Saturday, December 4, 2010

Wolter on Scotus on the Transcendentals and Existence

The following remarks from Allan Wolter are relevent to yesterday's post on the Cambridge Phantasists. Specifically, their equation of Thomistic esse with Scotus' univocal concept.

The Transcendentals and their Function in the Metaphysics of Duns Scotus, p. 66-69:

In view of the recent trend of thought, developed principally by Maritain and to a lesser extent by Gilson, the question arises, Is this notion of transcendental being to be considered primarily existential or essential? Since this transcendental notion of being of Scotus' is, to all appearances, to be identified with the being of metaphysics, the answer to this question will determine whether metaphysics is to be considered as existential or essential, in the sense coined by Maritain. St. Thomas and Aristotle are cited as exponents of an existential metaphysics; Scotus and Plato as advocating predominantly an essential metaphysics.

In discussing this question, one important thing should be kept in mind. The problem of an essential or existential metaphysics is primarily a problem for Thomists or, more universally, for a system of philosophy which admits a real distinction between essence and existence--"a fiction," says Scotus, "of which I know nothing!" Maritain unfortunately seems to have overlooked this point in describing the "error which may be termed Platonic or Scotist." As a result, he has given us a very ingenious delineation of what Scotus might have held had he been a Thomist.

What Scotus has actually done has been to give us an essential being that has lost none of its existential import. Since the position of Scotus on this matter has been treated already by Barth, there is no need to go into detail here. We believe that Barth is essentially correct when he states that being, according to Scotus, represents primarily a quidditative notion but with a tendency or aptitude to exist. Over and above the reasons listed by Barth for the quidditative nature of being, we call attention to the fact that being pertains to the order of distinct knowledge, namely, that kind of knowledge which is expressed by the definition. Now the definition expresses the essential or quidditative elements of the thing, and being, as Scotus continually asserts, is the basic element in every essence and every definition.

This "primacy of essence," Gilson suggests, "appears in the doctrine of Duns Scotus as a remant of the Platonism anterior to Thomas Aquinas." The real reason why Scotus maintains that the being of metaphysics is a quidditative notion, however, is to be sought not in Platonism, but in the simple Aristotelian axiom that no science of the contingent qua contingent is possible. Since all existence, with the exception of God's existence, is contingent, metaphysics as a science of "existences" is un-intelligible. Existence is as little capable of serving as the "stuff of which the universe is made" as the elan vital of Bergson or the eternal flux of Heraclitus. Maritian recognizes this difficulty when he insists, like Scotus, that we must abstract from actual existence. To have a science, it is necessary to discover a necessary element in the continegent. The notion of actual existence (as we experience it) does not contain any such necessary element, but the notion of possible existence does contain an element of necessity. What actually exists (God alone excepted) is mutable, contingent and temporal; what can be is necessary, immutalbe and eternal. For this reason medieval physics could never be a science of motion, but a science of the ens mobile namely, the immediate subject of motion. Similarly, metaphysics is not a science of "being" in the adverbial sense of existing, but in the nominative sense of "a being" or the immediate subject of existence, that is, "the existible."

It is this idea that Scotus seeks to being out when he "defines" being as "that to which to be is not repugnant". To call this quidditative notion a pure essence, in the sense of Maritain, and to treat it as a sort of "least common denominator" between the real and the logical order, is an inexcusable perversion of the conception Scotus had of being. The term "to be" (esse) is to be understood in the sense of actual existence. Whenever it is to be understood of any other kind of existence, for instance, mental existence, Scotus carefully qualifies the term. He speaks, for instance, of the esse diminutum, esse cognitum, etc. He also recognized that the terms "being," "quidddity," "thing", etc. are used equivocally and can be applied both to real and logical entities. But he carefully distinguishes between the two orders. Only where the note of compatibility with real existence is to be found do we have a notion of real being or real thing. And metaphysics differs from logic precisely in this, that the former is a real science and deals with real being; logic, on the contrary, deals with logical or mental entities.

1 comment:

Michael Sullivan said...

"he has given us a very ingenious delineation of what Scotus might have held had he been a Thomist."

This is a great line.