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The Fate of Negative Theology in Scotus

For Duns, the active pursuit of negative theology and its unknowing knowing (docta ignorantia) no longer has any motivation nor even makes sense? He famously registers his great dislike for negation: Negatione summe non amamus (Ordinatio I, d.2, q.3, n.10). Although his critical thinking leaves a space for negative theology, he does not engage in any intellectual activity that would inhabit this space or sound its mystery. As a crucial precursor of modern scientific rationalism, he homogenizes knowledge. He acknowledges limits of human knowing, but remains within their bounds rather than pursuing the sense of everything as dependent on what cannot be known, namely, God. Already in the spirit of the British philosophical tradition, he prefers to know positive empirical entities simply in their own sphere.

In the older tradition of negative theology, knowing in the sense of wisdom sought to take up and absorb the limits of knowing into knowing itself. It was, then, an unknowing knowing that entailed still an intense seeking. But Duns puts a stop to this. Prefiguring Kant, he lets the unknown be simply unknown in order to found the order of the knowable on concepts that can be secured by purely human means through transcendental reflection (or self-reflection). For Duns, God becomes just another object of knowledge rather than the object of another kind of knowing (Schönberger, 495-96). The latter unknowing knowing (alias negative theology) is a knowing that takes its own inevitable failure into account as part of the very concept of its object—God, or the Absolute, as that which finite mind cannot adequately conceive.

Turning away from this productive unknowing that orients us to an ungraspable whole, a Whole which is a member of no set, Duns, initiates the modern, self-reflexive form of self-knowing that was to acquire such confidence that it would eventually recognize no higher authority beyond itself. Duns himself does recognize such an authority, but he recognizes it as discernible only by faith and allows it to become scientifically

1 Cf. Rolf Schönberger, “Negationes non summe amamus: Duns Scotus’ Auseinandersetzung mit der negativen Theologie,” in John Duns Scotus: Metaphysics and Ethics, ed. Ludger Honnefeider, Rega Wood, and Mechthild Dreyer (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 475-96.

The Fate of Negative Theology in Scotus 179 irrelevant. As dependent on faith, it will be dispensed with by the greater part of his followers blazing the path of secular modernity.

It is indeed true that self-negation makes sense not in itself but only in relation to a movement of thought that takes its own negation up into what it knows. The same applies even to negation simpliciter. The absolutely formless can be meaningfully spoken of only in relation to form that vanishes into it, or that it grounds, or that will be formed out of its abyss. Dante’s theological poetics explores this dimension of Being beyond realized form via the vivid analogical modes of the Paradiso. This type of performative analogical procedure induces Denys Turner to describe Dante’s language as “the form of an openness to an unknowable otherness.” Through using form to imitate the formless by displaying particular forms under erasure, the poem “effects what it figures” (“efficat quod figurat,” Turner, 287).


Denys Turner, “How to Do Things with Words: Poetry as Sacrament in Dante’s Commedia,” in Dante’s Contmedia: Theology as Poetry, ed. Vittorio Montemaggi and Matthew Treherne (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), 301.

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