Commenter Anonymous writes:
As graduate student in political theory who has just begun following this site, I find myself nonplussed by the denigration of narrative here. To complain about its prevalence in pomo won't just do; it's NOT a venture solely confined to the work of Continental philosophers practicing genealogy, but a core part of the philosophical discipline. . . . So then if you want to vindicate Scotus and set the record straight, more than a corrective for each problematical narrative is needed: an alternative one needs to be advanced. Merely clarifying his thought each time it is maligned is insufficient. How did Scotus differ from Aquinas? How did this influence Ockham? What was it about the legacy of scholasticism that lead to its abandonment by the early moderns? What had these moderns internalized from it (e.g. nominalism/conceptualism, voluntarism, etc.)? How did these intellectual developments interplay with political and social developments (e.g. the rise of science, emerging commercialism, power struggles between Church and state, etc.)? Of course you cannot answer all of the questions given the focus of your work--though I would think with a philosopher and a historian on this sight, insight could be gleamed into at least one of them, if not a full answer--but that doesn't render these questions unimportant. Rather, these questions draw people toward these moments and thinkers. The exposure to the material from a historical vantage has lead me to consider Aquinas' work on his own terms, of which I have begun reading. Similarly, I plan to eventually read many of the other scholastics as well (after I learn Latin). The point is that if you want people to seriously consider scholastics and if you unfortunately don't care about historical narrative, then use narrative as a foil to draw them into reconsidering scholastic thought on its own terms. Otherwise, most people, as I once did, will look at your work and think of it as a morbid preoccupation with extinct theories, rather than high philosophy unparalleled by anything in the last five hundred years.
Now in a way this is all fair enough. I have a couple of points to make in response. First, I don't at all insist that narrative per se is simply bad. Indeed, narrative in the sense of the reduction of disparate events to an order which can be grasped as a whole is both salutary and necessary. What I object to is a historical narrative that prefers its plot to respecting or even bothering to identify the relevant facts.
A good narrative in the history of philosophy is something like Copleston's technique: "After A we will look at B. B's positions and arguments are x and y. They are related to A's in this way: here's how they are alike and here's how they differ. I think A's arguments are better for these reasons. B's arguments were adapted by C in this way. C used B's insights to improve on A while avoiding the weaknesses in B."
I also respect the method John Deely used in his history of medieval philosophy which I read recently, in which he uses the doctrine of signs as his Ariadne's thread to guide the reader through the period and providing a unifying factor to the "Latin Age" between Augustine and John of St Thomas as opposed to ancient and modern thought. I find this sort of technique reductive and it obviously leaves an enormous amount out, but at the same time it's a valid approach to finding an intelligibility in the thicket.
Here's a bad narrative: "Plato and Aristotle were real philosophers, the Stoics were sort of dumb but had some good ideas, the neoplatonists succumbed to the growing religious atmosphere of late antiquity, then the fundies took over. They hated reason and produced a dark age of a thousand years. Nothing interesting happened. Then Descartes was a light shining out of the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not, for they loved their angels on pinheads and their Inquisition and Crusades too much. Then real philosophy started. No, I haven't read any of the books from that millenium, but I certainly have heard of one or two."
Here's another bad narrative: "Medieval philosophy was a golden age of the synthesis of faith and reason in which man's natural and spiritual sides reached a harmony and equilibrium. It's a marvelous gothic arch leading up to the point of Thomism, the supreme achievement of human rationality. The five ways are the best things anyone has ever said about anything, they're right at the tip of the arch. After that point the arch goes back down, sinking into decadence, modernity, and heresy. The golden age thus lasted about twenty-five years, though it was recaptured occasionally by the better of Thomas' commentators. No, I haven't read any of Thomas' non-Dominican successors, but I've certainly read Anselm and have glanced at a few early 20th-century manuals."
The problem with the second two is not that they are narratives, although they do make for more gripping stories than the first two. The problem with them is that they are a) false, and b) produced with little or no concern with actually happened in the time whose story they purport to tell. What happened in philosophy in a given period is what people thought in that period, and unless you grasp that first your story is BS.
This leads me to my second point, which is that the wrong kinds of narrative lead to the instrumentalization of philosophy, which destroys it. All the questions Anonymous brings up are valid questions. But they're not the questions that Scotus deals with in his works. If your primary concern is how "intellectual developments interplay with political and social developments (e.g. the rise of science, emerging commercialism, power struggles between Church and state, etc.)", then, frankly, Scotus isn't for you. Because Scotus doesn't talk about and doesn't care about these things. When I finish writing this post I'm going to go read a 30-40 page question on the ontological status of relations. I may or may not write a blog post on it. This is because I'm interested in relations as a part of metaphysics, and so is Scotus, who has profound and interesting things to say on the matter. But if you don't care about metaphysics for its own sake, what are the chances you're going to slog through the 1,200 pages of the Metaphysics questions or the thousands of pages of the Ordinatio with a keen enough attention and interest to figure out what Scotus cares about and how he argues for his positions? Very, very low.
The Reformation as a historical event is very interesting, and enormously complicated, and had millions of causes of various kinds which can be adduced to explain one factor or another. There are of course political and economic and theological and demographic and linguistic and other elements to how it played out. But what Scotus is interested in is metaphysics, and using metaphysics to explicate the doctrines of the Catholic faith. That's pretty much it. (Yes, I'm being reductive myself here.) If you don't approach Scotus with that in mind first of all, you're going to misunderstand him. Because of what he's doing, the proper way to read him is to ask: What is he saying? Why does he think this? What is this argument? Is this argument any good? A narrative which doesn't do this first, as a way of establishing its ground, will fail to have any relationship to Scotus as he actually lived and thought. Now perhaps there is a way that Scotus' dense and complex and subtle web of thought could be related in a meaningful way to the nexus of causality of the Reformation. But it seems that most of the people who are willing to actually study him are less interested in that than in understanding the metaphysics of the trinity or the incarnation, i.e. the things Scotus himself was interested in.
So let's look at some of Anonymous' questions. "How did Scotus differ from Aquinas?" This question can largely be answered, and we've said a great deal about it on this blog. But it's necessary first to know what Aquinas said and what Scotus said, but also to know a lot of other things. Until fairly recently Scotus was systematically misread because ever reader forced him into a false dialogue with Aquinas, neglecting the fact that much of the time Scotus is unconcerned with Thomas and his interlocutors were other scholastics. The Thomocentric narratives that required all scholastic discourse to revolve around the concerns of the Common Doctor produced endless misconstrual of Scotus' thoughts and their motivations. You can't read Scotus by asking, first, "Is Scotus enough of a Thomist to be orthodox?" You have to ask, "What is the principle of individuation? Is this account of the divine ideas sensible? Do we really need an intermediate distinction between the real and the rational?"
"How did this influence Ockham?" It's still hard to say. We can relate much of Scotus to Ockham, but Ockham is also in dialogue with a lot of lesser-known figures. But, more importantly (to me), how many people wanting to know just what made Ockham into such a villain have actually read enough Ockham to figure out what he was doing? Do they even care? Why do they care so much about the etiology of something they're not really interested in? Moreover nebulous talk about "influence" is suspect to me. Everyone is influenced by everything they read and hear; Scotus was the biggest genius just before Ockham, so of course Ockham was influenced by him. Of course he addresses Scotus' arguments and distinctions, accepting or rejecting them in turn. But Ockham's nominalism was caused by Ockham's thoughts, and those are what have to be addressed. Scotus is responsible for them only insofar as Ockham thought what Scotus thought and because he got it from Scotus, and in order to evaluate this we have to understand what Ockham thought and what Scotus thought and compare - which means, again, caring about the actual issues they discussed prior to polishing our narrative. If we do this we will see that everything his enemies hate about Ockham is related to Scotus just insofar as Ockham came up with it by rejecting Scotus' most distinctive thoughts, which (granted) wouldn't have been possible without Scotus as a foil.
"What was it about the legacy of scholasticism that lead to its abandonment by the early moderns?" This one is pretty easy, I think. Scholasticism produced works and methods which became extremely complex and difficult and voluminous, to the extent that its tradition seemed frustrating and boring and pointless to those who did not share its driving concerns. So instead of arguing with it they mocked it and ditched it. Yes, there are political and cultural and ecclesiological factors, and yes, to the historian these are worth pursuing, but for us I think they are not germane. For instance, the resistance of many late scholastics to the new counter-Aristotelian physics, which set so many people against them, is in my opinion a relevant but not essential point.
But to return to the main issue. For a philosopher history is a subordinate science, to be instrumentalized in the search for wisdom, while philosophy itself exists for its own sake (in the natural order). People who value philosophy primarily (rather than subalternately) for its capacity to illumine history are, in the philosopher's opinion, misguided. People who neglect, ignore, or distort philosophical arguments, and thus the facts about the history of philosophy, for the sake of a broader (even if otherwise well-intentioned) historical narrative are pernicious and deadly to philosophy. If a non-philosopher wants to investigate the effect of a philosophical idea on historical events, well and good; although this is not the correct disposition towards philosophy simpliciter it is permissible secundum quid insofar as the historian's profession is also licit. But in order to be even a good historian, he must at this point - even if only temporarily - stop caring about history as much as he cares about philosophy, and become at least enough of a philosopher to understand the ideas and arguments in themselves, not as historical facts but as approaches to ahistorical truth, before applying them to his narrative.
In the same thread Commenter Mark writes,
I don't see how history of philosophy is itself (as history) necessary to doing philosophy. Can't someone be a philosopher without knowing much of anything about the history of philosophy?
My answer is that it it is possible to be a philosopher without knowing the history of philosophy, but it is not possible to be a good philosopher. The reasons are the same as those outlined in an early chapter of Aquinas' Summa contra gentiles: although philosophical truths are those which can be known through reason and common experience alone, the life of any given man is too short and his intelligence too weak to discover all naturally-knowable truths himself. The progress of human wisdom then must be cumulative. But since philosophical knowledge is not a collection of facts that can be simply learned, but a body of truths which must be thought through and intuited through insight and argumentation, every philosopher who wishes to progress beyond the most rudimentary stages has to recapitulate the history of philosophy in his own mind, by thinking through the thoughts of his predecessors.
If this post isn't long enough, here are some past posts on these and related topics, handily collected: