Is the Ontological Argument Ontological?

Is the ontological argument ontological? Now there’s something you can think about while mowing the lawn this weekend. This post will be of most interest to my philosophy readers. I think that means about three people will read it, maybe four. For the past month or so my coworker, Jazz, has been eagerly anticipating the release of the second edition of a book by Jean-Luc Marion called God Without Being. I ordered a couple for the store but it has been delayed a couple of times which has upset Jazz. Every now and then I’ve overheard Jazz and Dean talk about Marion in glowing terms. I honestly think they start to glow when his name comes up. Today my Crossway rep gave me a copy of Christian Apologetics Past and Present: A Primary Source Reader (Volume 2, from 1500) edited by William Edgar and K. Scott Oliphint. (By the way, thank you very much Jerry.) I’ve seen this volume before but had not read much from it. Taking a few minutes I read the entry on Kierkegaard and asked Dean (an avid fan of Kierkegaard) to read it and tell me what he thought of it. He said it was a fair description and good summary. That was good to hear. He then told me, “There’s an entry in there on Jean-Luc Marion.” He started to glow. I knew what I had to do next. The rest of the post is based on the entry in the book.

Jean-Luc Marion is the Greeley Professor of Catholic Studies and Professor of the Philosophy of Religions and Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He was born in France and studied philosophy and eventually did graduate work with Jacques Derrida and Louis Althusser. He received his PhD in 1980.

“In his discussion of Anselm’s ontological argument, Marion calls into question the entire supposition that the ontological argument has much to do with being, or ontology. According to Marion, the argument from Anselm relies not on a concept, but on a nonconcept. Marion rightly notes that Anselm himself never referred to his argument as ontological; that designation was the invention of Immanuel Kant. It is entirely possible, then, according to Marion, that Anselm’s argument has little to do with the notion of being. Without doing justice to Marion’s brilliant article ‘Is the Ontological Argument Ontological,’ we may noted that at least part of his point centers on a linguistic shift within Anselm’s Proslogion, a shift from majus (greater) to melius (better) when referring to this being. That is, as Marion puts it, ‘Doe the ‘id quo majus cogitari nequit’ [that than which no greater can be conceived] admit to being interpreted . . . in terms of the question of being or ousia?’ Marion’s answer is no, and he supports his answer with Anselm’s further designation of the argument, taken from Proslogion XIV, wherein Anselm uses the formula (id) quo nihil melius cogitari potest (that than which no better can be conceived).

“This according to Marion, specifies further what Anselm meant more generally in the earlier (majus/greater) formula. That is, it is not the case simply that Anselm was concerned to argue from the standpoint of the greatest being, but rather his chief concern was that this being be defined as the best, or (referring back to Plato), the summum bonum. Or, as Marion puts it, ‘To be greater means to be better.”

The editors write, “So the argument that the ontological argument is not, after all, ontological carries some support, whether or not it is true.”  (657-58)

The question fascinates me and I will think about while mowing my lawn this weekend. My initial question is this: even if Marion is right about Anselm does that mean the ontological argument cannot be formulated to include the issue of ontology and still be valid? There have been all kinds of formulations of the argument which I don’t think are made invalid by observing the Anselm wasn’t thinking of ontology when he first stated it. Of course Marion’s argument is not solely based on this observation. I don’t mean to give that impression. The article makes it clear that his book is an argument which pushes us “outside of the tradition of Thomistic metaphysics. The metaphysical notion of being, as we have it handed down to us from Aquinas, cannot adequately express the Christian notion of God as we have it from biblical revelation.” Marion would contend, if I’m reading this right, that the modern formulations of the ontological argument are invalid since they employ a metaphysical notion of being that doesn’t apply to God. Modern philosophy has imposed this notion of being on things like Anselm’s argument without even noticing it.

So the next time you’re sitting with a group of friends just ask them, “Is the ontological argument ontological?” If there is anyone left at the table you might have a delightful conversation.


About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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