Monday, May 21, 2007

Norman F Cantor on Duns Scotus

After two years of laboring in the minds, I am appy to report that I now hold a MMS (master of medieval studies) degree. various relatives and friends came up for the ceremony, which was held in latin. ly mater brought me my copy of Norman Cantor's book Civilization of the Middle Ages, which did contain some brief remarks regarding the figure to whom this site is dedicated. He seems to have no axe to grind, but does make some rather remarkable errors. And being a Big Deal in history (though I have heard he's not all that hot from history grad students) he does not feel the need to give footnotes or references to anything he says. The closest he comes is his lists in the back of necessary reading for medieval studies where he has Gilson's History of Philosophy and a book by Knowles or Luscombe, neither of whom have I read (though I hear from the "Lord Denethor" that they are not too hot either). I will type in a few of the pertinent points and give brief comments.

p. 532: "The Oxford philosopher Duns Scotus (1266-1308) stressed the unknowability of God and the inaccessibility of His nature. Man's knowledge of the natural world might come from sensory perception, but not his knowledge of the divine will or his own will to do good. Scotus thus tried to reconcile the Aristotelian view of knowledge derived from sensory perception with the orthodox Christian conception of a free and unlimited deity."

This is quite interesting and a bit garbelled. Cantor seems never to have heard of Scotus's doctrine of the univocity of being and transcendental concepts. In the section previous to this, Cantor had been detailing Thomas's view. But univocity would seem to stress the knowability of God, and indeed all of the first several questions of I d. 3 are all about the knowability of God. Scotus in fact does just the opposite, trying to detail a natural knowledge of God in the wayfaring state that turns out to be far more optismistic than Thomistic analogy (insofar as such terms as "optimistic" are useful in these contexts; blame Cantor not me). Scotus actually holds there is an univocal concept between God and creature, and one of the arguments he gives is based Aristotelian ideas of sense knowlege. All we have access to, barring supernatural revelation are the contents of phantasms. No analogical concept can be derived from this, for on the analogical view being is said per prius of God and per posterius of creatures. But we don't have cognitive access to God's being, just our own. So all we know is this secondary derived being that is of another ratio from the ratio of the being of God. due to this fact Scotus says we need a univocal concept to undergird our analogical ones.

Cantor is also conflating two ideas, that of the knowability of God with respect to his nature or being, and that of knowlege of his acts of willing. This latter seems to be the usual Thomistic argument against voluntarism, that if God's will is considered primary or superior to the intellect, then His will isn't bound by any canons of rationality and therefore is capricious and utterly inscrutable. Which is plain silly given Scotus's distinction between will and nature, and teh fact that in any case, the will and intellect act as co-(though not equal) causes of volitional acts (ignoring for the moment the question of whether Scotus eventually adopted Henry of Ghent's sine qua non causality when he went to Paris).

And in any case, no one in the middle ages would have thought that knowledge of one's own or the divine ability to will the good could be had from sensory perception. that's just dumb.

Here's some more: "Duns Scotus was the greatest medieval logician...He began with an extremely searching inquiry into the power of the human intellect to abstract from sensory data and arrived at a conclusion contradicting Thomist optimism, which believed it possible to build up a rational knowledge of God on an epistemological foundation of sensory experience. Scotus concluded that the human mind cannot penetrate God's being through ratiocination. God is infinite, but human reason is finite. God is absolutely omnipotent and free to follow His own will; the human mind cannot work out a train of causation to be able to know rationally the inner being of God. Scotus was not trying to undermine faith but to enhance its exclusive importance; he was trying to make revelation the only source of the knowledge of divine being. He thought that he had protected the majesty of God and the freedom of the will from the limiting effect of Thomistic determinism."

Again, a curious mixture of fact and fiction. Much here depends on what Cantor means by "inner being of God;" God as trinity? Cantor doesn't seem to know the difference between natural theology/metaphysics, and the sort of knowledge it is likely to produce and theology, which comes by revelation. The picture painted here has more in common with RO depictions of Scotus, or even with the whole postmodern project of denegrating metaphysics and natural theology and claiming that teh only knowledge of God possible is that derived from revelation.

There are some truths here; Scotus does I think hold that the attribute of omnipotence cannot be demonstrated by natural reason. And Scotus does try to protect the will from Thomsitic determinism.

But Scotus also wrote the longest proof for the existence of God in the middle ages; surely that (and univocity) ought to qualify him as an optimistic theologian, who thinks some things about God can be known and derived from sensory phantams.

Such are my thoughts for the moment.


Michael Sullivan said...

I have the Cantor book but haven't read it through; the parts I've glanced at, though, mostly in sections earlier than Scotus, simply scream "use with caution".

Lee Faber said...

I found it by my usual trick of whiling away the hours by looking up various medieval names in the indices.