Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Nicolaus de Orbellis on the Formal Distinction

Today's quotation is from Nicolas de Orbellis, the 15th century philosopher. He is much more famous for his treatise on currency, and for holding that heliocentrism was more consonant with reason and experience than geocentrism, but he was also a Scotist who wrote commentaries on Scotus and wrote logical works. The text below I reproduce from a treatise attributed to him by a colophon, which I quote because it singles out one of the most common criticisms of the formal distinction, to wit, that it violates the law of excluded middle. I think Nicholas' solution is rather clever, and I have come to think this way myself in the past few years. This puts the formal distinction squarely on the side of the real in the strict loose sense, and the strict sense rules out the possibility that it is a version of the rational distinction (ruling out as well the possibility of harmonizing it with a thomist theory).

The Thomistae will probably object with "Absolute divine simplicity", but this causes no problems here; all the scholastics accept a fully real distinction between Trinitarian persons as consonant with divine simplicity, so positing a diminished real distinction between the attributes, and between persons and the essence, will not violate it either. But that is an argument for another day, and not germane to the following quote.

Nicolaus de Orbel, Quaestio de distinctionibus Scoti

"omne ens aut est reale aut rationis ex quinto Metaphysicae, ergo omnis distinctio est realis aut rationis, tenet autem quia distinctio est passio entis, ex quarto Metaphysicae moveo....

Ad primum, quando arguitur omne ens aut est reale aut rationis, dico, quod distinctio realis est duplex, scilicet est large sumpta, alia vero stricte sumpta. Large sumpta est omnis distinctio, quae habet esse circumscripto omni operatione intellectus et non fabricata per opus intellectus aut rationis; stricte sumpta distinctio est distinctio inter rem et rem, et de ista non est verum quod omnis distinctio sit realis aut rationis. Distinctio enim formalis non est realis illo modo, quia non est inter rem et rem nec est rationis quia non est fabricata per opus intellectus, ut patet ex dictis."


Every being either is real or rational, from Metaphysics V; therefore every distinction is either real or rational; this holds because distinction is an attribute of being, from Metaphysics IV.

To the first, when it is argued 'every being is either real or rational,' I say that the real distinction is two-fold, namely, taking it loosely, and taking it strictly. Loosely taken it is every distinction which obtains with every operation of the intellect circumscribed and not fabricated through the work of the intellect or of reason; the distinction strictly taken is a distinction between thing and thing, and of this it is not true that every distinction is real or rational. For the formal distinction is not real in that way, because it is not between thing and thing, nor is it of reason because it is not fabricated through the work of the intellect.


Anonymous said...

I had never heard of this writer before. Thanks for posting!

Anonymous said...

Hi Lee,

I'm still not clear on how exactly this formal distinction cannot be reconciled with a Thomist "real distinction." As I understand it, Thomas himself thinks that the "real" distinction is not a function of the intellect but instead of reality. However, I'm not convinced that Thomas thinks the "real" distinction is between a thing and a thing; isn't such a description of the "real" distinction more a product of Giles of Rome than it is Thomas? Thanks for your thoughts,

Lee Faber said...

Victor, Thomas doesn't clearly flesh out a theory of distinctions. What he calls a real distinction, or at least the criterion he gives for it, is what everyone else calls a distinction of reason (separable in thought). It seems to me to be a legitimate development to distinguish "really" between two concrete numerically distinct objects and two entities that are separable within a third entity.

Now there was a third kind of distinction, beginning with Bonaventure, that was partially real partially rational. this is the historical origin of Scotus' formal distinction, and Aquinas does have a version like this, found in his Scriptum super sententias and the Quaestio de attributis; this is is distinction in the mind with a foundation in the thing. However, as my dissertation shows (sorry) Aquinas abandoned the doctrine of the Scriptum and the Quaestio, and I think this included the distinction with a foundation in the thing.

I made the comment about the impossibility of reconciliation because the formal distinction always obtains prior to the operation of any itnellect, human or divine. Aquinas would never have endorsed this, nor did his followers ever do so; they appealed back to the distinction in the mind based on the thing, which requires the operation of the human intellect to be made actual.

Anonymous said...

I realize this is somewhat off-topic, but what is your take on Scotus's idea of infinity as a (positive) intrinsic mode vs. Aquinas's conception of infinity as a mere lack of (accidental?) limits? While it is easy to see that Aquinas's arguments for divine infinity in the Summa are formally invalid (as Scotus notes), it is not so easy to understand how Scotus's teaching is different from Aquinas's, regarding the concept of infinity itself. Any thoughts?

Lee Faber said...

I'm afraid I don't have much to say on that, never having made a comparison. My sense is that infinity does a whole lot more work in Scotus' system, so if he doesn't have a good account he'll have a lot of problems. It is what distinguishes the common, confused sense of being into the proper concept that pertains to God, as well as serving as the feature of the divine nature that makes it simple, preserving divine simplicity in the face of the formal distinction (all the divine attributes are formally infinite, considered apart from their formal rationes).