Discovering metaphysics is an experience that has left its mark on many individuals of varying profiles1), but such an experience is not without risk. It is by recalling what metaphysics is not that these risks will best become apparent. Isolated, suspended in a void, detached from its source and purpose, such a theoretical metaphysics remains a vision, but like that of a fly behind glass.

Discovering metaphysics

This striking experience is that of intelligence discovering itself, and once it has appeared in consciousness, it has revealed the metaphysician lying in wait in every man2.

Unnoticed in the daily operations of the mind, intelligence appears as the essential complement of reason3. If reason, a purely mental power, calculates and reasons under the aegis of logic, it remains to understand these calculations and reasonings: this is the primary role of intelligence, quite distinct from that of reason. Left to its own devices, reason exhausts itself in discourse closed in on itself: this is rationalist reduction, or reason governing itself (Kantism), or establishing classifications of words and concepts to the detriment of thought: this is conceptualist reduction, the trap into which analytic philosophy and structuralist reductionism often seem to fall, a trap into which his discourse fell in its time4.

The two distinct instances of reason and intelligence are not the same thing. Under power, a machine will be able to calculate indefinitely; this is, more appropriately renamed, AR, artificial reason5, the mental energy with which mankind has equipped itself since August 7, 19446. On the other hand, intelligence is not submissive: “intelligence, in its act of intellection, is perfectly free, and no authority, no will, not even our own, has power over it: we cannot force ourselves to understand what we do not understand” (Simone Weil)7

But if we can’t force ourselves to understand, it’s because intelligence is much more than that: it is the reception of a meaning that it cannot generate on its own. Thus, to think of a thing is certainly to construct a concept, but, above all, it is to be “intellectually seized by a sense, an intelligible, that we ‘recognize’ more than we cognize it” (Jean Borella)((It is this re-cognition that Plato calls reminiscence: “what is called seeking and learning is absolutely only remembering”, Menon 81d (Plato’s Works, trans. V. Cousin, Paris: Rey, t. VI, 1849, p. 172). The point here is that the intelligible surpasses the conceivable, and we will be cured of the rationalist temptation8. Put another way, we’ve discovered that a world of meaning (a semantic world) transcends a physical world (Plato), which is therefore merely the image or symbol of something else (Plato, Timaeus, 29b), and which, moreover, requires a first cause since, “if nothing is first, absolutely nothing is cause” (Aristotle)9 and, if there is no cause, no science can be established (scientia est cognitio per causas: science is knowledge through causes), and therefore no knowledge is possible.

Metaphysics is not universal

The facts

Universal metaphysics is the dashed hope of the twentieth century. Here’s a brief history of a century that saw the “return of metaphysics”. René Guénon, through the success of his critique of the modern world, his metaphysical lectures and his codification of esotericism, brilliantly promoted the break with the Kantianism and scientism of the 19th century, and reopened access to a sacred intellectuality10. Following in his footsteps, metaphysicians such as Frithjof Schuon, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Titus Burckhardt and Leo Schaya developed metaphysics related to particular faiths (Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism). In the cases of Guénon and Schuon, it was Hindu metaphysics (advaita vedānta, sāṃkhya) that was the source of the construction of a theoretical metaphysics (Guénon11, Schuon12 and even a religio perennis (Schuon), but none has been able to truly encompass a metaphysics corresponding to Christianity13.

In principle

Although the metaphysical approach is universal, there is no universal formalized metaphysics, for several reasons.

Coexisting points of view

The first reason is the coexistence of complementary points of view (like the Hindu darśana), such as the “analogy of being” (St. Thomas Aquinas) or “divine exemplarism” (St. Bonaventure) approaches, which can “neither exclude nor coincide” (Etienne Gilson). If rationally irreconcilable points of view can legitimately coexist, it’s because the ultimate metaphysics stands beyond the conceptual, beyond the principle of non-contradiction, and thus escapes a strictly linguistic formulation. This is illustrated when Guénon himself pushes a set mathematical language too far, leading to contradiction14. What’s more, the most general of all metaphysics, the so-called metaphysics of being, is not only declined over and over again, depending on the author, but, above all, can itself be completed, if not replaced, by a metaphysics of relationship.

It’s not intelligence that knows, it’s man

A second reason is that, from time immemorial, “it is not intelligence that knows, it is man” (Aristotle). Heidegger, two thousand five hundred years later, would put it another way: “there is no questioned without the questioner himself being included in the question”15. All metaphysical discourse is thus in part a matter of individual interpretation, and thus of the particular, and even the singular. The Philosopher himself (Aristotle) will thus specify that to the mathein (“theoretical knowledge”) is necessarily joined a pathein (“lived experience”)((Given as a pun by Aristotle reported by Synesius of Cyrene, (cf. N. Turchi, Fontes Historiae Mysteriorum Aevi Hellenistici, Roma, 1930, n°83, p. 53; Borella, Lumières de la théologie mystique, p. 85), these complementary reminders were commonplace among the Greeks, and even in literature, which speaks of “science [i.e. knowledge] at the price of suffering” (Aeschylus, Agamemnon, 177). Every human being being a metaphysical animal (Schopenhauer), as we’ve said, that’s a lot of metaphysicians, and a lot of potential metaphysics (metaphysical formulations).

The self-abolition of metaphysics

A third reason, and perhaps the most fundamental, lies in the very role of metaphysics, which is to take us, via the intelligible, from the concept to the object, of which the concept is merely the mental image or idol (St. Gregory of Nyssa) and, once this role has been played, once its mission has been accomplished, all metaphysics then vanishes, self-abolishes16. This is a far cry from the closed, intangibly constituted system.

Metaphysics is not operative in itself

Admittedly, metaphysics is relatively operative in its own right, enabling us to move on from a simple calculable concept to the intelligibility of things, or, dare we say it, to the pure contemplation of things. But this is the simple functionality of intelligence: it is “in a position to receive the intelligible, just as sense is in a position to receive the sensible” (St. Thomas Aquinas). The intelligibility of the real is united with intelligence, which is the sense of the real, in the same way that salty only makes sense to the palate. The semantic reality of a concept, which constitutes its linguistic beyond, is the point by which it is linked to being, to the real. This is the invisible of language, which only intelligence can access (Borella).

On the other hand, this experience of the intelligible is in no way an ontological unification, but simply a cognitive identity. In the formula “the soul is all that it knows” (Aristotle, Guénon), we mustn’t forget the “in some way”, even though it was clearly specified at the outset: this “in some way” makes all the difference between an ontological unification and this simple cognitive identity17, even if this cognitive identity already represents a great deal. So, speaking its own language, the language that is natural to it, intelligence can deal naturally even with supernatural things, but if it is “at home” in all these fields, it is because it is naturally nowhere18. Intelligence comes “through the door” or “from outside” (Aristotle).

As you can see, this (cognitive) identity between intelligence and intelligibility should not be misleading; it is not gnosis. The theoretical metaphysician is like a fly behind glass. He may catch a glimpse of things, “in an obscure way” (1 Cor. 13:12), but he will never cross the barrier that separates fly from light, theory from reality.

Only grace can guide him through a loophole and, stripped of everything, he can become light in the Light, a process known as the pneumatization of the intellect (Borella).

So it’s no surprise, whatever their theoretical metaphysics, that the famous contemporary metaphysicians Guénon, Schuon, Burckhardt and Schaya have all espoused one faith: Islam, the most stripped-down religion, the most centred on the oneness of God and, as such, the most compatible with theoretical metaphysics.

In Christianity, we speak of gnosis as early as S. Paul. Paul (1 Cor. 1, 5)19.

And, following Jean Borella, here’s what we can say about it:

For in this supreme gnosis, it is God who knows Himself, as soon as the intelligence is perfectly stripped of itself. Only unknowledge can lead to over-knowledge: “If anyone thinks he knows anything, he does not yet know it in the way he ought to know it” (1 Cor. 8:1-2). And the power that alone can bring about this necessary renunciation is the charitable power that makes “Charity the gateway to gnosis”20.

According to Christ’s vow, it’s a matter of becoming one as the Father and Son are One, and Love is the unification that precedes Unity; because love is the substance of gnosis, and gnosis the essence of love. The gnostic dimension of Charity enables the radical selflessness of pure love, and gnosis is centered on Truth, the only Truth that delivers. “Gnosis is the vertical axis, immutable and invisible, which the dance of love envelops like a flame” (Jean Borella, Love and Truth).

Prayer is therefore the only activity that befits the dignity of the intellect, and is the act by which the intellect realizes its deiform nature. Prayer is therefore gnosis; “it is the intellect that prays in knowledge and knows in prayer”21; knowledge is the prayer of the intellect. Prayer and gnosis are thus the two rungs of Jacob’s ladder, meeting in the infinity of God.

If there are stages on this spiritual ladder, they are those of stripping away: desires of the body, passions of the soul, thoughts of the spirit. Thus, the virtues of the body (somatic) can lead by grace to the virtues of the soul (psychic), the virtues of the soul to the spiritual virtues (pneumatic) and the spiritual virtues to essential gnosis.

Love and Gnosis are the origin and the end of the journey. Having reached Christ, the eternal Gnosis of the Father, through charity, we participate in His Outpouring of Love, which is the Holy Spirit. The intellect, unified by charity, “is elevated to infinite dignity, a dignity it possesses by virtue of its very intellectual nature”. And “the naked intellect is that which is consummated in the vision of itself and which has merited communion in the contemplation of the Holy Trinity”22.

Only “the nakedness of the intellect, or infinite ignorance (St. Evagrius), or the cloud of unknowing (Saint Denys) represents the non-modal mode in which the creature can become immanent to divine transcendence”. And “this non-modal mode is the highest degree of charity” (Borella, ibid.).

And “as long as the intellect is not God, its light is not the true Light”. It must realize its own non-divine substance, i.e. its ontological ignorance. “This secret was known to the Blessed Virgin, who was the pure darkness in which the Light of the World took flesh” (Borella, ibid.)23.


  1. see Xavier Accart, Guénon ou le renversement des clartés : influence d’un métaphysicien sur la vie littéraire et intellectuelle française, 1920-1970 (Paris, Édidit, 2005[]
  2. “Man is a metaphysical animal”, says Schopenhauer, cf. chap. XVII of the Supplements to The World as Will and Representation. He adds: “this metaphysical need of man, which, all powerful and indelible, comes immediately after the physical need” (ibid.).[]
  3. see article: “Reason and intelligence, the two sides of the mind”[]
  4. see the article “Jean Borella, l’après structuralisme”.[]
  5. see article “AI unmasked”[]
  6. Commissioning of the “Automatic Sequence Calculator” or Mark 1. Previously, man had only equipped himself with mechanical or thermodynamic energy: fire, draught animals, steam, oil, electricity, atomic energy.[]
  7. We read, similarly, in Moore: “we absolutely cannot think what we can’t think”, cf. The Evolution of Modern Metaphysics: Making Sense of Things, Cambridge University Press, 2012. Or Gaston Bachelard: “understanding is an emergence of knowledge”, Le rationnalisme appliqué, Paris: PUF, 1949, p. 19.[]
  8. see article: “Philosophy and science, opening and closing the concept”[]
  9. Metaphysics L a, c.2.[]
  10. the works of academic metaphysicians such as Maurice Blondel and many others were never to be distributed on the scale of Guénon’s.[]
  11. For example The Multiple States of Being (1932).[]
  12. e.g. Résumé de métaphysique intégrale (1985) or Logique et transcendance (1970).[]
  13. see article: “Jean Borella, on the Analogical Unity of Religions”.[]
  14. See the article “Gnosis and the ‘possibilities of non-manifestation'”[]
  15. Was ist Metaphysik? (What is metaphysics), 1929, first published in French in an anthology of Heidegger’s texts by Gallimard in 1938.[]
  16. See article: “Metaphysics as antidogmatism and non-system”[]
  17. See article: “Metaphysics, the language of silence”.[]
  18. Jean Borella, Ésotérisme guénonien et mystère chrétien, l’Age d’Homme, Lausanne, 1997, p. 66.[]
  19. Following him, let’s mention Irenaeus of Lyons (c.140-c.200), Clement of Alexandria (c.150-c.215), Evagrius the Pontic (346-399), Fénelon (1651-1715), Borella (1930), to name but a few.[]
  20. St. Evagrius Ponticus, Letter to Anatolios, P.G., t. XL, col. 1221 C.[]
  21. St. Evagrius the Pontic, Centuries IV, 43.[]
  22. Père Hausherr, Les leçons d’un contemplatif.[]
  23. Extract from Introduction à une métaphysique des mystères chrétiens, en regard des traditions bouddhique, hindoue, islamique, judaïque et taoïste (“Introduction to a Metaphysics of the Christian Mysteries, with Reference to the Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, Judaic and Taoist Traditions”), L’Harmattan, 2005, Introduction, p. 24.[]