Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Eric Perl on Neoplatonism

Eric Perl is a prominent neoplatonist author. He has some Plotinus translations with commentary out there that look interesting. But he doesn't like Scotus.  I give some quotes below that might be of interest to or foster discussion by our readers.

Quote 1:
From Thinking Being: Introduction to Metaphysics in the Classical Tradition, p. 6:

In this perspective, we must concur with those who hold that the principal break in the continuity of western philosophy comes not between ancient and medieval, nor between pagan and Christian, nor even in early modernity with figures such as Galileo and Descartes, but rather between the Platonic and Aristotelian tradition up to and including Aquinas, on the one hand, and the modes of thought represented by Duns Scotus and William of Ockham on the other. It is here, not in the sixteenth or seventeenth but in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, that modernity in a philosophical rather than a merely chronological sense truly begins. With Scotistic univocity, the first principle becomes a being, subject to a conceptual grasp and included within the whole of reality as a member of it, as is not the case for the One of Plotinus or the God of Aquinas. Between Scotus' God who is an infinite being (ens infinitum) and Aquinas' God who is infinite existence (esse infinitum), the difference is of world-shattering proportions. it is precisely here that 'metaphysics' in the pejorative, postmodern sense begins, with the reduction of the first principle to a conceptually representabile being and the fading from view of the very question 'Why are there beings, rather than nothing?' And the Ockhamist denial that things really have 'whatnesses' in virtue of which they are what they are, a repudiation of the very foundation of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, already carries with it the divorce of thought from being, the loss of intelligibility, the move toward consciousness as 'subject' and being as 'object' and the failing of the vision of all things as the presence and manifestation of the divine.

He gives a single reference to Scotus, shockingly a quote, though he doesn't cite an edition or translator:

Duns Scotus, Opus oxoniense, I, 3, 1: "I say, then, first, that not only can a concept naturally be had in which God is conceived as it were accidentally, for instance, with regard to some attribute, but also a certain concept in which God is conceived by himself and quidditatively".

Comment: as is usual with modern philosophers who are non specialists, it is univocity that ruined good traditional philosophy. For these people, it is more important that philosophy be a tradition than that it be an activity in any way related to arguments. Scotus' arguments are not quoted nor shown to be false, it is just taken to be obvious since the author disagrees with the conclusions of Scotus' arguments. The quote also has some ambiguities. "reality" is not defined. If by "reality" you mean creation, then Scotus would deny that God is part of reality or within the horizon of reality if you prefer to talk in that fashion. But if by "reality" you mean the totality of existing things, then Scotus would agree, even if he would qualify it and say that God and creatures agree in no reality. 

Perl does not provide exegesis of the quote. It is clear that he interprets it as implying that since we can grasp God by a concept that we totally and completely grasp God in a concept, and that there can thus be no divine transcendence. But Scotus would deny this as well, saying instead that even if we grasp God quidditatively we do not have full comprehension of the divine essence, which, since it is infinite, always exceeds our finite minds. Also, the concept that we form of God, infinite being, only imperfectly represents the divine reality, since 'infinite being' is a complex concept and God is simple. This too does not warrant a mention.

Perl's central thesis is that thought and being are parallel, and Scotus, or at least Ockham are a threat to this. Univocity might seem a threat to this, since, in Richard Cross' words, the concept of being is a "vicious abstraction", ie. it does not correspond to any extra mental reality. But the concept of being is the result of an operation (abstraction) performed on the complex concept of a creature, which itself is based on an extramental thing. So Scotus also believes in the parallel of thought and being, but this doesn't mean that we can't perform mental operations the products of which might not themselves be directly parallel. At least, perl would need another argument to show this. Maybe he has one and I will find it as I read his book. We will see.

I am always somewhat bemused by the intense hatred of Scotus by modern neoplatonists, especially in theology. naturally, it is univocity they focus on, which is opposed to the de facto hero of theology, Thomas aquinas. But for centuries Scotus has himself been seen as part of the neoplatonist movement, given the extreme platonism of his doctrine of the Ideas. Renaissance platonists, such as Ficino, numbered him among their own school. But all such niceties have been forgotten these days.

Here's a quote from a different book that caught my eye, and though it is implicitly directed against Scotus, it seems to implicitly embrace univocity of being.

Quote 2 (copied from the David Bentley Hart discussion group on Facebook)
The disjunctive presupposition that 𝘦π˜ͺ𝘡𝘩𝘦𝘳 God chooses between possible alternatives 𝘰𝘳 he is necessitated to create situates God within a total framework of possibilities, as though the logical conditions of possibility and impossibility were prior to and more universal than God, conditions to which even he is subject. This presupposition envisions God either as confronted with a multiplicity of logical possibilities among which he can choose, or as subject to a logical law such that there is only one possibility open to him.
This is precisely the "ontic" conception of God that Plotinus, and Dionysius, are concerned to avoid by declaring him, "beyond being." God is not a being, subject, as are all beings, to the conditions of logical possibility such as the principle of non-contradiction. This is not to say that God can violate that principle; on the contrary, it would be more accurate to say that for the Neoplatonists, God or the One π˜ͺ𝘴 the principle of non-contradiction. For what is that principle but the very condition of intelligibility and therefore of being?
"To be is to be intelligible" means that to be is to conform to the laws of thought, which necessarily apprehends its object as determined by certain attributes and (therefore) as excluding the contradictory ones. The unity, the identity, and therefore the being of any thing consists in its uniformity to this law. That law, therefore, is an expression of God as the unity, the identity, the being of beings.
God is not a being, contained within a framework of possibilities determined by an abstract logic independent of himself. Rather, he is that framework within which all beings are contained, and hence he cannot be considered 𝘦π˜ͺ𝘡𝘩𝘦𝘳 as a being who chooses among a multiplicity of logical possibilities, 𝘰𝘳 as a being confined by principles more universal than himself to a single possibility.

—Eric D. Perl, π˜›π˜©π˜¦π˜°π˜±π˜©π˜’π˜―π˜Ί: π˜›π˜©π˜¦ π˜•π˜¦π˜°π˜±π˜­π˜’π˜΅π˜°π˜―π˜ͺ𝘀 π˜—π˜©π˜ͺ𝘭𝘰𝘴𝘰𝘱𝘩𝘺 𝘰𝘧 π˜‹π˜ͺ𝘰𝘯𝘺𝘴π˜ͺ𝘢𝘴 𝘡𝘩𝘦 𝘈𝘳𝘦𝘰𝘱𝘒𝘨π˜ͺ𝘡𝘦, Ch. 3, "Goodness, Beauty, and Love"

On this quote, see the various posts from the past few months (Foxal, Mayronis, Petrus Thomae) on the principle of non-contradiction. To make God the principle itself, or make it somehow apply to God, is to concede the field to univocity. The reason is that the PNC is the first complex principle; it can be broken down into the first incomplex principle, the notion of being. To posit the PNC as applying to God and creatures is to posit being as common to God and creatures. Unless you want to destroy the PNC by making it apply in a different,unknowable way in God, it must be univocal.

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