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Objective Representation—Beyond Naming and Desiring the Divine

This revolution of paradigms entails also abandoning the priority of the Good in Dionysius the Areopagite in order to make Being the proper Name of God and give it priority. God is thenceforth known not primarily through beneficent divine operations and a corresponding transformation of the human knower by the desire for the Good. Instead, God is objectively represented according to his proper Being (as humanly conceived). This is the major liability bequeathed by Scotus to modernity—the shift into dealing with representations rather than directly with reality. Formerly, dealing with the real involved inextricably also the affective reality of a subject. But science demands abstracting from such subjective affect. What Scotus started would become fully evident only much later in the seventeenth century. The rise of experimental science would consolidate this sea change from the medieval gnoseological framework based on analogy—a relational knowing by means of participation—to the new episteme based on objective representation.1

A direct mirror relation of identity between entities is the basis of this epistemology geared to the efficacious manipulation of things rather than to transforming oneself in conformity with the ideals of Truth and Being. The practice of self-expropriation in the image of the Infinite—as in the spiritual quests of antiquity and the Middle Ages—is abandoned. This is certainly a catastrophic loss and is sometimes recognized and portrayed as such. But there are also gains.

Scotus prepares the way for Spinoza’s affirmative metaphysics as non-discursive and as wholly distinct from theo/ogy and from any other form of representation by a Logos.[1] This is what proves so unacceptable to Milbank and company, for whom revelation, as in the Bible, comes essentially in and through the Word. The erasure of linguistic mediation

Objective Representation 147 leads also to scientific positivism, which claims to investigate things directly, without any recourse to discursive traditions but simply on the evidence of things themselves. Of course, “things” here means empirical things appearing to the senses, and even this definition of the elements of an ontology is not free of concealed linguistic presuppositions (recall section 2).

Nevertheless, Scotus opens a space for experiential and experimental, yet non-linguistic, mysticism that also inspires profoundly apo-phatic innovations and development in the modern age. His concept of haecceitas or “thisness” intends a singularity that is not accessible to linguistic-conceptual articulation. Movements of affective piety beginning in the fourteenth century will fill in this space with diverse expressions of ineffably singular experience.[2]

The definitively anti-theological consequences of Scotus’s erasure of analogy are drawn only by his successors, who eliminate contemplation of the divine. The tendency of the Radical Orthodoxy, as spearheaded by Milbank and Pickstock, to blame Scotus for the modern eclipse of God and theology can in this respect be corrected—or at least counterbalanced— by following the detailed and precise historical analysis of Boulnois. Boulnois appreciates the genuinely theological passion driving Scotus, even though Scotus renders metaphysical and physical science completely autonomous from theology.

It remains, nonetheless, true that in the wake of Scotus there are no longer any means of constructing a dynamic kind of interactive knowing of the divine through analogy. There is no longer any symbolic order connecting metaphysics and revelation. Analogical and metaphorical theology have been undermined. The supposedly scientific, univocal knowledge of God for early moderns like Francisco Suarez (1548-1617) is purely metaphysical in a merely objective sense that Kant would definitively show to be untenable.

Concrete knowing through figure and open-ended, proliferating image and metaphor comes to be viewed no longer as a gift from God but rather as a purely human production. This reconfiguration is determining for the whole cast of modern thinking, and it grounds the great reproach of Milbank against Scotus. The dissociation between the divine gift of his revealed—but not understood—Name and the human concepts that can be rationally elaborated and metaphysically contemplated, yet without theurgical efficacy or communication with divinity itself, is the fateful

legacy of Duns Scotus. This effectively inaugurates the modern and scientific age of thought in which theology is disconnected from human concept-formation and the inventive making of metaphors. Before Scotus, the making of concepts and metaphors could be understood as inherently theological, as participating in divine creativity. Human words were naturally understood as reflections or as sparks animated by the divine Word or Logos.

Dante still understands language emphatically as divine gift. However, Dante will prove also in key ways to share and integrate the new secular outlook developed philosophically by Scotus. And even Scotus himself still frames his masterwork, De primo principio, with prayers to the Lord God, Dominus Deus noster, to grant him to believe and know and expound (“mihi ea credere, sapere ac proferre concédât”).[3] In fact, each of its four chapters begins with an address to God, and the treatise concludes with effusions of praise for divinity, inscribing the investigation into a God-directed discourse. Scotus, too, recognizes science as God’s gift, even in giving it a rational foundation independent of theological grounding. The thrust of his work as a whole, nevertheless, relegates prayer to another register, one of willing, separate from knowing.

Whereas Aquinas and Albert had attempted to integrate the new Aristotelian rational science with theology, Duns no longer deems this to be possible. He respects the internal coherence of philosophy and denies that natural reason has any need of a supernatural supplement. Reason is fully sufficient within its own domain and perceives nature likewise as self-sufficient. Theology, for Scotus, is simply another discourse that has its own positive justification in Scriptural revelation. Theology’s truth is not reached through a negative (apophatic) dialectic in which natural reason would become aware of its own limits and insufficiency.

This latter, negative approach to knowing has made a comeback in postmodern times, for example, with Theodor Adorno’s negative dialectics (Negative Dialektik, 1966) and with Emmanuel Levinas’s abjection in facing the Other (Totalité et infini, 1961). Negation stands at the origin also of French post-structuralist thinking of excess (Bataille, Nancy, and others). And in this respect Dante is much closer to postmodern experience in registering the inadequacy and insufficiency (“questa disaggualianza,” XV.83) of his own natural being in Paradise. Scotus’s emphasis on the sufficiency of human reason in its own domain,

Objective Representation 149 in contrast, enables its decoupling from revelation and theology and therewith the dawn of the modern scientific age.

  • [1] Incisive angles of approach to this epochal epistemological shift are outlined by Johannes Hoff, The Analogical Turn: Rethinking Modernity with Nicholas of Cusa (Grand Rapids: Eerdtnans, 2013) building on Michel Foucault, Les mots et les choses (Paris: Gallimard, 1966). 2 Gilles Deleuze, Expressionism in Philosophy, trans. Manin Joughin (New York: Zone Books, 1992), 63-67, focuses Spinoza’s derivation from Scotus.
  • [2] Bernard McGinn, The Varieties of Vernacular Mysticism (1350-1550) (New York: Crossroad, 1998). Andrew LaZella, The Singular Voice of Being: Duns Scotus and Ultimate Difference (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019) demonstrates far-reaching logical consequences. 2 On gift as fundamental to the nature of theological knowing, see John Milbank, “Can a Gift Be Given? Prolegomena to a Future Trinitarian Metaphysic,” Modern Theology!!/ 1 (1995): 119-61.
  • [3] Scotus, De Primo Principio, 2. 2 Particularly the Commentary on the Sentences, where Scotus stages a dialogue between a philosopher and a theologian, demonstrates this. See also the Prologue to his Ordinatio, First Part: “On the Necessity of Revealed Doctrine.” 3 Hent de Vries brings together these versions of contemporary quasi-negative theology in Theologie im Pianissimo: Zur Aktualität der Denkfiguren Adornos und Levinas (Kämpen, The Netherlands: J. H. Kok, 1989), trans. Geoffrey Hale as Minimal Theologies: Critiques of Secular Reason in Adorno and Levinas (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).
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