Univocity Unischmocity

Scotus is no more scotistic about being in any metaphysical or ontological sense than Hume was humean regarding the reality of causes. Both were dealing with epistemology.

Scotus was talking semantically, logically, epistemo-logically about the concept. His univocity of being did have ontological implications, that the analogy of being logically presupposes relationality, presupposes successful references, presupposes causal relations, between, for example, God and creatures, even while denying successful descriptions of God, Who remains wholly incomprehensible but eminently intelligible. Thus the analogy of being doesn’t dissolve into total equivocation or utter unintelligibility. Attribution and proportionality never did.

Scotus was talking about human language. A univocal concept has enough, i.e. sufficient, unity in itself such that to both affirm and deny it of the same thing would be a contradiction. In my view, sufficient unity implies that it’s good enough to do analogical work vis a vis predications but does not imply that it has enough unity to establish ontological identities. This whole notion of sufficient sameness of meaning, itself, implies analogy at work! (although, without specifying the degree of dis/similarities in play from one concept to the next). Self-subsisting existence, for example, differs qualitatively — not just quantitatively — from any contingent existence, as would other attributes infinitely rather than finitely instantiated, which can differ not only formally but vis a vis modal adequacy and/or temporality. Univocity, properly considered, is not an ontotheological proposal. It remains wholly consistent with creaturely participation in divine attributes.



For his part, Scotus returns to the notion that Aristotelian science is a system of propositions organized into sound deductive syllogisms. A syllogism–e.g., ‘all A’s are B’s; all B’s are C’s; therefore all A’s are C’s’–can be valid only if the middle term ‘B’ is taken univocally in both premisses. Otherwise, there is a fallacy of four terms. Scotus concludes that metaphysics can furnish sound cosmological arguments from finite beings to infinite being, only if there is some concept of being that applies univocally to God and creatures.

As Richard Cross points out, this is for Scotus a semantic thesis. As Stephen D. Dumont emphasizes, Scotus’ concept of univocity is very thin, requiring only as much sameness of meaning as it would take to avoid the fallacy of four terms.


Faith and Philosophy 25 (2):190-196 (2008)


Upholding a univocity theory of religious language does not entail idolatry, because nothing about univocity entails misidentifying God altogether—which is what idolatry amounts to. Upholders and opponents of univocity can agree on the object to which they are ascribing various attributes, even if they do not agree on the attributes themselves. Neither does the defender of univocity have to maintain that there is anything real really shared by God and creatures. Furthermore, even if much of language is analogous, syllogistic argument—and hence theology’s scientific status, as accepted by the scholastics—requires univocity.