In Sympathy with many of Scotus’ Detractors if not with all of their Detractions

In a symposium on Daniel Horan’s Postmodernity and Univocity, John Milbank contributes:

To the contrary, to read the univocity of being as “semantic” (a description never given by Scotus himself) must in Scotist terms imply that it occupies a kind of middle ground, exactly that of the formal or transcendental. It is on the middle ground that Scotus has indeed logicised and conceptualised metaphysics, in a revolutionary fashion, but that does not mean that he has replaced it with logic, far less with grammar.

I can’t presume to speak for Scotus. Many others in that symposium and elsewhere offer respectable interpretations. Precisely what’s at stake, though, involves the clarification of whether or not the univocity of being refers to a logical, semantic, conceptual or grammatical term rather than an ontological, metaphysical, ontotheological or actual reality.

It does seem to me, however, that one could say that, in terms of Peircean firstness, non-actual possibilia, which have no reality, a univocity of being would indeed apply – not ontologically, but – grammatically or semantically to our concepts.

Therefore, the univocity of being, as Peircean firstness, would not, in this sense, occupy a metaphysical middle ground. And formal distinction would otherwise refer to Peircean thirdness, what some Thomists might refer to as a metaphysically real distinction.

Wherever they come out on the debate regarding the Scotus Story, it does seem that most interlocutors want to affirm a metaphysics of participation. For Jesus’ part, in his essay, The Vates Christ Jesus and the Struggle to Say Amen, Brian C. Moore, Ph.D. cites my late friend, Jim Arraj:

When Jesus takes our human nature, it does not become less, but more human, and it is made more by its contact with God, the very source of all being, and this intensification of Jesus’ human nature must be understood not only in a personal sense, but in a social one, as well.

And, for our part, Moore emphasizes:

You have to discover yourself as gift. It is not just a question of an isolated will defending its autonomy. Indeed, that is a lie most pernicious. This event is outside time, perpendicular to all temporal happening. It is metaphysically prior and coincident with the gift that is passio essendi. Thus, there is always mystery to identity because identity is a participation in divinity and entails infinite depths.

Moore’s essay reminds me why I resonate with all sorts of tendencies:

Existential Thomism,

neo-platonic thought,

Russian Sophiology,

overcoming – not overturning – metaphysics,

creedal formulae as – not primarily arguments, but – prayers,

theology as – not primarily a science, but – a dance (David Burrell) and, when as science, the science of love (William Johnston),

the integral relationship of science, philosophy & theology,

and such.

I remain, however, agnostic regarding who may be practicing eisegesis or exegesis of either Aquinas or Scotus – not because I believe such can’t be known, in principle, only – because I’m not equipped to discern same, in practice.

I am heartened that so many, who are otherwise in disagreement regarding what Aquinas & Scotus said or really meant to say, seem to resonate in favor of participatory accounts, proper notions of freedom & theosis, etc and over against an artificial extrinsicism (grace vs “pure” nature), voluntarism & neutral secularism (nihilism), etc.

I would like to add the voice of Benedict XVI with his take on Scotus:

Lastly, Duns Scotus has developed a point to which modernity is very sensitive. It is the topic of freedom and its relationship with the will and with the intellect. Our author underlines freedom as a fundamental quality of the will, introducing an approach that lays greater emphasis on the will. Unfortunately, in later authors, this line of thinking turned into a voluntarism, in contrast to the so-called “Augustinian and Thomist intellectualism”. For St Thomas Aquinas, who follows St Augustine, freedom cannot be considered an innate quality of the will, but, the fruit of the collaboration of the will and the mind. Indeed, an idea of innate and absolute freedom – as it evolved, precisely, after Duns Scotus – placed in the will that precedes the intellect, both in God and in man, risks leading to the idea of a God who would not even be bound to truth and good. The wish to save God’s absolute transcendence and diversity with such a radical and impenetrable accentuation of his will does not take into account that the God who revealed himself in Christ is the God “Logos”, who acted and acts full of love for us. Of course, as Duns Scotus affirms, love transcends knowledge and is capable of perceiving ever better than thought, but it is always the love of the God who is “Logos” (cf. Benedict XVI, Address at the University of Regensburg, 12 September 2006). In the human being too, the idea of absolute freedom, placed in the will, forgetting the connection with the truth, does not know that freedom itself must be liberated from the limits imposed on it by sin. All the same, the Scotist vision does not fall into these extremes: for Duns Scotus a free act is the result of the concourse of intellect and will, and if he speaks of a “primacy” of the will, he argues this precisely because the will always follows the intellect.

Whether or not Scotus was the ontological villain & epistemological culprit as some insist, I can’t say. Respectable voices differ. It does seem that suitably appropriated in Peircean terms, neither a univocity of being nor a formal distinction would threaten an ontology of participation. And, Scotus’ primacy of the will need no more devolve, necessarily, into voluntarism than Peirce’s aesthetic primacy ushers in hedonism, if suitably (re-?)framed. Happily, though, I can give my assent to many of the tendencies that some of his biggest detractors affirm!