Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Formal Distinction

The Formal Distinction, of course, is not a “fundamental position” in the sense employed by the other posts in this series. It is a tool rather than a doctrine, though it does have its own set of arguments designed to show its necessity. It is fundamental in the sense that it is part of Scotus’ solution to a variety of problems in both theology (relation of personal properties, divine attributes, and so on, to the divine essence) and philosophy (the relation of being to the other transcendentals, discussions of universals and particulars). Consequently, prior to examining these issues we must lay out what Scotus thinks the formal distinction is.

It is well-known that there were three sorts of distinctions developed by the scholastics. The first is the distinction of reason, or logical distinction; this is a distinction generated by the intellect, is not based on anything outside the intellect in the world; though the scholastics use it a great deal, they don’t have much to say on its nature. It posits the least degree of distinction in the entities to be distinguished, a difference only in thought. In later scholasticism, in reaction to Scotus, it was differentiated into a distinction of reason-reasoning and reason-reasoned but this desperate Thomist move need not concern us here.

There is also the real distinction, which was also used by everyone but very little was done to define it. Aquinas posited this between essence and existence, for example, though he arrived at it by arguing from a distinction concepts (see De ente), and never bothered to define it. After Aquinas, it became common to distinguish this distinction from the rational distinction by what is today called the “separability criterion”; according to this, two things are really distinct if they are separable and one can exist without the other (for example, the body and soul). I don’t know who first used this criterion; generally Giles of Rome is blamed by those Thomists particularly obsessed with detailing the precise stages of decline away from Aquinas. It is also found in Godfrey of Fontaines, Scotus and later fourteenth-century philosophy (note that I have made no great search for it). This is not the only version of the real distinction, however, for Thomas of Sutton interprets it as having distinct beings (res) in act, as well as any distinction not caused by the intellect.

There were also various versions of what is often called a “middle distinction” a distinction supposed to be half-way between the mind and reality. Generally, most theologians in the thirteenth-century used them, and often attacked other versions of them for violating the principle of excluded middle. A classic example can be found in Bonaventure, and Aquinas employed one early in his career as well. For Aquinas, this was the celebrated distinction in the mind with a fundamentum in re, in which entities were potentially distinct in the world but rendered actually distinct by the “completive” action of the intellect (ratio completiva). This distinction was somewhat popular, adopted by even non-thomists such as Henry of Ghent, who also authored a “middle-distinction” which he called an “intentional distinction” .

Anyway, the point of all this is to make it clear that while there are “general” notions or theories of distinction with common terms to describe them, often individual authors have their own ideosynchratic theories. So one has to be careful not to simply quote Scotus and then view him refuted by Thomas of Sutton simply because the latter rejects a “real distinction”

Turning to Scotus, we find that he also employes the rational and real distinctions, as well as the formal. It is a matter of dispute whether the formal distinction is a middle distinction or a real distinction. I myself am on the real distinction side, as will become clear, but the topic was disputed during the medieval period, and still disputed today. The contemporary form of the dispute is whether Scotus changed his mind at Paris and mitigated the reality of the distinction, or did not. However, a great deal seems to hang not on what Scotus actually said but in what order he is thought to have said it. That is, different conclusions about the distinction are often reached by holding a different chronology of Scotus’ works. Most of the “Scotus changed his mind” crowd hold to Balic’s (the father of the modern Vatican critical edition) claim that the Ordinatio is the last work of Scotus, and should be the ultimate and final arbiter of any apparent contradictions, and is equivalent to the Summa of Aquinas. This then leaves the chronology as Lectura-Reportatio-Ordinatio. The opposition has a different view, which runs Lectura-Ordinatio-Reportatio+further additions to primative text of Ordinatio. I will say no more about this controversy, and the interested reader can consult Hoffmann’s bibliography (see the sidebar) under the names: Hester Gelber, Marilyn Adams, Michael Jordan, Richard Cross, Stephen D. Dumont.

The obvious division based on differences in terminology is between the Ordinatio/Lectura and the Reportatio. A common observation that appears to be true is that at Oxford Scotus spoke of entities, formalitates that were distinct, while at Paris he focused rather on the distinction itself rather than on what was being distinguished (though, as is apparent from the Quaestio de formalitatibus and other passages of the Reportatio, the formalitates are still present).

The basic division of distinctions for Scotus is between those caused by the mind and those independent of the mind. Distinctions independent of the mind he calls distinctions ex natura rei. This includes the real distinction, which he calls a distinctio realis-actualis and devotes little space to the examination of it, and the formal distinction. The real distinction is distinguished from the formal distinction by real separability. Items distinguished by a real distinction can exist independently of each other, while for the formal distinction this is not the case; they are inseparably united.


Ordinatio II d. 1 q. 4-5 (ed. Vat. VII, 101-103):

“...nihil est idem realiter alicui, sine quo potest esse realiter absque contradictione... Hanc etiam propositionem ‘illa sunt distincta realiter quorum unum potest manere sine altero’, negaret protervus. Ista autem negata, perit tota doctrina Philosophi VII Topicorum...”

... nothing is really the same as something, without which it can really be without contradiction... a reckless person might deny this proposition also, ‘those things are really distinct of which one can remain without the other’. With that denied, however, the doctrine of Aristotle in VII Topics is destroyed.

Ordinatio II d. 3 pars 1 q. 2 (ed. Vat. VII, 198):

“Accipio igitur quod nihil potest concludi ‘distinctum ab alio’ nisi vel propter separationem actualem, vel potentialem, vel propter proportionem istorum ad aliqua alia quorum alterum est ab alterio separabile.”

I hold therefore that nothing can be distinct from another unless either because of actual separation, or potential, or because of the proportion of those things to some other of each one is separable from the other.

Ordinatio I d. 2 pars 2 q. 1-4 (ed. Vat. II, 355):

“Sed numquid haec distinctio dicetur realis? Respondeo: non est realis actualis, intelligendo sicut communiter dicitur, ‘differentia realis actualis’ illa quae est differentia rerum et in actu... et sicut non est realis actualis, ita non est realis potentialis...”

But should this distinction be called real? I answer: it is not real-actual, meaning by this as is commonly held a real-actual difference, that which is a difference of things and in act... and just as it is not real-actual, so it is not real-potential.

ibid. (350):

“Et intelligo sic ‘realiter’, quod nullo modo per actum intellectus considerantis, immo quod talis entitas esset ibi si nullus intellectus esset considerans; et sic esse ibi, si nullus intellectus consideraret, dico ‘esse ante omnem actum intellectus’.”

And I interpret the term ‘really’ as in no way by the act of the intellect considering, indeed that such an entity would be there if no intellect would be considering. And so to be there, if no intellect would consider I call ‘to be before every act of the intellect’.

Quaestiones super libros Metaphysicorum Aristotelis IV q. 2, edited by Robert Andrews et al. (St. Bonaventure, N.Y.: The Franciscan Institute, 1997), 354-355:

Ideo quaelibet potest dici pars perfectionis, non tamen realiter differens quod sit alia natura, sed alia perfectio realis – alietate, inquam, non causata ab intellectu, nec tamen tanta quantum intelligimus cum dicimus ‘diversae res’; sed differentia reali minori, si vocetur differentia realis omnis non causata ab intellectu... Exemplum huius aliquale in continuo, in quo sunt multae partes; ista multitudo est realis, sic quod non causata a ratione. Non tamen tanta quantam hic intelligimus ‘diversae res’, sed minor realis, quia multitudo non simpliciter diversorum in uno tamen toto contentorum.”

Therefore whatever can be called a part of perfection, nevertheless no really differens as it is another nature, but another real perfection – by an otherness, I say, not caused by the intellect, nor of the kind that we understand when we say ‘diverse things’; but by a real-minor difference, if a real difference be called every difference not caused by the intellect... An example of this is of the continuum, in which there are many parts; that multitude is real, such that it is not caused by reason. Nevertheless we do not here understand ‘diverse things’ but a minor-real, because a multitude not simply of diverse things contained in one total.

Quaestiones super libros Metaphysicorum Aristotelis VII q. 19 (Opera Philosophica IV, 370):

“Alia est opinio... Sed realis differentia ponitur habere gradus. Est enim maxima naturarum et suppositorum; media naturarum in uno supposito; minima diversarum perfectionum sive rationum perfectionalium unitive contentarum in una natura.”

There is another opinion... but a real difference is posited to have grades. For it is most of all of natures and supposits; medium of natures in one supposit; least of all of diverse perfections or perfectinal definitions unitively contained in one nature.

As for their correlatives, real and formal identity, Scotus sees the highest form of identity as being formal identity. This the identity of sharing the same definition. The second highest is real identity.


Ordinatio I d. 2 pars 2 q. 1-4 (ed. Vat. II, 356):

“...possumus invenire in unitate multos gradus – primo, minima est aggregationis; in secundo gradu est unitas ordinis, quae aliquid addit supra aggregationem; in tertio est unitas per accidens, ubi ultra ordinem est informatio, licet accidentalis, unius ab altero eorum quae sunt sic unum; in quarto est per se unitas compositi ex principiis essentialibus per se actu et per se potentia; in quinto est unitas simplicitatis, quae est vere identitas (quidquid enim est ibi, est realiter idem cuilibet, et non tantum est unum illi unitate unionis, sicut in aliis modis) – ita, adhuc ultra, non omnis identitas est formalis. Voco autem identitatem formalem, ubi illud quod dicitur sic idem, includit illud cui sic est idem, in ratione sua formali quiditativa et per se primo modo.”

We can find many grades in unity: first, the least is that of aggregation. In the second grade is unity of order, which adds [order] over aggregation. The third is accidental unity, where beyond order there is [an] informing, although it is accidental, of one from another which are thus one. In the fourth is the per se unity of a composite [composed] from essential principles per se in act and per se in potency. In the fifth is unity of simplicity, which is truly identity (for whatever is there is really the same to any other, and not only is it one by the unity of that union, as is the case in the other modes); so still beyond this [real unity of simplicity], not every identity is formal. I call however formal identity where that which is said to be the same includes that to which it is the same in its formal-quidditative definition per say in the first mode [of per se predication; this means to predicate a definition or part of a definition].

Here we find that real identity is equivalent to simplicity, which is “true”identity. Beyond this however is formal identity. consequently, simplicity/real identity is compatibile with formal non identity (= formal distinction).

An argument based on intuitive cognition that was to prove influential shows how Scotus arrives at the formal distinction; this also illustrates his practice of referring to entities that are formally distinct:

Ordinatio I d. 8 q. 4 (ed. Vat. IV, 257):

“Praeterea, intellectus intuitivus nullam habet distinctionem in obiecto nisi secundum quod exsistens est, quia sicut non cognoscit aliquod obiectum nisi ut exsistens, ita non cognoscit aliqua distincta formaliter in obiecto nisi ut exsistens est. Cum ergo intellectus divinus non cognoscat essentiam suam nisi intellectione intuitiva, quaecumque distinctio ponatur ibi in obiecto – sive sit distinctiorum obiectorum formalium, sive ut rationum causatarum per actum intellectus – sequitur quod ista distinctio erit in obiecto ut actu exsistens est: et ita si ista est obiectorum formalium distinctorum in obiecto, erunt ista distincta formaliter (et tunc sequitur propositum, quod talis distinctio obiectorum formalium praecedit actum intellectus), si autem sit rationum causatarum per actum intelligendi, ergo intellectus divinus causabit aliquam intellectionem in essentia ‘ut relationem rationis’, ut est exsistens, quod videtur absurdum.”

Furthermore, an intuitive understanding has no distinction in an object except according as it is existning, because just as it does not know some object save as existing, so it does not know something to be formally distinct in the object unless as it is existing. Since therefore the divine intellect does not know its essence except by an intuitive intellection, whatever distinction is posited there in the object – whether it is of distinct formal objects or as definitions caused by the act of the intellect – it follows that that distinction will be in the object as it is existing in act; and so if that is of formally distinct objects in the object, they will be formally distinct (and then the matter at hand follows, that such a distinction of formal objets precedes the act of the intellect), if however it is of definitions caused by the act of understanding, therefore the divine intellect will cause some intellection in the essence, as a relation of reason, as it is existing, which seems absurd.

To boil this down:

1.intuitive cognition, which is cognition of the object as present, causes no distinction in the object being cognized.

2. Since the divine intellect knows the divine essence by intuitive cognition, any distinction (whether of diverse formal objects or definitions caused by the intellect) posited in the divine essence will be in the essence as it is existing in act.

3. If the distinction is of distinct formal objects, then Scotus has what he is trying to prove, a formal distinction.

4. If it is of definitions caused by the act of understanding, then the divine intellect will cause intellection in the essence, which is absurd.

At Paris the basic organization of distinctions is into distinctions that are simpliciter, that is, absolute or unqualified, or secundum quid. Under the secundum quid distinction falls both the formal distinction and another distinction called adequate non-identity (for situations in which one of the distinguenda exceeds the other). The difference between the two classes of distinctions is in a series of four conditions. All four are required for a distinctio simpliciter, while only the first three are required for a distinction secundum quid.

Reportatio I-A d. 33 q. 2 (ed. Wolter-Bychkov II, 328):

“ hoc quod aliqua simpliciter distinguantur, quattuor requiruntur condiciones. Prima est quod sit aliquorum in actu et non in potentia tantum, — quomodo distinguuntur ea quae sunt in potentia in materia et non simpliciter, quia non sunt in actu. Secunda est quod est eorum quae habent esse formale et non tantum virtuale, — ut effectus sunt in sua causa virtualiter et non formaliter. Tertia condicio est quod est eorum quae non habent esse confusum (ut extrema in medio et miscibilia in mixto), sed eorum quae habent esse distinctum propriis actualibus. Quarta condicio, quae sola est completiva distinctionis perfectae, est non-identitas...”

For this that something is distinguished simpliciter, for conditions are required. The first is that it is of things in act and not in potentcy only, in the way in which those things are distinguished which are in potency in matter and not simpliciter, because they are not in act. The second is that it is of those which have formal being and not only virtual, as an effect is in its cause virtually and not formally. The third condition is that it is of those which do not have confused beng, as the extremes in a medium and mixable in the mixted, but of those which have distinct being by their own actuals(?). The fourth condition, which alone completes perfect distinction, is non identity.

The terminology of this distinction appears to come from discussions of fallacies, especially the fallacious move from secundum quid to simpliciter. This is a common fallacy treated by numerous medieval logicians. The ‘secundum quid’ is a determinatio deminuens, a determination that once applied diminishes the reality of what it is applied to.

To sum up:

There are basically two versions of the formal distinction, corresponding to Scotus’ Oxford and Parisian periods. In the Oxford version entities are formally distinct if they are found in a third thing inseparably united but really identical. This distinction obtains apart from any cognitive activity on the part of God or creatures, even when the subject of the distinction is God. At Paris Scotus is more interested in discussing the reality of the distinction itself, which he says is a diminished distinction, not a fully distinct or fully actual distinction. He sets out a series of conditions for an unqualified distinction, and if the last is not met there is only a qualified distinction present (the other features of the Oxford account, such as obtaining prior to the operation of the intellect, hold true of Paris as well).


Lee Faber said...

Eventually I'll update this with some comments on ultimate abstraction.

Edward Ockham said...

Beautiful Latin-English tables.

Edward Ockham said...

Translation: ‘idem cuilibet’ - ‘the same as’ is more English-friendly. In ‘illi unitate unionis’, ‘illi’ agrees with ‘unitate’ not ‘unionis’. I’m confused by ‘aliqua distincta’. ‘aliqua simpliciter distinguantur’ – aliqua is plural not singular. ‘ut effectus sunt’ – is also plural. ‘of those which have distinct being by their own actuals’ looks correct.

Typo: ‘per say’, ‘is existning’

Edward Ockham said...

My mistake. "non tantum est unum illi unitate unionis"

'illi' is dative and refers backwards. Thus 'not only is it one with **that thing** by a unity of union ...'

Julius Russo said...

Could you clarify why it is that Scotus in his Oxford period must consider the formal distinction to be merely secundum quid? We have seen how he distinguishes real from formal identity. Thus, it would seem that the non-identity required for two things to be distinct simpliciter could be either a lack of formal identity or a lack of real identity. Whence it would follow that a formal distinction is made simpliciter, on the basis of a formal non-identity.

Michele Anik said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lee Faber said...

Basically, a distinctio simpliciter is a real distinction, in the sense of separability. Scotus, in other texts I did not quote, does explicitly equate the formal disinction with a secundum quid distinction. Note that the non-identity that "completes" the simpliciter distinction is described as completing a perfect distinction. A perfect distinction would presumably be a fully real distinction. A formal distinction is distinct as far as the first three conditions are concerned. It cannot be fully real because of divine simplicity.

Julius Russo said...

Alright, I guess I'll have to look elsewhere for those texts.

The point about separability is interesting. Real distinction that is not formal distinction has long been explained in terms of separability, which is an easy way to understand it and reason about it. However, separability is not a fully adequate criterion because there is a real distinction (3 of them) where there is no separability: the divine Persons are really (and not merely formally) distinct, but are not separable because it is absurd for any Person to not exist.

Perhaps it would be better to say that there is a real distinction where the existence of at least one distinguendum is not dependent upon the other. In creatures, this reduces to separability.

Lee Faber said...

Well, the Trinitarian persons are really distinct from each other, but each one is formally distinct from the divine essence. And people have told me (ie., I haven't actually read this in Scotus) that Scotus makes per impossibile arguments based on the separability of the persons.

It is a good point about the real distinction, though. Scotus mentions separability in only two places, and neither of those places contains any mention of the formal distinction. So my schema may be a bit artificial. In the passages dealing with the formal distinction scotus talks about "real-actual" and "real-potential distinctions" but doesn't say what they are.

Perhaps another way to go about it is to just accept that the precise sense of real that Scotus has in mind when he contrasts the real and formal distinctions is "distinct prior to the operation of the divine/human/ mind." This sidesteps the separability issue, and then allows talk of formalities and realities to fill in the blank of how the distinction is consonant with divine simplicity.