Notre-Dame de Paris — a medieval Catholic Cathedral on the Ile de la Cite —Construction began in 1163 — Xenia Bunina on Unsplash

Reality and Existence…

The Triadic of Being

Richard Schutte
11 min readDec 9, 2023


“All the actual character of consciousness is merely the sense of shock of the non-ego upon us”…

— Charles Sanders Peirce

“Now subjectivism reduces all science to the knowledge of one individual, the Ego — which, as just shown, is no science at all. If its fundamental definition of knowledge means anything, or is faithfully adhered to, subjectivism teaches that the intelligent subject has no intelligence save for itself — has no warrant for believing in the existence of anything save itself — knows nothing but the inexplicable order of its own sensations and thoughts. It reduces all existence to an unrelated One, while of an unrelated One no science is possible. In a word, subjectivism if logical, annihilates science at a blow”…

— Francis Ellingwood Abbot

“Every man is fully satisfied that there is such a thing as truth, or he would not ask any question”…

— Charles Sanders Peirce

“If all men by nature desire to know, then they desire most of all the greatest knowledge of science. And he immediately indicates what the greatest science is, namely the science which is about those things that are most knowable. But there are two senses in which things are said to be maximally knowable: either because they are the first of all things known and without them nothing else can be known; or because they are what are known most certainly. In either way, however, this science is about the most knowable. Therefore, this most of all is a science and, consequently, most desirable”…

― John Duns Scotus

To begin to understand the crisis of Modernity and Post-Modernity it is important to revisit the debate between Nominalism and Realism that occurred in the Middle Ages and in particular, the medieval problem of universals.

“Reason in man is rather like God in the world”…

— Thomas Aquinas

During the medieval period, scholars (refer to 11th Century Roscellinus of Compiegne, Peter Abelard and Saint Anselm of Aosta) were grappling with the notions of integrating faith & reason and were drawing on Western Civilisation’s rich intellectual history including ancient Greek philosophical thought.

Nominalism and Realism represented two distinct poles from which to derive a sense of reality.


The Neoplatonic tradition including Plato and Aristotle were realists and viewed reality as consisting of the physical and metaphysical.

Two kinds of entities exist — the particulars (material) and the universals (form).

For example, “Muffy” the dog exists (a particular) but so does a real objective universal of a dog that has common qualities ( a tail, it barks, has four legs, hair, two eyes etc…).

Universals can be compared through their resemblance — shared abstract concepts and qualities — that highlight interconnected and metaphysical relationships.

The subject-predicate structure in linguistics is also illustrative of a particular and universal relationship ( for example — Plato (particular — subject) is a philosopher (universal — predicate)).

Human’s capacity to categorise, understand, communicate and reason in the abstract through universals.

The notions of realism aligned with the symbiotic relationship between faith & reason and the integration of Judeau-Christian theology & Greek Philosophy.

The universals (eternal) were inherent in God’s mind and the particulars were a worldly manifestation of these archetypes (temporal).

“To wisdom belongs the intellectual apprehension of things eternal; to knowledge, the rational apprehension of things temporal”…

— Augustine of Hippo


In such a perspective of reality, there are no universal “dogs” or “virtues” or “good” or “beauty” metaphysically existing.

They don’t share a common nature (realism) and simply represent logical linguistic tools to organise and represent our language that emphasises simplicity (e.g. Occam’s Razor) and social norms based on our subjective lived experience.

“We speak of virtue, honour, reason; but our thought does not translate any one of these concepts into a substance”…

— Wilhelm Wundt

Conceptual Moderate Realism

“We speak of the matter [of this science] in the sense of its being what the science is about. This is called by some the subject of the science, but more properly it should be called its object, just as we say of a virtue that what it is about is its object, not its subject. As for the object of the science in this sense, we have indicated above that this science is about the transcendentals. And it was shown to be about the highest causes. But there are various opinions about which of these ought to be considered its proper object or subject. Therefore, we inquire about the first. Is the proper subject of metaphysics being as being, as Avicenna claims, or God and the Intelligences, as the Commentator, Averroes, assumes”…

— Duns Scotus

John Duns Scotus (1265–1308) in an attempt to synthesise these two alternative claims on the nature of reality — realism and nominalism — proposed a middle ground (Scotistic Realism or Scholastic Realism) and a potential pathway forward beyond the medieval problem of universals.

How can anything have two distinct principles that make it, respectively, individual and common?

Conceptual Moderate Realism rejected the independent existence of universals but simultaneously recognised the importance of universal concepts (common nature and individual differentia ) within individuals for cognitive abstraction and a shared understanding.

John Duns Scotus’s ideas attempted to distinguish the Univocity of Being between the Divine & Finite realms and between God (Infinite Being) & Man (Finite Being).

Scotus holds that essence (what God is — quid est) and existence (that God is — si est ) are identical (A Unity, a Doctrine of Divine Simplicity and pure Actuality) noting all the complexity, compositionality and plurality that is entailed in the Divine Nature observed from the perspective of the interpretant of Man.

In contrast, for humans in the finite realm, essence (what it is) and existence (that it is) are conceptually distinct (distinctio formalis a parte rei) which means essence (thenature of things) can be formally distinguished from existence (unique individual act of univocal being — the individual entity in the external world — the individual difference in existence).

From Scotus’s perspective, essence in finite beings is a potentiality to the actuality of existence (unactualised possibilia a potentia essendi — the potentiality of being) rather than an inseparable perfect unity.

It was a nuanced perspective that saw a divergence in the ideas of Scotus from Saint Thomas Aquinas’s beliefs that relate to all finite beings.

Scotus distinction between Reality and Existence – Conceptual Moderate Realism and Formal & Objective Reality

“For what is it for a thing to be Real? [ — ] To say that a thing is Real is merely to say that such predicates as are true of it, or some of them, are true of it regardless of whatever any actual person or persons might think concerning that truth. Unconditionality in that single respect constitutes what we call Reality”…

— Charles Sanders Peirce

Scotus’ conceptual moderate realism was anchored in the idea of essence being the potentiality to the actuality of existence (a process of self-actualisation — an unactualised possibilia). It was an idea that built on the thoughts of Aristotle.

Whilst he recognised a numerical unity- a haecceity, oness and singularity of individual entities — his concept of a formal distinction enables a more granular metaphysical conceptual understanding.

A distinction between:

  • essence and existence in finite beings;
  • reality and existence;
  • objective and formal reality;
  • quiddity and haecceity;
  • potentiality and actuality ( i.e. Aristotle's concept );
  • divine will and phenomena of will;
  • divine law and natural law;
  • divine commandments and compatibilism;
  • transcendence and immanence; and
  • common nature and individual differentia.

Whilst Scotus believed in a single unified reality (Creator and Created) and Univocity of Being his concept of formal distinction was able to absorb elements of nominalism and realism:

  • an Objective Reality that reflected an individual entity's entanglement and lived experience in an external world (Existence of Things — Being). The uniqueness of each individual entity — haecceity — a principle of individuation — which is distinct from the universal nature of a thing. It is a non-repeatable and non-transferable aspect that makes an individual what it is; and
  • a Formal Reality that reflected Human thought's capacity to understand universal concepts from a formal reality (Nature of Things — Essence). The possibility of exploring truth claims through universal conceptual understanding grounded in human consciousness and metaphysical abstraction. Concepts could be distinguished from their corresponding realities (via his concept of formal distinction) without implying their complete independence (e.g. Aquinas’s realism). Concepts were logical pictures that attempt to correspond to real forms.

Scotus ideas reflected a Conceptual Moderate Realism that rejected the notion of the independent existence of universals but at the same time recognised the importance of universal concepts for abstraction and a shared understanding.

Scotus framework also enables an intuitive cognition and the formation of mental concepts (conceptualisation).

Humanity’s innate capacity for abstraction and conceptual distinction.

The ability to conceive of what it is to be something, without it existing.

Humanity’s inherent powers of abstraction.

When combined these ideas highlight the possibility of the actualisation of existence through the process of learning, contemplation and inquiry.

Ideas that by the late 19th and early 20th Century, American Philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce would develop into a Theory of Inquiry that builds upon Scotus formal distinctions.

Our innate desire to progress our conceptual understanding towards the essence of things and its potentiality to the actuality of existence.

Aquina’s Moderate Realism

In contrast, in Aquinas’s realism metaphysical view, there was both an inseparable unity together with a distinction between essence and existence in finite beings.

An inseparability, where the essence ( a universal ) exists and the mind does not know things directly, but only indirectly through an abstraction of form via a sense of perception.

A distinction, where the essence of a thing is distinct from its existence (i.e. except for God) in the finite realm.

In summary, Aquinas is generally associated with a form of moderate realism that believed universals have a real existence, not merely in individual minds, but also in the things themselves. Aquinas argued that universals exist in a transcendent way in the mind of God, who holds the exemplars of all universals.

In contrast, Scotus acknowledged the reality of universals, but he argued that they exist in the mind as concepts. For Scotus, universals are not pre-existing entities in the external world but are rather mental concepts formed by abstraction from individual things.

It was an idea anchored in the Univocity of Being :

“How. can the “ concept of being” be univocal without there being a nature common to God and to creatures?” …

Scotus Physical and Metaphysical Reality

Scotus’s ideas also contrasted with French Medieval Philosopher Peter Abelard who viewed the mind-making universals as the process of abstraction (conceptualism), whereas Scotus believed that the mind finds conceptual universals as a singular form in things.

Progressing towards an integration, a unity and knowledge of God.

By positioning the universals in the human mind as a concept he was recognising the transcendental metaphysical nature of faith and religious doctrines but still enabling the individual’s conscious self’s agency and phenomena of the subjective lived experience.

A temporal capacity through the gift of reason to navigate a dynamic complex world but also explore the landscape of the transcendental metaphysical.

Developing a cognitive intuition in grasping conceptual universals that go beyond the particular, perception and the human senses.

Human Consciousness could concurrently grasp the notion that individual entities exist (subjective particulars) and at the same time recognise shared conceptual understandings and progress towards objective universals concepts.

It was a pathway that had the potential to harmonise the metaphysical and physical, the spiritual with the material, and even phenomena with an alternative form of Kant’s noumena (i.e. a “thing in itself” within the Mind (internal reality) rather than beyond the Mind (external reality)).

Final Observations

Scotus’s ideas continue to have a profound and lasting intellectual theological and philosophical legacy.

Scotus’metaphysics framework provides a richer more granular understanding of how we make sense of Reality including:

Footnote: Is Artificial General Intelligence (Semiotic Sign Machines) and its capacity to build up a high dimensional manifold of semiotic signs (e.g. millions of images of people’s faces) essentially a form of Conceptualism and Cartesian Abstraction anchored in the Conscious Self — Ego (refer to the Geometric Mind — Spatial Structures of Thought and Meaning Space)?

A modern-day version of Plato’s Theory of Forms anchored in the Conscious Self — Ego — which is now available to construct a vast array of landscapes of Semiotic Abstraction — Pictures, Voices, Words, etc … that provides a mirror into the Human Semantic Mind.

But in doing so, are these semiotic sign machines more cultural than scientific (i.e. discovery, illumination and truth-seeking) or intelligent in their capabilities?

Alternatively, a vast mind-controlling neuro-programming interface that controls perception by determining which semiotic signs the Observer sees.



Richard Schutte

Innovation, Intrapreneurship, Entrepreneurship, Complexity, Leadership & Community Twitter: @complexityvoid