Action is the Revelation of Being

Action is the revelation of being. This principle, Norris Clarke tells us, is central to the metaphysics of St Thomas Aquinas. It also seems to be true. Try to imagine a non-acting being—an entity that never interacts with other entities, that never communicates, that never manifests its presence, that never expresses its nature, that never acts in the universe as a cause. Not only would we not know what kind of being it is, but we would not even know that it exists. It would be a non-being, indistinguishable from nothing. “A being that did not manifest its existence and essence to others by some form of self-revealing action,” observes Clarke, “would make no difference at all to the other beings in the universe, and hence might just as well not be at all” (Explorations in Metaphysics, p. 46). Now try to imagine a universe populated exclusively by such non-beings. It would not, and could not, be a universe. Nothing would act upon anything. Nothing would be connected by cause and effect. There would be no mass, no energy, no movement, no relationship, no life, no consciousness—in other words, the absence of reality. “To be real is to make a difference,” states Clarke; but in a universe filled by inert beings, nothing would make a difference (The One and the Many, p. 32). Thus muted, existence collapses into nihility. “To have a universe, a community of real existents, its members would have to communicate with each other, be linked somehow and all communication requires some kind of action. A non-acting, non-communicative being is for all practical purposes (in the order of intelligibility, value, action, or making any difference at all) equivalent to no being at all” (p. 32).

This thought experiment leads Clarke to assert the energetic nature of existence:

It is through action, and only through action, that real beings manifest or “unveil” their being, their presence, to each other and to me. All the beings that make up the world of my experience thus reveal themselves as not just present, standing out of nothingness, but actively presenting themselves to others and vice versa by interacting with each other. Meditating on this leads to the metaphysical conclusion that it is the very nature of real being, existential being, to pour over into action that is self-revealing and self-communicative. In a word, existential being is intrinsically dynamic, not static. (pp. 31-32)

To be is to be actively present to other beings, to act on others and be available to their action. To be is to be in dynamic relation and community. To be is to exist in unity with all other beings. In this way beings form the inter-connected system that we call a universe. Admittedly, the notion of self-revelation seems odd when speaking of inanimate objects—at least until a rock hits me on the head. “What the heck!” At that moment the inanimate world gets my attention and forces me to attend to it. So I pick up the rock and attempt to understand its nature. Essence reveals itself to me through its energy. Just ask Wile E. Coyote.

Clarke then makes an important clarification: being and action are not logically identical; “action,” rather, “flows naturally from real being precisely as existent”—agere sequitur esse (action follows the act of being). This leads to a twofold distinction: “existence is the first act of a real being, action its second act, flowing immediately from the first. Aristotle himself saw this long ago when he defined a real nature as ‘an abiding center of acting and being acted upon'” (p. 33).

We know things by their operations and activities. As Thomas writes: “Then, too, the species of a thing is gathered from its proper operation; for the operation manifests the power, which reveals the essence” (SG II.94). We do not originate the action of the other. We suffer it and are thus, as Clarke puts it, “controlled or determined by it willy-nilly.” This suffering signifies the presence of the other and leads us to the a limited apprehension of its nature, as this kind of actor rather than another kind. “This is precisely what our knowledge of the essences of real beings comes down to,” he elaborates: “we know them as such and such kinds of actors, distinguished from others by such and such a set of characteristic actions. Such knowledge is genuinely revelatory of the essence, for it enables us to know that the being truly has within itself such a nature, possessing such a degree of perfection and power, that it can originate such a self-communicating, self-expressing, self-imaging action” (Explorations, p. 55).

We cannot bypass action to grasp the essence of things. As physical creatures who encounter the world by sensory apprehension, “we cannot ‘zap in’ by direct unmediated intuition to ‘see’ intellectually the inner act of existence and especially the nature of the agent as it abides in itself behind the actions, apart from and independently of these actions” (p. 55). God knows the essence of things immediately and exhaustively through the divine act of creation, but we only know them to the extent that they reveal their essence through their activities. Note the “to the extent”:

But no single action of a finite being can ever reveal totally, in a single exhaustive flash, the entire essence of that being. Every action of a finite being (or even the action of an Infinite Being as received in a finite being) is always at once revealing and concealing, to use Heidegger’s marvelously apt language. It does reveal something of the inner nature; otherwise it would not be action at all. But it also leaves unrevealed further depths or aspects of the reservoir of active potency within it; and though finite in itself, the latter is still inexhaustible to our knowledge because of its hidden ontological connections with every other being in the universe and especially with its Infinite Source, God himself. (p. 55)

Action is the revelation of being. Readers will immediately start pondering upon the theological implications of this metaphysical principle. Consider, for example, St Basil’s statement “The [divine] operations are various, and the essence simple, but we say that we know our God from His operations, but do not undertake to approach near to His essence. His operations come down to us, but His essence remains beyond our reach” (Letter 234.1; cf. David Bradshaw, “The Concept of the Divine Energies“). How else can we know our Creator but by his self-manifestation?

(Go to “The Diffusiveness of Being”)

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33 Responses to Action is the Revelation of Being

  1. brian says:

    Consider, as well, that not only is the revelation of essence through action limited to the capacity of the receiver of action, it is also always an action in a context. This means that the relations that provide the context of action also color what is revealed. An essence in principle contains an infinite number of “aspects,” i.e. what is revealed through the action of essence in a particular, incommunicable moment. It would require eternity and all possible dramatic relations to truly speak the name of any being. Action as revelation means that being is intrinsically aimed at communication. It is metaphysically opposed to the lie.

    As a corollary, the loss of any possible relation is not only the loss of one particular being, but the loss of all the aspects of all the others who require the lost for certain aspects to be revealed.

    Between paragraph 1 and 2, I moved from essence to particular being. This brings in questions regarding uniqueness, individuation, and whether all of reality can be considered in some sense personal. As John Milbank points out, understanding relation properly is closely tied to how one understands participation. My own guess is that matter as it is normally understood within the Aristotelian metaphysics and adopted by Aquinas is not quite enough to comprehend individuation. I think the answer has something to do with the unique flesh of Christ and the Eucharist, but that is a long, speculative conversation.

    In any event, essence is never abstract, it is always realized temporally, but includes an eternal (formal) root and an eschatological destiny. There are implications implicit in all this for how one should ponder soteriology and think about the cosmos and the eschaton.

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  2. Michelle says:

    Let’s say a schizophrenic person hallucinates a leprechaun sitting on their ottoman in their living room. Everything about the essence of something is percieved by its action that flows from it. But in this case the action of a lounging leprechaun can hardly reveal to the shcizophrenic anything true about its biological source, let alone its essence. So how can we trust the action of an ottoman sitting in our own living room to reveal anything reliable to us about the source of its essence? It seems action tells us something exists, but potentiall tells us absolutely nothing true about that existence. Potentially the ottomam in our living room that is communicating to us through its action is nothing more than a biological misfiring in our brain. Just saying…

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    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      If the ottoman in the room is a misfiring of the brain, it still exists as a misfiring of the brain, misidentified as an ottoman. We determine that it is, in fact, an ottoman by studying it more closely and establishing whether its existence and behaviour and interaction with the rest of reality is consistent with it being an ottoman rather than a misfiring of the brain (for example by sitting on it and seeing if we hit the floor).

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      • Michelle says:

        A schizophernic can’t escape delusion by further examination. If they fell through an ottoman it would be because the leprechaum magically made it disappear from underneath them. And I, at this very moment, may very well be out in the woods sitting on a rock, all the while hallucinating that I am sitting on my ottoman in the comfort of my living room. No amount of examing my hallucinatory living room is going to reveal the woods to me.

        We are all potentially hopeless schizophrenics, unable to ever derive any truth from the actions of our surroundings. The only thing we can glean is that ‘something’ exists, but we can never be sure about the true nature of that existence. That is unless we possess a special revelation.

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        • Iain Lovejoy says:

          Things are as they are. Calling something an “illusion” only makes sense if there is another, external reality which the illusion is not, and to which the illusion will yield in the face of reality. You presuppose a “real reality” underlying and distinct from experienced reality of which experienced reality is a sort of projection or image, and worry that this “real reality” does not conform to the mental constructs we use to make sense of the reality we experience.
          I am not sure this is warranted.
          For a classical theist (as I understand it) the base underlying reality is simply God (indeed that is the definition if God) and, indeed God doesn’t bear any resemblance to perceived reality.
          I think where we go wrong is concluding that the perceived universe is therefore “unreal” or “illusory”. I don’t think you can say that because what we perceive is in fact the action or emanation of God, it is therefore somehow unreal: I would say rather its source in the action / emanation of God that makes it real.

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          • Michelle says:

            You are right, just because God does not bear any resemblance to the emnations of His creation does not mean the emnation is illusiory. But my point was more to the fact that all percieved environments cannot escape a possible strong skepticism on our part. So even if we are percieving God’s emnations without fail, we can still doubt them completely based on this veil of skepticism that is always available to us by virtue of Descartes’ conclusion that the only thing we can know free of all possibilitg of skepticism is “I exist,” or “I am.”

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Michelle, it seems to me that your present conversation with Iain and others provides prima facie evidence in support of Norris’s claim that being reveals itself in action. I suppose it’s possible that you are hallucinating the conversation or that I’m hallucinating it–but that level of skepticism is an epistemological dead-end. If we aren’t capable of distinguishing between reality and hallucination, then there’s no point in arguing about it. Yet here we are. My guess is that at this moment, each of us reading this thread is convinced that we are communicating with real people.

      I am reminded by Bertrand Russell’s comment on solipsism:

      “As against solipsism it is to be said, in the first place, that it is psychologically impossible to believe, and is rejected in fact even by those who mean to accept it. I once received a letter from an eminent logician, Mrs. Christine Ladd-Franklin, saying that she was a solipsist, and was surprised that there were no others. Coming from a logician and a solipsist, her surprise surprised me.”

      Seems apt, don’t you think? 🙂

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      • Michelle says:

        I think the reason why a person accepts Norris’s claims over skepticism is because skepticism doesn’t always suit their fancy. But skepticism will always be there for us when we feel like being a skeptic, but sometimes it isn’t preferable, for one reason or another, so we confirm the trustworthiness of another theory, without actually having any overtly reliable reason to trust it (we can always turn around and re-criticize our newly accepted theory with skepticism again. He is always there for us when we need him). And, yes, we can even turn on solipsism itself, being a skeptic of our own skepticism (as your Bertrand Russell quote points out). But if we ever do accept Norris’s theory of epistemological knowledge being gained through perceiving the actions of our surroundings, our heartfelt trust in his theory won’t actually have blossomed from within our bosom by means of a knowledge gained through the actions of our surroundings. In this way our own experiences will ultimately undermine his theory by way of the nature of our acceptance of it; we can only blindly accept his theory of our trustworthy sight. Its a little ironic to accept prima facie a theory that explains our abilities to gain knowledge by a means that is anything but “prima facie.”

        And I am not a solipsists myself, because it is unsatisfactory to my burning desire for communion, and my desire to be able to trust my surroundings. And these desires are persistent enough to assist me in trusting my perceptions against skepticism’s obtrusiveness. But they only help to fight skepticism back, without completely eliminating its feasibility. And possibly skepticism persistent insistence of itself has its uses, like teaching us that Norris’s theory is not completely satisfactory. Maybe it can help teach us about the need for ‘special revelation.’

        A couple question: Does this portray knowledge or ignorance gained through the perception of the actions of one’s surroundings?

        Luke 24:30 “Now it came to pass, as He sat at the table with them, that He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they knew Him; and He vanished from their sight…..

        …….36 Now as they said these things, Jesus Himself stood in the midst of them, and said to them, “Peace to you.” 37 But they were terrified and frightened, and supposed they had seen a spirit. 38 And He said to them, “Why are you troubled? And why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.”

        40 When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet.[f] 41 But while they still did not believe for joy, and marveled, He said to them, “Have you any food here?” 42 So they gave Him a piece of a broiled fish and some honeycomb.[g]43 And He took it and ate in their presence.

        44 Then He said to them, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.” 45 And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures.”

        Did Jesus’s opening of their understanding involve any measure of special revelation? What ratio of observing their surroundings’ actions and special revelation was needed to aid them in finally ‘getting it?’ I think it is significant that its the breaking of bread, and the communal sharing of a meal in both instances that Jesus is finally revealed to them in truth. Somehow in this act of Jesus’s they are struck by an epiphany. Is there a relationship between communion and special revelation?

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    • Tom says:

      Michelle: How can we trust the action of an ottoman sitting in our own living room to reveal anything reliable to us about the source of its essence?

      Tom: We know, I think, because of the “context” of things that Brian mentioned above (“the relations that provide the context of action also color what is revealed”). Hallucinations can’t ultimately sustain the kind of relations to other real objects and persons in our world. No ‘group of individuals’, for example, shares the same hallucination. In other words, the wider context of our relations and all the ‘actions’ that comprise our world confirms or calls into question aspects of our experience. If the leprechaun relates to me but to no one else in my experience, if no other person in my relations ‘acts with respect to’ there being a leprechaun in my room, then I have grounds for suspecting something is up. Remember the film “A Beautiful Mind” about the genius Nobel Prize recipient and schizophrenic John ? He has powerful hallucinations his whole life. He was able to expose them to himself as hallucinations by forcing himself to integrate their supposed reality into the wider scope of his experience. There’s an interesting moment when he realizes that though they’ve been in his world for years, “They never age.” Just a thought.

      I have a question on a separate note: “God knows the essence of things immediately and exhaustively through the divine act of creation, but we only know them to the extent that they reveal their essence through their activities.” Does this provide some insight into the unity of God’s triune essence? Might we say that the divine persons know each other immediately (true presence) and not through a second moment of acts and that this immediacy of mutual knowledge constitutes an essential oneness and explains why no two created persons can possess the same essence the way Father and Son possess a single essence?

      Tom

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      • brian says:

        Big questions, Tom. If you haven’t watched it, (I think you may have,) give a look to the first part of this podcast where David C Schindler talks about the correlative “excess” involved in both created being and the divine. He’s a Balthasarian, so he stresses that within what you are calling “divine immediacy” there is still, paradoxically, “excess,” i.e. room for dynamic discovery and delight within TriUne being.

        I have tried to allude in some of my writing here, btw, to the infinite depths of creatures founded upon divine infinity.

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  3. Michelle says:

    “To be is to be actively present to other beings, to act on others and be available to their action. To be is to be in dynamic relation and community. To be is to exist in unity with all other beings. In this way beings form the inter-connected system that we call a universe.”

    And the above statement holds true even if a person’s entire percievable environment is a purely hallucinatory world of leprechauns.

    But a statement like this, “…we say that we know our God from His operations… His operations come down to us….” won’t be of much use for this leprechaun-befriending person. And this means its not much use to any of us either, because we aren’t any better off than they are when it comes to gaining actual truth from our perceptible world. So I guess to possess actual knowledgeable truth requires a special kind of revelation. Which means before we can trust St. Basil’s statement here, or Clarke’s assertions, or this leprechaun sitting here on my ottoman, who has share with me his own philosophical theory of ‘being’ (which is far superior by the way), we will need a heavy dose of this ‘special revelation’ to guide us.

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    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      Even a hallucinatory world of leprechauns is “real” in the sense of being a manifested action of whatever is producing the hallucinations, whether an external influence or internal fault in the brain. We may still gain actual knowledgeable truth concerning the nature of the hallucination itself. What restricts our knowledge in such circumstances is our inability to perceive anything outside the hallucination, not what we do perceive inside it, I would say.

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  4. Harry Davidson says:

    “we cannot ‘zap in’ by direct unmediated intuition to ‘see’ intellectually the inner act of existence and especially the nature of the agent as it abides in itself behind the actions, apart from and independently of these actions”. Apparently Clarke did not believe “special revelation” was necessary or even possible. “Direct unmediated intuition” sounds pretty close to how the nous works. Philip Sherrard spoke of the modern mistaken theory of “the double order of truth” which broke the acquisition of knowledge into knowledge by faith or religious knowledge and knowledge by observation or empirical knowledge. Sherrard believed there was only one kind of knowledge i.e. unmediated direct intuition acquired through the nous. I think “special revelation” describes direct intuition better than “self-manifestation”, which seems to imply the necessity of an action that is observed. See 2Cor.3:18.

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    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      If the entire of creation is ultimately a manifestation of the action of God, how “special” is “special revelation”? Can we perceive by “special revelation” anything that God has not acted to reveal to us?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Regarding Norris’s statement that we, as empirical beings, are not given an intuitive awareness of the essences of things, Norris (and Aquinas) share an interesting point of contact with the Cappadocians. They too denied that we can achieve a perfect knowledge of creaturely essences. See, e.g., my article “The Impossibility of Comprehending the Incomprehensible God.” I am not suggesting that Aquinas and the Cappadocians share similar epistemologies–just noting that the parties acknowledge our limitations in knowing reality.

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  5. Ed says:

    Michelle,
    The claim that every real being manifests its being through action does not entail the reverse claim, i.e., that everything that is presented to our cognitive awareness as the action of a real being is a true manifestation of being.

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    • Michelle says:

      I would have to disagree. Descarte concluded that absolutely everything he was cognitively aware of (from the things detected by his five senses, to the mathematical conclusions of his abstract reasoning) could be a delusion, like one great big inescapable hallucination. He could not gain the true nature of this existence, but he could at least take it as evidence of existence itself. And existence itself, despite its unreliabilty of revealing its true nature, still manifested its ‘existinghood-ness’ through the action of delusion. So even a delusion, falsely manifesting itself as a real being, does in fact manifest at least manifest ‘existence’ to us, meaning it reveals something ‘to be’ of which we cannot deny.

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      • brian says:

        Descartes had to posit God as an epistemological guarantor against the possibility that he was subject to delusion under the aegis of an “evil genius.” Since for Descartes the entire physical cosmos is basically a value neutral res extensa, it is incapable of communicating meaningful information. Interiority is the privilege of the subjective knower which quickly devolves into at minimum a quasi-solipsistic judgment. The “existence” discoverable by Cartesian doubt is a narrow, starved concept indeed.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Clarke suggests that instead of beginning with the Cartesian “I am,” we should instead begin with the “We are” of interpersonal dialogue. This starting point “plungers us immediately into a world of active reality shared by others just as real as myself, with whom I can actively communicate, and whose natures are revealed in the same experience” (The One and the Many, p. 39).

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        • brian says:

          RIght, and there is thus a “natural” corrective to solipsistic delusion. Of course, if one is determined upon a course of radical doubt, one can stubbornly maintain it, though whether one can plausibly do so without interiorly laughing at oneself is another matter.

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  6. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Has anyone figured out yet the first photo, i.e., the one with all the black?

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  7. Harry Davidson says:

    Intuition tells me it’s a prescription container from Wal-Green’s sitting on a bed side table in a dark bedroom. Then again, perhaps a little self-manifestation would be helpful.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Haha. That was my first thought too when I looked at that little object. Click on the image and then click on the next image and see what you think then.

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      • brian says:

        Well, I tried to save the image in order to blow it up and discovered a tag line asserting some connection to an Apollo capsule or some such. I believe, however, that it is an ottoman flung into space by an irate and capricious leprechaun.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Right. The photo was taken during one of the Apollo missions. I don’t know what the dang thing is, though. Satellite? Something the astronauts released into space? The Tardis?

          I chose it because it sure looks all alone in the emptiness of space.

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  8. Robertson says:

    Michelle, I’m sorry but going on about hallucinating and leprechauns doesn’t really do anything. If one wants to be a complete skeptic, they can go that rout, but it’s a bit pointless. As Clarke discusses at the beginning of the book in discussion, alll intellectual endeavor is based on a natural act of faith in the intelligibliliy of being. If you’re interested in the relation b/w philosophy and mental illness. Stephen R.L. Clark is good place to go. Iain McEwain has also done interesting work and on the possible philosophical roots of mental illness. G.K. Chesterton is quite good as well, especially in his description of the “narrowing of vision” of the afflicted as reason in a restricted circle, a phenomenon you already alluded to.

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    • Michelle says:

      “all intellectual endeavor is based on a natural act of faith in the intelligibliliy of being”

      All but the existential experience of Descartes’ “I exist.” It takes zero faith to know in truth, without even the possibility of skepticism, that “I exist.” So will I ever know God in the same way that I know “I exist?” Or will “I exist” always be a superior knowledge (meaning that it is free of all skepticism) to my knowledge of God? Only a special revelation could make me to know God with the exact same existential certitude that I know “I exist.” But I admit, the leprechaun spiel was a long winded, round about way of getting to this point.

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      • Robertson says:

        Right, I understand what Descartes was trying to do. Only you might argue that even that awareness of my own being depends on a previous awareness of being. As Aquinas says, “Being is the first thing to fall into the intellect.” But even if not, I see what Descartes is trying to do. However, I can’t go with you on how you’re throwing around “special revelation”. God reveals himself to us in the most mundane things, precisely because the entire universe is “revelatory”. I agree we can have some intense and deeply felt sense of God that is not “ordinary”. But I don’t think there is some special type of knowledge that floats about a world of chaos and doubt. Sounds a bit gnostic. That’s not to say that some of our most deeply experiences of truth are difficult if not impossible to communicate adequately. Also I don’t mean to say that I buy some dry rationalism. I think Plato was right when described knowledge has a transformative encounter with beings of things that comes only after diligent interior (and exterior) cultivation. Joseph Pieper links the cultivation with inner stillness couples with a certain “openness” to reality. That’s the view of knowledge I’m sympathetic to

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  9. Ed says:

    Michelle,
    My point was a merely logical one. The fact that every dog is an animal does not entail the converse, i.e., that every animal is a dog. Even Descartes would admit this point.
    And even within the context of Descartes’ cogito, we see an application of the principle that action reveals being. For, according to Descartes, although the real existence of all of the objects of thought can be denied, what cannot be denied is the act of denial itself. And the act of denial, again according to Descartes, implies an existing “I” who denies.

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  10. Michelle says:

    For some reason my comments from this thread were emailed to me over 300 times. Did anyone else experience this? Trying to figure out if my wordpress account got hacked?? Really strange.

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