Scotus’s Formal Distinction
Beyond the difference between different individuals, or numerically distinct things, Scotus recognizes also formal or intensional differences of conceptual content. He introduces the notion of “formal distinction,” or more literally “formal non-identity” (non identitas formalis), in order to treat differences that are grounded in things themselves and so are not purely mental and yet are not differences between independently existing things. These differences depend on how the things are conceived or viewed. Nevertheless, they are not merely subjective differences. There is really something there to be discerned, even though it is not noticed until a certain way of conceiving it brings out a different aspect of the thing. These are differences that first come to light through the activity of the mind, and yet they already exist before the mind’s apprehension of them. They exist in things themselves (in res), but such things themselves are not wholly separable from their existing in and for subjects—as modern phenomenology would later rediscover anew on its own terms.
A stock example that is found in Avicenna (Metaphysics V. 1) and runs throughout the tradition serves to illustrate this subtle sort of distinction called “formal.” Not only concrete things like horses, but also structural determinations like “horseness” (equinitas), can be objects of knowledge for our minds, given their powers of abstraction. We can clearly conceive of horseness, even though it is not another self-standing thing different and separate from horses. Formulating the concept of horseness introduces a conceptual difference that brings out a more abstract level of the reality in question than we would otherwise have noticed—or at least have focused. Whatever it is that all horses have in common (“the whatness of allhorse,” as Stephen Dedalus amusingly puts it in Joyce’s Ulysses) so that we are able to recognize them as horses can itself be treated conceptually as a kind of thing with at least a formal difference from any actual horse. These formal differences are in their own way as real as empirical individual horses, even though formalities (formalitates) such as “horeseness” do not exist as separate individuals. They are grounded in things but are first brought to light through thinking.
Precisely this formal aspect of Scotus’s approach has determined the history and destiny of modern thought and civilization. Such thinking
Scotus’s Formal Distinction 133
begins methodologically from the concept—from the formal structure that the knower or consciousness imposes on its objects. This is Kant’s orientation in his critical philosophy, and the latter’s derivation from Scotus is clearly visible, as Honnefelder, among others, has rendered explicit and emphatic.1 The science of transcendentals, beginning with Scotus, is still Kant’s project centuries later, with the difference that Kant pursues it in the name of replacing metaphysics, whereas Scotus understands such science as the key to a new and true metaphysics. Scotus’s transcendentals, which consist in formal properties such as unity, goodness, and being, are supplemented or supplanted by Kant’s “pure concepts of the understanding” (the “categories”). In both cases, such forms are apprehended only as forms of knowing, but they are nevertheless constitutive of the reality of things as they are experienced.
The idea of a formal reality of things that is really grounded in things but that is disclosed only by reflection can be traced forward to the semiology of Charles Sanders Peirce, who explicitly links his theory of “general terms” to Duns Scotus’s thought of a formal reality that is different from existence. The “common nature” of a thing (natura communis) does not exist as an individual, but it nevertheless precedes reflection, which discovers it as an essence (essentia) that is determined formally out of itself (formaliter ex se) independently of its being in existence. Such a “common nature” is an abstraction from immediately perceptible entities and entails the positing of a level of reality that is discerned only by the mind by which it is subjectively shaped and defined. Still, it is not purely arbitrary fantasy and invention but rather pertains to the reality of things as disclosed through their interaction with the mind.