Encyclopedia of Medieval Philosophy

2011 Edition
| Editors: Henrik Lagerlund

Essence and Existence

  • Jeffrey C. Witt
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4020-9729-4_157


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.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


Primary Sources

  1. Aquinas Thomas (1926) De ente et essentiae (DEE). In: Le ‘De ente et essentia’ de S. Thomas d’ Aquin. Texte établi d’après les manuscrits Parisiens, ed. Roland-Gosselin MD. Bibliothèque Thomiste, VIII. Belgium. (English translation in Maurer A (1968) On being and essence. Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, Toronto)Google Scholar
  2. Avicenna (2005) Metaphysics of the healing, trans. Marmura ME. Brigham Young University Press, Provo UtahGoogle Scholar
  3. Boethius (1973) Quomodo substantiae. In: The theological tractates, trans. Stewart HF, Rand EK, Tester SJ. LCL 74. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  4. Duns Scotus John (1950–) Ordinatio III. In: Opera omnia, IX. Vatican Polyglot Press, Vatican CityGoogle Scholar
  5. Giles of Rome (1503) Quaestiones disputatae de esse et essentiae (QDEE). VeniceGoogle Scholar
  6. Giles of Rome (1554) Theoremata de Corpore Christi (TCC). (repr. Minerva, Frankfurt am Main, 1968)Google Scholar
  7. Giles of Rome (1930) Theoremata de esse et essentiae (TEE), ed. Hocedez E. Museum Lessianum, Louvain. (English translation in Murray M (1953) Theorems on existence and essence. Marquette University Press, Milwaukee)Google Scholar
  8. Henry of Ghent (1520) Summae questionum ordinariarum (SQO), 2 vols. Paris. (repr. The Franciscan Institute Press, St. Bonaventure, 1953)Google Scholar
  9. Henry of Ghent (1979–) Quodlibeta in Henrici de Gandavo quodlibet, ed.Macken R. Louvain University Press, LouvainGoogle Scholar
  10. Suarez Francisco (1856–1877) Disputationes metaphysicae (DM). In: Opera omnia, XXV–XXVI, Vives. (English translation of disputation XXXI in Wells N (1983) On the essence of finite being as such, on the existence of that essence and their distinction. Marquette University Press, Marquette)Google Scholar
  11. William of Ockham (1967–1986) Quodlibet II. Quodlibeta septem, ed. Wey JC. Opera theologica, IX. Franciscan Institute Press, St. Bonaventure. (English translation in Freddoso AJ, Kelley FE (1991) Quodlibetal questions. Yale University Press, New Haven)Google Scholar

Secondary Sources

  1. Druart T (2006) Metaphysics. In: Adamson P, Taylor RC (eds) Cambridge companion to Arabic philosophy. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 97–120Google Scholar
  2. Hadot P (1963) La distincition de L’etre et de L’etant dans le ‘De Hebdomandibus’ de Boece. In: Wilpert P (ed) Die Metaphysik im Mittelalater: Ihr Ursprung and ihre Bedeutung, vol 2. Gruyter, Berlin, pp 147–153Google Scholar
  3. Hocedez E (1927) Gilles de Rome et Henri de Gand sur la distinction reele (1276–1287). Gregorianum 8:358–384Google Scholar
  4. Kopaczynski G (1978) Some Franciscans on St. Thomas’ essence-existence doctrine. Franciscan Stud 38:283–298Google Scholar
  5. Marrone S (1988) Henry of Ghent and Duns Scotus on the knowledge of being. Speculum 63(1):22–57CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Marrone S (1998) Duns Scotus on metaphysical potency and possibility. Franciscan Stud 56:256–289Google Scholar
  7. McGinnis J (2005) The Avicennan sources for Aquinas on being: supplemental remarks to Brian Davies’ ‘Kenny on Aquinas on being’. Mod Schoolman 82(2):131–142Google Scholar
  8. Nash P (1950) Giles of Rome on Boethius’ ‘Diversum est esse et id quod est’. Mediaevel Stud 12:57–91Google Scholar
  9. Nash-Marshall S (2000) Participation and the good: a study in Boethian metaphysics. Crossroad, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  10. O’Brien A (1964) Duns Scotus’ teaching on the distinction between essence and existence. New Scholasticism 38:61–77Google Scholar
  11. Rahman F (1958) Essence and existence in Avicenna. Mediaeval Renaiss Stud 4:1–16Google Scholar
  12. Rahman F (1981) Essence and existence in Ibn Sīnā: the myth and the reality. Hamdard Islamicus 4(1):3–14Google Scholar
  13. Wells N (1960) Capreolus on essence and existence. Mod Schoolman 38:1–24Google Scholar
  14. Wells N (1962) Suarez, historian and critic of the modal distinction between essential being and existential being. New Scholasticism 36:419–444Google Scholar
  15. Wells N (1966) Existence: history and problematic. Monist 50:34–43Google Scholar
  16. Wippel J (1974) Godfrey of Fontaines and Henry of Ghent’s theory of intentional distinction between essence and existence. In: Köhler T (ed) Sapientiae procerum amore. Melanges Medievistes Offertes a Dom Jean Pierre Muller O.S.B. Editrice Anselmiana, RomeGoogle Scholar
  17. Wippel J (1982a) The relationship between essence and existence in late-thirteenth-century thought: Giles of Rome, Henry of Ghent, Godfrey of Fontaines, and James of Viterbo. In: Morewedge P (ed) Philosophies of existence: ancient and medieval. Fordham University Press, New York, pp 131–164Google Scholar
  18. Wippel J (1982b) Essence and existence. In: Kretzmann N, Kenny A, Pinborg J (eds) The Cambridge history of later medieval philosophy. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 385–410Google Scholar
  19. Wippel J (1990) The Latin Avicenna as a source of Thomas Aquinas’s metaphysics. FZPhTh 1(1):51–90Google Scholar
  20. Zedler B (1976) Another look at Avicenna. New Scholasticism 50:504–521Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jeffrey C. Witt
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyBoston CollegeChestnut Hill, MAUSA