Category Archives: Anselm

Kant’s Critique of the Ontological Argument for the Existence of God


Ironically the most notable critique of the Ontological Argument for God’s Existence comes from a theist. For Kant the argument represents a categorical error of sorts. Kant’s criticism calls “existence” into question. Kant refuted the way in which “existence” was used by Anselm in the form of a real predicate that contributed to the existence of a being. Recall, for Anselm the argument was made that a being that existed in mind only was inferior to a being that existed in mind and reality. Thus Anselm’s argument required for “existence” to be a real predicate.

Allow me to attempt at an illustration. On my desk before me sits a mug of Kona coffee that I find to have a slight to moderate floral aromatic with a fruity character. However, I can recall waking up this morning thinking about a cup of Kona coffee with these same qualities the exception being existence of course because it is only conceived of in my mind. The question is, would the former coffee be superior to the latter because it has one more quality that the latter coffee doesn’t have, namely “existence”? In other words, can we treat qualities such as “floral aromatics” and “fruity character” the same way we treat “existence” as if it is a real predicate? Kant says we kant.

Being is evidently not a real predicate, that is, a conception of something which is added to the conception of some other thing.2

“Being is not a real predicate.” In the same way that existence adds nothing to the qualities of my coffee, so does existence add no other qualities to God. Rather what Kant would say is that the concept of existence is now being exemplified in my coffee or God. If being is not a real predicate, then Anselm’s argument is negated. At least that is what Kant is maintaining. There have been refutations of Anselm’s claim and some who even defend the idea that existence IS a real predicate. This however is a brief explanation of Kant’s argument and any further arguments might be forthcoming.

1 Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is one of the most influential philosophers in the history of Western philosophy. His contributions to metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics have had a profound impact on almost every philosophical movement that followed him.

2 Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason, tr. By J.M.D. Meiklejohn, in: Great Books in the Western World, vol. 42, Robert Maynard Hutchins edition in chief, Chicago, London, Toronto, Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 1952, Transcendental Doctrine of Elements,pp.181.

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Ontological Argument For God’s Existence: Anselm of Canterbury

“AND so, Lord, do you, who do give understanding to faith, give me, so far as you knowest it to be profitable, to understand that you are as we believe; and that you are that which we believe. And indeed, we believe that you are a being than which nothing greater can be conceived. Or is there no such nature, since the fool has said in his heart, there is no God? (Psalms xiv. 1). But, at any rate, this very fool, when he hears of this being of which I speak –a being than which nothing greater can be conceived –understands what he hears, and what he understands is in his understanding; although he does not understand it to exist.”

“Therefore, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one, than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence, there is doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.”
Anselm of Canterbury Proslogium II

In his Monologium Anselm offers up 65 chapters of technical argumentation giving his reasons for faith in God. Interestingly Anselm -for what ever reason- thought the essentials could be delivered in a more succinct way which was the motivation for writing Proslogium. In the preface to Proslogium Anselm writes, “I began to ask myself whether there might be found a single argument which would require no other for its proof than itself alone; and alone would suffice to demonstrate that God truly exists, and that there is a supreme good requiring nothing else, which all other things require for their existence and well-being; and whatever we believe regarding the divine Being.” So it is with this goal in mind to provide a single argument to prove that God exists.

This argument which has come to be known as the “ontological argument” isn’t like most arguments in that it calls upon reasons that are a priori or apart from experience. He explains that God is a being that none greater can be conceived of. The key here is to prove that God cannot exist in the mind only, but also in reality. For this we must pay close attention to the second quote from above. At this point the argument looks as follows:

  1. if that which nothing greater can be conceived exists in the understanding alone
  2. then the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one, than which a greater can be conceived because it exists in reality also
  3. obviously 1 is impossible because nothing greater can be conceived from that which nothing greater can be conceived

Thus Anselm argues from a reductio ad absudum, that it is absurd to conclude that something can be conceived that is greater than that which nothing greater can be conceived because it exists in understanding and reality. Thus that which nothing greater can be conceived not only exists in understanding but in reality also. Therefor God must exist in reality as well as in understanding.

I have attempted to simplify Anselm’s argument; however its challenge comes in its conceptual nature. But in spite of Anslem’s argument being challenging we find that it isn’t long after that his argument confronts opposition. In fact some of its strongest criticisms come from those who believe in God. This will have to be content for another post.






Filed under Anselm, God, Ontology, Theism