Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Another entry in the series on the fundamentals. As with my recent post on intuitive and abstractive cognition, it might be helpful to begin with a reminder of how Aquinas approaches the issue before seeing what Scotus adds.

Aquinas discusses the transcendentals in, for instance, De veritate I.1. According to him, the transcendentals are properties of being, or rather concepts about being, which are not contained in the concept of being as such but automatically follow upon it. They add nothing essential to the notion of being, because as soon as essential content is added to being you get something which falls under a genus and belongs to one of the ten categories. (God, of course, is not in a genus and does not belong to a category because his essence is not something other than his existence.) Rather they express non-essential aspects of being which serve either to delimit one being from another or to express how beings are ordered without saying anything about their essence. Such notions are the transcendental concepts unus (one), res (thing), aliquid (something), verum (true), and bonum (good). These concepts add to being the notions of unity, of being in oneself, of being as against other things, or being ordered to the intellect, and of being ordered to the will. All of these are simply different ways of apprehending being which are not contained directly in the notion of being itself, and so they are each coextensive with being and distinct from being only secundum rationem, only in our way of thinking about it and not because of any real difference between them.

Now, Scotus also accepts the "coextensive transcendentals", and, like Aquinas, he affirms that the transcendentals are things belonging to being prior to its division into the ten categories or most general genera. But in addition to being and its coextensive properties he recognizes two other classes of transcendentals. The key text is in the Ordinatio I D.8 p.1 q.3. Here he says that even prior to its division into the ten categories being is divided between finite and infinite, and the transcendentals are prior to this division as well. So whatever belongs to being as indifferent to being finitely or infinitely is a transcendental. This includes:

1) The disjunctive transcendentals. That is, Scotus recognizes an indefinite number of disjuncts, of which "either member of the disjunct is transcendental, for neither one determines its determinable to a certain genus." Every being must belong to one or the other member, and both are transcendental. Examples are the disjuncts finite-infinite, potential-actual, possible-necessary, posterior-prior, dependent-independent, etc. So: not everything is infinite, since only God is infinite, and not everything is finite, since God is not finite, but everything is either finite or infinite, and so falls within the disjunct finite-infinite. Belonging to "finite-infinite" does not indicate belonging to a determinate genus; but neither does belonging to either member: "finite" does not indicate belonging to a given genus, since being finite applies to member of every genus.

In addition to the disjunctive transcendentals, the other kind of transcendental property, that is, properties which are indifferent to being finite or infinite, are:

2) The pure perfections. If I recall correctly St Anselm defines the pure perfections as whatever it is better to have than not to have, but Scotus' notion of a pure perfection as whatever does not imply limitation is probably better. So, quantity, say, or materiality, or location, are all out, because each of these imply being finite. But (to take an example that Scotus uses) wisdom is a pure perfection and so a transcendental. It can be either finite or infinite. As finite, say in Socrates, wisdom is an accidental quality inhering in the soul and so belongs to a genus, but wisdom is capable of being infinite, in which case it is not a quality, not an accident, and is really identical with God. (It should be obvious how this way of looking at things does some of the same job that analogy does in Aquinas.) Similarly for life, which in finite things is an operation, but when infinite is really identical with God. Finite wisdom and finite love are really distinct and are separable in man, but not in God, and so forth.

The pure perfections are transcendentals that, unlike the others, do not belong to every being or to being as such, since some things do not have certain pure perfections: ants are not wise and do not love. But they still count as transcendental because they do not belong to a genus and can exist in either a finite way or in an infinite way, or even simply in an infinite way: there may be pure perfections which only exist in God and in no creature. Unlike for Aquinas, therefore, for Scotus a transcendental is not necessarily coextensive with being, does not automatically follow upon the notion of being, and is not merely notionally distinct from being. Different properties which in themselves are transcendental may either a) not exist in a given being, b) exist as really distinct in a given being, or c) exist as really identical but formally distinct (as wisdom and love do in God). Similarly, for the disjunctive transcendentals, for each disjunct the greater or infinite member must exist but the lesser or finite member need not, while the existence of the lesser or finite member implies the existence of the greater. (Bonaventure uses a consideration much like this to prove God's existence in the Disputed Questions on the Mystery of the Trinity.)

The study of the transcendentals is thus the study of a) what applies to all being as such; b) what applies only to God; and c) what applies to creatures in relation to God. In other words the science of the transcendentals is both the science of being qua being and the science of the noblest being and the science of the causes and principles of beings as such. That is, of course, how Aristotle defines metaphysics. So in the prologue to his Very Subtle Questions on the Metaphysics of Aristotle Scotus says that metaphysics, as a universal science which studies being as prior to falling into particular genera, is the science of the transcendentals.

"The theory of the transcendentals is not simply an important section of Scotus' metaphysics. It is his metaphysics."

-Allan Wolter, The Transcendentals and their Function in the Metaphysics of Duns Scotus, 184.
(for an excerpt see here.)

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