Friday, September 28, 2012

Ockham the Scotist?

Ockham begins his Ordinatio with a three hundred seventy page epistemological Prologue, a precedent established in Henry's Summa. The first, seventy-five page, question, misleadingly titled "Whether it is possible for the intellect of a Wayfarer [i.e. a human being still in the present state of life] to have evident knowledge of the truths of theology," is in fact mostly about establishing the distinction between intuitive and abstractive cognition. This distinction was pioneered by Scotus (I've written about it over here), but quickly became standard and is one of the major indicators of earlier versus later scholasticism.

Ockham's account differs from Scotus' in a number of ways. Probably the most significant is that for Scotus intuitive cognition is by definition characterized by the actual existence and presence of the intuited object to the cognitive power apprehending it: when I consider something in the abstract it might exist or might not exist, so far as my ability to think about it is concerned, but if I'm going to see something it really has to be there in front of me; for Ockham, on the other hand, the existence of the intuited object is not strictly necessary. He has a simple argument for this: the object is one thing; the intuitive act, as a quality of my mind, is another, wholly distinct thing; of two separate and distinct created things either one can exist without the other, at least by the power of God; therefore the mental act can exist without the object. - Never mind the problems this raises!

As I mentioned, Scotus seems to have originated the distinction and when Ockham was writing it was not universally established. Some people must not have liked the use Ockham was putting it to, because he seems to have been accused of introducing dangerous novelties into his theology, and he defends himself by appealing to Scotus. This is rich, since Scotus is a kind of intellectual arch-enemy to Ockham, although he's deeply indebted to him even when he's engineering his antipodes. This is an interplay we've written about before. In any case, in this first question Ockham quotes and alludes to Scotus' writings on intuitive and abstractive cognition pretty extensively. Some Scotists seem to have accused him of misinterpreting the Doctor. In places Scotus talks as though the only thing we have direct intellectual intuition of in this life are our own internal acts, while Ockham says that we also have intuition of external sensible objects. He attempts to show that at least in certain places Scotus thinks the same thing. And then, in a remarkable passage:

And if someone should say that elsewhere he claims the opposite, that moves me but little, for I don't take him as an authority, nor do I hold this opinion because he said it, but because I think it true. And if elsewhere he says the opposite, I don't care. But here he holds it, and therefore his followers ought not to condemn it as a novelty.

Et si dicatur quod alibi ponit oppositorum, illud parum movet me, quia non allego eum tamquam auctoritatem, nec dico praedictam opinionem quia ipse dixit eam, sed quia reputo eam veram. Et ideo si alibi dixit oppositum, non curo. Hic tamen tenuit eam, et ideo sequaces sui non debent eam contemnere tamquam novam.

Am I the only one who senses in this outburst of attitude a big chip on Ockham's shoulder about Scotus and the Scotists? This is how Peter Olivi sounds sometimes about Aristotle. Attitude aside, however, it's a salutary sentiment worthy of a real philosopher.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Yet Another Review of Brad Gregory

Here. This one is devestating.  Some snippets.

BUT IF YOU DON'T buy that story, Gregory has another. This one, which has little to do with the Reformation, focuses on transformations in medieval theology and early modern philosophy. This is not his specialty (nor mine), which is perhaps why the writing here is clotted and the thoughts seem second-hand; positions are stated rather than argued, and without regard to well-known objections and rebuttals. Essentially the issues come down to the old quarrel between affirmative theology and negative theology—very roughly, over whether we can speak meaningfully of the attributes of God, or whether He is the He of whom nothing can be said. As Gregory rightly insists, how one thinks about this question affects how one thinks about nearly everything else. That is what makes the history of medieval Christian theology and philosophy so fascinating to study: every possible permutation of every possible argument about every possible subject is to be found there. The more one encounters it in all its variety, the more derivative subsequent philosophy seems.
Medieval Christian thought was hyper-plural—which is why Thomas Aquinas hoped that his Summa Theologiae would resolve its fundamental antinomies and make order out of chaos. Brad Gregory, though, is committed to the view that before the Reformation the harmony of the heavens was mirrored in Christian life and thought. And so he makes the bald assertion (argument would be too strong a word) that before the late-medieval writings of Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, something called “traditional Christian metaphysics” held sway, and leaned in a somewhat negative theological direction. According to “traditional Christian teaching,” he writes, “God is literally unimaginable and incomprehensible.” It is hard to know what he means by “traditional” here, given the centuries of disagreement about just what it means to say that God is, or acts providentially, or performs miracles, or was incarnated, or can be understood, or is present in the Holy Eucharist. Or how such a metaphysics manifested itself at the popular level, where ordinary clergy and common believers thought of God as the Big Bearded Being, took miracles to be the direct work of His hands, venerated the saints and their sacred relics, practiced magic, and swallowed the host whole, lest their teeth add wounds to the flesh of Christ.
Modern Thomists have long asserted that the departures from the Summa by Scotus and then Ockham unintentionally paved the way for modern philosophy and science. The (simplified) argument goes like this: Scotus compromised God’s transcendence by claiming that a single concept of being applies both to Him and to His creation, whereas Thomas had said that only an analogy could be established between them. Once God and creation were thought to inhabit the same mountain, so to speak, the question arose how far up the slope one needed to go to explain things farther down. The answer of modern science would be: not very far. God is a hypothesis that we can, for practical purposes, do without. For Thomists such as √Čtienne Gilson, the decoupling of modern science from theology, and subsequently from morality, was foreordained by these two subtle theological departures from the grand Summa.
Gregory, though, is not interested in defending Thomism—or even theology, which he appears to distrust, believing perhaps that it is incapable of proving what he wants it to prove. So like many American theoconservatives, he makes a populist turn. He is annoyed not only that “religion is not and cannot be considered a potential source of knowledge,” just “a matter of subjective opinion and personal preference,” but also by the contemporary secular assumption that “knowledge must be based on evidence, it must make sense” and that it “must be universal and objective: if something is known or knowable, its content is not contingent on who discovers it.” He wants to defend other “ways” of knowing, which he calls “salvific participatory” and “experiential,” along with “a sacramental view of reality.”
At this point a narcotic haze descends on the book. Gregory wants us to believe that medieval Christendom before the theological fall seamlessly harmonized distinct “kinds” of knowledge, blending theology, natural science, and “individually differentiated participatory knowledge of the faith and its shared way of life, based ultimately and above all on God’s actions in Jesus.” And what was the nature and content of that knowledge, exactly? Gregory never explains. Perhaps by its very nature it cannot be communicated verbally. The most we are told about Christian life in the old days is that “the better that one lived it—the holier one was—the clearer did [God’s] truth become, a sapientia beyond mere scientia. The lived holy wisdom of the saints, quite apart from whether they were erudite or brilliant, embodied most conspicuously this sort of knowledge.” I leave the reader to make sense of those words. The meaning of the following sentence, though, is perfectly clear: in medieval Christianity, “the pursuit of knowledge for some other end, or as an end in itself, was literally vain in the sense of purposeless.”
Faith seeking understanding, with a curfew at eleven—that’s Gregory’s historical, and apparently future, ideal. So what happened? Well, late scholasticism, which pursued its dialectical games late into the night, mindless of the lived faith of others, shares part of the blame. Then, of course, the Bible was “let loose among the ‘common man’” by the Reformation. After that, states and universities became divided by confession, knowledge became a tool of state power, scripture was subjected to the higher criticism, and disciplines became separated from each other. In Europe, Wilhelm von Humboldt’s modern research university distanced itself from religious questions and affiliations, and in the United States religious colleges governed by milquetoast liberal Protestants eventually succumbed to this German virus, giving birth to our centerless multiversity, which spawned today’s anti-rational, anything-goes postmodernism.
And that’s how we got from scholasticism to structuralism.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Scotus on the Divine Intellect and Cognition

Edward Feser has a recent post about the divine intellect here, the comments in the combox of which has inspired me to supplement the A-T view with the A-S view. But before we look at Scotus' view of the matter, we must recall some of the presuppositions upon which Scotus builds his account.

1. 'Intellect' can be univocally predicated of God and creatures. In God it is found conditioned by the intrinsic mode of infinity. For his arguments, see the various posts listed on the sidebar.

2. The formal distinction. Scotus argues that divine simplicity requires only real identity, not formal identity. So one can posit a formal distinction between various aspects of the divine nature such as intellect, will, being, goodness, etc. without damaging divine simplicity. Again, for discussion see the sidebar. This distinction obtains apart from the consideration of any intellect.

Perhaps I should also note that there is no uniform interpretation of divine simplicity, that one finds different formulations of it in various philosophers. Some have a very strong sense, such as Plotinus, for whom the very distinction between subject and object in knowledge is enough to place the divine intellect outside of the one as a separate hypostasis. Others, such as Scotus, have a weaker sense of divine simplicity, for whom it is enough to deny the presence of a real plurality.

Scotus' discussion of the divine cognition is found in dd. 35 and 36 of book I of his various commentaries. He presupposes a number of things from previous discussions: God is intelligent, the divine essence is first or primary object of the divine intellect, that God understands all intelligibles, not in potency or quasi potency but in act and simultaneously. Additionally, as Scotus is working within the tradition of pre-modern Western philosophy (often called the 'perennial philosophy'), he presupposes a number of other principles, such as the Aristotelian notion of powers, acts, and objects as well as hylomorphism.

Scotus notes that three things have to concur for cognition: the knowable object, the intellect, and a means of knowing (ratio intelligendi). No doubt this alone will be anathema to the Thomistae, though it shouldn't be. Scotus' statement here is a paraphrase of Henry of Ghent's Quodlibet IX q.2; Henry has a more developed theory of analogy than does Aquinas, so such a statement should be compatible with the doctrine of analogy. Here the relevant knowable object is the essence of a creature, the intellect of course is the divine intellect, and the means of knowing is the divine essence (God does not know the created world 'directly' apart from his essence because then his knowledge would depend on creation and be subject to change). For there to be distinct divine knowledge (indistinct knowledge is an imperfection and so must be denied of God), there must be a distinction either in the object or the power. Scotus does not think that there is a distinction in the power, for there is not such a distinction in the human intellect and it is able to understand multiple intelligible objects (at root here is the Aristotelian notion that the intellect becomes all things).

Scotus rejects the notion that a divine idea is a relation of imitability, that is, the common view of the thirteenth century held by seculars, Franciscans, and Dominicans. The reason for this is his notion of what a relation is and how it is known. Basically, a relation consists of two terms as well as the relation itself. In order to know a relation, one must already know the terms and compare them. So the divine ideas can't be relations of imitation or God simply knowing that the divine essence can be imitated in a variety of ways because in order to know this relation of imitation God must first know the terms, the divine essence and the essence of a creature, before he knows the relation that obtains between them. "before" here means logically prior, or in a prior instant of nature. It does not mean a temporal instant. In addition to a number of arguments along these lines, Scotus illustrates how this is the case with an example, which I have posted before:

God in the first instant understands his essence under a merely absolute conception; in the second instant he produces the stone in intelligible being and understands the stone, to that there is a relation in the understood stone to the divine intellection, but still none in the divine intellection to the stone. But the divine intellection terminates the relation of the stone as understood to itself. In the third instant, the divine intellect can compare its own intellection to any other intelligible to which we can compare, and then by comparing itself to the understood stone can cause in itself a relation of reason. And in the fourth instant it can quasi reflect over that relation caused in the third instant, and then that relation of reason will be known. So therefore there is not a necessary relation of reason for understanding the stone-just as prior to the stone-as object, indeed it as caused is posterior (in the third instant), and it will still be posterior as known, because in the fourth instant.

The point here is that the divine intellect knows the essence of a creature prior to knowing the relation of imitation. This also means that for Scotus, a divine idea is defined as the creature as known, creatura intellecta. The usage of instants of nature found here was somewhat controversial among certain Franciscans, but it was adopted by others (such as Scotus' erstwhile opponent Richard of Conington, who put together all possible instants involving Trinitarian production as well as divine knowledge and causation ad extra into a series of eleven instants), even Thomists such as Herveus Natalis (who posited five instants, though he upheld Aquinas' view of the definition of a divine idea).

Another thing to notice in this passage is that Scotus says that the divine intelligible objects are produced into intelligible being. Now, what might this being be? Scotus tries to address this in I d. 36 of his commentaries by claiming that it is diminished being, a notion that was somewhat traditional by Scotus' day as it had been toyed with by Aquinas, Henry, and others. Real, extramental being Scotus characterizes as being simpliciter (absolute, unqualified), while the being enjoyed by the quiddities once they have been produced into intelligible being is being secundum quid (qualified being). The qualification 'secundum quid' diminishes the being of the quiddities, rendering it of another order of bieng entirely than that enjoyed by real, simpliciter beings. Determinations such as "being in opinion," being in intellection", "being exemplated", "being known or represented" diminish the being of that of which they are predicated. 

Scotus agrees with a number of features of the Thomistic account: that there are divine ideas, that there is a plurality of them, that there such things as powers, object, and acts, etc.. He disagrees on the definition of a divine idea, and probably the extent to which one can talk about different elements of the divine nature. Scotus thinks one can outline the logical stages or conditions that the divine intellect runs through, which gives him a different problem than Aquinas: the appearance of a plurality of eternal beings, which is contrary to both religion and philosophy. He resolves the difficulty in scholastic fashion by distinguishing, here between being secundum quid and simpliciter. Elsewhere  he also has some discussion about objective vs. subjective being (a way to distinguish between the content of thought and the psychological mechanics of thought) and real vs. metaphorical productions, but more on this another time.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Aertsen on Peter Thomae's De ente

From his giant new tome, Medieval Philosophy as Transcendental Thought (756 pp.), 468-9:

Peter's work De ente is the most extensive account of transcendental being in the fourteenth century. It is a collection of questions that are the product of disputations held in the studium generale in Barcelona. De ente is still unedited, which causes a serious lacuna in the history of the doctrine of the transcendentals in the era after Scotus. Peter also refers to this work as De transcendentibus, and the reason for this title becomes apparent from the prologue, in which he assigns a fundamental epistemological place to the transcendentals. Knowledge of the communia, it is argued, is a precondition for knowledge of the propria. Since transcendentia are the communissima, it is "opportune" for the acquisition of any knowledge whatsoever to deal with them. Among the transcendentals being itself (ens ipsum) has the first and principal place, and the concept of being should therefore be examined first. Peter realized only this first part of the project.
De ente comprises fifteen questions. [Lee Faber dicit: actually, there is a sixteenth question found in only one ms. that claims to be a retraction] From the table of questions in the prologue it is evident that their main concern is Scotus's doctrine of the univocity of the concept of "being" and the univocal predication of being. Thomae examines whether the concept of being is one solely "through the unity of equivocation" (q.8), "through the unity of confusion" (q.9) [NB: this is the longest question of the treatise] or "through the unity of univocity" (q.10). He criticizes Auriol's position that the concept of "being" does not have one determinate ratio but is fully indeterminate and possesses only a "unity of confusion". Q.11 ("Whether the univocity of the concept of being is real?") discusses one of the fundamental difficulties in Scotus's doctrine: How can there be a common concept of what is wholly diverse in reality? Thomae argues that there is a real (and not a purely rational) unity corresponding to the univocal cocnept of "being". The common concept must be real, otherwise metaphysics were [sic] not a real science, and the intellect would have no real adequate object. Because of the distance between real being and being of reason Peter denies the possibility of a concept of being univocally common to ens reale and ens rationis in the final question (q.15) [NB: in De modis distinctionum Peter revisits the topic of De ente q.15] The questions 12 and 13 deal with Scotus's questionable claim that being is not predicated in quid of the transcendental propreries of being (q.12) and of the ultimate differences (q.13). Peter Thomae contradicts the opinions of William of Alnwick and Peter Auriol that being is quidditatively predicated of all differences and maintains instead that it is predicated of none.

Aertsen doesn't credit Peter Thomae with writing the first independent treatise on the transcendentals; that honor goes to Francis of Meyronnes, though, the date supplied by Dumont for Peter Thomae's treatise is earlier than that supplied for Francis' treatise, but let that pass for now. Neither treatise can be securely dated.

Peter Thomae's work is fairly long, roughly half that of Scotus' Reportatio I. So to get a sense of this, just take one of the volumes of the Wolter-Bychkov edition that recently appeared. So the edition will take quite some time.