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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > O > Ontologism


(from on, ontos, being, and logos, science)

Ontologism is an ideological system which maintains that God and Divine ideas are the first object of our intelligence and the intuition of God the first act of our intellectual knowledge.


Malebranche developed his theory of "la vision en Dieu" in different works, particularly "Recherche de la vérité", III, under the influence of Platonic and Cartesian philosophies, and of a misunderstanding of St. Augustine's and St. Thomas's principles on the origin and source of our ideas. It is also in large part the consequence of his theory of occasional causes (see OCCASIONALISM). Our true knowledge of things, he says, is the knowledge we have of them in their ideas. The ideas of things are present to our mind, endowed with the essential characteristics of universality, necessity, and eternity, and are not the result of intellectual elaboration or representations of things as they are, but the archetypes which concrete and temporal things realize. Ideas have their source and real existence in God; they are the Divine essence itself, considered as the infinite model of all things. "God is the locus of our ideas, as space is the locus of bodies." God is then always really present to our mind; we see all things, even material and concrete things, in Him, Who contains and manifests to our intelligence their nature and existence. Vincenzo Gioberti (1801-52) developed his Ontologism in "Introduzione allo studio della filosofia" (1840), I, iii; II, i. Our first act of intellectual knowledge is the intuitive judgment "ens creat existentias" (Being creates existences). By that act, he says, our mind apprehends directly and immediately in an intuitive synthesis;

In this judgment being is the subject, existences the predicate, the creative act the copula. Our first intellectual perception is, therefore, an intuition of God, the first intelligible, as creating existences. This intuition is finite and is obtained by means of expressions or words (la parola). Thus the primum philosophicum includes both the primum ontologicum and the primum psychologicum, and the ordo sciendi is identified with the ordo rerum. This formula was accepted and defended by Orestes A. Brownson. (Cf. Brownson's Works, Detroit, 1882; I, "The Existence of God", 267 sq.; "Schools of Philosophy, 296 sq.; "Primitive Elements of Thought", 418 sq. etc.)

Ontologism was advocated, under a more moderate form, by some Catholic philosophers of the nineteenth century. Maintaining against Malebranche that concrete material things are perceived by our senses, they asserted that our universal ideas endowed with the characteristics of necessity and eternity, and our notion of the infinite cannot exist except in God; and they cannot therefore be known except by an intuition of God present to our mind and perceived by our intelligence not in His essence as such, but in His essence as the archetype of all things. Such is the Ontologism taught by C. Ubaghs, professor at Louvain, in "Essai d'idéologie ontologique" (Louvain, 1860); by Abbé L. Branchereau in "Prælectiones Philosophicæ"; by Abbé F. Hugonin in "Ontologie ou études des lois de la pensée" (Paris, 1856-7); by Abbé J. Fabre in "Défense de l'ontologisme"; by Carlo Vercellone, etc. We find also the fundamental principles of Ontologism in Rosmini's philosophy, although there have been many attempts to defend him against this accusation (cf. G. Morando, "Esame critico delle XL proposizione rosminiane condannate dalla S.R.U. inquisizione", Milan, 1905). According to Rosmini, the form of all our thoughts is being in its ideality (l'essere ideale, l'essere iniziale). The idea of being is innate in us and we perceive it by intuition. Altogether indetermined, it is neither God nor creature; it is an appurtenance of God, it is something of the Word ("Teosophia", I, n. 490; II, n. 848; cf. "Rosminianarum propositionum trutina theologica", Rome, 1892). At the origin and basis of every system of Ontologism, there are two principal reasons:

  1. we have an idea of the infinite and this cannot be obtained through abstraction from finite beings, since it is not contained in them; it must, therefore, be innate in our mind and perceived through intuition;
  2. our concepts and fundamental judgments are endowed with the characteristics of universality, eternity, and necessity, e.g., our concept of man is applicable to an indefinite number of individual men; our principle of identity "whatever is, is", is true inn itself, necessarily and always.
Now such concepts and judgments cannot be obtained from any consideration of finite things which are particular, contingent, and temporal. Gioberti insists also on the fact that God being alone intelligible by Himself, we cannot have any intellectual knowledge of finite things independently of the knowledge of God; that our knowledge to be truly scientific must follow the ontological, or real, order and therefore must begin with the knowledge of God, the first being and source of all existing beings. Ontologists appeal to the authority of the Fathers, especially St. Augustine and St. Thomas.


From the philosophical point of view, the immediate intuition of God and of His Divine ideas, as held by Ontologists, is above the natural power of man's intelligence. We are not conscious, even by reflection, of the presence of God in our mind; and, if we did have such an intuition we would find in it (as St. Thomas rightly remarks) the full satisfaction of all our aspirations, since we would know God in His essence (for the distinction between God in His essence and God as containing the ideas of things, as advanced by Ontologists, is arbitrary and cannot be more than logical); error or doubt concerning God would be impossible. (Cf. St. Thom. in Lib. Boetii de Trinitate, Q. I, a. 3; de Veritate, Q. XVIII, a. 1.) Again, all our intellectual thoughts, even those concerning God, are accompanied by sensuous images; they are made of elements which may be applied to creatures as well as to God Himself; only in our idea of God and of His attributes, these elements are divested of the characteristics of imperfection and limit which they have in creatures, and assume the highest possible degree of perfection. In a word, our idea of God is not direct and proper; it is analogical (cf. GOD; ANALOGY). This shows that God is not known by intuition.

The reasons advanced by Ontologists rest on confusion and false assumptions. The human mind has an idea of the infinite; but this idea may be and in fact is, obtained from the notion of the finite, by the successive processes of abstraction, elimination, and transcendence. The notion of the finite is the notion of being having a certain perfection in a limited degree. By eliminating the element of limitation and conceiving the positive perfection as realized in its highest possible degree, we arrive at the notion of the infinite. We form in this way, a negativo-positive concept, as the Schoolmen say, of the infinite. It is true also that our ideas have the characteristics of necessity, universality, and eternity; but these are essentially different from the attributes of God. God exists necessarily, viz., He is absolutely, and cannot not exist; our ideas are necessary in the sense that, when an object is conceived in its essence, independently of the concrete beings in which it is realized, it is a subject of necessary relations: man, if he exists, is necessarily a rational being. God is absolutely universal in the sense that He eminently possesses the actual fulness of all perfections; our ideas are universal in the sense that they are applicable to an indefinite number of concrete beings. God is eternal in the sense that He exists by Himself and always identical with Himself; our ideas are eternal in the sense that in their state of abstraction they are not determined by any special place in space or moment in time.

It is true that God alone is perfectly intelligible in Himself, since He alone has in Himself the reason of His existence; finite beings are intelligible in the very measure in which they exist. Having an existence distinct from that of God, they have also an intelligibility distinct from Him. And it is precisely because they are dependent in their existence that we conclude to the existence of God, the first intelligible. The assumption that the order of knowledge must follow the order of things, holds of absolute and perfect knowledge, not of all knowledge. It is sufficient for true knowledge that it affirm as real that which is truly real; the order of knowledge may be different from the order of reality. The confusion of certain Ontologists regarding the notion of being opens the way to Pantheism. Neither St. Augustine nor St. Thomas favours Ontologism. It is through a misunderstanding of their theories and of their expression that the Ontologist appeals to them. (Cf. St. Augustine, City of God X, XI; "De utilitate credendi", lib. 83, cap. XVI, Q. xlv, etc.; St. Thomas, "Summa Theol.", I, Q. ii, a. 11; Q. lxxxiv-lxxxviii; "Qq. disp., de Veritate", Q. xvi, a. l; Q. xi, "De magistro", a. 3, etc.)

The condemnation of ontologism by the Church

The Council of Vienna (1311-12) had already condemned the doctrine of the Begards who maintained that we can see God by our natural intelligence. On 18 September, 1861, seven propositions of the Ontologists, concerning the immediate and the innate knowledge of God, being, and the relation of finite things to God, were declared by the Holy Office tuto tradi non posse (cf. Denzinger-Bannwart, nn. 1659-65). The same congregation, in 1862, pronounced the same censure against fifteen propositions by Abbé Branchereau, subjected to its examination, two of which (xii and xiii) asserted the existence of an innate and direct perception of ideas, and the intuition of God by the human mind. In the Vatican Council, Cardinals Pecci and Sforza presented a postulatum for an explicit condemnation of Ontologism. On 14 December, 1887 the Holy Office reproved, condemned, and proscribed forty propositions extracted from the works of Rosmini, in which the principles of Ontologism are contained (cf. Denzinger-Bannwart, nn. 1891-1930).


LIBERATORE, Trattato della conoscenza intellettuale (Rome, 1855); ZIGLIARA, Della Luce intellettuale e dell' Ontologismo (Rome, 1874); LEPIDI, Ezamen philosophico-theologicum de Ontologismo; KLEUTGEN, Die Philosophie der Vorzeit (Innsbruck, 1878); MERCIER, La Psychologie, III (Louvain, 1899), i, 2-3; BOEDDER, Natural Theology, I (London, 1902), i.

About this page

APA citation. Sauvage, G. (1911). Ontologism. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Sauvage, George. "Ontologism." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. February 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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