Élan Reisner

The Alluring Glare of the Self-Evident


“Perhaps it is the very simplicity of the thing which puts you at fault,” said my friend.
“What nonsense you do talk!” replied the Prefect, laughing heartily.
“Perhaps the mystery is a little too plain,” said Dupin.
“Oh, good heavens! who ever heard of such an idea?”
“A little too self-evident.”
“Ha! ha! ha! —ha! ha! ha! —ho! ho! ho!” —roared our visitor, profoundly amused, “oh, Dupin, you will be the death of me yet!”
          Poe, “The Purloined Letter”

Considered by daylight, however, and without prejudice, this famous Ontological Proof is really a charming joke.
          Schopenhauer, On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason


Where is the self-evident hidden? Obviously—and this is meant in both senses of the Latin “ob-vius”: something that greets us in the road (exposed in the daylight, friendly, forthcoming, ready to hand), and something that blocks the road (no less exposed, but now in open and obstinate resistance)—the truly self-evident shouldn’t need to be found. We call something “self-evident” precisely when it is in no way hidden, when it just stands forth and speaks for itself. Nevertheless, the fact that something is self-evident sometimes eludes us. It’s not always immediately clear, for example, which among our beliefs are true, necessarily and of themselves, and which only seem to be so. Furthermore, the truly self-evident seems to admit of a special kind of hiddenness, as when someone can’t find the glasses he is wearing. But in this case, how can we possibly proceed? What evidence could allow us to distinguish between the seemingly obvious and the rigorously self-evident? And how could we even find such evidence in the first place? The self-evident may be within our reach, but recognizing it as such—grasping it and holding it up as self-evident—would require a searchlight with the miraculous ability to illuminate the self-illuminating.


In order to ward off the danger of mistaking the falsely obvious for the truly self-evident, it’s necessary to get crystal clear about what “self-evident” really means. This is traditionally done by conceiving of self-evidence as a quality of statements and not of things. In other words, something is really only self-evident if it is true by definition. This is the concept that St. Thomas Aquinas offered in the thirteenth century: “Those things are said to be self-evident [per se nota] which are known as soon as their terms are understood. For example, when it is known what a whole is and what a part is, it is immediately known that every whole is greater than its part” (Summa Contra Gentiles, I.10). The part-whole example is particularly fitting, since on this account a statement is self-evident precisely when its parts (i.e., “whole,” “part”) belong within each other’s whole definitions (“a whole is a composite of parts,” “a part is a component of a whole”).

Half a millennium later, Immanuel Kant would make a similar point in different terms. Kant divided all judgments (thoughts of the structure “X is Y”) into two classes, “analytic” and “synthetic.” “Analytic” judgments are those in which the judgment’s predicate (Y) doesn’t add any conceptual content of its own, i.e. content not already contained within the concept of the judgment’s subject, (X). For example, since the predicate “greater than its part” is part of the definition of the concept “whole,” the judgment “every whole is greater than its part” is true analytically. Analytic judgments can’t be false, so far as their concepts are concerned, but they also can’t tell us anything about the non-conceptual world—only “synthetic” judgments, like “this pie is whole” or “that sandwich is perfect” can.

The benefit of conceiving self-evidence as a quality of statements is that it enables us to clarify the true scope of certain claims which the idea of self-evidence lends an insubstantial gravity. The classic example of this sort of claim is the so-called “ontological argument” for the existence of God (from ὤν, ὄντος, Greek for “being”), which René Descartes presented in his Meditations on First Philosophy (1641). The argument goes something like this: Since I can think of a supreme and absolutely perfect being (call it “God”), and since it is utterly clear and distinct that among the attributes of such a being (alongside “unity,” “infinity, “immutability,” “eternity,” “independence,” and so on) is “existence” (because it’s more perfect for something to exist than not to exist)—therefore: God exists. Furthermore, since it is more perfect for something to necessarily exist than to only possibly exist, therefore: God necessarily exists.

Though “rationalist” philosophers such as Nicolas Malebranche and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz celebrated the argument, Kant thoroughly lambasted it in his aptly named Critique of Pure Reason (1781). Kant’s objections are manifold, but the gist of his criticism is that the argument mistakes an “analytic” judgment for a “synthetic” one. “God exists” may be tautologically true by virtue of the content of the concept “God,” but even so, it only tells us about the concept—it doesn’t tell us anything about the world beyond. Moreover, “existence” isn’t a real predicate, properly speaking. If we try to make it one, it’s because we’ve misunderstood the function of the word “is,” which simply belongs to the formal structure of making judgments. The copula, or linking verb, “to be” hooks predicates on to subjects but doesn’t add any content of its own. “God is omnipotent” may be true analytically, but “God just is” says nothing beyond the trivial fact that the concept of “God” exists. To say anything more than that—for example, to claim that concept’s truth—would require making a synthetic judgment, which needs more than just concepts (for example, content drawn from experience).

Kant’s critique (and formulation) of the “ontological argument” has been more or less authoritative ever since it first appeared at the end of the eighteenth century. Though G.W.F Hegel sought to defend the argument against Kant’s critique, most of the major figures in Hegel’s wake—including Arthur Schopenhauer, Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, and Martin Heidegger—sided with Kant, claiming that the argument is circular, faulty, or otherwise problematic. All of these thinkers, despite their profound differences, held that any purely logical demonstration of God’s existence is effectively meaningless. God’s existence can’t be proven—it can only be presupposed or stipulated. And if Descartes really believed otherwise, it was because he unwittingly remained entrapped within the very logic of medieval Christian philosophy that he so valiantly sought to escape. Indeed, even the most casual reader of the Meditations is likely to suspect as much: “For what is more self-evident [ex se est apertius] than the fact that the supreme being exists, or that God, to whose essence alone existence belongs, exists?” (Meditations, V.12).

Illustration by Wesley Ryan Clapp


The “ontological argument” argument seems, then, to be nothing more than a bit of lamentable theological residue tarnishing an otherwise pristine philosophical work. Or perhaps the corruption is more extensive. After all, the “meditation manual” is a traditionally religious literary genre; perhaps the Meditations as a whole was forged in an obsolete mold, one that’s fundamentally unfit for philosophical content. This is an important question, most of all because it forces us to consider afresh the relations between philosophy and theology. In my last essay, I sought to trace some of these relations by following out how the meaning of nihil or “nothing” changes as the Meditations advances (from “nothing” as “not anything,” the negation of everything that exists, to “nothing” as “non-being,” the privation of God as supreme Being).

For evidence against the thesis that the “ontological argument” is a theological parasite within the corpus of Cartesian philosophy (or, more radically, the symptom of a genetic disorder), we merely have to look to the theological tradition itself. What we find there is that the debate between Kant and Descartes, which seems to bridge precisely the difference between philosophy and theology, simply repeats a much older debate that once raged inside the Church.

We have already seen how St. Thomas’ definition of the “self-evident” prefigured Kant’s class of “analytic” judgments. In addition to having similar senses, the two terms served strikingly similar functions. For St. Thomas, clarifying the meaning of “self-evident” had a special urgency because of the popular (and for him, deeply problematic) opinion that “the existence of God cannot be demonstrated because it is self-evident.” According to that opinion, which Descartes states verbatim, that God is (his existence) is obvious on the basis of what God is (his essence). God’s existence is self-evident, in other words, because “God exists” is just part of what we understand by “God.” St. Thomas saw that this claim is obviously circular, since it presupposes knowledge of God’s essence, i.e. the truth of a given definition or concept of “God.” Anticipating Kant, St. Thomas protested that a thing’s definition or concept can never guarantee its reality; no matter what a thing is, that it is must be demonstrated through empirical evidence. (St. Thomas is thus just as eager to refute the opposing position, “the opinion of those who say that God’s existence cannot be demonstrated but can be held by faith alone,” because it also subordinates the question of God’s existence to an interpretation of his essence—namely, that it is unknowable.)

The father of modern philosophy is indeed heir to medieval Christian tradition, but belief or disbelief in the validity of the “ontological argument” is an insufficient criterion for determining any thinker’s allegiances. The fate of the Meditations attests to its author’s ambiguous memberships: though prefaced with a dedication to the Theological Faculty of the Sorbonne (whose stamp of approval Descartes craved) and appended in its Objections and Replies with an earnest insistence that its arguments about the existence of God fully accord with those of St. Thomas (“the Angelic Doctor”), it was not only denied the official approval of the academy, in 1663 it was also placed on the Catholic Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum (where it would be joined by the Critique of Pure Reason in 1827).

Partisanship aside, these debates revolve around the question of the demonstrability of the self-evident. Kant and St. Thomas each delimit the scope of the self-evident by relegating it to a derivative status with respect to our definitions and concepts. There can therefore be no “demonstration” of the self-evident, only clarification of the concepts on the basis of which a statement may be rightly called self-evident. As for these concepts themselves, both Kant and St. Thomas insist that their significance is wholly dependent upon their relation to our empirical experience of things.


The distinction between the seeming obviousness of things and the unapparent self-evidence of statements is an obviously important turn in the labyrinthine history of thought, but it will be impossible to evaluate its merits unless we get clear on the path not taken. We would have liked to envision the forsaken path as that of mere opinion and see ours as that of rigorous truth, the one as the way of superstitious theology and the other as the way of enlightened philosophy, but since the selected path loops back to an earlier fork, perhaps we ought to resist the obvious story—even if that means going backwards. So let’s regress, and lose ourselves in an area of the maze that St. Thomas and Kant believe themselves to have passed beyond.

The “ontological argument” originates in a text entitled the Proslogion (an allocution or speaking-out, as in a legal defense) written by St. Anselm of Canterbury—then the Prior at the Benedictine Abbey of Bec in Normandy—in about 1077. One of the most striking things about the text is the obvious and yet somehow evanescent way in which the quest for knowledge is bound up with religious piety. Far from simply juxtaposing dialectic and rhetoric, reasoning and prayer, and further still from dressing dogma in the guise of logic, the text presents an argument in which the two discursive modes jointly arise from (and collaboratively lead to) a type of self-evidence that neither St. Thomas nor Kant would permit. Indeed, by exclusively ascribing self-evidence to statements and thereby refuting the “ontological argument” as a rationalistic error, St. Thomas and Kant avoid engaging with two essential and related elements in the structure of St. Anselm’s argument: (1) what renders the demonstration of God’s self-evidence possible in the first place (recall that for St. Thomas and for Kant a “demonstration” of the self-evident is impossible by definition) is the self-evidence of the desire that it provokes; (2) the existence of God is demonstrated not on the basis of what he is (his definition, concept, essence, etc.), but rather on the basis of a limit, specifically the limit of the thinkable. The argument is therefore not “ontological” but “transcendental” (in the Kantian sense): God is demonstrated as that which at the same time exceeds the reach of thought and makes that reach possible.

According to the Christian, and especially Augustinian, doctrine of charity, loving one’s neighbor is an indissociable part of loving God (from the love of God, in both senses). In this light, St. Anselm’s Proslogion is a sort of love letter, which St. Anselm addresses at the same time to God and to his readers—indeed, to God through his readers. The proof, accordingly, is premised not on a general definition or abstract concept of God, but on a desire, which St. Anselm interprets as a longing for God’s presence. That God exists, must exist, and obviously exists, flows out from and back into the self-evidence of this desire.

To adequately appreciate the romantic, even erotic, element in St. Anselm’s argument, we need only look at the scene of seduction that gave rise to its conception. The romance began with St. Anselm’s earlier text, the Monologion (1076), of which the Proslogion is less the sequel than the consummation. In the prologue to the Monologion, St. Anselm explains the circumstances that led to its composition:

Some of my brethren have often and earnestly asked me to write down, as a kind of model meditation, some of the things I have said, in everyday language, on the subject of meditating upon the essence of the divine; and on some other subjects bound up with such meditation. They specified (on the basis more of their wishes than of the task’s feasibility or my capacity) the following form for this written meditation: nothing whatsoever to be argued on the authority of Scripture, but the constraints of reason concisely to prove, and the clarity of truth clearly to show, in the plain style, with down-to-earth dialectic, the conclusions of distinct investigations. They also wanted me not to disdain to meet the down-to-earth, or even downright silly, objections that I would come against.

Before we have a chance to wonder what it was (doubt? malice?) that led the monks of Bec to assign their teacher so exorbitant a task (and so contrary, we might think, to the life of faith), St. Anselm specifies that the motive was nothing other than that irresistible contagion, love. He explains that despite his initial protestations,

I was eventually overcome by the unassuming persistence of their requests together with the sheer goodness, which I could not fail to respect, of their earnestness. As so, although I took it up quite against my will (in view of the difficulty involved and the feebleness of my talents), I completed it (in view of their love) willingly, to the best of my ability, and in accordance with their specifications.

Out of and for the sake of the love of his fellow monks, St. Anselm undertook to write a demonstration of the basic tenets of Christian doctrine without invoking the authority of holy scripture, a demonstration that requires only the faculty of natural reason.

What did the monks glimpse in the possibility of such a demonstration that could have kindled such intense and persuasive desire? Perhaps it was the exotic pleasure of unbounded intellectual charity. If God could be understood wholly on the basis of natural reason, the faithless as well as the faithful could join in an all-inclusive orgy of understanding. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that upon yielding to the desires of his students, St. Anselm became obsessed with the possibility of designing an even more perfect demonstration. Evidently encouraged by the Monologion‘s warm reception, yet dissatisfied with the disunity of its content, he committed himself to the search for a “single argument” [unum argumentum] that would more perfectly achieve what his students glimpsed. In the preface to the Proslogion he writes:

I began to wonder if perhaps it might be possible to find one single argument that for its proof required no other save itself, and that by itself would suffice to prove that God truly exists, that He is the supreme good needing no other and is He whom all things have need of for their being and well-being, and also to prove whatever we believe about the divine substance.

And yet the difficulty of St. Anselm’s intellectual quest proved proportional to the magnitude of its promised reward: both touch the very limit of possibility. Thus it was only when he tried to give up the search as impossible that its solution finally—and as we say, non-consensually—exposed itself to him:

But as often and as diligently as I turned my thoughts to this, sometimes it seemed to me that I had almost reached what I was seeking, sometimes it eluded my acutest thinking completely, so that finally, in desperation, I was about to give up what I was looking for as impossible to find. However, when I had decided to put aside this idea altogether, lest by uselessly occupying my mind it might prevent other ideas with which I could make some progress, then, in spite of my willingness and my resistance to it, it began to force itself upon me more and more pressingly. So it was that one day when I was quite worn out with resisting its importunacy, there came to me, in the very conflict of my thoughts, what I had despaired of finding, so that I eagerly grasped the notion which in my distraction I had been rejecting.

We will see that this description of the climactic epiphany that lead to the Proslogion’s composition doubles the text’s content. St. Anselm’s “single argument” simply repeats in the reader his insight that the desire for knowledge of God can be satisfied only by rebounding against the limit of thought.


Since the demonstration is born of the desire for a more proximate intimacy with God by expanding the sphere of God’s intelligibility, St. Anselm’s first order of business in the text of the Proslogion itself will be to instill this same desire in the reader. Thus, it is the indispensable function of the text’s first chapter, “A rousing of the mind to the contemplation of God,” to get us, as it were, in the mood. St. Anselm begins quite seductively: “Come now, insignificant man, fly for a moment from your affairs, escape for a while from the tumult of your thoughts. Put aside now your weighty cares and leave your wearisome toils.” The addressee of this exhortation is almost entirely general. St. Anselm speaks at the same time to himself and to his reader, whether fellow monk or unbelieving fool. All men, at times, desire freedom from the exhaustion of their daily lives and from the confusion of their thoughts. When St. Anselm finally names God—which might turn some readers off—he does so with reference to this universal desire: “Abandon yourself for a little to God and find your rest in Him.” By sharing in St. Anselm’s desire for disburdenment, we too desire God.

The remainder of the chapter consists in the systematic clarification and augmentation of that desire. This is done first and foremost by interpreting it as a desire for knowledge, which St. Anselm achieves through a number of remarkable steps. Citing Matthew (citing Christ addressing the apostles), St. Anselm advises his unspecific addressee to retreat within himself, into “the inner chamber within your soul,” and to lock out everything “save God and what can be of help in your quest for Him.” Then St. Anselm’s mode of address shifts radically. As though beginning his discourse anew, St. Anselm enters the confessional mode, addressing his own heart (as an epic poet would invoke the Muse), which in turn (through another citation) apostrophizes God himself: “Speak now, my whole heart, speak now to God: ‘I seek Your countenance, O Lord, Your countenance I seek [Ps. 26:8].’” The desire for disburdenment, which belongs to all men, has become the private cry of “my whole heart,” spoken uniquely by each reader in his solitude and yet collectively through the prefigurative words of David’s Psalm, expressing to the absent God the desire to behold his face.

Subsequently, the quest for God’s presence becomes a questioning after his nature: “Come then, Lord my God, teach my heart where and how to seek You, where and how to find you. Lord, if You are not present here, where, since you are absent shall I look for You? On the other hand, if You are everywhere why then, since you are present, do I not see you?” This problem—how to enter the presence of the being who is absent here and yet present everywhere—prescribes the trajectory of the first sixteen chapters of the text, which in effect constitute an extended meditation on the paradox of self-evidentiality: namely that at its limit, the ubiquitously self-evident is also entirely self-concealing. St. Anselm grapples with paradox as the question of God’s dwelling place, which he thinks under the figure of “inaccessible light”:

But surely you dwell in ‘inaccessible light’ [I Tim. 6: 16]. And where is this inaccessible light, or how can I approach the inaccessible light? Or who shall lead me and take me into it that I may see You in it? Again, by what signs, under what aspect, shall I seek You? Never have I seen you, Lord my God, I do not know your face.

The question is now: How to see the unique being hidden within the very element of seeing? What visible evidence could point out the being who is absent precisely because he is everywhere? Against the empiricism of St. Thomas, and yet in defiance of the inculpation of rationalism, St. Anselm suggests that it is nothing other than the desire for God that could demonstrate him: “Let me seek you in desiring you; let me desire You in seeking You; let me find You in loving You; let me love you in finding You.”


With this context—no less atmospheric than metaphysical—St. Anselm begins to unveil the long awaited proof. He does so through an imaginary confrontation with a professed unbeliever, the “Fool” who, according to the Psalms, “said in his heart, there is no God,” and who stands as a figure for the author of the Monologion no less than for the present reader, since to the extent that even the highest ranking monk does not yet understand (by natural reason) what he already believes (by faith), he remains separated from the object of his desire.

The demonstration depends entirely upon the unique strength of the phrase “that than which a greater cannot be thought” [id quo maius cogitari nequit] St. Anselm argues that so long as anyone, even an avowed atheist, experiences a minimal understanding of that phrase—even if only to the extent that he is able to assert that he can’t understand its meaning—he will be forced, upon reflection, to admit that such a thing must truly exist in reality. This is because if he has a minimal understanding of “that than which a greater cannot be thought,” then he will have to admit that such a thing necessarily exists in his mind (in intellectu). But if he then asks himself whether “that than which a greater cannot be thought” exists only in his mind or also in reality (in re), he will be forced to admit that it must exist in both. For if “that than which a greater cannot be thought” is thought to exist only in the mind, then something else could be thought, identical to it in every day, except that it exists in reality as well as in the mind. And since it is greater to exist both in reality and in the mind than only in the mind, this second thing would therefore be greater than “that than which a greater cannot be thought”—in which case, “that than which a greater cannot be thought” would not truly be “that than which something greater could be thought,” which is plainly absurd. Therefore, from the mere fact that “that than which a greater cannot be thought” can be understood to the slightest extent, it follows that it must truly exist in reality.

Despite the elaborate preparation and St. Anselm’s evident belief in the perfect soundness of his proof, we probably aren’t persuaded. One feels a bit like one does upon finishing Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals for the first time. We stand in the presence of an absolutely confident intellect claiming to have led us logically to the necessary existence of something (a law in Kant’s case, a being in St. Anselm’s) that seems to go against our everyday experience. There’s obviously got to be a flaw somewhere, but unless we can substantiate our suspicion, we’re likely to feel foolish ourselves—even to the point of doubting the soundness of our own minds. Thankfully, St. Anselm made the effort to ensure that the reader would have his objections articulated for him and addressed in advance. Shortly after St. Anselm wrote the Proslogion, a monk by the name of Gaulino from the distant abbey of Marmoutier wrote a critique of the argument entitled Pro Insipiente, or On Behalf of the Fool. St. Anselm was so grateful for Gaulino’s objections that he made sure that they would be included, along with his Reply, with all future copies of the Proslogion.

Gaulino’s main objection is familiar: knowledge of something’s actual existence just can’t be derived from its concept or definition. In a now canonical counter-example, Gaulino demonstrated the absurdity of St. Anselm’s logic:

For example: they say that there is in the ocean somewhere an island which, because of the difficulty (or rather the impossibility) of finding that which does not exist, some have called the ‘Lost Island’. And the story goes that it is blessed with all manner of priceless riches and delights in abundance, much more even than the Happy Isles, and, having no owner or inhabitant, it is superior everywhere in abundance of riches to all those other islands that men inhabit. Now, if anyone tell me that it is like this, I shall easily understand what is said, since there is nothing difficult about it. But if he should then go on to say, as though it were a logical consequence of this: You cannot any more doubt that this island that is more excellent than all other lands truly exists somewhere in reality than you can doubt that it is in your mind; and since it is more excellent to exist not only in the mind alone but also in reality, therefore it must needs be that it exists. For if it did not exist, any other land existing in reality would be more excellent than it, and so this island, already conceived by you to be more excellent than others, will not be more excellent. If, I say, someone wishes thus to persuade me that this island really exists beyond all doubt, I should either think that he was joking, or I should find it hard to decide which of us is a bigger fool—I, if I agreed with him, or he, if he thought that he had proved the existence of this island with any certainty, unless he had first convinced me that its very excellence exists in my mind precisely as a thing existing truly and indubitably and not just as something unreal and doubtfully real.
          (On Behalf of the Fool, 6)

Unhelpfully, St. Anselm doesn’t bother to refute the Lost Island counter-argument. Instead, he merely mocks Gaunilo for misapplying his logic:

Now, I truly promise that if anyone should discover for me something existing either in reality or in the mind alone—except “that than which a greater cannot be thought”—to which the logic of my argument would apply, then I shall find that Lost Island and give it, never more to be lost, to that person.
          (Reply, 3)

There are two ways to read this response. The first would read it as a suspicious omission. Gaunilo, it would seem, has made a strong objection, one worthy of a serious response. But all it receives is a condescending circumlocution, in which St. Anselm claims to have been misread but refuses to show his cards. It would be easy to read this gesture as self-incriminating: to decide, with Gaulino, that St. Anselm is bluffing, going all-in on an analytic judgment that he’s trying to pass off as a synthetic one.

But what if the situation were actually the reverse? What if it were St. Anselm who was actually responding to Gaulino’s perceived disingenuousness? We are likely prejudiced to agree with anyone who doubts Anselm’s logic, but before we adjudicate the game, we should be clear on the stakes. Though Gaulino speaks on behalf of the Fool, it’s not because he disbelieves in God. It’s rather because he (1) doesn’t believe that St. Anselm’s argument would be able to persuade an unbelieving empiricist and (2) refuses, for his own part, to admit the possibility that the truth of God’s existence can be held except, as St. Thomas would say, by faith alone. Indeed, in practice St. Anselm’s argument may not be particularly persuasive to those who ascribe to one side or the other of the empiricist/fideist divide, but Gaulino is going further than merely accusing St. Anselm’s argument of rhetorical inefficacy—he’s trying to pass off a description of ideological differences as a logical critique. Accordingly, a second reading would take St. Anselm at his word and endeavor to recover just what St. Anselm means when he claims that his logic could apply to nothing other than “that than which something greater could not be thought.”

One element that underlies St. Anselm’s claim is the logic of perfection, which in the Monologion and elsewhere St. Anselm articulates along recognizably classical lines, melding the Platonism of St. Augustine with the Latinized terms of Aristotelian logic. 1 Since in its essence, an island is a finite thing, even the most lush, temperate, uninhabited, golden-sanded—in a word, “perfect”—island would still only be of middling rank on the most general scale of perfection. This is to say that an island can only be perfect within the limits of its islandness. Even at its maximum, a perfect island would remain an imperfect being. This is why St. Bonaventure claimed that the formula “an island than which nothing greater can be thought” contains a contradiction: it tries to assign to a radically imperfect being the predicate of absolute perfection.

On this interpretation, St. Anselm’s argument survives Gaulino’s objection because Gaulino fails to recognize that certain predicates more properly belong to some concepts than to others. Just as “uninhabited by men” and “edenic abundance” belong to the concept of a most excellent island, “necessary existence” belongs to the concept of a greatest possible being. But clarifying this still leaves Gaulino’s stronger objection intact. As Kant would put it: what guarantees the reality of a concept in the first place? Elsewhere in his Reply to the Fool, St. Anselm suggests that the real problem with Gaulino’s (and St. Thomas’ and Kant’s) whole line of interpretation is that it overlooks the fact that his argument rests precisely on the fact that it demonstrates the existence of the object designated by “that than which a greater cannot be thought,” on the basis of the sheer fact that the phrase “that than which a greater cannot be thought” is thinkable at all. This is why St. Anselm insists that the key phrase cannot be paraphrased as “that which is greater than everything”: the two are “not equivalent for the purpose of proving the real existence of the thing spoken of” (Reply, 5). This is because what “that than which a greater cannot be thought” designates not only exists, it also exists “so truly that it cannot be thought not to exist.” In chapter 3, “That God cannot be thought not to exist,” St. Anselm argues that if “that than which a greater cannot be thought” could be thought not to exist, something greater than it could exist (i.e. something identical in every way except that it could not be thought not to exist), in which case “that than which a greater could not be thought” would not truly be “that than which a greater cannot be thought,” which would be absurd.

But Gaulino’s paraphrase, “that which is greater than everything”—or, for that matter, the ontological argument’s “most perfect being”—wouldn’t entail the same consequence. For it’s perfectly possible for “that which is greater than everything” to actually exist but be thought not to. No absurdity results. There’s nothing impossible about the case in which “that which is greater than everything” is not “that which cannot be thought not to exist,” since unless something greater than it actually existed, it would still be greatest (for it to be contradictory, there would need to be “a premise in addition”). A similar point could be made about the ontological argument’s “most perfect being”: there’s nothing strictly absurd about the case in which “a most perfect being” is not identical with “that which cannot be thought not to exist.” For there to be a contradiction, it would first have to be stipulated that a “most perfect being” could not be thought not to exist.

St. Anselm clarifies that it’s obviously true that “that than which a greater cannot be thought” is also “something greater than everything” (he would no doubt add: and also “a most perfect being”). It’s just that no premise other than “that than which a greater cannot be thought” would adequately demonstrate, by itself, the real existence of what it designates. This is because “that than which a greater cannot be thought” designates its object non-conceptually. Rather than “demonstrating” that God is on the basis of a prior concept of what God is (a frivolous project, no less to St. Anselm than to St. Thomas or Kant), St. Anselm aims to verify independently and thereby “understand” what he already “believes” concerning God’s existence and essence without drawing on the contents of those beliefs. He does this by positing the minimal existence of that than which a greater cannot be thought (as something intelligible to thought) and from that fact derives the necessity of its maximal existence (as a truly and necessarily existing being). The real crux of the argument is therefore St. Anselm’s claim that when the phrase “that than which a greater cannot be thought” is uttered, even the Fool “understands what he hears, and he understands what is in his mind, even if he does not understand that it exists in reality.” What could the Fool understand, if not the concept of the being that the phrase designates?

In chapter 4, “How ‘the Fool said in his heart’ what cannot be thought,” St. Anselm clarifies that so long as the one does not merely think the string of signifiers “that than which a greater cannot be thought,” but really thinks the phrase’s signified object, the necessity of that object’s existence will be obvious. This is not because the phrase presents a clear understanding of some conceptual content, making its object into an object of thought—but rather because in thinking the phrase, thought rebounds against its uppermost limit. What thought discovers is that the object of the phrase “that than which a greater cannot be thought” cannot become an object of thought. Indeed, in chapter 15, St. Anselm demonstrates that God is not only that than which a greater cannot be thought, he is also quite simply “greater than can be thought.” Contrary to his reputation, then, St. Anselm quite carefully maintains God’s unthinkability. Rather, he verifies that God transcends thought by (1) demonstrating that thought can encounter its own limit and (2) uniting this limit with the concept of God held by faith and concretized by desire, in order finally to (3) resolve the paradox of God’s self-evident/self-concealing presence by identifying God as the transcendental condition of both vision and thought. God is that which always escapes the desirous grasp of mental sight because he is that which enables it, blinding the eye with its alluring, dazzling, self-eclipsing glare:

16. That this is the ‘inaccessible light’ in which He ‘dwells’
Truly, Lord, this is the inaccessible light in which You dwell. For truly there is nothing else which can penetrate through it so that it might discover You there. Truly I do not see this light, since it is too much for me; and yet whatever I see I see through it, just as an eye that is weak sees what it sees by the light of the sun which it cannot look at in the sun itself. My understanding is not able [to attain] to that [light]. It shines too much and [my understanding] does not grasp it nor does the eye of my soul allow itself to be turned towards it for too long. It is dazzled by its splendor, overcome by its fullness, overwhelmed by its immensity, confused by its extent. O supreme and inaccessible light; O whole and blessed truth, how far You are from me who am so close to You! How distant You are from my sight while I am so present to Your sight! You are wholly present everywhere and I do not see You. In You I move and in You I have my being and I can not come near to You. You are within me and around me and I do not have any experience of You.


If the necessary existence of the being designated by the thought “that than which a greater cannot be thought” can still be called “self-evident” (and since St. Anselm’s argument doesn’t differ in kind from Descartes’ argument for the necessary existence of the being designated by the thought “I think,” I don’t see why it shouldn’t be), then the Proslogion offers evidence of a third type of self-evidence. In addition to the false self-evidence of seemingly obvious things and the true self-evidence of tautological statements, there is the invisible and unthinkable self-evidence of that which allows us to recognize the difference between seeming and being, opinion and truth, mystification and knowledge. The necessity of this third type of self-evidence is less obvious today than it has been in the past, but it is perhaps all the more crucial for us to start wondering about whether and how it can be obviated.

1 St. Anselm's Platonism is plainly visible in the first chapter of the Monologion. “That of all the things that exist, there is one that is the best, greatest, and supreme”:

‘Given that there is such an uncountable number of good things, the sheer multiplicity of which is simply a datum of bodily sense as well as something we perceive by means of the rational mind—given this, are we to believe that there is some one thing through which all good things whatsoever are good? Or do difference goods have their existence through different things?’ Quite certain, indeed, and clear to all who are willing to see, is the following: take some things that are said to be (say) X, and relative to each other are said to be less, more, or equally X. It is through this X that they are said to be so, and this X is understood as the very same thing in the various cases and not something different in each case (whether X is considered to be in them equally or not equally). Take, for example, some things that are said, relative to each other, to be equally, or more, or less just...

The specter of Aristotle, on the other hand, looms large over St. Anselm's short dialogue, De Grammatico, which discusses the evidently controversial question of whether the term “grammaticus” (literate) is properly a “quality” or a “substance.”

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