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Self-Reflection in the Turning from Medieval to Modern Epistemology

The history of self-reflection, at its crucial turning point in the Middle Ages, has been the object of voluminous and acute scholarly study. A series of works by François-Xavier Putallaz directly focuses on selfreflection in key medieval philosophers or theologians.' Less explicit in this regard, but among the most unified and imposing accounts, is Olivier Boulnois’s reconstruction of this history in Being and Representation.[1] Boulnois’s genealogy of modern metaphysics in the age of John Duns Scotus (thirteenth-fourteenth centuries), following Étienne Gilson, shows that structures of self-reflection are the backbone of knowledge as it was conceived in the Middle Ages. Self-reflection thus bears centrally on the status of metaphysics as purportedly foundational knowledge.

Crucial for Boulnois is specifically the issue of when and with whom to place the origin of “onto-theology,” in which Being is interpreted both as what is common to all beings (ens communis) and as the eminent being, God. It is from Duns Scotus (who builds here on Henry of Ghent) that a clear distinction is established between metaphysica generalis, dealing with being as such (ens in quantum ens), and metaphysica specialis, treating the eminent being, Deus, that is the principle of all beings. These two different metaphysics were codified as such later by the Jesuit Francisco Suarez (1548-1617). But, for Boulnois, it is with Duns that these two types of knowing are effectively distinguished and coordinated.

Therewith onto-theology, properly speaking, begins as a peculiarly positive mode of metaphysics. I aim to show that this entails a shift in the valence of self-reflection that decisively shapes the destiny of the West, a shift from being God-centered to being self-centered—or from dissolving

the self in the Unfathomable to distilling everything into the self’s own conscious purview, a self-imposed, willfully invented structure. This shift sows the seed of a separate, objective knowledge of finite things in the world by a subject eventually considering itself, too, as just another objective being in the world. The metaphysical difference here proves decisive in every domain of human life.

Boulnois sees much that is incomparably positive and progressive in Duns’s metaphysics. He is not entirely following Étienne Gilson’s interpretation of Scotus as having substituted essence for existence as the key to being, thereby initiating the history of decline of metaphysics into onto-theology.[2] This latter scenario makes Scotus culpable of instigating (in Heidegger’s terms) the forgetting of being. This is the tack taken up and developed by John Milbank and Radical Orthodoxy to the full extent of its potential (and perhaps even beyond) in situating Scotus as “the turning point in the destiny of the West.” Milbank is joined in this negative assessment by Catherine Pickstock, Conor Cunningham, Adrian Pabst, and others.

For many scholars, this vilification of Scotus is unwarranted. For Boulnois, as for Radical Orthodoxy, the epoch from Duns Scotus to Kant (1724-1804) is indeed marked by a separation of metaphysics from theology. Metaphysics becomes a theologically neutral examination of being, including the highest being. However, Boulnois sees this purely rational treatment of being in a more positive light that, in fact, opens the way for all the phenomenal progress of modernity that is rendered possible by modern science.

In the new, proto-modern outlook, verifiable knowledge is no longer founded in the heavens, nor even in the world, but rather in the self and its own self-reflection. This follows from Duns Scotus, who begins to reconstruct the world through self-reflection by creating univocal concepts. Duns clearly separates a metaphysics based on rational reflection from theological knowledge based on revelation. Duns gives metaphysics an autonomous, rational foundation, and this becomes the basis of a modern understanding of self-reflection such as Descartes will eventually erect.

There is already a kind of foundational discourse based on philosophical self-reflection in Duns. It begins by admitting our lack of real, concrete knowledge of transcendentalia, or divine attributes. In Kant, all knowledge of transcendent being is explicitly renounced, and critical transcendental reflection aims only at disclosing the conditions of possibility of knowing as they operate a priori in the mind of the individual subject and its own self-aware, conscious reflection.

In spite of this foundational discourse, there is still, I endeavor to show, a kind of inadvertent negative theology in Duns, the kind that is perhaps more familiar to us today in or through Kant. It pertains to the things-in-themselves (Dinge-an-sich) that we cannot know. It employs no similitudes apt to give us an inkling of the divine and supernatural but only the blind acknowledgment of a transcendent reality. This acknowledgment admits that reality as such transcends our concepts. Meanwhile, concepts are granted untrammeled freedom to construct their own proper sphere of intelligibility. Their self-reflexive power is such that they have mastered the human world in modern times through progressive technological domination of the planet. The self-reflexivity of concepts has been able to reconfigure the universe according to systems of its own devising. For Scotus, this new positivism in science was accompanied by an accentuated fideism in theology. Theology was supremely important to him, but it was less so and eventually became simply irrelevant for the scientific revolution that Duns, together with his Franciscan brothers, Roger Bacon and William of Ockham, had a major role in instigating.

Boulnois emphasizes the radical and revolutionary import of Duns’s thinking, but he does not evaluate it primarily as a loss, as do those who have given Scotus central importance in intellectual and cultural history as the founder of a secular form of thinking that becomes dominant and leads to the eclipse of religion. Scotus has often been identified as the culprit in the demise of the medieval analogical worldview and its supplanting by a modern metaphysics, a rationalist outlook that becomes rigidly dogmatic as “onto-theology.” Boulnois admits the secular thrust of Duns’s modern metaphysical thinking, but not that it needs to exclude or eclipse religion. A thoroughgoing revision of the philosophical historiography on Scotus moving in the direction of this more positive treatment is currently underway and has gathered together the efforts of a number of eminent scholars, including Boulnois. It is symptomatic of the need for new genealogical lines of interpretation such as the book in hand also endeavors to forge.

Put most simply, Duns’s game-changer is to begin with the concepts that can be defined at least formally in our own terms and in such a way


Edward J. Ondrako, ed., The Neuanan-Scotus Reader: Contexts-Commonalities (New Bedford, MA: The Academy of the Immaculate, 2015). The case for this revision is stated here sharply and urgently by Cyril O’Regan, “Scotus the Nefarious: Uncovering Genealogical Sophistications,” 637-38.

that our own human powers are adequate to think them. He lets the indefinable and transcendent remain precisely that. He refuses to continue to attempt to discern divinity’s mysterious incidence upon our experience and knowledge by techniques that are less than analytically transparent. This enables him to establish a clear and certain foundation for natural knowing, which he understands as “metaphysics.” We do have transcendental concepts in the sense that Kant will later define more systematically. These are concepts that are necessary for all thinking within a certain domain such as that of empirical experience.[3] Such concepts circumscribe the limits of our thinking, and Duns is determined, like Kant, to stay within those limits rather than to attempt to think beyond them. This holds as far as rational scientific thinking is concerned. The transcendent “beyond” (as distinct from transcendental concepts) remains accessible through revelation, or else through the practical action of willing, but in any case not as an object of theoretical knowing.

This distinction between theoretical and practical knowing, with their respective limits, is a crucial issue for us still today. Do we want to push these limits to a point where knowing exceeds the scope of possible reflective recuperation by a self-comprehending consciousness and run the concomitant risks? Or is the better part of wisdom to invest oneself in self-reflection that knows its own limits and how to abide within them? Dante stages the drama of this dilemma with great pathos in struggling against the fate of his self-deceived alter ego, Ulysses. We can fully appreciate the historical import of Dante’s cultural project in some of its subtlest and most revealing aspects by considering him in light of this parallel with Duns Scotus.

  • [1] Francois-Xavier Putallaz, La connaissance de soi au xiii siècle: De Matthieu d’Aquasparta à Thierry de Freiberg (Paris: Vrin, 1991); Le sens de la réflexion chez Thomas d’Aquin (Paris: Vrin, 1991); “La connaissance du soi au xiii siècle: Siger de Brabant,” Archives d’Histoire Doctrinale et Littéraire du Moyen Age 59 (1992): 89-157. 2 Olivier Boulnois, Être et représentation. Une généalogie de la métaphysique moderne à l’époque de Duns Scotus (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1999). 3 Être et représentation, 457-70: “Naissance de l’ontothéologie.” Boulnois brings this specific question to focus also in “Quand commence l’ontothéologie? Aristote, Thomas d’Aquin et Duns Scot,” Revue Thomiste 95 (1995): 85-108.
  • [2] Etienne Gilson, L’Être et l’essence (Paris: Vrin, 1948). See also Gilson’s Jean Duns Scot: Introduction à ses positions fondamentales (Paris: Vrin, 1952). 2 Milbank articulates his case against Scotus in Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1991) and develops it further in Beyond Secular Order: The Representation of Being and the Representation of the People (Oxford: Blackwell, 2013). 3 See especially Catherine Pickstock, “Duns Scotus: His Historical and Contemporary Significance,” Modern Theology 21/4 (2005): 543-74. 4 Daniel P. Horan questions and critiques Radical Orthodoxy’s interpretation in Postmodernity and Univocity: A Critical Account of Radical Orthodoxy and John Duns Scotus (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014). Such critique was effectively initiated already in Wayne J. Hankey and Douglas Hedley, eds., Deconstructing Radical Orthodoxy: Postmodern Theology, Rhetoric and Truth (Aidershot: Ashgate, 2005).
  • [3] For a reconstruction of the transcendental science of such concepts, see Ludger Honnefeider, Scientia Transcendens: Die formale Bestimmung der Seiendheit und Realität in der Metaphysik des Mittelalters und Neuzeit (Hamburg: Meiner, 1990). 2 Piero Boitani sounds this figure broadly in an “archeology of modern humanity” in Sülle orme di Ulisse (Bologna: Mulino: 2007); L’ontbra di Ulisse (Bologna: Mulino: 2012 [1992]); and ll grande racconto di Ulisse (Bologna: Mulino: 2016).
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