The Scotus Story

The Scotus Story January 19, 2015

John Milbank has written that John Duns Scotus is “the turning point in the destiny of the West.” Milbank focuses on Scotus’s notion of the “univocity of being,” which, according to Milbank, treated God and creation as encompassed by the larger, common reality of “being.” On the Scotist view, God’s being was different from created being only in degree. God and man are as a result contestants in the same space, competitors in a relation of power. Scotism was the fateful shift in medieval theology that eventually bore fruit in secularism.

This view of Scotus’s proto-modernity has spread beyond Milbank’s Radical Orthodox circle. In his Postmodernity and Univocity, Daniel Horan offers the first book-length response to this reading of Scotus. He examines the use of the “Scotus Story” in Radical Orthodoxy and its influence in the wider world of academic theology. Horan responds by attempting to put Scotus in historical context, and to offer an account of the univocity of being that pays closer attention to Scotus’s own writings than Radical Orthodox writers have generally done. He makes clear that he isn’t attacking Radical Orthodoxy in general, nor even the uses that Milbank and others make of Scotus in their own projects. His narrow purpose is to offer a more accurate and favorable reading of Scotus.

Scotus’s works are, Horan points out, difficult (he wasn’t the “subtle doctor” for nothing), and often unfinished works in progress. To treat them as polished systematic statements may be unfair. Horan also criticizes theologians for relying on secondary sources, sometimes quite distorted secondary sources, rather than trying to puzzle out Scotus himself.

On the question of univocity, Horan points out that the notion comes up not in the context of metaphysics but in discussions of logic, semantics, and epistemology. Further, Scotus doesn’t offer univocity as an alternative to analogy but as part of an account of analogy. Scotus writes, “I say that God is thought of not only in some concept analogous to that of a creature, that is, one entirely different from what is predicated of a creature, but also in some concept univocal to himself and to a creature.”

Scotus argues that in order to predicate anything at all about God, there must be a moment of univocity. If we predicate being of both God and creatures, at the most abstract and simplest level we must mean the same thing by “being” in both cases. Otherwise, we predicate nothing. That doesn’t mean that the simplest and most abstract concept of being is properly applied to either God or to creatures. Being can be properly predicated of God only if qualified by “infinite” or “uncreated”; and properly predicated of creatures only if qualified. But Scotus argues that there must be an unqualified, univocal concept (not reality) of being if we are to make sense of the qualified concepts.

This seems to mean something like this: To predicate being at its simplest and most abstract is to claim that something is not non-existent; when we predicate being of God, we are saying that He is not a figment of imagination but a real thing; when we predicate being of creatures, we are saying the same thing about them. “Being” is univocal. But that says nothing about the kind of existence God and creatures might have. Only that they both exist.

Scotus’s idea of univocity has metaphysical implications, but they have mainly to do with relationality. For Scotus, univocity of being provided a common ground on which God and creatures could meet and relate. As Horan puts it, “While the Thomistic metaphysical system posits the foundation of the divine-creaturely relationship as one of participation in or suspension from the divine essence (i.e., esse as proper only to God), it lacks an overt commonality or cardinal focus that seems to prohibit any true knowledge of or discourse about God. The apparent suspension of theology is indeed problematic. More specifically, to deny the possibility of univocity of being is to deny natural theology. Without a concept that is abstractable from creation in this world, one is not able to garner terms or concepts of God apart from revelation.”

Horan seems to be right on several points: Scotus isn’t denying analogy; his main focus is on semantics and logic, not metaphysics. But it’s doubtful that Horan’s argument will change the Scotus Story. Radical Orthodoxy refuses to make the distinctions between semantics, epistemology, and metaphysics that are the foundation of Horan’s argument; to Radical Orthodox eyes, a semantics is always also an implied metaphysics. To fully engage the Scotus Story, it would have to be engaged not only on a textual and historical basis, but as an argument about metaphysics.

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