On Unicorns: why Actuality precedes Possibility

This (slightly embarrassing) article is inspired by section II of David Bentley Hart’s chapter entitled “Being (Sat)” in his The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss. It is intended for philosophy and theology geeks alone.

In his book Metaphysics: the Invention of Hierarchy, Adrian Pabst lays blame at the feet of several late medieval thinkers (chief among them Gilbert of Porreta) for departing from traditional metaphysical thought with their suggestion that possibility is prior to actuality. According to Pabst’s narration, this move is part and parcel with detaching the existence of things in the world from the existence of God, and the essence of things from the existence of those same things.

In an attempt to keep this blog post as pithy as possible, let me just say that one reason it is difficult for us moderns to “wrap our heads” around the massive historical import of this move of Gilbert’s is that the assumptions behind it have become as “natural” to us as the air that we breathe. That is, the priority of possibility has attained in our culture the status of unquestionable ideology. After all, take the example of a unicorn. It seems as obvious as the nose on your face to assume that, of course, we can speak of a unicorn without needing to affirm its existence. Here is a clear example, it is easy to assume, of the priority of possibility over actuality, of essence over existence.

And for a season in my intellectual pilgrimage, this issue of unicorns presented real and difficult problems for me, so much so that for a while I wanted to argue that unicorns must actually exist somehow; otherwise we’d not be talking about them. I felt that this position was required in order to maintain the priority of actuality over possibility.

Alas, however, no such positing is necessary, and I have since come to agree with what Thomas Aquinas would say: we have no reason to think that unicorns actually exist because no one has ever actually seen one.

Well, one might argue, if they don’t exist, but we can still talk about them, then does this not suggest the priority of possibility over actuality, of essence over existence?

And the answer (in my opinion) is: not at all. All of our talk of unicorns manifestly does presuppose the actuality of … something. Not of unicorns, granted. But has anyone ever spoken of a unicorn while not relying on the notion of a horse? A horse, mind you, which actually does exist.

And not just a horse. No one, further, has ever spoken of a unicorn without, well, without speaking. That is, without depending on the actual existence of those human artifacts called words (or, as Derrida calls them, graphemes and phonemes). Again, graphemes and phonemes that actually exist, and which must be interacted with for any thought about unicorns (or anything else at all) to occur.

Unicorns, then, don’t exist. Thanks to the work of the human (productive) imagination, we can still talk about them … but not without relying on a whole host of real things which, unlike unicorns, actually do exist.

Essence, then, is seen to require existence, and actuality is (for now, at least) still required for anything at all to be possible.