus. To define the necessary being would be to subjugate it to some common or shared property, thereby forfeiting its unique status (PP 8.5 [2:411/A354]). In a later chapter, Avicenna explicitly rejects the possibility of comparing the finite realm with primary being, "It is therefore now clear that the first does not have a genus nor a quiddity nor a quality nor a quantity nor a time nor a place nor a comparison to it nor a contrary,." (PP 8.5 [2:411/A354; cf. 9.1 [2:434/A354]). Given the absence of a shared domain between the first existent and the rest of reality, Avicenna, then, very much in the manner of Plotinus, recognizes that the divine cannot be captured quidditatively.

For these reasons, Avicenna limits all of our so-called divine attributes to privations and relations (PP 8.5 [2:411/A354]; cf. 8.4 [2:398/A344]). In the Liber de philosophia prima, he comments, "Moreover, when his (the first's) reality (certitudolhaqiqa) is established, it is established only according to being (anitatem), by the negation of similarities from it and by the affirmation of relations to it, since everything that is, is from it, and what is from it does not have anything in common with it" (PP 8.5 [2:411/A354]; cf. 8.4 [2:398/A344]; 8.7 [2:430/A367]). As Ian R.Netton explains, "... God is basically unknowable and should only be described in negative terms, and that any 'positive' attributes are attributed relatively and reflect an idea or thought in the mind of the thinker, rather than the reality of the essence of God" (Netton 1989, 155).11

Avicenna also reflects the inclination by Neoplatonists to view the ultimate principle in non-substantial terms. In the al-Ilahiyyat (Divine Science) of the Danish nama-i alai (Scientific Knowledge), Avicenna contends that the necessary being is not a substance (jawhar/ousia) (Avicenna, Metaphysica 25; 56-57, Morewedge). 2 In the Liber de philosophia prima [^i'Shtfa Avicenna notes that even if one were to define substance (substantia/jawhar) as what is "not in a subject" (non in subjecto), necessary being would still not be considered a substance. For whatever is "not in a subject" minimally presupposes a "whatness," quiddity, or genus, if we are going to talk about or refer to it as "not being in a subject." However, the "whatness" of necessary being (wajib al-wujud/ necesse esse) is "being" (esse) itself. Yet, Avicenna holds that being (esse) cannot be contained in a genus. Therefore, the first cannot be considered a substance jawhar). Moreover, the phrase "not in a subject" serves only to eliminate the possibility for accidental being. In only indicating what something is not, the phrase says nothing positively about what a divine substance would involve (PP 8.4 [2:403-4/A348]; cf. 8.7 [2:430/A367]).13

What is happening here? Does Avicenna's philosophical theology really discount a divine "whatness"?14 Will Avicenna's necessary being (wajib al-wujud), in all of its existential purity, exist, but not be a "what"? Before responding to these questions, I would like to set forth William of Auvergne's position in some detail, so as to both demonstrate how closely the bishop of Paris follows his Arabic source and to review how the problem was developed by a Christian thinker in the Latin milieu.

William of Auvergne echoes Avicenna's denial of a divine quiddity. In his De trinitate, William writes, "Also, it (God) has no quiddity and no definition. For everything definable and explicable in any way is in some sense resolvable and covered" (DT 4.17 [33/79]).15 Instructively, though, this text does not say that God has no essence, but rather that he is without quiddity (quidditas) and definition (definitionem). But, perhaps we should look to an earlier, yet related passage which deals with the kind of being evident in God. William explains, "Also it is already clear to you from what went before, that this being (esse) and this being (ens) is most bare, since it has no essential clothing whatsoever. For such clothing is composition, and we have excluded from it all composition and essential causation. I mean clothing such as there is in a species which contains the essence of its genus cloaked with the differences" (DT 3.3 [26/73]). In his typical utilization of imagery, William maintains that God is without essential clothing (circumvestitio essentialis). In other words, divine being cannot be contained in the definitional sphere involving genus, species, and difference, since this would introduce complexity into the ultimo simplicitatis (the ultimate degree of simplicity) which is spoliatissimum ab omni circumvestitione esssentiali (denuded of all essential clothing) (DT 4.1 [27/74]).

In addition, William holds that this being (esse) cannot be common, "Hence, it ought to be evident that this being (esse) is in no sense common. It cannot be common and essential because then it would be either a genus or a species or a difference. Each of these can be broken down and is cloaked with essential clothing and is composed; each of these is definable or in some other way explicable" (DT 4.1 [27/74]). Inasmuch as God cannot be defined or made common, he cannot be portrayed as essential. Such an understanding for essentia is corroborated by an earlier passage, where William describes a second determination for the first intention of being (esse). William writes, "In another determination it signifies only that which is signified by a defining expression or by the name of a species. This, then, is what is called the substance (substantia) of a thing, its being (esse) and its quiddity, and this is the being (esse) the definition signifies and expresses. This is called the essence of a thing" (DT 2.1 [20-21/69]).16 For William, then, the essence of a thing (rei essentia) is equated not only with the defining expression (definitiva oratione), but also with quiddity (quidditas). So that when modern commentators read the statement that "God has no quiddity and no definition" (non habet quidditatem nee definitionem), it is somewhat understandable why they would exchange the term "definition" for that of "essence," and thereby conclude for William that God does not have an essence, particularly when in the very same text William employs the imagery of being covered (vestitum), presumably the covering of circumvestitio essentialis and all the definitional content that such vestments imply.

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