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The Paradigm of Representation and Dante’s Alternative Version

Dante enthusiastically receives the new empowerment by representation in all its self-reflexive potential. Yet he does not effectively cut off or occult its connection with real being. He does not take representation as sufficient unto itself, but rather only as analogically revealing true and ultimate being. He incorporates the self-reflexive powers of representation into a larger paradigm governed by analogical imagination. Objective, scientific knowing is not “absolute knowing” for him, as it would come to be more clearly in the modern age. This objectively representational knowing reaches its most reductive stage in twentieth-century logical positivism, for which even the absolute knowing proffered by Hegel’s science of wisdom was unintelligible nonsense.

Such conceptual shifts are not necessarily once and for all. Essentially the same shift as we are studying in medieval Scholasticism can be traced centuries later in the turn of Renaissance art and architecture to a subjectcentered “linear perspective” making space a mathematizable realm dominated by the eye of a self-reflective “I” (Hoff, The Analogical Turn). It is reenacted yet again in the transition from a Renaissance gnoseology based on affinities between things to the “classical” epistemology of

Conceptual Production of “Objective” Being 153

identity inaugurated by Descartes, with his postulate of the self-reflective identity of the subject as cogito (Foucault, Les mots et les choses).

Knowing becomes representation in the age of Scotus, and Dante, too, works with this momentous paradigm shift. However, for Dante, all knowing is still beholden to a theological gift, and this gift can be known and made one’s own only in prayer and supplication—or in prophetically inspired creative poetic activity. Human knowing of the divine, and even of the truly real, can be approached only approximatively and conjectur-ally through the representations of the imagination. For Dante the poet, representation, even when recognized as a human production, is still marked as ultimately an endowment of a divine Giver. Representation is only a special manifestation of a paradigm of knowledge as revelation that is much wider in scope and that stands on a higher ground of truth. This is patently the case especially for Dante as prophetic poet. Revelation certainly remained a superior form of knowing for Scotus, too, but he nevertheless pried it loose from objective scientific knowing by the finite, rational faculties of the human mind, which were placed thenceforth under the regime of representation.

For Scotus, the immediate object of human knowing as objective being (esse objective) is a represented being, and this being is actively produced by the active intellect. Paradoxically (for modern ears), “objective” being is actually generated by an epistemological subject rather than standing as the ummediated presence of an external object. “Objective” designates literally and etymologically something thrown (iactus) in front of (ob) a conscious subject. Scotus develops a line of thought, continuing from Roger Bacon and Henry of Ghent, tearing the domain of the objects of thought away from natural causality and translating it into an intelligible realm of formal entities. The “objective” realm is separated from the natural, worldly realm of efficient causality. A purely formal realm of intensional objects is conceived according to certain ratios that are considered to be really in things, but their mode of being in the res and in its representation in the intellect is no longer the same. Scotus annuls the (Aristotelian) communication of the sensible form or “species” from the material object to the mind and substitutes (following Avicenna) an imitative copying or reproduction of it by the intellect.

Scotus therewith “lays the theoretical foundation for the new paradigm of the formal object in modern thought starting from Suarez.” Knowledge is now produced not directly by the object to which the mind is receptive but by the mind itself through its faculty of representation. Such “knowledge” is an interior word or concept, a representation produced by and for the knower of the object known. For Scotus himself, the mental representation is still intrinsically connected with the real thing: it is a trace that expresses the thing through a relation of partial


Boulnois, Lire et representation, 94.

resemblance. Yet the representation, as formal object, has a very different mode of being from the material thing or res: it is intelligible and spiritual, a product of the self-reflective mind. The formality of the object is mentally fashioned and therefore is not received, not “phantasmatic” being—a sensible species received by perception. Such phantasmatic being, gathered from elsewhere, does, in effect, in our present state, for Scotus, still guide our fashioning of formal objects (Boulnois, Eire et representation, 94), but the latter are ontologically independent, being transparently products of our own mental reflection.

Certainly, some form of mental image as representation is already found in Thomas Aquinas and in Henry of Ghent, but Scotus makes representation a process of reproduction rather than of reception. It is a real production by the intellect distinct from reception of sensible phantasms (species). This opens the way to modernity—the metaphysical modernity of Suarez, but also the poetic modernity inaugurated by Dante and leading to Vico, in which imagination is not abandoned as a way of knowing. In either case, the modern relation to reality passes by way of self-reflexive, humanly defined constructs.

Momentously, the new approach to knowing as reproductive representation originates here also with Dante. Dante adumbrates it in his treatises, and he develops it in his poetic works especially through their implicit theory of art. However, according to Dante’s alternative version, representational knowing is not reduced to univocal concepts but proceeds rather by metaphor—even metaphor for the Infinite and Incommensurable. Poetic expression of a higher reality than the empirical becomes the vocation particularly of theological imagination. This other route for representation, with its self-reflexive productions as pursued by Dante, leads not to seeming mastery of the material universe through the grid of scientific concepts but rather toward the imagination of other worlds including higher, divine, and spiritual worlds.

Dante’s self-reflexive imagination raises questions concerning the relation of all humanly attainable knowledge to theology and revelation. His answers share much in common with Scotus’s because they are both creatively reacting to the same intellectual and cultural crisis. But there are also deeply consequential divergences owing largely to the very different aims of scientific analysis versus poetic vision. My own view, which I propose as deeply aligned with Dante’s outlook, is that we cannot adequately interpret this new realm generated by self-reflective work (whether of conceptual thought or of poetic imagination) without using the resources of theology. However, theology here must be understood as not just a product of representation through an exercise of human imagination, but also as its creative source in the mind or self-understanding of God. This


God’s own knowledge of himself is the primary sense of “theology” for Aquinas in Summa Theologica la, q.l. Cf. la, q.14.

Conceptual Production of “Objective” Being 155 source, of course, surpasses human comprehension, but it is revealed in the imaginative process itself as an experience and enactment open to and striving after infinity.

Confrontation with the Incommensurable, as nothing that can be humanly grasped, is embraced as an essentially constitutive and eminently creative moment necessary in order to interpret the whole of our self-reflexively generated reality. Theology, so conceived, is such a self-reflectively generated discourse, but one that imaginatively struggles to think beyond its own limits and call them into question. Such theology becomes self-critical and rejects every finite concept of the Infinite as idolatrous. As a self-subverting discourse, such theology is negative or “apophatic.”

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