The univocal predication of being

Scotus is quite clear about one proposition central to his theological epis-temology: 'being' (ens) is the proper object of the intellect and is predicated univocally of anything whatever. I say that Scotus is clear about this. But followers of Thomas Aquinas are likely to judge this proposition to be thoroughly confused when they read it in conjunction with another, equally unambiguous, statement of Scotus: ens is not a genus and the logic of ens is not that of a genus.26 In saying this, Scotus is (among other things) denying that to say of ens that it is univocally predicated of everything whatever entails that ens is a sort of 'super-essence' standing logically to all the different kinds of thing which exist in the same relation that, for example, the restricted genus 'animal' stands to the different species of animal: for Scotus, beings are not species of Being.

Now for Thomas Aquinas, this conjunction of theses - of the univocity of ens plus the denial that ens is a genus - is simply incoherent. For Thomas, univocity is defined in reference to genus; as we shall see, for Thomas a term is predicated univocally if, whether truly or falsely, it is predicated in accordance with its definition, and a definition is the conjunction of the genus and a differentia. Thus a human being is generically an animal, differentiated from other animals by the differentia 'rational'.

26 Ordinatio 1 d8 q1 a3, n. 108; Opera Omnia IV, pp. 202-3.

Therefore, its being false to say of a giraffe that it is a human being depends upon understanding '... is a human being' in the same sense as when we say with truth, 'Peter is human.' Of course, we could describe a particularly fetching giraffe as 'human' metaphorically, just as, if Peter is a particularly evil man, we could metaphorically describe him as a 'brute'. But we could know what is said in either case metaphorically only if we know in the first place what the primary, univocal, meanings of the predicates are.

Now since Thomas maintains that univocal meanings are determined by their definitions in terms of genera and differentiae, it would be impossible for him to know what Scotus means when he says both that ens is predicated univocally of everything whatever, and yet that it does not stand to the kinds of being of which it is predicated as genus does to species. Yet Scotus does say both, so at least to this extent agreeing with Thomas, that ens cannot be predicated of entia in the way in which the genus 'animal' is predicated of humans and brutes, or in the way in which the species 'rational animal' is predicated of Socrates and Plato. But if ens is not predicated of creatures in the way in which genus is predicated of its species, or in the way in which species is predicated of individuals, even less can it be the case that ens is predicated of the infinite and the finite as genus is to species. Yet, for Thomas Aquinas, such are the only ways in which it is possible to conceive of univocal predication. For Thomas, then, Scotus is simply confused.

It is therefore important to try to understand what Scotus is saying, not in the distorting mirror of his Thomist opponents, but in his own terms. And in his own terms, his position appears to be that the reason ens could not stand to entia univocally as a genus stands to its species is that a differentia which determines a genus to a species 'adds' something to the genus which it determines, and there is, a fortiori, nothing 'outside' ens which could be added to it. Whatever it is that differentiates ens into finite and infinite will therefore have to be intrinsic to it. Now we have seen that for Scotus, when we predicate terms such as 'wise' and 'good' of God, we do so from within the context in which we learn them; that is to say, as they are predicated of creatures. But in predicating them of God we 'remove' from them any creaturely reference which derives from the context in which we have learned them, and, he argues, we may do that because creaturely reference is not intrinsic to their 'formal notions' -there is nothing in the meaning of 'wise' or 'good' which determines their character to be created properties. With the concepts 'wise' and 'good' thus reduced to their character of neutrality as between creature and Creator, we can attribute them to God in their most perfect degree. But the distinction between their predication in that sense of God and in their imperfect degree of creatures is not such as to destroy their logical status as univocal. How so?

For the reason that the primary distinction between God and creatures is, for Scotus, the distinction between infinite and finite being, and the distinction between infinite and finite is not a difference in kind; it is a distinction of intensity, Scotus says, within a common, univocal, meaning, just as the distinction between 'red' and 'bright red' is not a distinction between colours, but a distinction of intensive degree of the same colour. The distinction between bright red and red is not, therefore, determined by a differentia which is added to 'red', thus creating, as it were, two species of redness, 'red' and 'bright red'. And yet, because the concept of 'redness' is 'indifferent to' its intensive degrees, it is univocally predicated of both. In just the same way, 'infinite' and 'finite' are not quasi-differentiae added to terms predicated of God and creatures - 'wise' or 'being' or 'good' - which would require their logic to be construed on the lines of genera in their relation to species; rather, since in their pure formalities such terms are 'indifferent to' their intensive degrees, they can be predicated univocally of both. Hence, it is in just such terms that the compatibility is made good between saying that these terms are at once predicated univocally of God and of creatures while not standing to them as a genus does to its species.

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