Thursday, September 15, 2005

Duns Scotus and Univocity of Being Theory

Another thinker, who believed that speaking of God non-metaphorically is a linguistic possibility, was Duns Scotus (1266-1308 CE). While apophatic or negative theology (via negativa) has a protracted and venerable history in the Christian tradition,[1] Scotus nonetheless argues that denials concerning the divine essence are only intelligible “in terms of some affirmation.”[2] He contends that if rational creaturely essences deny God is X, Y or Z, “it is because we wish to do away with something inconsistent with what we have already affirmed.”[3] Via negativa thus presupposes via positiva. Moreover, Scotus maintains: “a purely negative knowledge is no knowledge at all.”[4] This, of course, calls to mind his univocity of being theory––Scotus’ contention that univocal predication with reference to God is, under certain circumstances, possible. But what does the Subtle Doctor mean by the term “univocity”?

The univocity of being notion concerns what humans can know about God by means of reason (i.e. natural theology).[5] Scotus believes “that concept [is] univocal which possesses sufficient unity in itself, so that to affirm and deny it of one and the same thing would be a contradiction.”[6] Due to its monosemic nature, a univocal term can additionally function as the middle term in a logical syllogism since it obviates equivocation.[7] For instance, Scotus argues that humans can predicate the concept “being”[8]of necessary and contingent beings, of both God and creatures because the term is univocal in the sense that it does not allow for equivocation. The term "being" has the same denotation in both instances. For this reason, “being” is also a disjunctive predicate, distinguishing A from B and C from D, vel cetera. Its signification depends on the content of predicates, not the subject of the sentence in which it is contained.[9]

[1] See Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, 2:32, 258.

[2] Gunton, Act and Being, 68.

[3] Quoted in Gunton, Act and Being, 68. See Gregory of Nazianzius also, who does not think that we can only take the via negativa or the via remotionis without employing the via positiva. Scotus has his own version of the via eminentiae (Gunton, ibid).

[4] Bonansea, Approach to God, 100.

[5] See Copleston, Medieval Philosophy, 111-112; Peter King, “Duns Scotus on Metaphysics” in the Cambridge Companion to Duns Scotus (Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 15-68. Scotus thinks that univocity only applies to natural and general concepts of God: “Univocatio enim non est nisi in generalibus rationibus” (Wolter, Duns Scotus, 116).

[6] Gunton, Act and Being, 69.

[7] “Sufficit etiam pro medio syllogistico, ut extrema unita in medio sic uno sine fallacia aequivocationis concludantur inter se uniri” (Wolter, Duns Scotus, 109). See Bonansea, Approach to God, 102.

[8] The term “being” here refers to an undetermined abstraction that is the proper object of the intellect. See Wolter, Duns Scotus, 121; Gilson, History of Philosophy, 455.

[9] Kenny, A Brief History of Western Philosophy, 153-154.

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