Users desiring a brief, non-technical orientation to Zubri's work should read the Informal Introduction first. Follow this later with the more detailed and technical introduction which appears below. Also, you may wish to look at the Reading Guide to Zubiri's works.

Download the full text of the following translator's
introduction in Microsoft Word 6.0 format .


  1. Laying the Foundation
  2. Background and orientation
  3. Overview of main ideas of Sentient Intelligence
  4. Relationship of Zubiri's thought and classical philosophy

The creation of a new philosophical system is a staggeringly difficult task, fraught with myriad dangers, pitfalls, and problems. Only one of supreme genius can undertake this enterprise with any expectation of success, and then only when old ways of thought have shown themselves inadequate to cope with the march of human knowledge. It is fortunate that these conditions have been fulfilled in our day and in the person of Xavier Zubiri (1898-1983). No one can say now if this or any future philosophical system will be the definitive one; but Zubiri’s effort is surely the grandest, most boldly and most radically conceived effort to integrate the Western (and to a considerable extent, Eastern) philosophical tradition, the explosive growth of scientific knowledge, and the rich artistic, literary, and cultural traditions of European and world civilization.

Laying the Foundation

The first major work of Zubiri's grand synthesis is Sobre la esencia (1963; English edition On Essence, 1980). It dealt primarily with the object of knowing. His second major systematic work, Inteligencia sentient [English translation, Sentient Intelligence, in preparation] deals primarily with the process of knowing, which is founded upon an analysis of intelligence. These two subjects—object and process of knowing—should not be identified with "metaphysics" and "epistemology", respectively, for two reasons: (1) the latter two topics are theoretical and of more restricted scope than the problems Zubiri addresses; and (2) Zubiri explicitly rejects the modern notion that the problems of object of knowing and process of knowing can be or indeed ever have been rigorously separated, as the distinction between epistemology and metaphysics in post-Kantian thought generally suggests. The two are completely intertwined, and any comprehensive philosophy must address and encompass both together in its vision. At the outset, this requires not an epistemology, but rather an analysis of intelligence—something which must logically precede any type of rigorous epistemology or Kantian critique. As Robert Caponigri, translator of Sobre la esencia put it,

The theory of "sentient intelligence" must be distinguished from the "epistemological question" or the theory of knowledge. The theory of intelligence is logically antecedent to the epistemological question and every epistemological theory eventually reveals that it presupposes a theory of the intelligence in its account of what and how man can know.

Only when this foundation has been laid can work on a comprehensive epistemology be completed and securely grounded. Zubiri frequently criticizes previous philosophers for confusing epistemology and the theory of intelligence, and consequently advocating erroneous and often absurd theories. He also believes that understanding this distinction is the key to unraveling some of the paradoxes and puzzles from the history of philosophy, many of which turn out to be pseudo-problems, such as Hume’s famous analysis of causality. Finally, this analysis of intelligence undergirds Zubiri’s analysis of truth and the stages of intellective knowledge.

Zubiri was deeply and passionately committed to the intellectual quest for truth; and the seriousness and dispassionateness with which he viewed this quest is manifest on every page of his writing—the same seriousness which is so evident in Aristotle and the major philosophers in the Aristotelian tradition: Averoës, Avicenna, St. Thomas, and Suarez. To further this goal, Zubiri always seeks as Olympian a perspective as possible, encompassing all relevant knowledge when discussing any subject. The result, in terms of scope, profundity, and originality, speaks for itself.


Background and Orientation

Key Elements in Zubiri’s Thought

Zubiri’s philosophical thought integrates twelve major elements:


Background From Previous Works

In Naturaleza, Historia, Dios (first edition, 1942, ninth edition, 1987; English translation, 1981), Zubiri began to explore some of the ideas which later developed into his mature thought. These include: the idea of personhood as a unique type of reality; the relationship of God, nature, and scientific laws; and the notion of Logos as the form of explanation of things.

In a remarkable essay, "The Idea of Nature: the New Physics", written shortly after the development of quantum mechanics by Heisenberg and Schrödinger, Zubiri analyzes what this extremely radical break with classical physics truly signifies; in particular, he is interested in the meaning of the Uncertainty Principle and the emergence of purely statistical laws with respect to causality. He points out that the "classical" assumption, viz. that determinism is intimately linked with causality, if not indeed synonymous with it, and which has roots at least as early as Aristotle, is wrong. Rather, determinism is a type of causality, but not the only type. Physical laws are not about deterministic connections between events; rather, the laws are functional in form, and that functionality may be statistical. Does this have negative philosophical implications? No, according to Zubiri, because God is not some sort of superphysicist who created and regulates the universe by means of physical laws; these laws rather have an entirely human meaning. God, on the other hand, sees the universe in a creative vision. Moreover, for God, not only is there no physics, there is no nature in our sense, either.

In On Essence, Zubiri expounds his view of the importance and true nature of essences. Always in a dialogue with the history of philosophy, Zubiri begins by analyzing and criticizing the views of essence held by major figures in the past, including Aristotle, Leibniz, Hegel, Husserl and Heidegger. Because the notion of essence is particularly associated with Aristotle and the later traditions built upon him, especially Scholasticism, as well as the fact that Zubiri’s own ideas are best understood when contrasted with Aristotle’s, some discussion of them is in order.

Zubiri greatly broadened and deepened our understanding of essence, both in the logical as well as the physical sense. He reviews old concepts of essence, and rejects them all as insufficient, before proposing his own, founded upon the notion of system:

... the basic, constitutive system of all the notes which are necessary and sufficient for a substantive reality to be what it is, is precisely what I have called essence. It is the primary, coherential, unity.

For Zubiri, it is the interrelationship of the notes making up essence which is important; each constitutive note is present by virtue of its place in constituting the whole. The notes are mutually dependent, and often lose their individual identity in the constituted system. Every reality is thus a systematic unity. This general discussion is in agreement with the modern scientific concept of things as dynamic systems, in which the interrelationship of the components makes the thing what it is, with its own behavior, different than that of its constituents and often obscuring them.

In light of Zubiri's discussion, it is apparent that old concepts of essence are not congruent with modern-day knowledge, in particular science, because they are what may be termed "flat", i.e., they assume that there is an absolute character of everything that can be captured by some act of the mind, usually unaided, on the basis of which we then "know" the thing. The primary example, of course, is the classical definition in terms of genus and species, as in "man is a rational animal"; though Hegel and Husserl immediately come to mind as well. Zubiri points out that all such concepts of essence are inadequate because they fail to capture its key physical property, that of structural complexity, from which emerge all of a thing’s properties or notes, including its dynamics. Behavior, such as we now understand it, from biological evolution to chaos, is of an entirely different, more subtle order than that envisioned by the creators of the old concepts of essence; and it involves layers of structure which point to a far richer and more complex reality than those concepts are capable of expressing. Indeed, it is unclear that essences can be adequately expressed at all in normal language.

The probing activity of science, through sketching of possibilities and use of experiment, may be the principal route to knowledge of essences, even though essence appears logically in primordial apprehension. Zubiri’s concept of essence is thus much more profound, but also much more difficult to achieve, than earlier conceptions of it. He notes,

... essence is not to be sought in the metaphysical analysis of the predicates which are attributed to the thing, but rather, on the contrary, in the analysis of its real structures, of its notes, and of the function which these fulfill in the constitutional system of its individual substantivity.... It is the essence as "physical" moment of the real thing.

This is true with respect to inanimate physical objects as well as biological organisms, where structure ultimately depends upon genotype:

... the primary structure of a thing is its "constitution". It is precisely because of this that I decided to give philosophical rank to this concept. Constitution thus understood is of a "physical" and not a logical character.... It is necessary to amplify the concept [of constitution] and include in it physical characteristics which are specific (the genotype).

With respect to Zubiri’s concept of essence and modern science, there are three key points: (a) the increasing focus on systems, hierarchically organized, as the object of scientific inquiry; (b) recognition of the exceeding complexity of nature and the complexity of behavior which things in it can exhibit; and (c) the recognition that there is no need to postulate ultimate realities "beyond" what is observed.

(a) Zubiri’s notion of essence concentrates on its system aspect, which is increasingly the focus of science as well, in part as a result of the recognition, at least in practical terms, of the impossibility of reductionism, and the corresponding recognition that knowledge about reality must proceed in different ways and with different methods and assumptions at different hierarchical levels. For example, the biologist or evolutionist use different assumptions and different boundary conditions than the particle physicist. Moreover, things higher in the hierarchy may possess entirely new properties, and because of the dynamics of the new composite systems, the properties of their component subsystems in isolation may fade or become invisible; as Zubiri has pointed out:

... compound substances may also possess certain properties as a system of a totally different kind from the systematic properties of its elements, and may be of the type which we have called functional combinations. There are compositions in which the compound, because it possesses substantivity, is equally with its components taken in isolation, a substance; this is the case with any chemical substance. However, there are other compounds, such as living beings, in which the characteristic and differential moment of their substantivity is of a purely functional type ...

(b) There is also an implicit recognition of the great complexity of reality, built up of systems of systems of systems ... which does not permit anything to be captured, in isolation, in a curt formula or vision. Indeed, as we have learned over the past few decades, even simple dynamical systems can give rise to extremely complex behavior. Our awareness of the structural and behavioral complexity of biological organisms and higher levels of organization, such as ecosystems, is steadily increasing. Much has especially been learned from man-made complex systems, such as telecommunications systems. The architecture of such systems comprises a set of hierarchically organized layers, from electronic impulses at the bottom or "physical layer", though "bytes", "packets", "frames", "messages", up to applications such as electronic mail. An observer of such a system would see, depending upon his point of view, electronic impulses, or bits, or bytes, or packets, or frames, or complete electronic mail messages. And no such observer would be wrong; all of these entities are indeed present. The classical-type definitions of essence look at the highest layer only, even though the system comprises all layers; and while the system can be used without knowledge of the entire structure, it cannot be understood without that knowledge. Zubiri’s notion of essence is quite capable of dealing with this situation; earlier concepts, such as the correlate of a definition in terms of genus and species, are not.

(c) Finally, science does not look for some reality beyond the systems it examines; they are the reality at each level. For example, a society is a complex system with certain characteristics, some of which can be modeled mathematically. There is no "real" society lurking behind the system and giving rise to the observed properties. On the philosophical side, Zubiri has said the same:

... this substantivity is nothing hidden, or still less, something situated "behind" the system of constitutional notes or "beneath" it; rather, it is the system itself as such. Neither, for this same reason, is essence something which is found beneath the substantivity; it is, rather, an internal and formal moment of the system itself as such.

Zubiri's concept of essence, then, is one which makes sense from both a philosophical and a scientific viewpoint. The task of the philosopher is not to try an end-run around science, and short-circuit the investigation of reality by propounding "true" essences obtained unaided through sheer intuition; rather, it is to understand how all of the diverse forms of knowledge fit together in an integrated whole, based in reality. If one likes, it is to deal with reality in the transcendental order, as opposed to the talitative order (bearing in mind that these two are not disjoint). There is no problem of two types of knowledge of reality, one through philosophical essence and another through scientific "essence", disconnected from it and based on entirely different principles, possibly leading to some new "dual truth" crisis such as arose in the Middle Ages. As Diego Gracia explains,

The object of reason is to know what things are in the reality of the world. And for that, not only is scientific knowledge imprecindable, but metaphysical knowledge as well. As absurd as seeking to disconnect metaphysics from science, or at least from the contents of the talitative order, would be to suppress metaphysical knowledge altogether, under the assumption that everything which can be said rationally is said by science.

Zubiri also makes a critical distinction between natural things (e.g. a piece of wood) and meaning things (e.g. the same piece of wood functioning as a table). Natural things interact with us and the rest of the world through natural laws, e.g., gravity; but meaning things refer to the use we make of them.

Poles of Zubiri’s Thought

Roughly speaking, the two poles of Zubiri’s thought are (1) that which is most radical in Aristotle, his conception of essence as the tÕ t… Ãn eŤnai, what makes a thing be what it is; and (2) the phenomenological concept of reality. His own radical innovation was to weave these two into a unified whole via the new concept of sentient intellection. But Zubiri radically rethinks both Aristotle’s and the phenomenologists’ legacies; so his concept of essence, his concept of reality, and his concept of intelligence differ in many respects from the originals.

Aristotle and the Tradition of Classical Metaphysics. Zubiri points out that Aristotle begins by conceiving of essence as that which makes a thing what it is, in the most radical sense; what Aristotle calls the t… Ãn eŤnai, which the Medieval philosophers translated as the quod quid erat esse. Later, however, Aristotle links his metaphysics with his epistemology by claiming that essence is the physical correlate of the definition (of a thing). Knowledge is then of essences via definition in terms of genus and species; the most famous example is of course "man is a rational animal". Zubiri comments:

When the essence is taken as the real correlate of the definition, the least that must be said is that it is a question of a very indirect way of arriving at things. For, as we have already said, instead of going directly to reality and asking what in it may be its essence, one takes the roundabout way of passing through the definition. This might be admissible if it were a matter of no more than a roundabout way. It is, however, something more; it is a roundabout way which rests on an enormously problematic presupposition, namely, that the essential element of every thing is necessarily definable; and this is more than problematical.

In fact, Zubiri believes, the essence in general cannot be defined in genus-species form, and may not be expressible in ordinary language at all. He believes that essences—in the radical sense of determining what a thing is, and thus how it will behave, what its characteristics are, and so forth—can be determined only with great difficulty; and much of science is dedicated to this task. Specifically, Zubiri believes that it is necessary to go back to Aristotle’s original idea of essence as the fundamental determinant of a thing’s nature, what makes it to be what it is, and expand on this concept in the light of modern science.

But this critique indicates that there is a deep realist strain to Zubiri’s thought, a belief that we can, in some ultimate sense, grasp reality. The problem arises in connection with our belief that what we perceive is also real—a belief upon which we act in living out our lives. This compels Zubiri to make an extremely important distinction with respect to reality: between reality in apprehension (which he terms ‘reity’) and reality of what things are beyond sensing, (true reality, realidad verdadera). Zubiri believes that the failure of past philosophers to distinguish these, and consequently, their failure to recognize that they refer to different stages of intellection, is at the root of many grave errors and paradoxes. This leads directly to the second pole of Zubiri’s thought: Phenomenology.

Phenomenology and Reality. Zubiri takes two critical ideas from phenomenology (Husserl, Ortega y Gasset, and Heidegger). First is a certain way or "idea" of philosophy. In particular, he accepts that phenomenology has opened a new path and deepened our understanding of things by recognizing that it is necessary to position philosophy at a new and more radical level than that of classical realism or of modern idealism (primarily Hegel).

Secondly, he accepts that philosophy must start with its own territory, that of "mere immediate description of the act of thinking". But for him, the radical philosophical problem is not that proclaimed by the phenomenologists: not Husserl’s "phenomenological consciousness", not Heidegger’s "comprehension of being", not Ortega’s "life", but rather the "apprehension of reality". He believes that philosophy must start from the fundamental fact of experience, that we are installed in reality, however modestly, and that our most basic experiences, what we perceive of the world (colors, sounds, people, etc.) are real. Without this basis—and despite that fact that such experience can at times be misleading—there would be no other knowledge either, including science. But because the world discovered to us by science is quite different from our ordinary experience (electromagnetic waves and photons instead of colors, quarks and other strange particles instead of solid matter, and so forth), a critical problem arises which thrusts Zubiri towards a radical rethinking of the notion of reality. This is one of the main themes of the book.

Zubiri’s Major Insights and Innovations

A brief review of the major insights and innovations in Sentient Intelligence should help the reader understand just how radical is Zubiri’s rethinking of the major themes of philosophy:


There is a sense in which the wellspring of this work is Zubiri’s deep reflection on the limitations of human knowledge, as disclosed in our daily experience, as well as through the scientific and mathematical discoveries of the 20th century. He wishes to make sense of the fact that reality is delivered to us not just in sensible apprehension, but through a wide range of sources with roots in the third or rational stage of intellection: history, art, literature, poetry, theology, as well as science and mathematics. His insight is that while human intelligence is not fundamentally flawed, and therefore is capable of truth, it is fundamentally limited, in ways not realized prior to this century because the pretensions of what he terms ‘rational knowledge’ were not recognized.

Of course, the fact that the human mind is finite has been recognized since classical times; but there is a subtle but important distinction between finite and limited, with respect to knowledge. Traditionally, ‘finite’ has been taken to mean some type of scaled-down version. This has contributed significantly to a belief in the exact determinism of nature, for example, because it has been assumed that we perceive the world in some way analogous to the way in which God perceives it, and thus any indeterminism in that world would imply that God is not omniscient. For Zubiri, this is an example of what he terms "logification of intellection". And in fact, it has led to a serious of unresolvable problems, from the famous paradox, "Can God make a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it?", to the collision of determinism and free will; and even within science itself to difficulties with infinite values for physical quantities such as entropy. It has also led to a variety of other problems with classical metaphysics that are discussed below.

In their own ways, both science and mathematics were compelled to abandon this belief in the twentieth century: science through the development of quantum mechanics and the Uncertainty Principle, which affirmed that exact measurement of sets of physical quantities is impossible; and mathematics through the work of Gödel, which demonstrated that all of mathematics cannot be viewed as strict logical deduction from a small number of self-evident axioms which, presumably, corresponded to eternal verities in the Divine mind.

Zubiri also seems to have been impressed by how knowledge changes for one person over the course of that person’s life. We are all familiar with how our own perception of the world evolved, from youngster to adolescent, and through the stages of adulthood. Just as remarkable is how particular experiences can change our perception and understanding, often leading to "paradigm shifts" which elevate us to a new plane of understanding. Even larger changes have occurred over historical time intervals: our perception of the world is considerably different from that of Renaissance, and radically different from that of the Bronze Age, for example.

Of perhaps even greater interest to Zubiri is the fact that our perception is intimately linked to our physical structures. He uses the example of the crab, which apparently does not perceive "rock" and "prey" and then "prey on rock", but just "rock-prey". Zubiri believes that our own perception of the world, though incomparably richer, is still limited in an analogous way, and is fundamentally different than the way God perceives the world.

He also acknowledges, of course, that the senses can at times do strange things. A well-known example is our perception of the sun’s disc: it appears much larger when near the horizon than at the meridian, even though the angular size subtended on the retina is the same in both cases. Sorting out the complexities of this problem, without falling into skepticism, requires an extremely sophisticated analysis of intelligence, such as that provided by Zubiri. The fact that the senses are capable of error does not mean that they are incapable of truth. To understand this, however, requires a careful distinction between primordial apprehension and the ulterior modes of intellection. That subject is discussed below.


Brief Overview of Main Ideas in Sentient Intelligence

Human Intelligence and Sensing

Zubiri seeks to radically reestablish the basis for human knowledge. This task goes far beyond any type of Kantian critique—something which Zubiri believes can only come after we have analyzed what human knowledge is. The fundamental nature of human intellection, according to Zubiri, can be stated quite simply: "actualization of the real in the sentient intellection". If the act of "human apprehension", at once sentient and intellective, is referred to as nous, then in accordance with tradition three moments may be distinguished in it:

Intellection or noetic

Reality or noematic

Force of imposition of actualization (religation) or noergic

Zubiri reconceptualizes these moments, however, and they appear as affection, otherness, and force of imposition, respectively. But understanding their full meaning and that of Zubiri’s formula, and consequently the way in which this analysis reestablishes the basis of human knowledge, is a difficult task.

The first step is to analyze human intelligence in its fullness. This inevitably involves a concept of reality:

The fact is that an intrinsic priority of knowing over reality or reality over knowing is impossible. Knowing and reality are in their same root strictly and rigorously congeneric. There is no priority of one over the other. And this is true not simply because of de facto conditions of our investigations, but because of an intrinsic and formal condition of the very idea of reality and of knowing. Reality is the formal character—formality—according to which what is apprehended is something "in itself", something de suyo.

Zubiri’s point of departure is the immediacy and sense of direct contact with reality that we experience in our perception of the world; the things we perceive: colors, sounds, sights, are real in some extremely fundamental sense that cannot be overridden by subsequent reasoning or analysis. That is, there is associated with perception an overwhelming impression of its veracity, a type of "guarantee" which accompanies it, that says to us, "What you apprehend is reality, not a cinema, not a dream." Implied here two separate aspects of perception: first, what the apprehension is of, e.g. a tree or a piece of green paper, and second, its self-guaranteeing characteristic of reality. Zubiri terms these content and formality of reality, respectively.

Zubiri begins his analysis by dividing human intelligence into three modes or phases:

This process, whose three phases unfold logically if not chronologically in sequence, is mediated by what Zubiri calls the ‘field’ of reality. The reality field concept is loosely based on the field concept from physics, such as the gravitational field, where a body exists "by itself", so to speak; but also by virtue of its existence, creates a field around itself through which it interacts with other bodies. Thus in the field of reality, a thing has an individual moment and a field moment. The individual moment Zubiri refers to as the thing existing "by itself" or "of itself"; de suyo is the technical term he employs. The "field moment" is called just that.

Roughly speaking, primordial apprehension installs us in reality and delivers things to us in their individual and field moments; logos deals with things in the field, how they relate to each other; and reason tells us what they are in the sense of methodological explanation. This is illustrated in Figure 1.


Figure 1. Relationship of Modes of Human Intellective Knowing


A simple example may serve to illustrate the basic ideas. A piece of green paper is perceived. It is apprehended as something real in primordial apprehension; both the paper and the greenness are apprehended as real, in accordance with our normal beliefs about what we apprehend. As yet, however, we may not know how to name the color, for example, or what the material is, or what to call its shape. That task is the function of the logos, which relates what has been apprehended to other things known and named from previous experience; for example, other colors or shades of colors associated with greenness. Likewise, with respect to the material in which the green inheres, we would associate it with paper, wood, or other things known from previous experience. In turn, reason via science explains the green as electromagnetic energy of a certain wavelength, or photons of a certain energy in accordance with Einstein’s relation. That is, the color green is the photons as sensed; there are not two realities.

For Zubiri, perception of reality begins with the sensing process; but there is no distinction between sensing and apprehension. As he puts it, the Scholastic nihil est in intellectus quod prius non fuerit in sensu nisi ipse intellectus is radically false. What we have, rather, is a fully integrated process which he terms sensible apprehension. This process consists of three moments (affection, otherness, and force of imposition) which are different in man and in animals. The process is illustrated in Figure 2. The ‘otherness’ as part of reality, as shown in the figure, is broken down into content and formality. This is a key point: every primordial apprehension has both content (e.g., the greenness in the foregoing example) and the character of being something real, outside of us (formality of reality).


Figure 2. Structure of Sensible Apprehension in Man


For Zubiri, intellection and the entire process of intellective knowing is intimately linked to reality:

By virtue of its formal nature, intellection is apprehension of reality in and by itself. This in a radical sense an apprehension of the real which has its own characteristics...Intellection is formally direct apprehension of the real—not via representations nor images. It is an immediate apprehension of the real, not founded in inferences, reasoning processes, or anything of that nature. It is a unitary apprehension. The unity of these three moments is what makes what is apprehended to be apprehended in and by itself.

Ulterior Modes of Knowledge: Knowing through Logos

Primordial apprehension is not all of human intellection, of course, though it is the foundation for all of the rest. The impressions given in primordial apprehension need to be sorted, understood, named, and related to other, usually prior impressions. For example, if a piece of green paper is apprehended in primordial apprehension, one has indeed apprehended green; but knowing that it is green requires knowledge of colors and a comparison of this newly apprehended color with known colors and their names from prior apprehensions. This phase, which involves a "stepping back", so to speak, from the primordial apprehension, Zubiri calls "taking distance". This mode of intellection, based on primordial apprehension, is an ulterior mode termed logos.

Knowing, in the logos stage of intellection, is primarily concerned with relating what a thing, apprehended as real in primordial intellection, is in relation to other things. This is in the sense of knowing that a certain perceived color is "green", or that a perceived object is a "tree" and not a bush or a man. As Zubiri puts it, the logos is what enables us to know what a thing, apprehended as real in sentient intellection, is in reality (a technical term, meaning what something is in relation to one’s other knowledge). This intellection has three characteristics:

Truth in logos is referred to as "dual truth", to contrast it with the real or simple truth of primordial apprehension. The process of understanding through logos is summarized diagrammatically in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Structure of Logos

The relationship of real and dual truth is summarized in Figure 4, with respect to logos and reason, the next stage in the intellective process.

Figure 4. Relationship of Concepts of Truth

Ulterior Modes of Knowledge: Knowing Through Reason

The third level of intellection, ratio or reason—with the broad acceptation of explanation—encompasses far more than what is usually associated with this word in English-speaking countries, viz. knowledge. In particular, knowledge is not just science, nor even principally science. There are other modes of knowledge, for example poetic knowledge and religious knowledge, which fall under the scope of reason as Zubiri understands it. Correlatively, there are realities which are not things in the sense of objects of science; for example, there is the reality of the person. The distinction between the mode of intellection associated with logos and that associated with reason is straightforward:

When a real thing is actualized respectively to other real things in the direction of openness, we say that the thing is found in a field of reality. To intellectively know what a real thing is in reality is now to intellectively know it as a moment of the field of reality, as being respective to other things of the field.

But the formality of reality is respectively open in another direction as well. By being pure and simple reality, it is transcendentally open to being a moment of "the" reality. It is, then, open to what we have called world. Thus to intellectively know what a real thing is in reality is to intellectively know it as a moment of the world....To intellectively know what a color, which we see, is in reality is to intellectively know what it is in the field sense with respect to other notes, e.g. sound. But to intellectively know what that color is in reality as a moment of the world is something different; it is to intellectively know it, for example, as a light wave or a photon.

Zubiri’s ideas here are perhaps born of the 20th century realization that empirical science as an enterprise has limits not dreamt of in the 18th or 19th centuries. As John Templeton puts it,

...the greatest of all the accomplishments of twentieth-century science has been the discovery of human ignorance. Indeed, our expectation is that rather than obtaining a complete scientific picture of reality, we will instead be increasingly overwhelmed by the awesome immensity and complexity of the cosmos.

The limits in question we know as a result of the development of quantum mechanics early in the century and later chaos theory. What these developments tell us is that while unaided reason has hard limits in respect to how far it can penetrate the secrets of the world (in contrast to what classical philosophy and the Continental Rationalists thought), the new language of mathematics used by modern science, though capable of penetrating much further, also has fundamental limits. As mentioned earlier, science is ultimately a human form of knowing, and not the way God understands the universe. There is, indeed, no need for recourse to a "God of the gaps" in scientific knowledge. The limitations to what we can know about the universe, through science, are a reflection of our finite nature. Other types of intellection are possible and can tell us other things. Science and philosophy are, however, the primary sources of our knowledge of the world "beyond".

Reason, for Zubiri, does not consist in going to reality, but in going from field reality toward worldly reality, toward field reality in depth. If one likes, the field is the system of the sensed real, and the world, the object of reason, is the system of the real as a form of reality. That is, the whole world of the rationally intellectively known is the unique and true explanation of field reality.

In Zubiri’s word’s, reason is "measurant intellection of the real in depth". There are two moments of reason to be distinguished here: (1) intellection in depth, e.g., in the example cited above, electromagnetic theory is intellection in depth of color; (2) its character as measuring, in the most general sense, akin to the notion of measure in advanced mathematics (functional analysis). For example, prior to the twentieth century, material things were assimilated to the notion of "body"; that was the measure of all material things. But with the development of quantum mechanics, a new conception of material things was forced upon science, one which is different than the traditional notion of "body". The canon of real things was thus enlarged, so that the measure of something is no longer necesarily that of "body". (Zubiri himself will go on to enlarge it further, pointing out that personhood is another type of reality distinct from "body" or other material things). There is, in addition, a third moment, reason as intellectus quaerens, which means that reason, with is dynamic, directional, and provisional structure, is only able to conquer things in a provisional manner. But provisional only in the sense that our intellection cannot conquer all of reality, or all of any given thing; reality is too rich for our finite minds. This situation is there positive in a radical way: "Reason is the intellection in which in-depth reality is actualized in a problematic way, which therefore sends us forth to inquire about the real in the deepest way, with respect to principles and canon."

There are, for Zubiri, three modes of the moment of reality in impression, which correspond to the modes of intellection we possess:

Reason, as ultimately based on primordial apprehension and logos, is sentient. It can be defined as the measuring modulation of the impression of reality. There is a parallel between field intellection, where each real thing is intellectively known based on others, and rational intellection, where each explanation is intellectively known based on others. The excedence of reason is illustrated in Figure 5.

Figure 5. Excedence of Reason

There are two other important aspects of reason. First, to perform its task of telling us about the world "beyond", it must be creative in a radical and profound way. This is obvious, since all of the forms of rational knowledge (literature, music, philosophy, poetry, science, etc.) are rightfully considered to be creative disciplines. Zubiri distinguishes three modes of rational creation: (1) formal image or model, in which the characteristics or notes of something previously understood are modified; (2) hypothesis, in which the systematization or basic organization of notes is changed and thus something new is proposed; and (3) postulation, in which both notes and basic structure are recreated, as in a novel or a scientific theory.

Second, the formal character of rational intellection is traditionally and properly referred to as "knowledge". There are three basic moments to human knowing, according to Zubiri: (1) objectuality, which characterizes things which are thought to be the ultimate things of the world; (2) method, "...opening a path in the world, opening a path toward what is fundamental," i.e., how we go about investigating and learning about the world "beyond", about reality in the fundamental sense, such as through experiment; and (3) rational truth, the historico-logical characteristic of all rational knowledge, which implies neither its unreliability nor scepticism, but rather its limitation.

Reality and Openness

Openness is a key concept in the book, since Zubiri believes that reality is fundamentally open, and therefore not capturable in any human formula. This openness is intimately related to transcendentality:

...reality as reality is constitutively open, is transcendentally open. In virtue of this openness, reality is a formality in accordance with which nothing is real except as open to other realities and even to the reality of itself. That is, every reality is constitutively respective qua reality....Reality is not a transcendental concept, nor is it a concept realized transcendentally in each real thing; rather, it is a real and physical moment, i.e., transcendentality is just the openness of the real qua real....The world is open not only because we do not know what things there are or can be in it; it is open above all because no thing, however precise and detailed its constitution, is "the" reality as such.


Reason and the Modes of Reality

For Zubiri, the fundamental or constitutive openness of reality means that the search for it is a never-ending quest; he believes that the development of quantum mechanics in the 20th century has been an example of how our concept of reality has broadened. The same is true with respect to the concept of person:

That was the measure of reality: progress beyond the field was brought about by thinking that reality as measuring is "thing". An intellection much more difficult than that of quantum physics was needed in order to understand that the real can be real and still not be a thing. Such, for example, is the case of person. Then not only was the field of real things broadened, but that which we might term ‘the modes of reality’ were also broadened. Being a thing is only one of those modes; being a person is another. Thus not only has the catalog of real things been changed, i.e., not only has a reality beyond the field reality been discovered, but the character of reality itself as a measure has changed, because a person is something different from a stone or a tree not just by virtue of his properties, but by his mode of reality...

Reality of Mathematical and Physical Objects

Zubiri’s views on the reality of mathematical objects and what happens in the process of doing mathematics may help to clarify his thought and at the same time the radical nature of his approach. As is well known, a great deal of mathematics involves assuming or postulating the existence of objects, for example pi, e, the solution of a differential equation meeting existence and uniqueness criteria, Hilbert spaces, Banach spaces, optimal solutions, and so forth. In many cases, the objects so postulated or assumed cannot be explicitly constructed. Most mathematicians, however, regard the postulated objects as real, and talk about them as if they were. For example, they postulate that the square roots of negative numbers exist, and call i the square root of -1. Then, for example, the mathematicians demonstrate that e raised to the power of (2 pi times i) equals 1.

For Zubiri, this act of postulation is the key operation in mathematics. The objects of mathematics are real, i.e. are objects in reality, the same reality as rocks and stars. This is because reality is formality, and objects of mathematics have it. What is different is the content of the objects. In the case of rocks, there is reality in and by itself, with content fully given. In the case of mathematical objects, the content is freely postulated, so the objects are postulatedly constrained in their content:

A free thing is the physical reality with a free postulated content. Such are the objects of mathematics, for they are real objects constituted in the physical moment of "the" field reality, the same reality according to which things like this stone are real. The moment of reality is identical in both cases; what is not the same is their content and their mode of reality. The stone has reality in and by itself, whereas the circle has reality only by postulation. Nonetheless the moment of reality is identical. The reality of mathematical objects is the "more", that same "more" of every real thing in and by itself. And precisely by being a "more" it is extended to have a free content by postulation.

To describe the nature of the real by postulation, Zubiri distinguishes the real, the irreal, and the areal. The areal is what has no reality whatsoever. The irreal comes about when the content of reality is left suspended, or is postulated. This is what happens in the case of mathematical objects as well as in literature, when one speaks of a literary character such as Don Juan. Works of fiction arise from distancing and disrealizing, followed by recombination of notes.

Zubiri believes that Gödel’s theorem has a direct bearing on the reality of mathematical objects. Gödel’s famous result, on the incompleteness of formal systems, together with the development of quantum mechanics, represent two of the most significant intellectual developments of the twentieth century. Both of them have been carefully integrated by Zubiri into his thought and philosophy, which accordingly reflect the insights they bear. Zubiri’s interpretation of Gödel is that the content of postulated systems or postulated reality is richer than the original postulation. Or in other words, when reality is postulated in mathematics, the full reality of what is postulated exceeds the postulates in the sense that everything true about the postulated reality cannot be deduced logically from the postulates:

Mathematics itself has produced, among other things, two theorems whose anteriority of reality over truth. Gödel’s theorem, according to which that constructed by postulation has de suyo more properties than those formally postulated, in my view expresses that what is postulated is reality before it is truth. And Cohen’s theorem (let us call the non-Cantorian theory of groups that): groups are not just systems of elements determined by postulation; rather, prior to this, there are groups which he terms "generic" and which as I see it are not generic but the simple realization of the group, without the specific properties determined by postulation. The postulated properties themselves are then real prior to being true....It is the reality of the group prior to the axiomatic truth postulated.

The relationship of normal and postulated reality is shown in Figure 6.



Figure 6. The Structure of Reality



Relationship of Zubiri’s Thought and Classical Philosophy


Logification of intellection and entification of reality

Zubiri also clarifies his position vis à vis classical philosophy by pointing out that in classical philosophy, substantial being was identified with reality, the esse real. This Zubiri terms the ‘entification of reality’. Moreover, the being of the affirmed was identified with the being of predication, with the copulative ‘is’. This, which he believes to be wrong as well, he terms the logification of intellection:

Basing themselves on Parmenides, both Plato and Aristotle subsumed intellection under logos; that is what...I called the logification of intellection....for this theory, what is intellectively known consists in "being". Whence it follows that reality is but a mode of being—to be sure, the fundamental mode, but nonetheless only a mode: the esse real. That is to say, the real is formally ens; reality would thus be entity. This is what I call the entification of reality. Logification of intellection and entification of the real thus converge intrinsically: the "is" of intellection would consists in an affirmative "is", and the "is" known intellectively would be of entitative character. This convergence has in large measure etched the path of European philosophy.

From Zubiri’s standpoint, however, the situation is entirely different:

...the problem does not exhibit the same character from the standpoint of a sentient intelligence. The logos is founded on sentient apprehension of the real; i.e., on the sentient intellection. Therefore, instead of "logifying" intellection, what must be done is, as I said, to "intelligize" the logos; i.e., make the logos an ulterior mode of the primordial apprehension of the real. The formal terminus of intellective knowing is not the "is", but "reality". And thus it follows that reality is not a mode of being; indeed, being is something ulterior to reality itself. In virtue of this ... there is no esse real, but rather realitas in essendo. Reality cannot be entified, but must be given an entitative ulteriority. The ulteriority of the logos goes "along with" the ulteriority of being itself.

This logification has led to quite erroneous ideas about reason. According to Zubiri, they are three: reason as organ of evidence about being, of speculative dialectic, and of total organization of experience. He remarks:

These conceptions are unacceptable at their root, because intellective knowing is not judging but sentiently actualizing the real. Whence it is that reason does not rest upon itself, but is always just a mode of intellection. Reasoning, speculating, and organizing are three ways—among the many possible—of intellectively progressing in depth toward the beyond. And this progression is by its own formal nature founded upon a previous intellection, a sentient intellection.

In light of the foregoing, Zubiri’s position vis-à-vis classical thought can be put into focus through an enumeration of some key problems of that tradition and his resolution of them. For convenience, the problems may be divided into philosophy of nature, metaphysics, and epistemology, although there is some overlap.

Philosophy of nature. (1) Natural place theory of motion: things move toward their "natural" place, e.g., stones toward the earth. We now know, of course, that things do not have a "natural place" in this sense, and that the idea was a pre-scientific way of explaining behavior such as gravitational attraction. Zubiri would say that motion of things is the result of forces acting which need to be analyzed scientifically. (2) Nature of motion: category of accident for substances. Zubiri points out that motion is relative to an observer, and therefore not a property of a thing in isolation. Moreover, there are some things for which motion is an essential part of their nature, and so cannot be considered "accidental", e.g., subatomic particles. (3) Structure of things: comprised of substantial form and matter. There are two points to Zubiri’s critique of this notion. First, things are made up of many variations (genetic in the case of living things) which can be quite significant, so one cannot speak of a "single" form, but only of stable structures. Second, real things usually have a layered architecture, indicating a structure much more complex than the substantial form theory suggests.

Metaphysics. (1) Reality as entities, or the identification of thing (res) with entity (ens), what Zubiri calls the "entification of reality". Zubiri believes that this causes serious problems because there are many things which are not entities in this sense, e.g. energy, entropy, and psychic realities such as colors and feelings. It also leads to theological problems when knowledge of God is assumed to proceed by analogy from finite things. (2) Substantial change: things lose their form, revert to prime matter, from which new substances arise, as in case of fire burning wood. Zubiri does not directly address this problem, but would argue that this whole paradigm is wrong: we now know that change does not occur in this manner—things may break down into primitive components such as amino acids, molecules, atoms, or even subatomic particles; but always something definite, unlike prime matter. Furthermore, in order to understand this situation, it is necessary to distinguish substantivity (a closed structure of notes) from substance. (3) Cause of motion: motion always requires a contiguous efficient cause. Scientifically, this is known to be incorrect; and Zubiri argues that motion is a characteristic of things in reality which may require a functional explanation (e.g. in terms of a scientific law), but not necessarily a metaphysical one. (4) Essence as what makes things be what they are. This was discussed at length above; Zubiri believes that classical thought was insufficiently radical on this point. (5) Causality implies determinism. This notion, stemming from Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics, is an example of what Zubiri terms "logification of intelligence": a logical notion, that of necessary connection between premises and conclusion of an argument, was applied to physical explanation, where its validity needed to be established empirically. In fact, determinism is a type of causality; but by no means the only type, as science was forced to acknowledge and deal with in the 20th century. Fortunately, the mathematical means to do so were at hand, in the form of probability theory and statistics.

Epistemology. (1) Essence as correlate of the definition. This is related to the previous point, and was also discussed above. Zubiri points out that the assumption that every essence can be defined in genus-species form, or even defined in words at all, is entirely gratuitous. With the exception of "Man is a rational animal", no such definitions were forthcoming from classical philosophy. (2) Knowledge through essences: no knowledge of singular things. Again, Zubiri argues that a radical interpretation of essence, as that which makes a thing what it is, means that the question of knowledge of species versus singular things is entirely irrelevant. (3) Causality as the basis of knowlege. Causality, defined as the "real productive influence of one thing on another", is never directly perceived by humans, and therefore cannot be the basis of knowledge. In practice, it is functionality rather than causality which is used as that basis.

Being and Reality

The concept of being and the relationship of being and reality also Zubiri’s concept of deserves some comment. His concept of being is radically different than that of classical philosophy, or later European tradition. Since for him reality is the primary concept, being must be understood with reference to reality, rather than the other way around. Thus, being is actuality (not actuity) of the real in the world; a physical moment of actuality. Specifically, a real thing considered not as formally and constitutively real, but as actual reality in the world. This means that being is posterior to reality, since actuality is posterior to actuity. There is no esse real, only realitas in essendo.

Being does not pertain to reality as a formal moment, but to the real. When we intellectively know the real in and by itself, we know that it is being by being real. Being is an ulterior moment of primordial intellection, i.e., reality is sensed directly, but being is ulteriorly, indirectly sensed or co-sensed. The transcendental openness of the impression of reality which implies an impressive sensing of the real means that we should be sensing that it is being in the world, sensed being (obliqueness).

Being has the three structural moments explained above: actuality, ulteriority, and obliqueness. There are several subsidiary concepts. First is being of the affirmed, which is actuality of the real in the intellective world, in the world of the in reality. This expresses, in an oblique mode, that a realization is intellectively known, what a thing is in reality. It is actuality of the in reality in respectivity to the intellective world. Actuality is here affirmed with respect to what a real thing is as reality. The being of the affirmed is what is obliquely expressed with respect to what a thing is in reality; cf. being of the substantive, which is what is expressed in the primordial apprehension of being. Being of the affirmed is the site of the not-being, thus the answer to the classical problem of the being of not-being.

Second is being of the substantive. This is field and worldly actuality of the real, i.e., actuality of the real in the field and in the world (stemming from the actuality of something real in impressive intellection). The real apprehended in impression sends us to what is ulterior to it, to its being. It is ex-pression of what is in the im-pression of reality. This is the radical form of being.

Being is "of" the real, but is not the real itself. Being of the substantive is not substantial reality, but being of real substantivity. The being of the affirmed is not identical with the copulative "is", because not every affirmation is predication.

Zubiri stresses that intellective knowing is always of reality, not being:

... reality is nothing outside of real things. Nonetheless, it is not something identical to all of them or to their sum, either. Rather, it is just the moment of transcendentality of each real thing. This is the articulation among the two moments of real thing and reality: transcendentality.... Ultimately, to know intellectively is, I repeat, constitutively and formally to be actually apprehending pure and simple reality, i.e. what things are de suyo as such. Therefore this installation in pure and simple reality is physical and real, because physical and real is the transcendentality of the impression of reality.

Truth and Reality

With this background, it is natural that in Zubiri truth will have a different meaning than in classical (or any other) philosophy. The priority of reality is paramount; for Zubiri, truth is intellective actualization of the real qua intellective, in the sense that a thing is really that in accordance with which it has been actualized. He elaborates on the relationship between truth and reality:

Reality and truth are not identical because there are or can be realities which are not actualized nor have any reason to be so. In this sense, not every reality is true. Truth is a quality of actualization, and actualization is a physical moment of the real. Without adding a single note, actualization nonetheless adds truth to the real. Therefore truth and reality are not identical, but neither are they mere correlatives; reality is not just the correlate of truth but its foundation, because all actualization is actualization of reality. Reality is then what gives truth to intellection, what "truthifies" in it.

Such an approach clearly shows the problems with two of the most famous theories of the past, those of Descartes and Kant:

This excludes from the outset two conceptions of truthful intellection. The first is to understand that reality is a simple correlate of truth -- this is basically Kant’s thought about the question....The other is the most common conception of all, according to which truth and its opposite, error, are two qualities which function ex aequo in intellection. That was Descartes’ idea.

Knowledge is more of a searching process than an accomplishment; but seen in the light of Zubiri’s breakdown of intellection, this takes on a new meaning. He remarks:

The intellection of the real "among" other realities is by its own structure a dynamism of approximation to real truth. That is, "the truth" as such is a gigantic intellective movement toward what "the real" is "in reality" in a directional focus, schematic and gradual. And not just every dual truth, but also "the" dual truth is an approximation to "the" real truth. This is the whole of work human knowledge, viz. intellective approximation to reality.

Truth, Judgment, and Reality

The notion of "judgment" is naturally different in Zubiri than in previous philosophy, due to the differences in Zubiri’s concepts of intelligence:

In fact, what judgment affirms is not reality pure and simple, but what a thing already apprehended as real is in reality. And in turn, what a thing is in reality is just the unity of its individual and field moments, i.e., the concrete unity of each thing with all others in "the" reality. Distanced, then, in "the" reality is how the intelligence is situated with respect to a thing. That is, the medium is just the moment of "the" reality. Conversely, coincidence is the unity of intelligence and the thing in that medium which is "the" reality. Truth as coincidence is above all coincidence of affirmation and of a thing "in" reality. And this reality is then the "in" itself, i.e., is the medium; therefore it is something which is intrinsic to intelligence and the thing.