Introduction to Ontologism

Ontologism is the view described by the Catholic Encyclopedia in the following way:

Ontologism is an ideological system which maintains that God and Divine ideas are the first object of our intelligence and the intuition of God the first act of our intellectual knowledge.

Vincenzo Gioberti (1801-52) developed his Ontologism in “Introduzione allo studio della filosofia” (1840), I, iii; II, i. Our first act of intellectual knowledge is the intuitive judgment “ens creat existentias” (Beingcreates existences). By that act, he says, our mind apprehends directly and immediately in an intuitive synthesis;

  • being, not simply in general nor merely as ideal, but as necessary and real, viz., God;
  • existences or contingent beings;
  • the relation which unites being and existences, viz., the creative act.

~Catholic Encyclopedia, Ontologism

That famous line from Malebranche (God is the locus of our ideas, as space is the locus of bodies), which I have often cited before, is taken in that article to express a commitment to Ontologism as well. The article goes on to note:

Ontologism was advocated, under a more moderate form, by some Catholic philosophers of the nineteenth century. Maintaining against Malebranche that concrete material things are perceived by our senses, they asserted that our universal ideas endowed with the characteristics of necessity and eternity, and our notion of the infinite cannot exist except in God; and they cannot therefore be known except by an intuition of God present to our mind and perceived by our intelligence not in His essence as such, but in His essence as the archetype of all things.

At the origin and basis of every system of Ontologism, there are two principal reasons:

  1. we have an idea of the infinite and this cannot be obtained through abstraction from finite beings, since it is not contained in them; it must, therefore, be innate in our mind and perceived through intuition;
  2. our concepts and fundamental judgments are endowed with the characteristics of universality, eternity, and necessity, e.g., our concept of man is applicable to an indefinite number of individual men; our principle of identity “whatever is, is”, is true in itself, necessarily and always.

The author, G. Sauvage, then offers critiques, both philosophical and Theological. While I think the philosophical critiques are interesting and compelling, though (perhaps) inconclusive, I do find the Theological critique to settle the matter definitively. First, one philosophical criticism I’d like to talk about, is iterated as follows:

The reasons advanced by Ontologists rest on confusion and false assumptions. The human mind has an idea of the infinite; but this idea may be and in fact is, obtained from the notion of the finite, by the successive processes of abstraction, elimination, and transcendence. The notion of the finite is the notion of being having a certain perfection in a limited degree. By eliminating the element of limitation and conceiving the positive perfection as realized in its highest possible degree, we arrive at the notion of the infinite. We form in this way, a negativo-positive concept, as the Schoolmen say, of the infinite.

This critique sits well with the whole doctrine of analogy developed by Thomas Aquinas, and illustrates again how we can come to form a positive idea of God, for instance, by pursuing an apophatic train of thought. We can know that God exists not because the mind first of all perceives God before anything else, but rather we can come to know it by reflecting on created things and recognizing in and by them that God exists. For instance we perceive a relation of contingency between the whole world and something which transcends the world, and thus we know that that which transcends the world is incontingent. Thus, our notions of infinity could also be formed in this negativo-positive way. This conflicts with the position I have defended in the past, along with Descartes and Swinburne (that the idea of the infinite, being a simple idea, must precede the less simple idea of finitude), but I think that when one attends to how well this suggestion fits with how we come to predicate things of God, one can begin to appreciate it’s plausibility. Moreover, as an additional point, Sauvage notes:

If we did have such an intuition we would find in it (as St. Thomas rightly remarks) the full satisfaction of all our aspirations, since we would know God in His essence…  error or doubt concerning God would be impossible.

This would, in effect, be to hand over to the power of pure reason what can only be obtained with the virtue of faith.

Next, the Theological proscription of Ontologism, about which I had never before been made aware, is absolutely devastating.

The Council of Vienna (1311-12) had already condemned the doctrine of the Begards who maintained that we can see God by our natural intelligence. On 18 September, 1861, seven propositions of the Ontologists, concerning the immediate and the innate knowledge of God, being, and the relation of finite things to God, were declared by the Holy Office tuto tradi non posse (cf. Denzinger-Bannwart, nn. 1659-65). The same congregation, in 1862, pronounced the same censure against fifteen propositions by Abbé Branchereau, subjected to its examination, two of which (xii and xiii) asserted the existence of an innate and direct perception of ideas, and the intuition of God by the human mind. In the Vatican Council, Cardinals Pecci and Sforza presented a postulatum for an explicit condemnation of Ontologism. On 14 December, 1887 the Holy Office reproved, condemned, and proscribed forty propositions extracted from the works of Rosmini, in which the principles of Ontologism are contained (cf. Denzinger-Bannwart, nn. 1891-1930).

That speaks unequivocally, loud and clear.

Again, though Ontologism — like that of Malebranche (d. 1715) — is older than Kant, its revival in the nineteenth century (by Gioberti, Rosmini, and others) has been inspired to some extent by Kantian influences. This system maintains that we have naturally some immediate consciousness, however dim at first, or some intuitive knowledge of God — not indeed that we see Him in his essence face to face but that we know Him in His relation to creatures by the same act of cognition — according to Rosmini, as we become conscious of being in general — and therefore that the truth of His existence is as much a datum of philosophy as is the abstract idea of being.

Finally, the philosophy of Modernism — about which there has recently been such a stir — is a somewhat complex medley of these various systems and tendencies; its main features as a system are:

  • negatively, a thoroughgoing intellectual Agnosticism, and
  • positively, the assertion of an immediate sense or experience of God as immanent in the life of the soul — an experience which is at first only subconscious, but which, when the requisite moral dispositions are present, becomes an object of conscious certainty.

Now all these varying types of Theism, in so far as they are opposed to the classical and traditional type, may be reduced to one or other of the two following propositions:

  • that we have naturally an immediate consciousness or intuition of God’s existence and may therefore dispense with any attempt to prove this truth inferentially;
  • that, though we do not know this truth intuitively and cannot prove it inferentially in such a way as to satisfy the speculative reason, we can, nevertheless, and must conscientiously believe it on other than strictly intellectual grounds.

~Catholic Encyclopedia, The Existence of God

This leaves me with a few final thoughts. First, although many Ontologists have argued from the authorities of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, and it is said that they have misunderstood the works of both, what about the exemplarist epistemology propounded by St. Bonaventure? Furthermore, what does this say about the proper Catholic attitude towards some protestant philosophers like Cornelius Van Till and his presuppositional apologetic? If it challenges Van Till on the grounds that he has presumed that the mind first of all understands God, let alone apprehends the truth of all Christian doctrine implicitly, as a reality so present to the soul as to be ‘the object of conscious certainty’, then what does that say, in turn, of Alvin Plantinga’s reformed epistemology? My inclination is to say that Plantinga’s epistemology is not problematic, since Plantinga does not argue that God is present in the Ontologist’s sense, to every soul as an innate intuitive object of the first intellectual act of apprehension. Van Till can still be charged with inculcating something of the Ontologistic presumption. However, that said, perhaps some of the insights of a presuppositional apologetic are salvageable (for instance the transcendental argument from Logic may be salvageable, or indeed the argument that the world would be unintelligible if God did not exist).

Finally, a note about one of the greatest Canadian Theologians, who studied at the University of Concordia (where I also currently study Theology), and his work’s relation to ontologism. As Jeffrey A. Allen writes:

Before turning to the next text of interest, I must examine one final passage from Insight. This passage is especially pertinent to this study, for in it Lonergan expresses a familiarity with the issues that make up the original and revised forms of the Schwerpunkt thesis. He writes,

For years, as he tells us, St. Augustine was unable to grasp that the real could be anything but a body. When with neo-Platonist aid he got beyond that view, his name for reality was veritas; and for him truth was to be known, not by looking out, nor yet by looking within, but rather by looking above, where in an immutable light men consult and contemplate the eternal reasons of things. It is disputed, of course, just how literally St. Augustine intended this inspection of the eternal to be understood. Aquinas insisted that the uncreated light grounds the truth of our judgments, not because we see that light, but because our intellects are created participations of it. But if St. Augustine’s meaning is doubtful, there is less doubt about a group of nineteenth-century Catholics known as ontologists, who believed that the only way to meet Kant’s claim that the unconditioned is, not a constitutive element in judgment, but a merely regulative ideal, was to issue under Augustinian auspices the counterclaim that the notion of being was an obscure intuition of God.

Lonergan’s implicit rejection of ontologism in this passage helps to further pin down his  stance on natural knowledge of God. Lonergan’s notion of being is not a notion of Being. Yet, as Desmond Connell contends, Lonergan’s notion of being secures the advantages of ontologism. Lonergan makes the unconditioned—or more precisely, the grasp of the unconditioned—a constitutive and not merely regulative element of human knowing, but in a non-intuitive and non-ontologistic way.
~Jeffrey A. Allen, Faith and Reason in the First Vatican Council’s Dei Filius and the Writings of Bernard Lonergan, p.105-106

I do not yet know enough about Lonergan, but it seems to me that if Lonergan succeeds in securing all the advantages of ontologism without the disadvantages then perhaps Lonergan’s work could be used to further develop a Christian doctrine of epistemology which is consonant with St. Bonaventure’s epistemology.


About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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