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Severance of Theory from Practice, Disentangling of Infinite from Finite, by Transcendental Reflection

By means of transcendental reflection, the individual knowing subject makes its world autonomous and self-grounding. The knower renounces the aspiration to comprehend, or even to contemplate, transcendent reality by finite powers of human mind. Instead, reflection on its own “conditions of possibility” enables human cognition to transcendentally construct or produce its own grounds. Of course, that reflection or consciousness, or anything else, exists at all remains unexplained. But this ultimate ontological mystery is blended out of the new construction of knowing grounded in transcendental reflection, which clearly distinguishes what can be known by the finite human self from what cannot. The self produces the transcendental grounds of knowing that enclose the finite and knowable sphere in a complete, self-sufficient system of inferences from certain “intuitions” (perceptions) or conceptions. Kant establishes explicitly on a foundation of transcendental reflection this system, which is first articulated in the Cartesian project for a self-certain modern philosophy.

In a typically medieval perspective, by contrast, at least up until Scotus, the self, by reflecting itself into its source, actually dissolves the confines of its self-containment. It recognizes itself as but an image of a greater, divine Self who comprehends and infinitely transcends it. But this higher instance is not and cannot be grasped by finite intellect—except as Nothing. This reflection of itself into an all-embracing “Nothing” is the experience through which all things come to show themselves as they truly are beyond the distorting lenses of finitude imposed on the knowing subject by the creature’s inherent limits. Performing this self-reflection is how the creature rises up to the vision of God. Such vision is attained through self-reflection leading to self-abandon to God in a direction contrary to that taken by modern philosophy in its striving after autonomy and control over the world.

In order to establish itself as self-grounding, the modern scientific worldview had to be based on an ontology of purely finite beings that are known by a pure logic of exclusion (the so-called law of the excluded middle)—eventually just the digital system of binary distinctions. The finite needed to be disentangled from the infinite in order for properly scientific investigation in the modern sense to become possible. As long as the finite was invaded by the infinite as the ground of its being, it could not be definitively dealt with in strictly finite algorithms and so could not be exhaustively known. A rigorously scientific approach in the sense of modern science was precluded. Human thought remained suspended in a magical—or at least an analogical—universe. It remained without apodeictic foundations grounded in purely self-validating premises that thought could verify on its own. Reason was still in need of something of the order of faith.

The eclipse of knowing via the Divine Names was among the effects of the return, in its full amplitude, of Aristotelian logic to currency in the thirteenth century. Instead, the logic of saying something that is not contradictory and that excludes its opposite became the standard and norm for all significant expression.[1] In this new paradigm, there is no longer any room for the ancient wisdom of the coincidence of opposites, or for the poetic a/logic of a paradoxical Saying that transforms the sayer into an image and likeness of the divine, in accordance with the Neoplatonic mystical ascent to the One. Conceptual thinking gains ascendency and aims at saying univocally what everything, including God, is—or, at least, that God is. Duns Scotus, in crucial ways, is the mastermind behind these developments. He forges the premises for the new logicbased conceptuality, and yet his own position is far subtler and more multivalent than the dominant scientific paradigm that eventually results from it. Whereas, for Kant, transcendental reflection invalidates and, in effect, ends metaphysics as a theoretical enterprise, Scotus envisages a new path for metaphysics, one along which metaphysics can affirm itself as a science.

  • [1] Boulnois, P.tre et representation, 293-302.
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