Feser headlines his blog, simply called Edward Feser, with several bits of praise, all of it I’m sure very true, such as “One of the best contemporary writers on philosophy” (National Review) and “Feser… has the rare and enviable gift of making philosophical argument compulsively readable” (Times Literary Supplement). It’s not clear where in these publications one can find such laudations. But given these accolades, one would suppose that his efforts to interact with Rand’s axiom of existence might unearth startling and profound truths missed by the average armchair philosopher.
Beyond this article, I’ve never read anything of Feser’s (not that I remember anyhow), so without studying more of his work (it will have to get in line), I will take his profile for its word when it says that he “write[s]… from a traditional Roman Catholic perspective.”
One of the first things that sprang to my mind when reading through Feser’s blog entry, was a statement by an internet apologist who blogs under the moniker “Annoyed Pinoy,” who in a series of exchanges with me see the comments section here stated:
Existence doesn't exist. Existence is a property of things that do exist.
But as has become so predictable among those who pretend to be interested in what Rand means by “existence exists,” Feser takes his befuddlement over the axiom of existence, which should be utterly uncontroversial, as an opportunity to charge Rand with internal inconsistency and trivializing philosophy.
Very often, critics of Rand’s views take her axiom “existence exists” to be a statement about the concept ‘existence’ rather than a formal recognition about the sum of existing things denoted by the concept. Thinkers, even well-intended ones, seem uncritically inclined to disallow the concept ‘existence’ from denoting concretes. This is a result, I believe, of the pervasive, even subliminal influence of rationalist philosophies throughout academic culture. But it should be clear that the controversy here stems from a lack of a good understanding of concepts, something which Rand stressed more and more as she matured as a philosopher, and something most thinkers sadly lack.
Both Rand’s statement and Cajetan’s sound very odd at first blush. What does it mean to say that existence exists? Isn’t that like saying that stoneness is a stone or humanness is a human being, neither of which is true? On the other hand, what does it mean to say that existence does not exist? Isn’t that like saying that there is nothing that exists, which is also manifestly false? Yet how could both of these statements be false?
If both Rand’s axiom “existence exists” and Cajetan’s statement “existence does not exist” are taken as statements about the realm of actually existing concretes, then one would have to confess that Rand’s axiom is indisputably true and Cajetan’s indisputably false. But given that Cajetan was a Catholic cleric, I suspect that Feser has motivations that won’t allow such equal footing.
Suppose we interpreted them as the contraries “All existing things exist” and “No existing things exist.” In that case, they could both be false if we supposed that there are at least some existing things that exist and some that do not exist. But “Some existing things do not exist” is self-contradictory, and indeed “No existing things exist” seems no less so.
He then writes:
Moreover, “All existing things exist” itself seems as obviously true as a statement could be. But it is also trivially true, a mere tautology.
Axiomatic concepts identify explicitly what is merely implicit in the consciousness of an infant or of an animal.
It should be stressed that, when evaluating the suitability of an axiom as the starting point of a philosophy, it won’t do to grind it through the filter of higher knowledge as if that higher knowledge came first and the axiom came well after it. One does not begin with advanced calculus and then deduce from it basic arithmetic. On the contrary, one must master basic arithmetic – and a whole lot else! – before undertaking a successful study of calculus. To do otherwise is to obviate the entire hierarchical structure of knowledge as such. It would be like an engineer who takes his own skills at designing massively sophisticated engineers for granted while dismissing the phenomena of buoyancy and gravitational displacement as idle pieces of useless trivia.
Moreover, to dismiss the axiom of existence as “a mere tautology” is to miss the fact that all truths are essentially tautological. Consider for example the statements A = A, or 2 + 2 = 4, or Tokyo is the capital of Japan. These are each tautological, and to dismiss them or any other true statement as “a mere tautology” says more about the one making such pronouncements than about the truths themselves. Peikoff makes the point as follows:
Every truth about a given existent(s) reduces, in basic pattern, to: “X is: one or more of the things which it is.” The predicate in such a case states some characteristic(s) of the subject; but since it is a characteristic of the subject, the concept(s) designating the subject in fact includes the predicate from the outset. If one wishes to use the term “tautology” in this context, then all truths are “tautological.” (And, by the same reasoning, all falsehoods are self-contradictions.)
When making a statement about an existent, one has, ultimately, only two alternatives: “X (which means X, the existent, including all its characteristics) is what it is”—or: “X is not what it is.” The choice between truth and falsehood is the choice between “tautology” (in the sense explained) and self-contradiction. (“The Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy,” Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, pp. 100-101; italics original.)
And in any event, surely Cajetan did not mean to be uttering an obvious falsehood, nor Rand a trivial truth. So, at second blush the statements might continue to seem very odd.
Indeed, if human knowledge does have a basis, a starting point, an initial recognition which sets man’s mind in motion, shouldn’t we expect that starting point to be true? And who would think that the starting point to human cognition is “trivial”? Furthermore, shouldn’t it be obviously true, indisputably true, a truth accessible to the human mind long before acquiring specialized knowledge in specific areas of study, a truth that lies at the base of all knowledge, no matter how abstract or specialized, a truth that is assumed by all other knowledge?
Feser tries a different angle:
Let’s try third blush. Suppose we read “exists” in Fregean terms, as captured by the existential quantifier. Then both statements come out as ill-formed formulae, complete gibberish. Rand’s statement comes out as something like “There is an x such that there is an x such that…” and Cajetan’s as something like “It is not the case that there is an x such that there is an x such that…” This would be to read Rand and Cajetan the way Anthony Kenny reads Aquinas in his book Aquinas on Being, and it is about as fair a reading of them as Kenny’s is of Aquinas -- which, as Gyula Klima pointed out, is not fair at all.
Feser then writes:
Fourth blush is the charm. In fact what each writer meant is perfectly intelligible when their statements are understood in context. Rand’s remark is from her book Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. As Wallace Matson remarks in his essay “Rand on Concepts” in Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen’s anthology The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand, “I take her to mean by this that there are things independent of our thinking about them” (p. 23).
I’m reminded here of a point that David Harriman once made in an interview. He was asked why he did not go on to complete his Ph. D in either physics or philosophy. One of the reasons he gave was that his advisors (I believe he referenced having at least two) strongly discouraged any original thought being central to one’s research, but rather restricted the course requirements to digesting what thinker C said about what thinker B said about what thinker A said, essentially to get in line as thinker D. In other words, the whole enterprise consisted of secondhand or further removed commentary on someone else’s thoughts rather than exploring one’s own thoughts on some matter of philosophical curiosity. Call this the over-reliance on borrowed-views approach to philosophy; it seems to an epidemic of sorts among academics. And what could be more boring? I’ve heard similar complaints from post-grad students myself, and this may go to some extent in explaining Feser’s tendency to defer to what someone says about someone else’s thought, even to the point of chasing fictional rabbits down dead-end holes.
Here are some passages clarifying the axiom of existence from sources a little closer to Rand than the secondary sources Feser has consulted, including Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology itself. For the record, I think Rand was entirely right.
Existence and identity are not attributes of existents, they are the existents… The units of the concepts “existence” and “identity” are every entity, attribute, action, event or phenomenon (including consciousness) that exists, has ever existed or will ever exist. (p. 56)
The concept “existence” does not indicate what existents it subsumes: it merely underscores the primary fact that they exist. (p. 59 )
So it should be crystal clear that when Rand says “existence exists,” she’s making a statement about the actually existing concretes which the concept ‘existence’ denotes – i.e., “every entity, attribute, action, event or phenomenon (including consciousness) that exists, has ever existed or will ever exist,” the sum of existents” – and affirms “the primary fact that they exist.” So clearly, “existence exists” is not making a statement about the concept ‘existence’ itself, or some abstract “property” distinct from actually existing concretes, or some “essence” which cannot be perceived or objectively detected.
As mentioned earlier, all too frequently, critics of Objectivism seem to think that when Rand says “existence exists,” she’s making a statement about the concept ‘existence’ rather than about what the concept ‘existence’ denotes. They misinterpret her as saying that the concept ‘existence’ exists. This is often equated with statements like “redness is red,” where the notion “redness” is a “universal” or abstract “property” and the statement is attributing a perceptual quality to something that is supposedly other than concrete. But who does this? When we make statements like “people exist” or bad policies exist,” no one interprets these statements as saying “peopleness exists” and “bad-policy-ness exists”; rather, such statements are readily interpreted as statements about the referents denoted by the respective concepts employed in such statements. So why cannot Rand say “existence exists” while intending a statement about the things denoted by the concept ‘existence’ (especially, as we see above, she explicitly meant just this) rather than a statement about the concept ‘existence’ itself? Rand herself did not intend the axiom “existence exists” to affirm anything like “redness is red” and was explicitly clear that the concept “existence” denotes everything that exists. Frankly, I find it difficult to believe that clearly intelligent people have a difficult time grasping this; rather, I suspect something else is at work here.
Regarding the interpretation of “existence exists” as meaning “there are things independent of our thinking about them,” Feser also remarked:
Rand takes this to be “axiomatic” in the sense that while it cannot be directly proved neither can it coherently be denied. Why not? Den Uyl and Rasmussen explore the theme in their own essay in the volume, “Ayn Rand’s Realism,” in which they note that for Rand since consciousness is always of or directed at an object, it is self-evident that something exists -- namely (as Rand states in the Foreword to the book) the object of one’s consciousness and oneself as the subject of consciousness.
Existence, identity and consciousness are concepts in that they require identification in conceptual form. Their peculiarity lies in the fact that they are perceived or experienced directly, but grasped conceptually. They are implicit in every state of awareness, from the first sensation to the first percept to the sum of all concepts. After the first discriminated sensation (or percept), man’s subsequent knowledge adds nothing to the basic facts designated by the terms “existence,” “identity,” “consciousness” – these facts are contained in any single state of awareness; but what is added by subsequent knowledge is the epistemological need to identify them consciously and self-consciously. The awareness of this need can be reached only at an advanced stage of conceptual development, when one has acquired a sufficient volume of knowledge – and the identification, the fully conscious grasp, can be achieved only by a process of abstraction.
Feser specifically mentions Wallace Matson’s contribution to Den Uyl & Rasmussen’s book The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand, namely a paper called “Rand on Concepts.” I have not read this, so I cannot comment on it firsthand. However, I found one reviewer’s on the Amazon page for the book rather telling:
But the nadir of this collection is probably Wallace Matson's "Rand on Concepts" which claims to reformulate the Objectivist theory of concept-formation in a way that "preserves what is of value in Rand's treatment" and then proceeds to get rid of concepts altogether, claiming they are a dispensable "mysterious and subjective... third entity between word and thing"!
Naturally one can raise questions about this. Granted that the object of one’s consciousness exists qua object -- i.e. “intentionally” -- it doesn’t follow that it exists in mind-independent reality.
(A hallucinated tree certainly “exists,” but only qua hallucination, not qua material object.)
When something “exists” it is. Note that this does not mean that we are dealing with physical or material existence. Indeed, immaterial existence also exists. (For evidence of this, imagine a red ball. The red ball you have imagined does not have any physical existence; it exists immaterially. Granted, one can argue that the immaterial existence is based on a material brain, but the ball that is imagined is not material. It does not exist physically anywhere.) (For further details on this, see my blog entry Is the “Immaterial” Actually Imaginary?)
Similarly, Feser thinks that an “hallucinated tree certainly ‘exists’” even thought he acknowledges that it’s an hallucination. Unfortunately, he does not elaborate here. It is through such unguarded asides that theists tend to give away the game.
Granted that there is consciousness, a Lichtenberg or a Hume would still question -- not plausibly, but they would question -- whether there is an abiding self to serve as the subject of consciousness.
And in regard to the question of “whether there is an abiding self to serve as the subject of consciousness,” one could only raise this question (and any question) if one were an abiding conscious self to begin with. So what specifically are such questions intended to accomplish if not to redirect one’s attention away from something one would prefer to keep shrouded in mystery? A question is not an argument. Is the purpose of raising such questions to create a haze of uncertainty on matters that are so certain that we take them for granted, such that some thinkers dismiss them as “mere tautologies” that are “trivially true”?
Feser goes on:
But even in this case Rand would arguably still have something that cannot coherently be denied, namely the existence at least of consciousness qua intentional.
More to the present point, “Existence exists,” understood merely as a claim to the effect that the existence of something or other cannot coherently be denied, is certainly intelligible. But what does that tell us about mind-independent reality?
But I’ve encountered numerous thinkers (perhaps Feser is one of them) who dispute this. Many thinkers (especially, as I’ve seen, academics) disregard or even outright deny the dependence of conceptualization on perceptual input. This could only mean, in the final analysis, that whatever knowledge they supposedly have could not, on their own terms, tie back to a mind-independent reality and thus have no objective basis. And here Feser wants to raise questions about what the axiom of existence might “tell us about mind-independent reality.” What other reality is there? Blank out.
I can only suspect that the motivation driving such roadblocks to objectivity is the desire to keep the door open for some kind of subjective reality, for a metaphysics of “wishing makes it so.” Theists know deep down that the primacy of existence spells death to the fantasy of theism, apparently missing the fact that denying the primacy of existence is self-refuting. The usual tactic here can typically be reduced to a formulation equivalent to “just because my wishing doesn’t make it so doesn’t mean that someone else’s wishing doesn’t.”
Again, it’s important to keep in mind that the axiom of existence is a starting point; it is not where thought terminates, but where it begins. And the axiom of existence, as a formal recognition of a primary, undeniable fact (i.e., that things exist, whatever they might be), must also mean that someone is consciously capable of making that declaration, which means: not only the axiom of consciousness, but also the possession of a consciousness capable of forming concepts. So a huge context is here implied, thus pointing to the power of Rand’s foundations.
Notice how a denial of the fact that existence exists independent of conscious activity is itself conceptually self-refuting. Suppose someone asserts that reality is not mind-independent. We can then ask: Is that a fact that obtains independently of anyone’s thoughts, preferences, wishes, likes or dislikes? The assertion that reality is mind-independent implies that one is to accept this claim as a fact that itself is mind-independent, inalterable regardless of anyone’s views, feelings or mood swings, and yet the substance of the assertion is itself in fundamental conflict with this accompanying implication.
So it should be clear that the demand for a proof of a mind-independent reality commits the fallacy of the stolen concept: any premise in such a proof would have to be true independent of any particular mind’s preferences, wishes, moods, etc. I.e., those premises would have to be informed by facts which themselves are mind-independent, otherwise the whole effort would collapse into rabid subjectivism.
Feser then directs his attention to the alternative view, expressed by Thomas Cajetan:
That brings us to Cajetan’s statement. Jacques Maritain cites it at p. 20 of his A Preface to Metaphysics, when commenting on Cajetan’s commentary on Aquinas’s On Being and Essence. Aquinas famously argues in that work that there is a real distinction between the essence of a thing (what it is) and its existence (that it is). When you perceive a tree what you perceive is being as confined, as it were, within that particular essence, the essence of that tree. The intellect goes on to abstract the universal pattern treeness, and also to consider being as such. But just as treeness in the abstract is different from the essence of this particular individual tree, so too is being as such, considered in the abstract or merely conceptually, different from the existence (or “act of existing”) of this particular individual tree.
One does not take a nature (a thing’s “essence”) and then add to it the “property” existence and thereby produce something actually existing, nor can one take an entity and divide it into its “essence” on the one hand and its “existence” on the other. The two concepts ‘essence’ and ‘existence’ are not on the same level of the knowledge hierarchy. I quote Rand at length from Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (p. 52) where she makes this point:
Let us note, at this point, the radical difference between Aristotle’s view of concepts and the Objectivist view, particularly in regard to the issue of essential characteristics. It is Aristotle who first formulated the principles of correct definition.
It is Aristotle who identified the fact that only concretes exist. But Aristotle held that definitions refer to metaphysical essences, which exist in concretes as a special element or formative power, and he held that the process of concept-formation depends on a kind of direct intuition by which man’s mind grasps these essences and forms concepts accordingly.
Aristotle regarded “essence” as metaphysical; Objectivism regards it as epistemological.
Objectivism holds that the essence of a concept is that fundamental characteristic(s) of its units on which the greatest number of other characteristics depend, and which distinguishes these units from all other existents within the field of man’s knowledge. Thus the essence of a concept is determined contextually and may be altered with the growth of man’s knowledge. The metaphysical referent of man’s concepts is not a special, separate metaphysical essence, but the total of the facts of reality he has observed, and this total determines which characteristics of a given group of existents he designates as essential. An essential characteristic is factual, in the sense that it does exist, does determine other characteristics and does distinguish a group of existents from all others; it is epistemological in the sense that the classification of “essential characteristic” is a device of man’s method of cognition—a means of classifying, condensing and integrating an ever-growing body of knowledge.
Now as I read Maritain reading Cajetan, what the thesis that “Existence does not exist” comes to is simply the point that existence considered in the abstract by the intellect or conceptually is not the same thing as the actual existence of a concrete, mind-independent object. And that is surely correct.
But Feser, focusing on what Cajetan may have meant by “existence,” ignores the part “does not exist.” Even if we interpret Cajetan’s statement to be about “existence considered in the abstract by the intellect or conceptually,” it’s clear that he’s saying that this “does not exist.” So, without beating around the bush, he would be saying: the concept ‘existence’ does not exist. Feser resists going this far in trying to tease out what Cajetan may have meant, but it’s clear (to me at least) that the statement “existence does not exist” so understood is not simply drawing a distinction between the concept ‘existence’ and the concretes it denotes; but that’s as far as Feser is willing to go. Again, I’m reminded of Annoyed Pinoy’s unrescuably self-contradictory statement, revisited at the beginning of this blog entry:
Existence doesn’t exist. Existence is a property of things that do exist.”
Feser goes on:
The point of making the point, for Maritain anyway, is (again, as I read him) to emphasize the distinction between Thomism and the Leibnizian sort of rationalism that holds that the order of mind-independent reality can be read off from the order of concepts.
But let’s explore Feser’s statement here to find out what it implies philosophically. By “read off” here, does Feser mean inferred? In other words, does he have in mind the view that we begin with concepts (e.g., looking inward) and infer from their contents that there is a mind-independent reality out there, independently of sense perception? That describes rationalism to a T (i.e., as deduction from internal contents without reference to reality) and exposes the inherent subjectivism of such a position. Where did they get their concepts to begin with? Were they born with them already canned in their head (cf. “innate knowledge”), or through anamnesis, or from revelations? Do they “just know” or (as John Frame puts it) “know without knowing how [they] know” (cf. here)? If one believes that he was born with conceptual knowledge already informing his mind from the womb, what basis would he have for trusting any of it? Babies are often born with birth defects, diseases, weak organs, etc. So why wouldn’t it likewise be the case that people born with innate mental content possibly might have defects in that content as well? How would one discover whether or not his innate knowledge were truly sound or in fact defective from the start? Wouldn’t it be better to discover and understand the nature of human consciousness, the role of sense perception in knowledge, and the nature of concepts and the process by which the human mind forms them from objective input?
This is, for the Thomist, one reason (not the only one) for insisting on the real distinction between essence and existence.
Feser goes on:
To deny the real distinction tends either to collapse essence into existence or collapse existence into essence.
Leibnizian rationalism tends in the latter direction -- collapsing existence into essence, where essences in turn collapse into concepts, which are essentially mind-dependent -- and this in turn tends in just the sort of idealist direction that was, historically, the sequel to rationalism as it gave way to Kantianism, Hegelianism, and the like.
And as it happens, Rand, according to Den Uyl and Rasmussen (on p. 5 of the essay cited above), would, given her thesis that “Existence exists,” deny the Thomistic doctrine of the real distinction.
Feser apparently has the impression that the following statement describes Rand’s position:
The idea is that to know the essence or “what-ness” of a thing is to know that it exists, and no further explanation of its existence is needed.
Also, Rand certainly acknowledged that to know that something exists is not equivalent to knowing what that something is (and one would have to know something about what a particular thing is before he could determine that “no further explanation of its existence is needed,” a pronouncement I’ve never read in anywhere in Rand’s writings). But this is an epistemological distinction consistent with Rand’s overall view of knowledge: first we perceive, then we identify what we perceive, and we identify what we perceive by forming concepts. Knowledge is conceptual. Rand holds that it is fallacious to draw from this epistemological sequence the conclusion that the distinction here is a metaphysical attribute of the objects we perceive and identify.
Feser adds the following parenthetical aside (note the use of Latin for effect):
(Note that this would also help explain Rand’s atheism: If the existence of a contingent thing is not really distinct from its essence, so that existence needn’t be added to the essence of a thing in order for the thing to be actual, then the sort of argument Aquinas gives in On Being and Essence for the existence of God -- understood as ipsum esse subsistens or subsistent being itself -- as the source of the very existence of things, is blocked.)
The supposition that such a metaphysical dichotomy exists arises, so far as I can tell, as a result of failing to distinguish between what exists from how we know. Given the primacy of existence, the processes by which man conceptualizes what he finds in the world cannot overwrite the nature of what he finds in the world.
Given the primacy of existence, one of Rand’s hallmark achievements, theism has lost the battle once and for all. Given the fact that existence holds metaphysical primacy over conscious activity, there’s no room for a metaphysics of ‘wishing makes it so’. Theism has no objective basis to enter any philosophical contest against the primacy of existence. I think Rand considered this obvious if not self-evident, given her grasp of what the primacy of existence means for philosophy in particular and human cognition in general. But it will likely take other thinkers a brutal degree of self-honesty to reach the level of understanding that was basic to Rand’s worldview, a degree which most thinkers will ditch at the first sign of threat to their allegiance to mystical views.
Perhaps this is what’s got Feser so animated about Rand in the first place, namely the fact that she is a hugely influential philosopher and yet an atheist. For those who delight in blurring the distinction between the real and the imaginary, Rand’s a spoil-sport, a kill-joy, a buzz-kill.
If this is Rand’s view then she is definitely in conflict with Cajetan and other Thomists, just as the statements from them quoted at the beginning suggests (though for reasons much more complicated than the two statements considered in isolation would suggest). For she seems at least implicitly committed to the view that the order of mind-independent reality can be read off from the order of concepts.
Rand held that this recognition was implicit in all awareness. A discovery made by developmental psychologists, namely the principle of object permanence, confirms her view quite elegantly. This is the stage at which a child grasps, however tacitly, the fact that an object continues to exist even if and when it goes outside his field of perception. When a child is playing with a ball and it rolls under a couch, for example, he no longer sees the ball, but he realizes that it nevertheless still exists and looks under the couch to find it. My cat does the same thing with his toy mouse.
How can they differ so radically given that Rand on the one hand and Cajetan and other Thomists on the other are all Aristotelians? Den Uyl and Rasmussen give us a clue when they tell us (p. 5) that Rand’s Aristotelianism is much like that of William of Ockham, who also denied the real distinction. And Ockham, of course, is for Thomists the man who perhaps more than any other set in motion the disintegration of the Aristotelian-Scholastic tradition.
The irony is that Rand apparently adopted a position that in fact tends toward idealism in the course of trying to defend a realist metaphysics opposed to idealism. But then, as Pius X could have told her, we “cannot set St. Thomas aside, especially in metaphysical questions, without grave detriment.”
As for warnings against setting St. Thomas aside, I’ll take my chances…
In conclusion, I would have to say that what Feser presents in his blog is an example of how one should not attempt to understand a philosopher’s distinct or fundamental views. Feser’s whole process amounts to, “We’ll pick over this statement by Rand, but we’re also going to drown out her position with a crowd of voices bickering about someone else’s views and bury it in a mire of confusion.” All this under the guise of academic scholarship and followed up by a lengthy combox (over 200 comments), several consisting of the usual sneers and grunts dismissing Rand as some useless rube.
At the end of her chapter on axiomatic concepts in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Rand poignantly wrote (p. 61):
Do you want to assess the rationality of a person, a theory or a philosophical system Do not inquire about his stand or its stand on the validity of reason. Look for the stand on axiomatic concepts. It will tell the whole story.
by Dawson Bethrick