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The Intensional Object of Onto-theology as Transcendental Science

Not the Thomistic metaphysical way of analogy (analogia entis), but rather Scotus’s refashioning of metaphysics as a transcendental science {scientia transcendens), opens the path that is followed by modern metaphysics and generally by the modern scientific enterprise. Reacting to the new science brought about by the thirteenth-century reception of Aristotle and Islamic philosophy in its conflict with biblical revelation, Scotus makes metaphysics a self-grounding and self-limiting kind of knowing that no longer integrates or competes with revelation. Instead, metaphysics consists in a purely formal knowledge that is demonstrably true but limited to what the finite mind can grasp—indeed to what it produces by its own means, in effect, to what Husserl called “intensional content” (“intentionaler Inhalt”). Ultimate truths for Scotus are beyond the range of reason in its state in this life. They are reserved, rather, for the divine Mind and for the blessed in the afterlife. In “this” (present) life, we have to concern ourselves only with truths of an order that is rationally or empirically verifiable by our finite minds. This becomes the modern path that science follows to Kant—by whom science is deemed no longer compatible with metaphysics—and beyond to supposedly “post-metaphysical” forms of thinking with Habermas.1

Without revelation, we are capable of knowing neither the sensible particularity (quiditas rei materialis) or singularity of things nor the whole of being as an undifferentiated totality (ens ... secundum totam indifferentiam ad omnia).[1] We can know only the abstract concept of a being in general that is present and presupposed as transcending all categories of being. This concept is produced by the mind and is limited in its validity to the mind’s own subjective way of construing the world. It is “transcendental”—imposed by the mind—rather than being a category

Onto-theology as Transcendental Science 135 of being itself. Although Scotus remained, nevertheless, a staunch metaphysical realist, the anti-metaphysical or nominalist potential of this fundamental and far-reaching innovation would be fully exploited only a short time later, already by the logical empiricism of Ockham and his followers. This follow-up to (and misprision of) Scotus was dominated by those who would dispense with any overt metaphysics and, eventually, even with God.

Scotus’s knowledge of being in general and of common natures intrinsic to and produced by the mind provides a completely different basis for metaphysics from the knowledge of a first being (God) that founds Thomistic metaphysics. Thomas’s metaphysics hail from Aristotle’s theology, which starts from the knowledge of the first and perfect being. But Scotus’s metaphysics is no longer founded on the knowing of a first and most excellent being (God or substance). It is a first science only of a first concept or ground (ratio)—a rational determination of being qua being (ens in quantum ens).

Martin Heidegger aims to return to the primal thinking of being itself, but he accepts the reduction of metaphysics to merely conceptual, analytic knowledge passed down from Scotus through Kant. The early Heidegger developed his thesis about being in his 1916 Habilitationsschrift (Die Kategorien- und Bedeutungslehre des Duns Scotus) on a text believed at the time to be authored by Scotus but subsequently identified as the Grammatica speculativa of Thomas of Erfurt (d. 1304). In his quest for a worldly fundamental ontology, Heidegger reconfigured the conception of being in its ultimacy as the indeterminateness of a last determination (“Letztheitscharakter”) of all—all that is anything, or that is at all. We can see in this thesis a foreshadowing of Heidegger’s formulation of ontological difference (“die ontologische Differenz”) in Being and Time (Sein und Zeit, 1927).

Heidegger, who worked early and intensively on Scotus’s type of thinking, emphasizes the continuity between metaphysics and empirical science. According to Heidegger, the destiny of our late-modern technological civilization was already inscribed in the logos-metaphysics of Plato and Aristotle, which replaced the authentic thinking of being that had dawned with the pre-Socratics. The two and a half thousand year history of metaphysics is based on the forgetting of Being as such and as distinct from separate, individual beings. Both types of (non-)thinking— science and metaphysics—forget being because both presume to be able to comprehend being itself by merely conceptual means.

Yet Scotus’s metaphysics had no such pretensions. Even though he did begin working with a univocal concept of being, Scotus did not have the Hegelian pretension to comprehend all things through the concept. Concepts for him were not just adequate instruments of apodeictic knowledge. More deeply, they were, like everything else, gifts from a divine Giver. However, this latter perspective, in which words are seen as reflections of the divine Word, was not demonstrable by science, whether empirical or metaphysical, so it was not Scotus’s affair as a metaphysician. It was to be developed as poetic intuition and vision, however, by Dante—and grandly—in his own idiosyncratic style.

Scotus eliminates the work of attempting to build understanding through similitude and assimilation to the divine—in other words, knowledge by analogy. All that is left, then, is rather fideistic knowing of God by trust in revelation plus a rational metaphysical knowledge that consists in abstractly signifying an infinite Being that we are unable to think concretely. We have no natural knowledge of such separate being. Such knowledge will be possible only when we become supernaturally blessed in the life to come. This difference between mere abstract thinking of concepts and actual intuition of perceptions becomes stark, even rigid, in Scotus, and it reemerges as such in Kant’s rigorous dichotomy between concepts (Begriffe) or thoughts and percepts or “intuitions” (Anschauungen). We see the further consequences of Scotus’s thinking in Kant’s famous dictum that concepts without percepts are empty, while percepts without concepts are blind (or, in the most common English translation: “Thoughts without intuitions are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind”).[2]

For Scotus, metaphysics is possible only as a formal, modal science of transcendent being, without objective intuition. For Kant, this means that metaphysics as a supposed knowledge of transcendent objects is not genuine knowledge at all. There is, however, a transcendental knowledge of the conditions of possibility of experience, and this is what Kant’s critical philosophy works out in depth and detail. However, already for Scotus, metaphysics had become merely a formal knowledge of transcendental concepts, in effect, a transcendental a priori knowledge of conditions of possibility of knowing, just as for Kant. God, or infinite Being, is the ground of all that is, without itself being knowable by humans. Even though we have no distinct, empirical perception of infinite Being, yet we know abstractly by logical inference that infinite being must be the condition of existence of all other beings. Scotus proves this at length in his Tractatus de primo principio, which recapitulates large sections of his Ordinatio and stands as his last and definitive formulation of his metaphysical theology.

  • [1] Jürgen Habermas, Nachntetaphysiches Denken: Philosophische Aufsätze (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1992), trans. William Mark Hohengarten as Postmetaphysical Thinking: Philosophical Essays (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992). 2 Quotations are from the Prologue to Scotus’s Ordinatio I, d.3, q.3, n.124, www. Accessed 4/25/2017.
  • [2] “Gedanken ohne Inhalt sind leer, Anschauungen ohne Begriffe sind blind.” Kritik der reinen Vernunft, 2nd ed., I, Pt. 2,1: Die transzendentale Logik. 2 Original Latin text in Abhandlung über das erste Prinzip, ed. Wolfgang Kluxen (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1974). English translation is available at: Accessed 9/30/2017. The bilingual edition of Evan Roche, O.F.M., The De Primo Principio of John Duns Scotus (Louvain: Nauwelaerts, 1949) is still useful.
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