Some philosophers have denied the philosophical axiom "Agere sequitur esse"* ("'To act' follows from 'to be'"). What reasons do they give for thinking that action precedes (logically? ontologically? temporally?) being? How can there be action without there first being a being that acts?

*cf., e.g., Contra Gentiles lib. 2 cap. 35 n. 4: "effectus naturalis agentis sequitur esse agentis" ("the effect of a natural agent follows the being of the agent")

Also, it would seem Heraclitus and neo-Heraclitians like Bergson might think "Esse sequitur agere."

  • By the way here a Wikipedia on the existialists and their saying: existence precedes essence: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Existence_precedes_essence
    – Gordon
    Apr 19, 2018 at 22:01
  • I'm not sure if I have enough content to make an answer out of it, but denying "Action follows existence" is not the same as asserting "existence follows actions." There is also the possibility that the two are so hopelessly intertwined such that trying to suggest one follows the other at all is folly. Alan Watts is a philosopher who professes to this sort of thinking. I don't know if the philosophers you are interested in share this position or not.
    – Cort Ammon
    Apr 19, 2018 at 22:26
  • Sorry for all these comments, but one interesting sort of "anomaly". Wojtyla, in his "Crossing the Threshold of Hope" recommends the study of the scholastics and Thomas. I can't remember his exact words. But then he mentions also Levinas "the human face" the face. Now Levinas is very well respected, but he seems hostile to ontology, metaphysics. I don't think he uses the term violence, but maybe Levinas says ontology is a kind of control. And I have heard the phrase ontology is violence (not from JP2).
    – Gordon
    Apr 19, 2018 at 23:44
  • @Gordon I think you're speaking of Memory and Identity p. 12.
    – Geremia
    Apr 20, 2018 at 0:33
  • Here is a book you may be interested in.archive.org/details/… E.L. Mascall.
    – Gordon
    Apr 21, 2018 at 4:12

4 Answers 4


One can perhaps see the seed being planted in Aquinas' characterization of esse (existence) as "act of being", a new addition to the Aristotelian matter/form duality. In modern times the origins of the idea can be traced to Kant, who first elevated epistemology over ontology, and then emphasized the active role of the subject in shaping the former (and by implication the latter). In particular, Kant characterized concepts as actions, rather than traditional essences, in almost Wittgensteinian manner:

"Whereas all intuitions, as sensible, rest on affections, concepts rest on functions. By function I mean the unity of the act of ordering various representations under one common representation" (CPR B93/A68).

Wolff in Kant’s Theory of Mental Activity explicitly emphasizes Kant's break with Parmenides on the issues of being/becoming and one/many:"The paradox of a multiplicity which has unity without losing its diversity - the problem which the ancients called the one and the many - is resolved by the notion of rule-directed activity".

What might be a bit of a stretch in Kant comes to the surface in Fichte's and especially Hegel's dialectic (who owe some to Heraclitus, of course). Hegel says for himself what Wolff had to spell out for Kant:“It is just as impossible for anything to break forth from it as to break into it; with Parmenides as with Spinoza, there is no progress from being or absolute substance to the negative, to the finite” (Science of Logic, 94-95). He did not phrase his break as prioritizing action over being, indeed action appears quite late in his system, but his elevation of change and movement into the place of Parmenidian self-identical being is hard to miss. Here is how Papa-Grimaldi describes Hegel's move in Why Mathematical Solutions of Zeno's Paradoxes Miss the Point:

"Zeno’s paradoxes do not add anything to the Parmenidean prohibition to think only of the identity. One is One and cannot be Many. If we want to think logically, we can only think the identical, because identity is the form of our thought: our thought can only be identical with itself when it thinks, that is it cannot think two things at the same time. The response of the pluralists and all those who embraced a similar philosophical creed (see in more recent times Hegel and Bergson) was to refuse to think of the existent as being, but to think of it as becoming. This as I said, though, was not a solution to Zeno’s paradoxes as it simply embraces a new “logic”, the logic of becoming that denies the identity.

[...] The only way to “conceptualise” (but the Hegelian one is no ordinary concept) change and to conceive of the plurality as concrete rather than abstract, that is, as a pure sum of the unit, is the Hegelian synthesis or any other doctrine that privileges an experience of movement over an aseptic attempt to understand it... On the other hand it is impossible and it really results in an aporia to try and conceptualise movement as concrete, intrinsic plurality while keeping the logic of the identity... Hegelian logic is not a solution of the paradox but a dismissal of the logical coordinates that generate it."

After Hegel the priority of becoming/action over being was picked up in different forms by pragmatists, life philosophers, existentialists, evolutionists, post-structuralists, and more. Peirce's ontological primitives are acts and systems of acts (acting laws), in Whitehead's process ontology they are "actual occasions", Bergson and Teilhard de Chardin developed evolutionary ontologies. Rorty and Brandom even characterize early Heidegger as a "pragmatist" in the broad sense. Arguably, his "fundamental ontology", filtered through Dasein, is action centered, that was the core of his break with Husserl's fixed eidoses. Sartre's "existence precedes essence" wrapped it into a formula. Derrida, Deleuze and Badiou can be seen as representing the "process thought" too. SEP even has an entry on Process Philosophy, which it characterizes as a broad movement in the 20th century.


One line of thought here is that of existentialism. Philosophers from Aristotle to Aquinas and beyond have thought that there is a human essence, an essential human nature; and that actions flow from this nature. 'To be' a human being is 'to act' in certain characteristic ways and to have certain dispositions to act. Our essence is intrinsic to our existence; it's like the blueprint from which we are made. The phrase for this is that our essence precedes our existence.

Existentialists such as Sartre reverse this relationship between being and action. For them, there is no essential human nature, no human essence, just the endless possibility of defining ourselves through our actions. As we make choices, and as we act, so we become certain kinds of persons : through our actions we come to exist ('to be') the persons we are. As Sartre sees it, our existence precedes our essence. We first exist, then define our nature.

The basis of this philosophy is the assertion that, in Man, existence precedes essence. There is no universal essence of Man, but each man creates his own during his lifetime. In other words, when Man is thrown into the world, he is at first nothing; it is only later that he will become something and he will then be what he has made himself be. To quote Sartre: " L'homme n'est rien d'autre que ce qu'il se fait. Tel est le premier principe de l'existentialisme." [Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism.]To illustrate this, Sartre says that when you sow the seeds of some vegetable, you know that you are going to get that vegetable and none other. The essence of the vegetable therefore precedes its existence. But when a man is born, you cannot say, since he is a being gifted with reason and a conscience, what that man is going to be. Therefore, in human beings, existence precedes essence.

Since Man is nothing except what he has made of himself, it follows that he is entirely responsible for what he is. (Jacques Hardré, 'Sartre's Existentialism and Humanism', Studies in Philology, Vol. 49, No. 3 (Jul., 1952), pp. 537-8.)

There are endless problems with this viewpoint. But that perhaps isn't to the present point. I have tried briefly to explain a viewpoint in terms of which (in the senses indicated) action can precede existence or being. I am only trying to make sense of the viewpoint in a rough sketch, not inviting you to accept it - or to reject it either.

Sartre's 'Existentialism and Humanism' sets out the viewpoint briefly and clearly. As one expands the brevity the clarity tends to reduce.


Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism. ISBN 10: 041331300X / ISBN 13: 9780413313003

Also online at : https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/sartre/works/exist/sartre.htm

Jacques Hardré, 'Sartre's Existentialism and Humanism', Studies in Philology, Vol. 49, No. 3 (Jul., 1952), pp. 534-547.

Mary Warnock, Existentialism, London : Oxford University Press, 1970.

There is longer, more recent, more complex work but these basic texts will provide a first orientation.

  • Existentialists such as Sartre reverse this relationship between being and action You too freely equate being with essence and action with existence. Sartre reversed the essence-existence pair. Being and essence are different concepts to him.
    – ttnphns
    Apr 21, 2018 at 6:21
  • @ttnphns. Thank you for your comment. I would not attempt to compete with you in matters of Sartean scholarship. All I meant is that 'Since there is no pre-established pattern for human nature, each man (sic) makes his essence as he lives' (Being and Nothingness, tr. H. Barnes, 1977, 631 (translator's glossary).
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Apr 21, 2018 at 9:07
  • Geoffrey, thanks, but I know Sartre poorly myself. Your answer is highly relevant, whatevar my remark about terminology.
    – ttnphns
    Apr 21, 2018 at 9:33
  • @ttnphns. All cleared up - very many thanks. I was basing myself mainly on 'Existentialism & Humanism', the first thing of Sartre's that I read. I still think it gives a good first view. On the technical side, re essence, existence &c., my own view is that Sartre is not at his best when he does formal philosophical exposition. 'Being & Nothingness' & 'Critique of Dialectical Reason' are mind-spinners. Where he is great is in his examples - the waiter, for instance, and the boy who is undecided whether to join the Resistance or to stay and look after his mother. That's my view anyway. Geoff
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Apr 21, 2018 at 10:56

One of the strongest proponents of this idea (as far as I know) is Gottlob Fichte, who claims

“[the intellect] has no being proper, no subsistence, for this is the result of an interaction and there is nothing either present or assumed with which the intellect could be set to interact. ... The intellect, for idealism, is an act, and absolutely nothing more; we should not even call it an active something, for this expression refers to something subsistent in which activity inheres”.

In order to even experience something as an object, i.e. as being, we would have to presuppose an activity (of knowing) on behalf of the subject, and this goes for the subject knowing itself too. Hence, the activity itself always precedes being. You can find his arguments in his "First Introduction to the Wissenschaftslehre".


This (maybe weirdly) made me think of Hamilton and Noether, and the physical notion of action (energy x time).

In particular, many of the “general laws” of the universe are conservation principles, and follow from the notion of universal actions; for instance, if you want the laws to be the same in every direction, you need conservation of angular momentum; if they need to be the same however far you go on a straight line, this implies another law of conservation (of momentum.)

The general laws of being follow from the notion of a universal action; the demand that the same rules apply in any direction or distance in time and space itself has as a corollary the various conservation principles (some of the deepest and most unifying of physical theories!)

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