In her argument for the primacy of “reology” over ontology ( res over esse ), or the transcendental character of res , Catherine Pickstock invokes the typical Thomist distinction between essence and existence ( Repetition and Identity: The Literary Agenda ). According to Thomas, these coincide in God, since His essence is to be, but they do not coincide in human beings, since created things might not be.

Yet, Pickstock observes, “the ‘real distinction’ of essence from existence . . . cannot mean a wholesale sundering as if the two factors flew apart from one another entirely . . . .

“For that would undo the created order in which there cannot be single formed substances without individual beings, and vice versa . What would be marked by the idea of the primacy of res over ens would be the notion that the indistinction of essence from existence in God must to some extent be participated in, and manifest even in the realm where the real distinction of the two must hold” (11). That is, if finite things are by participation in God, then they must participate (finitely) in what He is, which is a coincidence of essence and existence. Though contingent, created things are “only manifest as existing” and “every finite essence possesses certain identifying characteristics.”

One of the payoffs of this approach is that it becomes impossible to separate the identity of a thing from “its specific existential circumstances in time and space, nor from the process by which it has come to be” (11). Variation is not outside the being of the thing; rather, ” diastasis in space-time, or extension-duration, mediates, combines, and co-constitutes nature and being in such a way that the mark of thingness appears to be consistency and continuity despite variation” (11). A thing’s existence is inseparable from “the formation by which it has shaped itself and so also from geographical and historical processes of internalized distension” (12).

To put it otherwise, “the integrity of the concrete ens, or being, in space and time is not exhausted by the persistence of substance over against accident. Instead, the existential unity of a thing can comprise elements of accidental relationality in terms of its various connections and narrative history.” True, “not all that occurs to a thing remains equally identifying” there are “accidents” that “habitually accompany” a thing and make it what it is. This includes “culturally added features” (13-4).

Pickstock sums up the point by saying “actuality itself is unthinkable without formation, in such a way that both would appear to be in the gift of one another” (15).

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Articles by Peter J. Leithart