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Paul Gerard Horrigan, Ph.D., 2018.

Hume on the “I” or Human Person

The rationalist René Descartes (1596-1650) had reduced the human person to self-
consciousness,1 while for the empiricist John Locke (1632-1704) the human person is reduced to
sameness of consciousness itself that persists throughout a succession of past and present
conscious states. In keeping with his immanentist and sensist pan-phenomenalism which restricts
gnoseology to immanent perceptions (we only know our subjective perceptions, not an extra-
mental reality of things in an external world), David Hume (1711-1776) holds that the human
person is definitely not an individual substance of a rational nature or an individual subsistent of
a rational nature or a rational subsistent; rather the human person or the “I,” for him, is nothing
but a “bundle of perceptions” put together by the memory and associative force of the
imagination in order to form a stable whole. “Come si spiega la nostra convinzione che questa
serie di percezioni costituisca un’unità, che formi un tutt’uno, per cui è un solo e identico essere,
quello rappresentato dalle varie idee? La formazione di questa convinzione si spiega in modo
analogo a quello dell’esistenza delle cose: essa nasce dall’attività della memoria e della fantasia
che, operando secondo le leggi dell’associazione, uniscono e congiungono ciò che in realtà e
separato e distinto. Frutto della memoria e della fantasia è l’identità dell’io, il quale non è,
quindi, una sostanza di cui le varie idee siano delle manifestazioni, ma solo una sequela di
percezioni: «Il mio io è composto delle percezioni: esse lo compongono, dico, non gli
appartengono. Il mio io non è una sostanza alla quale le percezioni sarebbero inerenti. (…) Noi
non percepiamo che attraverso le impressioni ed esse non ci rappresentano mai una sostanza né
materiale né spirituale».

“È evidente, dunque, che la credenza nell’esistenza continuata dell’io non ha valore

oggettivo, essendo essa il risultato dell’azione associativa della fantasia: non esiste nessun io
oggettivamente identico a se stesso di cui io abbia una consapevolezza continuata;
oggettivamente esistono solo delle esistenze puntualizzate, atomiche, le quali per opera della
fantasia vengono unificate; quindi l’esistenza continuata dell’io ha valore soggettivo.”2

Hume writes in his A Treatise of Human Nature that the human person or “I,” which he
reduces to “mind,” is “nothing but a heap or collection of different perceptions, united together
by certain relations, and supposed though falsely, to be endowed with a perfect simplicity and
identity”3 For Hume “if the mind really enjoyed simplicity and identity, then we should be able
to discover some impression that remains through the whole suite of our experiences, linking all
sensations and ideas with one another. Once again the imagination is up to its tricks. There is no
such unifying impression, but the imagination can borrow from our experience of the way one
impression leads to another the notion that all our experiences must do likewise. Memory helps
by recalling past perceptions resembling our present ones, suggesting some sort of causal bridge

Cf. R. DESCARTES, Les principes de la philosophie, p. I, n. 8.
B. MONDIN, Storia dell’Antropologia Filosofica, ESD, Bologna, 2001, p. 544.
D. HUME, A Treatise of Human Nature, I, 4, 2.

between moments of our experience. And passion, with its propensity for anticipating, gets into
the act by suggesting that there must be some continuity toward the future, otherwise my present
desires would never receive fulfillment.

“But let the imagination borrow all it wants from such ‘experiences’ of causal
connection: We have already examined au fond the pretenses of ‘cause and effect.’ What we are
seeing here is nothing more than a particular example of the critically unacceptable general
tendency of the mind to forge a unity for itself. Hume does admit that we experience a certain
feeling that all our perceptions belong to us, and in the Appendix to the Treatise he even goes so
far as to admit that he cannot reconcile this phenomenon with the fact that ‘all our distinct
perceptions are distinct existences.’ As usual, our philosopher is ready to acknowledge that he is
directing this attack against a philosophical tradition and not against the real existence of the
thing he is showing difficult to ‘prove’ theoretically. In the present instance what he is really
after is the Cartesian substantial soul and all its religious implications, as developed by Berkeley
and all ‘metaphysical’ immortalists. He rails at ‘the curious reasonings concerning the material
or immaterial substances, in which they suppose our perceptions to inhere,’ and he confesses that
it is ‘to put a stop to these endless cavils’ that he asks ‘what they mean by substance and
inhesion.’4 It is in this context that he attacks the problem of personal identity.

“After this no time need be wasted on the questions of the immortality or immateriality of
the soul. All such problems have been undercut by throwing doubt on whether the soul is a
substance at all; whether indeed there is any ground for the common feeling that the mind is a

What is the human person, the “I,” for Hume? Mind reduced to its contents (the flowing
phenomenal perceptions that is experienced). There is no “I” or human person distinct from these
perceptions. Hume “granted validity to phenomena alone, which he gathered together into
collections or ‘bundles.’ For him, as a consequence, the soul is only a ‘bundle of perceptions,’ in
constant flux and movement – it is from Hume consequently, that we trace the origin for all
‘psychologies without a soul.’ In addition, Hume regarded the causal bond uniting these ‘bundles
of perceptions as nothing more than a subjective, psychological law required to make experience
possible. In fact, it is this law which constitutes experience.”6

For Hume, we do not have any idea of the “self” (which he identifies with the “I” or
“human person”) as distinct from our perceptions. He denies that we have any clear and
intelligible idea of the self derived from an impression. “The self or person is not any one
impression, but that to which our several impressions and ideas are supposed to have a reference.
If any impression gives rise to the idea of self, that impression must continue invariably the
same, through the whole course of our lives; since self is supposed to exist after that manner. But
there is no impression constant and invariable…and consequently there is no such idea.”7 Since,
for Hume, all our perceptions are distinguishable from each other and separable from one

D. HUME, op. cit., I, 4, 5.
É. GILSON and T. LANGAN, Modern Philosophy: Descartes to Kant, Random House, New York, 1964, pp. 266-
J. HIRSCHBERGER, The History of Philosophy, vol. 2, Bruce, Milwaukee, 1959, p. 235.
D. HUME, op. cit., I, 4, 6, L. A. Selby-Bigge edition, Oxford, 1951, pp. 251-252.

another, we are unable to capture an “I,” “human person,” or “self” apart from or underlying
these perceptions. He writes in I, 4, 6 of the Treatise: “For my part, when I enter most intimately
into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold,
light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never catch myself at any time without a
perception, and never can observe anything but the perception…If anyone upon serious and
unprejudiced reflection thinks he has a different notion of himself, I must confess I can reason no
longer with him. All I can allow him is that he may be in the right as well as I, and that we are
essentially different in this particular. He may perhaps perceive something simple and continued,
which he calls himself, though I am certain that there is no such principle in me.’8 For Hume, the
“I” or human person, reduced to “mind,” “is a kind of theatre where several perceptions
successively make their appearance; pass, re-pass, glide away and mingle in an infinite variety of
postures and situations. There is properly no simplicity in it at one time, nor identity in different;
whatever natural propension we have to imagine that simplicity and identity. The comparison of
the theatre must not mislead us. They are the successive perceptions only that constitute the

If the human mind (which Hume erroneously identifies with the “I” or “human person”)
is merely, he says, “a bundle of perceptions,” what then causes us to have the propensity to
attribute identity and simplicity to the human mind? Enter the imagination, and especially the
role of memory (which is the chief source of the “fiction” of the permanent self, human person
or “I”). Copleston explains that “according to Hume, we tend to confuse the two ideas of identity
and of a succession of related objects. For example, an animal body is an aggregate, and its
component parts are constantly changing: in the strict sense it does not remain self-identical. But
the changes are normally gradual and cannot be perceived from moment to moment. Further, the
parts are related to one another, enjoying a mutual dependence on and connection with one
another. The mind thus tends to neglect, as it were, the interruptions and to ascribe persistent
self-identity to the aggregate. Now, in the case of the human mind there is a succession of related
perceptions. Memory, by raising up images of past perceptions, produces a relation of
resemblance among our perceptions: and the imagination is thus carried more easily along the
chain, so that the chain appears to be a continued and persistent object. Further, our perceptions
are mutually related by means of the causal relation. ‘Our impressions give rise to their
correspondent ideas: and these ideas in their turn produce other impressions. One thought chases
another and draws after it a third, by which it is expelled in its turn.’10 Here again memory is of
primary importance. For it is only by memory that we are able to be aware of the causal relations
between our perceptions. Hence memory is to be accounted the chief source of the idea of
personal identity. Once given memory, our perceptions are linked by association in the
imagination, and we attribute identity to what is in fact an interrupted succession of related
perceptions. Indeed, unless corrected by philosophy, we may ‘feign’ a uniting principle, a
permanent self distinct from our perceptions. If we rule out this ‘fiction,’ all questions about
personal identity ‘are to be regarded rather as grammatical than as philosophical

D. HUME, op. cit., p. 252.
Ibid., p. 253.
Ibid., p. 261.
Ibid., p. 262.
F. COPLESTON, A History of Philosophy, Book II, vol. 5, Image Doubleday, New York, 1985, pp. 303-304.

James Daniel Collins describes and critiques Hume’s conception of the human person or
“I,” founded upon his sensist and phenomenalist gnoseology, writing: “Hume agrees with his
British predecessors that a theory of self must be constructed in conformity with one’s theory of
mind, but he takes a more radically phenomenalistic view of mind than they do. Mind may be
defined as ‘nothing but a heap or collection of different perceptions, united together by certain
relations, and supposed, though falsely, to be endowed with a perfect simplicity and identity…[It
is] that connected mass of perceptions, which constitute a thinking being.’13 The substantiality of
the mind is conspicuous by its absence from this definition. If by substance is meant something
which may exist by itself, then (at least, as far as the free play of imagination is concerned) every
distinct perception, being capable of separation and separate existence, is a genuine substance.
But if substance is said to be entirely different from a perception, then we can have no idea of its
nature and cannot raise questions about the immateriality and substantiality of the soul. Contrary
to Locke’s and Berkeley’s contention, Hume states that perceptions are grasped as distinct
objects, and hence never convey to the mind any evidence about their need for such inherence.
Hence causal inference is not justified in arguing from a requirement that is lacking in empirical
meaning. In this clash of opinion among the empiricists, Hume is relying once more upon a
strictly phenomenalistic approach to perceptions and upon his logical doctrine about distinct
perceptions. Perceptions are distinct not only from each other but also from any subject and,
indeed, from any reference to a subject of inherence. This reification of perceptions is the
extreme consequence of the analytic method and the notion of a percept-object.

“From the same standpoint, we are barred from attributing simplicity and identity to the
mind. The idea of identity would have to rest upon some impression that remains invariant
throughout a lifetime; the idea of simplicity would suppose that some impression reveals an
indivisible center of union for the moments of experience. Neither of these conditions can be
satisfied in terms of the Humean theory of knowledge. When I enter intimately into what I call
myself, Hume says, I always stumble upon some particular perception. I never catch myself
without some perception, and neither do I come upon myself as anything but a bundle or
collection of different perceptions, each succeeding the other with inconceivable rapidity. In face
of this situation, only one set of conclusions is possible for the Humean logic, based on the
loosening of ideas. Since each perception is a distinct existent, no substance is needed; since the
perceptions are all different and successive, there is no identity or invariant sameness of being;
since the perceptions comprising the self are many, the self is not a simple thing.

“As usual, Hume employs this failure on the part of abstract reason as a recommendation
that we seek a binding principle on the side of the ‘natural’ forces, operating through
imagination. Thought is under some kind of constraint to pass from one given perception to the
next, and thus to generate the self through this continuous transition. The personal self arises
when, in reflecting upon a past series of perceptions, we feel that one perception naturally
introduces the next. Personal identity is a powerful fiction, aroused by the circumstance that
imagination is able to pass smoothly from one perceptual object to the next, and hence comes to
regard the series as invariable and uninterrupted. The similarity in the mind’s act of
apprehending the different perceptions instigates imagination to affirm a continuous identity of
the self, on the side of the objects perceived. The easy transition is made under the associative
force of resemblance and the natural relation of cause-and-effect. Thus the self is ‘a system of
D. HUME, A Treatise of Human Nature, I, 4, 1.

different perceptions or different existences, which are linked together by the relation of cause
and effect, and mutually produce, destroy, influence, and modify each other.’14 Memory is the
source of personal identity, insofar as it summons up images resembling past perceptions and
grasps the causal succession of our perceptions, in the direction of the past. Passion and concern
extend the same frame of causal reference forward as well as backward, strengthening the easy
passage of thought and the reflective feeling that the perceptions belong to an identical, personal

“For once, however, this counterprocess of binding together what empirical analysis has
loosened, fails to achieve the kind of unity to which our experience bears testimony. Hume
observes that he cannot find a satisfactory explanation of the feeling of belongingness, on the
basis of which imagination declares that all our perceptions belong to the same personal self: ‘In
short there are two principles, which I cannot render consistent; nor is it in my power to renounce
either of them, viz., that all our distinct perceptions are distinct existences, and that the mind
never perceives any real connection among distinct existences. Did our perceptions either inhere
in something simple and individual, or did the mind perceive some real connection among them,
there would be no difficulty in the case. For my part, I must plead the privilege of a skeptic, and
confess, that this difficulty is too hard for my understanding.’15 This is a disarmingly frank
passage. Hume concedes that an adequate synthesis of empirical findings about the personal self
requires a knowledge of substance and objective causal connections, in respect to man. But his
own first principle about distinct perceptions, leading as it does to a divorce of abstract reason
from experience, prevents him from admitting the reality of substance in man. His second
principle about real connections leads to his skeptical theory of relations and rules out any
objectively given causal principle, operative in mental life. Nevertheless, he cannot avoid using
substantial and causal terms, when he describes the self as a bundle and as a self-perpetuating
series of perceptions. Although he warns against the imagery, he finds it convenient to compare
the mind both to a theater, upon whose (substantial) stage various appearances are presented, and
to a republic that perpetuates itself (causally) through the successive generations of its members.

“The perceptions belonging to ‘our’ mind are not an indiscriminate heap but constitute an
ordered system. On the side of the cognitive acts themselves, these perceptions are already
ordered by reference to ‘ourselves’ and ‘our’ imagination, even before Hume can apply his
theory of how imagination produces the personal unity of the self. In order to give a plausible
account of the association of perceptual objects, he covertly presupposes some personal center of
reference or intimate belongingness for the perceiving operations. His empirical explanation of
the self implies the effective presence of certain substantial and causal factors, but his theory of
knowledge prevents him from ever reconciling their reality with his own first principles.

“Hume’s passing remarks on immortality and freedom are consistent with his general
view of knowledge and causality. No demonstration of immortality is possible, both because
there is no clear idea of an immaterial, simple substance and because such demonstration would
suppose that the causal principle can extend to a state that is, by definition, beyond present
human experience. Hume admits that reason places man above the brutes but not that it
guarantees his survival beyond this life. It is likely that man, like other animals, will lose

D. HUME, op. cit., I, 4, 6.
D. HUME, op. cit., Appendix.

consciousness and succumb to the universal frailty and dissolution of things. Neither immortality
nor freedom has a bearing upon moral conduct, even if they could be established.”16

Régis Jolivet’s Critique of Hume’s Sensist Phenomenalism Regarding Substance and

Person: “Nozioni aberranti della sostanza…Definizioni empiristiche. Tutti gli empiristi, e Kant
al loro seguito, definiscono la sostanza come una cosa permanente, immobile e invariabile sotto
il mutamento. Ora questa definizione, anzitutto, non conviene affatto alla sostanza, che non è
assolutamente immobile e invariabile sotto il flusso fenomenico: essa non è affatto una cosa
inerte sotto altre cose mobili e mutevoli. Infatti, essa è soggetta al mutamento accidentale e non
cessa di modificarsi con il movimento degli accidenti, che sono qualche cosa d’essa stessa.
D’altra parte, una simile definizione rende la sostanza inintelligibile e perfettamente inutile e
conduce al più radicale fenomenismo.”17

Ҥ l - Teorie fenomenistiche.

“554 - Queste teorie sonò state proposte dagli empiristi del secolo XVIII e XIX. Il loro
principio generale è che la personalità può e deve spiegarsi attraverso i soli fenomeni,
considerati come capaci, in certe condizioni, di formare una somma o collezione contrassegnata
dai caratteri che determinano il «me» personale.

“A. Argomenti del fenomenismo.

“Questi argomenti sono di tre specie. Gli uni sono puramente negativi e tendono a
provare che l’ipotesi di un soggetto sostanziale è incomprensibile. I secondi impugnano il valore
sperimentale del concetto di personalità. I terzi cercano di dar ragione senza alcun soggetto dei
caratteri della personalità.

“1. Critica del concetto di sostanza - Tutti gli empiristi del XVIII secolo (Locke,
Condillac, Berkeley, Hume) considerano inintelligibile il concetto di soggetto sostanziale. Una
sostanza o un soggetto, dicono costoro, è per definizione qualcosa che si trova posto sotto i
fenomeni (sub-jacere, sub-stare), cioè un sostrato o sostegno. Però una tale realtà, se esistesse,
sarebbe in se stessa inconoscibile, perché l’esperienza non ci presenta mai altro che le qualità o
fenomeni, inutile, perché sarebbe immobile e inerte sotto il flusso dei fenomeni, - impensabile in
se stessa, perché dovrebbe essere considerata come una cosa priva di ogni determinazione,
infine contraddittoria, perché, pur essendo destinata a servire da sostegno ai fenomeni, anch’essa
avrebbe bisogno di sostegno (Locke, An Essay on Human Understanding, L II, c. XXIII, in
Works of J. L., 4 voll., Londra, 1777; tr. it., Bari, 1951).

“Bisogna quindi rinunziare ad ogni idea di soggetto sostanziale, il quale non ha altro
fondamento nell’esperienza che un gruppo di qualità costanti sostrato delle qualità variabili.

“La sostanza piombo, per esempio, si riduce ad un complesso di qualità: colore opaco e
biancastro, un determinato grado di pesantezza, di durezza, di duttilità e di fusibilità. Il soggetto

J. COLLINS, A History of Modern European Philosophy, Bruce, Milwaukee, 1954, pp. 436-439.
R. JOLIVET, Trattato di filosofia, vol. 4 (Metafisica II), Morcelliana, Brescia, 1960, p. 123.

uomo non è che un complesso di qualità estese e di qualità dette spirituali. Il soggetto anima o
spirito non è che una collezione di fatti interni che coesistono per l’azione della memoria.

“555 - 2. Critica dell’esperienza di personalità - Questa critica è opera soprattutto di

Hume, il quale si sforza di dimostrare che noi siamo ben lungi dall’avere una coscienza precisa e
ferma dell’unità e dell’identità del «me». Infatti non constatiamo in noi stessi nessuna
impressione costante e invariabile.18 Il sentimento dell’«io» (Self), di cui si fa tanto conto, non è
un’esperienza, ma una costruzione da filosofo, perché per quanto avanti io penetri in me stesso,
non arrivo mai ad afferrare altro che delle percezioni particolari. Tutti questi argomenti (già
inclusi nell’affermazione di Condillac, che il «me» è soltanto una collezione di sensazioni), sono
stati ripresi nel secolo XVIII da Taine per il quale il «me» si riduce interamente ad una «serie di
avvenimenti» e ad un «ramificarsi tentacolare di immagini». (De l'Intelligence, 2 voll., Parigi,
1870, t. I, p. 350).

“556 – 3. Genesi dell’illusione dell’«io-soggetto»

“a) Come funziona l’associazione. Tutto si può spiegare, secondo Hume, con
l’associazione. L’idea di soggetto rappresenta soltanto una generalizzazione del concetto comune
di cosa. Difatti, questa ha tre proprietà: è unità di una molteplicità coesistente; è unità di una
molteplicità successiva; è un sostrato le cui modificazioni sono rappresentate dalle qualità
sensibili. È. dunque facile dimostrare che tutte queste proprietà risultano da come funziona
l’associazione. La prima è prodotta dalla coesistenza delle qualità nella percezione: lo spirito
rappresenta a se stesso tutte insieme queste qualità e tratta questa collezione come un tutto
organico, designandola con una sola parola. A poco a poco, l’unità verbale si trasforma in unità
reale. La seconda proprietà deriva dal fatto che la cosa non sembra cambiare, od almeno non
cambia, in modo rilevante che in un tempo relativamente lungo: da ciò deriva il fatto che la cosa
ci appare identica a se stessa. Ma siccome questa identità non può essere attribuita alle qualità
palesemente cangianti, noi l’attribuiamo al raggruppamento stesso delle qualità e, al di là di
queste, ad un soggetto comune immobile delle modificazioni.

“b) Genesi della persona-soggetto. Proprio allo stesso modo noi ci formiamo l’idea di
sostanza spirituale. Come la sostanzialità delle cose esterne per noi proviene dalla rassomiglianza
che esse presentano nel tempo, così la sostanzialità del «me» nasce dalla memoria. Infatti questa
basta a spiegare il nostro sentimento di identità personale: essa ci dà, insieme alla continuità
successiva delle nostre percezioni interne, il sentimento della causalità reciproca di queste
percezioni, ossia del loro concatenamento, ed infine raggruppa queste percezioni in base alla loro
rassomiglianza. Da queste diverse relazioni conservate dalla memoria nasce il concetto della
nostra identità personale e sostanziale. Però quest’ultima non è, in definitiva, che l’identità
sostanziale del legame che esiste in una serie di cause e di effetti (Treatise of Human Nature,
Oxford, 1951, tr. it., Bari, 1948, 1. I, 1a parte, sez. VI).

“Taine e Stuart Mill, partendo dallo stesso principio di Hume, propongono spiegazioni un
po’ diverse. Secondo Taine, fra i fatti psicologici, che sono l’unica realtà concreta alcuni sono

D. HUME, A Treatise of Human Nature, 4a parte, sez. VI: «Senza tener conto di alcuni metafisici, io oso
affermare, quanto al resto degli uomini, che essi non sono che un fascio od una collezione di diverse percezioni, le
quali si succedono con una rapidità inconcepibile e sono in un flusso e in un movimento perpetui».

stati forti e, in quanto tali, prendono forma di interiorità e si innalzano fino a diventare corpo e
«me»; gli stati deboli invece vengono respinti e compongono il mondo degli oggetti o «non-me».
Insomma, l’idea di personalità si riduce a quella di stati psichici interni, e gli oggetti o mondo
esterno sono effetto di una «allucinazione vera». (Taine, De l’Intelligence, t. II, libro III, c. I).
Quanto a Stuart Mill egli definisce il «me» come una «possibilità permanente di sensazioni».
«Credere che il mio spirito esiste, anche quando esso non sente se stesso, non si pensa, non ha
coscienza della propria esistenza, si riduce a credere in una possibilità permanente di questi
stati... Io non vedo niente che ci impedisca di considerare lo spirito come ciò che è soltanto la
serie delle nostre sensazioni, quali esse si presentano di fatto, aggiungendovi le possibilità
indefinite di sentire che esigono, onde esser tradotte in atto, delle condizioni che possono aver
luogo o no, ma che, in quanto possibili, esistono sempre e molte delle quali possono realizzarsi a
volontà». (An Examination of Sir W. Hamilton’s Philosophy, Londra, 1865; tr., fr., p. 228).

“B. Discussione

“557 - Dobbiamo esaminare brevemente le tre categorie di argomenti fenomenistici.

“1. Il soggetto non è un sostrato inerte - La critica del concetto di sostanza è basata tutta
su un equivoco. Il termine soggetto non equivale a sostrato inerte del cambiamento sul quale
verrebbero in qualche modo ad appiccicarsi le qualità, come un vestito che aderisce al corpo o
come una vernice che ricopre la superficie delle cose. Questa concezione è assurda. Infatti, il
soggetto non costituisce con le sue qualità che un unico essere completo, anche se, propriamente
parlando, non sono le qualità a cambiare, ma è il soggetto che cambia con esse e per esse. Il
soggetto cambia quindi continuamente secondo il succedersi dei fenomeni che lo investono: la
permanenza e la stabilità fanno parte soltanto della sua essenza, non della sua realtà concreta. Da
ciò si vede bene come l’obiezione di Hume, secondo il quale il soggetto sarebbe impensabile in
se stesso, non ha nessuna importanza. Il soggetto viene in sé determinato sia dalle sue proprietà
essenziali, sia dalle qualità che lo individualizzano, perché il soggetto concreto è composto da
tutte queste cose prese insieme.

“558 – 2. La realtà empirica dell’«io» - Hume impugna invano l’esperienza psicologica

dell’«io». Tale esperienza può avere dei gradi, ma è un fatto evidente quanto la molteplicità degli
stati di coscienza. Inoltre, contrariamente a quanto immaginano gli empiristi, questo «io» non è
costruito cominciando dai suoi elementi, come se questi esistessero dapprima come isolati e
dispersi, e fossero in seguito riuniti in un tutto. È il tutto quello che viene per primo, e gli
elementi, in quanto tali, non sono percepiti e distinti che successivamente.

“Ciò che abbiamo detto sopra circa la formazione del «me» nel fanciullo non è in
contraddizione con questa osservazione, perché, propriamente parlando, il fanciullo non
costruisce il suo «me», ma lo scopre progressivamente, via via che si realizzano le condizioni
degli organi, dell’esperienza e della ragione. Quanto alla sintesi psicologica, essa non risulta nel
fanciullo da una disposizione di elementi preesistenti, ma da una presa di coscienza sempre più
approfondita di un ordine di diritto incluso e preformato entro la ragione. Essa dunque è, in
quanto tale, anteriore agli elementi.

“Infine, non fa meraviglia che Hume non arrivi a scoprire l’«io» nella sua esperienza:
l’«io» che egli cerca non esiste e non può esistere, perché non è un sostrato che esista separato
dagli stati di coscienza, ma è l’insieme stesso del «me» dotato dei caratteri di unità e di identità

“3. Confutazione dell’associazionismo - Le ragioni addotte da Hume per spiegare la

formazione dell’idea di cosa o di soggetto permanente sono delle autentiche petizioni di
principio. Se infatti le cosiddette «collezioni» vengono designate con una sola parola, è evidente
che ciò avviene perché fin dal loro sorgere ciascuna di esse appare come un tutto organico. È
inutile che i sassi di un mucchio si presentino insieme alla percezione; nonostante ciò, essi
continuano a formare un mucchio, cioè una collezione, non una cosa o un soggetto. D’altronde, è
davvero impossibile pensare che una collezione o serie di stati di coscienza possa giungere a
conoscere se stessa come unità identica a se stessa.19 Hume medesimo, d’altronde, finì col
rendersene conto, dicendo che, nell’ipotesi dell’io-collezione è impossibile ammettere
l’esperienza di unità e identità e che l’unica soluzione plausibile sarebbe quella di un soggetto

“…D. Conclusione

“564 – 1. Necessità di un soggetto - Lo studio delle diverse teorie riguardanti la

personalità ci porta a concludere che l’esperienza e i caratteri dell’«io» non hanno altra
spiegazione possibile che per mezzo di un soggetto sostanziale. Il fenomenismo, sotto qualunque
forma si presenti, è infatti incapace di spiegare questa esperienza. Una collezione di cose non è
un ente; una serie od una carovana non formano un tutto organico; una serie successiva od una
collezione simultanea non possono riconoscere se stesse né come serie, né come collezione, né
tanto meno come unità.

“Viceversa, l’unità e l’identità divengono intelligibili appena si ammette che esse

esprimano la realtà di un soggetto sottoposto al mutamento e di un soggetto che continua ad
esistere mutando. Quanto all’ autonomia, se essa esige ben altro che l’unità e l’identità, le quali
sono i caratteri della individualità (indivisum in se et divisum a quolibet alio), almeno essa trova
nell’individualità la propria condizione necessaria: solo un individuo (e non una colonia od una
serie) può essere persona, cioè essere intelligente e libero, padrone di sé (individuum ratione
praeditum, sui juris).

La spiegazione di Taine è altrettanto arbitraria. Non si riesce a capire come, esistendo soltanto gli stati psicologici,
la loro differenza di intensità sia tale da poter bastare a trasformarli in mondo interno od esterno, reale od
Treatise, I. I, 4a part., Appendice: «A dirla in breve, vi sono due princìpi che io non riesco ad accordare, senza che
possa rinunziare ancor più all’uno o all’altro e cioè: il principio che le nostre percezioni distinte sono esistenze
distinte, e che la mente non percepisce mai alcun nesso reale fra esistenze distinte. Non vi sarebbe più nessuna
difficoltà se si ammettesse sia che le nostre percezioni sono inerenti a qualcosa di semplice e di individuale, sia che
la mente percepisce qualche nesso reale fra loro. Per ciò che mi riguarda, io devo confessare che questa difficoltà
sorpassa la mia comprensione...». S. Mill confessa la stessa cosa: «Se consideriamo lo spirito come una serie di stati
di coscienza, siamo obbligati a completare la proposizione chiamandola serie di stati di coscienza che conosce se
stessa come passata e futura: e siamo ridotti a dover scegliere fra il credere che lo spirito, o «io», è una cosa ben
diversa dalle serie di stati di coscienza possibili, e l’ammettere il paradosso per cui qualcosa che, per ipotesi, è solo
una serie di stati di coscienza, può conoscere se stessa come serie». (An Examination of Sir W. Hamilton's
Philosophy, Londra, 1865; tr. fr., p. 235).

“565 – 2. L’intuizione dell’io

“a) Forma dell’intuizione. Il soggetto che noi siamo non è una costruzione dello spirito,
ma un dato dell’esperienza. L’intuizione del me-soggetto si deve estendere a tutta la nostra vita
psicologica, nel senso che noi non cessiamo di essere in qualche modo ontologicamente presenti
a noi stessi e cogliamo questa presenza ontologica negli atti che ne emanano.21

“Tale coscienza di sé come soggetto è una coscienza abituale. Affinché divenga

coscienza attuale, si deve compiere un atto di riflessione su se stessi. Anche quando è coscienza
attuale e riflessa, essa non è mai quell’intuizione dell’io puro che gli empiristi si accaniscono a
pretendere e che è impossibile. Infatti il soggetto può cogliere se stesso solo nei suoi atti e
attraverso i suoi atti, dai quali non è possibile distinguerlo che per mezzo di un’astrazione della
mente. Infine, la coscienza, o intuizione di sé come soggetto, non è una conoscenza intuitiva
della natura del soggetto che ci costituisce. Essa è soltanto colta a partire da una realtà
esistenziale di cui si arriverà a conoscere con precisione la natura solo a prezzo di analisi
minuziose e difficili.22

“b) Contenuto dell’intuizione. Qual è il vero e proprio contenuto di questa intuizione

esistenziale? Noi percepiamo noi stessi come un soggetto complesso, che è principio di fenomeni
e di attività di natura assai diversa, perché diciamo con uguale verità: «io mangio», «digerisco»,
«soffro», «amo», «ragiono», «voglio». Questa complessità lascia dunque sussistere
nell’intuizione l’unità essenziale del soggetto; ma nell’intuizione dell’io si manifestano, in
qualche modo, anche due poli: il polo fisico (corpo) e il polo psichico (anima). Niente di tutto
questo si precisa con chiarezza al livello dell’intuizione empirica dell’io. Però, come abbiamo già
detto, proprio in questa intuizione l’analisi metafisica giunge a distinguere la natura e il modo
con cui si uniscono i princìpi dai quali risulta la complessa unità della persona umana.”23

Answer to Hume on the Human Soul: Maritain on the Existence, Spirituality and
Immortality of the Human Soul. Jacques Maritain explains the existence, spirituality and
immortality of the human soul in the fifth chapter of his The Range of Reason as follows: “The
Existence of the Human Soul. It is of this immortality, and of the way in which the Scholastics
established its rational certainty, that I should now like to speak. We must of course realize that
we have a soul before we can discuss whether it is immortal. How does St. Thomas Aquinas
proceed in this matter?

“He observes first that man has an activity, the activity of the intellect, which is in itself
immaterial. The activity of the intellect is immaterial because the proportionate or ‘connatural’

S. TOMMASO, De Veritate, q. 10 a. 8: «Quantum ad cognitionem habitualem, sic dico quod anima per essentiam
suam se videt, id est, ex hoc ipso quod essenti a sua est praesens, est potens éxire in actum cognitionis sui ipsius [...]
Ad hoc autem quod percipiat anima se esse et quid in seipsa agatur attendat, sufficit sola essentia animae, quae
menti est praesens: ex ea enim actus progrediuntur, in quibus actualiter ipsa percipitur». 1a, q. 43, a. 5, ad 2um: «Illa
quae sunt per essentiam sui in anima cognoscuntur experimentali cognitione, in quantum homo experitur per actus
principia intrinseca».
Cfr: S. TOMMASO, De Veritate, q. 10, a. 8, ad 8 in contr.: «Secundum hoc scientia de anima est certissima quod
unusquisque experitur se animam habere et actus animae sibi inesse, sed cognoscere quid sit anima difficillimum
R. JOLIVET, Trattato di filosofia, vol. 3 (Psicologia), Morcelliana, Brescia, 1958, nos. 554-560, 564-565.

object of the human intellect is not, like the object of the senses, a particular and limited category
of things, or rather a particular and limited category of the qualitative properties of things. The
proportionate or ‘connatural’ object of the intellect is the nature of the sense-perceivable things
considered in an all-embracing manner, whatever the sense concerned may be. It is not only – as
for sight – color or the colored thing (which absorbs and reflects such or such rays of light) nor –
as for hearing – sound or the sound-source; it is the whole universe and texture of sense-
perceivable reality which can be known by the intellect, because the intellect does not stop at
qualities, but pierces beyond, and proceeds to look at essence (that which a thing is). This very
fact is a proof of the spirituality, or complete immateriality of our intellect; for every activity in
which matter plays an intrinsic part is limited to a given category of material objects, as is the
case for the senses, which perceive only those properties which are able to act upon their
physical organs.

“There is already, in fact, a certain immateriality in sense-knowledge; knowledge, as

such, is an immaterial activity, because when I am in the act of knowing, I become, or am, the
very thing that I know, a thing other than myself, insofar as it is other than myself. And how can
I be, or become, other than myself, if it is not in a supra-subjective or immaterial manner? Sense-
knowledge is a very poor kind of knowledge; insofar as it is knowledge, it is immaterial, but it is
an immaterial activity intrinsically conditioned by, and dependent upon, the material functioning
of the sense-organs. Sense-knowledge is the immaterial achievement, the immaterial actuation
and product of a living bodily organ; and its very object is also something half material, half
immaterial, I mean a physical quality intentionally or immaterially present in the medium by
which it acts on the sense-organ (something comparable to the manner in which a painter’s idea
is immaterially present in his paint-brush).

“But with intellectual knowledge we have to do with an activity which is in itself

completely immaterial. The human intellect is able to know whatever participates in being and
truth; the whole universe can be inscribed in it; this means that, in order to be known, the object
known by the intellect has been stripped of any existential condition of materiality. This rose,
which I see, has contours; but Being, of which I am thinking, is more spacious than space. The
object of the intellect is universal, for instance that universal or de-individualized object which is
apprehended in the idea of man, of animal, of atom; the object of the intellect is a universal
which remains what it is while being identified with an infinity of individuals. And this is only
possible because things, in order to become objects of the mind, have been entirely separated
from their material existence. To this it must be added that the operation of our intellect does not
stop at the knowledge of the nature of sense-perceivable things; it goes further; it knows by
analogy the spiritual natures; it extends to the realm of merely possible things; its field has
infinite magnitude.

“Thus, the objects known by the human intellect, taken not as things existing in
themselves, but precisely as objects determining the intellect and united with it, are purely

“Furthermore, just as the condition of the object is immaterial, so is the condition of the
act which bears upon it, and is determined or specified by it. The object of the human intellect is,
as such, purely immaterial; the act of the human intellect is also purely immaterial.

“And, moreover, if the act of the intellectual power is purely immaterial, that power itself
is also purely immaterial. In man, this thinking animal, the intellect is a purely spiritual power.
Doubtless it depends upon the body, upon the conditions of the brain. Its activity can be
disturbed or hindered by a physical disorder, by an outburst of anger, by a drink or a narcotic.
But this dependence is an extrinsic one. It exists because our intelligence cannot act without the
joint activity of the memory and the imagination, of the internal senses and external senses, all of
which are organic powers residing in some material organ, in some special part of the body. As
for the intellect itself, it is not intrinsically dependent upon the body since its activity is
immaterial; the human intellect does not reside in any special part of the body. It is not contained
by the body, but rather contains it. It uses the brain, since the organs of the internal senses are in
the brain; yet the brain is not an organ of the intelligence; there is no part of the organism whose
act is intellectual operation. The intellect has no organ.

“Finally, since intellectual power is spiritual, or purely immaterial in itself, its first
substantial root, the subsisting principle from which this power proceeds and which acts through
its instrumentality, is also spiritual.

“So much for the spirituality of the intellect. Now, thought or the operation of the
intellect is an act and emanation of man as a unity; and when I think, it is not only my intellect
which thinks: it is I, my own self. And my own self is a bodily self; it involves matter; it is not a
spiritual or purely immaterial subject. The body is an essential part of man. The intellect is not
the whole man.

“The substantial root of the intellect, which must be as immaterial as the intellect, is only
a part, albeit an essential part, of man’s substance.

“But man is not an aggregate, a juxtaposition of two substances; man is a natural whole, a
single being, a single substance.

“Consequently, we must conclude that the essence or substance of man is single, but that
this single substance itself is a compound, the components of which are the body…or rather
matter, of which the body is made, and the spiritual principle, one of the powers of which is the
intellect. Matter – in the Aristotelian sense of prime matter, or of that root potentiality which is
the common stuff of all corporeal substance – matter, substantially united with the spiritual
principle of the intellect, is ontologically molded, shaped from within and in the innermost
depths of being, by this spiritual principle as by a substantial and vital impulse, in order to
constitute that body of ours…

“That is the Scholastic notion of the human soul. The human soul, which is the root
principle of the intellectual power, is the first principle of life of the human body, and the
substantial form, the entelechy, of that body. And the human soul is not only a substantial form
or entelechy, as are the souls of plants and animals according to the biological philosophy of
Aristotle; the human soul is also a spirit, a spiritual substance able to exist apart from matter,
since the human soul is the root principle of a spiritual power, the act of which is intrinsically
independent of matter. The human soul is both a soul and a spirit, and it is its very substantiality,
subsistence and existence, which are communicated to the whole human substance, in order to

make human substance be what it is, and to make it subsist and exist. Each element of the human
body is human, exists as such, by virtue of the immaterial existence of the human soul. Our
body, our hands, our eyes exist by virtue of the existence of our soul.

“The immaterial soul is the first substantial root not only of the intellect, but of all that
which, in us, is spiritual activity; and it is also the first substantial root of all our other living
activities. It would be inconceivable that a non-spiritual soul, that kind of soul which is not a
spirit and cannot exist without informing matter – namely, the souls of plants and animals in
Aristotelian biology – should possess a power or faculty superior to its own degree in being, that
is, immaterial, or act through a supra-material instrumentality independent of any corporeal
organ and physical structure. But when it is a question of a spirit which is a soul, or of a spiritual
soul, as the human soul is, then it is perfectly conceivable that such a soul should have, aside
from immaterial or spiritual faculties, other powers and activities which are organic and material,
and which, relating to the union between soul and body, pertain to a level of being inferior to that
of the spirit.

“The Spirituality of the Human Soul. Thus, the very way in which the Scholastics arrived
at the existence of the human soul also established its spirituality. Just as the intellect is spiritual,
that is to say intrinsically independent of matter in its operation and in its nature, so also, and for
the same reason, the human soul, the substantial root of the intellect, is spiritual, that is,
intrinsically independent of matter in its nature and in its existence; it does not live by the body,
the body lives by it. The human soul is a spiritual substance which, by its substantial union with
matter, gives existence and countenance to the body.

“That is my second point. As we have seen, the Scholastics demonstrated it by a

metaphysical analysis of the intellect’s operation, carefully distinguished from the operation of
the senses. They adduced, of course, much other evidence in support of their demonstration. In
their consideration of the intellect, they observed, for instance, that the latter is capable of perfect
reflection, that is, of coming back entirely upon itself – not in the manner of a sheet of paper, half
of which can be folded on the other half, but in a complete manner, so that it can grasp its whole
operation and penetrate it by knowledge, and can contain itself and its own principle, the existing
self, in its own knowing activity, a perfect reflection of self-containing of which any material
agent, extended in space and time, essentially incapable. Here we are confronted with that
phenomenon of self-knowledge, of prise de conscience or becoming aware of oneself, which is a
privilege of the spirit, as Hegel (after St. Augustine) was to emphasize, and which plays so
tremendous a part in the history of humanity and the development of its spiritual energies…

“The Immortality of the Human Soul. The third point follows immediately from the
second. The immortality of the human soul is an immediate corollary of its spirituality. A soul
which is spiritual in itself, intrinsically independent of matter in its nature and existence, cannot
cease existing. A spirit – that is, a ‘form’ which needs nothing other than itself (save the influx of
the Prime Cause) to exercise existence – once existing cannot cease existing. A spiritual soul
cannot be corrupted, since it possesses no matter; it cannot be disintegrated, since it has no
substantial parts; it cannot lose its individual unity, since it is self-subsisting, nor its internal
energy, since it contains within itself all the sources of its energies. The human soul cannot die.
Once it exists, it cannot disappear; it will necessarily exist forever, endure without end.

“Thus, philosophic reason, put to work by a great metaphysician like Thomas Aquinas, is
able to prove the immortality of the soul in a demonstrative manner. Of course, this
demonstration implies a vast and articulate network of metaphysical insights, notions and
principles (relating to essence and nature, substance, act and potency, matter and form, operation,
etc.) the validity of which is necessarily presupposed. We can appreciate fully the strength of the
Scholastic demonstration only if we realize the significance and full validity of the metaphysical
notions involved. If modern times feel at a loss in the face of metaphysical knowledge, I fancy
that it is not metaphysical knowledge which is to blame, but rather modern times and the
weakening of reason they have experienced.”24

Gilson on the Consequences of Scotus’s Formalism on the Demonstrability of the

Immortality of the Human Soul: Étienne Gilson critiques the formalism of Duns Scotus as
regards the demonstrability of the immortality of the human soul as follows: “But why did
Thomas Aquinas maintain that the human soul, besides being the form of the body, is a
substance in its own right? This cannot be said of all forms. Not only the forms of minerals or of
plants, but even the forms, or souls, of most living beings are so tied up with their matter that,
when for any reason the composite disintegrates, the form ceases to be. These are the material
forms, properly so called. How do we know that the human soul is not one of these?

“This is the moment when the consideration of intellectual knowledge, its cause and its
nature, becomes of paramount importance. To all external appearances, there is no reason that
the human soul should not be considered a common material form – that is, a form whose
existence endures as long as does the composite of matter and form of which it is a constitutive
element. Man has a body, and his soul is the form of his body; why should his destiny be
different from that of the other living beings whose structure is the same?

“This would be true if the human soul did not perform at least one operation besides
informing and animating the matter of its body. It knows; it exercises intellectual knowledge. As
such, it is truly an ‘intellectual substance.’ Now, to have intellectual knowledge is to be able to
become, and to be, other beings in an immaterial way. We we see a stone, the sight of it does not
turn us into a stony substance. If sense perception produced such an effect, we would not know
the stone, we would be it; we would be literally ‘petrified.’ This is still more true of intellectual
knowledge. For our intellect to know is to become the known thing by assimilating only its form,
not its matter, and this assimilation is made possible by the operation called intellectual
abstraction. Obviously, to know material objects in an immaterial way is an operation in which
corporeal matter has no share. This is the fundamental fact upon which the whole development
of metaphysical wisdom ultimately rests – namely, that there is intellectual knowledge and that
the very possibility of such knowledge presupposes the existence of an order of immaterial
subjects, knowing powers, and operations. Intelligibility and knowledge are inseparable from

“How this can be done is another problem. We are here concerned only with the fact that
this takes place. Now the argument of Thomas Aquinas is that only an immaterial substance can
perform immaterial operations and produce the kind of immaterial objects we call ‘concepts.’
The intelletual soul of man, then, must be an intellectual substance, a self-subsisting immaterial
J. MARITAIN, The Range of Reason, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1952, pp. 54-60.

reality endowed with its own essence and its own act of being. Such is not the case with material
forms – that is, those forms whose only function is to actuate a certain matter. The form of a
material substance is the act of a certain quantity of matter which it turns into a body; it is
nothing more; for this reason, the act of being of such a form belongs to the whole substance,
although it comes to matter from the form. In the case of man, on the contrary, to be (esse) is,
first and foremost, the act of the intellectual soul, and it is through the actuality of this
intellectual substance that it becomes the act of the body. This is what Thomas Aquinas intends
to express in saying that the human soul is a forma absoluta non dependens a materia – that is, a
pure form, not mixed with matter, which owes this privilege to its natural immateriality, itself an
effect of its resemblance and proximity to God in the universal hierarchy of beings. For this
reason, the human soul has an act of being of its own, which is not true of the other forms of
corporeal beings: habet esse per se quod non habent aliae formae corporales. Now to say this is
exactly the same as to say that, because the human soul is a substance in its own right, there is in
it a composition of what the human soul is and of its own act of being…25

“The immortality of the human soul. Few questions have raised more problems in the
minds of the commentators of Saint Thomas Aquinas because, having neglected one of the
essential data of the problem, they have placed themselves in a position in which it becomes
impossible for them to understand its solution. Having eliminated the notion of being, which is
the cornerstone of the doctrine, they cannot help getting lost in most of its parts.

“In the writings of Thomas Aquinas himself there is really no distinct problem of the
immortality of the human soul. Assuredly, there always comes a moment when the question has
to be expressly asked, but when it comes, the problem has already received its answer. This is
visible in the Summa Contra Gentiles, Book II. After first demonstrating that, among the
intellectual substances, there is something in act and something in potency (chapter 53), and then
that to be composed of act and potency is not necessarily the same as to be composed of matter
and form (chapter 54), Thomas proceeds straightway to prove that ‘intellectual substances’ are
incorruptible (chapter 55). For if ‘intellectual substances’ are incorruptible, since the human soul
is an intellectual substance, it is incorruptible. Only an illusion of perspective can make us
imagine that there is any difference between the case of the separate intellectual substances, or
angels, and that of the nonseparate intellectual substances, human souls.

“The principle from which Thomas Aquinas deduced the incorruptibility of the
intellectual substances in general is their immateriality. Of its own nature, corporeal matter is
divisible, because it has quantity and is extended in space, having partes extra partes. The
decomposition or disintegration of the human body is therefore possible; in fact, it always takes
place sooner or later, and this event is called death. In the case of a being composed of soul and
body, such as man is, the disintegration of the body entails that of the being. Man dies when his
body dies, but the death of man is not that of his soul. As an intellectual substance, the human
soul is the proper receiver of an act of being. Having its own act of being, it itself is a being
properly so called (habens esse). This act of being belongs immediately to the soul – that is, not
through any intermediary, but primo et per se. Now that which belongs to something by itself,
and as the proper perfection of its nature, belongs to it necessarily, always and as a property
inseparable from it. This conclusion follows necessarily and it cannot be deduced in simpler
In I Sent., d. 8, q. 5, a. 2 (ed. P. Madonnet, pp. 229-230).

words than those of Thomas Aquinas himself: ‘It has been shown above that every intellectual
substance is incorruptible; now the soul of man is an intellectual substance, as has been shown;
hence the human soul is incorruptible.’26

“Thomas Aquinas accumulated many other arguments in favor of this all-important

conclusion. Most of them stress the incorporeal nature of understanding and of its act, and rightly
so. For if it is agreed that the soul exercises such an incorporeal operation, its existence as an
incorporeal nature is thereby established and its immortality is possible; but its immortality is
more than possible, it is certain, if this immaterial substance is actuated by an act of being of its

“The reason the proofs of the immortality of the soul seem difficult to understand is that
all are tied up with the mysterious element hidden in the notion of esse. Some object that if the
soul is composed of essence and of an act of being, as indeed is the case, then it is not simple and
there is no reason why this composite should not be exposed to disintegration in the same way as
the composite of body and soul. But this objection overlooks the fact that what is at stake is the
immortality of the soul itself. In the case of man, soul and body enter the constitution of his
essence, so much so that, as is often said, man is neither his soul nor his body but the unity of
both. This is the reason that when the human body ceases to be actuated by its soul it
disintegrates and man himself likewise ceases to be. But the act of being does not enter the
composition of the essence of the soul as if its function were to make it to be a soul; its effect is
not to make it to be a soul, it is to cause the essence of the soul to be a being. Hence a soul is a
composite inasmuch as it is a substance, because, unless it had its own esse, it would not be a
being; but within this substance, the essence itself is simple, because, being immaterial and
having no parts, it cannot disintegrate. An ever-recurring illusion causes us to imagine that, in
being, essence is compounded with another essence, which is that of the act of being (esse); but
that which causes a thing to be does not cause it to be that which it is. It does not complicate its
essence, and if that which the act of being causes to be happens to be simple, then, of itself, the
being at stake is safe against the very possibility of decomposition.

“By far the worse obstacle to an understanding of the doctrine, however, remains the
impossibility of imagining the act of being. And, because it is not imaginable, many infer that it
is not intelligible. One does not need to go out of the school of Saint Thomas himself to find
philosophers and theologians who are convinced that the doctrine of the Master becomes vastly
improved if we eliminate from it this cumbersome and somewhat queer notion.

“Historical experience shows that such is not the case, and the problem of the immortality
of the soul provides an excellent proving ground in this respect. For instance…John Duns
Scotus. He never wasted any time refuting the Thomistic notion of esse. Scotus simply had no
use for it. In fact, he could not find in it any meaning. To him, entity (essentia) was reality itself.
If no cause has made it actually to exist, then it was only a possible; but after it had been made to
exist by some efficient cause, no act of being could add anything more to it. In Scotus’ own
words: ‘That an entity could be posited outside its cause without, by the same token, having the

Summa Contra Gentiles, II, c. 79, #2.

being whereby it is an entity: this, to me is a contradiction.’27 In short, a thing cannot be made to
be twice, even by adding to it a so-called act of being.

“There would be no point in arguing the case. This is a problem in the interpretation of
the first principle. A Thomist feels inclined to think that Scotus is blind, but a Scotist wonders if
Thomas is not seeing double. Many differences between the two theologians follow from this
first one, but the only one we are now concerned with is its impact on the problem of the
immortality of the human soul.

“Since there is no act of being in the doctrine of Duns Scotus, what is going to happen to
the immortality of the soul? Simply this: it will cease to be demonstrable and will become a
matter of faith. As Christians, Scotus says, we believe that there will be for us a future life; we
therefore implicitly believe that the soul is immortal; we believe it, but we cannot prove it. And,
indeed, we say that the human soul is the form of its body, so that the substance ‘man’ is the
unity of matter and form. When this unity disintegrates on the death of the body, its elements
also disintegrate. This is visible in the case of the body. Before death, it was the body of a man;
after death, there is no man left of whom this piece of matter can be said to be the body. On the
other hand, if the nature of the soul is to be the form of a body, it cannot continue to be after it
has no body to inform. Hence if the form of the body survives its body, the fact is hardly less
miraculous than the subsistence of the eucharistic accidents after bread and wine have ceased to

“Duns Scotus himself does not go that far. He does not consider the survival of the soul
as a natural impossibility. On the contrary, he thinks that there are probable arguments in its
favor, which are even more probable than those in favor of the contrary conclusion; let us say
that the immortality of the soul is a high probability, but it is not a certitude. In the last analysis,
the immortality of the human soul is absolutely certain on the strength of religious faith alone. In
the doctrine of Duns Scotus, this first conclusion entails a second one: we cannot know that the
human soul is a substance in its own right, directly created in itself and for itself by God. And,
indeed, since the soul is not a complete substance endowed with an act of being of its own and
able to subsist apart from the complete substance, ‘man,’ it does not require to be created in
itself. Man, not the human soul, is the substance; man, not the soul, provides a distinct object for
the creative power of God.

“The decisive part played in this problem by the notion of esse, or act of being, is not a
historical construction; it is a fact. In the Summa Theologiae, I, q. 75, a. 6, Thomas proves that,
since the soul has an act of being of its own, it cannot be corrupted in consequence of the
corruption of another substance, be it even man. ‘That which has esse through itself cannot be
either generated or corrupted except through itself.’ For the same reason, such a soul cannot
come to be by way of generation (because no creature can cause actual existence), it can only be
created by God. Conversely, such a soul cannot cease to be by way of natural corruption. In
order to lose its act of being, it must be annihilated by God, for only He Who gave the soul
existence can take existence away from it. Naturally, as a Christian theologian, Duns Scotus
subscribed to all these conclusions no less firmly than Thomas. According to him, too, the soul
was a distinct substance, immediately created by God and able to subsist apart from its body.
É. GILSON, Jean Duns Scot. Introduction à ses positions fondamentales, p. 468.

Only, since he could not admit that the soul had an act of being of its own, the immortality of the
soul remained for him an object, not of knowledge, but of faith: sed haec propositio credita est et
non per rationem naturalem nota.28”29

Critiques of Self-Consciousness as Constituting the Human Person

Krapiec’s Critique of Self-Consciousness as Constituting the Human Person: “Descartes,

seeing in res cogitans the highest manifestation of being, believed that thinking is what
constitutes the person...According to the German transcendental idealists, it is self-awareness
that determines the person. Other factors that have been thought to determine the person
are…consciousness of one’s past and present life (Locke)…Philosophical theories that seek the
constitutive element of the person in some quality of being, e.g., in intellectual cognition or
freedom, do not yet really arrive at the problem of the person, for they grasp merely an essential
(according to them) manifestation of personal being, expressing itself in action, and they
absolutize this particular manifestation. They thereby confuse the order of a being’s action with
the order of its existence, in which ‘being a person’ belongs.”30

Battista Mondin’s Critique of Self-Consciousness as Constituting the Human Person:

“For Descartes…the ‘I’ consists in self-consciousness…Identifying the person with self-
consciousness leads to the concession that he who does not exercise self-consciousness remains
deprived of personality; in such a way, babies who have not yet reached the use of reason, the
sleeping, and the comatose would no longer be or would not yet be persons!

“For these reasons, I consider a psychological definition of the person which does not
carry with it an ontological definition absolutely unsatisfactory.

“By transforming the person from an ontological to a psychological fact, Descartes has
opened the door to a series of either grave diminuitions or of enormous exaggerations of the
concept of person. The major diminuitions are those of Hume, Freud, and Watson; meanwhile,
the most exasperating exaggerations are those of Fichte, Hegel and Nietzsche.”31

Donald De Marco’s Critique of Self-Consciousness as Constitutive of the Human Person:

“According to Singer, some humans are non-persons...The key is not nature or species
membership, but consciousness…According to this avant garde thinker, unborn babies or
neonates, lacking the requisite consciousness to qualify as persons, have less right to continue to
live than an adult gorilla. ...Singer writes, in Rethinking Life and Death: ‘Human babies are not
born self-aware or capable of grasping their lives over time. They are not persons. Hence their
lives would seem to be no more worthy of protection than the life of a fetus.’32

“For Peter Singer a human being is not a subject who suffers, but a sufferer. Singer’s
error here is to identify the subject with consciousness. This is an error that dates back to

É. GILSON, Jean Duns Scot, p. 487.
É. GILSON, Elements of Christian Philosophy, Mentor-Omega, New York, 1963, pp. 226-227, 230-234.
M. A. KRAPIEC, Metaphysics, Peter Lang, New York, 1991, p. 300.
B. MONDIN, Philosophical Anthropology, Urbaniana University Press, Rome, 1985, p. 251.
P. SINGER, Rethinking Life and Death, St. Martin’s Griffin, New York, 1994, p. 210.

seventeenth-century Cartesianism captured in Descartes famous phrase ‘I think therefore I am’
(which is to identify being with thinking). Descartes defined man solely in terms of his
consciousness as a thinking thing (res cogitans) rather than as a subject who possesses

“At the heart of Pope John Paul II’s Personalism (his philosophy of the person) is the
recognition that it is the concrete individual person who is the subject of consciousness. The
subject comes before consciousness. That subject may exist prior to consciousness (as in the case
of the human embryo) or during lapses of consciousness (as in sleep or in a coma). But the
existing subject is not to be identified with consciousness itself, which is an operation or activity
of the subject. The Holy Father rejects what he calls the ‘hypostatization of the cogito’ (the
reification of consciousness) precisely because it ignores the fundamental reality of the subject of
consciousness – the person – who is also the object of love. ‘Consciousness itself’ is to be
regarded ‘neither as an individual subject nor as an independent faculty.’33

“John Paul refers to the elevation of consciousness to the equivalent of the person’s being
as ‘the great anthropocentric shift in philosophy.’34 What he means by this ‘shift’ is a movement
away from existence to a kind of absolutization of consciousness. Referring to Saint Thomas
Aquinas, the Holy Father reiterates that ‘it is not thought which determines existence, but
existence, ‘esse,’ which determines thought!.’35”36

Coffey’s Critique of Locke on Personal Identity: “False Theories of Personality.—It is

plain that conscious mental activity cannot constitute human personality, or subconscious mental
activity either, for all activity is of the accidental mode of being, is an accident, whereas a person
must be a substance. Of course it is the self-conscious cognitive activity of the human individual
that reveals to the latter his own self as a person: it is the exercise of reflex consciousness
combined with memory that gives us the feeling of personal identity with ourselves throughout
the changing events of our mental and bodily life. Furthermore, this self-consciousness has its
root in the rational nature of the human individual; and rationality of nature is the differentiating
principle which makes the subsisting individual a ‘person’ as distinct from a (subsisting) ‘thing.’
But then, it is not the feeling of personal identity that constitutes the person. Actual
consciousness is neither the essence, nor the source, nor even the index of personality; for it is
only an activity, and an activity which reveals immediately not the person as such, but the nature
as rational;37 nor does the rational (substantial) principle of a composite nature constitute the
latter a person; but only the subsistence of the complete (composite) individual nature itself.

“These considerations are sufficiently obvious; they presuppose, however, the truth of the
traditional doctrine already explained in regard to the existence, nature and cognoscibility of
substance. Philosophers who have misunderstood and rejected and lost this traditional doctrine

K. WOJTYLA, The Acting Person, D. Reidl, Dordrecht, 1979, p. 37.
JOHN PAUL II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1994, p. 51.
JOHN PAUL II, op. cit., p. 38.
D. DE MARCO, Peter Singer, in D. De Marco and B. Wiker, Architects of the Culture of Death, Ignatius Press,
San Francisco, 2004, pp. 365-368.
There are cogent theological reasons also against the view that consciousness constitutes personality. For instance,
the human nature of our Divine Lord has its own proper consciousness, which, nevertheless, does not constitute this
nature a person.

of substance have propounded many varieties of unsatisfactory and inconsistent theories in
regard to what constitutes ‘person’ and ‘personality.’ The main feature of all such theories is
their identification of personality with the habitual consciousness of self, or habitual feeling of
personal identity: a feeling which, however, must be admitted to include memory in some form,
while the function of memory in any shape or form cannot be satisfactorily explained on any
theory of the human Ego which denies that there is a human substance persisting permanently as
a unifying principle of successive mental states (63-4).

“So far as English philosophy is concerned such theories appear to have had their origin
in Locke’s teaching on person and personal identity. Discussing the notions of identity and
diversity,38 he distinguishes between the identity of an individual substance with itself in its
duration throughout time, and what he terms personal identity; while by identity in general he
means not abstract identity but the concrete permanence of a thing throughout time (34). On this
we have to call attention to the fact that just as duration is not essential to the constitution of a
substance, so neither is it essential to the constitution of a complete subsisting individual
substance or person (64); though it is, of course, an essential condition for all human
apprehension whether of substance or of person. Locke was wrong, therefore, in confounding
what reveals to us the abiding permanence, identity or sameness of a subsisting thing or person
(whether the ‘self’ or any other subsisting thing or person) throughout its duration in time, with
what constitutes the subsisting thing or person.

“Furthermore, his distinction between substantial identity, i.e. the sameness of an

individual substance with itself throughout time, and personal identity or sameness, was also an
error. For as long as there is substantial unity, continuity, or identity of the subsisting individual
substance, so long is there unity, continuity, or identity of its subsistence, or of its personality if
it be a rational substance. The subsistence of a complete individual inorganic substance is
changed as soon as the individual undergoes substantial change: we have then no longer the
same subsisting individual being. So, too, the subsistence of the organic individual is changed as
soon as the latter undergoes substantial change by the dissolution of life, by the separation of its
formative and vital substantial principle from its material substantial principle: after such
dissolution we have no longer the same subsisting plant or animal. And, finally, the subsistence
of an individual man is changed, or interrupted, or ceases by death, which separates his soul, his
vital principle, from his body. We say, moreover, that in the latter case the human person ceases
to exist when the identity or permanence of his subsisting substance or nature terminates at death
; for personal identity we hold to be the identity of the complete subsisting substance or nature
with itself. But Locke, who practically agrees with what we have said regarding the abiding
identity of the subsisting individual being with itself – whether this individual be an inorganic
individual, a plant, a brute beast, or a man39 – distinguishes at this point between identity of the
subsisting individual substance and personal identity.

Essay Concerning Human Understanding, bk, ii., ch, xxvii.
“That being then one plant which has such an organization of parts in one coherent body partaking of one
common life, it continues to be the same plant as long as it continues to partake of the same life, though that life be
communicated to different particles of matter vitally united to the living plant, in a like continued organization
conformable to that sort of plants…
“The case is not so much different in brutes, but that anyone may hence see what makes an animal and continues
it the same…

“Of identity in general he says that ‘to conceive and judge of it aright, we must consider
what idea the word it is applied to stands for; it being one thing to be the same substance, another
the same man, and a third the same person, if person, man, and substance, are three names
standing for three different ideas.’40 And, struggling to dissociate ‘person’ from ‘substance,’ he
continues thus: ‘To find wherein personal identity consists, we must consider what person stands
for; which, I think, is a thinking, intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can
consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing in different times and places; which it does only
by that consciousness which is inseparable from thinking, and, as it seems to me, essential to it.
When we see, hear, smell, taste, feel, meditate, or will any thing, we know that we do so. Thus it
is always as to our present sensations and perceptions, and by this every-one is to himself what
he calls self; it not being considered in this case whether the same self be continued in the same
or divers substances. For since consciousness always accompanies thinking, and it is that which
makes every one to be what he calls self, and thereby distinguishes himself from all other
thinking things; in this alone consists personal identity, i.e. the sameness of a rational being: and
as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far
reaches the identity of that person; it is the same self now it was then; and it is by the same self
with this present one that now reflects on it, that that action was done.’41

“The definition of person in this passage as ‘a thinking, intelligent being,’ etc., is not far
removed from our own definition; but surely conscious thought is not ‘that which makes every
one to be what he calls self,’ seeing that conscious thought is only an activity or function of the
‘rational being.’ It is conscious thought, of course, including memory, that reveals the ‘rational
being’ to himself as a self, and as the same or identical self throughout time; but unless the
‘rational being,’ or the ‘thinking, intelligent being, that has reason and reflection,’ etc. – which
is Locke’s own definition of ‘person’ – were there all the time identical with itself, exercising
those distinct and successive acts of consciousness and memory, and unifying them, how could
these acts even reveal the ‘person’ or his ‘personal identity’ to himself, not to speak of their
constituting personality or personal identity? It is perfectly plain that these acts presuppose the
‘person,’ the ‘thinking, intelligent being,’ or, as we have expressed it, the ‘subsisting, rational,
individual nature’ already constituted; and it is equally plain that the ‘personal identity’ which
they reveal is constituted by, and consists simply in, the duration or continued existence of this
same subsisting individual rational nature; nor could these acts reveal any identity, personal or
otherwise, unless they were the acts of one and the same actually subsisting, existing and
persisting substance.

“This also shows wherein the identity of the same man consists: viz. in nothing but a participation of the same
continued life, by constantly fleeting particles of matter, in succession vitally united to the same organized
body…For if the identity of soul alone makes the same man, and there be nothing in the nature of matter why the
same individual spirit may be united [i.e. successively] to different bodies, it will be possible that . . . men living in
distant ages, and of different tempers, may have been the same man…” — Essay Concerning Human
Understanding, bk. ii. ch. xxvii. § 4-6. Yet though “identity of soul” does not make “the same man,” Locke goes on
immediately to assert that identity of consciousness, which is but a function of the soul, makes the same person.
Essay Concerning Human Understanding, bk. ii., ch. xxvii., § 7. Names do not stand for ideas or concepts but for
conceived realities; and the question here is: What is the conceived reality (in the existing human individual) for
which the term “person” stands?
Ibid., § 9.

“Yet Locke thinks he can divorce personal identity from identity of substance, and
account for the former independently of the latter. In face of the obvious difficulty that actual
consciousness is not continuous but intermittent, he tries to maintain that the consciousness
which links together present states with remembered states is sufficient to constitute personal
identity even although there may have intervened between the present and the past states a
complete change of substance, so that it is really a different substance which experiences the
present states from that which experienced the past states. The question ‘Whether we are the
same thinking thing, i.e. the same substance or no…concerns not personal identity at all: the
question being, what makes the same person, and not whether it be the same identical substance,
which always thinks in the same person: different substances, by the same consciousness (where
they do partake in it), being united into one person, as well as different bodies by the same life
are united into one animal, whose identity is preserved, in that change of substances, by the unity
of one continued life…[for] animal identity is preserved in identity of life, and not of

“Here the contention is that we can have ‘the same person’ and yet not necessarily ‘the
same identical substance,’ because consciousness may give a personal unity to distinct and
successive substances in the individual man just as animal life gives an analogous unity to
distinct and successive substances in the individual animal. This is very superficial; for it only
substitutes for the problem of human personality the similar problem of explaining the unity and
sameness of subsistence in the individual living thing: a problem which involves the fact of
memory in animals. For scholastic philosophers unity of life in the living thing, involving the fact
of memory in animals, is explained by the perfectly intelligible and well-grounded teaching that
there is in each individual living thing a formative and vital principle which is substantial, a
forma substantialis, which unites, in the abiding self-identical unity of a complete individual
composite substance, the material principle of the corporeal substances which thus go, in the
incessant process of substantial change known as metabolism, to form partially, and to support
the substantial continuity of, the living individual. While the latter is thus in constant process of
material, or partial, substantial change, it remains, as long as it lives, the same complete
individual substance, and this in virtue of the abiding substantial formative and vital principle
which actuates and animates it. The abiding permanence or self-identity of the subsisting
individual substance which feels or thinks, and remembers, is an intelligible, and indeed the only
intelligible, ground and explanation of memory, and of our consciousness of personal identity.

“But if we leave out of account this abiding continuity and self-identity of the subsisting
individual substance or nature, which is the subject, cause and agent of these acts of memory and
consciousness, how can these latter, in and by themselves, possibly form, or even indeed reveal
to us, our personal identity? Locke felt this difficulty; and he tried in vain to meet it: in vain, for
it is insuperable. He merely suggests that ‘the same consciousness…can be transferred from one
thinking substance to another,’ in which case ‘it will be possible that two thinking substances
may make [successively] one person.’43 This is practically his last word on the question, – and it
is worthy of note, for it virtually substantializes consciousness. It makes consciousness, which is
really only an act or a series of acts, a something substantial and subsisting. We have seen
already how modern phenomenists, once they reject the notion of substance as invalid or

Essay Concerning Human Understanding, bk. ii., ch, xxvii., §§ 13, 14.
Essay Concerning Human Understanding, bk. ii., ch. xxvii., § 13.

superfluous, must by that very fact equivalently substantialize accidents (61); for substance,
being a necessary category of human thought as exercised on reality, cannot really be dispensed
with. And we see in the present context an illustration of this fact. The abiding self-identity of
the human person cannot be explained otherwise than by the abiding self-identical subsistence of
the individual human substance.

“If personal identity were constituted and determined by consciousness, by the series of
conscious states connected and unified by memory, then it would appear that the human being in
infancy, in sleep, in unconsciousness, or in a state of insanity, is not a human person!
Philosophers who have not the hardihood to deny human personality to the individual of the
human species in these states, and who on the other hand will not recognize the possession of a
rational nature or substance by the subsisting individual as the ground of the latter’s personality
and personal identity, have recourse to the hypothesis of a sub-conscious, or ‘sub-liminal’
consciousness in the individual, as a substitute. If by this they merely meant an abiding
substantial rational principle of all mental activities, even of those which may be semi-conscious
or sub-conscious, they would be merely calling by another name what we call the rational nature
of man. And the fact that they refer to this principle as the sub-conscious ‘self’ or ‘Ego’ shows
how insistent is the rational need for rooting personality and personal identity in something
which is a substance. But they do not and will not conceive it as a substance; whereas if it is not
this, if it is only a ‘process,’ or a ‘function,’ or a ‘series’ or ‘stream’ of processes or functions, it
can no more constitute or explain, or even reveal, personal identity, than a series or stream of
conscious states can.

“Unable as he was to explain how the same consciousness could persist throughout a
succession of really and adequately distinct substances (except by virtually substantializing
consciousness), Locke nevertheless persisted in holding that consciousness and consciousness
alone (including memory, which, however, is inexplicable on any other theory than that of a
subsisting and persisting substance or nature which remembers), constitutes personality and
personal identity. We have dwelt upon his teaching mainly because all modern phenomenists try
to explain personality on the same principles – i.e. independently of the doctrine of substance.”44

Contrary to Hume, the Human Person is Not “A Bundle of Perceptions” ; Instead,

the Human Person, Composed of Body and Soul,45 is a Rational Supposit, an Individual
Substance of a Rational Nature (Naturæ Rationalis Individua Substantia), an Individual
Subsistent of the Rational Nature, a Rational Subsistent (Subsistens Rationale)

Supposit: Being in the Fullest Sense. A consideration of the various constitutive

principles of being should naturally have as its goal being in the fullest sense, which is the
supposit, our subsisting subject. The term subsisting subject refers to the particular being with all
of its perfections. The supposit or subsisting subject is being in the full sense; it is being in the
most proper sense of the term, subsisting, existing in itself as something complete and finished,

P. COFFEY, Ontology, Longmans, Green and Co., London, 1926, pp. 276-282.
“La persona umana ha una struttura ilemorfica: non è fatta soltanto di materia e neppure soltanto di spirito
(anima), ma la sua struttura è composita e i suoi elementi costitutivi essenziali sono il corpo (materia) e l’anima
(forma)”(B. MONDIN, Manuale di filosofia sistematica, vol. 3 (Ontologia e metafisica), ESD, Bologna, 2007, p.

distinct from all other things. The supposit designates the particular being with all of its
perfections. The supposit is defined as the individual whole, which subsists by virtue of a single
act of being (esse), and which consequently cannot be shared with another.

Characteristic Marks of the Supposit. The characteristic marks of the supposit are 1. its
individuality (only singular beings [entia] exist in extra-mental reality, while the universal exists
in the mind; a universal essence cannot be a suppositum for it cannot receive a proper act of
being of its own [esse proprium]); 2. subsistence (we must add subsistence for not everything
that can be called individual can subsist; accidents, for example, are individual but are not
subsistent, not having an act of being of their own [esse as actus essendi]); and 3.
incommunicability or unsharedness (because of the preceding two characteristics, namely,
individuality and subsistence, the supposit cannot be shared by others. The supposit cannot be
participated in by various subjects for it exists as something unique and distinct from other
subjects. A rock, for example, does not share its being with the dog that is next to it).

Elements of the Supposit. What are the elements that make up the supposit? The finite
subsisting subject or finite supposit (suppositum) is composed of act of being (esse, which gives
subsistence to the subject, making it be), essence (essentia, which in corporeal beings is
hylomorphically composed of prime matter and substantial form), and accidents (which are acts
that perfect the receptive subject in potency to be perfected by them).

Supposit and Nature. St. Thomas writes in the fourth article of Quodlibet 2: “In every
thing to which can accede something which does not belong to the concept of its nature, the thing
itself and its essence, i.e., the supposit and nature, are distinct. For, in the meaning of the nature
is included only that which belongs to the essence of the species, whereas the supposit has not
only what belongs to the essence of the species but also whatever else accedes to this essence.
Hence, the supposit is signified by the whole, but the nature or quiddity [is signified only] as the
formal part. Now, in God alone no accident can be found added to the essence because His act of
being is His Essence, as has been said; hence in God supposit and nature are entirely the same.
But in an angel [i.e., an unreceived subsistent form] the supposit is not entirely the same [as the
nature] because something accedes to it which does not belong to the concept of its essence. For
the act of being itself of an angel is in addition to the essence or nature; and other things [acts of
intellect and will] accede to it, which belong to the supposit but not to the nature.”46

Alvira, Clavell and Melendo explain that the “essence, and more particularly the form,
gives the individual whole a way of being similar to that of other individuals, thus situating it in
a given species. Due to a common essence or nature, men form part of the human race or species.
As the intrinsic principle of similarity at the level of the species, the essence can be contrasted
with the supposit or individual, which is an unshared reality (distinct and divided from all
others). Consequently, the relation between supposit and its nature is not that which exists
between two principles of being; rather, it is one that entails a real distinction; the supposit is
distinct from its nature in the same way a whole is different from one of its parts.47 The real

Quodlibet. 2, a. 4.
The distinction between nature and suppositum is of paramount importance in theology. St. Thomas Aquinas
made use of this doctrine to express with precision the mystery of the Incarnation: the human nature of Christ –

distinction between nature and supposit can be seen in two ways: a) in every individual, there is a
distinction between the individuated essence and the whole subsisting subject; b) every
individual is distinct from the common specific nature (taken as a universal perfection which all
individuals share, and which sets aside particular characteristics).”48

Act of Being as the Source of Unity of the Supposit. Alvira, Clavell and Melendo explain
that the act of being (esse) belongs to the supposit and that the source of the unity of the supposit
lies in its proper act of being (esse): “The constituent act which makes the suppositum real is
esse. What is most proper to the individual is to subsist, and this is solely an effect of the act of
being.49 Nevertheless, one cannot disregard the essence in explaining the subsistence of a
subject, since a being receives esse if it has an essence capable of subsisting; that is, it must be a
substantial essence, not a mere accidental one. For instance, as man is able to receive the act of
being in himself and to be a suppositum because he possesses human nature, an essence meant to
subsist in itself (and, thus, not to inhere in something else, as in the case of accidents).

“However, the specific nature of a thing does not subsist unless it forms part of a
subsisting subject (the individual). That is why it is not quite correct to say that the act of being
belongs to the nature; it only belongs to the suppositum. However, since esse affects the whole
by virtue of the essence, we can say that ‘esse’ belongs to the suppositum through the nature or
substantial essence. Nature gives the whole the capacity to subsist, although it is the whole
which does in fact subsist through the act of being.

“Since esse is the ultimate act of a being, which gives actuality to each of its elements
(which are no more than potency with respect to esse), these parts are united to the extent that
they are made actual by this constituent act, and referred to it. It is quite correct, therefore, to
claim that ‘the act of being is the basis of the unity of the suppositum.’50 No part of the whole,
taken separately, has esse of its own; it is, by virtue of the esse of the composite. To the very
extent that the parts of the whole have esse, they must be a unity, since there is only a single act
of being that actualizes them. Matter, for instance, does not subsist independently of the form;
rather, both matter and form subsist by virtue of the act of being received in them. Operations are
no more than an expression of the actuality which a being has because of its esse, and the same
thing can be said of the other accidental modifications as well. In spite of the variety of
accidents, the unity of the suppositum can easily be seen if we consider that no accident has an
act of being of its own. All accidents share in the single act of being of the substance.”51

Perfections of a Particular Being to be Referred to the Supposit. Alvira, Clavell and

Melendo also explain why all the perfections of a particular being must be referred to the

despite its being singular and its full perfection as nature – cannot be a suppositum, for it does not include in itself
the act of being.
T. ALVIRA, L. CLAVELL, T. MELENDO, Metaphysics, Sinag-Tala, 1991, pp. 120-121.
St. Thomas Aquinas always maintained this doctrine, as can be verified from his early writings as well as the later
ones (cf. In III Sent., d. 6, q. 2, a. 2 ; Quodlibet, IX, a. 3, and Summa Theologiae, III, q. 17, a. 3, c.). This was
explicitly defended by Capreolus, one of the commentators of the Angelic Doctor (cf. Defensiones Theologicae divi
Thomae Aquinitatis, T. Pégues Ed., V, Tours, 1907, pp. 105-107). Later on, Suárez and Cajetan regarded the essence
(and not esse) as the ontological basis of the subsisting subject.
Quodlibet, IX, a. 3, ad 2.
T. ALVIRA, L. CLAVELL, T. MELENDO, op. cit., pp. 121-122.

supposit: “We have seen that the entire actuality of a being has its ultimate basis in the perfection
of its act of being. Since the suppositum is the natural seat of the act of being, all the perfections
of the suppositum, of whatever type they might be, have to be attributed to the suppositum as
their proper subject. Actions, in particular, have to be attributed to the subsisting subject. Thus, it
cannot correctly be said that the hand writes, that the intellect knows, or that the will loves. In
each case, it is the entire man who acts through his powers. Only that which subsists can act.

“It could be further stated that the manner in which an individual acts follows its nature,
which is what determines its manner of being. It can, therefore, be claimed that acting belongs to
the subsisting hypostasis in accordance with the form and nature specifying the kind of
operations it can carry out. Thus, only individuals act, since they alone exist. There is a certain
similarity, however, among the activities of the members of a species, since all of them share in a
common nature. Men think and laugh; dogs bark; each one of the elements of the periodic table
behaves in a particular way. This also explains why no individual can act beyond the limits set
by its own species.

“The recognition of the individual as a single subsisting whole provides the metaphysical
basis for avoiding any kind of dualism (between matter and spirit, between senses and
intelligence) and any division of things into stagnant compartments in which the unity of the
whole would be compromised.

“This doctrine equally denies the validity of philosophies which acknowledge the
universal as the primary reality (like in Hegelian historicism, socialism, and marxism), thereby
absorbing the individual, robbing it of its metaphysical significance. The actus essendi, as the
single act of the suppositum, impedes any reduction of being to a mere relation or to a set of
relations within the same class or category, as these philosophical systems purport to do.”52

Person. A human being is a particular type of supposit, namely, a rational supposit.

Rational or intellectual supposits are called persons. A human being, therefore, is a person. The
sixth century A.D. Roman philosopher Severinus Boethius gave the definition of the person as an
individual substance of a rational nature (naturæ rationalis individua substantia). Aquinas
defines the person as every being which subsists in an intellectual or rational nature;53 a person
is a rational or intellectual subsistent. “‘Person’ is the name used to designate the most perfect
beings that exist, namely, God, the angels and men. Since all perfections stem from esse, the
excellence of these substances is due either to the possession of the fullness of the act of being
(God as Esse Subsistens), or to a high degree of participation in esse which angels and men have.
In the final analysis, to be a person amounts to possessing a likeness of the divine esse in a more
sublime way, that is, by being spiritual; it means having a more intense act of being…ultimately,
the entire dignity of the person, the special greater perfection of his operations, is rooted in the
richness of his act of being. The latter is what makes him a person and provides the basis of his
psychological uniqueness (self-knowledge, spiritual love, etc.) and of his moral and social value.
Consequently, neither consciousness nor free-will, neither responsibility nor inter-personal
relations can constitute a person. All these perfections are merely accidents whose being is

T. ALVIRA, L. CLAVELL, T. MELENDO, op. cit., pp. 122-123.
Cf. Summa Contra Gentiles, IV, 35.

derived from the act of being, the only real core of personality.”54 Battista Mondin states in his
La metafisica di S. Tommaso d’Aquino e i suoi interpreti (2002): “Con S. Tommaso il concetto
di persona acquista un significato metafisico del tutto singolare. Egli ha, infatti, un concetto
altissimo della persona, che a suo giudizio è quanto di più perfetto esiste nell’universo: «Persona
significat quod est perfectissimum in tota natura».55

“Il Dottore Angelico guarda alla persona dal punto di vista ontologico e la considera
quindi come una modalità dell’essere, ossia di quella perfezione che nella sua metafisica è la
perfectio omnium perfectionum e l’actualitas omnium actuum ed è proprio rispetto a questa
perfezione che la persona occupa il gradino più alto. Infatti in questa prospettiva l’essere nella
persona trova la sua attuazione più piena, più eccellente e più completa.”56

Tomás Melendo writes in his Metafisica del concreto (2005): “La libertà, la capacità
personale di autodeterminazione, è solo un indice dell’innegabile eminenza di chi la possiede,
ma non la sua causa o il suo fondamento definitivi. O, se si preferisce, che si configura come il
suo ‘penultimo’ riferimento e da tale punto di vista rappresenta la via di accesso privilegiata per
addentrarsi fino alla fonte dell’imminenza dell’atto di essere della persona. Però, è questo,
l’essere supereminente, il motivo sostanziale e determinante dell’ineguagliabile eccellenza che
compete o ogni uomo e che chiamiamo dignità.

“A tale proposito, non potrebbero essere più chiare le parole di Tommaso d’Aquino.
D’accordo con la migliore tradizione classica, ma facendo leva sulla sua particolare concezione
dell’actus essendi, egli afferma che l’agire non è la prima cosa, ma segue l’essere, così come il
modo e la qualità di ogni operazione seguono la natura e l’intensità dell’essere che la costituisce.
Da cui trae una conclusione che si potrebbe suddividere in tre punti:

“- Prima assicura, in modo ancora generico: «tutta la nobiltà di qualsiasi realtà le

appartiene in base al suo essere». Come vedevamo l’essere proprio di ogni esistente costituisce
la prima perfezione che ‘pone’ e sostiene tutti gli altri suoi attributi, che partecipano a questo

“- Poi aggiunge, concretando maggiormente il problema: è ovvio pertanto che «nessuna

eccellenza deriverebbe all’uomo dalla sua sapienza, e dalle altre sue perfezioni, se grazie ad esse
non fosse saggio». È l’essere come atto ciò che include e fa sgorgare da sé tutte le perfezioni del
suo soggetto.

“- Infine ricava le legge universale: «Il grado e la qualità, l’importanza di tutto ciò che
esiste sono determinati dal modo con cui ogni cosa possiede l’essere e dalla sua intensità o
grandezza: infatti ogni cosa è più o meno nobile a seconda che il suo essere sia collegato a un
certo e particolare modo di nobiltà, maggiore o minore». Si tratta della funzione limitante della
potentia essendi…

T. ALVIRA, L. CLAVELL, T. MELENDO, op. cit., pp. 123-124.
Summa Theologiae, I, q. 20, 3.
B. MONDIN, La metafisica di S. Tommaso d’Aquino e i suoi interpreti, ESD, Bologna, 2002, p. 260.

“…La sublimità della persona risiede…nella particolare grandezza del suo essere che a
volte è conosciuto come essere personale o atto personale di essere…”

“…La preminenza della persona creata fa appello, in ultima istanza, alla superiore
categoria del suo atto di essere, che l’essenza che questo stabilisce limita in minor grado delle
realtà infrapersonali.

“Il punto conclusivo dunque sta nell’atto di essere. E questo, non solo per la
fondamentale ragione già-nota del fatto che ‘tutta la nobiltà di qualsiasi cosa le appartiene in
base al suo essere,’ ma per il motivo complementare e capitale del fatto che l’essenza non è nulla
se non in virtù dell’essere che la instaura. Dialetticamente e paradossalmente, ma con rigorosa
coerenza e conformità con la sua indole costitutiva, l’essenza partecipata trae tutta la sua realtà
dall’atto di essere, che essa stessa limita. L’essenza rimanda all’essere che le dà vita e, al di fuori
di esso, ‘nulla è.’

…l’eminente perfezione della persona deriva, alla fine, dalla peculiare grandezza
dell’essere che la costituisce…

“…Tommaso d’Aquino…appoggia più definitivamente la dignità e l’indole della

persona…nella peculiare grandezza dell’atto di essere che le è attribuito come proprio…”57

Clavell writes in his Metafisica e libertà (1996): “Il fondamento dell’agire si trova
nell’essere. Ogni ente in quanto è, è anche attivo…Più si partecipa all’atto di essere, più si è
attivi. La libertà è una forma molto alta di agire, e si fonda quindi su una partecipazione
particolarmente intensa dell’atto di essere propria del soggetto personale. L’essere della persona
è il fondamento della libertà.

Si può ancora determinare di più il livello personale dell’essere? La dottrina di San

Tommaso offre una fondazione più precisa. L’Aquinate infatti afferma che nell’uomo la sua
anima è spirituale, in quanto riceve direttamente da Dio l’essere, per creazione immediata, e che
l’anima comunica, in quanto forma, questo suo essere anche al corpo, il quale partecipa di quello
stesso atto di essere. Così l’anima umana è emergente rispetto al corpo, possiede in proprietà
l’essere ricevuto da Dio per sempre, ha un autopossesso del suo essere, una proprietà privata
dell’essere, usando le parole di Cardona.

“Ogni anima umana è così una novitas essendi nell’universo, qualcosa di nuovo, frutto
della donazione di Dio. Il suo carattere sussistente e spirituale rende l’anima principio delle
azioni umane libere, fondate sul dinamismo immanente dell’intendere e del volere, di un agire
che è nuovo ed emergente rispetto al mondo. L’essere che il soggetto personale ha grazie
all’anima spiega perché la persona sia una sorgente originaria di attività, perché l’uomo sia
capace di donazione, di dare se stesso a Dio, di unire la propria volontà a quella divina. La libertà
ha bisogno di essere riportata a questo fondamento che viene offerto dall’antropologia metafisica
dell’Aquinate. Altrimenti rimane una libertà non fondata e priva di orientamento. …l’uomo è
libero prima nel suo essere e poi nel suo agire.”58

T. MELENDO, Metafisica del concreto, Ed. Leonardo da Vinci, Rome, 2005, pp. 189-192, 194.
L. CLAVELL, Metafisica e libertà, Armando, Rome, 1996, pp. 170-171.