July 23, 2020

Being as Gift: On the Metaphysics of Ferdinand Ulrich

A lecture by Professor Rachel M. Coleman (Assumption University)

Time & Location

July 23, 2020


“Thus being is nothing other than self-diffusing actuality. But it does not subsist as a thing between God and the creature. Thomas therefore says, ‘‘Esse’ signifies something complete and simple, but non-subsistent.’ As pure mediation, to be ‘is’ not an existing thing, an ens [kein Seiendes].” –Ferdinand Ulrich

Throughout history, humankind has grappled with the most elusive question: why is there something rather than nothing? In the 20th-century, the celebrated philosopher Ferdinand Ulrich (1931–2020), whose work is experiencing a revival today, proposed that a fundamental—and overlooked—category for understanding being is “gift.” Engaging with significant questions raised by Hegel and Heidegger, and taking particular inspiration from Aquinas, in his magnum opus Homo Abyssus: The Drama of the Question of Being Ulrich contends that “gift” is not simply a moral ascription to the character of being, but is its true definition. In this lecture, Professor Rachel M. Coleman provided an introduction to Ulrich’s richly textured metaphysics of gift, drawing upon her recent dissertation Matter as an Image of the Good: Ferdinand Ulrich’s Metaphysics of Creation, as well as other works of Ulrich. She showed the ways in which Ulrich’s philosophy of gift seeks to illuminate the mystery of being, and to discover its meaning for human existence. 

Professor Coleman elucidated the meaning of Ulrich’s twin insights that being is gift and nothing. She showed how Aquinas was the guiding inspiration for Ulrich’s understanding of the nothingness of being, referencing in particular the following statement from De Potentia Dei, q.1, a.1: ipsum esse est completum et simplex sed non subsistens (“being is complete and simple yet nonsubsistent”). For Aquinas and for Ulrich, created being is non-subsistent being, while God is subsistent being-itself. Prof. Coleman explained how being’s non-subsistence makes possible its infinite actuality, and its gift. In her interpretation of Ulrich, being’s nothingness—i.e., that it’s not a thing which subsists in itself—gives it its gift-character. Since being has no self, it does not have to keep being for itself. Rather, its nature is “to be given, to allow another to be.” Further, because being is gift, it is also task. This can be understood through the dynamic fulfillment of Ulrich’s metaphysics in meta-anthropology. In Ulrich’s thought, human being is both the apex of created being, and its shepherd. This means that “being is not only for man, but . . . man is for being.” 

The evening’s discussion, which included Ulrich scholars, covered the following subjects:

  • The role of reason in disclosing to human being awareness of the gift

  • Affinities and points of difference with Heidegger on transcendence, mortality, and origin

  • Possible dialogue with Orthodoxy regarding mediation (cf. Gregory Palamas’ distinction between divine essence and energies)

  • Revelation, its presence and logic, in Ulrich’s metaphysics

  • Being as task; whether this implies that human being can change the structure of being

  • Pseudo-subsistent being in relation to human attempts to make ultimate the immanent



Photo: Mont Blanc by Jessie Deep




Assistant Professor of Theology, Assumption University, Worcester, MA

Related Publications

Homo Abyssus: The Drama of the Question of Being (Humanum Academic Press, 2018)
Homo Abyssus: The Drama of the Question of Being (Humanum Academic Press, 2018)

“In addition to offering the first major work of Ulrich to appear in English, this translation includes a substantial introduction by Martin Bieler, and a helpful lexicon to help elucidate the book’s unusual vocabulary . . . In this speculative appropriation of Aquinas, Ferdinand Ulrich lays out a vision of being as an image of divine goodness, drawing out as-yet-undiscovered treasures from Aquinas’s texts through a fundamental engagement with modern philosophy, above all Hegel and Heidegger . . . The first part of the book offers a fundamental metaphysics, expounding in detail the basic structure of being in the light of creation ex nihilo interpreted as an act of radical generosity. This discussion presents novel insights into traditional themes such as the real distinction between essence and existence, participation, causality, and the analogy of being; and it explores from the same perspective of radical generosity themes associated more with modern philosophy, such as the relationship between being and nothingness, the ontological difference, and being and time. The second part of the book is a speculative anthropology, which proposes to think through the constitution of the human being as a kind of dynamic exemplar of the meaning of being: man not only shows the meaning of being, but co-enacts it in his relation to himself, to the world, and to God.” –Humanum Academic Press

“Thinking the ‘Nothing’ of Being: Ferdinand Ulrich on Transnihilation” (Communio 46.1, Spring 2019)
“Thinking the ‘Nothing’ of Being: Ferdinand Ulrich on Transnihilation” (Communio 46.1, Spring 2019)

“Not only is being ‘nothing,’ avers Ulrich, it is precisely being’s nothingness that allows being to be the perfection of all perfections and the act of all actualities. This may at first seem counterintuitive: how can that which is nothing in itself also be that which enables every being to be? But Ulrich demonstrates the logic here fluidly: were being as such a thing in itself—that is, subsistent—it could not be given to be infinite actuality. If being as such were subsistent, it would necessarily have to hold onto, as it were, some of this actuality for itself, rather than being the inner act of all finite beings. Moreover, were being as such subsistent, it could not be infinite actuality, because there is only one infinite subsistent actuality, namely God. Being’s very nonsubsistence is what allows being as such to be infinite actuality, which in turn pours itself out so that finite beings may be . . . Ulrich calls being, then, not a mediator, but a ‘pure mediation’ of being from God to the creature. It is through esse that God creates the world—that is, communicates being in such a way that it allows the world to be itself and not a mere extension of God. It is the mediation of created esse, in its complete simplicity and nothingness, that allows beings to come to be—to be themselves, to have subsistence.” –Rachel M. Coleman

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