Wednesday, July 7, 2021

William Desmond, Being and the Between

 The title above is a book I have been reading lately. usually I will be excited for a month with a new acquisition and then the taedium sets in and I abandon the book. My shelf of "current books" grows ever longer. Surprisingly, I have stuck with Przywara's Analogia entis, though it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me in either German or English.

Desmond is a scholar of continental philosophy, mainly of Hegel it seems, with little to no interest in medieval philosophy. The book listed in the title of the post is loosely based on Aristotle, Plato, and the moderns. The auther seems rather adverse to scholastic thought; consider the following, from p. 12:

But were there no happening of astonishment, metaphysics would be a mere scholastic juggling of empty abstractions, perhaps with great virtuosity in the formal mastery of argumentation, but ontologically barren nonetheless.

The author, though not possessing knowledge of Scotus' position on univocity, effectively rules out Scotus' position at the very beginning. p. 3:

Hence, the question of being is not first one for philosophers, understood as an elite of thinkers. It transcends the difference of the few and the many, for it strikes our humanity simply in virtue of its being, as mindful of itself and what is other to itself. Of course, this matter may degenerate into platitude. Then being will be said to be the emptiest of abstractions--a vacuous generality, indifferently applicable to everything and anything, and hence not applicable with illuminating power to anything in particular. Against this degrading of being we must fight strenuously. There may be a sense of the universal, and the community of being that transcends any abstract universal.

As nice a short summary of Scotus as was every written. But we might fight against it.

Finally, a word of warning: be careful when buying academic books! I bought my copy from Amazon, which sells it, I found, as a print on demand volume. But alas, every page of the text, as well as the front and back cover, contains the stamp "copyrighted Material". One would think this could have been dispensed with, given that there is a copyright page, but no. The stamp even covers page numbers and sometimes obscures the last line of the text on a page. So find a used copy, if you want to read this book.


Wesley C. said...

A few questions about Scotism:

1) About haecceity, I've read that it's supposed to be only the individuating parts of a thing's form, not the parts it shares with other things such as its essence. In analytical philosophy the term has also come to include the essence as well, making the haecceity the individual idea of the creature that includes all of its determining elements - so the universal essence is just a part of the haecceity, rather than something strictly separate.

So my question is - has any follower of Scotus supported this view of haecceity where it's basically the individual concept of the thing, where the essence is a part of the properties contained in the haecceity? Or is this an opinion distinct from Scotism in general?

2) Regarding God's free will, creation and divine simplicity, an objection that's sometimes posed is that this would make the created world we have necessary, and so God couldn't help but create this world. The reason given for this is that if the decision to create this particular world and/or the reasons for doing so are intrinsic to God, then they are also a necessary part of God's being since God is simple and everything in Him is necessary, even if they are also formally distinct. So if God had decided to create a different world then we would have a completely different God essentially since what is intrinsic to God would be different - and if there can be no differences in God whatsoever, then God wasn't actually free to create this world and creation is necessary.

Would it be possible to respond to this by saying that since God's will is free and is formally distinct from the essence along with the divine intellect, one could say in some way that there would in fact be a difference in God, but not one that violates divine simplicity? For example, since the will is formally distinct from the essence, the will's acts of creation could be different in different scenarios, but the divine essence would still remain the same, since it's only the will that may contain the difference? Similarly, the divine intellect which has the reasons for creating this or that world is also formally distinct from the essence, so even if the divine intellect presents different reasons to the will, those differences wouldn't be in the essence formally as such?

Is this an acceptable explanation under Scotism, or would the answer have to be approached differently? What do you think?

Garrett said...

1. I have never heard of a Scotist holding this. The individuating difference is held to be formally distinct from the essence. The divine idea of a creature might qualify, in that it would have both the essence and the haecceity.

2. I think the idea of a possible world would be foreign to scholastic thought. indivduals might be possible, but not worlds. on scotism, the divine intellect generates a variety of formal rationes and essences, and their intrinsic non repugnance determiens what is possible. But the divine will has to actualize them. So any indivdual might not have been actualized, and another might have been actualized that is not, but not an entire world as such.

anyway, you are correct, Scotus and his people would posit a formal distinction between the intellect and will, so they don't have the modal collapse problem. but it is a weaker sense of divine simplicity to be sure. On the other hand, there is no authoritative statement of divine simplicity anywwhere, so what does that matter? With Scotus the debate is how much distinction does the formal distinction posit, as he has several different formulations.

James A. Given said...

I respond not to your discussion of Morris, but to your mention of struggles with Przywara. I recall great enthusiasm when discovering his Analogia Entis; followed by a later frustration, slower in offset. Enthusiasm for two reasons: (1) Przywara seemed to be in the early 1930's in dialogue with many of the creators; the shapers of twentieth century theology, including Karl Barth and Martin Heidegger; (2) Przywara convinces one repeatedly by his formulations that he has a larger vision of which Thomism and Scotism are complementary aspects. Frustration because of his conciseness of his formulations. (Was he but another in a Century of Zen Masters? No too much testimony by those we respect that the effort here is worthwhile.) You remind me here that I must redouble my efforts to understand Przywara. But I think one must work with a good biography of Przywara because his importance seems to be contained in his individual interactions - conversations; letters.

Wesley C. said...

1) So Scotists do have a concept of individual ideas that fully incorporate everything about the creature - which would be the divine idea, or the particular idea as such?

Haecceity would just be one of the necessary parts of the particular concept of each divine idea?

2) So could Scotists say that maybe there would be differences in God had He decided to create different individuals, but that these differences don't violate divine simplicity or immutability? The modal collapse argument is that if nothing in God could have been otherwise because of divine simplicity, and the intention + reasons for creating any particular creature are internal to God, then God couldn't have refrained from creating the creatures He did, and so the existence of this particular creation is necessary with no other creatures actually being able to exist at all.

All because the intentions + reasons for creating the particular creatures God actually did create are internal to Him, and nothing internal to God could have been otherwise.

But if we accept the formal distinction and that God's will is contingently self-determining, it seems a Scotist could conclude that there really could be differences in God depending on at least whether He decided to create, if not what particular things He created, precisely because the Will need not have determined itself to create anything contingent, and that this in no way violates either divine simplicity or immutability. What do you think?

James A. Given said...

I have found that one must use any of the words that describe human thought or understanding with great care in describing God. In particular, God has ideas of individuals - but how to make sense of this using our understand of human ideas?(Perhaps the haecceitas of an individual is better understood in terms of God's willing of an individual, and the significance of its creation in light of God's plan for all of creation; than in terms of God's "idea" of that individual. More like willing than thinking; more like existence than essence. But I offer these comments as aids to our understanding; as metaphysical distinctions, they can be but formal distinctions.)

Further, God has ideas for every individual He might have created. (But there's no such thing as a nonexistent individual, one says!)I can imagine these in the sense of undifferentiated aspects of a continuum of Divine possibility, but in what sense are these individuals? A mathematical continuum, e.g. a line, can be conceived formally as a set of points, but, except for a set of measure zero, none of these points can ever be specified using a finite-length definition or algorithm for their construction. So in what sense are they individuals?

I simply do not have here even a bare grammar of what things can sensibly be said. I did read carefully the book, "Aquinas on the Divine Ideas as Exemplar Causes," by Gregory Doolan at CU; an excellent, very thoughtful book on these questions. This book is to be credited with the limited understanding I have of this difficult topic.

James A. Given said...

Perhaps a useful comment for buyers of academic books. The meta-search engine Used Book Search:

will search a dozen or so different search engines (AmazonUS; AmazonUK; PowellsBooks; Ebay; Advanced Book Exchange, etc.}. Each one of the search engines it interrogates has a vast number of used book sellers connected to it. If you can't get a good price on this site, you can't get one at all.

For this particular book, I found copies on Ebay that are cheaper than Amazon's best offer. Check this out!

Jeffrey C. Kalb, Jr. said...

Dr. Sullivan, I have read with interest your considerations on the differences between Thomistic and Scotistic metaphysics, and share your dislike of straw-man arguments against Scotus. I too find myself somewhere in between the two positions, but I have written a short metaphysical work to correct Etienne Gilson's misconstrual of the Thomistic tradition: "Existence and Subsistence in St. Aquinas: Against Gilsonian Metaphysics." Without adopting the position of any particular historical Thomist, I have shown that Gilsonian (née Bergsonian) anti-essentialism is based upon a faulty notion of essence. The book is priced (with almost no margin for the author) at $5.95. I would also be happy to send you a free copy and/or hear your opinions at

In Christ,
Jeff Kalb

James A. Given said...

Dear Dr. Kalb,
There is a long tradition of pointing out that Gilson fails to grasp the basis of Duns Scotus metaphysical position, some asserting that he interprets the meaning of Duns Scotus' claims in the way that Aquinas might have.I'm sure you are familiar with the history of commentaries of this kind

What I find to be of crucial importance in the relation of Scotism to Thomism is what seems to be a basic mutual incomprehension. As a theoretical physicist, it reminds me of complementarity, i.e., the relation between the "wave" picture and the "particle" picture of matter that students of physics must deal with.But unlike the situation in physics, there is no unified viewpoint that accommodates these distinct pictures of Being.

It is my forlorn ambition to find such a unifying viewpoint, not which combines these two very different pictures; but rather a larger more general viewpoint in which these two pictures can both be situated, perhaps as endpoints of a continuum.

Garrett said...


1. Right, so a divine idea is the 'creature as known', which contains a common nature and a haecceity.

2. on the scotist view, all divine simplicity requires is that one grant that every thing is 'realiter unum' in God. But formal distinction is compatible with real identity. the will is a divine attribute, and so could not not be in God, but it acts contingently regarding creation. it could have refrained from creating individuals or created different ones. such changes would be within the contingent will, and even if the act might be distinct from the will, all would be realiter unum in God. i don't think h owever, that natures could be otherwise than they are, that is, human being be constituted in a different way: natures are all thought up by the dvine intellect, which combines them based on the compatibilities inherent in the nature itself. So maybe, no goatstag.

James: i have not read the Doolan book, though i have seen his articles which look good. Scotus, of coourse, has a very differnet view of the ideas than Aquinas. And in light of univocity, he even at one point suggests that the divine intellect is quasi passive like ours.

Thanks for the book search engine. I have used it already. Not quite the home run on this particular book, though, since i live abroad shipping prices often make the cheap deal not so cheap in the end.

Wesley C. said...


2) Interesting - so while the Will would be inseparable from God and necessarily exists, the contingent acts it does could have been different in some way?

The immediate objection that comes to mind is that this seems to violate Pure Actuality - if God's will is contingent and could have acted differently, wouldn't this imply some potentiality intrinsic to God's will in some sense? So a contingent act of will that could have been otherwise can't be attributed to God since it goes against PA?

Another possible objection is that if the contingent act of creation is itself realiter unum in God, then it's no longer contingent since nothing that is realiter unum with God could have been otherwise, so God's act of creation / decision of creating any particular thing is necessary.

Now one could avoid this by saying the act of creation isn't intrinsic to God or realiter unum with Him, but it also can't be an accident since this would go against divine simplicity, so it must be wholly extrinsic to God. But if the act of creation is wholly extrinsic then in what way can it even be attributed to God, since it is no longer attributed to Him properly as intrinsic? There would be no difference between this wholly-external model, and creation just popping into existence uncaused - it seems God is no longer responsible for creation's existence at all.

What do you think?

Jeffrey C. Kalb, Jr. said...

Mr. Given,

I do agree, and I would add that Gilson, in his rush to assimilate Bergson's natural philosophy (in lieu of Aristotle's), also misunderstands St. Thomas's metaphysics. Gilson's is really a new metaphysics, perhaps inspired by St. Thomas, but diverging from it in many critical ways. To correct that misapprehension and return us to a more traditional interpretation was my essential interest in writing the short tract. Step one for me is to free St. Thomas from his modern shackles.

My original background is materials science and electrical engineering. It was only as I began to see the problems with modern physics that I entered deeply into natural philosophy, and thence into metaphysics. I agree that in most respects Scotus and Aquinas are complementary. Bettoni was my first introduction to Scotism, and my reading of Scotus has extended only to my own philosophical interests. I certainly cannot be called an expert in his philosophy. However, I believe that his principal theses, understood in the proper sense, not in the sense Thomists assign to them, are compatible with a Thomistic framework. As a Catholic, I do not view Scotus as a suitable standard for the Church, given the smaller range of his thought, its abstruseness, and the confusing state of the writings he left behind. However, I think it very important that his new insights be incorporated into a Thomistic foundation.

I too have sought a unifying viewpoint and I do believe I have found it in a discipline I call "Taxology," which I have spent the last 25 years developing. The study of pure metaphysical order effectively works as a material logic of the transcendentals. Its role is analogous to the role the mathematical apparatus plays in mathematical physics, except that I use the data of revelation and traditional metaphysics, rather than the data of the senses. The formal distinction, haecceity, and the univocity of being all find their taxological equivalents. If it is something that interests you, we can discuss it offline at the email I provided. It would take us far astray of this conversation.

James A. Given said...

Wesley C:

I think you raise a very basic question that should appear as an exercise in a textbook on Western i.e., Christian metaphysics:
If God is omnipotent and can do all things, why is He not characterized by Infinite Potentiality rather than Infinite Actuality? Intuitively, a human e.g. is a higher form of being than a rock e.g. because the former has so many possibilities and capacities compared to the latter. And actualized capabilities seem often to multiple possibilities, not eliminate them.

Jeffrey Kalb:

I will email you. I have a similar story to yours. I am a professional physicist and engineer, and an amateur metaphysician.

Garrett said...

Wesley, I would say it does not violate divine simplicity because the divine potency in question is not a potency in being, such that the divine being is composed of potency and act, but rather active potency, which is the ability of a power to do something. divine simplicity only requires us to reject passive potency, the ability to be acted upon. even Aquinas incorporates the doctrine of active potency into his doctrine of creation. So I would qualify the notion of 'pure actuality' as an actuality of being.

As for the other objection, I would claim that formal distinction is compatible with everything in God being realiter unum. So the formally distinct intellect proposes a variety of essences and indivuduals to the will, and the will chooses to actualize them. How? I would say here with Scotus, that the will just wills, that is it's job. some things it wills necessarily, such as the divine nature, and others contingently, creation. the same sole divine power can have both aspects to its single act of will. In other words, I don't think I have an answer.

Garrett said...

Mr. Kalb, have you looked at any of the attempts to synthesize Scotus and abstract his ideas for a broader audience? I am thinking here of Antonius Andreas, who composed a commentary on the Metaphysics that had a literal section, taken from Aquinas' literal commentary, and a question commentary, which paraphrased Scotus' QQ on the Metaphysics.

Wesley C. said...


1) Couldn't one object that an ability's power to do something still implies potency, so the divine power would then have to be composed of act & potency? Or that the very concept of ability as we univocally understand it contains unactualised potentials with regards to its exercise?

2) I wasn't talking about the formal distinction being incompatible with realiter unum, but that if the act of creation itself is realiter unum in God, then it must be necessary and can't be contingent, so the divine Will can't have a contingent aspect internal to it since things that are realiter unum with God can't be different than what they are.

This seems to follow if we also assume that everything that is realiter unum in God can't be otherwise - so the distinct formalities in God can't be otherwise than how they actually are.

Wesley C. said...

On the other hand, a possible response could be that the Will is by nature self-determining, and with regards to finite creatable things logically cannot have a necessary relation towards them.

This is conceptually prior to considerations of pure actuality or whatnot, so the definition and nature of what will is may show us how its acts are contingent, or has a contingent element to it.

Furthermore, this doesn't need to conflict with God being Purely Actual since it's precisely God's infinite actuality that may allow for an abundance of freedom - His Will can have contingent aspects precisely by being rooted in pure actuality, which paradoxically implies freedom as infinite actuality opens up towards an infinite horizon of possible being, since the infinite maximally self-consistent God can't have a necessary relation to contingent finite reality. As Aquinas points out, the will is related to things in their ontology, so since contingent creation has contingent ontology, the Will can't be related to it necessarily.

What do you think of this?

James A. Given said...

The Desmond quote seems to claim him as another Existential Thomist, i.e., those that believe in the primacy of the experience of Being. Descartes essential reflection is replaced by an essential excitement:

Being ..... just ....... IS!

In either case, an essential subjective experience. This is Neoplatonist mysticism meeting Transcendental Thomism halfway-

My advice: Just Say No!

James A. Given said...


Is the commentary by Antonius Andreas available online? I find a CUA PhD thesis on this work (supervised by Timothy Noone) that looks quite interesting; but not the work itself-

Garrett said...

James: the Antonius is available in vol. 5 or 6 of the Vives edition of Scotus. It might be on the Logic museum website, but you can get the link to t he volume from Sidney penner's website. If you email me, I can send you an article or two about the text.

Not sure you are right about Desmond. He knows nothing at all about medieval, at least not when he wrote the present book. He seems to grant the need for univocity in science, but wants to avoid philosophy collapsing into math or physics. So he starts with the aristotelian experience, the desire to know,, but tries to intregrate univocal science with the equivocity of experience. It may end up as mysticism, though, who knows. I have only read the first two chapters.

James A. Given said...

Sorry to be presumptuous on Desmond. I have, but have not yet had occasion to read the book you mention. Your quote, with its ecstatic tones ("astonishment"), and use of the phrase "the question of being" caused me to anticipate the onset of "esse"-based mysticism. In re the unity of science with the rest of human experience, I recommend Michael Polanyi's Personal Knowledge.

Unknown said...

Can someone help me with a few questions about Scotus's arguments in "De Primo Principio"?

At one point Scotus is trying to prove that God is intelligent, and he offers this argument:

"4.21 There is a fifth proof for this conclusion, which is based on the fact that a living thing is better than anything not alive, and among living things what has understanding is better than what lacks intelligence."

However, at 4.22 Scotus presents an argument that intellect, love, etc., are pure perfections and therefore must be in God, etc. He then proceeds to refute that argument (I'm not convinced of his refutation, btw).

It seems to me like Scotus is contradicting himself here, unless I'm missing a subtle distinction he's making. He thinks we can prove God is intelligent from the fact that being intelligent is "better" than non-intelligent, but then seems to argue against that very kind of argument in the next paragraph.

I take "better" to refer to "more perfect", as in, possessing more actuality, more power, more irreducible properties. Yet isn't that what one also argues when speaking of pure perfections?

Jeffrey C. Kalb Jr. said...

I confess that I have not looked at these works. My current state in life does not give me the leisure to do that kind of research into secondary sources, so I will always be a bit out of the loop on current controversies. Truth be told, my primary interest is not really the synthesis of Aquinas and Scotus. For me, that is simply the outcome of the convertibility of being and order. I approach metaphysics in a very different way than either philosopher, though I interpret and regulate my speculation in terms of their theses.

Garrett said...

Wesley, as to 1., Aquinas at least thinks active potency is related to action, since it is the principle of action, and so it is present in God. But it is simply an ability to act, not an ability to receive action, which is the sort of potency that would compromise divine simplicity.

2. Act of creation. well, there is just one act of will in God. Perhaps there is an extension of the act from the initial object, the divine essence, to other objects. A 'protensio' for the will, like there is for the intellect, according to some. I think you may be right, in that it may be the objects that account for the contingency, at least that the will, in its single eternal necessary act, chose to actualize some contingent creatures.

Garrett said...

James: thanks for the recommendation!

Unknown: At 4.21 Scotus argues simply from the notions of life and intelligence to prove that God is intellective and volitive. But note, he does not call life and intelligence 'pure perfections.

At 4.22 Scotus reports a theory held by others that he then attacks. The theory simply identifies various perfections as pure perfections conforming to the Anselmian description. Scotus thinks it is not evident that these other notions are all pure perfections and there is a dialogue about why he thinks this. In the end, it seems only the attributes of being are evidently pure perfections. So 4.21 is specifically tailored to yield the same conclusion as if he were using pure perfections without calling them such and having to prove that they are.

James A. Given said...

Thank you very much for your guidance. I have been focused very much on Duns Scotus' understanding of will. First, it seems both essential and very difficult to square the Classical heritage about the Boundless and the Infinite as complete, impassive timeless and unchanging; with the Christian understanding of a God who loves us, answers our prayers, and feels our pain. Jesus tells us to pray for all that we need, and that God will answer our prayers. The New Testament makes God essentially involved with us in a way that must be intelligible in terms of Scholastic metaphysics. Catholics seem to favor a God who responds to our prayers and suffers with us. The Calvinist seem to take a maximally Classical i.e. unchanging and impassive position on this matter. Second, the question of which modifications of Scholastic metaphysics necessary to allow for both Divine omniscience and omnipotence; and with human free will; seem to be few in number. William Lane Craig will argue in detail that only Scotism and Molinism have this potential. Finally, I am deeply concerned about the efforts by present "researchers" to deny the reality of human free will as pretext to destroy the open, liberal society, which is essentially based on the ability and willingness of most citizens to decide to obey the law and contribute to social well-being. A society of people unable to control their actions must be a police state. A movement which includes many senior neurophysiologists and psychiatrists, the Embodied Mind Theory is striving to create a scientifically defensible understanding of human free will. Several practitioners have written about this. See e.g. the book by Guus Lebooy, "Freedom and Dispositions." They believe, as i do, that Scotism allows for a modern theory of free will.

My theme here: Scotist metaphysics is very important as a living accessible strand of Western philosophy and thought. I wish I had the resources to make an popular exposition of these ideas. The Calvinist William Lane Craig has used Molinism to support his form of Calvinism. He writes and lectures widely to popular audiences about his ideas. But I fear his ideas are compatible with mainstream theories of unconscious human determinism, i.e., the "Myth of Human Freedom."

Garrett said...

James: thanks for your comment. I was unaware that the anti free will movement was large enough to be a movment. I see of course the occasional 'gotcha' sciencey article about this, but usually scroll on by. Well, then, given your interest, and that of Wesley above, I may try to do some posts on creation and the will. I have stayed out of this area in my professional writing, mainly because Scotus' views on the will are contested, and there are still texts that need to be critically edited.

James A. Given said...

Garrett, there seem to be several distinct topics in play here.

A metaphysically and theologically adequate account of Creation is a complex and elusive goal. The identification of Creation with the physical theory of the Big Bang is a very damaging scientistic error. In creation ex nihilo does not mean creation from nothing in the logical sense, but creation beginning in a state in which nothing exists except God. Divine ideas and the aether must be real in a timeless sense. But neither one has distinct existence.

The compatibility of Divine omniscience and free will is a very complex topic addressed in detail by a number of good books. I have already noted these. The compatibility of Molinism and Scotism, as possibly the only two accounts of free will that preserve this compatibility, is addressed in the paper, ''Molina and John Duns Scotus'' by Jean Pascal Anfray.

The Embodied Mind scientists want a neurophysiological account of mind and brain that is compatible with human free will. But they are scientists not philosophers and have no one to provide a metaphysical foundation for their account. It is rather the case that most psychology is materialistic and naturalistic, and provides no account of authentic free will. Freudianism is a major class of examples. The physical sciences seek explanations in terms of physical causation. The basic truth is that accounts of the brain based on the dynamics of neurons provide no foundation or account of the basic elements of a description of mind: thoughts, intentions, dispositions, acts of will, and emotions. This accounts for the popularity of theories of ''quantum consciousness,'' which seek to account for free will in terms of quantum-mechanical indeterminacy.

I have not thought systematically about the "free will deniers." I note there are many books and papers supporting this. I also note that many notions in sociology and criminology seek to prove that racist attitudes and judgments are preconscious and present in very early life of a child. Theories that maintain that control of either various types of sexual behavior, or of violent behavior, and of addictive behavior; are unconscious and not subject to will are now widespread. These theories are dangerous to a liberal, open society. I do not maintain there is an organized 'movement' opposed to the notion of free will. Physical science is predisposed in this manner; and various social theorists are quite willing to exploit these theories.

James A. Given said...

I should have included Divine Ideas as a separate category, because it is so central to these other ideas; and so problematic a concept. I favor Gregory Doolan's book, ''Aquinas on the Divine Ideas As Exemplar Causes'' on this topic, both because it gives the best account of the subject I have ever seen; and also because it provides a basis for comparison of Scotist and Thomist notions on this topic (even though Doolan is a Thomist) because it includes a rather detailed account of the dialogue between James F. Ross, as Scotist; and Lawrence Dewan (as Thomist) on these topics. Is there a best account of Scotus on the Divine Ideas?

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