A comedy in four acts (updated)

After Jean-Luc Marion’s critique of Aquinas as an ontotheologian in L’idole et la distance (1977) and Dieu sans l'être (1982) people made a big deal of an alleged retraction in “Saint Thomas d’Aquin et l'onto-théo-logie” (1995) published in Revue thomiste. The text was even inserted into the 2013 edition of Dieu sans l'être as a supplement. In Marion’s “defense” of Aquinas against the charge of ontotheology in the Revue thomiste article he tells us that we should seriously consider the possibility that the esse that Aquinas predicates of God has no positive content but is purely a nom négatif. Indeed,

pourquoi pretendre le traiter comme un nom affirmatif, fournissant l’équivalent d’une essence, l’équivalent d’une concept, l’équivalent d’une définition, l’équivalent d’une connaissance?

Is this Marion channeling Sertillanges? Is he in earnest or is it all in jest?

I think it was the latter. Marion published an article in a 2004 issue of Conférence in which he argued once again, as he had before 1995, that Aquinas limits God’s transcendence by predicating esse of him.

Marion’s argument in the 2004 piece is weak, to say the least. He begins, harmlessly enough, by explaining that, for Aquinas, God’s esse and essentia aren’t really distinct from each other, as they are in creatures, but identical. This means that God isn’t simply an ens. However, he goes on, this won’t do to ensure God’s transcendence.

Que la transcendance de Dieu ne joue plus à l'intérieur d'un concept d'étant […] ne suffit pas à la libérer; puisqu'elle ne s'ouvre encore que dans l'interstice entre l'essence et l’esse, donc definitivement dans l'horizon de l’être.

It’s unclear whether être here is meant to refer to Heideggerian Sein (which Marion had mentioned in the previous paragraph). If it is, then Sein, being finite (as it surely seems to be), would necessarily limit God’s transcendence were he subject to it. But why should we think that esse and essentia as Aquinas predicates them of God can be reduced to Sein? If this is what Marion has in mind, he doesn’t explain why we should buy it. On the other hand, if être isn't Sein but has a more indefinite reference, why should we think it limits God? Marion doesn’t explain. Of course, we know that Aquinas holds that divine esse is unlimited (cf., e.g., ST, Ia, q. 13, a. 11). If God is without limits, then he can’t help but be transcendent. How does Marion show that Aquinas is wrong to think that divine esse is unlimited? He doesn’t.

The title of the 2004 article is “L’impossible pour l’homme – Dieu.” Marion presented an English version of it at one of John Caputo’s “Religion and Postmodernism” conferences at Villanova. But I don’t remember whether that was before or after the French version appeared.

Several years ago I thought about publishing something about all of this but I never got around to it. Maybe it it doesn’t require any drawn-out discussion. The basics can be noted without much ado. In any event, let this blog post suffice for now.

(This is a reblog of a post of mine at the AMU Philosophy Department blog.)


Post scriptum (12.7.18): I should make it clear that I do think that, for Aquinas, esse as predicated of God does have positive content. It’s not merely a negative name, as Marion suggests in the Revue Thomiste article. In the general debate about Aquinas’s apophaticism, I side with Maritain (and Garrigou and Cajetan) against Sertillanges.