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Univocity as Ground of the Autonomy of the Secular

The significance of the univocity thesis is that it makes “being” accessible to conceptual comprehension. It puts a stop to leaving finite being gaping open to an infinite Being that cannot be grasped and that undermines all sense given to finite beings by making the finite untrue in relation to the one true Being of God. For Scotus, being is reality that is univocally grasped, and the formal distinctions we make in order to enable us to think about it in its particular finite manifestations pertain to real being. Only so do humans have a handle on reality. Otherwise, they are helplessly dependent on a mystery that they cannot fathom. They are, of course, still dependent on God, whom they cannot grasp, but at least they have a real grasp of the beings of the world. This is the enabling condition of all scientific investigation and of human self-empowerment to control nature and dominate the world. As will become patent and explicit much later with Kant (although it is already incipient with Scotus), the relation to God is no longer theoretical, no longer entertained by the intellect, but only practical.

It is not that we can claim in a strong sense to know anything more about God thanks to univocity. For Duns, univocity is merely a semantic theory. It is about signifying rather than about knowing God, and the two are not the same. Thanks to Duns’s postulated univocity, we can complete our system and think about beings without having an incomprehensible “Being” stand in the way. Hovering blankly as a hole in the middle of our world, such an incomprehensible Source or Cause is so utterly other than its effects that it lames every effort of ours to forge an objective, causal knowledge of things. Such an absolute enigma defeats any attempt at comprehensive or systematic knowledge of the world. Faced with an analogical universe grounded on such a mystery, we find ourselves in a world of magic or miracle, where interventions from the wholly Other may occur at any time without any rational causal logic. The inscrutable mystery of Being is always there at the heart of anything we observe, so we cannot observe it as conforming to any law that we could possibly understand.

This totally incalculable mystery must be held at bay and be circumscribed in order to create a space for building a system of self-reflective knowledge. Duns still acknowledges this enveloping mystery, but, with him, our language and conceptual system turn their reflection on themselves and give an account of themselves in terms of their own making that they can know and define unequivocally. Rational thought need no longer lose itself in the absolutely Other. It must simply acknowledge this otherness as external to its theoretical range—as beyond its ken.

This newfound freedom of speculative thought emancipated from any overriding concern for ultimate mystery, demonstrates its far-reaching fecundity not only in science but also in the new realm of morality inaugurated by Scotus and leading to Kant. Morality is now based on the self-determination of the will and yet is not purely arbitrary. The will decides freely on the basis of reasons that it chooses to invest with motivating meaning. This is, then, subject-centered and subject-generated value. Yet it is not without relation to a greater whole outside itself. On the contrary, the will is free only to the extent that it wills not simply its own interest but rather what can be universally willed. Only such just and good willing can be the basis of the truly free will. The good will wills its own willing of the absolutely good, which is God, the highest and all-comprehensive Good. Scotus’s morality is based on self-relation that nevertheless intrinsically involves relation to the whole and to the highest and most perfect of all possibilities. These two dimensions—self-relation and relation to the Other—are still closely coordinated for him. Reflexive freedom relates to a God who is no longer primarily a cosmological final Cause but rather an infinite and personal Good Will.

Nonetheless, the question remains of whether univocity is used as an attempt to dominate reality by debasing it to what can be humanly defined or, instead, as an invention that can be integrated into a recognition—and perhaps even a reverencing—of the ultimately real. This is the question of whether our dependency on a higher or greater reality is cultivated as belonging to and constitutive of us or is narcissistically ignored and finally forgotten. This question will be answered only by subsequent centuries of history. And the verdict is still out. We can adhere either to the devitalization of the real by an instrumentalizing, scientific rationality, or we can follow Dante—who in this regard is still echoed by Heidegger and Levinas—in attempting to attune ourselves to the unfathomable call of Being and of responsibility to the incalculably Other. The reality grasped by science as empirical and exhaustive counts in many wisdom traditions from Platonism to Brahmanism as mere illusion.

The modern tendency is to want to do away with the dependency of the finite on the Infinite and on anything that remains for it an enigma or a mystery in order to take control of one’s own destiny in a world that can be defined as a formal object by positive, self-reflectively transparent


For Scotus’s moral theory, see particularly Ordinatio II, d.6, q.2; II, d.39, q.2; III, d.17. These and other materials can be found translated in Thomas Williams, ed., John Duns Scotus: Selected Writings on Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

Univocity as Ground of the Secular 177 concepts and methods. The individual—or collective—human self finds in itself the resources it needs for creating a formal system in which the world can be manipulated in accordance with conceptual tools forged by language and be reduced ultimately to numerics. These concepts are reflections of the mind itself and are apparently generated out of its own constructive activities demanding self-control and affording control over others. Common sense cries out: Why should we begin with negations like the infinite, the invisible, or the ineffable, rather than with what is positively present and manifest? There is obvious good sense in this, but it does not perhaps encompass the whole of wisdom either.

This impulse to self-mastery is incarnate exemplarily in Spinoza’s totally positive philosophy, and it begins in crucial respects with Duns Scotus. However, both philosophers were still close enough to the wisdom traditions of medieval philosophy to realize that this positive autonomy is possible only with God and in relation to the totality of the universe. It is not the prerogative or the possession of a finite individual self-consciousness answering only to its own private velleities. Our own constructions never make up the whole of reality. A givenness of our being—in some traditions, our being “created”—is already presupposed by any of our conceptions.

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