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Duns’s Original Concept—Univocal Being

The most radical and consequential innovations addressing this problem of integrating the two cultures are offered a generation after Aquinas (1224-74) by Duns Scotus (1265/66-1308). Scotus sees that freedom, individuality, and a history of salvation are essential realities for biblical revelation as understood by his Franciscan brothers. Yet he also sees that these Judeo-Christian principles are not easily reconciled with the determinism through necessary and universal natural causes envisaged by the Greek-Arabic method of ascertaining scientific truth. The latter method had become an ineluctable criterion in his cultural world at universities such as Oxford and Paris. We are still struggling today with an analogous


Honnefelder, Johannes Duns Scotus: Denker auf der Schwelle vom mittelalterlichen zum neuzeitlichen Denken (Paderborn: Schöningh, 2011).

Crisis of Conflicting Worldviews 123 problem of integration in the conflict of faculties between the cognitive sciences aiming to explain everything human as determined by physical processes in the brain and the humanities with their irreducible vocabulary of will and agency.

In an original and destiny-laden response to this predicament of impasse, Scotus begins thinking in terms of a neutral concept of Being that can be known without deciding whether it is finite or infinite. By means of our natural faculties, we know it simply and univocally as “Being.” This creates an immanent sphere of knowing that is commensurate with our capacities for conceptualizing. Such a sphere is the realm of being that we can know and deal with scientifically. Its concepts, like Kantian categories, are recognized as necessary for any human knowing whatsoever. Scotus acknowledges another, higher sphere of transcendent and divine reality, but he brackets it as inaccessible for distinct theoretical knowing. He thereby grants science its charter for establishing its mastery over the earth in the domain of the finite as its proper object. Paradoxically, by thinking Being neutrally, in a way that unites infinite and finite being indistinctly, Scotus enables the humanly thinkable realm to become complete and autonomous in itself rather than remaining dependent on another, higher realm, one revealed by theology—to which scientific investigation formerly was obliged to defer.

In effect, Scotus’s univocal concept of Being enables a separation of the immanent from the transcendent orders. There is the sphere of what is subject to human concepts, and then there is the transcendent sphere of what is not. But the humanly known sphere, thanks to the univocal concept of being, is deemed sufficient to provide its own foundation.

This way of dividing up the real according to our ability to know it will remain intact essentially through Kant. It anticipates the “epistemological turn” so essential to modern thought as founded by Descartes. Scotus still cares a lot about the transcendent sphere, which can be accessed through revelation, as well as practically through ethics and the will. But theology is no longer necessary for knowledge of the finite sphere, and Scotus’s successors, in laying the foundations of modern science, will eventually forsake this interest in theology as irrelevant in order to concentrate exclusively on the finite, phenomenological realm in which empirical, experimental method alone reigns supreme. This realm of autonomy is produced essentially by conceptual reflection. The mind furnishes its own concepts and imposes them on the real. Its concepts are reflections of itself and of its own formative powers. This autonomous, human knowing forges the template for a momentously modern philosophical outlook and approach to knowledge that eventually leads in its evolution to systematic, foundational formulations from the seventeenth century onward, with Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, and others.

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