The Paradoxical Mode of Discourse

The preceding texts of William, then, leave us with a particular interpretive quandary. For on the one hand, there is little doubt that essentia bears a definitional sense, which is entirely inadmissible with respect to divine being, given the delimiting character of definitions. On the other hand, notwithstanding the fact that God is said to be absolutely simple in his being, it is just as certain that he has an essence, as captured in the pithy formula ens per essentiam. At this juncture, what can be said? Resolution to the above conflict is found in recognizing that there are at least two distinct senses for the term "essence" operating in the De trinitate. William himself states, "[Such being], then, cannot be common and essential, though it is essential. Since in this intention being (ens) is said 'through its essence' as singular,." (DT 4.5 [28/75]). In moving beyond a mere surface contradiction, wherein William posits some reality, namely God, as having being (esse) both as an essential feature, and in another sense not, it becomes apparent that there are two rather different ways for understanding essentia.

While God cannot be common (and thereby essential in the definitional sense), it is necessary that he be a hoc aliquid (literally a "this something") (DT 4.3 [27/74]). Such an expression gives a decidedly entitative outlook with respect to divine being. In some sense, God is considered a substance. When William speaks of the two kinds of determination for the first intention of being (esse), a twofold sense for essentia is witnessed. On the one hand, there is the definitional usage for the term as indicated above. But, William also associates the first determination of the first intention for being with the terms "substance" and "essence." William states, "You should know that being (esse) has two intentions. One of them is what is left from the variety of accidents that clothe it. This is what is properly called the essence or substance, and in this intention there is grasped along with this sort of determination the intention that is all being (esse)" (DT 2.1 [20/68]). Apparently, then, the term "essence" can also refer to that aspect of being (esse) which is stripped of all clothing (circumvestitione). In a passage from his De universe, William utilizes the terminology of entitas (entity) in describing what is left after all accidental and substantial forms have been abstracted or removed (William of Auvergne, De universo 1.30; 1:625, Hotot). It is not entirely clear what William has in mind with this "bare" character of esse, to which he appends the designation "essence" and "substance." On this point, Roland J.Teske conjectures:

I suspect that he means the essence or substance stripped of all the forms that come to it; these forms include in Socrates, for example, the form by which he is an individual, as well as those by which he is rational, animal, and body; thus one is left with substance and "his being or entity...with which the Creator first clothed him." This intimate and bare entitas may be what William means by "all being (omne esse)," namely, the least formal determination of whatever is not nothing (Teske and Wade 1989, 10).

In any case, we have for William a sense of "essence" where it is not determined by the delimiting complexion of definitions and quidditative concerns. In William's own words, "His [God's] essence in the order of essences is the highest and first, fixed and remaining in itself, in repose and most undisturbed by the tumult of changes" (DT 4.16 [33/78]). It is an essence not subject to the qualifications of accidental and substantial forms which function at the definitional level.

In the case of Avicenna, it is difficult to envisage how the conflicting data over a divine "whatness" may be reconciled. A number of strategies have been proposed. One possible tactic would be to minimize certain aspects of the evidence. Judy, for example, takes the view that quiddity (mahiyya) can in no way be applied to the divine. He writes, "Avicenna does not admit that in God, the necessary being, there is any quiddity which could be identified with his existence. The notion of quiddity, for him, has no place in the first principle" (Judy 1975b, 561). As demonstrated above, however, the term "quiddity" (mahiyya) is applied to the first existent on too many occasions to justify Judy's assertion.25

Judy, though, does go on to note that for Avicenna there are a number of other Arabic terms that express God's essence. Hence, if there is a complete denial of a divine quiddity (mahiyya) for Avicenna, this negation does not imply that there is not a divine "whatness." Such terms as "dhat" (essentia) and "haqiqa" (nature) would more than adequately serve to convey a divine essence. It is only the designation "mahiyya" a term which in Judy's mind invariably implies a distinction between the being (esse) of an entity and its quiddity, that cannot be applied to the divine. Hence, Judy points out that "it is an oversimplification to claim on the basis of his rejection of quiddity in God, that Avicenna held a doctrine of 'esse sine essentia '" (Judy 1975b, 5 6 2).26 As the Latin West did not insist on this type of precision, Aquinas would employ the expressions "essentia" and "quidditas" interchangeably (Judy 1975b, 562). For Judy, then, the issue is not so much over a fundamental disagreement in doctrine between Aquinas and Avicenna, as it is over a different conception of what the technical term "quiddity" entails. For Aquinas, the term can have broader connotations. It can be identified with God's being (esse) without necessitating composition. Quiddity does not have to be understood simply as that which is distinct from or other than being. As such, the word legitimately can be predicated of the divine (Judy 1975b, 572).

Another conceivable interpretation is for us to admit that there is evidence for a divine quiddity in Avicenna, insofar as that quiddity is identified with the being of God, yet go on and maintain that Avicenna, albeit in a puzzling manner, uses that very thesis of identity as the basis for ultimately rejecting God's quiddity. Both Macierwoski and Gilson take this viewpoint. As such, Aquinas' allegation against Avicenna is regarded, in the final analysis, as textually warranted (Macierowski 1988, 84-85; Gilson 1963, 138— 40). Unfortunately, however, Macierowski declines to bring out the fact that Aquinas' objection against Avicenna is that the Islamic philosopher denies the necessary being an essence (essentia). Yet, no text in Avicenna expresses a denial of essentia (dhat), only quidditas (mahiyya). Even so, it is not clear why the interpreter of Avicenna would rush to such an unfavorable reading for the term "quiddity." Rather than view the juxtaposition of the premise, namely that God's quiddity is being itself, and the conclusion, namely that God therefore has no quiddity, as self-effacing, is it not possible to interpret the designation "quiddity" (mahiyya) in a twofold sense? The identification of two different understandings for Avicenna's mahiyya is precisely the path taken by Goichon and Flynn (Goichon 1937, 344; Flynn 1973—74, 54—55). Certainly, the term "mahiyya," to the extent that it involves the composition of quiddity and being, cannot refer to the first existent. Yet, insofar as the quiddity of God is recognized as identical to being itself, a maneuver that removes any semblance of multiplicity or dependency from the divine, mahiyya can apply to the necessary being. All the "non habet quidditatem" statements of the Liber de philosophia prima occur in the context of where quiddity is considered distinct and aside (praeter) from being (esse) or anity (anitas/ anniyya). For Avicenna, though, a divine "whatness" must be affirmed in explicit terms; hence the designation "mahiyya," but only on condition that such nomenclature not introduce any traits that are at odds with the makeup of the necessary being. Quiddity as applied to God remains unique. A quiddity that is identical with being itself demarcates a reality that is not shared or made common with anything else. So, when it comes to the divine, Avicenna has chosen not to back away from the expression "quiddity." Yet, given how the term is generally understood with respect to composite beings, this persistence on the part of Avicenna obviously generates a great deal of tension. But, that uneasiness must be maintained, otherwise the philosophical theologian runs the risk of trivializing the "whatness" of God.

In comparing the respective viewpoints of Avicenna and William of Auvergne on the question of a divine "whatness," a number of similarities are evident. For both individuals, the way in which quiddity is applied to creatures cannot be predicated of the divine—hence, the phrase "none habet quidditatem " The quiddity of a created thing, which stands apart (praeter) from its being (esse), implies causal dependency, composition, and a shared or definable reality, none of which can pertain to divine being. In corroborating this outlook, William follows Avicenna in denying the substantiality of God, inasmuch as the divine cannot be made common by a genus. Furthermore, in both thinkers, the divine being is "stripped" of all common features. Unlike every other entity, the "whatness" of God cannot be isolated from his being and defined separately. In a most unique and "supra-conceptual" manner, the very being of God is viewed as identical to his "whatness." To the extent, then, that quiddity is associated with the particularizing sphere of the definitional, it cannot refer to God.

Avicenna and William would agree with Aquinas that in a certain sense it is improper to say that God has no "whatness" or essence. For to maintain that there is no "what," thing, substance, or essence is to take away the possibility of referring altogether.27 A reference to no-thing is self-referentially incoherent. To say of something that "it is nothing, or no-thing" invariably locks us into an ontological or entitative framework. Since the pronoun "it" implies a previous name as an antecedent, we cannot even call it, "it." As Michael Sells comments:

In the very act of asserting the nothingness (no-thingness) of the subject of discourse, apophasis cannot help but posit it as a 'thing' or 'being,' a being it must unsay, while positing yet more entities that must be unsaid in turn. The result is an open-ended dynamic that strains against its own reifications and ontologies—a language of disontology" (Sells 1994, 7).

The attempts at removing all ontological considerations from discourse ends up turning back on itself and falling into its own critique. Referring to a "what" is inescapable. The point is that any act of denominating or referring necessarily delimits, including a reference to the unlimited. Paradoxically, then, when it comes to the divine, we talk of what is not a "what." In some imperfect sense, then, we must speak of the absolute as something.

Furthermore, even for Aquinas the expression "essence" must be applied to God differently than to finite beings. While the being of a creature is received and limited by its essence, the divine essence is neither caused nor composed because it is in no way received into something else (nullo modo receptum in aliquo) (Aquinas, Sent. 1.43.1.1-2; 1:1002-6, Mandonnet). However, there is a significant divergence with respect to how the term "quiddity" (quidditas) is applied to divine being by William and Aquinas, from which some of the confusion regarding William's actual view of God's essence likely stems. We recall that William does categorically deny that God has a quiddity (non habet quidditatem). We also remember that Aquinas faulted the "philosophers" for their denial that God is without a quiddity or essence. For Aquinas, the terms "quiddity" and "essence" are practically synonymous. Both words answer the question: Quid sit (What is it)? (Aquinas, DEE 1.3; 369-70, Leonine). They both contain a definitional sense, even as with William. But unlike William, they are both extended to divine considerations as interchangeable designations. Not only is God his essence, he is his quiddity (quidditas) as well (Aquinas, SCG 1.21.1; 13:63, Leonine).

The differences among Avicenna, William of Auvergne, and Aquinas, though, are only in terminology. For none of them want to place any limitation on or introduce any composition into the being of God. While for William the word "quiddity" retains only definitional connotations, with all of its limiting characteristics, Avicenna and Aquinas give it a double signification in very much the same way that William does for the term "essence." They are all struggling with the same philosophical difficulty of how the being of God can be referred to, yet somehow remain beyond the parameters of definitional categories and finite modes of conceptualization.28 The motivation for maintaining a divine essence (and in the case of Avicenna and Aquinas, a divine quiddity as well) is to avoid reducing primary being to an empty reality devoid of reference and meaning.29 God is in fact a "what." But his "whatness" need not suppose the complexity, plurality, and limitations of human reason.

Given that there are definite limitations when speaking of absolute being, it is difficult, indeed, rather impossible, to fully comprehend what sense essence takes on in the divine. The illimitable abyss separating primary being from the created order dictates a spirit of humility when delineating a doctrine that concerns the transcendent. It should cause us to realize that human categories of thought operate in a radically different way from that of divinity. It is quite understandable, then, that essence or "whatness" is not said of God in the same way as with finite creatures. And while God cannot be conceptually grasped, we may nevertheless be obligated to maintain for ontological reasons a divine essence that stretches beyond the constructs of a finite mind. Even though our knowledge of God is deficient, wherein divine being would stand unintelligible to us, this lack of intellection does not necessarily eliminate a referent. For even an "I know not what" constitutes a "whatness" or referent.

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