Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 1: On Being ( De Ente ) - Logic, Metaphysics, and the Natural Sociability of Mankind
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAPTER 1: On Being ( De Ente ) - Francis Hutcheson, Logic, Metaphysics, and the Natural Sociability of Mankind 
Logic, Metaphysics, and the Natural Sociability of Mankind, ed. James Moore and Michael Silverthorne, texts translated from the Latin by Michael Silverthorne, introduction by James Moore (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2006).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
On Being (De Ente)
In antiquity the accepted division of philosophy was into natural philosophy, which contained all the speculative sciences about both corporeal and incorporeal things; moral philosophy, i.e., ethical and political philosophy; and logical philosophy, which included both logic and rhetoric.
What metaphysics is
The Aristotelians1 shifted all inquiry about the most general attributes of things and about God and the soul, from the territory of physics to that of metaphysics; they called metaphysics “the science of being in abstraction from matter”; and they meant it to contain the whole of the doctrine of the most common attributes, of the more general divisions of being, and of God and of the human mind.
Ontology and pneumatology
A different method has won favor among some more recent [writers]:2 they define ontology, as they call it, as the science of being and of the most common attributes of things (which is inadequate). They follow it up with pneumatology, which is the doctrine of God and of the human mind, and with physics, which is the science of body. In presenting a short summary of these [sciences], we proceed from the more general to the less general.3
How beings are known
Although our minds cannot make contact with anything without the intervention of some idea, whether proper or analogical, since it is not things themselves but ideas or perceptions which are presented directly to the mind, nevertheless we are compelled by nature itself to relate most of our ideas to external things as their images or representations.4 We retain the memory of a past sensation with complete certainty that it previously existed, and that we are able at will to recall a kind of faint idea of it, when the sensation itself no longer remains. This is very good evidence that certain ideas are representations of other things. In addition, every man has a consciousness of himself, or a certain sense which does not allow him to doubt that he remains the same today as he was yesterday, however much his thoughts may be changed or for some time intermitted; and he has no hesitation in ascribing to himself previous sensations, judgments, and feelings of which he retains the memory.5 This is also the source of the notion or intellection (informatio) of a true thing which is different from any idea at all. We are likewise impelled by nature for a similar reason to relate certain impressions which we have received by sight or touch, to things which are wholly external, of which they are images. All of this shows that things are real, different from ideas, and subject to them; and they are usually called objects of ideas.
Now, since things are known by the intervention of ideas, and words are attached to ideas to perform their function in speaking, we must be careful in all our philosophy not to attribute to external things or to objects of ideas those things that belong only to ideas or to words. The carelessness of the scholastics in this matter has caused endless confusion in metaphysics.
Being (Ens), essence, and existence are related
The general and abstract idea of being is utterly simple and rejects all definition; and since it is involved in every other idea, it may be univocally predicated of the objects of all other [ideas]. The object therefore of every affirmative true proposition is something which truly is or exists, at the time to which the proposition relates. Essence and existence are words related to being; and in the abstract signify much the same, so far as they refer to objects, as the actual term being. No essence can be understood in things themselves which does not exist; nor is existence something in things themselves which is added to essence. Since the natures or essences of things seem to be represented to us by our ideas, particularly by our complex ideas which contain the more evident attributes (sensible qualities, powers, and relations), we call these complex ideas essences; and the ones which belong to ideas alone, we often rashly ascribe to things. And since the mind itself often forms ideas of this kind, without the prompting of an external thing, from simple ideas which it had previously received, although it knows well enough that no object corresponds to them at that point in time, some have fondly imagined that certain essences, and eternal ones at that, have been without existence; and if at any time a thing emerges which is similar to such an idea, then they suppose that existence supervening on an essence is forming a true thing or a real being. Hence they have said that essence and existence are principia essendi or constitutive of a being (entis). But [the truth is that] anything which has a real essence has existence at the same time in the same sense in which it has essence or in which it is a being or a thing (aliquid ).
What essence is; what existence is
These words do not mean at all the same thing.6 For essence denotes the primary attributes of things, such as are normally contained in complex ideas, even when there is no object. The notion of existence is always simple, and one which is necessarily suggested to the mind by every sensation as well as by that consciousness of itself as existing which accompanies every thought. It is also suggested by sensations which, at the prompting of nature, seem to portray external things as existing; for no sentient being doubts that he feels or that he exists; and the force of nature itself prevents most men from doubting the existence of external bodies. These general and abstract notions of essence and existence are simple; the idea of a singular or less general essence is often complex, but in the case of existence it is always absolutely simple; it includes only a vague reference to some portion of time; and all notion of essence is abstracted from it.
[Four indications of existence
Things are perceived to exist either by an internal sense, by which means each man knows that he exists; or by an external sense, which by the force of nature sufficiently confirms to every man that other things also exist; or by reasoning from effects, causes, or concomitants known by sense; or, finally, by testimony.
What are the essences of things
Although the inner natures or essences of things are hidden from us, they do arouse various ideas in us by a fixed law of nature, and among these certain primary ideas which we see are necessarily connected with each other and belong to the thing presented (rei objectae), we call the essence of the thing. Of these attributes no one is prior or posterior to another in the thing itself; but in our knowing of them it is often different, and varies according to the method of investigation. Hence there may be several definitions of one and the same thing, depending upon which of its attributes the others are derived from. Some definitions, however, are much more appropriate than others.
Actuality and potentiality
In no matter do the scholastics misuse words more than in their doctrine of actuality and potentiality; to these words they attach a whole host of things in a very confused manner.7Physical actuality, which is the power of acting, is either primary or secondary: primary actuality is the power of acting, while secondary actuality is the action itself. Active, or actualizing (actuosa), physical potentiality is primary actuality itself, while passive potentiality is the capacity to be acted upon, or that natural mutability of a thing by which it is subject to the force of an actualizing nature, and can be variously altered by it.
Metaphysical actuality is the actual existence of a thing, and sometimes any quality which perfects it, particularly its powers of acting. The potentiality which corresponds to this is called the possibility of a nonexistent thing, or the state of an existing thing which is so subject to some actualizing nature that it may be changed in various different ways. God therefore, primary being, creator, and governor of all other things and not subject to change, is called pure actuality; and all other things are said to have been in potentiality from the beginning; and they became real, or true, beings when actuality supervened upon potentiality. But even in this state there remains something potential, because they may be altered in various ways or destroyed by the power of God. There is nothing in all this confused language except that primary being is eternal, without beginning, absolute and immutable in every perfection, and subject to nothing. The ideas of all other things could have been formed before they existed; and though they do exist, yet they may be changed by the power of God. It would be very wrong to conclude from this that actuality and potentiality are principles of being.]8
No idea more general than being
They altogether abuse words who imagine that there is any idea more general than being. What they call an imaginable [thing] is a real notion, for which there happens to be no object. In whatever sense you speak of an imaginable or a something, in the same sense you would speak of a real being, whether you are speaking of ideas or of things subject [to them]. Nor is there anything intermediate between being and mere nothing. Things suggested are relations, possibles, impossibles, external denominations, privations, negations, and beings of reason.9
Relations are certain notions, arising from the thought of two things, which have no object other than the things being compared and their properties and actions; the contemplation of all of which suggests the notion of a relation or link between them. The things compared are called terms, of which one is the subject or relatum, the other the correlate. The reason for comparing them, which is perhaps some action of one or the other of them or a quality or property which they both share, is said to be the ground. Relations are real ideas, whose objects consist of various absolutely real things external to the mind; not, however, something different from the ground and the terms.
Possibles are terms or complex ideas whose parts are consistent with each other. When there is no object, they are said to be purely possible. They are real ideas which have no object.
Impossibles are complex terms whose parts separately denote ideas so contrary one to another that they cannot be combined. They are real words which separately signify real ideas, and nothing more.
External denominations are passively signifying adjectival expressions which represent a real action or quality in some thing which is being referred to in an oblique and confused manner; in the Latin language, however, they are not joined with a substantive noun of the actual agent or of the possessor of the quality.
Negations and privations
Negations and privations are words that denote the sentiment or notion of a speaker that a certain thing does not have a certain real quality. If [the quality] is natural to a thing of this kind, the word indicating that it is absent is called a privation; otherwise, it is called a negation. Of neither is there any real action, property, or predicate.
Entities of reason
Entities of reason are either ideas of which there is no object, which are said to be subjectively beings of reason; or complex terms whose parts conflict with each other, though the parts themselves are objectively beings of reason. All of these are either real ideas, or at least real expressions; there are no objects corresponding to them.
The root of possibility
In the celebrated question whether the root or cause of possibility lies intrinsically in things or comes to them from outside,10 the question may be this: “Where is the power which can make an object appropriate to any idea whatsoever?” This is certainly to be found only in God. Or the question may be: “By what criterion do we know that an object can be made [which is] consistent with this term but not with that one?” This criterion is to be sought in the terms themselves. If their parts agree with each other, they are possible, since there is every power in God. If not, they are impossible, or rather the terms signify nothing. It is pointless to ask whether there might be a thing that would be subject to such a term, since terms have meaning only by the intervention of an idea, and there is no complex idea subject to such a term.
It is hardly within our judgment to say for sure what things can happen and what cannot, for in the weakness of our intellect, we may be unaware of those contradictions between highly complex terms which would not be hidden from one who had a fuller knowledge of things. But when a contradiction is sufficiently obvious, we rightly declare a term to be impossible.
[All ideas are relative except the idea of being
Of the idea of being we say that it alone is completely absolute. All others, whether of substances or modes or attributes of any kind, involve in themselves, whether distinctly and clearly, or confusedly and obscurely, some link or relation of their object to other things. This will be immediately obvious to anyone who thinks about one or two individual [ideas].]11
[1 ]“The Aristotelians”: see above, Hutcheson’s account of the Peripatetics, the Scholastics, and the Eclectics, in “Dissertation on the Origin of Philosophy,” pp. 6-8, and discussion in the introduction, pp. xxiii-xxvii.
[2 ]Gerard de Vries, Determinationes Ontologicae (Outlines of Ontology) in De Natura Dei et Humanae Mentis (On the Nature of God and the Human Mind). Jean Le Clerc, Ontologia; sive de Ente in Genere (Ontology; or, On Being in General). (This work was dedicated to John Locke.)
[3 ]In the first edition, Metaphysicae Synopsis (1742), the three preceding paragraphs were located in a prolegomena.
[4 ]It will be evident in what follows that in Hutcheson’s exposition of being, the various entities and categories of being are understood (as they were by Locke and Le Clerc) as ideas. In the ontology of de Vries, by contrast, being is predicated directly of objects or things. Hutcheson was also concerned, as some followers of Locke were not, to relate ideas to objects or real existences. See also Part I, chap. 3, sec. 4, n. 11, pp. 84-85.
[5 ]In his letter to William Mace, 6 September 1727, Hutcheson had elaborated a similar theory of the self. See A Synopsis of Metaphysics, II, 3, 3, pp. 140-41.
[6 ]De Vries, in contrast, maintained that existence and essence should not be distinguished: “And like being and essence, so too existence and essence are equivalent terms. So existence is wrongly thought to be something different from the essence of being. …” Determinationes Ontologicae, chap. 3, sec. 6, p. 105.
[7 ]The multiple meanings ascribed to “actuality” and “potentiality” by scholastic philosophers were reviewed by Francisco Suarez in Disputationes Metaphysicae (1597, 1st edition; cited from 1963 reprint). Vol. 2: Disputatio XLIII: “De Potentia et Actu,” pp. 633-63.
[8 ]The four paragraphs between brackets were added in 1744.
[9 ]The list of suggested things that are supposed to stand between being and nothing is found in de Vries, Determinationes Ontologicae, chap. 4, pp. 106-11.
[10 ]De Vries had defined intrinsic possibility as “whatever can be conceived without contradiction”; he defined extrinsic possibility as “whatever can be produced by the power of some cause.” Determinationes Ontologicae, chap. 4, secs. 11, 12, and 13, p. 108. Hutcheson restates the question in terms of relations between objects and ideas, and between ideas and terms.
[11 ]Section 6 was added in 1744.