Being, Essence and the Act of Existing


“Being” can mean “existing” when used as present participle of the verb “to be”.
It can also be used as a noun and thus does not necessarily imply actual existence but at least possible existence.
When we talk about “a being” then it refers to something concrete.
“Being” can also be used in a collective manner to indicate the sum-total of all that is or can be.
Being is contrasted with absolute “non-being” or “nothingness”.

The Scholastics differentiated between different kinds of “being”. Being was divided into real being, logical being and ideal being.

“Real being” is anything that has, or can have, existence independent of our mind and our actual knowledge of it.

Real being was in turn subdivided into sub categories for example:
1) Potential being and actual being
Actual being is something that exists or has existence in this very moment. Your computer screen in front of you has “actual being” or is an “actual being”.

Potential being is something that does not actually exist now but could exist given that there are proper causes and conditions. For example, if you planted a seed of a sunflower in a pot, the sunflower doesn’t have actual being or is not an actual being, it has potential being or is a potential being while the seed has actual being or is an actual being.

2) Substantial being and accidental being
There is a differences between substantial and accidental being.

“Logical being” is anything that exists only in the mind.
Logical being was divided into:
1) Logical being that has no foundation in reality.
2) Logical being that has its foundation in reality.

An ideal being is any thing in so far as it is known.
Ideal being was divided into:
1) Sensual ideal being
2) Intellectual ideal being


A being is said to exist when it is not merely possible but actual, when it is not merely potential in its being. Existence implies the notion of actuality.


When we think about a being, two questions can be asked:
A) What is it?
B) Does such a being actually exist?
The answer to the first question gives us the essence or nature of the being in question. The concept that is presented to our intellect is the essence or nature of a being or what a being is.
Take for example an electron. The definition of something describes its essence and should be clear and distinct. The essence of an electron (call it “electronality” if you want) can thus be described as “an elementary particle with ½ spin, negative elementary charge and a mass that is approximately 1/1836 that of the proton”.

The Scholastics divided essence into;
1) Physical essence or real essence or actual essence.
2) Abstract essence or metaphysical essence or logical essence or intrinsically possible essence.

Our knowledge of essences comes through our senses. For example, when we do an experiment with electrons, we gather data via our senses. We obviously devise instruments to enhance or help our senses (we cannot directly observe an electron, it is too small).

If we become aware of an electron (via experimentation and sense data) and we focus or fix our attention on what the particular electron is without considering its existence we are thinking about its physical or real or actual essence. Physical essence only ever has real being when a thing exists.
If for arguments sake, say we were in the 19th century and we are considering the existence of an electron without ever having observed it via our senses, we are considering it as an abstract or metaphysical or logical or intrinsically possible essence. In this case we have no clear notion of its existence since we have never observed it via our senses.

Each actually existing being is what it is precisely because all the reality that is in it. The complete actual or real essence of an existing electron has real being. We have no direct or intuitive intellectual insight into the real essence of things. We only ever gain insight of the real essence of something when it exists. So we can gradually gain greater insight when we explore existing things from various view points. We already know, from experience, that an electron has ½ spin, negative elementary charge and a particular mass.

These are all abstractions from sense data via our intellect and these abstractions provide us the metaphysical or abstract or logical or intrinsically possible essence of something. However, these abstract essences have their foundation in the actually existing things we are able to sense.

Real distinctions vs Logical distinctions

Real distinctions
A real distinction is a distinction that exists independently of our intellects. It is something that is discovered and not made by our minds. Take the electron example. There is a real distinction between its spin as a property and the type of spin it has. The type of spin is really distinct from its spin as a property. It always has ½ spin but the type of spin can differ between + or – or its direction.

So one can have two realities that are really distinct from each other without being separable or capable of existing apart from each other.
If we look at the formal and material causes of a substances (as described here). There is a real distinction between a substance’s formal cause and material cause. They are really and not logically or virtually distinct even if they are not capable of existing apart from each other.

Logical distinctions
A logical distinction is a distinction made by the mind itself between two concepts describing the same reality. There is no reality of logical distinctions other than those of our thought.

Logical distinctions can be purely logical distinction or they can be virtual distinctions. Virtual distinctions can be complete of incomplete virtual distinctions.

An example of a purely logical distinction is the distinction between the concept of an electron and the concept of “an elementary particle with ½ spin, negative elementary charge and a mass that is approximately 1/1836 that of the proton”.

When we think of an individual electron as a negatively charged particle with ½ spin and a particular mass our concept of charge is distinct from that of spin and of mass. However, we do not think that these three realities (mass, charge and spin) combine to form an electron; they are just three virtually distinct aspects under which we view the one reality of the thing we understand as an electron. Mass, charge and spin are examples of perfect virtual distinctions since none of the concepts includes either explicitly or implicitly what is expressed by the other. They are virtually perfectly distinct.
An example of an imperfect virtual distinction is that of the mass of an electron and an electron itself. One concept include implicitly what is expressed by the other. I.e. The concept of an electron includes implicitly what is expressed in the concept of “mass of an electron”.

The Distinction between abstract essence and the act of existence

The question now is, is there a real or only a logical distinction between an abstract essence and the act of existing. I think it should be quite obvious that there is a real distinction to be made between something’s abstract essence and its existence. Take for example the abstract essence of a unicorn. Our intellects can form a definition of something and thus giving it an abstract essence as follows: a white horse with a large, pointed, spiraling horn projecting from its forehead.
There is not something intrinsically or internally impossible about this animal, in other words, it can be actualized or exist. The question is, what kind of being is it? Real, logical or ideal?
It can’t be logical being since logical being is anything that cannot exist outside our minds. Unicorn clearly can exist outside our minds, however, we have never seen one or experienced one with our senses. The only way we can apprehend it when it has ideal being. We have never experienced its real or physical or actual essence. So our intellects are capable of generating abstract essences, however, all abstract essences have ideal being and not real being.
So there is a real and not a logical distinction between an abstract essence and its act of existence. What about the distinction between something’s physical essence and its act of existing? Is the distinction real or merely perfectly virtual?

The Distinction between physical essence and the act of existence

Physical essence, unlike an abstract essence, is said to be part of an actually existing thing, however, physical essence is only ever real whenever a thing exists. So the act of existing actualizes a physical essence or makes it real. Or to put it differently, the act of existing makes a thing what it is, real (a real being) and not ideal (not an ideal being).
A real distinction would entail that the act of existing and the physical essence of an existing thing are thus two really (not virtually) distinct realities, however they are not separable or capable of existing apart.

A real being (e.g. substance) would thus be a composite really distinct realities including of substantial form and prime matter, potentiality and actuality, and the act of existing and essence.

This view can be summarized as in Figure 1 below.

A real distinction between the act of existing (or act of being) and a things real essence is of course debatable and anyone is welcome to debate otherwise.
IMO, the real distinction appears to be rationally defensible and logically consistent with other distinctions such as the distinction between necessary and contingent being (more later).

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