Thursday, January 22, 2015

Review of Postmodernity and Univocity

Here are my thoughts on a recent book.

Postmodernity and Univocity: A Critical Account of Radical Orthodoxy and John Duns Scotus

For sale here.

The author is Daniel Horan, OFM. His website is here. He is a graduate student in systematic theology at Boston College. The author is not a specialist in Scotus, but a member of the same order trying to exonerate Scotus' name.

Previously reviewed by Peter J. Leihart here.

The book is not a general discussion of Radical Orthdoxy, but, as is obvious from the title, focuses on RO's appropriation of Scotus, or what Horan calls the "Scotus story". The book is roughly divided in three parts. 1. Summarizing what RO claims about Scotus, 2. summarizing the critique of Radical orthodoxy by Richard Cross and Thomas Williams, 3. and a historical-critical discussion of univocity.

It was somewhat of a drag to read the first part, though not owing to the fault of the author, since I have read the originals, and the RO claims are so outrageous. But the author, whose own blood seemed to be up at times, did not fall into polemic. He noted RO's reliance on non-existence passages, strange methods of citation, and so on. Although the main storytellers for RO's Scotus are Milbank and Pickstock, Horan covered all the minor characters in the tapestry as well, even though they are largely derivative. The end of this section of Horan's book was quite valuable. For not only did he treat RO proper, but he also went through some of the more recent popularizers of the Scotus story, some of whom we have encountered on this blog: Brad Gregory and Robert Baron, and a bishop or two, for example. Horan shows that these derivative writers add nothing at all to the conversation, but simply cite RO as their source.

One defect of the first section is that Horan did not wish to delve into narrative. Now to some extent this is perfectly reasonable. It is a work on RO's appropriation of Scotus, not one on the use of narrative in theology. But by making this move, Horan misses, I think the ultimately twofold origin of the Scotus story. The first is that RO subscribes to the rise-fall thesis deriving from early 19th century Jesuits involved in the German kulturkampf, according to which all human thought prior to Thomas Aquinas is but a preparation for Aquinas, and everything that follows is a symptom of decline and departure from the truth. This thesis underlies RO, though even Thomists have criticized it as distorting Aquinas. I am thinking of John Inglis' work in particular. Horan thinks that the RO narrative goes back only as far as Gilson. But in fact it is part of a much older Thomist historiographical claim, which may explain why Thomists have been generally sympathetic to RO, save for reservations about their use of Aquinas. A second point about narrative that I think Horan misses is the importance of Deleuze. RO despises Deleuze, but their Scotus story is best explained as a response to Deleuze's scattered remarks on Scotus, who D. makes central to his own genealogy of modernity; univocity is great and leads straight to Spinoza. RO basically takes everything Deleuze says about Scotus at face value; their attack on Scotus is really an attack on Deleuze's Scotus with a few back-filled references to the Wolter translations to give the appearance of having read Scotus (though it should noted that, as an Australian Thomist did in his dissertation that was making the rounds a year so ago, RO views itself as prophetic and creative and so not bound by the canons of academic scholarship. To this I say, shouldn't they then be employed by think-tanks instead of a university?).

In the second section of the book, Horan discusses Cross and William's, the only two authors who have written against RO's interpretation of Scotus. William's piece is something of a rant, and so perhaps easily ignored, while Cross's main piece of criticism was published in Antonianum, which elsewhere Horan says no one in the states apparently reads. So their criticism has been generally ignored, and the "Scotus story" has been adopted all across the humanities. Indeed, one of the more depressing parts of the book is the few times Horan mentions how remarkable it is that even though academics generally pride themselves on being critical and distrustful of narrative and testing of truth claims, there has been no criticism of RO's appropriation of Scotus save for the two specialists mentioned above. Also in this section Horan tries to locate RO within 20th c. Thomism, and opts for a new label: "Cambridge Thomist".

In the third section the author gives a historical-critical analysis of univocity. Here we find that Thomas was not Scotus' target when developing univocity, but rather Henry of Ghent. We also find that univocity is not a metaphysical claim, but a semantic/conceptual one. Horan basically just reads the text of Scotus and explains what univocity is about, with reference to the relevant secondary literature (a feature lacking in the RO story). There are some strange errors, here, such as attributing Marrone's article on univocity in Scotus' early works to Dumont, a few latin typos, but nothing serious. Pini's work is strangely absent, which made sense of Scotus' commentary on met. IV, and also explained the notion of different sciences viewing being in different ways (analogical for metaphysics, univocal for logic), and which was not fully articulated by the older studies of Cyrcil and Wolter that Horan cites. But that is a minor criticism. The only substantial criticism I had of this section was a desire to make Scotus one harmonious whole in which everything is connected. The author segued rather unclearly from the application of the formal distinction in the treatment in univocity to its use in individuation (without much explanation of the formal distinction, which is probably as complicated as univocity), and he also seemed to think that haecceity was a direct consequence of univocity, which I found strange. I think univocity (that is, as applied to the problem of natural knowledge of God) and individuation are simply separate issues. But all in all, Horan gave an accurate presentation of what Scotus actually thought.

The question that remains is whether pointing out the historical-critical truth affect the dominant view of Scotus in the humanities today that is based on narrative? Perhaps publishing a book from an ecumenical press rather than an academic press will make more of a difference than the previous publications in specialist journals. It is also not written by a specialist, but by a concerned theologian, which may also make it more palatable.

Recommendation: specialists will not get much out of this book, I am afraid, especially if they have already read this material. But happily it is not directed at them. So I heartily recommend it to theologians, Thomists, philosophers with an interest in medieval thought, and also to the interested lay reader. The book manages to be both brief and to get the required work done, and it is written by and large quite clearly.


Anonymous said...

Some questions I've always wondered on with regard to Neo-Thomism and Heideggerianism:

Would 'existence' or existere not be better understood as 'process' or 'becoming' while 'esse'/being would be understood as the principle or cause of existence?

How often in Neo-Thomist texts are esse and existence confounded through inaccurate translation? For example, the rendering of 'actus essendi' as 'act of existence'. Although, given existence as a dynamic process, the 'positive existence' of a thing could be identified with its essential principle insofar as that principle is considered as distinct from the existential privation of temporal interaction.

Would the hierarchy of metaphysics be understood as; esse -> esse of entities (essences) -> existence/temporal procession? Or to put it another way: Absolute simple subject -> relative simple subjects -> complex subjects?

Would it not be more proper to say 'God is' rather than 'God exists'?

Anonymous said...

Also, would not God be more accurately called 'the Infinite' insofar as the mode of understanding which is called 'analogy' arises not from the mode of predication upon the subject but from the subject itself?

Therefore, from a Scotistic perspective, God is more 'Platonic' (I do not mean this term in a pejorative sense, nor anything rhetorical) than the Thomistic perspective. That is to say, the predication of being upon entities arises from the cause of such predication; to know the predicate in the finite is to know the cause through the predicate, but not to know the cause through itself; therefore the cause as a subject is beyond all predication not due to any mode of predication but due only to what it is as a subject which is 'the Infinite', etc.

For to be limitless per se is to be unaffected as a simple subject by predication: that is to say, incapable of being rendered as a complex subject. whereas to be finite is to be conditioned therefore, etc.

so it seems that univocity of being would imply that analogy is something more than predicated and not less so. I'm supposing as well that all analogy outside of natural theology is reducible to a mode of equivocation, therefore the mode of understanding called 'analogy' lies in the subject of natural theology and not in logic at all.

Is my general understanding aright or afoul?

forgive typos, etc. and I will try to read more articles here and more primary text before I write any more.

Lee Faber said...

No worries, anonymous. Your comments are welcome. Regarding the end, I would say that analogy itself is an analogical term. Some authors use it to refer to concepts or predication, but others use it to indicate a "worldview" or a complex of doctrines pertaining to realities outside the mind such as participation and the dependence of creature on God.