Friday, November 23, 2012

Voluntarism Again

There was a comment over at the Register (the same site on which I couldn't post a comment) that voices a common misunderstanding of voluntarism. This particular formulation is garbled, but I thought it best to use an example from the wilds of the internet:

If Mary’s rational soul and so her capacity for sin was only infused into her body post conception on what grounds could such an immaculate conception take place? Duns Scotus used Franciscan voluntarism to ‘solve’ his problem where the will rather than the intellect takes precedence. Which taken to its logical conclusion causes all kinds of problems for the principle of non-contradiction [God could create a square circle if He wanted to, perfection could be less than perfect if He wanted to be. Etc.] If St. Thomas (and Dun Scotus) et al had modern biology to base their philosophy and theology upon then there would have been no debate at all. But then if we diden’t have franciscian voluntarism its unlikely we would have had nominalism, conceptualism and the general nuttiness of modern philosophy and theology. 

So the complaint is that if the will has "precedence" or "precedes" the intellect, lots of bad thing follow. Philosophically you get God able to create a square-circle, or be less perfect, or whatever. Historically, Scotist voluntarism "causes" (read Brad Gregory for an explanation of this causality) nominalism, conceptualism, and everything the one making the claim doesn't like about the modern world.

The philosophical claim underlying all this seems to be that according to Scotus, possibility and impossibility are dependent on the divine will.

The passage in Scotus to examine is I d. 43 of his commentaries on the Sentences, the Lectura, Ordinatio, or Reportatio.

One thing we find is that the will plays no role in whether something is possible or impossible. For Scotus, possibility and impossibility is a feature of terms (or  natures, essences) which are generated by the divine intellect. The divine intellect generates say, 'rational' and 'animal'; there is no repugnance between these terms, so the species human being is possible.  The terms 'square' and 'circle' are repugnant, so a square-circle is impossible. This is even true if per impossible, God did not exist. If God did not exist, and neither did anything else, a square-circle would be impossible because the terms are repugnant, and human being would still be possible because the terms are compatible. This is what Scotus calls logical potency, and the result of it seems to be that modality is grounded in things themselves or their essences, rather than on God or some feature of God. Now on this tricky point Scotus actually says that possibility is "principiative" from the divine intellect. The idea is that while the terms are repugnant or non-repugnant based on their natures, for there to be any terms or essences at all there must be the divine intellect to generate them.

So whatever other philosophical problems voluntarism might have, at least for Scotus we are not in danger of a world of square-circles or impossible objects walking the streets, or God making himself not-God. Possibility and impossibility arise from the relation of the divine intellect and its thinking about essences.


Credo In Unum Deum said...

Another interesting note is one of the points Scotus makes in his argument for the existence of God. He says that the two concepts "ifinite" and "being" are not contradictory. Therefore, it is possible for an infinite being to exist. Now it would be really silly to make that kind of argument if the only way God could exist is if he first made "infinite" and "being" not contradictory so he could exist before he existed.... er ...

Bubba said...

I have to say, I find these contemporary debates frustrating because they're only superficially about medieval authors: not just Scotus, but Thomas Aquinas as well; and, as the quote showed, the major tool to accede to Thomas' works is inferred justification. Soon, however, the English-speaking aemuli Thomae will have to deal with an accurate presentation of what Thomas said.
Thomas is clear to the point of being pedantic, and yet, to all appearances, most modern interpreters don't get him. Makes you wonder about what hope there is for any somewhat sophisticated philosopher.

Lee Faber said...

I have to agree, bubba. My favorite side of this is all the job ads I have to apply for that claim to want someone who does 'medieval philosophy' but also uses aquinas to 'engage' with contemporary thought. I've learned not to bother; all they want, depending on the department is higher level apologetics or just being an analytic philosopher who occasionally drops Aquinas' name while talking about truthmakers.

socraticum said...

Can the confusion about voluntarism be ascribed to confusing Scotus' particular views on the relationship of the intellect and will with those of another medieval author (Ockham, for example), or is it a mere fabrication?

lee faber said...

I would say that there term is often bandied about without any clear knowledge of what it means. Or, as you say, they assume that since Ockham is a voluntarist and Scotus is a voluntarist, Scotus thnks the same as Ockham. But he doesn't. Add to this the difficulty of comparing Scotus and Aquinas ('natural law' does not mean the same for both, but it is generally assumed that it does), and Bubba's point that few actually care what a medieval author's view actually is, as they are more concerned with the NOW and whether Aquinas supports their view of say gay marriage, and you have all the pieces you need for large numbers of people to pontificate as if they know what they are talking about.

Crude said...


few actually care what a medieval author's view actually is, as they are more concerned with the NOW and whether Aquinas supports their view of say gay marriage, and you have all the pieces you need for large numbers of people to pontificate as if they know what they are talking about.

Well, on the flipside, what are you saying - that Aquinas and Scotus are irrelevant to modern discourse and should only be studied like historical artifacts, not with any eye on contemporary questions or developments that have happened since then?

You talk about "high level apologetics", but insofar as that means (according to my understanding) developing sophisticated arguments for God's existence or such and such theological conclusions, high level apologetics was exactly what Aquinas and Scotus were engaged in, at least in considerable part.

Lee Faber said...

I'm not saying that at all. I object to the selective mining approach that pays no heed to what the arguments actually are and what the positions actually are. Certainly the arguments can still be relevant, and utilized or refuted in a modern context. All I ask is that there is an attempt to understand what was actually going on in the middle ages prior to or at least simultaneously with the appropriation for modern debates. I tend to be harsh on the contemporary usage because most of the people that do this have adopted the false story of scotus leading to the reformation or abortion et al. This even shows up in people like Feser, who has the obligatory 'scotus and ockham ruined the world' passage in his book on the new atheists, without bothering to mention a single argument. Maybe Scotus and Ockham are just too hard to use on the contemporary scene, fine. But then shut up about them.

Lee Faber said...

I'm also not sure that the scholastics were engaged in apologetics. Apologetics seems to me to be a genre of popular writing, in which complicated ideas are dumbed down considerably for people who aren't generally used to reading that particular topic. One might argue that Aquinas at least is doing something like apologetics since he considerably dumbs down a lot of what he says, as he is pretty explicit that he is writing for his students, but this isn't the case with Scotus at all.

it still seems different to engage in debates about natural theology (say whether omnipotence is rationally demonstrable or not, or analogy vs. univocity) with people who hold the same basic premises, than to try to convince internet trolls that the 'who caused God' objection doesn't destroy theism.

Lee Faber said...

Note, regarding my 1:08 comment, I'm not exactly sure what my ideal situation would look like. Certainly once can't expect everyone to learn latin and read scholarly articles about the condemnations of 1277. Furthermore, even regarding Aquinas the interpreters constantly disagrees, so perhaps this is just the recurrence of the perennial question of the relation of the history of philosophy to philosophy.

Crude said...


This even shows up in people like Feser, who has the obligatory 'scotus and ockham ruined the world' passage in his book on the new atheists, without bothering to mention a single argument.

Well, Feser also mentions Scotus in positive terms: "Hence, it can safely be said that if you haven't both understood Aquinas and answered him - not to mention Anselm, Duns Scotus, Leibniz, Samuel Clarke and so on, but let the pass - then you have hardly "made your case" against religion."

That said, sure, I can see the area where you could say Scotus is treated as setting the foundation for modernism and related ills.

it still seems different to engage in debates about natural theology (say whether omnipotence is rationally demonstrable or not, or analogy vs. univocity) with people who hold the same basic premises, than to try to convince internet trolls that the 'who caused God' objection doesn't destroy theism.

Granted, but A) neither Feser nor most apologists take aim at the internet trolls (who, arguably, neither know nor even care what these arguments are or say, and are actively interested in strawmanning them), and B) one first step to having a discussion of the sort you mention is to explain the fundamentals of those premises and why they're held, or how premises function in philosophy and metaphysics generally.

Regarding apologetics, I think it's far more complicated than that - I don't think dumbing down is at all necessary, though in practice it's going to happen just to help people learn about what's being said. They can't start at the top, after all. Even if someone wrote with an assumption of the readers having the necessary background knowledge or even metaphysical commitments, I think once you're giving arguments for God's existence, etc, you're in what is typically regarded as apologetics.

Anyway, I'm always finding myself in a bit of a bind here, because I'd like to learn more about Scotus. On the other hand, I recall the last time you (or someone else here) was asked about the possibility of communicating Scotus to a wider audience, you actually disliked the very idea. Do you really think the conditions for talking about or learning from Scotus should be 'learn latin and read the original works in their native language - or get lost'? To put it bluntly.

Credo In Unum Deum said...

I hope it's not the case the you must know Latin! If so, my thesis is in big trouble. Having converted to Catholicism after all of my undergrad was done (in Music, piano performance), and never even being interested in philosophy until after that point, and never having been afforded a classical education, and not had the chance for formal Latin training (and being too ADD to learn it on my own-- and I don't even believe in ADD-- wow, did you see those flowers?), I have to rely on those who do know Latin and are honest, good thinkers who wish to give an honest assessment of Scotus. In my case, my best friend converted to Scotism and sorta dragged me along. It helps that he is the smartest guy I know and I can pepper him with questions ad nauseum/inifinitum/drive-him-crazium. So find a super smart friend who is a scotist and learn thataway. Or get books that have Scotus' important works, like "Philosophical Writings" and start going through it. Or you can look at the "Fundamental Positions of Duns Scotus" section on this very blog which is super helpful.
Good luck.

Credo In Unum Deum said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lee Faber said...

Crude, I think you misunderstood whatever previous conversation you are alluding to. I am not opposed to the very idea of communicating Scotus to a broader audience. This will be necessary if the 'common opinion' is ever to be changed. What I object to is complete and utter bullshitters like Brad Gregory or Fr. Robert Barron continually being feted around the world when they don't have the faintest idea about what they are talking about. There has also been a high leverl of skumbuggery in the history of modern scholarship, as well as lots of worthless garbage published (like the Wolter-Bychkov edition what they call the "examined report").

Now I'm not all negative and am trying to change the situation. An obvious example of this is this blog. I would much prefer to have arguments with Thomists about whether Alnwick's arguments about unitive containment work or not, rather than that Scotus leads to x..y...Z and therefore is the source of all evil.

But the problem is the chaotic state of Scotus texts. You can single out individual treatments, sure, and work out what the arguments are, but even what text should be on the page is not certain, which tends to undermine what the arguments are. Case in point: the existence of God. I can't leak any info from our current findings, but it is clear that what the Vatican editors published (and was later translated by Wolter) was a complete mishmash in which they seem to have read against their own stemmatic principles. Scotus was working on this section up to thepoint he died, probably, and it is probably impossible to determine what text, paragraph goes where, what is 'ordinatio' text, what is 'reportatio' (both these names are misnomers, so even the title we all through about are wrong), and so on.

So the point of this is that given the problematic state of Scotus own writings, my co-blogger and I have started a translation of a scotistic text, that is a text by one of Scotus' early followers on a focused topic; we will publish it with lots of commentary, glossaries, etc., with an aim of hopefully introducing Scotism to a broader audience, and showing what one can do philosophically with the tools left behind by Scotus.

Lee Faber said...

Regarding Latin, I think one just needs to suck it up and start to learn. One shouldn't read just Aquinas and/or Scotus anyway. There's Bonaventure, Ockham, and a host of others. My coblogger Michael taught himself in grad school and his latin is now better than mine (and I'm currently teaching it).

So little Scotus has actually been translated that to really understand what his 'vision' is, you need to read more than Wolter's thin selections. And the Wolter-Bychkov Reportatio should not be touched. It is shameful it was ever published.

Credo, regarding your comment, I suppose it depends on what you intend to do: presumably continue on into philosophy Phd? If you plan on having a medieval AOS, you should have some latin.

Also, who is your best friend? There are so few Scotists, after all... I wonder if I know him.

Michael Sullivan said...

I agree with Faber that, even if you're largely reading in English, if you have a serious interest in medieval philosophy or in medieval anything - or in western civilization at all - then at least some Latin is a necessity.There is simply no way around it.

Learning Latin is neither has hard nor as easy as some people make it out. What it really takes is commitment. It's true that I never had a formal course in Latin and am as self-taught as one can be. Faber says I taught myself in grad school but I began as a sophomore in college. I got a bare-bones grammar, stumbled through it a little, and bought a Vulgate. Using the King James Bible as a constant reference I inched my way line by line through the gospels. I had by that time had two years of ancient Greek so with a Greek/Latin New Testament I stumbled my way through some more, using the more familiar Greek grammar and the more familiar Latin vocabulary to balance each other out. In my college library I took down the Leonine edition of St Thomas' Summa Contra Gentiles and read it using the English translation as a crib.

Then I began to realize more formal study was necessary if my knowledge was going to be better than ad hoc. After graduating with my B.A. I set myself to study latin in the summer before grad school (I was also on my honeymoon). I worked through Wheelock, which I hated, then discovered Henle, and in the next six months to a year while doing graduate coursework and working my part-time job I worked through the four volumes of Henle, which I thought was much better and under whom I felt like I was starting to get a handle on the language. For some years I did the Liturgy of the Hours (or a lot of it anyway) in Latin, which helped a great deal. I bought a bunch of Bolchazy-Carducci readers and worked my through a number of them. When I wrote my M.A. thesis on Scotus' Questions on the Metaphysics I was able to correct the Wolter/Etzkorn translation against the critical edition.

Michael Sullivan said...

If I knew then what I know now I would advise a learner to skip over Wheelock and all his ilk, and buy Hans Orberg's Lingua Latina series, with the supplemental readers, maybe a little extra grammatical practice, and go for it. It is by far the best approach, and I've worked through most of the course twice. After that I would advise finding an old copy of Beeson's A Primer of Medieval Latin, read as much of the Vulgate as you can stand, then get hold of Deferrari's Dictionary of St Thomas Aquinas and read some St Thomas. At that point reading almost any scholastic will be pretty easy (understanding him might be another matter). Through all this I would also recommend using your downtime to listen to Evan Millner's Latinum recordings. They used to be available as a free podcast but now I think you have to buy them on mp3 cds or direct downloads. But they're cheap, there are hundreds of hours of them, and Mr Millner has a complete audio-only course, similar to but better than Pimsleur, beginning with the absolute basics, a complete survey of grammar and conversational Latin, and working up to continuous readings from the classics and many other Latin texts. I've read a very great many Latin textbooks but I think someone could do very well with the Lingua Latina books and the Latinum recordings.

If one follows a program like this one learns far more Latin than is or seems strictly necessary to read the scholastics, but that's a good thing. I like being able to read - not translate - Virgil and Cicero on sight without a dictionary. But the other thing is, unless your Latin is solid you won't really read the scholastics, you'll translate them and consult them. Decoding a sentence or two of Aquinas is one thing. Reading hundreds or thousands of pages of Sentences commentaries is another and requires comfort and familiarity with the language. But it takes a commitment to the project. For myself I greatly regret my wasted childhood. In better days one would, if intending to be a scholar, graduate high school or its equivalent having a better mastery of Latin than I have now, but no more, alas. There was no one to teach me.

However, not wanting to scare off the more casual leaner, even being able to decode a few sentences with effort is vastly better than being totally reliant on the mercy of a translator. One can reach that kind of basic familiarity with Latin in a few dedicated months.

Credo In Unum Deum said...

Lee, sent you an FB pm.

Bubba said...

tl;dr: Good Luck.
This discussion has gone in several ways:
1. The “Grand Narrative” defenders (“Scotism leads to Descartes”) fail to take into account how their narrative was constructed in the nineteenth century, precisely because German Jesuits saw Descartes and Modernism as a threat, and Thomas Aquinas as the answer. So, to various degrees of ignorance, they end up presenting the unquestioned historiographical myth created precisely to explain what they think they’re proving. In so doing, they do a disservice to Thomas, who is now the standard bearer for a backwater theologism masquerading as philosophy, to Scotus, whose uninvestigated ideas must surely lead to the second Fall of humankind, but ultimately to their own cause.
2. Cloaking one’s views in the veil of authority
When I mentioned “Inferred Justification” above, I referred to a method of analysis that follows this structure:
Thomas Aquinas is the teaching doctor of the Church
The Church holds/must hold/should hold X
Therefore, Thomas Aquinas held X.
They tell me that there are still authors in the 21st century publishing that Thomas Aquinas defended the Immaculate Conception. Of course, the supporters of Thomas are not by far the only ones who do this.
3. The textual nightmare of Duns Scotus’ works.
At least the doctrinal perversions of the Neo-Thomists did not get in the way of a desire to figure out how Thomas’ works were produced and disseminated. The fact that the 13th-century convent of St. Jacques was relatively straightforward in its publication of texts also helped, as does the existence of the autograph for roughly a third of Thomas’ writings.
Unfortunately, while the Dominican Order may have been founded to defend orthodoxy, the Franciscans have rather different motivations that make them a much more chaotic lot, and this is reflected first and foremost in their manner of producing (and revising, and correcting) texts. This spirit then spills over into contemporary editors and translators. At moments of ill-will, I might accuse them of an a priori Scotism: Scotus had to think this, therefore his writting must say this (applying inferred justification to philology). Usually, however, it’s because the people involved are in a hurry to go to the next hurdle that they judge their work “good enough”. And sometimes making a decision on the authenticity or authority of a manuscript allows the editors to reduce the field of witnesses from 40 to 2, and that will shave literally decades off of the time to press.
When I’m feeling really nasty, I recall some festschrift where the authors praised the “Wisdom of Balic” in starting the Scotus Commission’s work with the Ordinatio. After all, why waste our time figuring out methodology and the history of the text, when we know what Scotus said and where he said it best?
4. Latin?
You can read scholastic texts in translation. I don’t think it’s as much fun as in the Latin, but what I really worry about is not the “in translation” part, but the “can read”. Analytic philosophy, for example, is incomprehensible to someone who is unfamiliar with the manner of citation, vocabulary used and conventions of the genre: if you don’t know what a footnote is, how type, kind and item differ, or why journals only publish articles of a certain length that discuss certains kinds of topics, you might understand something of the works you read, but odds are you’ll miss something important. Scholastic philosophy is almost as esoteric, with its own manner of reference/discussion of authorities, its own vocabulary, its own structure, and its own unstated restrictions on the genre. Learning those aspects well enough to make sense of the text are essential for being able to read it. And once you can read a scholastic text in English, it’s not much more work to read it in Latin. The core problem is that many specialists read the texts in Latin without paying attention to terminology.
But read Scholastic texts in whatever way you can; it will give you an idea of what they say.