Being as Gift: On the Metaphysics of Ferdinand Ulrich
A lecture by Professor Rachel M. Coleman (Assumption University)
Time & Location
Jul 23, 2020, 4:00 PM – 5:00 PM PDT
About the Event
“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
Rachel M. Coleman is Assistant Professor of Theology at Assumption University in Worcester, MA. Her areas of specialization are metaphysics (ancient to modern), the philosophy of nature, and philosophical anthropology. She received a PhD in Theology in 2019 from the John Paul II Institute at the Catholic University of America, where she wrote a dissertation entitled Matter as an Image of the Good: Ferdinand Ulrich’s Metaphysics of Creation. Her dissertation board included David C. Schindler (director), Antonio López, and Michael Hanby, of the Institute, in addition to William Desmond (Leuven & Villanova). Professor Coleman has held fellowships from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), Seymour Institute, Cultura Initiative, John Paul II Institute, and DeSales University. Her work has been published in Communio, First Things, and Humanum, and she has presented papers on continental metaphysics across North America and Europe.
Photo: Mont Blanc by Jessie Deep