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Scholasticism is a Medieval school of philosophy (or, perhaps more accurately, a method of learning) taught by

the academics of medieval universities and cathedrals in the period from the 12th to 16th Century. It
combined Logic, Metaphysics and semantics into one discipline, and is generally recognised to have developed our
understanding of Logic significantly.

The term "scholastic" is derived from the Latin word "scholasticus" and the Greek "scholastikos" (meaning literally
"devoting one's leisure to learning" or "scholar") and the Greek "scholeion" (meaning "school"). The
term "schoolmen" is also commonly used to describe scholastics.

Scholasticism is best known for its application in medieval Christian theology, especially in attempts to reconcile the
philosophy of the ancient classical philosophers (particularly Aristotle) with Christian theology. However, in the High
Scholastic period of the 14th Century, it moved beyond theology, and had applications in many other fields of study
including Epistemology, Philosophy of Science, philosophy of nature, psychology and even economic theory.

Essentially, Scholasticism is a tool and method for learning which places emphasis on dialectical reasoning (the
exchange of argument, or thesis, and counter argument, or antithesis, in pursuit of a conclusion, or synthesis), directed
at answering questions or resolving contradictions. In medieval Europe, dialectics (or logic) was one of the three
original liberal arts (the "trivium"), in addition to rhetoric and grammar.

There are perhaps six main characteristics of Scholasticism:

 An acceptance of the prevailing Catholic orthodoxy.

 Within this orthodoxy, an acceptance of Aristotle as a greater thinker than Plato.

 The recognition that Aristotle and Plato disagreed about the notion of universals, and that this was a vital
question to resolve.

 Giving prominence to dialectical thinking and syllogistic reasoning.

 An acceptance of the distinction between "natural" and "revealed" theology.

 A tendency to dispute everything at great length and in minute detail, often involving word-play.

The Scholastic method is to thoroughly and critically read a book by a renowned scholar or author (e.g. The Bible, texts
of Plato or St. Augustine, etc), reference any other related documents and commentaries on it, and note down any
disagreements and points of contention. The two sides of an argument would be made whole (found to be in
agreement and not contradictory) through philological analysis (the examination of words for multiple meanings
or ambiguities), and through logical analysis(using the rules of formal logic to show that contradictions did not exist but
were merely subjective to the reader).

These would then be combined into "questionae" (referencing any number of sources to divine the pros and cons of a
particular general question), and then into "summae" (complete summaries of all questions, such as St. Thomas
Aquinas' famous "Summa Theologica", which claimed to represent the sum total of Christian theology at the time).

Scholastic schools had two methods of teaching: the "lectio" (the simple reading of a text by a teacher, who would
expound on certain words and ideas, but no questions were permitted); and the "disputatio" (where either the
question to be disputed was announced beforehand, or students proposed a question to the teacher without prior
preparation, and the teacher would respond, citing authoritative texts such as the Bible to prove his position, and the
students would rebut the response, and the argument would go back and forth, with someone taking notes to
summarize the argument).
Scholasticism was concurrent with movements in early Islamic philosophy, some of which presaged
and influenced European Scholasticism. From the 8th Century, the Mutazilite School of Islam pursued a rational
theology known as Kalam to defend their principles against the more orthodox Ash'ari School, and can be seen as
an early form of Scholasticism. Later, the Islamic philosophical schools of Avicennism and Averroism exerted great
influence on Scholasticism. There were also similar developments in medieval Jewish philosophy (especially the work
of Maimonides).

St. Anselm of Canterbury is sometimes misleadingly referred to as the "Father of Scholasticism", although
his approach was not really in keeping with the Scholastic method. Probably a better example of Early Scholasticism is
the work of Peter Abelardand Peter Lombard (c. 1100 - 1160), particularly the latter's "Sentences", a collection of
opinions on the Church Fathers and other authorities. Other early Scholastics include Hugh of St. Victor (1078 -
1151), Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 - 1153), Hildegard of Bingen (1098 - 1179), Alain de Lille (c. 1128 - 1202) and Joachim
of Fiore (c. 1135 - 1202).

The Franciscan and Dominican orders of the 13th Century saw some of the most intense scholastic theologizing of High
Scholasticism, producing such theologians and philosophers as Albertus Magnus, St. Thomas Aquinas, Alexander of
Hales(died 1245) and St. Bonaventure (1221 - 1274). This period also saw a flourishing of mystical theology, such
as Mechthild of Magdeburg (1210 - 1285) and Angela of Foligno (1248 - 1309), and early natural philosophy (or
"science") at the hands of such men as Roger Bacon and Robert Grosseteste (c. 1175 - 1253).

Late Scholasticism (14th Century onwards) became more complex and subtle in its distinctions and arguments, including
the nominalist or voluntarist theologies of men like William of Ockham. Also notable during the Late Scholasticism
period are John Duns Scotus, Meister Eckhart (1260 - 1328), Marsilius of Padua (1270 - 1342), John Wycliffe (c. 1320 -
1384), Julian of Norwich (1342 - 1413), Geert Groote (1340 - 1384), Catherine of Siena (1347 - 1380), Jean Gerson (1363
- 1429), Jan Hus(c. 1369 - 1415) and Thomas a Kempis (1380 - 1471).

Thomism and Scotism are specific off-shoots of Scholasticism, following the philosophies of St. Thomas
Aquinas and John Duns Scotus respecitively.

Scholasticism was eclipsed by the Humanism of the 15th and 16th Centuries, and it came to be viewed as a rigid,
formalistic and outdated way of conducting philosophy. It was briefly revived in the Spanish School of Salamanca in the
16th Century, and in the Catholic Scholastic revival (Neo-Scholasticism) of the late 19th and early 20th Century,
although with a somewhat narrower focus on certain scholastics and their respective schools of thought, most
notably St. Thomas Aquinas.


Scholasticism, from the Latin word scholasticus ("that [which] belongs to the school) was a method of learning taught by
the academics (or schoolmen) of medieval universities circa 1100 – 1500 C.E. Scholasticism originally began as a
reconciliation of the philosophy of the ancient classical philosophers with medieval Christian theology. It was not a
philosophy or theology in itself, but a tool and method for learning which emphasized dialectical reasoning. The primary
purpose of scholasticism was to find the answer to a question or resolve a contradiction. It is most well known in its
application in medieval theology, but was eventually applied to classical philosophy and many other fields of study.

Scholastic theology is distinct from Patristic theology and from positive theology. The schoolmen themselves
distinguished between theologia speculativa sive scholastica and theologia positiva. It combined religious doctrine, study
of the ideas of the Church fathers, and philosophical and logical analysis based on Aristotle and his commentators, and
to some extent on themes from Plato. Prominent scholastics included Thomas Aquinas, Jean Buridan, Duns Scotus, and
William Ockham. Scholasticism dominated European philosophy from the time of Peter Abelard to that of Francisco
Suárez, when it was replaced by Renaissance humanism, rationalism, and empiricism. There have been several revivals,
including neo-scholasticism.

Origin of the Term “Scholastic”

In early Christian schools, especially after the beginning of the sixth century, it was customary to call the head of the
school magister scholae, capiscola, or scholasticus. With time, scholasticus became the title for the head of a school. The
curriculum of the early Christian schools was the study of the seven liberal arts, including dialectic, the only branch of
philosophy under systematic study at that time. Dialectic, which was usually taught by the scholasticus, became the
prevailing method and system of philosophy throughout the Middle Ages. As a result, the name "Scholastic" came to be
associated with the dialectical teaching of the masters of the schools. At the height of Scholastic philosophy, during the
thirteenth century, the curriculum of seven liberal arts had been replaced with the studia generalia, or universities, but
the philosophers of the thirteenth century were known as "Scholastics," a designation which continued until the end of
the medieval period. A philosopher or theologian who adopts the method or the system of the medieval Scholastics is
said to be a Scholastic.


The Patristic Era

The period extending from the beginning of Christianity through the time of St. Augustine is known as the Patristic era of
philosophy and theology. The early Fathers of the Church developed a Christian philosophy based on Platonic principles,
using reason to support revelation, and relying on spiritual intuition rather than logical proof to establish the truths
which became the doctrine of the Church. The Patristic era ended in the fifth century, and between the fifth and ninth
centuries, there were a number of thinkers—including Claudianus Mamertus, Boethius, Cassiodorus, St. Isidore of
Seville, and Venerable Bede—who carried on Patristic traditions along Platonic lines.

The Scholastic Period

In the ninth century, the Carolingian revival of learning gave a new direction to Christian thought. The masters of the
schools began to include discussions of psychology, metaphysics, cosmology, and ethics in their teaching of dialectic,
giving rise to the Christian rationalism which characterizes Scholastic philosophy. The first original thinker in the
Scholastic era was John the Scot (Johannes Scottus Eriugena). During the eleventh and twelfth centuries conflict arose
between rationalists such as Roscelin, Abelard, and Peter Lombard, and Christian mystics such as St. Anselm, St. Peter
Damian, St. Bernard, and the Victorines, who felt that they were threatening the Christian faith. Gradually the
rationalists reconciled their methods with the orthodoxy of the Church and accommodated reverence for the mysteries
of faith. Eclectics, like John of Salisbury, and Platonists, like the members of the School of Chartres, brought the
Scholastic movement to a greater degree of toleration. By the end of the twelfth century, rationalism was dominant in
the Christian universities, but coexisted with mysticism.

After the capture of Constantinople in 1204, the works of Arabian, Jewish and Greek philosophers were introduced into
the Christian schools through Latin translations. Aristotle was now known not only as a logician, but as a metaphysician
and a psychologist. The Arabian translations and commentaries on Aristotle were tinged with pantheism, fatalism and
other Neo-platonic errors, and this gave rise to a new wave of conflict within the universities. Pantheists like David of
Dinant and Averroists like Siger of Brabant alarmed the Church authorities and threatened to entirely discredit
Aristotelianism, which was found to lack the element of mysticism. The University of Paris became a center for
philosophical debate. The Church imposed strict disciplinary measures in an attempt to control the danger which they
felt was undermining the Catholic faith. New access to translations from Greek revealed that the original teachings of
Aristotle did not necessarily imply the errors attributed to him by students of the Arabian commentators. St. Albertus
Magnus and Thomas Aquinas succeeded in establishing the authority of Aristotelianism, and St. Bonaventura
demonstrated that it was not incompatible with Christian mysticism. The study of Aristotle also opened up new
possibilities for the natural sciences, as demonstrated by the work of Roger Bacon. During the high scholastic period
(1250 – 1350), scholasticism moved beyond theology into the philosophy of nature, psychology, epistemology and
philosophy of science. In Spain, the scholastics also made important contributions to economic theory, which would
influence the later development of the Austrian school. However, all scholastics were bound by Church doctrine and
certain questions of faith could never be addressed without risking trialand even execution for heresy.

During the fourteenth century, the energies of the Scholastics became increasingly absorbed in theological debates
between the Franciscans, who followed the tradition of St. Augustine, and Dominicans, who followed Thomas Aquinas.
Duns Scotus criticized the Dominicans and developed a new form of Scholasticism, Scotism, which gave primacy to the
will over the intellect. In the Christian universities, a renewal of interest in Averroism, the cultivation of excessive
formalism, the development of artificial terminology, the extended discussion of subtle aspects of theological questions,
and neglect of the study of history and nature undermined the creative power of Scholasticism. William Ockham’s
Nominalism and Durandus's attempt to "simplify" Scholastic philosophy only fueled the debates further.

The development of scientific discovery and the humanism of the 1400s and 1500s, pushed scholastics into the
background, though there was a revival in Spain at the School of Salamanca under the Jesuit teachers, Toletus, Vasquez,
and Francisco Suárez.

Scholasticism came to be viewed as rigid, formalistic, outdated and an improper method of doing philosophy. During the
catholic scholastic revival in the late 1800s and early 1900s, certain scholastics, notably Thomas Aquinas, and their
respective schools of thought were revisited. Scholasticism is often referenced in discussions of theology or

Scholastic Method

Scholastic philosophy combined logic, metaphysics and semantics into one discipline, and is recognized to have
contributed significantly to modern understanding of logic.

The scholastics would choose a book by a renowned scholar, called auctor, as a subject of investigation, for example, the
Bible. Common auctores included Aristotle ("The Philosopher") and commentaries by Averroes ("The Commentator");
Boethius and his Consolation of Philosophy; Saint Augustine; Plato (Timaeus dialogue); Peter Lombard (Sentences of
Peter Lombard); and the Bible. By reading the book thoroughly and critically, the scholars learned to appreciate the
theories of the auctor. Then other documents related to the source document would be referenced, such as Church
councils, papal letters, ancient texts or commentaries. The points of disagreement and contention among these multiple
sources would be written down as individual sentences or snippets of text called sententiae. For example, the Bible
contains apparent contradictions for Christians, such as the laws regarding what foods are kosher, and these
contradictions have been examined by scholars ancient and contemporary, so a scholastic would gather all the
arguments about the contradictions, looking at them from all angles with an open mind.

Once the sources and points of disagreement had been laid out, dialectic was used to reconcile the two sides of an
argument so that they would be found to be in agreement. This was done using two methods, philological analysis and
logical analysis. Words would be examined and it would be argued they could have more than one meaning, and that
the author could have intended the word to mean something else. The ambiguous meaning of words could be used to
find common ground between two otherwise contradictory statements. Logical analysis relied on the rules of formal
logic to show that contradictions did not exist objectively, but were subjective to the reader.

Scholastics developed two different genres of literature. Quæstiones or "questions" applied the scholastic method to a
particular question. Any number of sources could be referenced to illustrate the answer to the question. The second
genre was a summa, encompassing all the conceivable questions about Christianity and cross-referencing them with
related questions. The most famous summa is the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, summarizing the total of
Roman Catholic theology.

Scholastic Training

Scholastic schools had two methods of teaching, the lectio and the disputatio. The lectio was a simple reading of a text
by a teacher who would expound on certain words or ideas, but no questions were allowed. The disputatio was at the
heart of the scholastic method. There were two types of disputatio. The first was the "ordinary," in which the question
to be disputed was announced beforehand. The second was the quodlibetal in which the students would propose a
question to the teacher without any prior preparation, and the teacher would respond, citing authoritative texts such as
the Bible to prove his position. Students would then rebut the response and the debate would continue back and forth.
During the exercise notes would be taken, and the teacher would then summarize the arguments from the notes and
present his final position the next day, answering all the rebuttals.


Early scholastics (1000 - 1250):

Anselm of Canterbury

Peter Abélard

Solomon Ibn Gabirol

Peter Lombard

Gilbert de la Porrée

High scholastics (1250 - 1350):

Robert Grosseteste

Roger Bacon

Albertus Magnus

Thomas Aquinas

Boetius of Dacia

Duns Scotus

Radulphus Brito

William of Ockham
Jean Buridan

Nicolas Oresme

Marsilius of Padua

Late scholastics (1350- 1650):

Gregory of Rimini

Francisco de Vitoria

Francisco Suárez

Leonardus Lessius

Key anti-scholastics


Francis Bacon

Thomas More

Robert Boyle

Bernard of Clairvaux

René Descartes

Galileo Galilei

Thomas Hobbes

John Locke

John Milton

Michel de Montaigne

Aquinas' Five Proofs

l) The Proof from Motion. We observe motion all around us. Whatever is in motion now was at rest until moved by
something else, and that by something else, and so on. But if there were an infinite series of movers, all waiting to be
moved by something else, then actual motion could never have got started, and there would be no motion now. But
there is motion now. So there must be a First Mover which is itself unmoved. This First Mover we call God.

2) The Proof from Efficient Cause. Everything in the world has its efficient cause--its maker--and that maker has its
maker, and so on. The coffee table was made by the carpenter, the carpenter by his or her parents, and on and on. But if
there were just an infinite series of such makers, the series could never have got started, and therefore be nothing now.
But there is something everything there is! So there must have been a First Maker, that was not itself made, and that
First Maker we call God.
3) The Proof from Necessary vs. Possible Being. Possible, or contingent, beings are those, such as cars and trees and you
and I, whose existence is not necessary. For all such beings there is a time before they come to be when they are not
yet, and a time after they cease to be when they are no more. If everything were merely possible, there would have
been a time, long ago, when nothing had yet come to be. Nothing comes from nothing, so in that case there would be
nothing now! But there is something now-the world and everything in it-so there must be at least one necessary being.
This Necessary Being we call God.

4) The Proof from Degrees of Perfection. We all evaluate things and people in terms of their being more or less perfectly
true, good, noble and so on. We have certain standards of how things and people should be. But we would have no such
standards unless there were some being that is perfect in every way, something that is the truest, noblest, and best.
That Most Perfect Being we call God.

5) The Proof from Design. As we look at the world around us, and ourselves, we see ample evidence of design--the bird's
wing, designed for the purpose of flight; the human ear, designed for the purpose of hearing; the natural environment,
designed to support life; and on and on. If there is design, there must be a designer. That Designer we call God

St. Thomas Aquinas:

The Existence of God can be proved in five ways.

The First Way: Argument from Motion

1. Our senses prove that some things are in motion.

2. Things move when potential motion becomes actual motion.
3. Only an actual motion can convert a potential motion into an actual motion.
4. Nothing can be at once in both actuality and potentiality in the same respect (i.e., if both actual and potential, it
is actual in one respect and potential in another).
5. Therefore nothing can move itself.
6. Therefore each thing in motion is moved by something else.
7. The sequence of motion cannot extend ad infinitum.
8. Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to
be God.

The Second Way: Argument from Efficient Causes

1. We perceive a series of efficient causes of things in the world.

2. Nothing exists prior to itself.
3. Therefore nothing [in the world of things we perceive] is the efficient cause of itself.
4. If a previous efficient cause does not exist, neither does the thing that results (the effect).
5. Therefore if the first thing in a series does not exist, nothing in the series exists.
6. If the series of efficient causes extends ad infinitum into the past, for then there would be no things existing
7. That is plainly false (i.e., there are things existing now that came about through efficient causes).
8. Therefore efficient causes do not extend ad infinitum into the past.
9. Therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God.

The Third Way: Argument from Possibility and Necessity (Reductio argument)

1. We find in nature things that are possible to be and not to be, that come into being and go out of being i.e.,
contingent beings.
2. Assume that every being is a contingent being.
3. For each contingent being, there is a time it does not exist.
4. Therefore it is impossible for these always to exist.
5. Therefore there could have been a time when no things existed.
6. Therefore at that time there would have been nothing to bring the currently existing contingent beings into
7. Therefore, nothing would be in existence now.
8. We have reached an absurd result from assuming that every being is a contingent being.
9. Therefore not every being is a contingent being.
10. Therefore some being exists of its own necessity, and does not receive its existence from another being, but
rather causes them. This all men speak of as God.

The Fourth Way: Argument from Gradation of Being

1. There is a gradation to be found in things: some are better or worse than others.
2. Predications of degree require reference to the “uttermost” case (e.g., a thing is said to be hotter according as it
more nearly resembles that which is hottest).
3. The maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus.
4. Therefore there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every
other perfection; and this we call God.

The Fifth Way: Argument from Design

1. We see that natural bodies work toward some goal, and do not do so by chance.
2. Most natural things lack knowledge.
3. But as an arrow reaches its target because it is directed by an archer, what lacks intelligence achieves goals by
being directed by something intelligence.
4. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we
call God.

Ontological Argument

St. Anselm, Archbishop of Cantebury (1033-1109), is the originator of the ontological argument, which he describes in
the Proslogium as follows:

[Even a] fool, when he hears of … a being than which nothing greater can be conceived … understands what he hears,
and what he understands is in his understanding.… And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived,
cannot exist in the understanding alone. For suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to
exist in reality; which is greater.… 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 no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing
greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.
The argument in this difficult passage can accurately be summarized in standard form:

1. It is a conceptual truth (or, so to speak, true by definition) that God is a being than which none greater can be
imagined (that is, the greatest possible being that can be imagined).

2. God exists as an idea in the mind.

3. A being that exists as an idea in the mind and in reality is, other things being equal, greater than a being that
exists only as an idea in the mind.

4. Thus, if God exists only as an idea in the mind, then we can imagine something that is greater than God (that is,
a greatest possible being that does exist).

5. But we cannot imagine something that is greater than God (for it is a contradiction to suppose that we can
imagine a being greater than the greatest possible being that can be imagined.)

6. Therefore, God exists.

Intuitively, one can think of the argument as being powered by two ideas. The first, expressed by Premise 2, is that we
have a coherent idea of a being that instantiates all of the perfections. Otherwise put, Premise 2 asserts that we have a
coherent idea of a being that instantiates every property that makes a being greater, other things being equal, than it
would have been without that property (such properties are also known as "great-making" properties). Premise 3
asserts that existence is a perfection or great-making property.

Accordingly, the very concept of a being that instantiates all the perfections implies that it exists. Suppose B is a being
that instantiates all the perfections and suppose B doesn't exist (in reality). Since Premise 3 asserts that existence is a
perfection, it follows that B lacks a perfection. But this contradicts the assumption that B is a being that instantiates all
the perfections. Thus, according to this reasoning, it follows that B exists.

Ontological Argument
The ontological argument is widely thought to have been first clearly articulated by St. Anselm of Canterbury, who
defined God as the greatest conceivable being. Anselm’s reasoning was that, if a being existed only in the mind but not
in reality, then a greater being was conceivable (a being which exists both in the mind and in reality). The famed
seventeenth-century French philosopher Renй Descartes utilized the ontological argument. The ontological argument
was revived by Norman Malcolm in 1960. Variants of the ontological argument have been supported and defended by
contemporary philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga (who bases his argument on modal logic) and William Lane Craig.

The ontological argument was first criticized by Gaunilo of Marmoutiers, a contemporary of Anselm of Canterbury. He
argued that the ontological argument could be used to demonstrate the existence of anything, utilizing an analogy of a
perfect island. The argument was also criticized by the famed Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas and also by David
Hume and Immanuel Kant.

Ontological Argument: Possible Worlds

To properly understand the ontological argument, it is necessary to specify what philosophers mean when they talk
about “possible worlds.” A “possible world” refers to a counterfactual—a state of affairs that could have been true. For
something to exist in a “possible world” simply means that its existence is logically possible.

The ontological argument for the existence of God refers to the claim that the very logical possibility of God’s existence
entails His actuality. The ontological argument begins with the claim that God, by definition, is infinitely great. Thus, no
entity can surpass God’s greatness. God, in other words, is the greatest conceivable being (if one could conceive of a
greater being, then that would be God). Being infinitely great entails existence in every possible world since a being that
existed in merely some possible worlds would be superseded in greatness by a being that existed in every possible
world. Moreover, a maximally great being is one that possesses the property of necessary existence. Thus, if a being of
maximal greatness exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world. If an infinitely great being exists
in every possible world then that being must exist in the actual world. Since God is an infinitely great being, therefore,
God must exist.

Ontological Argument: The Premises

The conclusion of the ontological argument, as formulated by Alvin Plantinga and others, depends on a form of modal
axiom S5 (which contends that if the truth of a proposition is possible, then it is possible in all worlds). This axiom also
contends that, if it is possible that a proposition is necessarily true (that is to say, it is necessarily true in some possible
world), then it is necessarily true in all possible worlds.

This logic of the ontological argument is formally summarised by philosopher Alvin Plantinga as follows:

1. A being has maximal excellence in a given possible world W if and only if it is omnipotent, omniscient and wholly
good in W; and

2. A being has maximal greatness if it has maximal excellence in every possible world.

3. It is possible that there is a being that has maximal greatness. (Premise)

4. Therefore, possibly, it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good being exists.

5. Therefore, (by axiom S5) it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good being exists.

6. Therefore, an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good being exists.

Ontological Argument: Is It Sound?

While the ontological argument has been the subject of fierce criticism by many contemporary philosophers, many of
the criticisms of it result from a failure to properly understand the argument.

The ontological argument is clearly logically valid—that is to say, the conclusion necessarily follows provided that
Premises 1 to 5 are true. The crucial Premise, therefore, is Premise 3, namely, that it is possible that a maximally great
being exists. To refute this Premise, one would need to show that the very concept of an infinitely great being is
somehow logically incoherent—like a “married bachelor.” Since no argument to that effect has been forthcoming,
however, it follows necessarily and inescapably that “Therefore, a maximally great being exists.”



Existentialism is a philosophy that emphasizes individual existence, freedom and choice. It is the view that
humans define their own meaning in life, and try to make rational decisions despite existing in an irrational universe. It
focuses on the question of human existence, and the feeling that there is no purpose or explanation at the core of
existence. It holds that, as there is no God or any other transcendent force, the only way to counter this nothingness
(and hence to find meaning in life) is by embracing existence.

Thus, Existentialism believes that individuals are entirely free and must take personal responsibility for themselves
(although with this responsibility comes angst, a profound anguish or dread). It therefore
emphasizes action, freedom and decision as fundamental, and holds that the only way to rise above the
essentially absurd condition of humanity (which is characterized by suffering and inevitable death) is by exercising our
personal freedom and choice (a complete rejection of Determinism).

Often, Existentialism as a movement is used to describe those who refuse to belong to any school of thought,
repudiating of the adequacy of any body of beliefs or systems, claiming them to be superficial, academic and remote
from life. Although it has much in common with Nihilism, Existentialism is more a reaction against traditional
philosophies, such as Rationalism, Empiricism and Positivism, that seek to discover an ultimate order and
universal meaning in metaphysical principles or in the structure of the observed world. It asserts that people actually
make decisions based on what has meaning to them, rather than what is rational.

Existentialism originated with the 19th Century philosophers Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, although
neither used the term in their work. In the 1940s and 1950s, French existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert
Camus (1913 - 1960), and Simone de Beauvoir (1908 - 1986) wrote scholarly and fictional works that
popularized existential themes, such as dread, boredom, alienation, the absurd, freedom, commitment and

Main Beliefs Back to Top

Unlike René Descartes, who believed in the primacy of conciousness, Existentialists assert that a human being
is "thrown into"into a concrete, inveterate universe that cannot be "thought away", and therefore existence ("being in
the world") precedes consciousness, and is the ultimate reality. Existence, then, is prior to essence (essence is
the meaning that may be ascribed to life), contrary to traditional philosophical views dating back to the ancient Greeks.
As Sartre put it: "At first [Man] is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he
will be."

Kierkegaard saw rationality as a mechanism humans use to counter their existential anxiety, their fear of being in the
world. Sartre saw rationality as a form of "bad faith", an attempt by the self to impose structure on a fundamentally
irrational and random world of phenomena ("the other"). This bad faith hinders us from finding meaning in freedom,
and confines us within everyday experience.

Kierkegaard also stressed that individuals must choose their own way without the aid of universal, objective
standards. Friedrich Nietzsche further contended that the individual must decide which situations are to count as moral
situations. Thus, most Existentialists believe that personal experience and acting on one's own convictions are essential
in arriving at the truth, and that the understanding of a situation by someone involved in that situation is superior to
that of a detached, objective observer (similar to the concept of Subjectivism).

According to Camus, when an individual's longing for order collides with the real world's lack of order, the result
is absurdity. Human beings are therefore subjects in an indifferent, ambiguous and absurd universe, in which meaning is
not provided by the natural order, but rather can be created (however provisionally and unstably) by human actions
and interpretations.
Existentialism can be atheistic, theological (or theistic) or agnostic. Some Existentialists, like Nietzsche, proclaimed that
"God is dead" and that the concept of God is obsolete. Others, like Kierkegaard, were intensely religious, even if they did
not feel able to justify it. The important factor for Existentialists is the freedom of choice to believe or not to believe.

History of Existentialism Back to Top

Existentialist-type themes appear in early Buddhist and Christian writings (including those of St.
Augustine and St.Thomas Aquinas). In the 17th Century, Blaise Pascal suggested that, without a God, life would be
meaningless, boring and miserable, much as later Existentialists believed, although, unlike them, Pascal saw this as
a reason for the existence of a God. His near-contemporary, John Locke, advocated individual autonomy and self-
determination, but in the positive pursuit of Liberalism and Individualism rather than in response to an Existentialist

Existentialism in its currently recognizable form was inspired by the 19th Century Danish philosopher Søren
Kierkegaard, the German philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers (1883 - 1969) and Edmund
Husserl, and writers like the Russian Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821 - 1881) and the Czech Franz Kafka (1883 - 1924). It can be
argued that Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Arthur Schopenhauer were also important influences on the
development of Existentialism, because the philosophies of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were written in response or
in opposition to them.

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, like Pascal before them, were interested in people's concealment of the meaninglessness of
life and their use of diversion to escape from boredom. However, unlike Pascal, they considered the role of making free
choices on fundamental values and beliefs to be essential in the attempt to change the nature and identity of the
chooser. In Kierkegaard's case, this results in the "knight of faith", who puts complete faith in himself and in God, as
described in his 1843 work "Fear and Trembling". In Nietzsche's case, the much
maligned "Übermensch" (or "Superman") attains superiority and transcendence without resorting to the "other-
worldliness" of Christianity, in his books "Thus Spake Zarathustra" (1885) and "Beyond Good and Evil" (1887).

Martin Heidegger was an important early philosopher in the movement, particularly his influential 1927 work "Being
and Time", although he himself vehemently denied being an existentialist in the Sartrean sense. His discussion of
ontology is rooted in an analysis of the mode of existence of individual human beings, and his analysis
of authenticity and anxiety in modern culture make him very much an Existentialist in the usual modern usage.

Existentialism came of age in the mid-20th Century, largely through the scholarly and fictional works of the French
existentialists, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus (1913 - 1960) and Simone de Beauvoir (1908 - 1986). Maurice Merleau-
Ponty(1908 - 1961) is another influential and often overlooked French Existentialist of the period.

Sartre is perhaps the most well-known, as well as one of the few to have actually accepted being called an
"existentialist". "Being and Nothingness" (1943) is his most important work, and his novels and plays,
including "Nausea" (1938) and "No Exit(1944), helped to popularize the movement.

In "The Myth of Sisyphus" (1942), Albert Camus uses the analogy of the Greek myth of Sisyphus (who is condemned for
eternity to roll a rock up a hill, only to have it roll to the bottom again each time) to exemplify the pointlessness of
existence, but shows that Sisyphus ultimately finds meaning and purpose in his task, simply by continually applying
himself to it.

Simone de Beauvoir, an important existentialist who spent much of her life alongside Sartre, wrote
about feminist and existential ethics in her works, including "The Second Sex" (1949) and "The Ethics of
Ambiguity" (1947).
Although Sartre is considered by most to be the pre-eminent Existentialist, and by many to be an important and
innovative philosopher in his own right, others are much less impressed by his contributions. Heidegger himself thought
that Sartre had merely taken his own work and regressed it back to the subject-object orientated philosophy
of Descartes and Husserl, which is exactly what Heidegger had been trying to free philosophy from. Some see Maurice
Merleau-Ponty (1908 - 1961) as a better Existentialist philosopher, particular for his incorporation of the body as our
way of being in the world, and for his more complete analysis of perception (two areas in which Heidegger's work is
often seen as deficient).

Criticisms of Existentialism Back to Top

Herbert Marcuse (1898 - 1979) has criticized Existentialism, especially Sartre's "Being and Nothingness",
for projecting some features of living in a modern oppressive society (features such as anxiety and meaninglessness)
onto the nature of existence itself.

Roger Scruton (1944 - ) has claimed that both Heidegger's concept of inauthenticity and Sartre's concept of bad
faith are both self-inconsistent, in that they deny any universal moral creed, yet speak of these concepts as if everyone
is bound to abide by them.

Logical Positivists, such as A. J. Ayer and Rudolf Carnap (1891 - 1970), claim that existentialists frequently
become confusedover the verb "to be" (which is meaningless if used without a predicate) and by the word "nothing"
(which is the negation of existence and therefore cannot be assummed to refer to something).

Marxists, especially in post-War France, found Existentialism to run counter to their emphasis on the solidarity of
human beings and their theory of economic determinism. They further argued that Existentialism's emphasis
on individual choice leads to contemplation rather than to action, and that only the bourgeoisie has the luxury to make
themselves what they are through their choices, so they considered Existentialism to be a bourgeois philosophy.

Christian critics complain that Existentialism portrays humanity in the worst possible light, overlooking
the dignity and gracethat comes from being made in the image of God. Also, according to Christian critics, Existentialists
are unable to account for the moral dimension of human life, and have no basis for an ethical theory if they deny that
humans are bound by the commands of God. On the other hand, some commentators have objected to Kierkegaard's
continued espousal of Christianity, despite his inability to effectively justify it.

In more general terms, the common use of pseudonymous characters in existentialist writing can make it seem like the
authors are unwilling to own their insights, and are confusing philosophy with literature.


Existentialism in the broader sense is a 20th century philosophy that is centered upon the analysis of existence and of
the way humans find themselves existing in the world. The notion is that humans exist first and then each individual
spends a lifetime changing their essence or nature.

In simpler terms, existentialism is a philosophy concerned with finding self and the meaning of life through free will,
choice, and personal responsibility. The belief is that people are searching to find out who and what they are throughout
life as they make choices based on their experiences, beliefs, and outlook. And personal choices become unique without
the necessity of an objective form of truth. An existentialist believes that a person should be forced to choose and be
responsible without the help of laws, ethnic rules, or traditions.
Existentialism – What It Is and Isn’t

Existentialism takes into consideration the underlying concepts:

Human free will

Human nature is chosen through life choices

A person is best when struggling against their individual nature, fighting for life

Decisions are not without stress and consequences

There are things that are not rational

Personal responsibility and discipline is crucial

Society is unnatural and its traditional religious and secular rules are arbitrary

Worldly desire is futile

Existentialism is broadly defined in a variety of concepts and there can be no one answer as to what it is, yet it does not
support any of the following:

wealth, pleasure, or honor make the good life

social values and structure control the individual

accept what is and that is enough in life

science can and will make everything better

people are basically good but ruined by society or external forces

“I want my way, now!” or “It is not my fault!” mentality

There is a wide variety of philosophical, religious, and political ideologies that make up existentialism so there is no
universal agreement in an arbitrary set of ideals and beliefs. Politics vary, but each seeks the most individual freedom for
people within a society.

Existentialism – Impact on Society

Existentialistic ideas came out of a time in society when there was a deep sense of despair following the Great
Depression and World War II. There was a spirit of optimism in society that was destroyed by World War I and its mid-
century calamities. This despair has been articulated by existentialist philosophers well into the 1970s and continues on
to this day as a popular way of thinking and reasoning (with the freedom to choose one’s preferred moral belief system
and lifestyle).

An existentialist could either be a religious moralist, agnostic relativist, or an amoral atheist. Kierkegaard, a religious
philosopher, Nietzsche, an anti-Christian, Sartre, an atheist, and Camus an atheist, are credited for their works and
writings about existentialism. Sartre is noted for bringing the most international attention to existentialism in the 20th

Each basically agrees that human life is in no way complete and fully satisfying because of suffering and losses that occur
when considering the lack of perfection, power, and control one has over their life. Even though they do agree that life is
not optimally satisfying, it nonetheless has meaning. Existentialism is the search and journey for true self and true
personal meaning in life.

Most importantly, it is the arbitrary act that existentialism finds most objectionable-that is, when someone or society
tries to impose or demand that their beliefs, values, or rules be faithfully accepted and obeyed. Existentialists believe
this destroys individualism and makes a person become whatever the people in power desire thus they are
dehumanized and reduced to being an object. Existentialism then stresses that a person's judgment is the determining
factor for what is to be believed rather than by arbitrary religious or secular world values.

Existentialists believe that man’s own individual experience or “existing” comes before anything such as a general
purpose, goodness or “truth,” or any other Absolute that may be felt to exist. Man creates himself through his own
thoughts and actions, since the only reality for an individual is that of his own personal existence and nothing else. This
responsibility of creating something out of “nothingness” often brings with it a mood of “angst,” anguish or dread.

The following statements espouse Existentialism ─ a term applied to a group of attitudes current in philosophical,
religious and artistic thought during and after World War II ─ which emphasises existence rather than essence, and
recognises the inadequacy of human reason to explain the enigma of the universe as a basic philosophical
question. Though the term is so broadly and loosely used that an exact definition is not possible, existentialists assume
as a significant fact that people and things in general exist, but that things have no meaning for us except as individuals,
through acting upon them, can create meaning.

“Existence precedes essence.” ─ Jean-Paul Sartre

“Man is condemned to be free.” ─ Jean-Paul Sartre

“In a universe that is suddenly deprived of illusions and of light, man feels a stranger. His is an irremediable exile … This
divorce between man and his life, the actor and his stage, truly constitutes the feeling of Absurdity.”─ Albert Camus, The
Myth of Sisyphus

“Cut off from his religious, metaphysical and transcendental roots, man is lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd,
useless.”─ Ionesco

“Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful.”─ Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

6 general characteristics of Existentialism:

1. EXISTENCE BEFORE ESSENCE: Existentialism gets its name from an insistence that life is only understandable in terms
of an individual’s existence, his particular life experience. It says a person lives (has existence) rather than is (has being
or essence), that every person’s experience of life is different from another’s, and that individuals’ lives can be
understood only in terms of their commitment to living responsibly. The question existentialists ask is, “Who am I?”
with its suggestion of the uniqueness and mystery of each life and an emphasis upon the personal rather than the
impersonal. To the existentialist, man is the centre of the universe, the centre of infinity, and from this view comes
much of the rest of existentialism. Among the leading atheistic existentialist philosophers are Kierkegaard, Nietzsche,
Heidegger, Sartre, and Camus.

2. REASON IS UNABLE TO DEAL WITH THE DEPTHS OF LIFE: There are two parts to this idea: first, that reason is
relatively weak and imperfect, (people often do not do the “right” thing), and second, that there are dark places in life
which are “non-reason,” to which reason scarcely penetrates, (meaning we often commit acts which seem to defy
reason, to make no sense). Existentialism unites reason with the irrational portions of the psyche, insisting that people
must be taken in their wholeness and not in some divided state; that the whole of a person contains not only intellect,
but also anxiety, guilt and the will to power, which can change and sometimes overwhelm reason. If humanity is seen
in this light, we are very ambiguous and full of contradictions and tensions. The emphasis of the existentialist is not on
idea, but upon the thinker who has the idea. Existentialism accepts not only people’s power of thought, but their
fallibility, frailty, body, etc. and above all, their death. People are felt to find their true selves not in the detachment of
thought but in the involvement and agony of choice and in the pathos of commitment to choice.

3. ALIENATION: Existentialism holds that, since the Renaissance, people have slowly been separated from concrete
earthly existence. Individuals have been forced to live at ever higher levels of abstraction, have been collectivised out of
existence, and have driven God from the heavens, (or, what is the same thing to the existentialist), from the hearts of
men. It is believed that individuals live in a fourfold condition of alienation: from God, from nature, from other
people, and from our own “true” selves. People have become hollow, powerless, faceless. At a time in our history
when mankind’s command over the forces of nature seems to be unlimited, existentialism depicts human beings as
weakened, ridden with nameless dread.

4. “FEAR AND TREMBLING“ and ANXIETY: The optimism of the 18th and 19th centuries gives way, after WW I, to the
Great Depression, WW II and the Holocaust, to a feeling of pessimism, fear and anxiety. Another kind of anxiety facing
individuals in the 20thC when the philosophy of existentialism develops is “the anguish of Abraham,” the necessity
which is laid upon people to make “moral” choices on their own sense of responsibility. The existentialists claim that
each of us must make moral decisions in our own lives which involve the same anguish that faced Abraham. In this
parable, Abraham is commanded by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham thus becomes the paradigm of one who
must make a harrowing choice, in this case between his love for his son and his love for God, between the universal law
which states, “thou shalt not kill,” and the unique inner demand for his religious faith. Abraham’s decision, which
violates the abstract and collective law of man, is not made in arrogance, but in “fear and trembling,” one of the
inferences being that sometimes, one must take an exception to the general law because he is (existentially) an
exception; an individual whose existence can never be completely controlled by any universal law.

5. THE ENCOUNTER WITH NOTHINGNESS: According to the existentialists, for individuals alienated from God, from
nature, from other people and even from themselves, what is left at last but Nothingness? This is, simply stated, how
existentialists see humanity: on the brink of a catastrophic precipice, below which yawns the absolute void, black
Nothingness, asking ourselves, “Does existence ultimately have any purpose?”

6. FREEDOM: Sooner or later, as a theme that includes all the others mentioned above, existentialist writings bear upon
freedom. All of these ideas either describe some loss of individuals’ freedom or some threat to it, and allexistentialists
of whatever sort are considered to enlarge the range of human freedom.

From the characteristics of existentialism that have been outlined above, one might be led to believe that this is a
philosophy predicated upon an acute sense of hopelessness. The cause may well be one of despair for people, but the
effect ─ as can readily be seen in the existential literature of Albert Camus ─ asserts the possibility for improvement, if
not hope.

Most pessimistic belief systems find the source of their despair in the fixed imperfection of human nature or of the
human context; however, the existentialist, denies all absolute principles and holds that human nature is fixed only in
that we have agreed to recognise certain attributes. It is therefore subject to change by a single individual if he acts
bravely in contradiction to the accepted principles. **Therefore, for the existentialist, the possibilities of altering
human nature and society are unlimited, but at the same time, individuals can hope for help in making such
alterations only from within themselves.**

Terms frequently used in discussions of Existentialism:

The Absurd: The absurd can occur only when two elements are present: our desire to explain “reality,” and the
recognition that the world is not thus explicable, but that it exists without apparent justification, foundation or purpose.

Nausea: Nausea is the feeling of repulsion that overtakes us when we become aware of the absurdity of existence, the
“meaninglessness” of life.

Anguish: Anguish is the normal condition of those who become aware of their total liberty, and of the fact that there
are no universal values to justify the choices they have made.

Authentic: Individuals who have grasped and accepted the fact that they are free, who have realised what their
situation is, and who have, within that situation, chosen to engage themselves responsibly in the world around them so
as to affirm their liberty.

Choice: Individuals are condemned, because they are free, to choose what they are going to be through their daily
actions. The choice also implies the attitude of others and hence is another source of anguish.

Bad Faith: Bad faith, or self-deception, is the attitude of those who seek to escape from the anguish and the nausea
that inevitably follow the realisation that individuals are free and the world is ultimately absurd.

Freedom: To be free is to recognise one’s complete independence; to make one’s own life through one’s own
initiative; to reject any idea of absolute good or absolute evil and to accept no judge or mentor except one’s own


Although there is no denying that many Christian and even some Jewish theologians have made use of existentialist
themes in their writings, it remains a fact that existentialism is much more readily and commonly associated
with atheism than with any sort of theism, Christian or otherwise. Not all atheists are existentialists, but an existentialist
is probably more likely to be an atheist than a theist — and there are good reasons for this.

The most definitive statement of atheistic existentialism probably comes from the most prominent figure in atheistic
existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre, in his published lecture Existentialism and Humanism:

 “Atheistic existentialism, of which I am a representative, declares with greater consistency that if God does not
exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can be
defined by any conception of it. That being is man....”


Atheism was an integral facet of of Sartre’s philosophy, and in fact he argued that atheism was a necessary consequence
of anyone who took existentialism seriously. This is not to say that existentialism produces philosophical arguments
against the existence of gods or that it refutes basic theological arguments for the existence of gods — that is not the
sort of relationship which these two have.

Instead, the relationship is more a matter of fitting together in terms of mood and predisposition. It isn’t necessary for
an existentialist to be an atheist, but it is more likely to make for a stronger “fit” than theism and existentialism. This is
because many of the most common and fundamental themes in existentialism make more sense in universe lacking any
gods than in a universe presided over by an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent God.

Thus, existentialist atheism like that found in Sartre’s writings is not so much a position arrived at after philosophical
investigation and theological reflection, but rather one adopted as a consequence of taking certain ideas and attitudes
to their logical conclusions.


A central theme of Sartre’s philosophy was always being and human beings: What does it mean to be and what does it
mean to be a human being? According to Sartre, there is no absolute, fixed, eternal nature that corresponds to human
consciousness. Thus, human existence is characterized by “nothingness” — anything which we claim is part of human
life is of our own creation, often through the process of rebelling against external constraints.

This is the condition of humanity — absolute freedom in the world. Sartre used the phrase “existence precedes essence”
to explain this idea, a reversal of traditional metaphysics and conceptions about the nature of reality. This freedom in
turn produces anxiety and fear because, without God, humanity is left alone and without an external source of direction
or purpose.

Thus, the existentialist perspective “fits” with atheism well because existentialism advocates an understanding of the
world were gods simply have no great role to play.

In this world, humans are thrown back on themselves to create meaning and purpose through their personal choices
rather than discovering it through communion with outside forces.


This does not mean, however, that existentialism and theism or existentialism and religion are completely incompatible.
Despite his philosophy, Sartre always claimed that religious belief remained with him — perhaps not as an intellectual
idea but rather as an emotional commitment. He used religious language and imagery throughout his writings and
tended to regard religion in a positive light, even though he didn’t believe in the existence of any gods and rejected the
need for gods as a basis for human existence.

Søren Kierkegaard

Christian existentialist

Kierkegaard's philosophy - existentialism

"...the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die"

Søren Aabye Kierkegaard - Journals 1835

He was primarily a philosopher who asked searching questions as to how best, that precious and rare thing, a Human
life, ought to be lived. He himself used the terms existential and existentialism in relation to his philosophisings, his
heartfelt view was that life, existence, in all its aspects was subjective and ambiguous. Philosophy was seen as an
expression of an intensely and courageously examined individual existence - an expression that was, hopefully, free from
illusion. In his view individuals must be prepared to defy the accepted practices of society, if this was necessary to their
leading, what seemed to that person, to be a personally valid and meaningful life.
In what was perhaps his earliest major work Either / Or (1843) he suggests that people might effectively choose to live
within either of two "existence spheres". He called these "spheres" the aesthetic and the ethical.

Aesthetical lives were lives lived in search of such things pleasure, novelty, and romantic individualism. Kierkegaard
thought that such "pleasure", such "novelty", and such "romantic individualism" would eventually tend to decay or
become meaningless and this would inevitably lead to much boredom and dire frustration.

Ethical lives, meanwhile, as being lived very much in line with a sense of duty to observe societal and confessional
obligations. Such a life would be easy, in some ways, to live, yet would also involve much compromise of several
genuinely human faculties and potentials. Such compromise would inevitably mean that Human integrity would tend to
be eroded although lives seemed to be progressing in a bourgeois-satisfactory way.

What sort of person a person tended to become was very dependent on the life choices they made and the sort of lives
they subsequently led. Neither of the "existence spheres" that Kierkegaard believed that he had identified seemed to
him to offer fully satisfactory lives to Human beings.

In his later works he suggested that there was a third, religious, "sphere" where people accepted that they could "live in
the truth" that they were "individual before the Eternal" to which they belonged. By living in this truth people could
achieve a full unity of purpose with all other people who were also, individually, living in the same truth. This is the
choice that he made for himself in his own efforts to live a life which he considered to be valid.

In his later years he became involved in controversies with the Lutheran Church in Denmark - he had formed the view
that the church was at that time open to being seen as worldly and corrupt and he had made some blatant public
criticisms known to all.

By the time of his death in 1855 at the age of forty-two he had produced some thirty books as well as maintaining
numerous private journals. This early death is attributed to the intensity of his scholarly efforts and also to the intensity
of the controversy with the Danish Lutheran Church.

Kierkegaard's enduring influence was at first largely confined to Scandinavia and to German-speaking Europe, where his
work had an impact on Protestant theology and on such writers as the novelist Franz Kafka (1883-1924). After WW1
existentialism was taken up more widely in Europe and the World and his works became increasingly available in

Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was a particularly important contributor to the process of the development and
popularisation of a form of existentialism. After the Second World War the atheistic, humanistic, and socialistic,
approach to existentialism attributable to Sartre received a cult following amongst a substantial section of the European
youth and intelligentsia.