Tuesday, June 30, 2009

MacIntyre's view of Scotism

This tidbit is from MacIntyre's new book, God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition, p. 100-101

"Scotus's teaching secured him a large following in the later middle ages especially--and not only in the Franciscan order--and an even more numerous following in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Some of his views and arguments have been influential in later secular philosophy, most notably perhaps his thesis that being is and must be ascribed univocally, a thesis powerfully reinterpreted by Gilles Deleuze in our own time. Scotus's later Franciscan followers presented his views and arguments as the articulation of a system, giving it the name 'Scotism', so that Scotism and Thomism were presented as two rival scholastic systems. Yet this is misleading. For Scotus is philosophically--not theologically--a significantly less systematic thinker than Aquinas, someone who tends to address problems piecemeal, drawing on his predecessors in a creatively ad hoc manner.

In this respect he is followed by another philosophically remarkable Franciscan, William Ockham (1283-1347). Ockham's work shows Scotus's influence in other ways. Ockham agrees with Scotus and disagrees with Aquinas in holding that the soul is not the form of the body, that embodied human beings do not have the kind of unity that Aquinas ascribed to them."

I almost tremble to post this; in the past I've been part of graduate student reading groups in which certain members, not even all of them Thomists, become exceedingly outraged that someone would dare to criticize the great MacIntyre, flower of catholic intellectuals and fount of philosophy.

But I will make a few remarks...the first being that this is from a very short chapter entitled "After Aquinas". In general, throughout this book we see the generic narratives and metanarratives inherited from 19th century Thomism. The nice thing I will say about the book is that he does at least know enough about Scotus to point out that Aquinas is not the primary target. He even mentions Henry of Ghent, so he is at least somewhat aware of modern scholarship, even if he can't resist following this up by giving brief, bad, descriptions of three or four areas in which Scotus and Aquinas are at odds.

Both the quotes posted are rather absurd. I only post them as there is no one on the popular level defending Scotus, who is constantly maligned by the pomo crowd and the Thomists. Interestingly, it is the contemporary analytic philosophers that give Scotus the honor of actually trying to figure out what he actually said before they criticize him.

Passage 1: This is rather contradictory. Scotus is said to have had a large following in the later middle ages (pshaw--even in his own lifetime and certainly during the 14th century) and the 17th and 18th centuries, but somehow Scotism does not count as a school like Thomism. One would think a large following, filling in the gaps of the master and defending him would count as a school, in fact this seems to be the very definition of a school. But, the usual Thomist practice is that one can count as a Thomist only if one only says what Thomas says and does not add a jot or a tittle, so I can sort of see where MacIntyre is coming from here. Of course, he does admit that there is a Scotist system where theology is concerned, so why no Scotism? And why distinguish between Scotus's theology and philosophy as between systematic and non-systematic? Scotus followed the same method in each: detailed analysis of contemporary opinions followed by the careful exposition of his own opinion. I'm reaching here, I really don't understand what the last two or three sentences of this paragraph are supposed to mean. It just sounds like a cheap, almost political, shot to guarantee that only Thomism is an acceptable candidate for the catholic intellectual.

We can also add that being is not univocal, only the concept of being, and, contra Suarez, the Thomists, the Cambridge Phantasists and Brad Gregory, Scotus accepted 'real' analogy.

Passage 2: This one is just plain stupid and I only included it as it followed directly from the above and it is so patently false and reveals such a poor understanding of the issues that I thought it needed to be pointed out. Pretty much all of the scholastics think that the soul is the form of the body. End of story. The notable exception is Peter of John Olivi, whose views on the matter were condemned at the council of Vienne. Even such a Thomist-leaning theologian as Ludwig Ott in his Fundamentals takes pains to point out that the censure of Olivi has no bearing on the plurality of substantial forms debate, that Scotus' opinion is not also included in the censure. The debate is whether the rational soul informs prime matter directly, or through the mediation of another substantial form, the forma corporeitatis. Scotus holds this latter position, and thinks that all lower forms are in potency to higher forms, with the ultimate actuality of the composite deriving from the rational soul. He can hold this and also that the rational soul is the form of the body, and I have personally come across numerous references attesting to his belief in this latter position (his discussion of the plurality of forms is to be found in his discussion of eucharistic conversion, for any who are interested and do not already know).


T. Chan said...

I know MacIntyre has his followers. Well, I shouldn't say much more--perhaps we can talk about him and his impact whenever we meet in person next. I think it is difficult for any one person to do intellectual history well, even if it is just for one historical period. (Especially if that period could stretch more than one millenium.) It's been a while since I've looked at Copleston's treatment of Scotus and Ockham -- how much of it is still usable today?

Lee Faber said...

Yes, intellectual history can be tough; I have a hard enough time working on a few strains from the 13th and 14th centuries. Our mutual friend "Steve" pointed out that M's historiography is basically that of Maurice de Wulf. But as I said in the post, M. did at least look at some of the recent literature as he knows about Henry.

I found Copleston's treatment of Scotus to be pretty good. Accurate and fair. He is upfront that he is a thomist, but he isn't prejudiced. I think his account is probably the best short introduction out there, except for the univocity chapter, in which he tries to synthesize some works that aren't actually by Scotus into the scotistic system. But he acknowledges at the beginning that he was going by the received opinion at the time and that scotisst textual studies were in their infancy, so he's really not to blame.

I don't know enough about Ockham to really judge; it seemed fair, and jived with what i already thought of Ockham, for what its worth.