Friday, November 9, 2007

Conventional History

Here's a tiresome discussion, illustrative mainly of the sorts of ideas still floating about outside of the few scholars who actually read Scotus. These quotes are from a history of philosophy The Mediaeval Mind, A History of the Development of Thought and Emotion in the Middle Ages, by Henry Osborn Taylor in Two Volumes, Volume II., MacMillan Co., New York, 1911; pp. 509-524. From

A note from the end:

"In discussing Duns Scotus, I have given less from his writings than has been my wont with other philosophers. And for two reasons. The first, as I frankly avow, is that I have read less of him than I have of his predecessors. With the exception of such a curious treatise as the (doubtful) Grammatica speculativa (tome i. of the Paris edition); and the elementary, and comparatively lucid, De rerum prinipio (tome iv. of the Paris edition) — with these exceptions Duns is to me unreadable. My second reason for omitting excerpts from his writings, is that I wished neither to misrepresent their quality, nor to cause my reader to lay down my book, which is heavy enough anyhow! If I selected lucid and simple extracts, they would give no idea of the intricacy and prolixity of Duns. His commentary on the Sentences fills thirteen tomes of the Paris edition! No short and simple extract will illustrate that! On the other hand, I could not bring myself by lengthy or impossible quotations to vilify Duns. It is unjust to expose a man’s worst features, nakedly and alone, to those who do not know his better side and the conditions which partly explain the rest of him."

And the beginning:

"The opening years of the fourteenth century, so fatal for the papacy, were also portentous for scholasticism. The Summa of Thomas was impugned by Joannes Duns Scotus, whose entire work, constructive as well as critical, was impressed with qualities of finality, signifying that in the forms of reasoning represented by him as well as Thomas, thought should advance no farther. Bacon’s attack upon scholastic methods had proved abortive from its tactlessness and confusion, and because men did not care for, and perhaps did not understand, his arguments. It was not so with the arguments of Duns Scotus. Throughout the academic world, thought still was set to chords of metaphysics; and although men had never listened to quite such dialectic 510 orchestration as Duns provided, they liked it, perceived its motives, and comprehended the meaning of its themes. So his generation understood and appreciated him. That he was the beginning of the end of the scholastic system, could not be known until the manner of that ending had disclosed itself more fully. We, however, discern the symptoms of scholastic dissolution in his work. His criticism of his predecessors was disintegrating, even when not destructive. His own dialectic was so surpassingly intricate and dizzy that, like the choir of Beauvais, it might some day collapse. With Duns Scotus, scholasticism reasoned itself out of human reach. And finally with him also, the wholeness of the scholastic purpose finally broke. For he no longer maintained the union of metaphysics and theology. The latter, to be sure, was valid absolutely; but, from a speculative, it has become a practical science. It neither draws its principles from metaphysics, nor subordinates the other sciences, — all human knowledge — to its service. Although rational in content, it possesses proofs stronger than dialectic, and stands on revelation.


There had always been men who maintained similar propositions. But it was quite another matter that the severance between metaphysics and theology should be demonstrated by a prodigious metaphysical theologian after a different view had been carried to its farthest reaches by the great Aquinas. Henceforth philosophy and theology were set on opposite pinnacles, only with theology’s pinnacle the higher. In spite of the last circumstance, the coming time showed that men cannot for long possess in peace two standards of truth — philosophy and revelation; but will be driven to hold to the one and ignore the other. By breaking the rational union of philosophy and theology, Duns Scotus prepared the way for Occam. The latter also asserts vociferously the superiority of the divine truth over human knowledge and its reasonings. But the popes are at Avignon, and the Christian world no longer bows down before those willing Babylonian captives. Under such a blasted condition of the Church, how should any inclusive Christian synthesis of thought and faith be maintained?


Having thus tested whatever was presented by human reason, and accepting what was declared by Scripture or the Church, Duns proceeds to build out his doctrine as the case may call for. No man ever drove either constructive logic or the subtilties of critical distinctions closer to the limits of human comprehension or human patience than Duns Scotus. And here lies the trouble with him. The endless ramification and refinement of his dialectic, his devious processes of conclusion, make his work a reductio ad absurdum of scholastic ways of reasoning. Logically, eristically, the argumentation is inerrant. It never wanders aimlessly, but winding and circling, at last it reaches a conclusion from some point unforeseen. Would you run a course with this master of the syllogism? If you enter his lists, you are lost. The right way to attack him, is to stand without, and laugh. That is what was done afterwards, when whoever cared for such reasonings was called a Dunce, after the name of this most subtle of mediaeval metaphysicians."

1 comment:

Michael said...

It's amazing that people have been saying the exact same thing for the last hundred years, and have yet to learn shame. Scotus ruined everything! I say this with confidence even though I haven't read a single genuine work! I don't like him because it's so hard! If it's that hard it must be wrong somewhere! Otherwise why can't I understand it?

The point he makes in the last paragraph is the same thing almost all the Englightenment people said about Scholasticism as a whole, Thomas included. We've progressed far enough that a few people are willing to admit that Thomas was a great thinker, but underneath all the same prejudices remain.