Anselm: the ontological argument, part i

Anselm of Canterbury is commonly regarded as the most important Christian thinker of the 11th century (1033 – 1109). His main philosophical concerns were shared with Augustine: including such weighty topics as the limits of human comprehension, the nature of the will and free choice, the nature of truth and justice, and evil as a privation. However, Anselm is most well known for an argument he formulates in his Proslogion called the ontological argument.

While many other versions of the ontological argument have been presented (by philosophers of the likes of Descartes, Leibniz and Plantinga), Anselm’s argument was the first of its kind. It is typically summarised as follows:

  1. Our understanding of God is a being than which no greater can be conceived.
  2. The idea of God exists in the mind.
  3. A being which exists both in the mind and in reality is greater than a being that exists only in the mind.
  4. If God only exists in the mind, then we can conceive of a greater being—that which exists in reality.
  5. We cannot be imagining something that is greater than God.
  6. Therefore, God exists.

To understand this argument, one needs to understand the philosophical traditions within which Anselm is operating. For Anselm, God is not some cosmic superman who happens to be technologically advanced enough to create the universe, God simply is perfect. Perfection in the sense of the Socratic tradition, or as Aristotle would say pure actuality or pure form (see this post on act and potency for more details). Anselm’s God is perfect fullness, it lacks no actuality and because of this it cannot fail to exist. Therefore, the existence of the concept of this God in a persons mind is incontrovertible evidence of its existence in reality.

Needless to say, Anselm’s argument has been the subject of fierce controversy even to our present day. I will examine some of the more forceful objections to the ontological argument in the following post.


5 responses to this post.

  1. […] About « Anselm: the ontological argument, part i […]


  2. […] two previous posts detailed the ontological argument as formulated by Anselm of Canterbury and Guanilo’s “perfect island” objection. In the following post, I will examine […]


  3. […] summary of Anselm’s ontological argument can be found here. Guanilo’s “perfect island” criticism is discussed here and Aquinas’ […]


  4. […] an interesting aside, one may compare Anselm’s ontological argument, which argues a priori (before experience) to the existence of a necessary […]


  5. […] one reads Aquinas’s Five Ways or Anselm’s ontological argument, it becomes apparent that classically understood God is always a type of reality that is absolute […]


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