Friday, November 16, 2007

Sokolowski on Necessity and Scotus

From Fr. Sokolowksi's Eucharistic Presence, p. 47-48. A book I found rather disappointing, mainly for its rather uncritical reliance on Thomas's metaphysics of eucharistic conversion. But he does touch on matters of interest here on this blog.

"In biblical belief, the whole, which is so dense and final outside biblical revelation, is now seen as existing 'contingently' and God is seen as existing 'necessarily.' But when we make this transposition, we must avoid thinking that the domain of the necessary in the world is now somehow dissolved, that everything worldly is diluted into the worldly contingent. [there follows a diagram I am omitting]

To turn everything in the world into the contingent in this way would be to equate the contingency that marks the world as a whole with the contingency that is found as part of the world. The consequence of such a confusion, of course, would be another confusion regarding necessity; the necessity by which God exists would be equated with the necessity that is part of the world, and the divine choice to create would be assimilated to events that take place within the contingent domain of the world. God's choice would then appear as a 'merely contingent' event and would take on the quality of being arbitrary. Cajetan criticzes Scotus for making this mistake. He says, 'How uncultivated and upstart (quam rudis et novus) is Scotus's way of speaking...when he calls the divine will 'the first contingent cause.' It is nefarious (fas quippe non est) to speak of contingency in the divine will.' All such confusions follow if the shifting senses of necessity and contingncy are not clearly recognized.

We must also observe that the metaphysical categories found in Aristotle and other pagan philosophers, and the patterns of thought found in natural religion, must be transposed into analogies when taken into Christian discourse and Christian metaphysics. It is not just that we have to add new categories or new names; the old names have to be newly understood. 'Necessity' and 'contingency,' 'divine' and 'worldly,' take on a transposed sense. And the issue that helps us determinte the new, analogous senses is the issue of how the world and God are to be understood: although the world does obviously exist, it might not have existed, with no lessening of the perfection of being, since God would still be in undiminished goodness and
greatness."

Note the similar uncritical reliance on the lesser light of Cajetan here, that figure which so aggravates contemporary Thomists, either for or against. From what I've read in his commentary on the Summa I have not been terribly impressed. Apparently if one wants to read good Thomistic analysis of Scotus one must go to Capreolus, who in some fashion demonstrated (according to a dominican I was reading some time ago) the way in which one can be begin with the concept of a creature and move through it to a concept of God that is analogous (ie, getting around one of Scotus's arguments, either two or three, for the necessity of univocity to ground theological discourse and avoid equivocity).

The obvious reply to the Sokolowski passage is to point out Scotus's notion of the disjunctive transcendentals, in which the entirety of being is divided into either necessary or contingent. God of course falls on the necessary side, creation on the contingent; this is perhaps similar to Sokolowski's presentation of the biblical view. Yet Scotus is also concerned to safeguard divine freedom; to deny that God creates contingently is to leave the door open (if not to positively embrace) for the claim (inspired by the arab philosophers, et al.) that God creates necessarily, the problem for the intellectualist/Thomist view. So it seems Scotus can both affirm that God is necessary being and that he is the first contingent cause (recall Scotus's rejection of the Aristotelian proposition "omne quod movetur, ab alio movetur"). This is not to say God's will acts alone without reference to anything else (I suspect that this what 'arbitrary' means in discussions like this), but in his view intellect and will are essentially ordered co-causes of volitional acts.

Now, Sokolowski wasn't making a particularly rigorous criticism of Scotus, and it is somewhat unfair to single him out, but it illustrates a further point I have been pondering lately. Note that Sokolowski's comments are basically all Thomistically-inspired. Much of his book is Thomism with a phenomenological gloss. I on the other hand, am philosophically and personally committed to the positions of Duns Scotus. Both are widely divergent systems of explaining facts about the world as well as elements of the deposit of faith. Both (and this is one of my purposes in maintaining this blog) are positions that catholics can hold. So what does one do with this fact that they contradict? Gloss over the contradictions, or simply try to reduce one system to heresy (the Garrigou-Lagrange method0? Garrigou-Lagrange once wrote that since they contradict, they can't both be true (PNC). But their basic arguments about a given area of philosophy or theology all depend on principles higher up the chain till one reaches their first principles (which I think differ as well, unless one wants to posit the depost of faith as the first principle). Much of what happens in the literature, scholarly or otherwise, is simply to analyze the opposing school through the lens of the one one accepts, and obviously it won't come off making sense. I'm not advocating relativism here, as I do think one of these systems is largely more correct than the other. But the problem isn't new with me, either. This is what really can be called the "dissolution of scholasticism," which happened in the 15th-16th centuries (I am unclear if the the late 14th century was involved, though it seems to be prior to the "second scholasticism" represented by Suarez and spanish Thomism). At the end of the middle ages we have a situation where there were four viae, being of the nominalists, the Scotists, the Thomists and the Albertists, all of whom had different first principles (so the claim is; very very little scholarship has been done on this), and simply stopped debating each other. Everything was conducted within the respective school, and university legislation was passed to keep out rival schools. I would like to think that this is a purely contingent historical accident not related to philosophy itself or the philosophies of the schools, but am not sure. I suppose I should study and try to figure out in practice what the first principles really are, and if they are incompatible. Thoughts anyone?

1 comment:

Michael said...

It's true that once your reasoning skills are well-honed and the terms of debate well set-up, it does come down to which first principles you accept. The problem is that first principles are not provable by debate or dialectic. At some point one must accept them on other grounds than merely logical consistency or proving the conclusions one wants to hold--whether these grounds are greater consonance with the data of faith, or with empirical experience, or mental intuition, or whatever. I've seen all three appealed to by scholastics.

People being unable to reason well, to grasp just what their principles are, or, conversely, where their principles lead, is the most commonly-encountered difficulty in philosophy, especially these days, simply because people do not learn and cultivate the necessary skills. But the other problem, discerning which first principles are true, is the most difficult and, I think, the more interesting part of philosophy. And even if you can satisfy yourself that you've found them, persuading other people committed to contrary principles can be well-nigh impossible.