Conceptual Production of “Objective” Being—The Way of Representation

The new paradigm prepared for and introduced by Duns Scotus is one of representation. The theory of representation turns away from the imponderables of Being itself and its incomprehensibility in the Dionysian tradition toward “objective” being: this means intensional being, or being as an object for the intellect. Objective being is being that is conceived by the intellect under some determinate aspect or ratio and is not simply indicated vaguely and indeterminately.

Paradoxically, “objective” originally means being an object for a subject, the opposite of existing independently of the mind, which is the meaning that “objective” takes on in common currency in modern times once this origin is forgotten. The formal, objective point of view forged by Scotus is thenceforth treated simply as the way things are. Science, consisting in formal conceptual schemas fabricated by the mind, is taken to describe the true reality of things. The metaphysical dimension of the Other that cannot be conceived is erased, and the world as such is simply identified with this conceptual production that can be called “objective being.” This reductive common sense based on objective, empirical reality is, in essence, what the phenomenological movement rebels against. Phenomenology aims to restore the reality of lived experience of phenomena as they appear to subjective consciousness in all their sensory appearance, even if not necessarily in their transcendence and mystery.

Nonetheless, the reconceiving by objective science of all reality through its own categories of representation is immensely empowering for the whole human apparatus of knowing, which becomes a comprehensive system of self-reflection. Although the intellect produces its own objects, they are still intended by Scotus to correspond to real things (res) outside the intellect. Scotus is still a metaphysical realist. But the immediate objects of intellection are produced by the active intellect rather than being received directly from the things themselves. Aristotle has been preempted here by Avicenna. The corporeal ground of knowing has been upstaged by a more direct spiritual ground and cause, one in which the object of knowing now inheres as a formal, intensional object in a knowing subject. The incipient severance of formal knowing of intensional conceptual contents from knowing and unknowing of reality in its absoluteness and otherness becomes much sharper after Scotus, and it ushers in the fully modern paradigm of representation.

In this paradigm, the mind is trapped in a world of representations that are always only representations of other representations and can never break out of this prison house of reflecting mirrors into direct contact with another reality. The fateful consequences of this epistemological predicament of self-enclosure within representation are played out pathetically, for example, following Descartes, in the tragic theatre of Racine (Bérénice, Andromaque, Phèdre, etc.).1 Scotus’s own theory of concepts, however, is not yet a pure representationalism because his concepts are still grounded in real things.[1] The relation of subject and object in Scotus is still correlational rather than ontologically oppositional? He comes before the typically modern alienation of the subject from the world and the famous fact/value split.

  • [1] I develop this interpretation in “Hermeneutic Catastrophe in Racine: The Epistemological Predicament of 17th Century Tragedy,” Romanische Forschungen 105 (1993): 315-31. 2 Honnefelder, Johannes Duns Scotus: Denker aufder Schtvelle nom mittelalterlichen zutn neuzeitlichen Denken, 14. 3 “Correlational” is used here in an ontologically deeper sense than that employed by Meillassoux in Après la finitude. 4 Deeper in the background here stands Hans Belting, Florenz und Bagdad: Eine ivestôstliche Geschichte des Blicks (Munich: Beck, 2008), trans. Deborah Lucas Schneider as Florence and Baghdad: Renaissance Art and Arab Science (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).
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