The Metaphysics of Erich Przywara

The forward to the first volume of Erich Przywara’s metaphysics[1] makes the twenty-year path to this work seem almost unprecedentedly straightforward. Between the first study of Thomas’ fundamental-ontological “On Being and Essence” to this grounding of metaphysics in the problem of being and essence, there truly stands the assimilation of the whole history of philosophy; but all fullness crystalizes only around the ever constant core. Although this volume brings only the methodological—the question of the formal structure of metaphysics in general, and not yet the material metaphysics of consciousness (“meta-noetic”), of being (“meta-ontic”), and of the world (as their inter-locking)—this is promised by the second volume. But from the formal problem the whole can already be surveyed and judged. A material presentation of the thought-world compressed in these 150 pages—they normally would take up to 1000 pages of philosophical epic—is certainly impossible, and so we must content ourselves with three questions: the type of thought that is formed here, its spheres of influence, and the basic content of the work.

I. The Type of Thought

If a new and unique inflection of two basic tendencies—power and love, overpowering and surrender, domination and contentment—constitutes the innermost mystery of every soul, then in the theoretically minded man this tension takes the particular form of a standing between two poles—of a universal theoretical domination of the knowable in systematic totality, and of a surrender to the inexhaustible diversity of the empirical-knowable world. All thinkers incline toward one pole or the other, either the rationalist-systematic or the irrationalist-unsystematic. In rare cases the passion of thought may be comprised equally intensively in both. This is precisely the type of thought to which Przywara would belong. His dynamic thinking originates in the utmost tension between two opposites of the thought process.

Materially, this indicates an interlocking, on the one hand, of an unconditional will for investigation to the core, with an almost rationalist aversion to every non-objective, unstructured philosophy of experience, a thinking that “penetrates until it severs soul and spirit, joint and marrow from each other” [Hebrews 4:12]; on the other hand, it indicates a no less radical knowledge of the inexhaustibility of every movement of thought, an anti-rationalism to the last, an absolute mistrust of the principles of system, like those of thinking and being, from which anything at all could be deduced or systematically constructed.

Formally, it indicates the interlocking, on the one hand, of an extreme will for style, for ordering in presentation, which occasionally can express itself as a more virtuosic than convincing “bringing-to-attunement,” but positively has led to an amazing and thoroughgoing mathematization of philosophical language and technique, which reminds of Hegel and turns every book and every essay into a lucidly composed cosmos; on the other hand, it indicates an equally extreme will for the destruction of every so-called purity of style of thought, of every immediacy to the truth, of “every smooth calculation” in favor of a “theocentrism that relativizes everything human.”[2] But in this greatest proximity to Hegel’s theocentric-dynamic thinking, it differentiates itself fundamentally from him, in that every “doctrine of opposites” that formally arises from Przywara’s principle of analogy is “so little a final and most subtle human construction, that it rather indicates essentially the decisive genuflection of every human construction.”[3] This also connects to Przywara’s nonchalant movement beyond the traditional scientific apparatus in which philosophers like to entrench themselves, and thus the knowledge that an outwardly displayed “exactness,” which has its place in the natural sciences, is not identical with the method required for metaphysics. Therefore the accusations of “intuitionism” and “constructivism” do not meet the uniqueness of this mode of thought. If the being of the being, the ground of being, is the object of metaphysics, then this new object requires an entirely different “depth of sight” through the being’s external modes of appearance, a procedure which is not incomparable to the accommodation of the eye or the microscope. That Przywara lets the problem’s manifold layers of depth become transparent is exactly what characterizes his mode of thought. The formulas always recur: a question “becomes transparent” in a deeper one, a “sight opens up,” a problem “breaks through” into a deeper one. Thus here the influences of phenomenology have come upon a native charism. But in order to make this “seeing” comprehensible, Przywara makes increasing use of a method of synthetic “construction.” If “analysis” seemingly predominates in his first works (the Newman and Scheler presentations), thus “construction” seemingly does in the later ones (the Kierkegaard and Kant books, types of Analogia Entis). But, to see it more deeply, it is only a progress within the same technique: the making visible of a type of thought or of an underlying structure takes place less and less out of the “philological” texts, but increasingly out of the moments that are indicated in these texts more deeply, which remain inaccessible to every philological analysis. Such method certainly requires trust in the honesty of the seeing as well as the diligence of the study, though the fulfillment of these requirements remains no less verifiable.

In this thinking, which bears tension both materially and formally, a fundamental polarity of the dimensions of thought in general is revealed; it is, on the one hand, a horizontal, thinking-in-the-breadth that does not stand still until the entire fullness of the historical surface is processed and formed into the unity of a worldview. Thomas and Hegel are the forebears of this aspect. As with the latter, the structure of the dialectical must master the multiplicity of history, so here analogy, seeming entirely ahistorical at first, becomes the dominating ordering-principle for all philosophical and intellectual-historical phenomena. But it is just as much a vertical thinking that penetrates into the depths, which is content with a minimum of problem-ground and uncovers everything decisive in the dimension of depth. Augustine is the archetype here, and Heidegger the most closely related today.

Thus results a philosophy that refers to the Archimedean point that equally means the most radical formal unity and the most radical elimination [Aufhebung] of every systematic unity, that finds the formula to annihilate every formula, insofar as it depicts and acknowledges the crack in creaturely being to the last. Vertically and horizontally, Augustine and Thomas commit themselves in such a way that the entire breadth of the problem is reduced to the most original approach, but then this approach persists in the reflexive unfolding of the breadth, as its structure. Indeed, this immutability of the approach in every execution, the radically “inchoative” nature of the whole, is the guarantee that it is a creaturely, and not a divinely usurped, metaphysics. Thus, where Thomas presents a naively open construction of system, as the “sum” of all knowledge that can be brought to no last denominator, there is found a principle of system—obedient to the claim of modern “systematics” and correcting it at the same time—to represent this inexhaustibility both reflectively and architectonically. And so finally, the aspect of “overpowering” necessarily and completely is ordered beneath the aspect of “contentment”; the ordering powers of this thinking enter completely into the service of what cannot be overpowered; the brilliant art of clarifying, ordering, illuminating, becomes the technique and tool to let what cannot be captured appear precisely in its purest sight.

II. The Spheres of Influence

This “breaking” in the approach already forbids all pure logic, as immediacy to the Logos (thus also all metaphysics of principles); but also it does not mean the broken grasping of the Logos in the “dia” of « dia-lectic, » the dizziness between the Hegelian grasping of the divine as contradiction to its very self and the Barthian separation from the divine as from contradiction (to the world); but rather it means clarified, distanced, creative “love” for Sophia (“philo-sophy”), thinking up to the Logos (ἀνὰ τὸν λόγον λογίζεσθαι), in which thinking the Logos, although immanent rule of ordering and progressing (“ano” as “in accordance with”), still remains as such rule transcendently and unattainably beyond all ordering and progressing (“ana” as “above” and “aloft”). That as a principle vis-à-vis logic and dialectic is called analogy.

But because the “beyond” of pure Logos is before its “in (the world”), although this sublime “beyond” (God) indicates that the analogical (the world) is from him and to him, since therefore “analogy” essentially indicates a philosophy of God and the appearance of God’s incomprehensibility, so the aforementioned methodological tension is just the expression of the constitution of the object of metaphysics itself: analogy is fundamentally analogy in being: analogia entis. The “ana” of worldly being, both its inner “sequence” (immanent-temporal dynamic) as well as its transcendent “aloft” (in which it reveals itself as equally from God and to God) indicate it as an “analogue” itself: its being is not “on equal footing” with the divine; only God is Being—the world set before him is “as nothing,” and only in the backdrop of this nothingness holds the place of “not-nothing.” As “being” the world reveals God in itself; as “nothing” it reveals him more deeply as the incomprehensible beyond itself. Indeed, principally when a creature stands in its innermost, its ownmost, in what it is “from itself,” in its nothing, it stands before the “unconditional truth” befitting it as before its actually required object.[4] “As the creature penetrates through all peripheral conceptualizations into the inconceivable mystery of opposites of its essence (between being and nothing), it opens its true eyes to the true God.”[5]

This shows how for Przywara metaphysics, and not epistemology, is the prima philosophia, and even more how “in the starting point of the whole philosophy a certain religious relation is already included.”[6] “There remains at bottom only the choice between the equation, which would contradict all reality, of the mutable and finite with . . . the immutable Infinite, or the acknowledgement of the fact that the philosophia perennis has indicated by analogia entis.”[7] But, that is to say: Metaphysics is at root not purely theoretical and uninterested, but rather always already has an ethical “decision-character,” without thereby becoming alogical.

The spheres of influence are thereby given: the point of origin of this metaphysics, aimed at a binding of philosophy and theology (since the formal problem of theology already lies in the “beyond” of God), that is named in the breadth of the transcendentals (true-good-beautiful, metaphysics as the origin and endpoint of logic-ethics-aesthetics), and that includes in itself especially the problem of the religious attitude—the living origin of such a metaphysics is solely Augustine. He must ever be held as the original impulse in Przywara’s thought. The announced synthetic translation will confirm this anew. Indeed, what lies together in the Fathers innocently unexplained in their great vision (before all nature and supernature) is explained methodically under the influence of Thomas and the post-Tridentine scholastics, while the subjective-religious problem contains new influence from Newman and (less so) Scheler. But Newman himself is interpreted by Przywara essentially as a patristic redivivus. The methodological problem is clarified in Husserl, but the final shades in Przywara’s version of the analogia entis stem from the lively confrontation with Karl Barth and Heidegger and, by both, with Kierkegaard, who, however, and with him the entire existential dialectic, is interpreted as a “prelude to John of the Cross,” to the mystical Carmelite night. Thus it is clear that Kant and the entire epistemological world around him lie furthest from this philosophy, just as the Kant book remained probably the least lively and least regarded work of Przywara.

But here a trait is still missing: the problematic is not only Augustinian, but something deeper lets both the unity of precise dialectics and immediate religious liveliness appear related in the subjective determinations. That the volume of poems Karmel (1932) appeared at the same time as Analogia Entis, and recently the probably aesthetically purer Homo,[8] should not be overlooked: the fundamentals of both are the same; the short mathematical language of the Analogia lends itself to an effortless translation into the songlike and relaxed language of the poems. That praying and thinking here interpenetrate becomes significant for the philosophical problematic itself: sub specie aeterni—not as unworldliness, but as the most concrete nearness of all reality—the weight of the meaning of philosophical questions can often shift markedly. (Does Neo-Scholasticism not still drag much of its decadent age’s problem of subtlety with it, and so prevent itself from posing the true and eternal questions together with prayerful reverence and passion for thought, as it prevents its fellow world from seeing its truest treasures?) The most beautiful thing that Analogia Entis gives us, therefore, is a new approach, a beginning beyond all disputes of schools, that practically has become possible only since the liveliest growing root tip of the present (and only this interests Przywara in his time) has been immersed in the fertile soil of the philosophical and religious tradition. This Augustinian prayerful reverence thus appears to be the foundation for that peculiarity of Przywara observed by Dr. Alois Mager O.S.B.: “to make all the questions with which he is concerned appear newly and interestingly, however old and often answered they may be.” This can only be for the one to whom not only the depth of being, but also that of thinking, is “holy ground.” This lends to this thinking, similar to Augustine’s, that glimmer that one wanted to interpret from aesthetic compositional works, but which ultimately emanates from the passion of the “realized” by itself.[9]

III. Basic Content

It is no coincidence that the three liveliest undertakings to bind modernity and scholasticism went the path of “dynamism.” At first Maurice Blondel’s L’Action (1893), then Maréchal’s Le point de départ de la métaphysique (1922f.), and finally Przywara’s doctrine of analogy. Blondel is a struggle against phenomenalism and positivism: the way out becomes the fact of the dynamic willing that makes phenomena possible in the first place, insofar as it imbeds them in its dynamism. But this borders ultimately on the Absolute, as the object of choice par excellence: the choice of being (God) fills the emptiness of the will which only completes itself in its self-giving, and fulfills at the same time all phenomena for the existing world. Non-choice encloses it in self-glorifying, ultimately Satanic power, as powerlessness. Blondel touches on modernism with this actualism, seen through Fichte, of Aristotelian character: with God as the fulfillment of personal exigences, theology is immanentized, nearly deduced. Thus the dialectically and mysteriously dazzling book does not bring a true solution. Maréchal underpins Blondel’s actualism with Thomistic metaphysics. But since his struggle is one-sidedly directed against Kant’s formalism, which he in turn only thinks can be overcome (as Kroner and Herrigel with him, for example) by the dynamic-final moment in the categorial synthesis, he also comes close to a certain ontologism: Over the categorial understanding, “being” (as super-conceptual-existential fullness) sits enthroned as the single, highest idea of reason, in which alone the “unity of apperception” may obtain. Even if Maréchal denies an intuition of (super-categorical, analogous) being, his dynamic of thinking and willing goes straightway into God, indeed already takes place in God, insofar as the dynamism of understanding moves itself in this super-conceptual form of being. A Platonizing ontologism is here the final consequence, and in turn a naturalization of super-nature (insofar as the visio beatifica is the fulfillment of the basic striving of nature).

Przywara, totally independent of both, has a lighter position than they from the start. Where Blondel and Maréchal must break through into the noumenal and into metaphysics—the former from a shallow phenomenalism, the latter from a formalistic Kantianism—he discovers metaphysical soil already in post-war Germany, thanks to the principled objectivism of phenomenology, the interest in Hegel, and existential philosophy and theology. Plato-Augustine peers more immediately through Husserl’s “essence” as Heidegger-Barth’s “aporetics,” and Aristotle-Thomas through Hegel’s dynamic world-system.

Husserl provides the most valuable methodological approaches for true metaphysics in his separation of sciences of essence and of fact. In a decidedly realistic turn, such as his students Hedwig Conrad-Martius and Edith Stein took, this produces a methodologically clear distinction between metaphysics and the natural sciences,[10] which leads to the Aristotelian science of being as being (ὂν ᾗ ὄν) and of the being concretely externalized in its appearing giving-of-itself. If Husserl clarified the methodological, so now Heidegger raises the basic metaphysical question with a long-unheard pathos: τι τὸ ὄν, What is being? And his answer: it is “time,” as constitutive “in the nothing,” fundamentally not identical with itself, that unexpectedly strikes a bridge to the central problem of the scholastics and of its new schools—the distinctio realis, as the non-identity of essence and existence in finite being. This non-identity becomes Przywara’s principal unshakeable starting point. Everything finite is in its being “stretched”: its essence has a necessity that its existence has not; essence and existence stand in it as only “factually,” and not “essentially,” one. If neo-Thomism now more emphasizes the “nonessentially” and derives therefrom its theory of the constitutive “parts of being” (ens quo), if Suarezianism now more emphasizes the “factually” and builds thereon its theory of the actual, not necessary identity (distinctio rationis cum fundamento in re), the fact of the real non-identity lies before both schools. This alone is the starting point for Przywara.[11] The two versions for him are ultimately only the coarsening out of the deepest mystery of being into the “broad school format,”[12] while here it is about “a suspension, no longer actually conceptually executable, between a being, which is ‘thus’ [so] and ‘there’ [da], and whose ‘thus’ is always yet ‘to be attained,’ so that it is never actually ‘there’ as a pure ‘thus.’”[13] From here is produced his basic formula: essence in-and-beyond existence [Sosein in-über Dasein]. It is, however, the formula of a being that is essentially dynamic, internally becoming, going-toward-itself and beyond-itself. It is thus, in contrast to the psychological dynamism of Blondel and Maréchal, in contrast also to the vital dynamism of Guardini’s doctrine of opposites, a fundamental-ontological one.

And this now justifies Przywara, in a simultaneously historical and systematic grounding, to let this dynamism of worldly being develop out of the Aristotelian grounding of metaphysics in the principle of contradiction. If Aristotle fixes being and thinking in a (historical-systematic) reductio ad absurdum of pure identity (Parmenides) and of pure non-identity (Heraclitus) as a suspended middle between both poles, so here the principle of contradiction is the expression of this essentially dynamic being and thinking. It is in its negative expression (something can not be and not be at the same time, not be true and not true at the same time) the formula for a “minimum ground” for both being and thinking. This becomingness of being expresses itself ontologically in Aristotle as the dynamism from potentiality (dynamis, potentia) to actuality (energeia, actus),[14] but in such a way that a clear “flow of direction” does not arise (as if being were self-actualization in becoming), but rather that the one being in becoming, looked at backwardly to its source, appears as the actualization of “pure” potentiality powerless of itself, while looked at forwardly it appears purposively as “charged” potentiality (entelechy). This ineliminable duality of the meaning of potentiality (as power and as powerlessness) is only a new expression for the mystery of created being that is expressed in the fact of the real distinction. It exists as becoming, equally powerfully and emptily—both inseparably. Now Przywara’s double battlefront first becomes totally visible: it stands first against a dynamic that denies the “emptily”: Hegel’s dialectic, in which, with God himself becoming, the principle of contradiction as dialectic becomes the form of divine being (identity). But it stands equally against a dynamic that denies the “powerfully”: Heidegger’s and Barth’s dialectic, where the creature becomes pure, powerless contradiction to being (Barth), pure birth of the nothing, of time (Heidegger). Between these two dialectics of God-becoming and nothing-becoming stands the true becoming of the creature, rooted in the given (even if enigmatic), which (back toward the origin) comes to be at the same time out of nothingness as out of God, and (forward toward the goal) into nothingness as into God. So the sense of ana-logy is clarified even more: the “ana” as “according to sequence,” the eternal transition of being from nothingness into nothingness is inseparably at the same time “ano” as “directed,” “aloft” according to an “above,” a meaningful going out of God to God. So for Przywara, beside the one “principle” of contradiction that is itself no “proposition,” but rather only the formula of the very situation of being, no “principle” of sufficient reason is needed, since being in its primary giving of itself already appears as dynamically directed, purposively and thus meaningfully. In the transcendence of worldly being, God unveils himself as the origin and goal beyond the whole world. The full meaning of analogy is here unveiled: an unfathomable all-powerful being [Sein] (as an essential identity of essence and being) peers out through the powerlessly-powerful becoming of the world. Only God is Being. The creature, on the brink of nothingness, is to be called “being” before him only in an analogous sense. And if its dynamism from potentiality to actuality, from nothingness to being, makes it analogous being in its very self, so this intra-creaturely analogy is the direct symbol of its relatedness to God; it relates to him as nothingness to being. “The intra-creaturely ‘is’ . . . is so intrinsically (in the essence of ‘becoming’) an ‘is’ in the ‘not,’ that, in the relation between God and creature, it is related as ‘nothing’ to the ‘creator out of nothing.’”[15]

But Aristotle performs his dynamic grounding between identity and contradiction not only for being, but also for thinking. And the scholastic axiom, “acting follows being,” lets such a dynamic-analogical being partake in truth in a correspondingly analogous way. Compared to Blondel and Maréchal, only Przywara is completely consistent here. Bergson’s basic error, that thinking in becoming is also thinking (intuition) of becoming, continues to have an effect on the French. This error, which is connected to Bergson’s pantheism and his attempt to decouple the concepts of nothingness, powerlessness, and creatureliness from the concept of becoming, veils the true position of creaturely thinking in obscurity: its dynamic is not, as Blondel and Maréchal would have us believe, a finality of just one meaning, but rather an eternal movement between two inexecutable extremes and only thus a powerless powerfulness. Just as being, in its most original fact of becoming, proves to be analogical, so also thinking in its most original fact of consciousness: the indissoluble tension of thinking and thinking’s content (noēsis and noēma), of consciousness and being. Between the dormant possession of being (identity of thinking and being) and the unattainable beyondness of being (contradiction, as agnosticism) lies the dynamic of the thinking that is in becoming: truth in-and-beyond act: ἀνὰ τὸν λόγον λογίζεσθαι.

Every creaturely metaphysics therefore will bear this structure of analogy on its face. So Przywara can advance a formal framework for his founding derivation of the analogy of being that represents the pure formal structure of every creaturely metaphysics. It is essentially built up from four formal tensions (as the coming together of opposites): 1) metaphysics of consciousness and of being, 2) transcendental metaphysics (from whose unity flow logic-ethics-aesthetics) and metaphysical transcendentalism (logic-ethics-aesthetics as converging on a metaphysics), 3) a priori and a posteriori metaphysics (both for the object [being] and the act), 4) philosophical and theological metaphysics. From the totality of these tensions is produced the visage which every human metaphysics must bear. 

But the historical concretion of analogy-thinking just necessarily (from the essence of the dynamic of thinking) means an oscillating, moving orbit around this fixed framework. Therefore, at the end, Przywara depicts the characteristics of four outstanding thinkers of analogy, who at the same time become types of its intelligibility: Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Thomas. In this perhaps most subtle chapter of the book, Przywara’s art of phenomenological “construction” is performed. One is reminded of the technique of the great Chinese ink-masters, whose skill proved itself in the flying design of the contours of hair’s-breadth precision, which uniquely reveal the work’s essence. But what seems to be “impressionism” was here the fruit of patient practicing, inhabiting, and loving – and just as much “expressionism.”

These fragmentary suggestions about Przywara’s metaphysics are nothing more than a first hint of this philosophy and could in no way replace one’s own, in-depth confrontation with it, especially with Analogia Entis. Only something fruitful and living could come from such a discussion, since it is the work of the living for the living.

TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: The above is translation of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s original review of Erich Przywara’s Analogia Entis (1932), originally published as, “Die Metaphysik Erich Przywaras,” Schweizerische Rundschau 33 (1933): 489-99. The young author’s enthusiasm for Przywara’s thought is nearly unqualified. Although this enthusiasm would later be given some qualifications (mainly Christological ones—see Theo-Drama III, 220f., esp. 221n51), an elderly Balthasar would still describe him as “the greatest spirit I was ever permitted to meet” (My Work [trans. 1993], 89). In Przywara’s thought, our young author believes he has found the proper beginning for all metaphysical reflection—a beginning which in some sense is fresh and new, freed from the burdens of inter- and intra-school debates, but also as ancient and primordial as the very fact of creation and the very act of thought. Thanks are owed to Johannes Verlag for permission to publish this translation, and to John Betz for advice on some particulars. —Samuel Korb


[1] Analogia Entis (München: Kösel & Pustet, 1932). [What von Balthasar refers to as the “first volume” was never followed by the intended second volume. This 1932 text, with only the addition of a final paragraph, was reprinted as part one of Erich Przywara, Analogia Entis: Metaphysik: Ur-Struktur und All-Rhythmus, Schriften, Bd. 3 (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1962), with a second part consisting of some later essays by Przywara on the topic of analogy; in English, Analogia Entis: Metaphysics: Original Structure and Universal Rhythm, trans. John R. Betz and David Bentley Hart (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014) – trans.]

[2] Analogia Entis, iv [English, xxiii].  

[3] Ringen der Gegenwart (Gesammelte Aufsätze) I, 373.

[4] Kant heute 1930, 99f.

[5] Ringen der Gegenwart, II, 928.

[6] Religionsphilosophie kath. Theologie, 1926, 26.

[7] Ringen der Gegenwart, I, 394.

[8] Kösel, München 1933. The title is meant in a similarly double-sided way as Augustine’s Confessions, the “confession” (of this man) and the “praise” (of man generally). So “Homo” is at the same time biographical-concrete and general-typical.

[9] Przywara’s much-accentuated style justifies itself from here: His method of citing to let the represented speak and appear of itself, to place it in as concise a framework as possible, in which it judges or recommends itself, shows a thoroughgoing will for service. Only paths are paved, obstacles cleared, stimulating hints given. He himself indicates the ideal method of philosophizing: “A creative thinking that does not lock onto the current of historically enduring thinking (of a vital philosophia perennis) a rigid stone (‘of an infallible new system,’ of course in vain), but rather that finally stands only in the service of this, insofar as it (in the ideal case) is silently participating with the current, and thereby beyond itself.” But at the same time as an “entering into the current of its sources as best as possible” (Plato, Aristotle, the scholastics), but which again is only possible “in a life of the sources in their flow now” (Analogia Entis, 28-29).

[10] As the phenomenological distinction of “ontology” and “metaphysics” can be no ultimate thing—see Conrad-Martius, Bemerkungen über Metaphysik und ihre methodische Stelle (1932), p. 118f., and also Analogia Entis, 15f.

[11] As is well known, the historical discussion about the meaning of the distinctio realis in Thomas is still in full swing and by no means clarified.

[12] Ringen der Gegenwart, I, 265.

[13] “Die Problematik der Neuscholastik,” Kantstudien 1928, 81.

[14] Only that in Aristotle the concepts are used both scientifically and metaphysically, while here, according to what was said earlier, are used purely metaphysically. 

[15] Analogia Entis, 99 [English, 237].