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Phenomenological Reduction and the Univocity of Being

The issue of how to fit God into metaphysics troubled Scholasticism and posed a major challenge to integrating the Greek metaphysical worldview with the biblical worldview based on revelation. Scotus finds a solution that, in effect, opens the way to modernity and its science, without denying the authority of Scripture concerning ultimate truth. He is enabled to do so chiefly by virtue of his formal method of considering his subject. He takes the manifest form that things or concepts are for us as the only object of knowledge that we can truly consider. He abstracts from what they may be in themselves beyond our ken. This anticipates the move that Kant later makes fully explicit with his distinction between appearances (Erscheinungen) and things-in-themselves (Dinge-an-sich). Our human, conceptual structure of receptivity is thereby erected into a condition of the possibility of knowing—it becomes “transcendental.” We can know nothing except in the terms dictated by our noetic apparatus. Knowing this apparatus, therefore, gives us a certain a priori, universal knowledge concerning everything knowable (to us).

Scotus’s teaching of the univocity of being entails that the concept of “being” applies to or is predicable of all beings, finite and infinite alike. Of course, this is true only for us, or for the being and beings that we can think and conceive. What being and beings may be beyond our conceptions, we cannot say; we can, at most, allow for such a mystery. This positions us at the source of knowing and of what is known rather than leaving us on the outside trying to get a handle on what is already given prior to and independently of us. Being and reality are redefined in terms that make us part of them and make them inconceivable without us.[1]

We can understand this as, in crucial respects, an anticipation of the phenomenological method that would be developed later by Husserl. After all, Scotus’s revolution in metaphysics (like Husserl’s in epistemology) consists in having introduced a formal method that outlines the

limits of the discipline. A glaring difference, nevertheless, is that Husserl employs his phenomenological method as a way of returning to things themselves (“den Sachen selbst”). He is trying to reverse the abstraction that scientific epistemology has introduced, with the result that we know things always only relative to our conceptual framings and systems. But the reality of things for the modern age that Husserl inhabits has become purely phenomenal. Manifest appearings of things as “phenomena” are things themselves for such an empirical worldview. This is not the case for the metaphysical worldview of the Middle Ages, with its infrastructure informed by Neoplatonism and monotheism.

In Scotus’s and Husserl’s cases alike, there is an epistemological reduction to the manifestation of things in the event of knowing, in effect, a phenomenological reduction. Without denying the transcendent being of things, there is in either case a methodological decision to concentrate on just what is manifest to the knowing subject in experience or in thinking. Knowing is thereby enabled to separate strictly between the known and the unknown.

Scotus’s orientation of knowing to a “formal” object is basically what makes the scientific revolution possible. Ironically, Husserl applies this formalizing move rigorously in order to resist the tendency of science to separate us from the lifeworld (Lebenswelt) that is the background necessary for lending our thought and lived experience their sense and meaning. Husserl’s is a self-critical move that coerces scientific knowing to take account of its own entrapment in mere formality. His turn back to the “things themselves” is an attempt to exit from the merely formal reality that was ushered in by Duns Scotus’s determination to relate knowing to being in a univocal sense that is indistinctly worldly and divine, finite and infinite, accident and substance. Husserl can do this because modern thought takes for granted that there is no other being than phenomenal being so that in focusing purely on sensory phenomena thought is returning to things themselves.

The reality of “being” with which Scotus as a thinker (and not as a believer) is concerned is the being that can be thought and conceived, a formal being, a being that is already formed by and for being known by a subject. It conforms to what Husserl treats as phenomenal being, being that is also always for a subject, since a “phenomenon” is inherently an appearing to a subject. From the usual modern epistemological viewpoint, there is no other being, no being that is not phenomenal, nothing that is metaphysically real. One will have to follow phenomenology forward to its so-called “theological turn” in postmodern thinkers, with Levinas, Michel Henry, Jean-Luc Marion, Jean-Ives Lacoste, Jean-Louis Chrétien, etc., in order to see it reopen in the direction of a reality that cannot be humanly conceived at all, but can only be divinely given.[2] However, with

Phenomenological Reduction 139 univocity, there is no longer any need to refer to any higher being or superior order of reality. Not that the phenomenal being that is referred to is fully known or even knowable. The unknowable depth of being is still there (at least for Scotus) within the sphere of immanence. But for purposes of science, it can be ignored and, in any case, has no proper language. It lurks as a penumbra of what all languages about objects cannot grasp or even discern.

“Theological Turn”: The French Debate (New York: Fordham University Press, 2000). For contextualization and commentary, see J. Aaron Simmons and Bruce Ellis Benson, The New Phenomenology: A Philosophical Introduction (London: Bloomsbury, 2013).

  • [1] In this sense, Quentin Meillassoux, Après la finitude: Essai sur la nécessité de la contingence (Paris: Seuil, 2006) qualifies modem philosophy en bloc as “correlationalism.”
  • [2] L’Eclat, 1991). In English, see Dominique Janicaud et al., Phenomenology and the
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