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The Epistemological Turn in the Formal Understanding of Being

Historians of medieval philosophy outline a “second beginning” (after Plato and Aristotle) of metaphysics in the thirteenth century and particularly with Scotus, one that is “ontological” (and even epistemological, I wish to stress) rather than theological.1 This makes metaphysics a science rather than a type of wisdom. It moves from what is first known by us rather than from what is first in itself or in the order of being. Knowledge now proceeds from what is first in predication rather than in ontological rank. Metaphysics becomes a transcendental science focused finally on linguistic terms as instruments of knowing rather than on things themselves. This becomes especially clear and programmatic after Duns in the logic of William of Ockham.[1]

What Scotus proffers is already a form of critical philosophy based on self-certainty secured through self-limitation. Already in Scotus (and fully and explicitly in Ockham), our knowledge of being is fundamentally disjunctive (A or not-A) rather than holistic. Being is understood formally as simply what does not contradict being (cui non repugnant esse in rerum natura). Being is understood modally as neither actual nor not-actual, but simply as entailing no contradiction of reality (ens [est hoc], cui non repugnant esse).1 Duns’s is a formal way of seeing things, but what he sees is not the less real for all that. In fact, it enables a whole new dimension of reality to be focused and expressed. The “content of the form,” so to speak, opens up to view in a way that was to be differently explored and exploited poetically by Dante.

For Duns Scotus, knowing becomes recognized as constitutive of things—if not absolutely in themselves, then at least as they appear to us in the world. In bringing out the subjective angulation of disclosure of what things are in the world, Duns is also in step with Dante’s metaphorical method of revealing the cosmos and the truth of all things in universal history. Dante, too, writes subjective perception or “formal” consideration into his poetic epiphany. The subjectivity of what he presents as

The Epistemological Turn 141 nonetheless divine revelation flows from the same source of insight as that from which Duns Scotus draws his recognition of the “formal” character of things as they are accessed through human knowing and experience.

Merely formal differences perceived from different viewpoints are not independently existing individuals; they do not exist in a subjectless world of objective entities. Nevertheless, these formal differences make a world of difference for Scotus, as for Dante. The tragic irony of modern intellectual history is that, subsequent to the application of Ockham’s razor, this formal world of possibilities is going to be demoted to the status of an empty metaphysics or a mere fiction by the “progress” of the modern world toward a pure positivism of strictly objective entities. This operation begins with nominalism in the Middle Ages, and it will eventually wind up in the completely digitalized universe of our own age of globalization. What is retained from Scotus’s world of possibilities with real ontological roots is only a purely positive grid of objectively defined abstractions. This misprision cuts away the theological grounding of the real.

The most original pathbreakers of this modern world, notably Franciscan theologians such as Scotus and Ockham, had something entirely different and even opposite to this in mind. They were contemplating the unconditioned freedom of the divine Will and the consequent contingency of the natural world. This conception entails the analogous freedom of the human mind and will self-reflectively generating a reality of their own creation. This unconditioned freedom of the individual mind and will that the Franciscan philosopher-theologians discovered and opened up in its visionary potential was, for them, still exercised in the image of a divine Creator. But it could also be captured and made the slave of mechanisms for controlling human thought and action by conglomerate powers that would result eventually, in our own times, in an asphyxiatingly managerial, technocratic culture.

Such is the formal dimension of reality that Scotus opens to view in metaphysical terms. Dante, through his work with the imagination, opens a realm of pure form that is similarly invented or discovered by human intellect. Yet, it is none the less real for all that. It is a realm of free spiritual expression. These domains of formal reality are realms of representation, whether of abstract entities or of poetic imaginings. But, in both cases, with Duns and with Dante, they call to be understood on the basis of a kind of quasi-rational faith in which reason transcends, or at least suspends, a purely or restrictively objective self-understanding—and does so on critical-rational grounds. As such, these purely formal realms are reality-bearing traces of a higher order of metaphysical being and even of divine spirit.

For Duns, that higher realm is the object only of a practical (not a theoretical or speculative) theology and of a purely abstract metaphysics. Human reason is sufficient unto itself and autonomous in the secular sphere. Dante, too, is a proponent of the autonomy of the secular order, but he never forgets that this very autonomy is itself a reference to—and a vestige or repetition of—divine autonomy. Dante strives in every way to reconnect the finite with the infinite. He develops the imaginative means of doing so through his investment in metaphor as expressing a subjective transformation of all things and of our relation to reality itself in experience. Duns does not himself forget infinite being, but he furnishes the means by which those who were to concern themselves only with positive, finite being would do so.

Duns’s concept of the univocity of being makes both the finite and the infinite thinkable in a single concept that gives humans apparent conceptual control over the other (the metaphysical) realm that the Paradiso obsessively recognizes as ineffable. Univocity fosters a forgetting of this unassimilable otherness of being. It forges the conceptual tools for ignoring the ungraspable mystery of being at the ground of all beings and thus for treating finite being, which is but a re-presentation, as an absolute form of being and as sufficient unto itself.

  • [1] Boulnois, Être et représentation, 471-79. 2 Honnefelder, Woher kommen iviri, 111. 3 Ordinatio IV, d.l, q.2, n.8 (cf. IV, d.8, q.l, n.2).
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