Scotus’s Discovery of a New Path for Metaphysics—Intensities of Being

For Aristotle, “metaphyics” as the science of the highest, most perfect being was literally “theology” (Metaphysics, Book A), although “metaphysics” was also the science of universal being or ontology (Books Tand E). Aristotle’s metaphysics as the science of beings in general (metaphysica generalis) was not transparently identical with metaphysics as the science of the eminent being (metaphysica specialis). This duplicity of the “onto-theological” constitution of metaphysics in Aristotle harbored a problem that became even more acute with the Christian notion of God as infinite being. It seemed impossible to bring finite and infinite being—or being in general and the eminent being (God)—together into a common frame and to think them together under a univocal concept. However, Scotus devised an original solution to this problem, a solution which proved revolutionary for the whole conception of metaphysics and its relation to the science (or wisdom) of theology. We find him groping his way toward it in passages such as the following:

And the most perfect concept is reached by conceiving simply and in the highest degree every perfection through which, as if by description, we most perfectly know God. Nevertheless, a concept more perfect and yet simpler is possible for us in the concept of infinite being. This concept is simpler than the concept “good being”, “true being” or concepts of other, similar things because “infinite” is not like an attribute or property of being, or of that of which it is said. Instead, “infinite” signals an intrinsic mode of that entity, such that when I say “infinite being” I do not have a concept that like an accidental concept is composed out of the subject and a property. Rather, I have an essential concept of a subject in a certain grade of perfection, namely, infinity, just as “intense white” does not express the same thing as an accidental concept like “visible white.” Indeed, the intensity expresses an intrinsic grade of whiteness in itself. And so the simplicity of the concept “infinite being” is evident.

(Ord. I, d.3, pt. 1, qq.1-2, n.58)

This simple distinction between a quality and a degree of being proves momentous. Rather than placing finite and infinite being alongside one another as qualitatively different objects of categorically different types of knowing, Scotus reconceives infinite being, or God, as a degree or intensity of being. This quantitative conception of infinite being enables Scotus to avoid separating divine from creaturely being. God is no longer a being outside of other beings and placed at the end of a causal chain of beings mounting to the highest instance of being, the First Being. God is rather an absolutely different degree of the same being that is immanently present in all beings. The individuation of divine being is thus no longer qualitative, consisting in a discrete being with distinct properties. There is no definable essential difference in being between God and the creature but rather a difference in the degree of intensity of being. This is still, nevertheless, an infinite difference, since God, and God alone, is infinite being. This novel conception preserves the absolute difference between Creator and creature, what is sometimes called “the Christian difference,” and at the same time it avoids turning the Creator into a being among others, simply the highest in the series.

This innovation hangs together with what is most widely known as Scotus’s doctrine of the “univocity of being.” No longer is God “being” in some other sense than that which applies to creaturely beings, as Thomas Aquinas had maintained and worked out elaborately in his theory of the analogy of being (analogia ends). Thomas’s doctrine was designed to afford us some kind of access to what was in principle inaccessible. We cannot, according to his doctrine, know God’s being in itself, but we can know the being of the creatures that are effects of the divine being, the Supreme Being, their Cause. This gives us an “analogical” knowledge of God’s being {Summa Theologiae, I, Quaestio 12-13). Still, for Thomas, God’s Being in itself, apart from its relations to us and to creaturely beings in general, lies beyond human ken.

Duns Scotus fundamentally—although still only formally—changes this predicament. He admits that God in himself surpasses our understanding. However, he dismisses or ignores this dimension of divinity (in theoretical speculation) and opens a new dimension immanent to human conceiving and knowing, one in which there is a “formal” presence of unspecified being as such in everything that is—in all beings whatsoever, including God. The sheer concept “being” makes being formally present to the human mind in an indistinct manner so that being is defined neither as finite nor as infinite. This formal or “intensional” dimension of being is, in effect, the element that human metaphysical science indwells and

1

David Burrell, “The Christian Distinction Celebrated and Expanded,” The Truthful and the Good: Essays in Honor of Robert Sokolowski (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 19%).

Scotus’s New Path for Metaphysics 131 develops.[1] However, following Scotus, William of Ockham will shift to an extensional approach to metaphysics that eventually erases this properly metaphysical dimension and makes scientific knowledge appear to be the opposite of metaphysics. Thenceforth science deals only with externally existing things and not with reflectively produced intensions. This will become glaringly clear with Kant, who explodes metaphysics as merely a pseudo-science. But Scotus still envisaged the possibility and necessity of reinterpreting metaphysics as a science of intensional being. Intensional being is apprehended by (and only by) formal distinctions that are produced by reflection.

  • [1] “Intension” designates the meaning, the properties, or intellectual content included in (or “intended” by) a concept, whereas “extension” delimits the set of entities that fall under it.
 
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