To Be Nowhere

A new [modal] approach emerged from the idea of an omnipotent God.142

Being is fundamentally univocal for Ockham, i.e., actual being and possible being are not two kinds of being, but rather two aspects of the same kind of being.143

(H. Lagerlund)

After the condemnations of 1277 there was a methodological application of the idea of an omnipotent God as a hypothetical counterpoint to that which was regarded as reality.144 As Klocker says, 'what the world de facto is became entirely subordinated to what it could have been and what it might become'.145 In this sense, every actuality became a limited expression of the possible. For Duns Scotus this meant that whatever existed was now to be considered in terms of alternative states of affairs. This, inevitably, was the secularisation of modalities.146 What we witness at this time is a radical shift from an extensional (referential) modality to an intensional (sense-orientated) one, which is itself the advent of the concept in its modern form.147 The starting point for Scotus was logical possibility (possibilitas logica);148 interestingly it was Scotus who first introduced the term. That which existed had now to be considered not as actual but as factual for the univocity of being flattened the distinct sides of existentiality, essentialising being in the name of the possible: 'Realisation in the actual world is no longer the criterion of real possibility.'149 Any particular entity contained within itself its own dissolution, for it was composed of a plurality of forms which possessed their own appropriate being. This new modality took these quasi-forms and realised them counterfactually, such that the object from which these possible forms were taken could not legitimate its own unity over these alternatives. In other words, the very possibility of an intensional modality forbade the provision of any legitimacy to the actual. (We see here the beginnings of the Nietzschean corollary, for that which 'is' will be forced to fight for its place in this world, as numerous alternatives struggle to disturb it.) The possible (including compossible states of affairs) possesses an intensional being given to it by God who bestows it by thinking its possibility, yet that which receives is always already potentially intelligible.150 Ockham wrote, 'If it is possible it is possible before it is produced in intelligible being.'151 It is this which begins to complete the Scotist unravelling.

Scotus declared, 'I do not call something contingent because it is not always or necessarily the case, but because its opposite could be actual at the very moment it occurs.'152 Yet to define contingency in terms of counter-factuality is to misplace it. For to do so introduces a contorted form of necessitarianism, since that which is is not necessary here but it is necessary in itself. The aprioricity generated by a conception of the possible as not anchored in the essence of God will perforce insist on the necessity of that which is thought. There is no longer any actual contingency but instead virtual necessity. As Scotus says, 'I do not say something is contingent but that something is caused contingently.'153 This illusion of contingency stems from a notion not involving any particular entity but rather the hic et nunc in general. It is this which is rendered contingent, not a here and now but the here and now in toto, which is regarded as the instantiation of one possible order, not as a series of unique actualities which establish their possibility only with their actuality.154

It is this loss of the 'here and now' which produces what Alliez calls an 'order with no Sunday'.155 This is because every would-be Sunday is displaced by the simultaneity of other possibles that do not simply struggle from outside the 'Sunday' but rise up from inside, as monstrous parts become wholes. This mereological (part-to-whole) nightmare means that 'identifiability is not bound to any single world'.156 There can be no qualitative legitimacy invoked for the presence of one rather than another. As Burrell says, 'Scotus looks more at features of things than at things themselves.'157 Consequently, Scotus looks at the world as a 'conceptual system'.158

This diremption of the here and now precipitates an a priori realm, articulated by the ruminations of an intensional modality. The possible, in being potentially intelligible (esse intelligible), is independent of God and does not receive this potential from God. Instead the creature is possible in itself. Ockham argues, in an Avicennian manner, that 'possible being is something a creature has of itself.159 Things are now intrinsically possible in an absolute sense.160 However, this possibility is only of itself formally speaking. It remains principatively dependent on God, and yet this seems to mean very little:161 'A creature is possible, not because anything pertains to it, but because it can exist in reality.'162 Scotus appears to argue that the possible becomes an a priori condition of intelligibility, one which would be untouched by the non-existence of God: 'This logical possibility could remain separately in power by its own nature even when there were, per impossibile, no omnipotence to which it could be an object.'163 For Scotus and Ockham the proposition 'the world will be' is independent of the actual world.164 The possibility of such a proposition is determined by the compossibility or incompossibility of terms. In other words, possibility is a matter of the non-repugnance of terms.165 For this reason we can agree with Alanen when he says that for Ockham possibility is a 'predicate of propositions and not of things'.166 These propositions, which epitomise this modern modality, are called neutral propositions.167 God does not allocate a truth value to propositions until after the first instant of nature. (This is somewhat analogous to a notion of being which prescinds from determination, which is to say that both being and possibility occupy a place before existence and God.) Furthermore, God must think these propositions. As R. van der Lecq says, 'God produces things in their intelligibility, but the act of production is not an act of God's free will; it is an act of his intellect and therefore necessary, according to Scotus.'168 Knuuttila argues that for Scotus 'God necessarily thinks about whatever can be thought about'.169 We must remember that for Scotus the divine intellect 'is not an active power'.170 If there was no world nor 'per impossible no will . . . the ontologically relevant matrix of synchronic possible states of affairs would remain the same' (as Beck puts it).171 Suarez later occupies a similar position when he says that eternal truths which are known by God 'are not true because they are known by God, but rather they are thus known because they are true . . . [T]hey are eternal, not only as they are in the divine intellect but also in themselves and prescinding from it.'172 Aquinas refuses such an option: 'Yet if one considered [the possibility] that both intellects [Man's and God's] might vanish (which is impossible), the concept of truth would in no fashion remain (nullo modo veritatis ratio remaneret).'173 Knuuttila and Alanen state that 'until the early fourteenth century possibilities were treated as having a foundation in God; in the modern theory they were dissociated from this ontological backing'.174 Not only are possibilities independent of God, but 'Divine actuality disappears behind the infinite variety of what is possible', as Klocker puts it.175 Essences, conceived as the logical possibility of terms, are the foundation of this logico-epistemic modality.176 As Klaus Jacobi argues, the 'semantics of possible worlds is expressly or implicitly bound up with a metaphysics of essence'.177

Because this intensional modality is a logical modality it does not require a cause (it is in a sense causa sui).178 The possible is no longer defined by the actual, but is now more defined than the actual. This is the ascendancy of the law of non-contradiction.179 The 'law' (what is possible) is prior to the 'law-giver' (God).180 The consequence of this is the loss of language, matter, and time. Scotus, Ockham, and indeed Ghent,181 advocate an Avicennian understanding of possibility. For each understands possibility as intrinsic to what is possible, viz., what is possible is possible by definition, hence it is an intensional modality. What we see here is a loss of creation, causation, actuality, and contingency. Instead there is the elaboration of a merely 'diacritical' being. In other words, the 'world' appears only within the occult workings of terms which afford some nominal notion of cognitive representation.182 Within this 'tradition' being is essentialised, in that what counts as being is less than existence - being becomes an a priori realm of possible essences. Further, this essentialised being becomes factualised. As Gilson says, 'Scotus forbears any attempt to characterise the actual existence of things, treating that fact as more like a presupposition'.183 In a similar vein Burrell makes the point that a consequence of this modal shift is that 'possible worlds become as engaging as the actual world, since nothing distinguishes actual from possible except the mere fact that it happens to exist'.184 Such an understanding is also prevalent in Ockham.

Ockham had two cognitive theories: that of the fictum, or objective-existence theory; and the intellectio, or mental act theory.185 Each required the positing of unactualised possibles. By eventually moving to the second theory, Ockham endeavoured to reduce these entities to one act of cognition. But as he himself realised, this required that the Divine cognition be equally of all things. Yet Ockham thinks that God's act is more akin to the rational act than the nonrational. So the divine act cannot be equally of all. What Ockham must then do is transfer the onus onto the working of terms, so as to provide the requisite difference. Essences become 'beings', then these become merely logical phenomena. As Ockham says, 'logical potency represents a certain way in which terms can be combined by the mind'.186 Alanen, commenting on this passage, argues that for Ockham 'possibility in the absolute sense is . . . a predicate of propositions and not of things'.187 It is, as Adams says, 'just that God and creatures are eternally apt to be signified by the terms'.188 Whatever is understood (and it seems this goes for God's self-understanding) is 'nothing although understood'.189 Even for Scotus the 'relation of compossibility and incompossibility of the terms are and remain the same regardless of whether the things signified exist or whether there is my intellect to combine them'.190 The operation of these terms in generating intelligibility depends, literally, on nothing (acting as something). As Scotus says, 'everything which is unqualifiedly nothing includes in itself the essence of many'.191 For Ockham this nothing is just as operational. McGrade argues, 'Ockham has plenty of nothing, and nothing is plenty for him'.192 As already said, this logical intelligibility, in being logical, does not require a cause. Furthermore, it relativises this world by engendering possible worlds. Ross argues that 'creation has no place at all because all possibilities are equally real and equally actual'.193 Possible worlds deny actuality in terms of a view-pointed perspectivalism. In other words, being is now world-relative. Furthermore, logical modalities endeavour to remove all tensedness from propositions, rendering lived discourse atemporal. This endemic formalism (and its accomplice possibilism) fails to interpret terms in any first-order sense of understanding. So we can see that there is indeed a loss of actuality, contingency, and time: a lack of tenses is deemed veridically irrelevant because of view-pointed actualism and the self-causation of logic. Instead we must insist, with Ross (because these systems are not 'theologically neutral'194), that there are no empty possibles. Even if we entertained the notion of empty possibles we would be unable to name them, as there would not be enough transcendent determinacy to allow for indexical context. Consequently, they would remain logically inaccessible. Furthermore, it must be understood that being is not exhausted by kinds, nor kinds by cases.195 As Ross insists, 'God settles what might have been in so far as it is a consequence of what exists'.196 Consequently, an intensional logic is dependent on the actual nature of things which permit such modal abstractions. The intensional content 'parasitises' the real world.197 The possible is understood in terms of actual knowledge a posteriori, because 'power is known through its acts'.198 However, we must not define possibility a posteriori but only what is possible, otherwise we remain vulnerable to Lovejoy's 'principle of plenitude', which argues that what is possible is realised in actuality.199 Furthermore, to do so would be to advocate merely a statistical understanding of possibility. This is a distinction clearly articulated by Klaus Jacobi.200 It is this which most advocates of intensional modalities misunderstand. As a result they treat intensional logics like a big extensional logic, in that they make intensional names into 'things'201 and so take us to places to which we should not go, indeed to the feet of nothingness, where formal 'Satanic notations whisper the ontologies'.202 Instead the formal must serve the actual. Logic should be interpreted meta-linguistically, according to lived usage and first-order expressions.203 Aquinas accepts a logical or intensional understanding of modal notions, but these are parasitic on the 'semantic richness of first-order language', as Goris puts it.204 For this reason, the intensional meaningfulness of discourse rests on an understanding of the actual world.205 As Schmidt puts it: 'Truth, and truth about real being, is the end and final cause of logic.'206

Ens infinitum: ens univocum207

Every other being distinct from the infinite being is called 'a being' by participation because it captures a part of that entity present there perfectly and totally.208

(Duns Scotus)

For Scotus there is a somewhat weaker distinction between essence and existence than there is for Aquinas. Two theses will be argued in this section. The first is that for Scotus there is no real distinction in a creature, nor in God. That much is incontrovertible, but this is extended to suggest that there is in effect, for Scotus, no real distinction between God and creatures. So the second thesis is that there is, then, effectively for Scotus, only a formal distinction between God and creatures. We can think a difference, so there is one, but this difference is but a formality.

The basis for the above is what has been referred to as the univocity of non-being. If Plotinus' meontology is combined with Avicenna's understanding of being as the subject of metaphysics, a univocity of non-being is approached; especially if it is remembered that Avicenna's being prescinds from both God and creature, universal and particular, actual (existent) and possible (non-existent). Furthermore, it was argued above that Henry of Ghent located the divine ideas somewhat outside the divine essence - a move which facilitated an embryonic espousal of an intensional modality. As we saw, this modality was taken up and developed by Scotus and Ockham. It can be witnessed in Scotus in his advocacy of a univocity of being and the formal distinction, along with the advent of a priori logical possibility. Ockham betrays the presence of this modality in his advocacy of a logical possibility, which does not depend on the existence of God. This possibilism manifests itself in his nominalism and in his subsequent dependence on the logic of terms and propositions.

Taking the above moves in conjunction with the notion of a univocity of non-being is not outrageous. Such a univocity is witnessed in so far as being is also that which is not, in an existential sense. For essences are eternal; or as Gilson puts it: 'Essences always exist.'209 Richard Cross, an extremely sympathetic reader of Scotus, argues that possibilities 'have their properties without their needing to exist in any sense, whether as thought objects or as extra mental reality'.210 This echoes Scotus' understanding of contingency. For Scotus, as we have seen, does not say that there are contingent things, but merely that things are caused contingently.211 This causation has more to do with synchronic contingency than that of actuality. That is to say, contingency is not a circumstance of something existing after not existing, but that this configuration is contingent; for in a sense every possibility is eternal. Consequently, a possible always exists. In this way contingency cannot rest on actual objects being contingent, for all beings are, in terms of their possibility, necessary, that is, a priori; necessary in their pure possibility without reference to the actual. As a result it is the configuration of possibilities caused by God's will that allows for contingency. Such a configuration remains immanent to its being represented thus and so. This will be explained below.

Scotus' formalism, along with the axiomatic absolute power of God, causes all beings to lose their substantial form. Each entity is always other than itself, or it has an other in itself. For each being has a legion of forms which exist. They may not actually exist in an existential sense -nonetheless they still exist as eternal essences. What, then, enables the cognitive presentation of a singular entity that has within itself many other existents is re-presentation. By this I mean that cognition is a matter of construction, that is, re-arrangement. For this reason Alliez says that 'everything that does not imply contradiction is in a certain fashion res because every reality, even empirical, not only experiences a composition, but also depends on a constitution of a point of view'.212 Scotus tells us that as a finite being is less than the infinite, it represents a part of that infinitude. It is for this reason that Gilson is correct to call Scotus' metaphysics 'practical'.213 Cognition is practical in that it must 'make' that which is cognised, to the degree that any cognised object has a number of unrealised synchronic possibilities which could have been configured by a different re-presentation. Alliez argues that not only has re-presentation become absolute, but the subjective and objective realms have in Scotus become the same: 'Because the Scotist doctrine of the plurality of distinct forms a parte rei applies indifferently to the domain of being and to the soul, those two aspects, objective and subjective, say the same.'214 Why is this the case? Because reality does not logically exclude cognition in the absence of an object, a state of affairs reflected in the virtuality of every being. What is meant by this is that every being is virtually more, less, or different because it lacks a single substantial form. Consequently, every entity is composed of a plethora of forms that are realised formally, which means that they possess a certain type of being. The formal thought of an essence, which is a logical possibility, exists; but we do not always cognise it; though this essence is there only formally it is nonetheless real. In this way, every cognition, that is, representation, involves an absent concrete object. The object which we represent is not there to the degree that it is only within our representation, in so far as it is also other than how we do represent it. This is a consequence of the object's aforementioned virtuality.

We now turn to the notion of infinity, so as to elaborate the notion of the univocity of being, and to further explicate the virtual nature of every entity.


From the plenitude of its 'virtual quality' the infinite is measuring everything else as greater or lesser to the degree that it approaches the whole or recedes from it.215

(Duns Scotus)

The real goal of the tendency which is dragging men and things toward pure quantity can only be the final dissolution of the present world.216

Following Henry of Ghent, Duns Scotus treats infinity as a positive perfection.217 Ghent had thought that it was a negative term but a positive affirmation.218 As Davenport puts it: 'In an absolute sense, Henry argues, the word "infinite" negates a negation, and is therefore strictly equivalent to an affirmation.'219 A more positive understanding of infinity was bequeathed to Ghent, Scotus and Ockham by Augustine's two conceptions of quantity: quantitas molis (quantity of bulk), and quantitas virtutis sive perfectionis (quantity of perfection). The first was augmented by the application of a standard unit. The latter was the rationalisation of intensive phenomena, for example, colour.220 Aquinas only allowed this second type of infinite to apply to spiritual perfection.221 Furthermore, this application was negative. In Aquinas, as Davenport says, 'There is no single continuously increasing quantity . . . [I]n place of the "smooth" scala perfectionis envisaged by Augustine, proceeding by degrees . . . Thomas presents a discontinuous system.'222 Davenport may not be correct about Augustine, but it is true that Scotus makes the notion of an intensive infinite fundamental to his system.223 For Scotus, infinity is not only a perfection but is the simplest of concepts we have of God.224 It is for this reason that we should understand that Scotus' infinity is an intrinsic mode. That is, it does not come by addition; instead it is intensive and actual.225 For Aquinas, infinity is understood as a negatively relational property, which is to say that God is infinite because God lacks any relation to a limiting entity, such as matter; consequently, infinity is a negative perfection.226 But for Scotus it is actual, that is, it is all at once, which means that this infinity is not constituted by the relativity of a non-relation. What is important for us here is how we read this Scotist infinity.

A small infinity227

It is only inasmuch as I am infinite that I am limited.228

(Maurice Blanchot)

Richard Cross suggests that 'an uncharitable account would be that Scotus' God is just a human person writ large'.229 Yet this is exactly the reading offered by Louis Bouyer: 'The thrust [of Scotus'] thought inevitably makes this infinity nothing but an infinite magnification of what we are.'230 Thus it in effect rests upon an understanding of infinity which suggests that its quantitative logic requires that the infinite share a sliding scale with the finite. When one reads what Cross has to say on the matter of infinity he appears to concede, whether knowingly or not, such a conception: 'It is ultimately one of Degree' - even if, to be sure, for Scotus an infinite degree is not comparable with any finite degree.231 This notion of infinity will be explored below in an effort to draw out the difficulties involved in its conception and in its application to God. Part II, Chapter 10 returns to the matter. This should be kept in mind so that what is written here is not simply taken as conclusive. (For example, it is argued in Part II, Chapter 10 that Gregory of Nyssa's use of infinity is important.)

What is suggested here is that if infinity is a quantitative matter of degree then it cannot allow for a real ontological difference. For we can certainly say x is more than y, but we cannot say that to be more is 'more' in a qualitative sense. If it is said 'I love my wife more than I love you', does it mean that this is a better love by reason of its quantity? Maybe not, because one does not love one's wife more, rather one loves her differently. The word more merely distracts; one could love obsessively, pathologically, and that would not be necessarily good; indeed, it may be an inferior form of loving. Can Scotus not argue that his more is qualitative? Maybe, but a sympathetic and, with regard to this topic, his most sophisticated interpreter, argues decisively that Scotus' conception of infinity is purely quantitative.232 What is important is that the problem of a shared scale, or frame of reference, reappears. In an earlier quotation we saw Scotus define the infinite as the measuring in degrees of what approaches or recedes from the whole which is the infinite. The problem with infinity is that it always seems to be ordinal (if so it is subordinate to the series of which it is the nth value). But according to Scotus, infinite being 'exceeds any finite being whatsoever, not by some assigned proportion, but beyond every assigned, or assignable proportion'.233 Nevertheless, Davenport, commenting on infinite being, says that although the infinite 'cannot be reached by finite steps, it belongs conceptually to the same univocal "measure" of excellence to which the finite belongs'.234 A consequence of this is, as Scotus argues, that 'everything finite, since it is less than the infinite, represents a part'.235 This appears after all to confirm the implication that the difference of the infinite relies on the limitations of the finite. So, when Scotus says that the infinite is above every assignable proportion, this may not mean that the infinite is beyond every proportion, for it is only beyond every assignable proportion. It can only be conceived, and indeed only exists in its essence, in contrast to the finite; in this way it is dependent in its distinct reality on the limitations of the finite. It is logically possible that a proportion could exist yet remain unassigned, for there is indeed a proportion, it is simply not available. There is therefore a 'measure' that lies outside the infinite and the finite and the measure is, of course, being.

But Scotus explicitly asserts that 'God and creature share in no reality'.236 He also declares that 'Every created essence [is] nothing other than its dependence with regard to God.'237 How do we reconcile this with the possibilism mentioned earlier according to which essences always exist, for there would be the same logical possibilities even if God did not exist? Yet the two aspects do not conflict, for indeterminate being is itself the 'arch possibility' whose insistence engenders the real according to an outlook that is at bottom both essentialist and logicist. Hence God and creatures do share in a certain 'non-reality', whose nullity is nonetheless fundamental.

Rudi Te Velde has written an interesting article comparing Scotus and Aquinas in relation to nature and will.238 What is of relevance for us is the fact that Te Velde argues that for Aquinas nature includes a natural inclination to transcend itself. For nature depends on God, and in this way is like part to whole. Consequently, in seeking its own good, nature will seek the universal good. The creature is by way of participation, the consequence of which is that the creature is more directed to God than it is to itself. For Scotus there is no such inclination and no notion of self-transcendency; nature is for him more immanent. It is possible to suggest that the reason that nature does not move towards God in Scotus is because nature or 'reality', with all its essences, is in a certain sense not dependent on God, because it is, as a 'part' of the infinite, 'self-possessed'; a slice of being in its own right. (In this way an echo of Avicennian Neoplatonism is sustained; nature is, in this sense, a piece of divinity.)

It may be for such reasons that Alliez speaks of Scotus in terms of a 'constructive monism',239 while Goodchild simply calls Scotus' monism a 'strange monism'.240 Goodchild makes the point that some Scotist scholarship makes the mistake of conceiving the univocity of being in a Neoplatonic manner. He correctly argues against this, for the simple reason that in Scotus one and being are diverse, and must remain so;241 these transcendentals are separate. Is the interpretation of Scotus offered here guilty of the same mistake? Maybe not, in so far as it is being argued that the univocity of being logically implies a univocity of non-being. Consequently, I am arguing that for Scotus being is not (since it is a partially determined essence), and that there is but one being, which in its unity is formally distinct from itself, such that univocity of being again for this reason 'is not' being; already as one being it departs from pure existence. This is the meontotheology of nihilism's logic: nothing as something. It is this which finite and infinite share. Certainly it was not Scotus' intention to develop a metaphysical system that permits such an interpretation, but this does not mean that such an interpretation is illegitimate. We have eternal essences, a nature not inclined towards its maker, and a univocity of being which is there to rid us of being, by making it indifferent. This points us in the direction of Descartes in terms of the practical representation of cognition, and Spinoza and Hegel in so far as God and Nature, infinite and finite, are seen as an aspectual dialectic of a monistic whole in the fashion of Jastrow's duck-rabbit. One 'picture' gives two aspects, distracting us forever from the one that moves, and moves us, between these aspectual perceptions. This will become more cogent as this book proceeds, especially in Part II, Chapter 10.

The next chapter discusses Scotus' and Ockham's doctrine of intuitive cognition, in an effort to corroborate this chapter's idea that there is a latent univocity of non-being, in so far as intuitive cognition provides a further example of the logic of nihilism: nothing as something.

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