- How to Be an Analytic Existential Thomist
SAINT THOMAS AQUINAS'S metaphysics of existence was a central focus of the twentieth-century Thomistic revival and remains a defining interest of the school of Existential Thomism.1 The Thomistic revival flourished mostly among Catholic intellectuals outside the mainstream of contemporary analytic philosophy. But just as the revival began to wane among Catholic intellectuals, analytic philosophers [End Page 321] started taking more interest in Aquinas. That interest has continued to grow over the past fifty years, giving rise more recently to the school of Analytic Thomism.2 Yet in spite of an enthusiasm for other aspects of Aquinas's thought, interested analytic philosophers have been hesitant about his view of existence; indeed, some of them have been positively scornful of it. Anthony Kenny, for example, calls Aquinas's view of existence "sophistry and illusion"3 and "thoroughly confused."4
This negative assessment of Aquinas's view of existence is due in large part to a positive assessment of the rival view of existence developed by Frege, Russell, and Quine.5 That positive assessment is near universal among contemporary analytic philosophers. But a growing number of analytic philosophers have come to question this mainstream consensus, and to propose alternative views of existence more like Aquinas's [End Page 322] own.6 This recent development suggests the possibility of a Thomism that is both analytic and existential. Some Existential Thomists have been pessimistic about such a possibility, suggesting that Continental philosophy (especially phenomenology) would be a better partner.7 But there is reason to be more optimistic: analytic philosophers have already shown their openness to views of existence like that of Aquinas.
This article explores the strategies available for defending Aquinas's view of existence in the context of contemporary analytic philosophy. Not all of these strategies can be accepted by Thomists, but some of them certainly can be, and those that [End Page 323] are unacceptable can be supplemented by other acceptable strategies. The article unfolds as follows. Section I traces the basic outlines of the mainstream view of existence prevalent among contemporary analytic philosophers. Section II summarizes some of the best reasons to question that view. Section III traces the basic outlines of Aquinas's alternative view of existence. Sections IV and V address the main contemporary analytic objections to Aquinas's view. Section VI considers strategies for defending the meaningfulness of Aquinas's view of existence. Section VII considers one strategy for defending the truth of his view, and section VIII proposes a better strategy. By the end of the article I hope to have allayed at least some of the doubts about the possibility of developing an Analytic Existential Thomism.
I. The Frege-Russell-Quine View of Existence
The mainstream view of existence among contemporary analytic philosophers was developed and defended in different forms by Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, and W. V. Quine.8 [End Page 324] Their view can be explained most easily by contrasting it with what Colin McGinn calls the "naïve view,"9 which I prefer to call the commonsense view. According to the commonsense view, existence is similar to other properties we ascribe to individuals or objects.10 Given this similarity, statements of existence (both singular and plural) are similar to other statements that ascribe properties to individuals or objects. "Socrates is wise," for example, ascribes a property to a single individual, that is, wisdom to Socrates. "Tame tigers are harmless" ascribes a property to multiple individuals, that is, harmlessness to tame tigers. According to the commonsense view, statements of existence are similar. "Socrates exists" ascribes a property to a single individual, that is, existence to Socrates. "Tame tigers exist" ascribes a property to multiple individuals, that is, existence to tame tigers. That is the commonsense view of existence.
According to the Frege-Russell-Quine view, however, existence is not similar to other properties we ascribe to individuals or objects. Indeed, existence is not a property of individuals or objects at all. Accordingly, statements of existence (both singular and plural) are not similar to other statements that ascribe properties to individuals or objects. Instead, existence is...