Toward the Self-Reflexive Formation of Transcendental Concepts

The process of concept formation had long been understood as proceeding on the basis of self-reflection. This is especially so for the stream of medieval epistemology that departs from Aristotle and rests, rather, on the Neoplatonic tradition transmitted through Avicenna to the Franciscans. On this latter model, there can be no direct action of bodies on the soul, but only the soul’s own auto-affection in the production of images that then enable concepts to be formed. Images cannot simply be abstracted by the active intellect from objects, as the original Aristotelian model postulates. Instead, they must be produced in the mind through a process that entails reflection by the mind on itself. The soul can respond to physical occasions, as Avicenna suggested, and, as Augustine insists, the soul’s images are made “of itself.” They are produced within the mind by selfreflection rather than being abstracted from external objects as “species” or essences. This self-reflective status accorded to concepts is extended by Scotus even to the concept of Being.1

It is hard to overstate, but at the same time easy to overlook, the importance of this astonishing innovation whereby Duns Scotus thinks the condition of possibility of experience in a self-reflective concept of the Being that is also a real foundation, the basis of everything that exists. The concept of Being as such, which is indistinctly finite and infinite, is now analogous to other concepts that can be comprehended self-reflectively. Like Avicenna’s essences, common natures in general for Scotus are neither universal nor particular, neither one nor many, but the condition of possibility for all such distinctions.[1] The knowledge of common natures is a priori. It is based not on empirical experience, but is a knowledge simply of what is conceivable.

The reconceiving of Being as formed like other concepts is a first giant step toward programmatically making self-reflection the foundation of all scientific knowing. This is accomplished by the Franciscan Scholastics in the thirteenth century through their development of an Avicennien Augustinianism. This Neoplatonically grounded strand of thought makes the mind’s reflection on itself primary in knowing. As Plotinus himself had already argued in his Enneads, it is necessary to become intelligence in oneself and to take oneself as object of contemplation (see section 60 below). This is the genealogical line along which a great Neoplatonist and introspective psychologist, Augustine, became the indirect father of modernity. He fostered even remote, self-adopted sons including Blaise Pascal and René Descartes, who were well aware of—and acknowledged—their indebtedness to him. What has been less well recognized is that this heritage passes by way of the Schoolmen.’ Descartes and Kant remain heavily indebted to Scholastic thinkers who anticipated their refoundings of philosophy, as has been demonstrated persuasively from a variety of angles by Gilson, Jean-Luc Marion, Radical Orthodoxy authors, and Jean-François Courtine.[2]

Particularly the doctrines concerning concept formation contributed to forging an Augustinianism of Avicennien character that would flourish especially among Franciscan theologians but that was first crystalized by Guillaume d’Auvergne (1228-49) in his De universo (1230-36). In this outlook, the elements of knowledge are fabricated self-reflexively. Nevertheless, they do not form a closed system, as they are typically made to do with the modern subject and its mastering grasp of a universe through its own transcendental perspective. The latter, subject-centered transcendence is what John Milbank and Radical Orthodoxy inveigh against as a false transcendence. It leads fatefully in modern thought to the Kantian system of epistemology-based philosophy, installing the autonomous subject as the Archimedean point at the foundation of the whole edifice of knowledge. As generally read, Kant’s Transcendental Analytic grounds reflection on the finite human self rather than leveraging it from transcendent Being or the infinite. Human reason gives itself its own foundations in the form of its transcendental principles of knowing—the a priori intuitions of space and time and the pure categories of the understanding discovered by means of transcendental reflection and demonstrated by transcendental deduction.

Spinoza and Leibniz in the baroque period are still closer, in essential ways, than are Descartes (before them) and Kant (after them) to the medieval rationality for which eternity remains real because “reality” has not been reduced to experience and become merely a human production. Both of these baroque philosophers are still thinkers of the absolute,

whether as Nature (Spinoza) or as Providence (Leibniz). They have not yet definitively lost and forgotten the medieval God-centered universe in which the intellect was engaged first by the infinite and eternal.[3] Humans do not make up the world by their own invention so much as conform to a higher reality than that produced by their own wills. But with Kant such theoretical knowledge of suprasensible realities is definitively lost, and it is only by means of the will that we can have any connection with ideals of immortality and divine justice and salvation. In instituting this split between theoretical and practical knowledge, Kant is following a direct genealogical line of descent from Scotus.

Kant, at the fountainhead of Enlightenment philosophy, does nevertheless recognize the unknowable thing-in-itself (Ding-an-sich) as an absolute beyond human ken. To this extent, there is still some kind of negative theology operative in his thinking. However, his decisive move is to furnish the means—namely, through transcendental reflection a priori—of knowing the conditions of possibility of knowing itself. This transcendental knowing is humanly possible through self-reflection and is an entirely human making achieved in fulfillment of the Enlightenment project of affirming the autonomy of the human individual.

This Kantian transcendental knowledge supposedly grounds all human knowing. Human reflection now manufactures its own transcendental ground and is not beholden to any Other. There is still here the admission that absolute reality, the realm of things in themselves, remains outside the self’s immanent sphere and is as such unknown. Consequently, there is still room here for a kind of piety, or for “religion within the limits of pure reason,” in Kant’s idiom. But actual knowing, at least theoretical knowing in a scientific sense, has been split off as a separate undertaking. It consists in a constructive building of knowledge on the foundations that human self-reflection fabricates for itself. Faith and knowledge no longer work as partners striving after a knowledge (or ultimately an »«knowing) of the whole. They are dissociated. Knowledge concerns itself only with its own self-grounded constructions, and faith no longer has the duty, or the competence, to orient and guide human knowing. Faith still guides acting, but it has become irrelevant to the theoretical enterprise of knowing.

  • [1] See especially Scotus, Quodlibet, q.13. For elucidation, see Boulnois, Être et représentation, 88-97 and Boulnois, Duns Scot: La rigueur de la charité (Paris: Editions de Cerf, 1998), 68. 2 Alain de Libera, La querelle des universaux: De Platon à la fin du Moyen Âge (Paris: Seuil, 2014 [1996]), 425, 433 highlights the paramount importance of this move seen from within the history of controversies over the status of universals.
  • [2] In the case of Descartes, Gilson’s work, starting from his 1913 thesis La liberté chez Descartes et la théologie (Paris: Vrin, 1987), is seminal for bringing this filiation to light. 2 J.-E Courtine, Suarez et le système de la métaphysique (Paris: P.U.F., 1990).
  • [3] Curiously, both “baroque” thinkers open a breach in the most typical postulates of modern secular thinking, as Gilles Deleuze’s postmodern interpretations show in Le pli: Leibniz et le baroque (Paris: Minuit, 1988) and in Spinoza et le problème de ¡’expression (Paris: Minuit, 1968). 2 Stephen Palmquist’s reinterpretations of Kant as primarily a religious thinker effectively question the common premises of the reigning secularist readings and move Kant more into the light of a kind of negative theology. See Kant and the New Philosophy of Religion, ed. Christ L. Firestone and Stephen R. Palmquist (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006).
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