Reference Work Entry

Encyclopedia of Medieval Philosophy

pp 304-310

Essence and Existence

  • Jeffrey C. WittAffiliated withDepartment of Philosophy, Boston College


The dispute over essence and existence has a long and storied history in the Middle Ages, and for good reason. For medieval thinkers these concepts form the backbone of nearly every other metaphysical concern they have. The scholastic tradition looks to Boethius and Avicenna to go beyond an Aristotelian system that sees little need to make a distinction between essence and existence. Through the writings and disputes of Thomas Aquinas, Giles of Rome, and Henry of Ghent among others, a highly sophisticated debate took form about the nature of this distinction: whether it is real, rational, or somewhere in between? It was a debate that left a lasting imprint on the rest of scholasticism, reaching all the way to Suarez. At stake in the dispute are concerns about the complexity of the created order, its created and therefore contingent status, as well as concerns about the nature of possibility and its knowability. Amid the highly technical debates ranging from Boethius to Suarez, medieval thinkers knew that it was in the precise and technical formulation of the relationship between essence and existence that such critical issues were to be decided.