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Reflective Repetition Realized in the Supersensible Reality of Willing

Dante’s imaginings of the other world become fully real as “repetitions” in a human sphere in some way answering to what contact with the higher reality has inspired in him. He recognizes God as being inaccessible per se (as Godself) to human means and theoretical reason, as symbolized finally at his poem’s end by the geometer’s vain attempt to square the circle (XXXIII.133-35). Still, divinity can be mediated by repetition as enacted in poetic experience and also in the actualizations of the liturgy and other religious rituals. A similar sort of status as real, even though removed to a realm of humanly created formal objects, applies to Scotus’s metaphysics. Yet Scotus begins to erect a system of transcendental concepts that cordons off the humanly accessible sphere from divine intervention, and this solution remains intact through Kant. In Dante, the discovery of the autonomous sphere of representation bequeaths to modernity what we know as the world of poetic fiction and aesthetic imagination. It will be understood in the Romantic age, with its demiurgic notion of poetic creativity, as a realm of human self-determination and autonomous will. But Dante pursued poetry rather as a subjective, interpretative reenactment of a divine act of self-revelation.

In a parallel development, Scotus originated the theory of the will as self-determination that eventually, in the Enlightenment, would be developed in terms of subjective autonomy by Kant. The self-determination of the will, its autonomy in the Kantian sense of the “categorical imperative”— willing what can be willed universally by every rational creature independently of all particular interest—is essentially a self-reflexive form of willing and therefore of consciousness. It is based, in effect, on the formal point of view introduced by Duns Scotus. On this basis of formal reality, of distinctions made by the will itself that are nevertheless real, Duns thought through just such a “Kantian” conception of willing and built it into the foundations of the edifice of modern metaphysics.


I argue this extensively in Dante’s Interpretive Journey (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) and in The Revelation of Imagination: From Homer and the Bible through Virgil and Augustine to Dante (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2015), Chapter 5.

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For Duns, such autonomous willing or freedom is “transcategorical” and thus applies to humans and God alike. Rather than being determined by natural striving for good, the will is radically free and yet not merely arbitrary. Through self-reflection, the will is able to choose what is universally good rather than just personally useful. Such a good will exercises a desire for justice {affectio iustitiae) rather than just for the willer’s own comfort (affectio commodi). This is a self-reflexive understanding of the will and of the good as self-engendering. Such good will entails a transcendence of the naturally given, yet it reconnects with the All on the basis of its own original self-determination on universally reasonable grounds, which it must itself forge and choose.

Will rather than reason thus becomes the origin of the good. In will, according to this modern understanding, resides the true rational power of origination. This transcendence belonging to an underived freedom beyond cosmological determination belongs, in the first instance, to God: it opens the world to contingency and to determination by a historical goal. Absolute freedom introduces contingency into the world and chooses its own end as an historical event. Honnefelder hails this as the “Transcendence of an underivable freedom whose contingent terminus lies in history itself” (“Transcendenz einer unableitbaren Freiheit... deren kontingenter Terminus in der Geschichte selbst liegt,” Woher kommen tvir?, 206). The premises laid down here in Duns’s modern metaphysical reflection will eventually issue in a sort of apotheosis of human freedom in German idealism—signally in the philosophy of the absolute freedom of the “I” propounded by Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814).

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