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God and the Philosophers

How Theology Pre-Empts Philosophy

Tony McKenna relates how theology beat philosophy to fundamental metaphysics.

Many people today still hold the stereotypical view of medieval theologians: a bunch of monks squabbling interminably over how many angels can fit onto the head of a pin. Yet some of them were profound and subtle thinkers. Some of their metaphysical arguments surprisingly anticipate those of much later philosophers.


One of the most famous and significant openers in philosophy was brought to us courtesy of G.W.F. Hegel’s Science of Logic (1812). In its first chapter, Hegel attempts to respond to the problem of having false assumptions in thinking by starting with a category which has been shorn of all presuppositions, determinations and qualities, such that it simply is. Or to say the same, the philosopher begins with the category of ‘pure being’.

Now according to Hegel, pure being “would not be held fast in its purity if it contained any determination or content which could be distinguished in it” (p.82). But, continues the philosopher, that which is ‘pure indeterminateness and emptiness’ is at the same time nothing whatsoever. And thus, from within itself, the category of being issues forth the category of nothingness.

Having established the identity of being and nothingness by the means by which one passes into the other, Hegel then argues that this movement – ‘the immediate vanishing of the one in the other’ – is the truth of their mutual relationship. The truth of being and nothing, therefore, is contained in the category of ‘becoming’. So ‘becoming’ is the next category to emerge in Hegel’s analysis; and in this way each category, possessed of its own life and movement, gives rise to the following, in a ghostly metaphysical ballet in which Hegel himself seems to be little more than a spectator. There is something protean, something poetic, in the way this world-historic philosopher delves into the ontological depths, locating the most elemental categories of being, capturing their movement and inner life, before eventually going on to meticulously unfurl a whole logical universe. It provides a masterclass in the ‘dialectical’ method which, in the modern epoch, Hegel would bring to a systematic and comprehensive fruition.

And yet, a thousand years earlier, a thinker whose work has been rendered faint by the mists of time also provided a profoundly dialectical homily; only in John Scotus Eriugena’s case he was contemplating not the nature of being but the nature of God. The ninth century Celtic theologian drew heavily on Neo-Platonist sources in evoking a transcendental and impersonal God; but it is what he does with these sources which has such stunning originality and such dialectically drawn prescience.

To summarise Eriugena’s argument, God exists because he is the creator of all things, and he must exist in order to set his scheme of creation into play. Yet since he is the creator of all things, God is not a thing out there in the universe, alongside a multitude of others. Rather, he is the very condition for being; and he is, therefore, something other than being.

But what exists which is in some way other than being? That which lacks being is nothing. Hence God is ‘nothing’. And yet this nothing becomes ; for, as Eriugena would point out, God “in itself neither is, nor was, nor shall be, for it is understood to be none of the things that exist because it surpasses all things, but when by a certain ineffable descent into the things that are… it alone is to be found in all things’. In other words, by becoming, God is found in all things. In ‘from God to nothing to becoming’, we encounter a movement which foreshadows, in spooky outline, the Hegelian trajectory, in which something is dialectically derived out of nothing.

It is certainly true that Eriugena confounds the categories of ‘existence’ and ‘being’ in his approach, and his philosophy is not systematic in the way Hegel’s is, but it is nevertheless remarkable and delightful to encounter such lithe and luminous dialectical thought in the midst of what has been considered by many to be a philosophical dark age.

Image © Venantius J Pinto 2022. To see more of his art, please visit behance.net/venantiuspinto


Baruch Spinoza begins his Ethics (1677) by outlining the infinite substance that for him constitutes reality, saying that it is ‘self-caused’. Later, he famously derives out of this one substance two particular attributes (out of a possible infinite number of them). These two attributes of substance are ‘thought’ and ‘extension’.

One inevitable problem which stems from this is that the two attributes cannot be different from the one substance, cannot be other to it. Thought or extension are not other than substance since there is nothing other than it. Thought and extension, therefore, cannot be conceived as separate substances, as they would be for Descartes. The one infinite substance cannot be limited by anything outside itself, according to Spinoza because if substance were to be demarked by some external other it would be finite and partial. So a paradox arises from the rather obvious point that it seems as if thought and extension are nevertheless limited by one another by standing in a dualistic relation to one another. For example, not all thought is physically extended, while all matter is.

Spinoza endeavours to overcome this apparent paradox in several ways. First he argues that experiencing the one substance as either thought or extension is a product of intellectual perception only: the attributes are ‘‘that which the intellect perceives as constituting the essence of substance’’. This is known as the ‘subjectivist’ interpretation of Spinoza. He also suggests that thought and extension simply don’t limit one another: ‘a body is not limited by thought, nor a thought by body’. Individual thoughts and bodies, as modifications of attributes, are finite, and do exist in relation to other finite modifications; but thought per se, and extension per se, cannot limit either one another nor the infinite substance, but instead harmoniously express different aspects of the same eternal substance. Further, Spinoza explicitly argues that the attributes mind and extension do not “constitute two entities, or two different substances. For it is the nature of substance that each of its attributes is conceived through itself, inasmuch as all the attributes it has have always existed simultaneously in it… each expresses the reality or being of substance” (Ethics, p.51). Thought and extension are merely different expressions of the same substance, which parallel one another for eternity, without the possibility of thought giving rise to extension, or vice versa (“eternity appertains to the nature of substance… therefore eternity must appertain to each of the attributes”, p.63).

However, what is Spinoza’s substance/attribute/mode system, other than a more secular take on the age-old theological problem of the issue of the manifestation and knowability in the finite world of the infinite God?

The third century Graeco-Roman philosopher Plotinus grappled with this problem. Like Spinoza, he begins with a self-sufficient unlimited being which issues multiplicity from itself, in this case in the form of ‘emanations’. And just as with Spinoza (or at least the subjectivist interpretation of him), Plotinus argues that ‘the intelligence’ is able to contemplate the pristine, infinite one only in the form of what ‘emanates’ out of it: “In turning toward itself The One sees. It is this seeing that constitutes The Intelligence.”

But perhaps the most interesting classical thinker to anticipate aspects of Spinoza’s thought is the Neo-Platonist theologian Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD). Augustine speaks to the problem of how multiple finite attributes of infinite being can relate to one another without rendering the infinite finite. He does this in a simple but brilliant way.

Whereas Spinoza - responding to the problem he had inherited from Descartes - was focused on matter and mind, Augustine is concerned with the Trinity. He is responding to a problem which had beset Christianity from the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD onwards, revolving around the idea of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. None of the members of the divine Trinity can be separate from the others, for then God would be sundered from his manifestations, which would remain other to him. At the same time, how can they co-exist as a multiplicity without each member being dependent on and limiting the others, and so making them finite?

Augustine, drawing on Platonism, argues that the structure of the transcendental and infinite reality, the Trinity, is mirrored in the human soul. In the soul there are three properties: memory, understanding, and will – ‘‘the Trinity which is God, in our own memory, understanding, will’’ (On the Trinity, Book XV, Chapter 20, 426). These properties are related, but not causally. When one wills something, one understands that one is willing – but the understanding does not set into motion the will: it does not causally determine the will. Likewise, one can remember understanding something in the past without the memory in any way determining that which was understood. There is an element of the wilful in memory, when we struggle to remember something, yet the quality and type of memory we call forth is in no way itself determined by the will. In other words, Augustine finds a solution to the problem of an infinite multiplicity in the human mind: the members of the Trinity don’t condition any other in a casual fashion, but merely pervade one another, harmoniously and organically, as ‘attributes’ of the single divine substance. “All together not three, but one wisdom. For so also both the Father is God, and the Son God, and the Holy Ghost God, and all three together one God.” (Chapter 17).


The philosophy of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) was formed, in the main, in dialogue with Immanuel Kant. Kant had theorized a subject, a bearer of perception and understanding, which applied ‘forms’ and ‘categories’ to raw reality or the ‘thing-in-itself’ in order to generate our experience of objects as we perceive them. One problem Fichte was dealing with, was that the transcendental subject brought to bear the forms and categories on the external world, but remained in some way logically prior to them. But if the forms and categories could not be applied to the subject itself (since it was logically prior to them), then the subject could not be understood by the mind, which requires its information to be formed through these categories. Hence the transcendental subject is in some way placed beyond the boundaries of pure reason, and unknowable.

Fichte responded to the problem of the unconditioned subject by resorting to the notions of ‘practical reason’ and ‘absolute ground’. Like Kant, he argued that ‘the I itself must previously be posited’ for any contents of empirical consciousness to be rendered intelligible. In other words, to perceive the world requires a unified consciousness – an ‘I’ – to perceive it. The I, therefore, was the ‘absolute ground’ from which the intelligible world sprang. However, unlike Kant, Fichte was not referring to an individual subject here, but rather to the ‘absolute’ subject which provides the ultimate source of being, and which itself required no further grounding than its own spontaneous and practical activity (hence the appeal to practical reason). And yet – as Fichte was compelled to acknowledge – the absolute and infinite ground of being issued from itself all the finitude and causally determined empirical objects of the world. Once again, it therefore generated something which seemed to be other and in some way alien to its own infinite, implacable nature. But how can anything be other than the infinite?

Fichte attempted to draw the relation between the infinite grounds and the finite things in terms of a creative negation. For the absolute subject to manifest, it needed to create a terrain onto which it could stamp itself – emanate out into. And thus from the subject issues forth the non-subject. In Fichtean terms, absolute being separates out from itself in the guise of its own alienation.

But what is this idea other than a more secular and systematic rendition of the Lurianic Kabbalist take on the origins of the universe?

Isaac Luria (1534-1572) began with God as the infinite substance, Ein Sof – that which is ‘unlimited’ or ‘endless’. The notion of such an impersonal rational God had its genesis in Ancient Greek philosophy, and Luria is faced with a problem that beset the Greeks from Parmenides onwards (if not before) – the problem of how infinite, perfect being can manifest in the sphere of the material and changing. How can the finite, the tragic, and the human exist in the presence of a single almighty unknowable perfection?

Luria’s solution is poetic, filled with the type of melancholic grandeur that perfumes outward to encompass the universe. For the world of multiple finite temporal things to exist, that initial substance Ein Sof performs an act of self-mutilation. It carves out within itself a region which is other to its own unified and harmonious nature; a dark space, a place of exile from its own essence. The one substance then endeavours to fill this space with divine light; but in the transition the outpouring of light is fractured, and into the abyss – into that realm of implacable darkness both godless and lonely – only divine ‘sparks’ fall. On this account, then, creation is a moment of sundering, of disunity. The divine nature has, in a single act of cosmological trauma, split itself from itself, with elements of its eternal brightness lingering in a world which is otherwise alienated from godliness and perfection. And we, the scurrying, fallible creatures which emerge in such an alienated world, spend our lives bent down by the loneliness and the yearning which comes from wanting to be united with God again.

Isaac Luria formed his luminous account in the aftermath of the Sephardi exodus from Spain – the period following 1492 when Spanish Jews were banished from the realm by an edict of Isabella and Ferdinand. In the period which followed, the Sephardi Jews were still subject to the persecutions of the Inquisition, and remained the haunted, hunted victims of the dark wells of anti-Semitism which had accumulated in Europe across the ages. Even in places where they weren’t ghettoised, where they didn’t face active prohibition and persecution – such as the Ottoman territories, or, to the North, modernising secular cities such as Amsterdam – the Sephardi Jews continued to exist in a limbo of sorts. Not only were they in physical exile, but they endured a spiritual exile too, having had their books burned, their synagogues destroyed: the connection to much of their past had been shattered. In the works of Luria, one too is an exile: one has to seek out the divine sparks which have become nestled inside people, secreted within the world of the ordinary. In this same way the Sephardi had to recover the divine sparks of their own lost traditions, in a world which was alien and other to them, and which at times must have felt like a perpetual wintery remove.

Luria’s myth attains a certain poetic pathos, for it expresses the historical tragedy of a whole ethnic group; but in my view it speaks to the future as well. In Luria’s vision one encounters the Fichtean approach in its outlines. True, Fichte’s was a rational, self-referential philosophy which emerged in a systematic form as a conscious response to a definitive intellectual dilemma. Luria’s theology, on the other hand, is a beautiful and intuitive allegory which syphons the historical hopes and grievances of a people almost unconsciously into its tragic arc. And yet, the answer is the same in each: Ein Sof separates itself from itself in order to manifest itself in the world. It carries out a divine act of alienation. In Fichte the infinite substance does the same. The subject, in its own self-alienation, generates from within itself the non-subject.


René Descartes’ cogito – ‘I think, therefore I am’ – is arguably the founding principle of modern Western philosophy. It resulted from Descartes’ use of the method of doubt which was to become so much a part of the spirit of science which had begun with the Renaissance, and of the emerging humanism. Descartes (1596-1650) uses the method of doubt to elicit truth.

He begins by imagining an omnipotent but malevolent entity: “an evil demon… who has used all his artifice to deceive me” (Meditations, 1641). Such an entity would have the power to fabricate the heavens and the earth – to call into being a whole universe of illusion, a celestial temple of fakery, such that even the things you lay your hands upon, the people you encounter, the stars which wink in the darkness at night, are all sham products of a specially contrived chimera. Indeed, Descartes takes his thought experiment so far as to doubt the existence of his own body: “I will consider myself as having no hands, eyes, flesh, blood, or senses, but as believing wrongly I have all these things.” It is then that the pithy but brilliant revelation comes: even in doubt, the one thing that cannot be doubted is the existence of the doubter himself. The one thing which must remain true is that even deception reveals the existence of the being who is in the process of being deceived: and so the argument continues, down to ‘I think, therefore I am’. The ‘I think’ is a masterstroke of thinking, then. In it there is also the premonition of Descartes’ dualism, for the thinking substance has been derived in theoretical isolation from the rest of reality.

But was that line of thinking original? Over half a millennium before, the great Islamic philosopher Avicenna (980-1037 CE) conducted his own similar thought experiment, now known as ‘the floating man’.

Avicenna had been imprisoned at a time of great political strife, and was left to deliberate on the nature of being. In the confines of his cell his physical movements were restricted, but his mind could still roam freely, and his memory was able to dwell upon the rich experience and study of a lifetime. In any event, like Descartes, Avicenna performed a thought experiment in which mind was abstracted from matter.

Like Descartes, Avicenna excludes his own physical senses and the objects of the external world in order to whittle down being to its most primordial and elemental throb. Avicenna does this by imagining a man who has been created ‘at a stroke’ – fully formed, fully grown – and at the moment he’s called into existence, his body is suspended in the air “with his vision shrouded from perceiving all external objects… not buffeted by any perceptible current of the air that supports him, his limbs separated and kept out of contact with one another, so that they do not feel each other.” Avicenna concludes: ‘There is no doubt that he would affirm his own existence, although not affirming the reality of any of his limbs or inner organs, his bowels, or heart or brain or any external thing. Indeed he would affirm the existence of this self of his while not affirming that it had any length, breadth or depth.” As with Descartes, Avicenna has derived the existence of his self from nothing else, and especially, from no body. And from this it is no great leap to describe ‘thought’, or in a more traditional idiom ‘soul’, as ‘substance’ and possibly, as ‘infinite’.

© Tony McKenna 2022

Tony McKenna’s books include The Dictator, The Revolution, The Machine: A Political Account of Joseph Stalin (Sussex Academic Press), The War Against Marxism (Bloomsbury), and most recently a novel The Face of the Waters (Vulpine Press).

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