Thursday, August 20, 2020

Norris Clarke on Univocity

 W. Norris Clarke was a Jesuit philosopher who taught at Fordam, dying in 2008. His books are still used as textbooks, so I thought it useful to comment on his characterization of Scotistic univocity. The following text is from his book The One and the Many, p. 45. For some discussion of Clarke's views, see this.

The Analogy of Being vs. the Univocity of Being. Some metaphysicians in St. Thomas’s own time, e.g., Duns Scotus (d. 1308), and William of Ockham (d. 1347), with their followers to this day, defended the univocity of the concept of being against Thomas. Both were leaders in the strong development of logic at the end of the Middle Ages (anticipating many of the developments of modern symbolic logic), and logicians tend to be uncomfortable with flexible ideas, “systematically vague concepts” like the Thomistic analogy of proper proportionality, especially as applied to being in God and creatures. And since their metaphysics were “essentialist,” i.e., focussed on being as essence (not including the act of existence as part of its content), it was hard for them to see how the concept of being could be applied to different essences without breaking up into several distinct concepts ceasing to have the same meaning at all, hence useless as a valid term in any syllogism or other logical argument, where all the terms must remain strictly fixed in the same meaning. Therefore, to retain any unity at all, being always had to be a univocal concept, even applied to God and creatures with their immense diversity as finite and infinite. But they had to pay a heavy price for this apparent logical clarity: they had to make the concept of being so extremely abstract as to empty it of practically all content and make it merely an empty linguistic marker standing for both God and creatures but, as Ockham explicitly admitted, expressing nothing common at all between God and creatures! The result was to render God considerably more remote and inaccessible to human reason than St. Thomas’s God, with important repercussions for the philosophy, theology, and finally spirituality of the late Middle Ages.


1.The first thing to note here is that Clarke reads Scotus and Ockham (though he does not distinguish between them) though the lens of Thomism, specifically the real distinction of essence and existence. Hence the label "essentialist", inherited from Gilson. The claim here is that Scotus and Ockham ignore existence and are talking about being as a purely non-existential essence. Wolter, way back in his transcendentals book, commented on this claim of Gilson to the effect that it was an ingenious account of what Scotus would have said if he were a Thomist. But of course, Scotus is not a Thomist. Scotus denies the real distinction of essence and existence.

2. Clarke does grasp that part of the concern of univocity is to have valid syllogisms. He, Clarke, seems to think that being does not have a distinct concept, however, given that he thinks Scotus was also motivated by discomfort with vague ideas. This is a matter of debate among Thomists themselves, historically and today. Some agree with Scotus that there is a distinct concept of being that includes nothing else, some, like Clarke, think you can't separate the concept of being from the concept of God or of something in the categories. One then has to "stretch" created being to get a notion of the divine. Scotus, as we know, did think being had a distinct concept. 

3. The heavy price of univocity. Here I think Clarke's explanation goes awry. He claims that Scotus and Ockham make the concept of being abstract and empty, just a linguistic marker, but also that it stands for God and creatures. Of course, the concept of being, as such, does not stand for God and creatures. As it is included in the concept of God and the concept of a creature it is univocal, but of itself the concept of being is neither the concept of God nor the concept of a creature.  Clarke does not give a reference to the remark of Ockham's that he claims is explicit, to wit, that there is nothing common to God and creatures. This seems to clinch matters for Clarke, we arrive at basically a contradiction, being is univocal, but there is nothing common (which equals univocal, anyway). This appears to be a garbled awareness on the part of Clarke to the problem of the reality of the concept of being. This is the problem that the concept of being, qua abstract and univocal, signifies no corresponding reality outside the mind. This runs against the common notion from the Aristotelian commentary tradition that concepts map directly onto things. Normally, Scotus would agree; but to get to concepts of the transcendentals, you have to abstract from the concept you have derived from the actually existing thing. That abstraction does not correspond to the reality outside the soul. And note, this is a different sense of the word 'abstraction' than you get in Aquinas or even when you are talking about the three acts of the Aristotelian intellect. There is abstraction from the phantasm, that gets you the concept of a nature, say catness. To get being, you abstract from this nature, present in the intellect as an intelligible species, by stripping off the modes of finitude and so on. So in the end, considering God and creatures as they exist outside the soul, there is nothing in common. But one can abstract from the concept of a creature to the concept of being, which can also be applied to God.

4.  The alleged result is to make God more remote and unknowable. But since we have now seen that Scotus does not hold that the concept of being is both pure and contains the concept of God and creatures, the result doesn't follow either. Scotus himself, interestingly, defends the univocity of being not in metaphysics, but in the context of describing the natural knowledge of God. Not only being is univocal, but all the transcendentals, general divine attributes, are as well. So a lot more is known, both by an intellect trying to have a general cognition of the divine nature, as well as scientifically by means of forming valid demonstrations. Indeed, it has always seemed to me that Scotus is the affirmative theologian par excellence, who ought rather than Aquinas to be paired with Dante. But that can wait for another day.

5. Repurcussions. The alleged effect of rendering God more remote has repurcussions many later areas of life. The usual Thomist claim from the 20th century, disagreement with our man leads to societal decay. I've always been rather struck that the ones who trumpet this the loudest, the RO crowd, are by practice theologians who supposedly believe in sin, or at least weakness of will. sin seems to me to be a far better explanation than that of univocity for the apparently inevitable march from Scotus to whatever modern thing you don't like. If I were to have lived during the reformation period and watched christians killing each other over the proper definition of the eucharist I would probably try to set up a non christian secular state of skepticism as well. To be fair to Clarke, this is not the focus of the discussion, just a throwaway line at the end.