“Existence” in the ontological proof

Yesterday, my students discussed Anselm’s Proslogion. I began both sections by claiming that they must feel relieved to have a big question like the existence of God so definitively settled, but naturally they were quite skeptical. As usually happens, the leap from the mind to reality proved to be a controversial point, but one student emphasized an aspect of the argument that I had not previously focused on in quite the same way: namely, the fact that Anselm claims that the concept of God exists in the mind once you understand it.

This gives God a kind of “toehold” in reality, in a way that perhaps narrows the gap the argument must leap over — the distinction isn’t between “merely” mental reality and “real” reality, but between a narrowly bounded reality (within the mind) and a more expansive reality (both in the mind and outside it). For this to work, of course, we need to presuppose that mental realities are not qualitatively different from extra-mental realities. This presupposition seems more plausible given that Anselm understands God’s being as intellectual in nature, and more generally insofar as Anselm seems to assume a basic harmony between human reason and spiritual or intellectual realities.

Thus Anselm’s argument cannot be, like Descartes’s, a way to “get out of your head.” Your mind is already participating in a broader “objective” intellectual realm, and that’s what enables the concept “that than which no greater can be thought” to explode out from the narrow confines of an individual mind into its own independent reality.

For Anselm, something like the modern subjective/objective divide just doesn’t exist, though it does in Gaunilo’s reply on behalf of the fool. And all this leads me to ask whether perhaps the fool isn’t so much a fool as a Kantian.

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12 Responses to ““Existence” in the ontological proof”

  1. Utisz Says:

    Prepare to be shot down as merely a more subtle correlationist, or someone stuck in the history of ideas, unable to do new experimental work. Seriously, though, a useful post.

  2. Chris Rodkey Says:

    A claim I made in my dissertation, which sits to collect dust in a library in New Jersey, used Tillich’s appropriation of the ontological argument and Paul M. Van Buren’s linguistic interpretation (which I like very much) to skirt the whole point of this jump from mind to existence. Going back to the Proslogium I don’t think Anselm is trying to construct an argument necessarily as he is engaging the language of prayer “on the edge of language.” For Van Buren, the key moment is the ways in which Anselm tinges what he means by “conception.” And I think it’s true that Gaunilo’s response succeeded in making Anselm’s “argument” something it really isn’t or wasn’t meant to be. My question is whether it really matters whether that jump from the mind into existence, because the so-called first “premise” takes us into a realm of fantasy in the first place. I don’t think it really matters, and strengthens the “argument” as arising from a station of praying the Benedictine daily office.

    Am I making any sense here?

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    You are making sense insofar as the attempt to “save” the argument by situating it in the language of prayer, etc., is a common move. I tend to view such approaches as attempts to explain away what Anselm’s saying rather than to explain it — but I may be in the minority here. In any case, I’m not sure how your reading could directly interface with mine.

  4. Chris Rodkey Says:

    To tip my hat to the late Van Buren, to shift this away from an argument about the existence of God is to suggest that the Proslogion reveals something about the nature of prayer and language. But you’re right, we’re now talking about two different things.

  5. Evgeni V. Pavlov Says:

    @ Chris – Are you one of the Van Buren Boys?

    @ Adam – does this “existence” not the same kind as when “realists” claim that the world “exists” outside of our perceptions of it?

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Evgeni, I think it’s more like the scholastic “realists” who assert the existence of intellectual realities.

  7. Alex Wyman Says:

    “Thus Anselm’s argument cannot be, like Descartes’s, a way to “get out of your head.” Your mind is already participating in a broader “objective” intellectual realm, and that’s what enables the concept “that than which no greater can be thought” to explode out from the narrow confines of an individual mind into its own independent reality.”

    Isn’t that just what Descartes is doing, though? In Meditation III, my idea of God is something in as much need of causal explanation as any other item, including physical items. So, for Descartes, my ideas are, at least in this sense, on par with extramental entities and to be analysed in the same terms as they, which I take to be the view you’re ascribing to Anselm. What’s more, it is from this point of similarity or parity between mental and extramental items that Descartes is able to argue from the existence of my idea of God to the existence of God Himself, just as you claim Anselm does.

    Am I making sense?

  8. Adam Kotsko Says:

    At that phase of Descartes’ argument, however, he’s not sure there even are physical objects — and the point of proving the existence of God is ultimately to prove that his senses are basically trustworthy and he’s not a “brain in a vat” being systematically misled by an evil demon. Descartes is very much working with the presupposition that there’s a gap between the mind and external reality that must be overcome, and the “idea of the infinite in me” doesn’t express a basic harmony between the mind and God — the very fact that the existence of that idea in his mind needs explanation shows that there isn’t a natural fit between the two.

    Of course, maybe I’m not reading your comment in the way you intended.

  9. Alex Wyman Says:

    True, Descartes does not, in Meditation III, yet have knowledge of the existence of physical items, but that doesn’t stop him from comparing (hypothetical) physical beings with mental beings or ideas. And that’s exactly what he does here: he first illustrates his causal principle by saying that a stone or heat would require, if they were to begin existing, an external cause possessing all their perfections, then he says that we can say the same of our ideas of stones and heat, and then finally extends the principle to our idea of God. So Descartes is explicitly recognising an ontological similarity among both physical and mental entities, despite the former only being hypothetical at this stage of the argument.

    I agree that “Descartes is very much working with the presupposition that there’s a gap between the mind and external reality that must be overcome,” but I am inclined to think the gap an epistemic one rather than an ontological one: it’s not so much that mental things are of a radically different *kind* from physical things that causes the disparity as that the existence of ideas and thoughts is just so much more *obvious* than the existence of bodies.

  10. Alex Wyman Says:

    I’m also a bit confused as to why you think that “the “idea of the infinite in me” doesn’t express a basic harmony between the mind and God.” The only lack of harmony I take Descartes to see it as involving is that God is infinite whereas we are finite, a lack of harmony wherewith Anselm would be entirely comfortable. Or am I misreading you?

  11. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Okay, that makes a lot of sense.

  12. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Descartes seems to presuppose that the idea must have been planted “from the outside,” whereas for Anselm, it’s as though the seed of “that than which no greater can be thought” is unproblematically grasped and then naturally grows out to the existence of God.


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