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A word for Scotus

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Jonathan McIntosh, a student at the University of Dallas, challenges Vanhoozer's (and Radical Orthodoxy's) reading of Scotus that I summarized in a previous post, arguing that Scotus does not deny analogy. He has a point. The following discussion of Scotus' understanding of the univocity of being is taken largely from Broadie's essay in Evans' The Medieval Theologians. I'm not sure that Scotus entirely escapes the problems attributed to him, but it seemed fair to give a fuller account of how he defends univocity of being.

Scotus' starting point was a question about whether God can be known by natural means in this life, that is, the question that starts him off is the question of natural philosophy. Much of the Scotist and Occamist agenda is driven by this question. According to Scotus, it is logically impossible for all knowledge of God to proceed by the via negativa, from reflection on what God is not. In-finity (including with omniscience and omnipresence) is ultimately a negative attribute - created things are limited and finite, but God is not.

Scotus argued that it is impossible to make a negative statement about God without an affirmation, and in fact the affirmation always precedes the negation. If we deny that God is X, it is because we want to affirm that God is Y. Scotus' own example is: "how do we know that God is not a stone unless we know something abvout God that is incompatible with the affirmation that he is a stone. Perhaps we believe. . . that God is a pure spirit. We therefore infer that he is incorporeal, and since stones are corporeal we infer that he is not a stone. The negative proposition that he is not a stone is deduced from the affirmative proposition that he is a pure spirit."

If we simply say no to everything, then we are saying that there is nothing that God actually is like, but that is equivalent, Scotus argues, to saying that God is nothing. A pure via negativa this leads to a kind of atheism that is actually worse than atheism. Scotus writes: "I never know, as regards something, whether it exists, unless I have some concept of that thing whose existence I know." If there is no positive content to the concept of God, there is simply no concept of God. This is worse than atheism because at least the atheist has a concept of God, even though he rejects it.

Scotus does not deny analogy per se, but deals with it in a similar way to the way of negation. For Aquinas, the Creator is primarily wise, just, and so on, the measure by which the imperfect creaturely copies are measured. Scotus accepts that terms are not predicated of God and creatures in exactly the same way, and also accepts the point that "creatures are only imperfect representations of the divine" as the reason for the necessity of analogy or something like it. Yet, he says that unless there is some element of univocity within the analogy, there is no analogy. Or, "analogy presupposes univocity." That is, "If of two things one is the measure of the other, then they must have something in common that permits the first to be measured of the second, and the second to be measured of the first. If of two things one exceeds the other by some quantity or degree, however great, then they must have something in common with respect of which the first exceeds the second" (Broadie).

Or, as Scotus himself says, "Things are never related as the measured to the measure, or as the excess to the excedent unless they have something in common. . . . when it is said, 'This is more perfect than that' then if it be asked 'A more perfect what?' it is necessary to ascribe something common to both, so that in every comparison something determinable is common to each of the things compared. For if a human being is more perfect than a donkey, he is not more perfect qua human than a donkey is; he is more perfect qua animal." Animality is the shared characteristic that makes the comparison possible.

Scotus aants to apply this to God and human beings. To say God is more perfect than man raises the question a more perfect what? God is more perfect as a "wise being" or a "just being," and if this is to make any sense at all, then "wise" and "just" must be used univocally. This doesn’t mean that God and man are wise in the same way, or that their wisdom even resemble each other very much. But we must be able to form a concept "wisdom" that will encompass both God's and man's wisdom. Otherwise, Scotus argues, we’re left with incoherence

He also wants to apply this to the concept "being." Scotus says that it is possible to form a concept of being that is "neutral between the being of God and the being of creatures, and is contained in both" (Broadie). Scotus himself says, "The intellect of a person in this life can be certain that God is a being though doubtful as to whether he is a finite or an infinite being, a created or uncreated being. Hence as regards God the concept of being is other than this concept [ie, infinite and uncreated] and that concept [finite and created]. And thus in itself the concept is neither of these and is included in each. Hence it is a univocal concept." We can form a concept of being "simpliciter," and then this concept can be determined by some other qualifier. Both infinite and finite are determinations of one concept, the concept of being.

Scotus doesn’t believe that anything exists that is not determined either as finite or infinite, created or uncreated. Being simpliciter is not an actually existent stuff that God and creation participate in. Rather, it is a concept arrived at by abstraction.
Scotus argues as follows: "Take, for example, the formal notion of 'wisdom' or 'intellect' or 'will.' Such a notion is considered first of all simply in itself and absolutely. Because this notion includes formally no imperfection nor limitation, the imperfections associated with it in creatures are removed. . . . Retaining this same notion of 'wisdom' and 'will,' we attribute these to God- but in a most perfect degree. Consequently, every inquiry regarding God is based upon the supposition that the intellect has the same univocal concept which it obtained from creatures."

For Scotus, if we refuse completely all univocity, two things follow:
First, every doctrine of analogy collapses into pure equivocation, but this means that we are back with negative theology and all we can say is that God's wisdom is NOT like our wisdom. But this negation is incoherent, as Scotus already demonstrated. Second, if there is no univocity, there is no possibility of natural theology. If created "causation" is not used in the same sense as divine causation then how can we use an argument from causation? If God’s movement is not movement in the same sense as created movement, how can we go from one to the other?

posted by Peter J. Leithart on Thursday, November 24, 2005 at 10:19 AM

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