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Comparative Philosophy

Xavier Zubiri's Critique of Classical Philosophy

Thomas B. Fowler
Xavier Zubiri Foundation of North America

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ABSTRACT: The contemporary Spanish philosopher Xavier Zubiri (1893-1983) developed his philosophy in constant dialogue with the past. Zubiri believed that there are fundamental flaws with classical philosophy that require a fresh approach. His critique of classical philosophy falls into three areas: conceptual, factual, and scope. The first is treated in this paper with respect to five subjects. Zubiri believed that the structure of human intellection is incorrect in classical philosophy. This error contributes in large part to two key errors which he termed "entification of reality" and "logification of intellection." Closely related are errors concerning essence and the relationship of truth and reality.

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'Classical philosophy' may be loosely defined as the set of beliefs, assumptions, and analyses of experience, together with the intellectual edifice erected upon them, worked out by Ancient Greek philosophers, especially Aristotle, and further developed by Medieval and post-Medieval thinkers, foremost among them Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, and Francisco Suarez. The tradition has continued to our own day, in the persons of Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson, among others. Extending over a period of 2500 years, classical philosophy has undergone many changes; but some basic underlying ideas and ways of viewing the world have remained remarkably constant. It is these which are the subject of the present study.

In the course of developing his own philosophy, Xavier Zubiri (1898-1983) has thoroughly and incisively analyzed much of classical philosophy. Zubiri ultimately parts company with Aristotle and classical philosophy because he believes that despite its successes and insights, it suffers from fundamental errors with respect to both point of departure and the answers given to certain critical questions. In many cases, these errors have been set into high relief by developments in modern science; in others, they have been made visible by the critique of philosophers not in the classical tradition.

Zubiri's analysis of the errors of classical philosophy may be grouped into three broad areas:


(1) Structure of human intellection.

(2) Confusion of reality and being, the "Entification of reality".

(3) Subsuming of intellection under logos, the "Logification of intellection".

(4) Nature and function of definition.

(5) The notion of truth.


(1) Inconsistency with modern science.

(2) Disagreement with empirical facts.

(3) Failure to reach legitimate goals.

(4) Foundations and nature of mathematics.


(1) The division of philosophy.

(2) Ability of unaided mind to penetrate secrets of nature.

(3) Structural complexity of reality.

(4) Hierarchical nature of reality.

(5) The canon of reality.

The first category is the subject of this paper.

Principle Conceptual Errors of Classical Philosophy

(1) Structure of human intellection

For Zubiri, perception of reality begins with the sensing process; but in contrast to Hume and classical philosophy, Zubiri does not believe that there is duality of sensing and apprehension. What we have, rather, is a fully integrated process that immerses us in reality:

As impression is what formally constitutes sensing, and reality is what formally constitutes intellective knowing, it follows that saying that the moment of reality is "in" the impression is the same as saying that intellection is structurally "in" the sensing; i.e., the impression of reality is intellective sensing. For this reason, when we apprehend heat, for example, we are apprehending it as real heat. An animal apprehends heat only as a thermic response sign; this is pure sensing. In contrast, man senses heat as something "in its own right", as something de suyo: the heat is real heat. (1)

Direct apprehension of reality through sensible impression is a process which is intrinsic to our somatic structures as human beings. It is, indeed, the most important characteristic of our apprehension, and the foundation of all subsequent knowledge, including all rational knowledge. This impressive apprehension of reality is an act of what Zubiri terms the sentient intelligence (as opposed to earlier conceptions of it, which he refers to as sensible intelligence):

By virtue of its formal nature, intellection is apprehension of reality in and by itself. This intellection...is in a radical sense an apprehension of the real which has its own characteristics...Intellection is formally direct apprehension of the real—not via representations nor images. It is an immediate apprehension of the real, not founded in inferences, reasoning processes, or anything of that nature. It is a unitary apprehension. The unity of these three moments is what makes what is apprehended to be apprehended in and by itself.(2)

This fully integrated nature of the sensing and intellection aspects of perception implies that the Scholastic maxim nihil est in intellectus quod prius non fuerit in sensu nisi ipse intellectus is radically false. (3)

(2) Confusion of reality and being; the "entification of reality"

Zubiri criticizes all earlier philosophy (not just classical philosophy) for sloppy thinking in regard to being and reality. For him, reality is sensed, and it is de suyo. Reality is formality, not being; but it is possible to articulate the relations between the two. Being is sensed in an oblique manner when reality is sensed. Zubiri comments,

Classical philosophy has addressed the problem of being from the standpoint of what I have termed the 'conceptualizing intelligence'. To know intellectively would be to "understand"; and understanding would be intellectively knowing that something "is". That was the thesis of Parmenides and Plato, and it has stamped European philosophy with its peculiar character. But the conceptualizing intelligence is constitutively founded upon the sentient intelligence.... (4)

This approach leads inexorably to a certain view of reality and being:

...for this theory, what is intellectively known consists in "being". Whence it follows that reality is but a mode of being—to be sure, the fundamental mode, but nonetheless only a mode: the esse reale. That is to say, the real is formally ens; reality would thus be entity. This is what I call the entification of reality. (5)

Zubiri clarifies his position vis à vis classical philosophy by pointing out that in classical philosophy, substantial being was identified with reality, the esse real. This Zubiri terms the 'entification of reality'.

It is what I have termed the entification of reality: things are not entities unless they have being. Now, to be is always but an ulterior act of the real. Whatsoever a being may be, it is always and only being "of" the real. Ulteriority is the precise meaning of this "of". Therefore, reality and entity are not formally identical. Prior to being entities, and precisely in order to be able to be so, things begin by being real. The ground of being is reality. (6)

This confusion results in the failure of classical philosophy to fully come to grips with being and reality. Zubiri argues that Aristotle's notion of ens (to Ôn) never went beyond the stage of a not-so-clear analogy of eighteen meanings. Given this situation, the Medieval philosophers thought that no unitary concept of ens was possible. They identified reality and existence, and then understood existence to be an act of an existing thing (St. Thomas) or a mode of the thing (Scotus). Zubiri argues:

But this is not so from the standpoint of a sentient intelligence; because as we have already seen, reality is not existence, but rather being de suyo. That is to say, it does not have to do with either a de facto act of existing, nor an aptitude for existing, but rather something prior to any act and any aptitude, viz. the de suyo. The real is de suyo existent, de suyo apt for existing. Reality is formality, and existence concerns only the content of the real. And thus the real is not ens, but is the de suyo as such. Only by being real does the real have an ulterior actuality in the world. This actuality is being, and the real in this actuality is ens. ...Reality is not formally entity. (7)

Thus for Zubiri, the idea of ens is wrong at the deepest level, that of the conceptualizing intelligence. Something real is ens only as actuality in a world. Where does that leave the history of philosophy?

The old thesis of Parmenides canonized the opposition between intellective knowing and sensing which has been sustained throughout all of Western philosophy. Nonetheless, this opposition, as we have seen, does not exist. To know intellectively is to apprehend the real, and this apprehension is sentient. Being is nothing but the oblique moment of what is apprehended in an impression of reality. From the standpoint of a conceptualizing intelligence, what is known intellectively modo recto is "being"; whence it follows that what is oblique would be the apprehension of the real. It would be what we could call the obliqueness of the real. And as I see it, that constitutes the radical flaw of European philosophy on this point... (8)

Finally, this thing-centered approach leads to notion of being according to the categories, into which many things don't fit: energy, entropy, forces of nature.

(3) Logification of intellection

Moreover, the being of the affirmed was identified with the being of predication, with the copulative 'is'. This, which he believes to be wrong as well, he terms the 'logification of intellection':

Basing themselves on Parmenides, both Plato and Aristotle subsumed intellection under logos; that is what...I called the logification of intellection....for this theory, what is intellectively known consists in "being". Whence it follows that reality is but a mode of being—to be sure, the fundamental mode, but nonetheless only a mode: the esse real. That is to say, the real is formally ens; reality would thus be entity. This is what I call the entification of reality. Logification of intellection and entification of the real thus converge intrinsically: the "is" of intellection would consists in an affirmative "is", and the "is" known intellectively would be of entitative character. This convergence has in large measure etched the path of European philosophy. (9)

From Zubiri's standpoint, however, the situation is entirely different:

...the problem does not exhibit the same character from the standpoint of a sentient intelligence. The logos is founded on sentient apprehension of the real; i.e., on the sentient intellection. Therefore, instead of "logifying" intellection, what must be done is, as I said, to "intelligize" the logos; i.e., make the logos an ulterior mode of the primordial apprehension of the real. The formal terminus of intellective knowing is not the "is", but "reality". And thus it follows that reality is not a mode of being; indeed, being is something ulterior to reality itself. In virtue of this ... there is no esse real, but rather realitas in essendo. (10)

This logification has led to quite erroneous ideas about reason. According to Zubiri, they are three: reason as organ of evidence about being, of speculative dialectic, and of total organization of experience. He remarks:

These conceptions are unacceptable at their root, because intellective knowing is not judging but sentiently actualizing the real. Whence it is that reason does not rest upon itself, but is always just a mode of intellection. Reasoning, speculating, and organizing are three ways—among the many possible—of intellectively progressing in depth toward the beyond. And this progression is by its own formal nature founded upon a previous intellection, a sentient intellection. (11)

For Zubiri, in other words, the classical paradigm of rational knowledge as the ultimate basis for all knowledge, and accordingly that which must ground our knowledge, is completely wrong.

(4) Nature and function of definition

Essence is indeed one of the most profound subjects of human thought, and has exercised many of the greatest minds from antiquity to the present day. The central place of essence in human speculation inevitably means that in an age of science, its nature and relationship to the scientifically revealed world will become critically important. Do scientific discoveries about the nature of things bear on essence?

Zubiri greatly broadened and deepened our understanding of essence, both in the logical as well as the physical sense. He reviews old concepts of essence, and rejects them all as insufficient, before proposing his own, founded upon the notion of system:

... the basic, constitutive system of all the notes which are necessary and sufficient for a substantive reality to be what it is, is precisely what I have called essence. It is the primary, coherential, unity. (12)

For Zubiri, it is the interrelationship of the notes making up essence which is important; each constitutive note is present by virtue of its place in constituting the whole. The notes are mutually dependent, and often lose their individual identity in the constituted system. (13)Every reality is thus a systematic unity. (14)This general discussion is in agreement with the modern scientific concept of things as dynamic systems, in which the interrelationship of the components makes the thing what it is, with its own behavior, different than that of its constituents and often obscuring them.

In light of Zubiri's discussion, it is apparent that classical concepts of essence are not congruent with science because they are what I term "flat", i.e., they assume that there is an absolute character of everything that can be captured by some act of the mind, usually unaided, on the basis of which we then "know" the thing. The primary example, of course, is the classical definition in terms of genus and species, with the example, "man is a rational animal", though Hegel and Husserl immediately come to mind as well. Zubiri correctly points out that all such concepts of essence are inadequate because they do not capture its key physical property, that of structure, the de suyo, from which emerge all of its properties or notes, including its dynamics, the dar de sí. This is more along the lines of Aristotle's tÕ t... Ïn enai, but without the logical connotations which it ultimately assumed. Clearly, behavior such as we now understand, from biological evolution to chaos, is of an entirely different order than that envisioned by the creators of the old concepts of essence; and it involves layers of structure which point to a far richer and more complex reality than those concepts are capable of expressing. Indeed, it is unclear that essences can be adequately expressed at all in normal language.

The probing activity of science, through sketching of possibilities and use of experiment, may be the principal route to knowledge of essences, even though essence appears logically in primordial apprehension. Zubiri's concept of essence is thus much more profound, but also much more difficult to achieve, than earlier conceptions of it. He notes,

... essence is not to be sought in the metaphysical analysis of the predicates which are attributed to the thing, but rather, on the contrary, in the analysis of its real structures, of its notes, and of the function which these fulfill in the constitutional system of its individual substantivity.... It is the essence as "physical" moment of the real thing. (15)

(5) The notion of truth and its relationship to reality

The classical notion of truth is or involves some agreement between thought and things—Zubiri terms it 'dual truth'. Zubiri does not wish to reject this notion, only to reject it as the fundamental meaning of 'truth'. The major problem with the classical idea is that it does not provide a reliable path for us to go beyond our perceptions; there is, so to speak, and unbridgeable gap between the world of sense perception and that of real things. But for Zubiri, this problem is a pseudo-problem because it is based on an incorrect analysis of our fundamental act of perception and on a derivative notion of truth. The correct analysis of perception is that of Zubiri's sentient intellection, according to which we do directly perceive reality in primordial apprehension; this is real truth and not subject to error; error can only arise when we seek to go beyond primordial apprehension via rational processes. Zubiri notes,

...the real is "in" the intellection, and this "in" is ratification. In sentient intellection truth is found in that primary form which is the impression of reality. The truth of this impressive actuality of the real in and by itself is precisely real truth.... Classical philosophy has gone astray on this matter and always thought that truth is constituted in the reference to a real thing with respect to what is conceived or asserted about that thing. It is because of this that I believe that the classical idea of truth is always what I term dual truth. But in real truth we do not leave the real thing at all; the intelligence of this truth is not conceptualized but sentient. And in this intellection nothing is primarily conceived or judged; rather, there is simply the real actualized as real and therefore ratified in its reality. Real truth is ratification, and therefore is simple truth. (16)

Truth is often conceived as agreement of thought with things. This may be the case in some areas, such as the judicial system; but it is inadequate in general. For example, we wish to speak of the truth of art or literature. Moreover, once one agrees that language is limited in what it can express, unless one generalizes the notion of truth, it too becomes extremely limited. Zubiri comments:

Primary and radical truth is not the conformity of thought with things, i.e., truth is not primarily a property of thought, but a property of reality itself, that characteristic according to which reality itself is actualized in the intelligence. This is what I have called real truth. This truth has, as we indicated, three dimensions: patency of reality, firmness of reality, effectivity of reality. Patency, firmness, and effectivity are the three dimensions of the intellective actualization of reality. (17)

With respect to error, Zubiri observes that

the mere actuality of what is apprehended "in" the apprehension itself is not dual; it is a series of notes which pertain to what is apprehended "of its own", i.e., de suyo. Hence, error consists in identifying the real which is apprehended with the real beyond or outside of the apprehension; in no way does it consist in what is apprehended being unreal "in" the apprehension and yet being taken as real. In an apprehension the apprehended content is real in and by itself; when ratified as such it constitutes real truth. There is no possibility of error. (18)

With this background, it is natural that in Zubiri truth will have a different meaning than in classical (or any other) philosophy. The priority of reality is paramount; for Zubiri, truth is intellective actualization of the real qua intellective, in the sense that a thing is really that in accordance with which it has been actualized.

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(1) Xavier Zubiri, Inteligencia y realidad, (First volume of trilogy, Inteligencia sentiente), Madrid: Alianza Editorial/Sociedad de Estudios y Publicaciones, 1980, p. 82-83. (Hereafter, IRE; unless otherwise indicated, all translations of Zubiri are by the author).

(2) IRE, p. 257.

(3) IRE, p. 104.

(4) IRE, p. 224.

(5) IRE, p. 224-225.

(6) Xavier Zubiri, El Hombre Y Dios, Madrid: Alianza Editorial/Sociedad de Estudios y Publicaciones, 1984, p. 131. (Hereafter, HD; translation by Mr. Joaquin Redondo.

(7) IRE p. 226.

(8) IRE, p. 227-228.

(9) IRE, p. 151

(10) IRE, p. 151

(11) IRE, p. 523

(12) Xavier Zubiri, Estructura Dinámica de la Realidad, Madrid: Alianza Editorial/Sociedad de Estudios y Publicaciones, 1989, p. 35. (Hereafter, ED).

(13) Xavier Zubiri, Sobre la Esencia, Madrid: Alianza Editorial/Sociedad de Estudios y Publicaciones, 1985, p. 144. (translation of A.R. Caponigri; Hereafter, SE). p. 144.

(14) SE, p. 266.

(15) SE, p. 177.

(16) IRE, p. 234-235.

(17) HD, p. 214.

(18) IRE, p. 236.

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