Monday, 22 August 2016

Revisiting Anselm's Ontological Argument

Posted by Thomas Scarborough

On the surface of it, Anselm's ontological argument seems to be absurd: One can think of nothing greater than God, therefore God exists. And yet our fascination with Anselm endures. What is this strange attraction?

Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109 AD) was a medieval philosopher and theologian, who put forward the celebrated ontological argument for the existence of God. This has been discussed by many of the 'big names' in philosophy, including René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel – and more recently by Charles Hartshorne, Karl Barth, and Alvin Plantinga, among others.

What is remarkable about Anselm's argument is that, while it would seem to have been refuted time and time again – beginning with Gaunilo of Marmoutiers in 1078 – it just keeps on bouncing back.

I propose that we may find an explanation for this abiding fascination with Anselm, if we assume (as was indeed the case) that Anselm did not have access to the postmodern language of epistemology – in particular, to the nonfoundationalism which we know today. What might his argument have looked like if he had?

But first, for the sake of completeness, the core of Anselm's original ontological argument, translated by Scott Moore:

Even the fool is compelled to grant that something greater than which cannot be thought exists in thought, because he understands what he hears, and whatever is understood exists in thought.

And certainly that greater than which cannot be understood cannot exist only in thought, for if it exists only in thought it could also be thought of as existing in reality as well, which is greater.

We shall pass over the detail of previous historical discussion, as this is not of special importance here. What is indeed important is just a single feature of Anselm's argument – namely, the word 'greater'. What does Anselm refer to with this word? A supreme being? A perfect being? A necessary being? What is he thinking is 'greater'?

The philosophy writer Chirag Mehta asks: what is the great-making property? Or more to the point, the linguist Michael Geis notes that adjectives such as 'greater' are normally relativised to some reference class. To put it simply, adjectives typically refer to something definite. But where is Anselm's reference class? It isn't there.

Supposing that we take a leap of intuition. Aristotle used the Greek word ἀξίουν (that which is worthy) to describe axioms. We know, too, that Anselm was well familiar with Aristotle's work. ἀξίουν is derived from the word ἄξιος (worth, or worthy), and it means 'a statement or proposition on which an abstractly defined structure is based'. 

Now let us suppose that Anselm intended to speak of something more worthy than which cannot be thought – in the sense of the ultimate Axiom – the Axiom which lies beneath all axioms: that Axiom which is 'more worthy' than all others. In keeping with this, let us drop Aristotle's word ἀξίουν into Anselm's work, so replacing Anselm's adjective 'greater':

Even the fool is compelled to grant that something more ἀξίουν (axiomatic) than which cannot be thought exists in thought, because he understands what he hears, and whatever is understood exists in thought.

And certainly that more ἀξίουν (axiomatic) than which cannot be understood cannot exist only in thought, for if it exists only in thought it could also be thought of as existing in reality as well, which is more ἀξίουν (axiomatic).

It will be seen that the replacement works. Perhaps therefore Anselm did not intend (seemingly absurdly) that one cannot conceive of anything greater than God. Perhaps he intended that God is the ἀξίουν beneath all axioms. Even if this was not his intention, it would seem to deliver an ontological argument.

With the rising tide of nonfoundationalism today, axioms are in trouble. We need foundations, yet we do not find them. The theologian Deane Galbraith notes that the problem today is not merely that our axioms are ungrounded, but that they are now 'grounded arbitrarily'. This implies, too, that we find ourselves in a great personal and social predicament.

There has to be an ἀξίουν, and it has to be an ἀξίουν which is more worthy than all others. How then might God represent that ἀξίουν? This lies beyond the scope of this simple post. Yet if this is what Anselm should have intended – namely, that we are in desperate need of the ultimate Axiom, then his argument may begin to make eminent sense.


  1. An interesting read, Thomas, which drew me into rethinking, after an admitted hiatus, about Anselm’s argument . . .

    Fundamentally, I’m dubious that changing ‘greater than’ to ‘more worthy than’ which cannot be thought—the ultimate Axiom, as you say, lying under all other axioms—does successfully resuscitate Anselm’s long-discredited ontological argument for God’s existence. Saying (even speculatively) that ‘God is the ἀξίουν beneath all axioms’ doesn’t, in my view, move the ontological needle. One general concern I have is that Anselm’s ontological argument ‘presupposes’—rather than ‘proves’—God’s existence; I don’t see how ‘the ἀξίουν beneath all axioms’ alters that.

    The a priori ontological argument hasn’t fared well under several centuries of scrutiny, despite a long string of attempts by philosophers and theologians—all the way to the twenty-first century—to dust it off and rejigger it. (To that extent, the ontological argument has good company: the cosmological and teleological arguments—though that’s a story for another day.) Despite all the debate among some notable philosophers—to include Hartshorne, Barth, and Plantinga, whom your essay cites—the ontological argument has, at best, remained notional and, at worst, remained suspect and refutable.

    These philosophers’ reformulations have not demonstrated, logically or in any way, that God is a ‘necessary entity’. Indeed, some reformulations have led to this mind bender: ‘It is not the case that God necessarily doesn‘t exist.’ Hence, ‘leap of faith’ and ‘personal inspiration,’ whatever one may argue are the shortcomings of those positions, trump the ontological argument, remaining the best hope and succor for many of the world’s people inclined toward God and providence.

    As you say in ending the essay, ‘How then might God represent that ἀξίουν? This lies beyond the scope of this simple post’—a teaser, suggesting that more might be said on the matter of where ἀξίουν might take us, once that thread has been fully played out. I, for one, would welcome such concluding remarks in some later post, should that be in the cards.

    Thanks, again, for an enjoyable post—doing its job of prompting reflection.

    1. One wonders what was going through Anselm's mind. Without his providing the 'great-making property' so-called, the answer seems to me to be left wide open. If Anselm was indeed thinking in terms of the ultimate Axiom, who or what then was it, and how?

      One thing my short post could do is open up the possibility that Anselm was simply making an appeal to Scripture and authority as being axiomatic. This would be consistent with Anselm. That is speculation on my part, without endorsement, and may relegate Anselm's argument to 'ordinary' rather than 'not faring well'.

      Myself, I wouldn't think that 'more worthy' is far-fetched. It is synonymous with 'greater', and the Latin is I think the same for both. One does then have a match with Aristotle's term ἀξίουν.

  2. Why would an axiom need any backing up? They're suppoosed to be the things we can rely on anyway.

    "the ultimate Axiom – the Axiom which lies beneath all axioms"

    It's an unusual approach to this old wrangle, but it doesn't seem to me to shed much light - and questions left dangling as 'beyond this post' always seem to me a cop-out.

    1. Supposing that Anselm is saying that 'God is bedrock', as my post suggests. What kind of bedrock then? Two suggestions for now:

      1. People are willing both to die and to kill for 'centres' which give their lives meaning. Thus they will not relinquish these centres: culture, ideology, duty, and so on. Unless there should be a (Super) Centre. Paul Tournier developed this idea and gave it content. Or

      2. At the risk of being repetitive, we know that Anselm actually believed that 'bedrock' was God's Word. In that context, his argument could be as simple as this: divine revelation is the true foundation of everything. Sola Scriptura.

      However as long as we think that Anselm's 'greater than' was referring to the size of something, as it were, we will be unable to see this last possibility.

  3. Having always had trouble with this ontological argument – even with my limited knowledge of its background –, I thought emphasising the missing reference class was naming a crucial critical point. The suggestion for replacement is original and seems far more fundamental to me than Anselm’s premature conclusion (why should it always be greater for something to exist in the material world rather than the mind? Why is that?), although personally I always thought that knowing something and having faith (believing) in something are different ways of referring to something; different noeses, to put it phenomenologically.

    1. That last sentence of yours is very interesting. Thank you Christian. If you feel inspired, maybe a post some day?

    2. Thanks for your feedback, Thomas – yes, I was thinking about that... will see whether I will be able to collect my thoughts on that topic (and condense them!).

    3. Doesn't the problem with the argument like the problem with notions of existence hang on this question of the difference between, say flying pigs and actual boring mutant pigs with wings... or perhaps golden mountains and mountains made largely of dull rocks? There seem to be two kinds of existence and I'm not sure they are exchangeable.

    4. Mistaking signs for objects co-existing with signs? Now there's something you can unravel in a forthcoming post ...

  4. Switching words around—from ‘greater than’ to ‘more worthy than’ to ‘the ultimate Axiom’ to ‘ἀξίουν’ to ‘necessary entity’ to ‘bedrock’ to ‘God’s Word’ to ‘super Centre’ or any other—can go on indefinitely, but I suspect doing so will never save the fundamentally and fatally flawed a priori (ontological) argument for the existence of God.

    1. This post is not, I think, intended to save the argument, but to understand it.

      In this context, there is a significant philosophical difference if one translates Anselm's original Latin majus as 'greater' or if one translates it as 'more worthy'. It is not a mere switching around of words. The former means that God is in a sense above, while the latter means that God is in a sense beneath. The former looks more like an issue of ontology, while the latter looks more like an issue of epistemology.

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