Thursday, August 14, 2008

Eco on Beauty in Thomas Aquinas and Scotus

I randomly came across the following quote when I was procrastinating today, which I post for my beauty-loving friend. It is from The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas by Umberto Eco, p. 205 ff. Because it is at the end of the book, and I have not read the rest of it, I won't make any hasty judgments, though I object to the notion of such entities as "post Thomistic Scholasticism".

"The Dissolution of the Concept of Form
in Post-Thomistic Scholasticism

John Duns Scotus defined beauty as follows.

Pulcritudo non est aliqua qualitas absoluta in corpore pulchro sed est aggregatio omnium convenientium tali corpori, puta magnitudinis, figurae et coloris aggregatrio omnium respectuum qui sunt istorum ad corpus et per se invicem.

Beauty is not some kind of absolute quality in the beautiful object. It is rather an aggregate of all the properties of such objects-for example, magnitude, shape, and color, and the sum of all the connections among themselves and between themselves and the object. [quoted from the Wadding ed.]

Here, the term aggregatio might seem to refer us to the theory of proportion, except that Duns Scotus denies that beauty is an "absolute quality," and denies therefore that it is a substantial form inhering in the object as a whole. The reason for this becomes clear if we remember the Scotist doctrine that there is a plurality of forms. The unity of a composite object does not require a unity of form, but only the subordination of the forms of the parts, none of which is annulled, to an ultimate form. This is just the opposite of Aquinas: one thinks of Aquinas's discussion of mixed bodies, where, in order to salvage something of the powers of the forms included in the composite, he had to engage in some tricky maneuvering. This was because his system could not allow the forms of the parts to retain any autonomy, within the shadow as it were of the composite's substantial form.

It is clear that, if one insists upon the existence of a relational structure of autonomous forms, the conception of beauty will become a more analytical one. And this analytical quality is further affected by another theory of Duns Scotus's, the theory of haecceitas, or "thisness". Haecceitas is an individuating property. Its function is not that of perfecting form--which cannot be other than universal--but rather of giving to the whole composite a concrete particularity, uniquely individual with respect to every other composite. It is quite different from Aquinas's quidditas, or "whatness," which makes substance exemplify a category, the typical rather than the individual. Haecceitas is a principale which completes a thing to the point where it is irreducibly concrete. "The ultimate specific difference," says Duns Scotus, "is simply to be different from everything else." Particulars, therefore, are superior to essences. In Aquinas, the particular was more perfect than universal form because it had existence. In Duns Scotus, it is more perfect because it is a unique thing which is defined by its uniqueness. For Duns Scotus, something is included in the nature of the individual (ratio individuui) which is lacking in shared nature (natura communis).

Illud autem inclusum est entitas positiva. Et facit unum cum natura. Eergo est per se praedeterminans illam naturalm ad singularitatem.

It includes positively being something. This makes it one with nature. Therefore, nature is predetermined to particularity.

We might wish at this point to examine whether this assertion of the absolute particularity of substance was homologous with the types of art which were contemporary with it. Aquinas's philosophy would seem more akin to the art of classical Gothic, which tended to represent the typical. Duns Scotus's would seem to be the philosophy of Flamboyant gothic, with its liking for the particular, for individuality in the person, for a detailed and analytical mode of vision, for a sense of particularity opposed to the grand and unifying works of the preceding period. However, making connections of this kind is always dangerous. It is difficult to establish a point-by-point correspondence between theoretical propositions and works of art, just because they happen to be contemporary. I shall therefore confine myself to noting that the theory of haecceitas would imply that we do not grasp a form by means of a purely intellectual act, but in an intuition; whereas the intellect, which can know particulars only in a  confused manner, has to fall back upon universal concepts. This shows that Scotist theory brings us to a new aesthetic world, even if Scotus himself did not care to follow his own principles to their ultimate conclusions.


This brief survey is the merest introduction to quite a different topic, namely the birth of modern conceptions of art. But it might be risky to stop at just this point, just when I have indicated the lines of fracture which caused a crisis in Scholasticism and opened up new perpsectives. It is risky at least in this sense, that every chapter in the history of philosophy is constantly in danger of infection by Idealism (which is at the same time an aestheticizing tendency). Thus, historians are tempted to present philosophy as an epic poem or a bourgeois novel of the nineteenth century. We are shown the rise and fall of philosophies, the triumph of a rationality which is immanent in the forms of thought; and its various stages follow one another, not by chance, but in a dialectic in which each stage supersedes the stage preceding it. Thus, for example, Eckhart's theory of the image could be said to represent the "truth" of the matter, to translate the problems of art and beauty of a "more mature" level, and to put an end to the primitive, disingenous beginnings represented by the Scholastic systems.

In contrast to this vice of Idealist historiography, there is an opposite vice3, one againsts which I have been struggling in this book. It is the neo-Scholastic vice of attempting to rescue, whole and entire, a body of thought which is valid and consistent only when applied to the problems of its own period.

It is difficult, but not impossible, to find a middle way between these two. But in order to do so, it is necessary to keep two things in mind, one historical, the ohter methodological. First of all, whenever a system of thought disintegrates, this never occurs just because an internal dialectical explosion, purely on the level of thought alone, produces contradictions within it, and causes it to be nullifed in whatever supersedes it. Any system comes about as a response to specific social, political, and cultural questions, and to solicitations which are implicit in the relations of production and are mediated through the superstructure. Therefore, when a system breaks down, it does not do so just from within. It breaks down because of something outside it.

This indicates the conditions under which a system enters a state of crisis. But at the same time, it means refusing to countenance the complete disappearance of the mode of thought in question. If similar conditions should arise again, some of the forms of argument and systematic correlations might well recover their effectiveness. Historical reconstruction helps to restore the model of a particular way of thinking and, therefore, an image of one possible form that the world can have. In certain social and cultural circumstances, this can provide the conceptual instruments by means of which we can validly construct additional images of the world, in situations which are at least partly homologous.

This historical procedure immediately becomes the instrument of a method of theoretical analysis. Every so often we can usefully revisit our models of the thinking of the past and try out in new circumstances the conceptual instruments which at one time proved effective. Or we may discover that in fact we are already using them without knowing it. Thus, the reconstructed model can help us to avoid pathways which have already been found to lead no-where, or it can indicate how to take new paths in a critical manner.

This is the twofold manner in which I now want to give an estimate of Aquinas's aesthetics: an estimate of what it was in its time, and of the ways in which it entered upon a crisis; and an estimate of his model for aesthetics, of what it can still say to us today.


Anonymous said...

I don't understand Eco's quote from Scotus. If Scotus thinks beauty is an aggregate of properties belonging to the beautiful thing, what makes one aggregate beautiful and another ugly? Is beauty then a kind of relation (i.e. a kind of relation between a think and its properties)?

Lee Faber said...

What he seems to mean is that it is not one categorical item, i.e. one of the species of quality. It may be a relation in a very loose sense, and not in the sense of the category of relation. Proportion would seem to be the best word to describe all this, the proportion of all of the objects characteristics taken as a whole. I am not sure that the unicity/pluralist debate Eco brings up is relevant here, unless Thomas really does think things are beautiful by having the form of beauty inhere in them, though that sounds rather childish and non-explanatory to me. In any case, both Thomas and Scotus think that humans are unified, ie have unity.

I'm also not sure what is meant by "analytical" here, and his talk on haecceitas is all wrong. And the bit on the intellect is just plain non sensical.