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Signification of the Real and an Autonomous Sphere for Representation

For Duns Scotus, God remains inconceivable in concrete terms by finite human beings. He can, nevertheless, be signified by language in a proper concept. This can be brought about through a concept that God himself has instituted and given to humans to be known through biblical revelation, but it can also be achieved through an abstract metaphysical concept such as that of “infinite being.” God’s nature is not concretely conceivable for humans, but it can nevertheless be truly signified by such a concept. Scotus eliminates analogy (we have no approximate knowledge of what God is like) and allows for only direct, univocal signification of God. He admits the inadequacy of our concepts to really and concretely conceive the nature of the Infinite. There is no commonly conceivable reality or ratio that applies to both God and creatures (“in nulla realitate conveniunt,” Ordinatio I, d.8, q.3, n.82). However, proper conceptual knowledge is not necessary for our being able to signify God beyond what we can actually understand.

In De interpretation (1.4-6), Aristotle laid down the principle that words are the signs of thoughts, which are the signs of things. But the new semantic paradigm introduced by Scotus’s Franciscan predecessor Roger Bacon (1214-92) revised this traditional Aristotelian-Boethian model. For Bacon, signs such as words signify directly things, not their concepts or mental images. Even without our necessarily being able to conceive things accurately and completely, the signs we employ intend to signify things that we cannot adequately conceive—like infinite Being. The direct relation of the sign to the res in the new semantic paradigm enables God to be signified as infinite being, even though there is no adequate way for finite humans to understand or conceive him—and no common ratio between God and creatures. In fact, Scotus freely admits this lack of any common measure. The univocal concept of Being that is common to God and creatures in our intention corresponds to no common property in reality (“nihil unius rationis in re,” Ord. I d.8, n. 138-40; cf. I, d.31, n.29-31). Precisely in this regard, it is a purely “formal” object.

Scotus initiates a strong dissociation of signification from intellection as two distinct operations of thought. By separating what is the object merely of a semantic code from what is actually thought through a metaphysical concept, he creates a sphere of pure representation. It has many powerful applications that will not cease to disclose themselves in astonishing and fantastic ways—eventually producing quarks and quantums, supernovae and white dwarfs, antimatter and superstrings— throughout the coming ages of scientific invention.

We can easily see what motivates such a secular recasting of knowledge. The human mind gains complete autonomy in a secular sphere of its own self-defined, formal objects or concepts. The mind can forget its concern for the otherness of reality as such and can focus simply on the sphere that it defines for itself and manages through its own inventions in its own proper domain. This procedure evinces the power of selfreflection for creating a coherent system of concepts—which is the basis of any modern science.

Scotus dismantles the analogical thinking that Thomas Aquinas designed in order to approach, in an at least quasi-scientific manner, a wholly other reality, of which we can never have proper, unmetaphorical, unanalogical intelligence.1 Scotus replaces the doctrine of analogy and Dionysius’s three ways (affirmative, negative, mystical) by three types of transcendentals corresponding to three degrees of knowing God.[1] This radically alters the meaning of the divine Names. The first degree comprises Names such as Good, Infinite, and Wise, which are pronounceable and knowable, but not revealed. The second degree is the Tetragrammaton, which is revealed, but not conceivable or pronounceable by humans. It is imposed by God and is a proper, revealed divine Name, but it remains a foreign language for God’s human creatures. We do not understand it. There is also a third degree, a common Name for God: “Being,” as revealed in Exodus 3:14, is abstractly conceivable by humans and properly applicable in its infinite mode to God. It is per se an adequate concept of God, but it can only be imperfectly conceived by humans.

By means of these distinctions, Scotus avoids the paradoxes typical of negative theology in the tradition reaching from Dionysius the Areopagite through Maimonides to Aquinas and Eckhart. He avoids the radical anonymity of God by distinguishing between the origin through imposition of the Names and their intended sense. We do not need to be able to understand its meaning in order to employ a divine Name. Thus we can name God, although we do not know his own being or essence. Scotus also avoids thereby the typical Scholastic homonymy of all the divine Names. In the Divine Names tradition, Good, One, Being, True, etc., all

mean the same with regard to God irrespective of the formal distinctions between them as objects of the intellect.

For Scotus, even though all Names refer to the one, indivisible Being of God, they are understood under various ratios by the finite intellect and so have different meanings. Finally, the primacy accorded to “Being” as the divine Name par excellence makes the object—but not the intellectual content—of theology coincide with the object of metaphysics and of our possible conceptualizations. A new unity and order is brought to human knowing even of God by defining human knowing’s range such that it no longer has to confront the absolute difference of the divine but can handle everything with adequate univocal concepts, even without always having concrete intuitive knowledge of what they mean.

Of course, any treatment of God as an object is pure artifice. In this regard, Scotus is actually still a strong proponent of God’s ineffability, as long as we refer to the act of trying to comprehend him and not simply to the sign representing him. 5 So Scotus does not eliminate negative theology at the level of the conception of God, which remains impossible, but only at the level of the signification of God, which is possible, even without our understanding what is signified by “God” or by perfections such as “being” or “oneness” or “goodness” as attributed to God. According to Scotus, created intellect comes to rest only in contemplating God as Being in the mode of infinity, which is the most perfect concept of God that we can conceive (Ord. I, d.2, q.2, n.147). Even though this concept in its infinite mode is not really understandable or concretely thinkable by finite human intellect, God can nevertheless be named and signified by it.

What Scotus has done, in effect, is to erase the mysticism of the Divine Names that was cultivated in Neoplatonic and Patristic tradition. The Divine Names are no longer a privileged or even a possible path to the intellectual experience of God. Naming and language are no longer accorded ontological or gnoseological significance. They are merely instrumental to technically correct procedures of designating and denoting. Genuine knowledge in the modern age is empirical and experimental and entirely dissociated from any linguistic auras. Names are no longer considered to be infused with symbolic meaning and miraculous potency. The apophatic, negative way of theurgically uniting with God by divination through contemplation of the divine Names, and by an exercise of intuitive intellect beyond the scope, or at least the control, of scientific concepts, is abandoned. It is left to be taken up and reinvented as a new type of verbal magic in poetry from Dante to Mallarmé. The “alchemy of the word” (“l’alchimie du verbe”) (Rimbaud) for French symbolists harks back to pre-modern science.

3 Reportatio parisiensis in Allan B. Wolter and Oleg V. Bychkov, ed. and trans., John Duns Scotus. The Examined Report of the Paris Lecture: Reportatio I-A, Latin Text and English Translation, vol. 2 (St. Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute, 2008), I, d.22, q.l, n.12.

  • [1] Wolfgang Pannenberg, Analogie und Offenbarung: Eine kritische Untersuchung zur Geschichte des Analogiebegriffs in der Lehre von der Gotteserkenntnis (Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 2007), 164-65, sifts the far-reaching significance of this upheaval. 2 Cf. Boulnois, Être et représentation, 320-25.
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