Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Fourteenth-Century Metaphysical Shift

Today’s entry will discuss Matthew Levering’s book, Participatory Biblical Exegesis, which seeks to restore a view of “reality as participatory-historical (providential and Christological-pneumatological) as well as linear-historical” [p.16] to its rightful place in theology. Now, a disclaimer: I am not concerned with Levering’s concern, reconciling theology and biblical interpretation. I am only interested in the role he assigns to Scotus in the unravelling of the above-mentioned view of reality. Levering is one of the lesser sons of the Cambridge Phantasists, a member of the american neo-thomist biblicists. These folks don’t read primary sources (other than Aquinas) with any more care than their parent across the water, however, though this is not so uncommon today. I say lesser, because he participated in the 2005 congratulatory volume of Modern Theology devoted to Pickstock, in which in a footnote he claimed that the abandonment of Thomas’ participation metaphysics is what got the Great Whore from Revelation thrown into the lake of fire, and knowing what such people usually say about Scotus’ role in said abandonment, one can draw the obvious conclusion. Yet another example of the age-old Thomist trick of forcing everying to bow the knee to Thomas by means of some authority other than the strength of Thomas’ own arguments. So I think I rank Levering slightly above Fr. Barron and Brad Gregory as far as accuracy, truth, and general scholarship is concerned (for in some of his notes he cites genuine scholarship on Scotus’ ethics, even if it is not reflected in the text of his book), but slightly below them as far as fantastical and ungrounded claims are considered.

My previous entry that contained the lengthy quote from A.D. Trapp was supposed to be the first part of a series on the fourteenth century, which was inspired by this post here, but this will probably be the final entry. I will follow my usual practice of quotes with comments.

“The Catholic exegete and theologian Francis Martin has shown that biblical interpreation requries an account of historical reality informed by a scriptural metapysics rooted in relation of “participation” that is creation. [...] Conversely, certain metaphysical presuppositions are inadequate to Christian biblical interpretation. It seems to me that Catherine Pickstock describes just such a set of presuppositions in recounting the impact of Duns Scotus’ thought.” [there follows a long, stupid paragraph from Pickstock]

So, okay. The thought of Scotus is incompatible with Christian biblical interpetation. We’re off to a good start.

“Although the positions of the theological movement in which Pickstock is a prime mover have been criticized for historical sloppiness, her central claims here—that the fourteenth century marks a shift away from the patristic-medieval understanding of “participated-in perfections” and that Scotus, although not a nominalist in the twelfth-century sense, plays a crucial role in this development—find broad scholarly agreement among experts on late medieval thought.”

Hmm. Nice move. He both distances himself from the Cambridge Phantasists and deflects the criticism directed at them, and yet manages to still affirm their conclusion: Scotus=bad. Note that he only denies Scotus is a twelfth-century nominalist, leaving open the idea that he is a fourteenth-century nominalist—which he is not. This paragraph is followed by a page-long endnote of citations. But the experts cited are to a man post-modern theorists; there is not a medieval scholar among them. Perrier might count as a pomo thomist, but that’s hardly an unbiased wordview, and his essay in the Pickstock congradsfest is quite hostile to Scotus. Oddly, in the note on the critics of the Cambridge Phantasists, the articles of Richard Cross are not mentioned; these are quite devastating as far as the representation of Scotus is concerned.

“Olivier Boulnois, the preeminent contemporary interpreter of Scotus’s work, refers to “the Scotist rupture”. The human will for Scotus mirrors the freedom of the divine will, and Scotus denies that the will is an appetite that seeks its fulfillment or perfection. Scotus also rejects the telological framework of “final causality” as “a flight into fantasy (fugiendo finguntur viae mirabiles).” The patristic-medieval tradition prior to Scotus intepreted reality in terms of participation (Platonic) and teleological nature (Aristotelian).”

I would rather characterize Boulnois as the most prominent french post-modern theorist who is the least hostile to Scotus. He certainly isn’t the top Scotist scholar, unless Levering means the top scholar who interprets Scotus through a post-modernist lense. I would say the German Honnefelder is far more prominent, and indeed, so are various scholars from other countries. I assume the following characterizations are derived from Boulnois, and if they are, he is certainly undeserving of the praise heaped on him here (perhaps a subject for a later post). Scotus does not deny the will is an intellectual appetite, only that taken in this sense the will cannot be said to be free. Don’t ask me where this bullcrap about final causality comes from. I’ve read literally thousands of pages of Scotus, and never seen this before. As to participation, well, I’ve come across maybe one paragraph on participation and Scotus did not rule it out. I suspect, however, it is rendered irrelevant by Scotus’ doctrine of intrinsic modes, just like a few other underdeveloped and primitive theories like spiritual matter, and essence-existence composition.

“In contrast to Aquinas, who unites these two approaches [of course!] through a metaphysics of creation, Scotus brings about a “strange fragmentation” in which goodness no longer has its Platonic participatory character. For Scotus, too, God does not know creatures in knowing himself (the strong sense of participation), but rather knows creatures as a conceptual object of the divine mind. While participation remains in Scotus, it does so in a deracinated form: representation rather than exemplarity.”

I’m really not clear on how God’s self-knowledge counts as participation, which I take is how Levering interprets Aquinas’ view that divine ideas are God’s knowledge of his own essence as imitable. And in any case, God does know creatures in knowing himself; the whole bit in Scotus about instants of nature in which the quiddities of created things are generated by the divine intellect, comes about through God’s act of knowing his own essence. I don’t see how this can be an either/or situation; creatures are objects of the divine mind because God knows himself. Aquinas and Scotus are actually quite close on this issue. The last bit is more interesting. Scotus does seem to leave out exemplarity in his account of the divine ideas (though in any case I don’t think this is properly related to participation); but this is precisely the aspect of this theory that was rejected by his immediate and otherwise most enthusiastic followers: Francis of Meyronnes, Petrus Thomae, and William of Alnwick, and in the 18th century, Mastrius. So how can this be the seeds of bad things to come if he was not followed here by the members of his own school?

“Lacking a rich account of participation and analogy, reality is “desymbolized”: human time is no longer understood as caught up in a participatory relationship with God, and history becomes a strictly linear, horizontal, intratemporal series of moments. After Scotus, human freedom may submit to the divine will, but thereafter on the grounds of God’s obligating power rather than on participatory-teleological grounds.”

I don’t think any of the scholastics thought of time and history in this way, nor does there seem to be a necessary connection between time, participation, or voluntarism. Nor does Scotus reject analogy, as I’ve said many times. But I suppose it’s “weak” if he never talks about it. Point to Levering.

p.20: “Does the shift toward understanding human freedom and history as a non-participatory reality—the “rupture’ identified by Boulnois—begin, therefore, with Duns Scotus? That question must be left to medievalists, but it does seem that we can identify in his work certain metaphysical patterns that remain influential today. The question for us is how to assess the theological effects of those patterns.”

More sleight of hand. Maybe it was really st. Francis, or Bonaventure that leads to Scotus that leads to nominalism that leads to humanism that leads to protestantism that leads to Hitler (or whatever. Abortion, The Secular, etc.). But this minor question is the terrain of the medievalist. Hmm. But the mere medievalist does not supply any of the interpretation of Scotus, O no precious. Just the question of where onto-theology begins. Maybe the medievalist can also tell us what these “patterns” are? And where might these ideas be influential today? If Scotus leads to Ockam, then it’s Ockham’s views that are influential today, not Scotus’.

p.37: “Aquinas belonged to the last generation of high-medieval theologians. After the deaths of Aquinas and Bonaventure in 1274, and Albert the Great six years later, theological rationalisms [note the plural] gained ascendancy in the late-medieval universities. As a result, whereas before 1274 the leading theologians had all commented on the Bible, afterward this practice became rare. Describing this situation... [long Hans urs von Balthasar quote, universities allegedly running back and forth between averroism, and nominalism laying the ground for the break of protestantism, blah blah blah] ... It is telling that the greatest theological minds of the period, Scotus and Ockham, did not write commentaries on the Bible, and their formal theological writings relatively infrequently appeal to Scripture or the Fathers.”

This is the first time I’ve seen 1274 as the end of high-medieval theology. And Scotus was born before 1274, in any case. Levering could use a dose of history here. University requirements did not change in the 14th century. To become a master one had to spend a year lecturing on the Bible. One can imagine that when one has to get through the whole bible in a year, one sticks to the literal sense and probably isn’t going to publish the results. But it depends what one means by “leading theologian”; there were numerous 14th century biblical commentaries as well, even from among the dominican nominalists at Oxford like Holcot. So that’s something of a bogus claim. There are records that Scotus wrote several biblical commentaries, but these were probably all destroyed by the prots inspired by Scotus’ evil nominalism. I’m not sure about this “infrequency” claim. The fathers and scripture show up as authorities all the time. But, and perhaps this is what Levering is getting at, the office of the theologian wasn’t primarily seen as reconciling contradictory statements of the fathers and scriptures and forging a harmony between them. It was rather answering the question at hand. Augustine, Hilary, and Damascene are among Scotus’ favorites, but he is not primarily trying to provide exegesis of them. It is also interesting to point out that Scotus and Ockham had very different careers than Aquinas. Aquinas became a master in the mid-1250’s, and died in 1274; so he had a twenty-year career as a master, teaching in various places and writing commentaries. Scotus became a master in 1305 and died in 1308. He had no time to write anything other than Sentence-commentaries. Ockham never became a master, but became embroiled in controversy with the pope and ended his days writing polemical treatises. So Scotus and Ockham might easily have written biblical commentaries had their personal circumstances been different, on top of their evil univocalist voluntaristic ontologies (and Scotus probably did).

Final Summary:

Doctrinal claims:

1. Scotus denies the will is an appetite (false)
2. Scotus denies final causality (false)
3. Scotus denies analogy (false)
4. Scotus favors representation over exemplarity in the divine ideas (true)
5. Scotus didn’t write biblical commentaries, and cited the bible and fathers “infrequently” (needs qualification)

Historiographical/interpretive claims

1. Scotism is incompatible with Christian biblical intepretation (yawn)
2. Scotus causes the fourteenth century shift away from participation (one would have to examine an actual text of Scotus to prove this)

So there you have my thoughts on Levering’s book. To be fair, this material is in his initial chapters, where he is summarizing the results from other pomo theologians, and not the main point of the book. But he is a fairly popular guy for an academic, and since the book is probably read by academics and armchair theologians alike, I thought the view of Scotus should be noted for its errors. And it is quite common among this set to lay out their “narrative” of how Scotus ruined the world before going on to the issues they really want to discuss. But if their foundation is false, their results are questionable as well; since academics aren’t willing to discuss these false foundations, I will do it myself.

This, however, leads the initial question still open: was there a metaphysical shift in the fourteenth century? There does seem to have been one, probably in the 1290’s. When one reads Aquinas and Bonaventure, one rarely comes across them citing contemporary opinions. But later, the main point of the exercise is criticism of contemporary opponents and advancing one’s own views. Rather than “aliqui” or the nefarious “quidam”, we get authors who name names. I suspect a lot of this comes from the correctoria controversy, in which specific arguments were made against Thomism, whether by William de la Mare, or Giles of Rome, which were refuted by close citation and rather acrimonius argumentation. The climate after the 1277 condemnations was then very combative, and the lines were fairly clearly delineated of who was on what side. But none of this has much to do with Scotus, though he may be more extreme than most in his endless attacks on poor crazy Henry of Ghent who never met a platonist he didn’t like. The Trapp article is relevant here, for in the fourteenth century itself the division was seen as between Bonaventure, Aquinas and Scotus (the via antiqua) and Ockham and his followers (the via moderna). As I’ve written many times, it is rather hard to determine the “responsibility” to be assigned to Scotus for Ockham, as the latter generally rejects all of Scotus’ arguments. Ockham as well is looking back to the twelfth century, and as such is rather reactionary. Indeed, I cut him from my dissertation for being too conservative; his theory of divine attributes is basically just the common opinion of the twelfth-century. Ockham saw himself as restoring the tradition interrupted by the radical innovations introduced by Aquinas and culminating in Scotus. So the historiography is far from clear, and our post-modernist theorist friends are not interested in the reality of the situation, being content with the polemical and politically-motivated nineteenth-century thomist theory of the rise and fall of philosophy understood as co-extensive with thomism.

9 comments:

cynthia r. nielsen said...

This is totally unrelated to your post; however, I have to say that I love the new look of your blog!

Marty Foord said...

Great post Lee.

Asello Guzman said...

Thanks for the post. I would like to send it to Levering; he is friendly and open-minded, willing to learn, but some of the language here is too polemic and overbearing. Would you mind cleaning it up a bit? Granted you are a frustrated minority with lots of knowledge, but honey attracts more flies than vinegar.

Michael Sullivan said...

Faber,

Another harsh, bitter gem. Polemic and overbearing? Well, allow me to add a few comments of my own:

As to participation, well, I’ve come across maybe one paragraph on participation and Scotus did not rule it out. I suspect, however, it is rendered irrelevant by Scotus’ doctrine of intrinsic modes, just like a few other underdeveloped and primitive theories like spiritual matter, and essence-existence composition.

Low blows for everyone! Ouch. Although perhaps you should have added a footnote to me here.

I’m really not clear on how God’s self-knowledge counts as participation

Most likely the idea is that the objects of divine knowledge exist as object by participation in God's essence as the object of his intellect.

Scotus does seem to leave out exemplarity in his account of the divine ideas

I was under the impression that this is because in Aristotelian terms exemplarity necessarily involves production, while the divine ideas are prior to the creation or non-creation of the ideated objects.

I don’t think any of the scholastics thought of time and history in this way

As Amy Wong would say, no spluh. It's always amusing to see a pomo jargony account of a position such that the person supposedly holding the position would most likely have a very hard time assigning any intelligible meaning either to the position or to its negation.

More sleight of hand. Maybe it was really st. Francis, or Bonaventure that leads to Scotus that leads to nominalism that leads to humanism that leads to protestantism that leads to Hitler

Then isn't the real question WHO LEADS TO FRANCIS!?! That's where we'll find the real villain! Oh wait . . .

This is the first time I’ve seen 1274 as the end of high-medieval theology.

The funny thing is that insofar as scholasticism has its own unique strengths and characteristics apart from other intellectual styles and methods, it could be argued that Thomas' generation was the first, not the last, of the great scholastics.

Michael Sullivan said...

This, however, leads the initial question still open: was there a metaphysical shift in the fourteenth century?

I'm not sure exactly what the question means. Certainly there were new metaphysics in the 14th century, but so were there in the 13th. People forget or have never realized how innovative St Thomas himself was from the point of view of earlier thought; but these innovations were, just as a matter of historical record, neither the consummation and fulfillment or all that went before, nor the apogee from which later thought declined. Thomas was a great thinker among many great and many more mediocre thinkers who all kept thinking.

There does seem to have been one, probably in the 1290’s. When one reads Aquinas and Bonaventure, one rarely comes across them citing contemporary opinions. But later, the main point of the exercise is criticism of contemporary opponents and advancing one’s own views. Rather than “aliqui” or the nefarious “quidam”, we get authors who name names....

I don't see how this is a metaphysical, rather than a methodological shift. What you say is certainly true, but I'm not sure how it's relevant. One thing that's interesting about this trend, however, is that the absence of names in Aquinas (and Bonaventure et al.) can make their arguments float in a vacuum for modern readers, while contemporaries would have recognized who they were arguing against. So Thomas' arguments can give the impression of pure (good) reason against pure (bad) reason, giving an impression of completeness which is misleading. A good look at the scholarship in the Leonine edition should dispell this impression, however.

in the fourteenth century itself the division was seen as between Bonaventure, Aquinas and Scotus (the via antiqua) and Ockham and his followers (the via moderna).

In my opinion it's impossible to overstate the importance of this fact. It's ludicrous to pit saints and blesseds against each other like the RO people do when for modern concerns the most salient fact about St T, St B, and Bl S is that they're all on the same side, though they have their own disagreements and we can dispute about whose arguments are better. And it's enormously important to realize that this side won before the advent of modernity. Since the main schools in Descartes' time were the Thomists and the Scotists (with the latter having the edge), it was the via antiqua as a whole that represented orthodox Catholic thought, while the via moderna of nominalism, which has a much better claim to giving birth to modern philosophy, essentially lost as far as orthodox Catholicism is concerned, and had to find other outlets. The confusion of all these factors is just pernicious.

Michael Sullivan said...

I was going to make some cracks of my own at the Levering quotes you gave, but out of respect for Br Guzman's feelings I'll refrain. However, look at the following from this interview: http://www.thomisme.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=22:dr-matthew-levering&catid=3:interviews

"How would you describe the current status of Thomism in the United States and/or in general?

A friend of mine who teaches at a leading Catholic university recently told me that his department of theology had its one expert in the theology of Aquinas (beyond which it would not go), and then it had a set of contemporary theologians. Likewise at another leading Catholic university all the experts in the theology of Aquinas consider themselves "historical theologians": they are not among the professors of systematic theology. The university from which I earned my doctorate has no Thomistic theologians, although it does have moral theologians who associate their views -- deeply informed by the Zeitgeist -- with Aquinas. From what I can tell, Thomistic philosophers seem to be doing a little better, but whenever I ask a Thomistic philosopher whether this is the case, the answer is no!"


I deprecate the situation along with Levering. What disturbs me just as much, however, is the implied notion that what we need are more Thomists to balance out the contemporaries, because the tradition is Aquinas and Aquinas is the tradition. No notion that the larger tradition which includes and transcends Aquinas, but which neither the Thomists nor the contemporary pomos or Anglo-analytics seem to know anything about, exists or has any importance. Neither those who love nor those who hate Thomism are well served by the stories which this atttitude engenders.

Michael Sullivan said...

Br Guzman,

Of course the point of the post was not to argue against Levering directly, but to provide documentation for long-time readers of this blog of the sort of thing Faber has been pointing out for a long time. No doubt he would express himself differently for a different audience. Rather than this post, perhaps someone should send him Richard Cross' articles which Faber referred to.


Cynthia,

since I was the one who monkeyed with the look of the blog, I guess I'll be the one to say thanks and glad you like it!

Lee Faber said...

Michael, you have discerned my true intent. Though I did not think it was especially harsh or bitter, save towards spiritual matter-what was in inside joke between friends. I followed by usual practice of dashing it out and not looking back, save for typos (I admit I did rewrite the divine ideas part as the initial draft was lame). I cede the field to your many, better-thought out points. In hindsight, then, I suppose my argument is that there is not a metaphysical shift. I second your remark about Richard Cross' articles. The one to read is entitled "Where Angels Fear to Tread: Duns Scotus and RAdical Orthodoxy" and I think is found in Antonianum.

I was reading Reportatio IA last night, and came across an argument that uses Aquinas' definition of divine idea as the divine essence as known to be imitable by a creature, and he did not offer a single argument against it. Just shocking.

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

Rather than “aliqui” or the nefarious “quidam”, we get authors who name names. … But none of this has much to do with Scotus, though he may be more extreme than most in his endless attacks on poor crazy Henry of Ghent who never met a platonist he didn’t like."

Sorry I haven't anything of substance to add, but these two lines cracked me the hell up.