Sunday, May 27, 2012

Reply to Mark Wauk

A blogger named Mark Wauk last month posted two essays on Scotus and the history of philosophy, here and here, in which he repeats the story of Scotus' villainy with which readers of the Smithy are so familiar. The quality of his understanding of Scotus is amply illustrated by a statement from the second part: "Scotus' thought is best viewed as an Augustinian reaction to that of Thomas Aquinas" - a perspective which has been discredited for at least fifty years. It's telling that nowhere does Mr Wauk cite Scotus directly and that he relies almost entirely on writers like Gilson, Pieper, and McIntyre for Scotus' views as well as for his critiques of them. Now, these are all fine thinkers in their respective departments - I have a great deal of repsect for Gilson especially. But none of these writers are Scotus scholars, the existence of whom Mr Wauk seems wholly unaware. Our friend Faber came across these recently and posted some objections; after Mr Wauk's response I weighed in myself. It appears I made him mad, however, and it looks as though he won't post my comments, so I'm posting them here. This is not a worked-out piece, then, but a series of brief remarks on portions of his first essay - I'm not bothering with the second one - which readers might want to look at in order to make sense of. Or not. But it will at least explain why the following remarks are addressed in the second person.

* * *

Josef Pieper, in Scholasticism, offers us the context in which Scotus' thought must be placed for a proper evaluation: the aftermath of the Condemnation of 1277.

To begin with, this is probably a mistake right here. Scotus' thought was formed at Oxford, where the Condemnations (plural) did not apply, despite some people attempting to enforce them there; and it was formed significantly after the Condemnations and does not really have them in mind, unlike the thought, for instance, of Godfrey of Fontaines, who does tiptoe around them carefully.

the Condemnation was issued from a generally traditional Augustinian perspective that was somewhat less than discriminating, as witness the fact that among the condemned propositions were a number that clearly had Thomas Aquinas in mind. . . .That reaction, however, in the form that the Condemnation took--a somewhat uncritical reassertion of traditional Augustinian thought, had unfortunate consequences.

You're parrotting the Thomist perspective completely uncritically. From the Franciscan perspective the consequences could be characterized as salutary and necessary, and the inclusion of some Thomist theses not particularly problematic, to the extent that some of Thomas' theses are themselves difficult to reconcile with a traditional orthodox perspective, especially in areas such as individuation and the object of knowledge.

In effect, it stifled intellectual inquiry by identifying orthodoxy with a reactionary defensive shell against free use of reason

This is just not true, as the slightest familiarity with the scholastic literature of the early fourteenth century would make abundantly clear. In fact, it's so far from being true as to be ludicrously the opposite of the facts. The thirty or forty years following the condemnations saw a riotous explosion of the free use of reason and competing intellectual systems all attempting to be orthodox, all to varying degrees incompatible with each other, and almost none of them particularly faithful to the pre-1277 style of Augustiniansim. Frankly, this is like modernists today claiming that the teaching mandatum in Catholic universities stifles intellectual inquiry etc. It's just false.

The story you tell by and large is a story constructed to explain the resistances to Thomism in the generations following his death in a way consistent with the Triumph of Thomism its authors want to maintain. It's not based on a sympathetic and objective reading of the primary sources.

unquestionably destructive of an authentic Christian worldview. As Benedict has seen, and understood in part, the thought of Christian champions of divine freedom ended up bearing a striking and unsettling resemblance to the type of Muslim thought that they had set out to oppose. This is particularly true of their portrait of God, who emerges as an inscrutable, arbitrary figure beyond reason, driven by the will to power. Nor was this accidental, for the tactic increasingly adopted by Augustinian thinkers was to defend God's freedom by attacking human reason, severely restricting the scope of reason and those making God unknowable except by revelation

What drives people like my friend Faber and myself mad with frustration is that this does sound somewhat reminiscent of Ockham, but it has no legitimate relationship with anything Scotus actually said. It's a wild distortion, pure and simple. Like Faber, I have spent many years studying Scotus' own texts, and his thought is not like this.

Bonaventure, who can be regarded as the founder of a sort of Augustinian orthodoxy . . .

What you say in this paragraph is by and large misconceived as well. By the turn of the century there weren't really any Bonaventurians. I've heard Timothy Noone say that after Matthew of Aquasparta there weren't really any Bonaventurians at all. Bonaventure was a great thinker and influential on Franciscan thought, but not in the sense of founding any sort of orthodoxy. Henry of Ghent is the illumination guy after 1277, and he's no Bonaventurian. If Bonaventure and Henry are both "Augustinians", the word means little besides "not Thomist".

Sullivan is free to maintain that Aquinas was a Neoplatonist. That's a gross distortion.

I am parodying your own gross distortions.

No serious thinker regards Aquinas as part of the Augustinian tradition in anything like the sense that a Bonaventure, for example, was.

No one who actually knows Scotus and fourteenth century thought subscribes to the views you present here, either, only people with a Thomist axe to grind and people who parrot their distortions. That's my point.

Aquinas sought to reconcile Augustine to his own thought, but was not afraid to flatly disagree when necessary.

This is also true of Scotus, and of most scholastics. I wonder if you're aware of how many so-called "Augustinians" objected to Thomas on the grounds that Thomas was not a good enough Aristotelian? There's a very strong case to be made that on key issues - the essence/existence distinction, for instance - Bonaventure is closer to Aristotle than Aquinas is.

it is not just your conclusion that matters. How you arrive at the conclusion also matters.

I agree completely. How did you arrive at your conclusions? Not, it seems clear, by reading Aquinas, then reading Scotus, then evaluating their arguments. Instead you rely on scholars who begin with the presupposition that St Thomas is correct, and then find reasons for where Scotus went wrong. It doesn't seem to occur to you that Scotus might not have used Thomas' methods or arguments because he thought there were flaws in them, and attempted to give better ones. Instead you simply commit the genetic fallacy, over and over. And you say things like this:

Scotus' vision of human nature is fundamentally the purest Platonism, as mediated by the Augustinian tradition. In other words, man is essentially a soul attached to or even imprisoned in a body.

Look, you can repeat that I'm being "juvenile" all you want, but this is nonsense. It bears no connection at all to Scotus and his relation to Thomas. You quotes from Gilson don't grapple in the least with the reasons for Scotus' views, which have no more to do with Plato or Augustine than Thomas' do. There are problems with Thomas' view of individuation, including human individuation, and his account of knowledge, that are very difficult to reconcile either with experience or with revelation. This is why some scholastics reject Thomas' doctrine.

As MacIntyre puts it:
The relationship of soul to body, indeed the existence of body, had been something of an embarrassment to later Augustinians, even if not to Augustine.

This is, again, a distortion. There is a significant argument to be made that the Franciscan (the so-called Augustinian) tradition lacks the metaphysical horror of matter and the body that in places characterizes Thomism and related doctrines, and this colors their metaphysics in a number of ways. I could point you particularly towards certain illuminating passages in Gonsalvus Hispanus (one of Scotus' teachers) arguing against Thomists and their ilk about the nature of the soul and the relationship between soul and body, if you were interested.

Second, Scotus maintains--again in opposition to Aquinas--that the immortality of the soul cannot be proven by human reason. Here, Scotus, as so often, is restricting the scope of human reason in order to shield Augustinian theological positions from challenge.

Another distortion. The entire motivation for Scotus in disputing the arguments purporting to prove the soul's immortality is that he doesn't think those arguments are as strong as the Thomists do. To an objective bystander Scotus' reluctance to accept these arguments as demonstrative would be evidence of his distance from Platonism.

Scotus, of course, was the most important of the neo-Augustinian theologians

There's no legitimate sense in which Scotus is any more "neo-Augustinian" than he is "neo-Aristotelian".

The Augustinian reaction therefore sought some way to either rehabilitate Augustine's doctrine or to replace it. This was the context in which Scotus began his academic career. . . . Scotus' approach could best be characterized as one of damage control, in which he sought to preserve as much as possible of Augustinian thought--as it had come to be understood since the time of Bonaventure--by repackaging it in a form designed to be more resistant to the newer trends of thought--including Thomism.

It's important to note that, while Bonaventure sometimes speaks this way, if I recall correctly, this comes before 1277 and not part of any "reaction", and while Olivi does too, Olivi presents himself (not entirely truly) as a radical anti-Aristotelian and was not followed in this by his Franciscan contemporaries; but to my knowledge Scotus never ever talks as though rehabilitating, preserving, or replacing Augustine's doctrine is of particular concern to him. This is not what he sees himself as doing or what his contemporaries saw him as doing. If you read Scotus in the light of this story you're going to misread him. In fact it seems that, like most people who talk about this story, you haven't read him at all.

It's important to keep these considerations firmly in mind when discussing Scotus' theory of knowledge, for while it's easy to find Scotus discussing the intellect abstracting ideas from sense experience in a seemingly Aristotelian vein, this is not the true spirit of his thought.

What you should actually keep firmly in mind is that it's more philosophical to actually engage with the arguments for a thinker's position than to reject it based on the purported "true spirit of his thought". Again, this is like modernists embracing the so-called "Spirit of Vatican II" while ignoring or even rejecting the actual documents of the council. You spend your entire long article stating that the spirit of Scotus' thought is Augustinian and Platonist, presuming that these are bad things, without ever actually presenting or countering his arguments.

Weatherby quite correctly characterizes this as “the intellect's utterance of itself in response to the stimulation of the thing.” And, he adds, “ … the phantasm [may be] necessary for cognition as a catalyst to knowledge, [but] knowledge itself springs from the intellect and from the intellect alone.” (KD,79) We may add in support of Weatherby's position--for Scotus is very hard to pin down--

He might be less hard to pin down if you actually quoted his views. You don't. You don't discuss the common nature, for instance, and its relation to the individuating factor. You don't mention the reason for his postulating the intellect as a co-cause of knowledge together with the known object. The "spirit" of his thought is replacing his actual thought.

"Clearly, we are not to regard this as an experientially based philosophical explanation of human knowledge. This is a theologically motivated construct, the aim of which is to preserve a Platonic-Augustinian vision of human nature and of Divine freedom while using Aristotelian terminology."

Again, this is just wrong! Scotus explicitly appeals to his experience in epistemology. The problem with the Thomist account, for Scotists, is precisely that it doesn't square with experience.

Before turning to a consideration of how Scotus' account of knowledge plays into his views on morality, we will simply add that skeptical views are latent in any type of thought that views true reality, the “really real,” as pure intelligibility

Again and again, this is not Scotus. In fact, as you ought to be aware, Scotus gives more "really real" reality to matter than Thomas does. This is one of the things Thomists don't like about him.

Scotus' approach--which identifies being and essence, etc etc

This entire paragraph is again wholly misguided. There is no clue whatsoever as to why a take on the relation of being and essence different from Thomas' will lead to Kant, when you don't state Scotus' views on being and essence or why he held them. Instead you attempt to tar Scotus with guilt by association. In doing so, however, you will be forced to end up with the orthodox Thomist position that there were no decent philosophers in all of history other than St Thomas, including every other saint and doctor of the Church besides Thomas' disciples. This is prima facie an implausible position.

I won't bother going over your statements about Scotus' ethics, since you state that the ethical considerations are based on the epistemological ones, which you have botched. To say in your concluding paragraph that "Scotus, philosophically, runs into a brick wall of skepticism" is enough to discredit you. Scotus was no skeptic and his thought does not "lead to" skepticism unless you are influenced by it in the act of rejecting its key positions, as Ockham was. To say that for Scotus "true being is to be identified with essence, pure intelligibility" and to suggest that this means that for Scotus being is not an act but a concept, is more than enough. You don't understand Scotus' metaphysics or his epistemology. That's okay; most people don't. Scotus' thought is very difficult, much harder that St Thomas'. In Chesterton's words, used in a different context, Scotism has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and left untried. But your sweeping declarations are not grounded in reality, they're grounded in outdated and faulty scholarship.


Michael Sullivan said...

To add one clarifying note to the Wetherby quote, "the phantasm [may be] necessary for cognition as a catalyst to knowledge, [but] knowledge itself springs from the intellect and from the intellect alone" etc.: It's important to be clear that for Scotus this is true of the self-evident first principles of reason. It's *not* true for knowledge in general. The phantasm produced by sense-experience is an *occasion* for grasping a truth like the principle of non-contradiction; according to Scotus the PNC is not abstracted from a sense-datum. But much or most of what we know is not a self-evident first principle; contingent facts about the sensible world, for instance, are known through sense-experience and not "from the intellect and from the intellect alone". I fail to see anything pernicious in this.

Michael Sullivan said...

In explaining why he won't post my comments, Mr Wauk says that he finds me abusive or at least "over-zealous" and that he doesn't think I intend to be constructive. From my brief perusal of his blog he appears to be a faithful Catholic with pious motives. So perhaps he can understand that if I am over-zealous it is in defense of saints, doctors, and blesseds of the Church, and of their philosophy and theology, produced in faithful service to the Church, and of arguments and propositions none of which have ever been censured by the Magisterium or found to be incompatible with the orthodox Catholic faith, brought forward from the light of reason and in philosophical good faith; a defense against a constantly-repeated calumny grounded in misunderstanding and falsehood.

Anonymous said...

That was a painful entry to read given his misconceptions of Scotus, which are even obvious to me -- and my exposure to him came from Dominicans at that.

For someone, such as myself, who has an interest in the period, but whose primary scholarly interests lie elsewhere, what would you recommend as a fair and updated secondary source that summarizes the history and the arguments of the scholastic period? I have Copleston's series, and I know that you and Faber have praised him in the past, but from my understanding it's also a bit outdated at times. How is the Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy? Or can you think of something else?

Credo In Unum Deum said...

Wow.... just went through all the comments.

I think Mr. Wauk messed with the wrong mofos.

awatkins69 said...


Credo In Unum Deum said...

He just posted again on Scotus' position on forcibly baptising jewish kids. He's determined to ruin the Blessed.

Michael Sullivan said...

I saw that, Credo. I might reply to it shortly. It seems that, having decided that Scotus must be beaten, but that his big stick won't do the job, any straw will do.

Estase said...

Awesome post! Perhaps someone in the church wants to make Scotus separate from Ockham.

Credo In Unum Deum said...

If you are not allowed to be heard, please post it here!

Lee Faber said...

MS, you should post the comments that he refused to publish. I had a good laugh.

Lee Faber said...

Actually, it looks like he posted it.

Edward Ockham said...

You needed to get that one off your chest!

On the 'condemnations' there will something in our book about this. Unfortunately the book is delayed again after a third reviewer dropped out.

I broadly agree that the condemnations did not have any decisive effect, and certainly did not 'stifle' anything.

Credo In Unum Deum said...

That guy is irritating. Reminds me of when I was a Protestant and the kind of arguments we'd make against Holy Mother Church. I don't know if he's a Modernist, or a Sedevacantist (with the way he attacks JP II). OK, maybe not really those things, but the dude is seriously perplexing. I don't know what his expertise is or qualifications are... I haven't really looked for them. I figure if he won't pick up Scotus and read him, I ain't gonna do the leg work to see if the guy knows anything. ;)

Michael Sullivan said...


I agree, and so I've decided not to get further involved. I was tempted to reply to his latest attack, but there are some arguments not worth the time and effort to wage.

Lee Faber said...

Ha ha, I just noticed; I've also heard TBN say that about Matthew of aquasparta.