Friday, September 28, 2012

Ockham the Scotist?

Ockham begins his Ordinatio with a three hundred seventy page epistemological Prologue, a precedent established in Henry's Summa. The first, seventy-five page, question, misleadingly titled "Whether it is possible for the intellect of a Wayfarer [i.e. a human being still in the present state of life] to have evident knowledge of the truths of theology," is in fact mostly about establishing the distinction between intuitive and abstractive cognition. This distinction was pioneered by Scotus (I've written about it over here), but quickly became standard and is one of the major indicators of earlier versus later scholasticism.

Ockham's account differs from Scotus' in a number of ways. Probably the most significant is that for Scotus intuitive cognition is by definition characterized by the actual existence and presence of the intuited object to the cognitive power apprehending it: when I consider something in the abstract it might exist or might not exist, so far as my ability to think about it is concerned, but if I'm going to see something it really has to be there in front of me; for Ockham, on the other hand, the existence of the intuited object is not strictly necessary. He has a simple argument for this: the object is one thing; the intuitive act, as a quality of my mind, is another, wholly distinct thing; of two separate and distinct created things either one can exist without the other, at least by the power of God; therefore the mental act can exist without the object. - Never mind the problems this raises!

As I mentioned, Scotus seems to have originated the distinction and when Ockham was writing it was not universally established. Some people must not have liked the use Ockham was putting it to, because he seems to have been accused of introducing dangerous novelties into his theology, and he defends himself by appealing to Scotus. This is rich, since Scotus is a kind of intellectual arch-enemy to Ockham, although he's deeply indebted to him even when he's engineering his antipodes. This is an interplay we've written about before. In any case, in this first question Ockham quotes and alludes to Scotus' writings on intuitive and abstractive cognition pretty extensively. Some Scotists seem to have accused him of misinterpreting the Doctor. In places Scotus talks as though the only thing we have direct intellectual intuition of in this life are our own internal acts, while Ockham says that we also have intuition of external sensible objects. He attempts to show that at least in certain places Scotus thinks the same thing. And then, in a remarkable passage:

And if someone should say that elsewhere he claims the opposite, that moves me but little, for I don't take him as an authority, nor do I hold this opinion because he said it, but because I think it true. And if elsewhere he says the opposite, I don't care. But here he holds it, and therefore his followers ought not to condemn it as a novelty.

Et si dicatur quod alibi ponit oppositorum, illud parum movet me, quia non allego eum tamquam auctoritatem, nec dico praedictam opinionem quia ipse dixit eam, sed quia reputo eam veram. Et ideo si alibi dixit oppositum, non curo. Hic tamen tenuit eam, et ideo sequaces sui non debent eam contemnere tamquam novam.

Am I the only one who senses in this outburst of attitude a big chip on Ockham's shoulder about Scotus and the Scotists? This is how Peter Olivi sounds sometimes about Aristotle. Attitude aside, however, it's a salutary sentiment worthy of a real philosopher.

1 comment:

Lee Faber said...

Maybe he was just annoyed because he tried to cite the Reportatio but someone pointed out that what he was really citing was the Additiones Magnae. Or maybe he tried to cite the wolter-bychkov edition, but someone pointed out it was full of transcription errors.