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Medieval Philosophy

Lesson Six: Decline and Fall

Thomas's robust confidence in the range of natural reason is not fully appreciated by many of his present-day admirers. Nor did this confidence prove catching among this contemporaries. While wariness about Aristotle was justified if Aristotle taught what Latin Averroists attributed to him, such a bad rap should not have defined the attitude toward philosophy. Many came to see Aristotle as a threat rather than a blessing. In 1270 some sixteen propositions were condemned, and in 1277, just three years after the death of Aquinas, over two hundred propositions were condemned, among them some Thomistic tenets. The Franciscan school declared war on Thomas, and a list of his supposed errors in his commentary on Peter Lombard, the Correctoria, was published. Furious Dominicans corrected the corrective, and there was enmity between the two mendicant orders. Two Franciscans dominate the scene in the 14th century. The trajectory described is a narrowing of the range of reason and a tendency toward fideism.

John Duns Scotus (c. 1266-1308) -- As his name indicates, John was a Scot from the town of Duns, and there being no universities yet in Scotland he went south to Cambridge and Oxford. Whether he became a Franciscan before leaving Scotland or became one in England is uncertain. From Oxford he went to Paris to study (1293-1296), then returned to Oxford to teach from 1297 to 1301. In 1302 he went on to Cologne but returned to teach theology in Paris; in 1307 he was sent to Cologne where he died and lies buried. If the facts of his brief life are difficult to attain, his writings, too, were subject to a confusing history. We have Quodlibetal Questions of his and Questions most subtle on the Metaphysics, logical commentaries on Porphyry and Aristotle, and a Treatise on the First Principle. He seems to have commented on the Sentences of Peter Lombard at Oxford and at Paris, the latter being the continuation and reworking of the Oxford comments. After his death, fellow Franciscans edited this work in a way that provided scholars with lengthy gainful employment trying to extract what is genuinely of Scotus.

Scotus was known as the Subtle Doctor, and no one reading him will wonder at the appellation. He has an unquenchable appetite for distinctions and subdistinctions, so that any discussion ramifies incredibly. Yet one can outline the argument and find it is perfectly coherent, however subtle and difficult to follow without a pencil in hand.


The univocity of being -- In conscious opposition to Thomas Aquinas, Scotus held that being is univocal. He held this because he understood analogy to mean that a common term had two quite distinct meanings. But imagine that 'being' is analogous in that sense. Its meaning as applied to creatures could not be applied to God and vice versa. But the whole point of having a science of being is to gain knowledge of the supreme being. Since we move philosophically from creature to God, there must be the same meaning of 'being' as applied to both, or a proof for the existence of God will be guilty of the fallacy of equivocation. So it was that Scotus held that 'being' has a meaning which abstracts from the difference between substantial and accidental being, and also from the difference between created and uncreated being.

But what would that meaning be? Existence? But for God to exist and for a creature to exist is for them to exist as God and as creature, respectively. As soon as 'exists' is predicated -- the same is true of substance and accident -- the impossibility of expressing the supposed common meaning of the term becomes apparent. Perhaps Scotus was thinking of "________ exists" where we concentrate on the verb and forget the blank or consider it unfilled. And what would 'exists' means such that the meaning is exactly the same as applied to any being? To be actual? But for a body to be actual means that its matter is informed in a definite way. That is not what it means for an angel to be actual. And of course God is actuality and existence.

Scotus is misled here by his understanding of analogy. An analogous term has a plurality of meanings but they are not entirely different. In 'healthy' as analogous we have such meanings as 'subject of health' and 'cause of health." The second meaning of healthy is parasitic on the first, so there is an order of priority in the meanings. When a term is common to creature and God, the controlling meaning is the one fashioned to speak of creatures. If both man and God are called wise, we turn first to what 'wise' means when applied to Socrates. This will be a knowledge which has been acquired and can be lost and is thus incidental to Socrates, i.e. not part of what he is. But those are the modes of wisdom as we first encounter it. In thinking of the features of wisdom in Socrates, we can see it as restricted and diminished as he has it, and we can think of an unrestricted wisdom. Call this the reality signified, the perfection meant by the term, as opposed to the way in which the perfection is had by Socrates. But isn't this to concede Scotus's point? If I can think of wisdom apart from the created mode, I seem to have the basis for univocal predication if I just restrict myself to the perfection and ignore its mode. The difficulty with this is that 'health' is not predicable of a substance, as if we were to say "Fido is health" or "Socrates is wisdom." We move toward the form "________ is wisdom", but this is not a meaning which enables us to predicate the term, and univocity involves such predication. ('Wisdom' can be predicated obliquely of individuals, as in 'wisdom is that where wise things are wise' but then we are back to the realization of complexity in the concrete term.)

Analogical extension of 'wise' to God points toward the divine mode of wisdom which we can only approximate by denying the created mode. What creatures have in a partial and diminished way exists untrammeled in the cause of their wisdom, God. It is only in this extrapolative and extending way that we can get any conception of God and his perfections from creatures. "God exists" has to be equivalent to some proposition that contains a descriptive phrase drawn from our knowledge of creatures -- first mover, first efficient cause, etc.

The formal distinction -- We can form concepts of a thing in descending order of generality. Wimpy is a substance, is a living thing, is an animal, is Irish therefore a man. It is because Wimpy shares characteristics with rocks and trees and other things that we express those common features as substance; he has other things in common with cows and trees and the like, and we express those as living thing; he has things in common with brutes and we use the term animal to signify that. Is there something in the singular substance that answers to the concepts and progressively less general terms? Scotus' answers is a qualified Yes. There is a formal distinction in the thing between what is grasped in it under these different concepts. A formal distinction is not a real distinction: he does not want to say that a thing is really made up of all those forms. Nor would he agree that the thing allows the mind to form this cascade of abstractions but that is all -- along the lines suggested above: there are similarities between the things called substance, but of course they are all substances of a quite specific kind, and this abstract grasp of it is due to our way of knowing. Scotus objects to that because, as Gilson puts it, then we would be unable to distinguish between logic and metaphysics. Logic is concerned with relations established by our mind in knowing: genus, subalternate genera, species. Scotus would not be satisfied with saying that the specific substance permits our understanding it generally but there is no distinction at all in it between its being a substance and its being alive. He wants there to be a formal difference between these levels. Does he perhaps think that to consider substance as such is to consider a universal? We do not include in the definition of substance generality -- or individuality either, but neither do we exclude it. The content of the concept of susbtance is really found in Wimpy but, this grasp of what he really is is inadequate and requires more precision.

These two teachings of Scotus are famous, and I am going to let them stand for my account of him here. You are urged to read more comprehensive accounts of Scotistic doctrine to supplement this most inadequate account.

William Ockham (b. between 1280 and 1290 - died 1349) -- Ockham was an Englishman and a Franciscan who studied at Oxford and became a master of theology sometime prior to 1320. In 1324 he was summoned to Avignon, then residence of the popes, to answer a charge of heresy. He was not condemned. His visit brought him into contact with the Master General of his Order, Michael Cesena, who was also under a papal cloud. During his four years at the papal court, Ockham continued to teach and to write. The Master General, with whom Ockham sided, was at odds with the pope, John XXII, on the matter of Franciscan poverty. The dissenting theologians fled Avignon and sought the protection the German Emperor, Louis the Bavarian. Ockham held that the pope was contradicting previous papal decisions on the matter under dispute. Going to the emperor politicized a theological dispute. In 1323 the Pope demanded that the Franciscans elect a new Master General. Ockham and Cesena were excommunicated both by the pope and by their fellow Franciscans. Ockham settled in Munich and after John XXII's death in 1334 continued his opposition. But after Louis the Bavarian died in 1349, Ockham sought reconciliation with the pope. He died in 1349, apparently before being reconciled.

Ockham's quarrel with the pope prompted him to write on political themes; our interest is in his philosophy and theology.

Ockham is identified with the Via Moderna, that is, with nominalism.

It all turns on the question of universals. Thomas had held that universals are relations among the concept we abstract from things. Thus universality, being a genus, being a species, is something that is attributed to a nature as known by us. The basic claim of Ockham is that everything that exists outside the mind is singular. We have intuition of singulars thanks to sense perception, and generality conferred by the mind, not discovered in things. Individual things are utterly separate from one another and have nothing really in common. The universals applied to them are owed entirely to the mind. The concept, a natural sign, is predicated of many things, but the universality is again something produced by the mind. It is a singular act of the mind that is referred to many things, but it does not signify anything that is not singular.

How does this account differ from that of Thomas Aquinas? Thomas no more than Ockham would predicate universality of individually existing things. The difference seems to lie in the fact that Ockham does not allow for a real similarity among singular existents. The concept of the nature or essence is abstracted from the sense image formed on the basis of experience of sensible singulars. That nature or essence is really in each of them. When "man" is predicated of Socrates it functions differently than when "Socrates" is predicated of Socrates. Ockham wants these terms to stand for (suppose for is the medieval term) the singular as singular. But man is not said of Socrates because of the singular characteristics peculiar to him, but thanks to fact that he is an individual of a given sort. The nature is not universal in the individuals, but as abstracted it stands for something real in each of them. This is the foundation of universality as a logical relation.

Ockham is a man with a mission: to sweep away the clutter created by his predecessors' attempts to understand. Since he sees no need to posit what they did, he cuts it away. Ideas in the sense of concepts? There is no need of them: understanding relates directly to its object without any such intermediate. For the same reason he denies the divine Ideas -- God does not need them in order to create. He denies that theology is a science, seeming thereby to separate faith and knowledge in such a way that there is no room for the rational reflection on the faith that had characterized theology hitherto.

Ockham's more lasting interest lies in logic, and here he may seem to prefigure the turn logic has taken into formalism. We conclude by emphasizing the mood of Ockham's thought. Both practically and theoretically he was the man who could be counted on to oppose whatever was proposed by others. Ockham's razor hacked its way across the countenance of a century of theology and left it bleeding from a thousand cuts.

In these lectures and lessons on ancient and medieval thought, I have concentrated on a handful of thinkers and given inadequate and impressionistic accounts of them. The history of philosophy as narrative can never substitute for the close analysis of particular positions. The story gives us a sense of historical sweep, of the kind of influence and reaction that often characterizes one generation and sets it off from those who have gone before. Such a sketch as this is best thought of as a map. The terrain it covers includes many, many things we have not so much as mentioned. Those we have mentioned have been reduced to a few key positions. The usefulness of such a course is not in any fixed and finished understanding it provides so much as in the stimulus it gives to pursue a more particular and philosophical knowledge.

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