Scotus says that 'being' (ens) is univocally predicated of God and of creatures. His argument for this proposition is based upon a general episte-mological principle familiar to those who know Descartes's Meditations on First Philosophy: if, of two properties potentially ascribable to a thing, one can be known with certainty to be ascribed to it, but the ascription of the other is open to doubt, then those two properties must be really distinct from one another. Alternatively the principle can take the form: if one can be certain of the existence of the one, but uncertain as to the existence of the other, then it follows that the one must be really distinct from the other, and must be capable of existing independently of it. In Descartes's Meditations this principle was drawn upon to show that the human soul can exist in separation from the body; for, Descartes maintained, since I can be certain that I exist (and I am my soul) while still entertaining grounds for doubting that I have a body, it follows that I, and so my soul, must be really distinct and can exist in separation from the body.7
6 As Richard Cross rightly says (Duns Scotus, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 37), this account provides only necessary, but not sufficient, conditions of univocity. You could not have univocal terms which did not meet these inferential conditions. The problem with knowing what Scotus means by univocity is that he nowhere completes his account of it beyond the specification of these necessary conditions for it.
7 Descartes, Meditations 6.
Scotus' employment of the same principle in arguing for being's uni-vocal predication of God and of creatures may or may not be the source of Descartes's argument,8 but it is certainly similar in form. It is possible, Scotus argues, to be certain that God exists while still uncertain whether God is finite or infinite, created or uncreated. In any case, it is intelligible to say that two people agree that God exists and at the same time disagree with one another as to whether God is finite and created, or infinite and uncreated. But they could not agree about the one and disagree about the other unless the extent of their agreement was to the same conception of existence as predicated of God; for their disagreement about the nature of God could be genuine - that is to say, a genuine opposition - if and only if it is in the same sense of 'exist' that they think God to exist, for eadem est scientia oppositorum. Consequently, it must be the case that existence is predicated univocally of what is finite and of what is infinite. Scotus puts it this way:
the intellect of a person in this life can be certain that God is a being [quodDeus sit ens] while doubting whether this being is finite or infinite, created or uncreated; therefore the concept of God as a being is other than this or that concept; and although included in each of these, it is none of them of itself, and therefore is univocal.9
The argument is extraordinarily simple. More, it is extraordinarily simplistic, thus far. It reduces - Scotus says - to this: that every philosopher is certain that God is a being of some sort; but they disagree about what sort of being God is, some thinking God to be fire, others that God is water; and at all events, philosophers have disagreed whether this being called 'God' is uncreated or created. But if you were to prove to a pagan idolater that God could not be, for example, fire, then, convinced sufficiently to change his mind on that score, he would have no need to change his mind on the score of his conviction that God exists, for 'that notion would survive in the particular conception proved about fire'.10 It follows, Scotus thinks, that the same concept of existence, 'which of itself is neither of the doubtful ones, is preserved in both of them', and is therefore univocal.
8 It is possibly the source, through the influence of 'Scotist' thinking on Descartes's Jesuit educators at his school in La Fleche.
9 'Sed intellectus viatoris potest esse certus de Deo quod sit ens, dubitando de ente finito vel infinito, creato vel increato; ergo conceptus entis de Deo est alius a conceptu isto et illo, et ita neuter ex se et in utroque illorum includitur; igitur univocus.' Ordinatio 1 d3 1, q1-2, Opera Omnia III, p. 18 (Frank and Wolter, Duns Scotus, p. 111).
10 'Non destrueretur ille conceptus primus sibi certus, quem habuit de ente, sed salveretur in illo conceptu particulari probato de igne.' Ordinatio 1 d3 1 q1-2, Opera Omnia III, p. 19 (Frank and Wolter, p. 112).
That, as it stands, the inference is invalid is easily shown. Suppose that you and I together espy an indeterminate moving blob on the horizon, and are both certain that 'there is something moving over there', while both being doubtful as to what it is that we are seeing, I thinking for the moment that possibly it is an ostrich, you thinking that it could very well be that I have some ostrich-shaped obstruction in my eye. How are we to analyse the existential quantifier, 'there is a...'? Do we have to say that whatever the moving object turns out in fact to be, neither of us will have to revise the meaning we had for 'there is a...' since there must have been agreement on the meaning of that expression in order to be able to disagree about what it was we had been thinking was there? Are we forced to say that there must be an indeterminate sense of the existential quantifier which is predicable univocally of the moving object over there and of the speck in my eye which moves as my eyeball swivels? That would be about as intelligible as saying that there is a univocal meaning for the demonstrative pronoun 'this', denoting some property of 'thisness' possessed in common by everything you can point to by means of the word; it would be as if someone were to say: 'This is an ostrich, this is a man; differ they may as much as an ostrich and a man do, but see how they share in both being "this"'!
It was on some such grounds that Henry of Ghent had argued against the univocity thesis.11 It cannot be the case that what counts for the existence of something consists in some notion of what it is, neutrally, for anything to exist; for the concept of existence is determined as a function of what it is that is said to exist - the existence of a tree is an arboreal existence, the existence of a sheep an ovine existence. To which Scotus counters that such an argument would prove too much to be valid, since it would reduce the predication of existence to a pure equivocity. An argument constructed on the grounds that existence is determinate to that of which it is predicated, and purporting to show that therefore 'uncreated existence' and 'created existence' are two different concepts, would have the unacceptable consequence that all univocal predication is impossible. If we say that the meaning of any predication, and so of 'existence', is determinate to, and so variable with, the subject-terms of which it is predicated, then it would follow that, for instance, there is no concept of 'man' predicable of both Socrates and Plato, but rather that there are two different concepts, one of Socrates' being a man, another of Plato's being a man; and Scotus thinks this is absurd - as indeed it is. Besides, as Scotus points out, even if we say - as Henry of Ghent does - that the concept of 'man' is complex, and that we can distinguish within it between what is similar between Socrates and Plato and what
11 See below, pp. 137-9, for a fuller discussion of Henry's position.
differs, just that which is thus distinguished as 'similar' would be the 'concept' of man predicable univocally of both.12 Hence, even on Henry's account, if there is anything in the concept of 'man' similarly predicable of both Socrates and Plato, then that is the concept univocally predicable of both; and if there is not, then all predication collapses into meaningless equivocity. What holds, therefore, of Plato and Socrates holds equally of 'God' indeterminately between finite and infinite being: either 'being' is predicated univocally of God - finite or infinite as the case may be - or else there is no possibility of any talk about God, except by equivocation; and equivocal talk is not talk.
Scotus sets out his position on univocal predication of God and creatures compendiously as follows:
All metaphysical enquiry into God proceeds in this manner: you start from the formal notion of anything whatever and you remove from that formal notion the imperfection contained in its reference to creatures, holding on to the formal notion as such; then you ascribe to it the highest perfection and in that sense ascribe it to God. For example, consider the formal notion of 'wisdom' or 'intellect' or 'will'. Considered in itself and as such [any one of] these notions formally contains no reference to any imperfection and limitation, and therefore those imperfections which are contained in it in its reference to creatures are removed. In this formal sense, then, these notions of 'wisdom' and 'will' are attributed to God in their most perfect degree. Therefore, every enquiry into God supposes that the mind is in possession of the same univocal concept which it derives from creatures.13
Of course, Scotus is well aware that some creaturely predicates contain an intrinsic reference to creatures; for example, '... is fat', '... is exhausted', '... is green'. That is to say, some creaturely reference is contained in their very definition, in, as Scotus puts it, their 'formal notions', for each of these is intrinsically a property of something embodied. In consequence, it does not make sense to speak of 'considering' them minus their creaturely reference, except as metaphors, as, if we lived in a culture which thought of fatness as a sign of prestige and power, we might praise God by describing him as 'fat', or as, if in sentimental mood, we might describe God as exhausted forgiving sinners, so many are they, or that he is green with envy at the idolatrous worship of the rich and powerful. Other predicates, however, contain in their 'formal notions' no particular reference to anything created: there is no reason, deriving from the meaning of 'wise' or 'intellect' or 'will', why an uncreated being should
12 Though directed against Henry of Ghent, Scotus appears to think his argument is effective against Thomas Aquinas' account of analogy, as does Richard Cross, who, like
Scotus, claims that Aquinas' doctrine of analogy is reducible to Henry's: see his Duns
13 Ordinatio 1 d3 q1, arg. Iv, my translation.
not be so described, even if it is only from created beings that we know their meaning. All we need do is remove from these notions that reference to creatures which belongs to the creaturely contexts in which we have learned them, and then beef them up to their maximum degree of possibility. For in removing all creaturely reference we change nothing of the meaning of these notions considered in their 'formalities'. Therefore, Scotus concludes, they are predicated in the same sense, that is, 'univo-cally', of both God and creatures, albeit to different degrees. And what is true of'wise' and 'intellect' and 'will' is true of'being'. 'Being', therefore, is predicated univocally of God and creatures.
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