Symposium Introduction

Ours is an age of genealogy—of narrative mastertext, that is, which frames the advent of the present through the contingencies of history. Among the most stimulating genealogies on offer belongs to the syndicate of high-octane Britons who do their work under the antimodernist banner of Radical Orthodoxy. What began as an academic conference became, well, what exactly? Not a set of doctrines, not a school, not even a movement—better, they prefer, a “theological sensibility”1 or a “style of metaphysical vision.”2  Labels aside, the Radically Orthodox share a common charism in assaying the world by Christian canons. Their goal, then—that toward which they severally and collectively order their efforts—seeks a comprehensively Christian account of the world. And doing that, or trying, typically means narrating a story about how we got from premodern to postmodern. That story’s likely to be a theological fable of some kind or another that draws deeply from the Christian archive and lexicon. Or so the work of John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, Graham Ward, Conor Cunningham, and others.

Ingredient to all genealogy is a villain—sometimes several. Most usually, this means an ideologue whose intellectual specter excites heterodox thought-forms that together conjure modernity. Think Charles Taylor and his Reformers (Catholic and Protestant), Cyril O’Regan and his Valentinians, and so on. So too with the Radically Orthodox. Their rake? This laurel, or one of them, falls about the neck of John Duns Scotus, the late-13th century Franciscan scholastic. And his crime? That his intellectual gifts were tempered and overwritten by blight: his (in)famous univocal concept of being. Most basically, the concept of being for Scotus includes both God and creatures. Or being is “univocal.” And while being may be either infinite or finite, being’s univocity means God and creatures “exist” in exactly the same sense, if not in the same mode.3 The Radically Orthodox argue that here Scotus innovates a distinction between theology, which studies infinite (and finite) being, and ontology, which concerns being as such.4 And this, regardless of Scotus’s intentions, names the condition for the eventual possibility of a space called the secular. In other words, Radical Orthodoxy’s problem concerns the very form of Scotist thought. It conceives being in a space somehow outside or beyond God. From there, it becomes possible to conceive being without God. Once, there was no secular—then came Scotus. So construed, modernity spells not the end of the dark ages, but “a ‘certain Middle Ages’ which has never ceased to be dominant.”5

That, at least in the crude shades I’ve here sketched it, represents what Daniel Horan, OFM, calls Radical Orthodoxy’s “Scotus Story.” And it’s exactly this story his Postmodernity and Univocity: A Critical Account of Radical Orthodoxy and John Duns Scotus means to dispute.

But defending the doctor subtilis is no mean task. His texts are intricately woven things, embroidered with technical scholastic idiom and delicate argumentation. Horan begins with the via negativa, something Scotus didn’t much like. I am not a Scotist specialist, Horan confesses in a loud voice, nor do I pretend to the role. But the hour grows too late and the stakes too high, he continues, to let the theological shade-throwing at Horan’s Franciscan confrère pass unchecked. Postmodernity and Univocity means only to contest Radical Orthodoxy’s portrait of Scotus as “protomodernist” and to disentangle Scotus’s univocity theory from its subsequent abuses. Neither, last, does Horan seek the reader’s baptism in Scotist waters. He asks only that Scotus be heard before he is condemned, if condemned at last he be.

Chapter 1 surveys Radical Orthodoxy texts for the Scotus story in its native habitat. Horan begins where Radical Orthodoxy begins: with Milbank’s intellectual deviation narrative that stretches from Scotus’s univocity theory, through early modernity, and finally to the construction of the secular. But if Milbank renders Scotus’s likeness for the wanted posters, Catherine Pickstock details Scotus’s crimes. She indicts Scotus for his formal distinction and his preference for the possible over the actual, both of which “open the way for modern metaphysics” (46). Pickstock’s charges animate the work of other Radical Orthodox—Conor Cunningham’s Genealogy of Nihilism, Graham Ward’s Cities of God, Gavin Hyman’s The Predicament of Postmodern Theology.

But what began as a tribal etiology of modernity among the Radical Orthodox spreads beyond their shire. So the Scotus story finds theological raconteurs in Stanley Hauerwas, Bishop Robert Barron, and Adrian Pabst. The story spreads further still—to the great secularologist Charles Taylor, the Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton, Brad Gregory, Karen Armstrong. Even to Francis Cardinal George, the late Archbishop of Chicago. It’s the proliferation of these retellings, it seems, that most worries Horan. Almost always absent reference to Scotus’s texts, these retellings aid “the unchecked repetition of Radical Orthodoxy’s misreading and misinterpretation of Scotus’s thought” (96).

Chapter 3 tenders the witness to the defense. Horan first hears cross-examinations of Scotus by Richard Cross and Thomas Williams. Against Radical Orthodoxy, Cross defends a sharp distinction between the grammar and metaphysics of univocity in Scotus. Such ought to allay concerns over idolatry and ontotheology in Scotus, neither of which Cross thinks Scotus indulges. Thomas Williams pushes further still. Not only does Radical Orthodoxy misconstrue Scotus’s theory of univocity “in support of their genealogical assertions about modernity” (121). Radical Orthodoxy also misses the fact that Scotist univocity is systematically “true and salutary” (126). Why then can the Radically Orthodox not see? What explains their “Scotist illiteracy” (142)? Horan argues that Radical Orthodoxy’s fever pitch to recover a theological metaphysics forces hurried juxtaposition between Scotus and a Thomas fashioned after their own image.6 For Radical Orthodoxy, Scotus has as his primary role the “not-Thomas”—a habit of reading they learned from Étienne Gilson and Éric Alliez. In this way, Radical Orthodoxy conscripts a highly idiosyncratic Thomas to battle a historically unrecognizable Scotus. All this idiosyncrasy provokes a deeper question: “What’s so ‘orthodox’ about Radical Orthodoxy?” (152).

Chapter 4 returns to Scotus without, Horan hopes, courting the errors of Radical Orthodoxy. That means, first, reading Scotus against his historical interlocutor—not Thomas, but Henry of Ghent. It was Henry’s stronger account of analogy that Scotus resisted. Scotus worries that Henry’s position—that there be only a confused notion that’s somehow “analogously common” to God and creatures (168)—renders theology impossible. Speech about God depends for its intelligibility upon a concept whose extension includes both God and creatures. And that concept is being. How else to talk? Notice, Horan asks, how Scotus plays “logician and not a metaphysician” (173), roles Radical Orthodox readers confuse. Again, Scotus means only to endorse a concept of being common to God and creatures. And concepts, Horan argues, name “vicious abstractions” for Scotus. Being does not, then—as Scotus repeatedly denies—name a genus under which God and creatures fall as species. No, the concept of being as an abstraction remains “formally distinct” from the “really unified being proper to either God or creatures.” The upshot of Horan’s emphasis on semantics against the Radically Orthodox seems clear: “God and his creatures do not actually share being in common” (181).

Still, why retain Scotus’s doctrine of univocity? Isn’t it quite literally just semantics? Because, Horan concludes, Scotus was right to worry about analogy’s ascendancy over God-talk. At best, analogy courts a “suspension of theology”; at worst, “exclusive apophaticism and theologically discursive dogmatism” (186). More, univocity’s role in Scotist defenses of natural theology and haecceity—or irreducible particularity—makes it especially attractive to postmodern theologies. Most, serious engagement with Scotus’s doctrine of univocity invites the weaving of a new story, one that refuses to incriminate Scotus for all of modernity’s offenses. A return to Scotus, Horan thinks, may prove crucial “for responding to the signs of our times and developing a postmodern theology” (191).


*          *          *


So Horan’s proposal across Postmodernity and Univocity. Our expert panelists receive it variously. Still, understanding Scotus-talk demands an exorbitantly high price of admission. In hopes of relieving reader buy-in, then, I indulge a bit more summary of panelist responses than is typical for Syndicate introductions.

Justus H. Hunter asks “so what?” Suppose we agree that Radical Orthodox retrievals of scholastic figures remains rather doxographic. Suppose we even agree that their readings betray deeper interest in arranging genealogy than in discipling oneself to a text. Even then, this doesn’t  get us far. Radical Orthodox thinkers, Hunter suspects, aren’t terribly interested in “getting it right.” They’re interested in telling a story. The Scotus police can blow their whistles until dizzy or syncopal. And they have: Horan is hardly the first whistleblower. What, then, does Horan hope to accomplish? One clue lies toward the end of Horan’s book, where he recommends Scotus’s thought as “relevant today.” It’s one thing, Hunter writes, to defend Scotus’s univocity doctrine. But it’s quite another to wax doxographic about Scotus’s continued relevance for postmodern theology. And anyway, isn’t Scotus’s happy relation to contemporary theology exactly what Radical Orthodoxy prophesied all along?

Lydia Schumacher begins before Scotus. She’s interested in the very inception of Franciscan scholasticism: the so-called Halensian school gathered about the discalced feet of Alexander of Hales. These first generation Franciscan scholastics enshrined their thought in the Summa fratris Alexandri—the Summa of Brother Alexander. There “Alexander” ventures a bold innovation: he adopts the controversial epistemology of Avicenna, the great medieval Islamic philosopher. Schumacher argues that this move betrays a primordial Franciscan impulse. Avicenna’s epistemology holds that God impresses transcendental terms onto the mind. But isn’t this how the various vitae depict St Francis himself, bearing a constant and innate connection with God? Discerning distinctly Franciscan impulses behind conceptual innovations may well offer a new strategy for reading Scotus. Maybe what’s at issue, Schumacher suggests, isn’t Scotus himself. Maybe what’s at issue is the gradual “de-contextualization” from a Franciscan milieu that Scotus’s thought has suffered.

Richard Cross thinks Horan gets the Scotus story exactly right. His response, then, focuses attention not on the story but rather on Horan’s positive retrieval of Scotus. First, Cross wonders about Horan’s claims to relationality. Second and against the Radically Orthodox, Cross reaffirms that Scotus’s univocity doctrine has vanishingly little to do with ontology. Third, Cross assays the contest Radical Orthodoxy has staged between Thomas and Scotus on metaphysics. Too often have the Radically Orthodox conflated the grammatical and metaphysical. Usually this means pitting Scotus’s “univocal” ontology against Thomas’s “participatory” one. But if univocity concerns semantics and so bears no ontological implications, then the same holds for analogy. That Thomas prefers analogous semantics does not mean he claims special privilege to the metaphysics of participation, a metaphysics Scotus too endorses. Not that Thomas and Scotus always agree. No: Unlike Thomas, Scotus denies identity between divine attributes and the divine essence. Cross finds interesting Scotus’s refusal to make of the divine attributes—power, wisdom, and goodness, say—spooky characteristics of God upon which our language has no bearing whatever. It’s this, Cross thinks, that forms the principal theological implication of Scotus’s semantic move. Why hasn’t Horan considered it?

John Milbank’s long and rich response resists neat summary. Consider two of Milbank’s interlocking theses: first, that the strictly semantic reading of Scotist univocity commits anachronism; and second, that close attention to the text and context of Gilson’s Scotus book reveals its cogency, elegance, and correctness. In support of the first thesis, Milbank argues that Horan fails to map Scotus scholarship accurately. The decisive fault line yawns not between idiosyncratic French scholars and the mainstream, but rather between Anglophone analytic interpreters and Scotus’s more historically-keyed readers on the continent. This cartographic mistake leads to hermeneutical prejudice. Horan uncritically privileges the semantic line on univocity over and against the metaphysical one.

The remainder and majority of Milbank’s magisterial essay defends his second thesis. Sure, Gilson’s Jean Duns Scot sometimes lacks subtlety. His comparisons between Scotus and Thomas as variously voluntarist versus intellectualist, essentialist versus existentialist, and Augustinian versus Aristotelian are finally too tidy. No doubt Gilson’s Thomistic bias tinctures his reception of Scotus. And Gilson could be better, too, on Avicenna’s deep and abiding influence on Scotus. On the whole, though, Milbank thinks Gilson’s project mostly right-headed. Whatever its shortcomings, Gilson’s book was right to worry about the damaging philosophical, theological, and even political sequelae that attend Scotus’s thought. This means that following Gilson’s “speculative lead” entails deepening his historical verdict on Scotus while “purging the philosophical one of all ambiguity.” So sound the war-horns that summon the Radically Orthodox to battle—with the Scotus story their battle hymn.

  1. Graham Ward, “In the Economy of the Divine: A Response to James K.A. Smith,” PNEUMA: Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies 25 (2003): 117.

  2. Catherine Pickstock, “Radical Orthodoxy and the Meditations of Time,” Radical Orthodoxy? A Catholic Enquiry, ed. Laurence Paul Hemmung (Burlington: Ashgate, 2000), 63.

  3. Richard Cross, “‘Where Angels Fear to Tread’: Duns Scotus and Radical Orthodoxy,” Antonianum 76 (2001): 15.

  4. John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 305.

  5. Catherine Pickstock, “Duns Scotus: His Historical and Contemporary Significance,” Modern Theology 21.4 (2005): 568.

  6. Horan acknowledges his debt to and admiration of Paul DeHart’s Aquinas and Radical Orthodoxy: A Critical Inquiry (New York: Routledge, 2012).

Justus H. Hunter


Hunter Commentary on Postmodernity and Univocity

A book-length study of the Radical Orthodox reading of Duns Scotus occurred to me once, but I couldn’t see what would be the point. Everything worth saying about the matter, as far as I was concerned, had already been said, with greater incisiveness and elegance than I could manage, by Richard Cross.1 Daniel Horan, however, rightly observed that the conversation has grown too disparate and scattered. So Horan did the right thing; he gathered together the various contributions, organized them into a conversation, and added his own voice.

Postmodernity and Univocity is an appraisal and rebuttal to Radical Orthodoxy’s “Scotus story.” Shortly after Scotus’s death, Thomas Sutton was already arguing for Thomas’s view of analogy against the Franciscan Master. At that point, everyone was aware that the debate was conceptual. That is, those debates were over whether or not “being” is a conceptus communis, a common concept prescinding the distinction between finite and infinite being. All parties were perfectly clear that the debate was not metaphysical; the dispute was about the plausibility of what Richard Cross has called a “vicious abstraction.” Radical Orthodoxy’s “Scotus story,” on the other hand, reads the debate over univocity as if it were metaphysical. The “Scotus story” infers from Scotus’s argument that “being” is predicated univocally of God and creatures and that “being” is a genus containing both God and creatures. That position is unsalutary, as Thomas and Scotus would agree. As is well known, Milbank argues that this idolatrous metaphysical position was the condition for the possibility of the “secular,” itself a condition for the possibility of modernity. Thus, Scotus’s primordial theological mistake is manifest variously throughout the subsequent Western intellectual history. And so the “Scotus story” is foundational to the RO project, or so Horan contends.

Horan demonstrates the Scotus story’s iterations in contemporary theology. He further shows that its many rehearsals rarely take into account the substantial criticisms leveled against it by specialists working on the thought of the Subtle Doctor. That is, in spite of trenchant criticisms by Richard Cross, Thomas Williams, Mary Beth Ingham, and others, the Radical Orthodox “Scotus story” popularized by John Milbank and developed by Catherine Pickstock continues unperturbed. Horan’s book seeks to bring these criticisms, together with his own, to greater light than they have enjoyed heretofore.

The critics show extensive methodological deficiencies in the Radical Orthodox reading of John Duns Scotus. There is no evidence of substantial engagement with the primary sources in any text by a Radical Orthodox author. The most substantial reading given, Catherine Pickstock’s After Writing, fails to evidence the best practices of Scotus scholarship: she is inattentive to text-critical issues, she does not consider development in the Subtle Doctor’s thought, she does not consult the critical editions.

Rather than developing their readings from the primary sources, the Radical Orthodox “Scotus story” is heavily reliant upon a particular set of secondary literature. French philosophers Étienne Gilson, Éric Alliez, Olivier Boulnois, and Jean-François Courtine, among others, populate Radical Orthodox footnotes. Horan cites several problems with these sources, although a more thorough analysis could be given. That analysis would go beyond vague rejections of Gilson’s analysis.

It is surely an intriguing story as to how Scotus’s univocity went from its refinement by the early Scotists, against apologia for Thomas’s analogy, to recent iterations by French theorists, and their reception by these several theologians out of Cambridge and Nottingham. That study, however, would be a sizable monograph in its own right. 2 Horan does enough work to show several problems with these sources, and so one is left with the distinct impression that the “Scotus story” is less concerned with getting Scotus “right,” and more concerned with advancing a proposal.

Horan also shows that the method whereby that proposal is advanced is by reading Scotus as the inverse of an “idiosyncratic” interpretation of Thomas Aquinas. Whether or not their interpretation is so “idiosyncratic” as Horan suggests, Radical Orthodox readings utilize Thomas and Scotus to typify subsequent theology. By dividing subsequent theologies into two camps—those holding to the analogia entis and the “univocalists”—readings of both Thomas and Scotus are shaped by their over-againstness.

Of course, there is nothing new about such oppositions. Although William Courtenay has shown that the development of the schools of Thomists and Scotists was rather complicated, waxing and waning over time, certainly by the time of Capreolus there had arisen a rather entrenched suspicion that to be faithful to Thomas on this and many other matters entailed the rejection of Scotus, among others. Long have theologians found the disagreements between these two great doctors to be rather substantial ones. And long have the followers of one of these Doctors found it necessary to give a response to the other.

More problematically, Radical Orthodox readings of Scotus belie a lack of attunement with medieval scholastic theology. In spite of a putative interest in the ressourcement of premodern Christian patterns of thought, remarkably little interest is given to the real substance of scholastic disputatio—the arguments themselves. Instead, a fixation with the conclusions, what Cross calls “doxagraphic” readings, abound. These doxagraphic readings are handy for Milbank’s genealogical aims, but they are also prone to produce rather awkward readings of the texts. This awkwardness, this distunement, I will suggest momentarily, is a significant deficiency of the Radical Orthodox proposal.

All this leads to the conclusion that Radical Orthodoxy’s “Scotus story” operates on the basis of a poor reading of John Duns Scotus. So I am thankful that Horan has taken the time to spell out the subtleties of Duns Scotus’s position on the univocity of “being.” His exposition of Scotus’s teaching on univocity in the final chapter is nicely done; it resists jargon, expresses neatly the critical issue, and follows closely the texts of Scotus and his most reputable English interpreters. This is not to say that his analysis is not demanding. One will have to puzzle out such terms as a “formally distinct modal disjunctive attribute” (181).

But another question lurks just beyond Horan’s corrective reading: so what? Milbank has, it would seem, encountered a similar correction in the past. At least, this seems to be reflected in his preface to the second edition of Theology and Social Theory. And yet, his recent Beyond Secular Order continues, and in fact expands upon, his original “Scotus story,” a trend which expands to even more startling proportions in his recent Communio article, “The Franciscan Conundrum.” This may not be intransigence. It may indicate that Milbank’s reading has a different aim than that of the Scotist guild. For Milbank, Scotus is interesting insofar as he is a nascent contributor to the “secular.” The story of the birth and advance of that concept, grounding in a theological mistake, is the centerpiece of his analysis. All the figures Milbank works into his genealogy are fit to that larger project, and so, insofar as “right” means conforming to the best practices of the guild, there is a disinterest in “getting it right.”

This methodological disagreement is probably intractable. I once asked a mentor whether or not he intended to write more extensively on John Duns Scotus in his future work. He replied, “No, the cost of admission is far too high.” This from a man known to comment to his students that lacking a language “was nothing a few good eighty-hour work weeks couldn’t fix.” The Subtle Doctor makes some rather arduous demands on his reader. Be precise. Move carefully. Puzzle out inferences. Fill in the blanks. Reading Scotus is a craft complicated by the state of the text, the brevity of his life, which left his thought in via, and the demand of his thought. So the “Scotus story” had incited the furor of those who have invested the time and energy to get their readings right.

Milbank is prone to mistake that furor for pedantry. At stake here is not merely the policing of the guild. At issue is a certain habit of mind, which only comes about as a result of disciplined study of these texts. There is something ironic about Radical Orthodoxy’s purported retrieval of a lost form of theological reflection, one properly contemplative, apophatic, analogical. In these claims, Radical Orthodoxy’s distunement to medieval modes of theology and philosophy are most vexing. Here they diverge from that venerable tradition of theologizing as Thomists, Scotists, Franciscans, Dominicans. Fidelity to a Master would entail expansion, goings-beyond, innovation, but always as apprentice of these luminaries. This means a final commitment to contemplation. Luminaries like Thomas and Scotus sought reasons (rationes) for the sake of intellection, and were confident that the latter would transcend the former in beatitude. The scholastic dialectic was “born of love,” as Paul Vignaux put it. It was suited to such contemplative pursuits. The tragedy of these skewed readings, most clearly betrayed in doxagraphical interpretations, is the loss of the opportunity to enter into the tutelage of either Thomas or Scotus.

This is something like the conclusion reached by Horan, but only something. For Horan, the travesty of Radical Orthodoxy’s “Scotus story” is its dismissal of Scotus’s thought. Horan finds Scotus’s actual proposals—the univocity of being, voluntarism, supralapsarian Christology—compelling and timely. In fact, much of the constructive argument presented towards the close of Postmodernity and Univocity is similarly doxagraphical:

[EXT]We might best understand Scotus’s approach to the univocity of being as anticipating ontological inquiry or metaphysical explication, setting the stage as the foundation and condition for such investigation. To uphold a position that maintains a univocal concept of being that is predicable of both God and creatures says little in se, but the system itself is invaluable when it comes to the development of a theology that might continue to be relevant today. (187–88)[/EXT]

The claim is merely suggestive, but the suggestion itself is troubling. Horan’s proposal, like Milbank’s, is far more ramified than the scholastic debates over the possibility of a conceptus communis. Horan seems to think Duns Scotus proffers not simply a compelling argument on “being,” a claim with which I am inclined to agree, but he further argues that the univocal predication of “being” renders possible natural theology, a “relationality” between God and creatures derived therefrom, and finally, relevance for today. On this point, I suspect Radical Orthodox theologians will be pleased; this is just the sort of thing they have argued follows from Scotus all along.

  1. “‘Where Angels Fear to Tread’: Duns Scotus and Radical Orthodoxy,” Antonianum 76 (2001) 7–41.

  2. Since the publication of Postmodernity and Univocity, Trent Pomplun has made a significant contribution to the historical background of Gilson’s influential reading of Scotus: “John Duns Scotus in the History of Medieval Philosophy from the Sixteenth Century to ¨Étienne Gilson,” (†1978),” Bulletin de philosophie médiévale 58 (2016) 355-445.

  • Daniel Horan

    Daniel Horan


    Reply to Justus Hunter

    It was with appreciation and gratitude that I read Justus Hunter’s contribution to this symposium. His opening lines echoed the thought-process that eventually led to the research and writing of this book—it is clear that Hunter, himself a careful reader and interpreter of Scotus and his contemporaries, understood my motivation, interest, and general aim in venturing into the fray of the Radical Orthodoxy (RO) movement and their treatment of Scotus. Hunter’s adroit overview of my work reflects the interpretation of a generous reader whose interest is in understanding well what has been proposed, what could be improved, and what the implications are going forward. It is a rare but affirming experience to read a colleague capture the major thrusts of your argument so accurately and yet so succinctly—those who do not wish to labor through my book themselves would do well to read the first half of Hunter’s essay, for it stands in as a now-examined reportatio of the case I have sought to present in Postmodernity and Univocity.

    In addition to his favorable assessment of the project in general, Hunter raises two points for further examination that I will respond to here. The first, a methodological question, is couched within the classic rhetorical frame of the “So What?” genre of inquiry. The second, a critique of one of my concluding remarks, begs clarification.

    On the methodological point, Hunter accurately and respectfully queries whether my effort to present a corrective reading to the RO “Scotus Story” is even a worthwhile endeavor. It is a fair question because, as Hunter rightly notes, similar efforts to correct RO’s haphazard treatment of ancient and medieval figures in general, and Milbank’s reading of them in particular, have had notably zero influence on RO. If anything, Milbank and other RO authors have only doubled down on their approach and interpretations. Hunter is correct to point out that Milbank and RO authors are hardly interested in getting Scotus “right” (nor are they, I might add, interested in getting Thomas or Augustine or others “right”—this is something that Paul DeHart, Scott MacDougall, and others have demonstrated in their respective work). Those who adopt and perpetuate the “Scotus Story” do so because, indeed, it fits a larger story, a genealogical narrative woven together by Milbank from the threads of eisegetical readings of theological, philosophical, and political figures. This RO metanarrative presumes as a matter of fact certain ills of modernity and that which is labeled “the secular” as intractably problematic. Until recently, Milbank and RO authors have pointed to Scotus as the primary inaugurator of the doomed trajectory that results in modernity, but as of late Milbank has inexplicably widened his sights to indict Scotus’s Franciscan predecessors.1 Milbank—as can be seen in his own contribution to this symposium—will not be persuaded: Not by me, not by Scotist scholars, not by anyone. And so, on this point about whether a monograph of this sort is worthwhile, indeed if it were my intention to convince Milbank et al. with a well-argued corrective, then Hunter’s implied answer is correct: it is a waste of time.

    But I did not write Postmodernity and Univocity for Milbank. I knew he would be implacable when it came to defending his RO fantasy. I wrote this book for everybody else, particularly those who might have inadvertently caught wind of the anti-Scotus sentiment spread by the viral repetition of the “Scotus Story” I document in chapter 2. My primary aim in this book was, as Hunter correctly described early on in his essay, to offer a definitive accounting of the RO movement’s creation of a medieval Franciscan scapegoat out of an otherwise under-examined philosopher and theologian; that is, under-examined since at least Leo XIII’s Aeterni Patris (1879). Hunter keenly describes the challenge that taking Scotus seriously places on his readers. It is difficult enough to encourage people to take Scotus seriously without the now widespread artificial maligning of his work and legacy. And yet, I am convinced that Scotus is worthy of historical engagement and contemporary ressourcement. Scotus’s contributions to metaphysics are just the beginning, for his theological work is also certainly in need of more widespread consideration and constructive retrieval. The potential is extraordinary, particularly when one delves into Scotus’s doctrinal work such as his contributions to sacramental theology, theology of the Trinity, Christology, ethics, and aesthetics, just to name a few loci.

    The answer to the “So What?” question is, from my perspective, simply sound justification for and encouragement that others disregard Milbank and anyone who presents Scotus as scapegoat and bogeyman. My admittedly humble hope was and remains that more theologians will consider Scotus on the Subtle Doctor’s own terms. And, even if Milbank and other RO authors remain uninterested in getting Scotus (and other thinkers) “right,” that those who do care about the integrity of historical scholarship and constructive theological engagement consider Scotus alongside Thomas, Bonaventure, and the rest of the medieval pantheon.

    To the second point Hunter raises, that what he views as my “suggestive” claim near the end of my book that strikes him as both doxographical and troubling, let me offer just a few remarks. First, I am grateful that Hunter names the concern he senses beyond the horizon of my project. His admittance that “the claim is merely suggestive” itself indicates to me the tenuousness of his reading, but it is a reading of my point that may not be unique to Hunter and therefore an important interpretation of some of my statements worth further reflection (in fact, on the subject of “relationality” and univocity, Cross will take this up in the next essay and therefore I’ll respond more fully there). Second, I welcome Hunter’s implicit encouragement for clarification on the meaning of the implications I highlight at the end of chapter 3. In brief, I sought to reiterate the syllogistic significance—or better, the necessity—of the univocal concept of being for any theological discourse (as I explain on page 186). What I did not intend to do is reinscribe the RO conclusion—hence Hunter’s note about doxography. Thanks to Hunter’s query, I see the opportunity for further explication at the end of that chapter. Finally, I would hope that the Conclusion be taken at face value for both its recapitulative and heuristic dimensions. In the end, my interest remains simply one of affirmation for those, like Hunter himself, who might engage the Subtle Doctor. That, when confronted by the naysaying and maligning of Scotus and his legacy arising from the ever-pervasive RO “Scotus Story,” theologians can point to Postmodernity and Univocity to say that the mistaken view of Scotus-as-villain has already been addressed. It is now time to tell a very different story.

    1. In addition to his latest monograph, Beyond the Secular Order: The Representation of Being and the Representation of the People (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014), see John Milbank, “The Franciscan Conundrum,” Communio 42 (2015) 466–92. For an insightful response to this move, see Lydia Schumacher’s contribution to this symposium.

Richard Cross


Duns Scotus, Univocity, and “Participatory Metaphysics”

Horan and the Metaphysical Consequences of Univocity

Dan Horan does a wonderful job telling the story of the “Scotus Story” (chs. 1–2), and provides a fine critique of the Story, exposing ways in which it misrepresents Scotus’s authentic thought on religious language (ch. 3). But I find his own positive account of Scotus’s theory—the “Correct Reading” of Scotus (ch. 4)—to be a little disappointing. So I will make this the focus on my discussion, noting that I find myself in substantial agreement with the material in the rest of the book. In that main part of the book, Horan is clear that Scotus’s univocity theory is simply a semantic theory—a theory to do with the meanings of words. As Horan shows, this semantic theory is one which is argued for on wholly semantic grounds.

But things go astray in Horan’s account when he comes to discuss “some metaphysical implications of univocity” (Horan, 185–88). Metaphysically, Horan claims that the univocity of the concept of being is necessary for “relationality”—by which, it turns out, he means both natural theology and the possibility of “grounding revealed truth in conceptual reality” (Horan, 186). (‘Relationality’ seems far too general a term to cover merely those things.) Horan is correct to suggest that Scotus holds theological science—construed as a set of interrelated syllogisms—to require univocity. Scotus argues that denying univocity has the result that the validity of a theological syllogism is something only accessible to us by revelation. And, if the consequent here were true, then, Scotus argues, we simply could not engage in constructive theology at all:

Unless “being” implies one univocal intention, theology would simply perish. For theologians prove that the divine Word proceeds and is generated by way of intellect, and the Holy Spirit proceeds by way of will. But if intellect and will were found in us and in God equivocally, there would be no evidence at all that, since a word is generated in us in such and such a fashion, it is so in God—and likewise with regard to love in us—because then intellect and will in these two cases would be of a wholly different kind (ratio). (Scotus, Lectura I, d. 3, p. 1, qq. 1–2, n. 113 [Scotus, Opera omnia (Vatican City, 1950–2013), 16:266–67])

Scotus is surely right to hold that our knowledge of the validity of a syllogism requires our knowledge of the sense in which the words are being used—and it is this that univocity is designed to secure, as Horan points out (Horan, 172–74, 186). So Horan is right to highlight Scotus’s defense of univocity as something necessary for “relationality” in Horan’s sense. But I confess that this does not seem to be a strictly metaphysical implication of the theory in the substantive sense that the Radical Orthodox theologians seem to mean, and that I would mean in this context—as making claims not about scientific methodology but, fundamentally, about the structure of the universe and its relation to God.

The Metaphysical Neutrality of the Univocity of Being

According to proponents of the Scotus Story, the univocity of being has the baleful metaphysical consequence that the differences between God and the world are somehow “flattened”: the result is “ontotheological idolatry regarding God, and the placing of God within a predefined arena of being” (John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, 2nd ed. [Oxford: Blackwell, 2006], 44; when mentioning a word, I set it in single inverted commas; when referring to a concept, I italicize the referring word). It seems to me that Scotus’s defense of the univocity of the concept being in fact has no such metaphysical consequence. Set aside, for now, pure perfections such as intellect and will (discussed by Scotus in the passage just quoted), and focus just on the univocal concept of being. How much conceptual content does Scotus believe that concept to have? The answer is—very little. And that little involves, for Scotus, no ontological commitments at all. The extension of the concept of being includes anything possible (Scotus, Ordinatio IV, d. 8, q. a, n. 23 [12:5]); and for Scotus non-actual possibilia have no reality at all (see Scotus, Ordinatio I, d. 36, q. un., nn. 28–29 [6:281–2]).

What about the concept proper to God, infinite being? Scotus is clear that this concept is one that uniquely picks out the divine essence—it is, as Scotus notes in a passage quoted by Horan, “not only a concept in which God is known incidentally, for example, in some attribute, but also [a] concept in which God is conceived per se and quidditatively” (Horan, 170, Horan’s italics, quoting Scotus, Ordinatio I, d. 3, p. 1, qq. 1–2, n. 25 [3:16–17]). But Scotus holds that infinite being simply represents the divine essence “as it is expressed by a name.” It does not provide anything like a definition of the divine essence. As Scotus also puts it, equivalently, it represents its object confusedly, not distinctly (see Scotus, Ordinatio I, d. 3, p. 1, q. 1–2, n. 72 [Vatican, III, 50]). Infinite being gives us a way of identifying the essence, uniquely (there is nothing else that is an infinite being), without knowing exactly what the essence is. But we do know of that essence that it is a being, falling under the extension of the concept being. It is a possible object. But so is everything.

“Participatory Metaphysics”

Part of the project of Radical Orthodoxy is to recover what is sometimes labeled a “participatory metaphysics” (Horan, 31). Aquinas is lauded as a model practitioner of this metaphysical project. According to Aquinas, creatures participate in God (see, e.g., Summa theologiae I, q. 14, a. 9 ad 2), and, given that God is (identical to) his esse (see Aquinas, Summa theologiae I, q. 3, a. 4 c), they participate in the divine esse too: “Just as all things participate in the goodness of God—not numerically the same [goodness], but by a likeness (similitudinem)—so they participate, by a likeness, in the esse of God” (Aquinas, De potentia, q. 7, a. 5 ad 7; see also, e.g., Aquinas, Scriptum super sententiis I, d. 8, q. 1, a. 3 sed contra 1; II, d. 4, q. 1, a. 1 c). Aquinas here asserts—and he does so frequently—that creatures participate in the divine attributes too (e.g., goodness). But for Aquinas, divine essence and attributes are identical (see, e.g., Aquinas, Summa theologiae I, q. 3, a. 3; I, q. 13, a. 4 c), and participation in an attribute is simply participation in the divine essence.

What is the participation relationship? When Aquinas talks about creatures participating in God, he invariably understands the relationship to be one of a creature’s resembling God, or representing God: “the divine nature is communicable . . . according to the participation of a likeness (similitudinis)” (Aquinas, Summa theologiae I, q. 13, a. 9 ad 1)—something the passage from De potentia, just quoted, also makes clear. In this context, Aquinas appeals to a metaphysical theory, that of the analogy between God and creatures:

If . . . there is some agent that is not contained in a genus, its effects will be assimilated to the likeness of the agent more remotely: not such that they participate in the likeness of the agent’s form according to the same concept (ratio) of species or genus, but according to some analogy. . . . And in this way all those things which are from God are assimilated to him, as the first and universal principle of all being (esse), to the extent that they are beings (entia). (Aquinas, Summa theologiae I, q. 4, a. 3 c)

Analogy is fundamentally as semantic relationship between different word-tokens of the same word-type (see, e.g., his discussion at Summa theologiae I, q. 13, a. 5): these tokens are related by analogy when the sense of the tokens is neither exactly the same nor utterly independent, and the words apply to their objects in an analogical way on the basis of a metaphysical relation between the objects: being caused by; representing; being like—since effects always resemble/represent their causes in some respect or another (see Aquinas, Summa theologiae I, q. 13, a. 5 c). We know that creatures have certain perfections, and that we can talk about these perfections in God and creatures analogously, because creatures are caused by God (Aquinas, Summa theologiae I, q. 13, a. 5 c), because they represent God, and because they resemble God or are likenesses of God in relevant respects (Aquinas, Summa theologiae I, q. 13, a. 2 c). This resemblance/representation relation is the metaphysical fact that allows Aquinas to argue for analogy rather than simple equivocation in theological language.

This metaphysical relation is sometimes labelled by Aquinas ‘analogy.’ Semantic analogy presupposes both causal and representation relationships. So I assume that metaphysical analogy also involves both components: creaturely perfections are caused by God and represent him, but are deficient in relation to him:

Our intellect, when it knows God from creatures, knows him in such a way as creatures represent him. . . . But God, as it were simply and universally perfect, has in himself all creaturely perfections. So each creature has some perfection to the extent that it represents him, and is like him—not, however, such that it represents him as something of the same species or genus, but as an excelling principle, of whose form effects fall short, even though the effects derive some kind of likeness to him. (Aquinas, Summa theologiae I, q. 13, a. 2 c)

There is not much of a theory here, in fact, but what emerges is that metaphysical participation consists in (or at least requires) causality and representation/signification: participants are caused by, and are deficient signs of, the thing they participate in. They have nothing in common with that thing, of course: as we have seen, they do not even exemplify the same concept (ratio) as that thing.

Given all this, the space is clearly open for us to explore whether or not Scotus might accept some kind of participatory metaphysics. Horan does not consider this question, though it seems in some way central to any attempt to provide a full corrective to the Scotus Story. But in fact, Scotus would agree with much, though not all, of the metaphysics invoked by Aquinas. For example, Scotus agrees with Aquinas that the divine essence is identical with the divine esse (see, e.g., Scotus, Ordinatio I, d. 2, p. 1, qq. 1–2, n. 25 [2:137–8], and the discussion in my “Duns Scotus on Divine Necessity,” Oxford Studies in Medieval Philosophy 3 [2015] 128–44). He agrees too that creatures participate in God: “Everything depends on [the divine essence] . . . considered as something eminent, as a measure, and as something participated” (Scotus, Ordinatio I, d. 31, q. un., n. 11 [6:207]); and they ipso facto participate in the divine esse too (see Scotus, Ordinatio I, d. 3, p. 2, q. un., n. 326 [3:196]). Scotus agrees that participation is some kind of resemblance or representation relationship (see, e.g., Scotus, Ordinatio I, d. 8, p. 1, q. 3, n. 77 [4:187]); compare Ordinatio I, d. 3, p. 2, q. un., nn. 298–300 [3:181–3]). He is unequivocal in accepting the traditional view that the divine essence “eminently includes all [creaturely] perfections” (Scotus, Ordinatio, II, d. 3, p. 2, q. 3, n. 395 [7:593]), and that God “contains in himself the perfections of all genera” (Scotus, Ordinatio, I, d. 8, p. 1, q. 3, n. 116 [4:207–8], quoting with approval Aquinas, De potentia, q. 7, a. 3). He sometimes talks about “likeness of attribution” in this context (see Scotus, Ordinatio I, d. 8, p. 1, q. 3, n. 48 [3:172])—his term for the likeness relevant in participation, and one that has obvious links to the notion analogy (witness the standard phrase ‘analogy of attribution’ to pick out a one-one relation between analogates).

But two things are distinctive about his view. The first is that he believes that if we are to talk about the likeness of attribution then we need semantic univocity: if one thing participates in another, then what is participated in is more perfect than its participant, and, as Scotus notes, talk of one thing being more perfect than another requires univocity. Comparison is always under a concept. If one thing is larger, or greater, than another, then it is always reasonable to ask—and to expect an answer to—the question, a larger what? Or, a greater what? Or, to use Scotus’s own example, a more perfect what? There must be, on pain of infinite regress, some univocal answer to this question. So in this sense, participation requires semantic univocity (Scotus, Ordinatio I, d. 8, p. 1, q. 3, n. 83 [4:191–92]). But note that this is a semantic claim, not a metaphysical one, and makes no difference to the metaphysics of the case.

The second is that, unlike Aquinas, Scotus attempts to provide some kind of theory of the relevant kind of likeness relation—and thus some kind of theory undergirding his participatory metaphysics. He holds that items, such as those instantiating substance-kinds (dog, tree, and so one), that lack correlative perfections in God, participate in the divine ideas (see, e.g., Scotus, Ordinatio I, d. 8, p. 1, q. 3, n. 77 [4:187]). And he uses this insight to give an account of the participation relation as a particular kind of representation relation:

The act of knowing is related to the object by participation, just as a likeness (similitudo) is to that of which it is a likeness. I do not mean a likeness through communication of the same form, as in the case of a likeness between two white objects, but a likeness through imitation, as in the case of the likeness of what is ideated to a [divine] idea. (Scotus, Quodlibetum, q. 13, n. 12 [Scotus, Opera omnia, ed. L. Wadding (Lyons: 1639), 12:312])

The idea here is that our thoughts participate in their objects as semantic representations of those objects. Likewise, creatures participate in the divine ideas by being semantic representations of those ideas. (And recall that being a semantic representation requires in some sense a causal relation between object and representation.)

So while Scotus puts flesh on the bones of Aquinas’s participatory metaphysics, he does not fundamentally disagree with the structure of the theory as laid out in Aquinas. But there is one area on which he decisively breaks with Aquinas: he does not agree that the divine essence and the divine attributes are identical. And it is to this that I now turn.

Theological Consequences of Univocity

The metaphysical reflections I have discussed in the last two sections are wholly independent of any substantive theory of religious language. But it turns out that Scotus’s univocity theory does have certain theological consequences, not pointed out by Horan. At various points in his final, constructive, chapter, Horan talks about the so-called formal distinction and the transcendentals. Scotus’s univocity theory, applied to transcendental concepts other than being, entails—as Scotus himself acknowledges—that there must be some kind of non-identity between the various divine attributes (and, for that matter, between each attribute and the divine essence). The thought is very simple:

[In God] wisdom in its nature is real, and goodness in its nature is real, and real wisdom is not formally real goodness; which is proved, because if infinite wisdom were formally infinite goodness, then wisdom in general would be formally goodness in general; [which is false]. (Scotus, Ordinatio I, d. 8, p. 1, q. 4, n. 192 [4:261])

The same would go for all of the transcendental concepts coextensive with being (one, good, true), and for the pure perfections (intellect, will, and so on). The divine attributes are nonidentical with each other, and (as I show elsewhere), the set of them is nonidentical with the divine essence too (see my “Duns Scotus on God’s Essence and Attributes: Metaphysics, Semantics, and the Greek Patristic Tradition,” Recherches de théologie et philosophie médiévales 83 [2016] 353–83).

The argument is semantic: the significates of ‘wisdom’ and ‘goodness’ cannot be identical in the divine context, because the significates of ‘wisdom’ in general and ‘goodness’ in general cannot be identical, and the divine case is just an instance of the general rule. Here Scotus’s semantic argument has a decidedly metaphysical consequence. Now, there are ways of resisting the conclusion that the divine attributes must be non-identical with each other. We could, for example, adopt some kind of extensional semantics, and claim (e.g.) that co-extensive properties, or necessarily co-extensive properties (e.g., infinite wisdom and infinite goodness), are identical. But neither Scotus nor Aquinas accepts any such semantic theory, though Ockham begins to develop one a few years later. Or we could deny that the divine attributes are real at all—we could simply eliminate them from our ontology. This was Ockham’s solution. What makes the various theological predications true (e.g., “God is wise,” “God is good,” is simply the undifferentiated divine essence itself). But Aquinas is not an eliminativist on this question (“wisdom and goodness, and such-like, are in God” (Aquinas, Scriptum super sententiis I, d. 2, q. 1, a. 2 c), and so can reject Scotus’s conclusion only at the cost of rendering mysterious just what wisdom and goodness are in the divine case. And to the extent that he does that, he will be vulnerable to Scotus’s fundamental concern about the compatibility of non-univocity and scientific theology.

How mysterious are the divine attributes, in this Scotist theory? Does ‘infinite goodness’ provide us with a definition of divine goodness? Does infinite goodness represent the divine attribute distinctly? Given Scotus’s metaphysics and semantics, I can think of no theoretical objections either way. But Scotus does not say, and I do not know the answer. (There may be theological considerations, distinct from metaphysical or semantic ones, that would push in one direction or the other; but, again, Scotus does not invoke them.) But Scotus would maintain that divine goodness—whatever it be—falls, like mine, under the extension of the concept goodness (whatever that concept be).

All of this is very different from Aquinas on the question of divine simplicity. And this, it seems to me, is the metaphysical consequence of Scotus’s semantics that we should really want to focus on, theologically. Horan sees the relevance of the formal distinction, but instead of looking at the issue I have just outlined, he focuses on something marginal (the distinction between being and infinite being, which is not an instance of the formal distinction at all), and on something else wholly irrelevant to the univocity component of the Scotus Story, namely Scotus’s belief that created substances are individuated by haecceities. (I think Horan’s focus on the distinction between being and infinite being results from his mistaken belief that there could be a formal distinction between a concept and something real, a mistake he states at least twice [Horan, 181, 186]. The relata of a formal distinction must be really the same, and a concept cannot be the same as anything real.)

  • Daniel Horan

    Daniel Horan


    Response to Richard Cross

    Richard Cross is undoubtedly the preeminent living scholar of John Duns Scotus’s thought, and so I consider his serious and thorough engagement with my work to be a tremendous honor. Readers of Postmodernity and Univocity know of my indebtedness to Cross’s excellent scholarship. His thoughtful and probing essay here serves to build on his previous work and helps develop and expand my own contributions to the discussion about Scotus and Radical Orthodoxy’s (RO) interpretation of the Subtle Doctor. Cross generously affirms what I have laid out in my contribution, but also respectfully pushes my own analysis and corrective efforts with constructive criticism matched by rigorous scholarly acumen. And this I wholeheartedly welcome.

    Although Cross’s engaging essay offers several points of reflection, one strikes me as especially important; namely, the consideration of Scotus’s perspective vis-à-vis Thomas Aquinas on the subject of what RO authors describe as “participatory metaphysics.” In the third section of his essay, Cross provides a criticism of RO’s dismissal of Scotus according to the terms RO authors (e.g., Milbank, Pickstock, et al.) established themselves. This serves as a complement to my third chapter for, as Cross rightfully notes, this line of inquiry is not something I explored in this book.

    Returning to Aquinas’s own work in the Summa Theologiae and drawing from treatises such as De Potentia and Scriptum Super Sententiis, Cross sets the stage for one-to-one evaluation of Aquinas and Scotus on the metaphysical question of “participation” as it concerns God and creatures. Cross’s explication of Aquinas’s position would appear to satisfy the RO critics, for the conclusion presented reflects a seemingly straightforward account of a metaphysically analogous relationship between God and creatures (one grounded in a causal relationship and that of representation or signification of the former by the latter here). Where Cross’s insights are most useful here is when, drawing on Scotus’s Ordinatio, he notes that the Subtle Doctor is essentially in agreement with the Angelic Doctor. Cross explains:

    Scotus agrees with Aquinas that the divine essence is identical with the divine esse (see, e.g., Scotus, Ordinatio I, d. 2, p. 1, qq. 1–2, n. 25 [2:137–38], and the discussion in my “Duns Scotus on Divine Necessity,” Oxford Studies in Medieval Philosophy 3 [2015] 128–44). He agrees too that creatures participate in God: “Everything depends on [the divine essence] . . . considered as something eminent, as a measure, and as something participated” (Scotus, Ordinatio I, d. 31, q. un., n. 11 [6:207]); and they ipso facto participate in the divine esse too (see Scotus, Ordinatio I, d. 3, p. 2, q. un., n. 326 [3:196]). Scotus agrees that participation is some kind of resemblance or representation relationship (see, e.g., Scotus, Ordinatio I, d. 8, p. 1, q. 3, n. 77 [4:187]); compare Ordinatio I, d. 3, p. 2, q. un., nn. 298–300 [3:181–83]). He is unequivocal in accepting the traditional view that the divine essence “eminently includes all [creaturely] perfections” (Scotus, Ordinatio, II, d. 3, p. 2, q. 3, n. 395 [7:593]), and that God “contains in himself the perfections of all genera” (Scotus, Ordinatio, I, d. 8, p. 1, q. 3, n. 116 [4:207–8], quoting with approval Aquinas, De potentia, q. 7, a. 3).

    Cross then highlights two qualifications that distinguish Scotus’s view from Aquinas’s, and both pertain to the necessity Scotus sees in a univocally predicable concept of being (i.e., some kind of “semantic univocity”).

    Cross’s explication of Scotus’s “participatory metaphysics” offers yet another form of what we might call philosophical “jujitsu,” taking as it were the presenting claims of the RO movement and using the same criteria to deconstruct and therefore unveil the internal contradictions of their arguments for a Thomist superiority at the expense of Scotism. I am grateful for Cross’s deft highlighting of yet another area of substantive criticism of the RO “Scotus Story.” One result of this particular line of scholarly examination appears to be the revelation that, given the Subtle Doctor’s strong arguments for semantic univocity and efforts to elucidate a theory of “likeness relations,” Scotus actually provides a better (or at least a more developed) “participatory metaphysics” concerning God and creatures than Thomas Aquinas does. But then again, I doubt the architects and inheritors of the “Scotus Story” would really care. The RO authors have never appeared to be interested in what Scotus actually says or argues as much they are interested in a scapegoat that most people—even most theologians—would be disinclined to engage. Fortunately, for the rest of the academy, we have scholars like Richard Cross who has dedicated his life’s work to clarifying our understanding of Scotus and from whom we can continue to learn and be guided.

Lydia Schumacher


Schumacher Commentary on Postmodernity and Univocity

They say the best defense is a good offence. This is the strategy Daniel Horan employs towards the end of his useful little book, Postmodernity and Univocity, which responds deftly to the recent allegation that John Duns Scotus and Franciscans of his generation are responsible for instigating modernity and all that is supposedly wrong with it.

In my own response to the question regarding the relationship between medieval Franciscan and modern thought, I will push Horan’s strategy a step further in considering the aspect of the Franciscan intellectual tradition I know best, namely, the work of its founders, who flourished in the first half of the thirteenth century at the University of Paris, which was the center for theological study at the time. For a long time, scholars have largely neglected the early Franciscan school on the assumption that it sought primarily to systematize the longstanding tradition of Augustine and thus assert his authority at a time when the recently rediscovered writings of Aristotle were rapidly rising in popularity.

Although Alexander of Hales and John of La Rochelle are undoubtedly the leading lights of this school, the text most associated with its collective vision is the so-called Summa fratris Alexandri (“Summa of brother Alexander”) or Summa Halensis, which was collaboratively authored by members of the school who are not particularly easy to identify. The lingering questions surrounding authorship constitute another key reason why scholars have tended to avoid delving into this text and the tradition of thought it represents. Although these questions possess considerable historical interest, they do not negate the status of the Summa as a product of the early Franciscan school, and as one of the first and certainly the most significant Summa to be written in a period that quickly became known for its vast theological syntheses. In point of fact, the Summa Halensis was mostly completed twenty years before Thomas Aquinas even set his hand to the task of composing his magisterial Summa Theologiae in 1265, and exerted considerable influence upon the structure of that text.

One particularly interesting feature of the Summa and the early Franciscan tradition is its proximity to Francis of Assisi, who founded the Franciscan order in 1209 and died in 1226, only a decade before work on the Summa began. While the authors of the Summa do not say as much, there are many instances in which connections can be identified between the kinds of ideas the Summists develop and the spiritual and ministerial vision that was outlined by Francis of Assisi in his own writings, the rule of the order, and in the early official biographies of his life. When we attend to these connections, a more nuanced picture of the Summa’s intellectual project begins to emerge.

Far from a mere codification of Augustine’s tradition, the Summa enlists not only Augustine but also many other authorities in the development of an intellectual tradition that is far more than the sum of its sources. This tradition is ultimately compatible not only with many aspects of the theological spirit of the age but also with the uniquely Franciscan ethos. An example may help to illustrate this point. In a treatise on how we know God, for instance, the authors of the Summa quote a negligible number of other sources in favor of providing seventy quotations from Augustine, thirty-four of which are to his ep. 147 (De videndo Dei), thirty-one to other works like De libero arbitrio, De Genesi ad litteram, De vera religione, De Trinitate, and Soliloquia, and five to pseudo-Augustinian works, such as De spiritu et anima, which were believed to be authentic at the time.1

At the decisive point in the argument, the Summa cites chapter 13 of this spurious work, which distinguishes between superior and inferior parts of reason, which are also mentioned in some of Augustine’s authentic works. “The superior part is ordered towards the contemplation of God and eternal things, and the inferior part is for the contemplation of creatures and temporal things.”2 According to the Summa’s reading of this text, the knowledge of God is innately implanted in the superior reason in the human mind. Although it is impossible to know God by inferior reason alone, God can be known through creatures, which reflect him in different ways, when inferior reason is informed by superior reason.

Furthermore, he may be known in himself through reflection upon the innate knowledge of him that can be found precisely there. If the mind fails to access this knowledge, whether of God himself or of creatures, it is because of a stubborn will, which becomes preoccupied with the objects of inferior reason and thereby becomes ignorant of the knowledge of God implanted in superior reason. By repenting before God of this sin, and thus through the softening of the will out of love for God, however, the mind my regain access to the knowledge that is always there.

While attributed to Augustine, this quite idiosyncratic interpretation of the way higher and lower reason cooperate was originally a product of the Arab Avicenna, whose writings were far more accessible than Aristotle’s at the time and were in fact attributed a level of authority on par with Aristotle’s.3 According to Avicenna, higher reason, or the theoretical face of the soul is turned upwards toward the realm of universal forms, while the practical face is turned downwards. It uses the universals acquired by the theoretical faculty to the practical end of understanding and dealing with the real world. For this purpose, the higher reason is innately impressed with certain transcendental concepts, above all, that of Being—or God, in Franciscan terms—which presupposes true understanding of all beings as creatures of God. Rather than providing the content of knowledge of those beings, the innate concept of Being regulates the mind’s efforts to render experiences of them intelligible, thus ensuring that correct ideas about them are formed, that is, ideas corresponding to God’s own. In this way—and indeed through reflection on the divine source of the knowledge of Being—it knows God.

This is precisely the account of knowledge that the Summa implicitly invokes in the question on the knowledge of God and develops further in other treatises. The decision to project this account onto Augustine shows that there is a level of sophistication and subtlety to the ways early scholastics used authorities for their own ends which cannot be captured simply through a straightforward registering of which authorities they quoted. Furthermore, it bespeaks a potential interest in offering—and legitimizing—an account of knowledge consonant with the way that Francis of Assisi experienced God and the world.

As many hagiographic texts testify, the saint enjoyed a constant, intuitive connection with God—here explained in terms of the innate knowledge of the “Being” of God—which in turn made it possible to gain immediate insight into the meaning and value of all things, great and small.4 This insight in its own term motivated Francis’s well-known efforts to serve the poor and downtrodden in society, and more generally, to care for and celebrate God’s creation. There is no mistaking that the account of knowledge being presented here under Augustine’s name is motivated by factors other than the mere “systematization” of Augustine.

The added value of the example outlined above is that it links up nicely with Horan’s discussion of the doctrine of the transcendentals as developed by Scotus. As Horan acknowledges, Scotus testifies to an innate knowledge of Being that is common to all minds, and which makes it possible for persons accurately to grasp empirical beings. Although the innate knowledge of Being that allows for human knowledge is no longer construed by Scotus as an innate knowledge of God, efforts to grasp finite beings nonetheless allow for an act of “radical abstraction” to an Infinite Being that can only be God. In that sense, Scotus seems to accept that human reason—working entirely autonomously of divine aid—is able not only to acquire knowledge of reality that is true for all persons, at all places, and at all times, but even proof for God.

This is one of the conclusions that critics of Scotus have found most objectionable. By espousing such a strong form of rationalism, Scotus is said to have paved the way for an intellectual world in which reliance on God became increasingly irrelevant for those engaged in the pursuit of worldly knowledge. Conversely, it has been argued, matters of faith in God started to be perceived more and more as elusive with respect to rationality and so even as “irrational.” The divide between reason and faith was opened up in a way that could only lead to their ultimate alienation. This is the alienation Scotus’s critics say we observe in our modern world, which presupposes the poles of a faithless reason and a reasonless faith.

Certainly, Scotus’s tendency to render Being rather than God as the first object of the intellect—and the locus of the human power to know all things—did represent a development on the earlier Franciscan perspective. In the context, however, Scotus arguably opted for this rendering with a view to bolstering rather than undermining the authority of faith. As is well known, he worked at a time when scholars who were just beginning in the Summists’ time to explore Aristotle’s natural philosophy had become entranced by a full-fledged effort to offer natural and philosophical explanations for all matters, even matters of faith.

In response to what seemed to him like a threat to faith’s authority, consequently, Scotus tried to draw clearer boundaries around the fields of inquiry in which reason can safely operate, cordoning off matters of faith so as to deter those who would presume to treat God as an object knowable on our terms, rather than the terms of his revelation. Attention to this contextual factor casts considerable doubt on the prime claim of Scotus’s critics that Scotus separated matters of reason and faith for the sake of severing reason from divine authority, while rendering faith irrelevant. Instead, it highlights the, shall we say, “pious” motives that underlay his intellectual activities. These have been admittedly difficult for scholars to detect in the work of later medieval Franciscans like Scotus for whom the university rather than the religious order had become the primary site for scholarly operation.

That is why the study of the early Franciscan school is so important. The temporal proximity of the school to Francis and its enmeshment with the early order highlights more clearly the ways in which medieval Franciscans worked on every front to advance their understanding of the faith and the Christian life. By reading early Franciscan writings, above all, the Summa Halensis, in this light, we gain a tool for identifying where and how they forged totally novel ideas through the method of manipulating authorities that was common at the time. In the same instance, clear lines of continuity between the early school and the thought of Scotus come into relief. Regardless of the fact that Scotus developed ideas he received from his predecessor, these continuities further highlight the common ethos under which medieval Franciscans worked, namely, one that was shaped by the vision of their deeply devout and service-orientated founder.

In this light, the medieval Franciscan tradition—from the Summists to Scotus, and possibly beyond—can scarcely be described as the fount of a modern secular outlook on the one hand and the marginalization of faith on the other. Of course, any good historian of philosophy will be able to recognize affinities between certain Franciscan and modern ideas regarding the nature of knowledge, reality, and other philosophical topics. However the difference of context in which those ideas were developed makes a remarkable difference.

Indeed, we cannot accuse Scotus or any other Franciscan of instigating modern intellectual trends towards rationalism and fideism when the very ends for which they worked were antithetical to those developments. We can only presume that a process of decontextualizing Franciscan ideas may have occurred which led to where we are now. But this development is not one for which we can hold Franciscans responsible, precisely because it involves the removal of their ideas out of the context in which they were originally developed, and a deployment of those ideas to ends for which they were not intended.

When we evaluate those ends in the light of Francis’s ethos, we may ironically find that Franciscan ideas themselves are the best remedy in the modern world for their own decontextualization. But this is not a discovery we can make so long as we continue to circle around the question regarding the Franciscan origins of modern thought and leave to one side the study of the rich resources the medieval Franciscan had to offer in its own context. This is the work to which I would summon the next generation of scholars, namely, the work of mining the early Franciscan school particularly for the tools needed to revitalize both faith and reason in the contemporary world.

  1. SH, Vol. 1, “De Cognitione Dei in Via,” Membrum I, Caput 1, Pro 1, p. 15.

  2. SH, Vol. 1, “De Cognitione Dei in Via,” Membrum II, Caput 4, Respondeo, p. 28: “Superior pars est ad contemplandum Deum et aeterna, inferior ad contemplandas creaturas et temporalia. Ad superiorem pertinet sapientia, ad inferiorem scientia.

  3. F. Rahman, Avicenna’s Psychology (London: Oxford University Press, 1953), 32–33ff. See also Lydia Schumacher, Divine Illumination: The History and Future of Augustine’s Theory of Knowledge (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 90–100.

  4. See the writings and hagiographies of Francis in Marion A. Habig, Paul J. Oligny, Leo Sherley-Price (ed. and trans.), St Francis of Assisi: Writings and Early Biographies: English Omnibus of the Sources for the Life of St Francis (Franciscan Press, 1983).

  • Daniel Horan

    Daniel Horan


    Response to Lydia Schumacher

    Lydia Schumacher offers what I affectionately describe as a “prequel” to my Postmodernity and Univocity, providing us with a deeper exploration of the Franciscan intellectual tradition at Paris and anticipating future targets and would-be scapegoats of the Radical Orthodoxy (RO) movement. In fact, given John Milbank’s increasing preoccupation with the Franciscan tradition beyond the Scotist and Ockhamist schools of the fourteenth century and following, which we see in his more recent writings,1 it would seem that no member of the Franciscan family is safe. So sweeping have his claims been of late that the modifier “Franciscan” has itself become a synonym for the pejorative “modern” in Milbank’s lexicon. Take, for instance, the following:

    The idea that modernity is essentially Franciscan seems unlikely, but more and more appears to be true in remarkable ways—as to economics and politics in both theory and practice, as to both realism and utopianism, as to philosophy, theology, and religious practice. . . . In anachronistic terms, one could say that Francis’s ideal appears to have been one of a kind of anarcho-communism so extreme as to amount to a kind of refusal of human culture in an attempt to recover a missing essential human-animal nature, such that a rupture with the natural world, consequent upon the Fall, would be overcome. 2

    Of those post-Francis but pre-Scotus Franciscans he could target for inclusion in his eisegetical genealogy of modernity, Milbank has paid only Bonaventure notable heed. Because of this, Schumacher’s preemptive scholarly strike on behalf of the early Parisian Franciscan School—especially its founder, Alexander of Hales—is particularly valuable.

    Schumacher starts with a welcome apologia for wider engagement with the Summa fratris Alexandri (or Summa Halensis). In taking up the cause of the Doctor Irrefragibilis, Schumacher joins a small yet impressive line of scholars that precede her in this work, including Walter Principe, Ignatius Brady and, more recently, Boyd Taylor Coolman. In drawing our attention to the collective work of the early Franciscan intellectual community at Paris, Schumacher notes the seminal importance of their project in establishing the context for later Summae, including that of the RO’s beloved Summa theologiae of Thomas Aquinas. While Milbank would likely never admit it, one could state that without the Franciscan Alexander of Hales, the collective Summa that bears his name, and his strong push for the widespread adoption of Lombard’s Sentences at Paris, Thomas’s magnum opus might never have been created—at least, not as we know it today.

    Schumacher makes an interesting and compelling claim that one shouldn’t study the later Franciscan scholars—thinkers like Bonaventure, Scotus, Ockham, etc.—apart from earlier contributors of the tradition. On this point, I couldn’t agree with Schumacher more. Despite a recognizable polyphony within the Franciscan tradition, there nevertheless exists continuity amid difference.3 The reliance on a Franciscan spiritual, theological, and charismatic foundation is also something that the philosopher Mary Beth Ingham has argued for in several places as it concerns the Subtle Doctor.4 Schumacher rightly argues that study of the early Franciscan school is important in order to understand the continuity and variance present in the thought of later contributors such as Scotus.

    As if to channel Justus Hunter’s own earlier question—so what?—and then provide a tentative answer, Schumacher floats the possibility that even if later generations of interpreters were to misappropriate or deviate from the original intentions and texts of the medieval Franciscans—what she calls “a process of de-contextualizing Franciscan ideas”—contemporary theologians, philosophers, and historians still cannot blame Scotus when, as Schumacher puts it, “the very ends for which [Scotus] worked were antithetical to those developments.”

    Schumacher is a true historical theologian, one who—like Cross and Hunter—appreciates the importance and value of understanding the context and the meaning of a medieval text, which can only be arrived at by exercising the discipline and patience that careful and close readings of such texts requires. Her concluding sentiment is worth repeating, for she exhorts us to return to the Franciscan tradition in order to uncover “the tools needed to revitalize both faith and reason in the contemporary world.” The irony presented here is somewhat reminiscent of what Jacques Derrida proposes in his deconstructive reading of Plato’s Phaedrus. Namely, that the Greek term pharmakon can be understood at once as both “medicine” and “poison.”5 It might seem, then, that the only “Franciscan conundrum” that actually exists stands before those quick to dismiss Scotus and his predecessors without adequate examination of their original work and context, for their thought might indeed prove to be a pharmakon, which appears at first to be poison but is in fact really the sought-after remedy.

    1. For example, see his Beyond Secular Order: The Representation of Being and the Representation of the People (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014), esp. 1–18, 28–66, and passim; and “The Franciscan Conundrum,” Communio 42 (2015) 466–92.

    2. Milbank, “Franciscan Conundrum,” 467.

    3. This methodological question within the so-called “Franciscan School” is something I address briefly in my forthcoming book All God’s Creatures: A Theology of Creation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2018).

    4. For example, see her “Fides Quaerens Intellectum: John Duns Scotus, Philosophy, and Prayer,” in Franciscans At Prayer, ed. Timothy J. Johnson (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 167–91; and “Re-Situating Scotist Thought,” Modern Theology 21 (2005) 609–18.

    5. See Jacques Derrida, “Plato’s Pharmacy,” in Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 61–171.

John Milbank


Defending the Scotus Story

Gilson and Beyond


In his book Postmodernity and Univocity, Daniel Horan makes three main charges against the writers of Radical Orthodoxy.1 The first is that they have blindly followed the outdated lead of Étienne Gilson in their reading of Duns Scotus. The second is that they have denied the obviously correct “semantic” reading of univocity in favour of a metaphysical one. The third is that they have foisted on the world a highly dubious “Scotus story” that traces much of the assumptions and conclusions of modern thought back to the subtle doctor.

The problem with the “obviously” in the second charge is that it overlooks the complex debates after Scotus amongst Scotists themselves as to whether univocity concerned primarily logical or real being. This might prima facie suggest that the metaphysical reading is at least a respectable interpretation, though equally that the semantic reading of Horan and others is respectable also. For this reason I shall not be engaging in any counter-polemic, although I will try to show why the semantic reading is incorrect and anachronistic. Instead, I will revisit Gilson’s understanding of Scotus in the context of his entire historical and philosophical project, and seek to demonstrate why it was in many ways accurate: those who have genuinely modified it have also, I shall argue, largely built upon it.

In this context the hermeneutic gulf does not, as Horan suggests, lie between French scholars on the one hand and a certain posse of Anglo-Saxon ones to which he adheres, together with German interpreters. Rather, it lies between this posse and the main current of continental scholarship, German as well as French (and Italian) which rests upon a far more solid historicist basis and tradition than some “analytic” modes of raiding the scholastic epoch—although several analytically-inclined mediaeval scholars relate to this main current also, even though they are more concerned with the question of modality than with the question of being.2 It is a current in general much indebted to the founding work of Gilson.

As to the “Scotist story,” it arises from this current, and scarcely at all, in origin as opposed to some dissemination, from Radical Orthodoxy. It is told, not just around “being” by philosopher-historians influenced by Heidegger besides Gilson, but also around “modality” (actual or possible) by philosopher-historians influenced by the Analytic current. Indeed, the strongest statements concerning the long-term and till recently often concealed influence of Duns Scotus come, not from his theoretical critics, but from a supporter like Ludger Honnefelder, who wishes to celebrate him as a theological inaugurator of the modern. All that the Radically Orthodox writers have tried to do is to ponder the significance of this genealogy for current theology and philosophy, but in a manner in keeping with a radicalisation (also mostly not original to them) of Gilson’s opposite doubts concerning both modernity and the wisdom and rational solidity of the epochal theoretical shift consummated by the subtle doctor.

1. Acquiring Perspective

Any consideration today of the work of Étienne Gilson requires, above all, a sense of perspective. He left behind a dual legacy, both historical and philosophical. As a historian of mediaeval thought his work can appear now somewhat outdated: limited both in its textual scholarship and in its taxonomies of intellectual tendencies, not to mention its overwhelming bias towards the importance of Thomas Aquinas—even though it was Gilson himself who was one of the first to go beyond neo-scholasticism in making us aware of the multiple currents of mediaeval thought and the greater dominance of Scotus over Aquinas in the later Middle Ages and even long afterwards.

Yet Gilson was not unaware that his continued bias towards Aquinas was for him more philosophically than historically justified, and his ultimate concerns were both philosophical and cultural. As a philosopher and philosophical theologian however, he would also seem to be now out of fashion. He is associated with neo-Thomism, metaphysics and abstract rather than symbolic approaches to theology in an epoch (at least until very recently) more attentive to the critique of metaphysics, to phenomenology, to linguistic theory and to a Patristic ressourcement that encourages an integrated approach to theology, philosophy and history.

Yet to consider Gilson’s historical scholarship as surpassed would be to forget that he laid the groundwork for so much of the contemporary approach to mediaeval philosophy. Above all, it was largely Gilson who first called into question the corralling of this period from the early modern one and realised that one cannot make sense of Descartes without considering his relationship to the second scholasticism and its powerful continuities with the first one.3 With Jacques Maritain (even though the latter had far more time—not without all good reason—for Cajetan and Poinsot) Gilson was the first to intimate that the crucial caesura in the history of Western thought might not coincide with what is regarded as the “early modern.” Instead, the characteristic attitudes of modern thought, and above all its “conceptualism,” have deep roots in the Middle Ages themselves. If Gilson appealed to Aquinas against these attitudes, in the name of his supposed “existentialism,” then he was not totally without awareness that Aquinas represented an increasingly minority report in the Middle Ages themselves, while, still more than Maritain, he regarded the later “Thomistic” revivals as much contaminated by typically modern attitudes after all.4

With respect to the attributed “existentialism” of Thomas, Gilson has also bequeathed a strongly persisting scholarly legacy. Again alongside Maritain, Gilson rightly perceived (whatever one may think about his “existential Aquinas”) that the nineteenth-century Thomistic revival, in its positivistic obsession with opposing idealism, was overly focussed upon questions of the proofs of God’s existence and on divine causality, regarded (in the wake of Suarez and others) as issues belonging to a regional domain of “special metaphysics” or of “natural theology,” subordinate to a “general metaphysic” defined by “ontology,” or a dealing with being taken apart from a consideration of God and reduced to the terms of an existence that is conceptually graspable. Instead, Gilson and Maritain correctly recognised that mediaeval Latin theologians (who were never professional philosophers) were as much or more concerned with the nature of being as with the identification of causes, and that the question of being was for them far more immediately and problematically tied up with the question of God, in a way that ensued from the Metaphysics of Aristotle itself, before its aporiae were ironed out in the late mediaeval and early modern eras. When it came to the question of the nature of God’s being, then the issue, after Augustine, besides Dionysius, of “how God is to be named,” or of what concepts we are to use of him, held at least equality with, and sometimes priority over, the issue of how God operates as cause and how his existence and causality might be demonstrable by us. And this question of the names of God opens a cognitive region where rational theology cannot be so readily segregated from a revealed one. Here Gilson acknowledged a kinship with exponents of the nouvelle théologie like Henri de Lubac and even though Maritain distanced himself from their theses regarding nature and grace, in reality his own philosophy built up towards a Trinitarian vision.5

So both Maritain and Gilson were distanced from the “official” neothomists by stressing the unity of philosophy with theology twice over: once in terms of the recovery of a metaphysics not just reducible to ontology but equally concerned with God—in such a way that, strictly speaking, they were not really advocates of a “natural theology” at all. Twice, in terms of a powerful (however disputed) sense of a “Christian philosophy” aware that the biblically-derived doctrine of creation ex nihilo had transfigured the entire philosophical field for three traditions: Islamic, Jewish and Christian. For Gilson a new attention given to being qua being and to the contingency of things arose from this alteration. And additionally, monotheistic doctrines of the image of God in Man and of grace and salvation were seen as having shaped, in the Middle Ages, notions of human psychology.6

All this awareness continues strongly to resonate in the best scholarship of mediaeval thought. Indeed, Gilson and Maritain’s new attention to being was already paralleled, as they were well aware, by that of Martin Heidegger. To a large extent a lot of French research into mediaeval philosophy has become Gilsonian-Heideggerean, with the Gilsonian desire both to trace and root out the drift of metaphysics towards pure ontology being complicated by a Heideggerean desire to divorce ontology from theology, though also to “de-conceptualise” it, or end the thinking of Being in terms of a graspable individual being, on the debatable assumption that this ontic occlusion had to do with contamination by theology. To the degree that “the forgetting of being” is today traced back, not to a metaphysics that was directed as much towards the knowledge of God as to the knowledge of being, but to a later and inauthentic positioning of God himself within an ontological field flattened enough to contain him, one could say that Gilson is now, after all, starting to win out over Heidegger.7 For the latter, all Western thought and Catholic theology since Aristotle had been trapped in an onto-theological circle, such that God is thought of within a Being itself ontically reduced to every individual instance of being, by reference to God as the “supreme being.” Yet prior to the influence of Avicenna, Christian thought had not located God within Being in general and Aquinas only consummates the tradition by and naming him as the ineffable “to be” which is the eminent source both of being “in common” and of beings in particular. Perhaps the majority of scholars and thinkers would now agree with the French historian against the German master-thinker that Aquinas is not guilty of “onto-theology” and that an ultimate deriving of being from God respects the “ontological difference” between beings and Being just as much as Heidegger’s immanent and temporal solution. It is equally true that contemporary scholars are still more preoccupied than were Gilson and Maritain with the question of “the names of God” and of the integration between the theology proper to metaphysics and theology as sacra doctrina based upon revelation.8

In any genuine historical perspective upon his historical work therefore, Gilson remains a major presence. This is obviously far less true for his work as a philosopher, and yet the perspective one needs here is a reminder of his contemporaneity, both in the early to mid-twentieth century and even to a degree today. Here, once again, one can see a notable rupture with the older neo-Thomism.9 That was predicated on a conceptualising distance between the knower and the known, out of a predominating desire to ward-off a perceived subjectivising and Prometheanism of the idealists. But Gilson and Maritain were at one with their contemporaries in refusing a sense of alienation between subject and object, as much in its empiricist as in its Kantian or idealist form. Along with Bergson, Blondel and Berdaev they proclaimed the connaturality of human knowers to the given world of nature and in this respect they lie in continuity with “French spiritualism” from Maine de Biran onwards, which was realist in a totally non-empiricist fashion, since it emphasised the inner resonance of our minds with external realities through the shared media of corporeality, temporality and habit. Gilson’s penchant for existentialism belongs just here—he wants a realism not of evidenced and accurate concept, but of “living with” reality, in such a way as to render our spiritual and emotive responses informative of judgements that disclose the world, rather than being locked into estrangement within it. The proximity to Heidegger is here manifest.

2. The Cartesian Ambivalence

Yet to mention French Spiritualism is already to invoke an ambiguity, whose ultimate name is “Descartes.” In this tradition, as Jacob Schmutz underlines, there is a desire above all to close or to deny the gulf between knowing subject and known object.10 But how to close this gap?

The legacy of de Biran and Félix Ravaisson is in a sense ambiguous. On the one hand, as already mentioned, one can speak of the way we are in continuity with the surface of the world through our embodiment, subjection to habit and belonging within the flow of time. On the other hand one can emphasise how, as natural creatures, we know reality “from within,” always through being affected and self-affected. In the case of Ravaisson and later Maurice Merleau-Ponty, these two things are mediated by an entanglement and interplay: we know things from within, yes, but other things by mere analogy to how we know ourselves “directly.” Even this directness is qualified by a reflexive mediation of things apprehended without—not by a cold evidence-gathering gaze (as for Kant) but through a real relationality and participative sharing in a received identity, somewhat as for the Aristotelian-Thomist species theory.11

But in the case of Henri Bergson, by contrast, the inward grasp of the flow of time in its passing ecstasy is more authentic and truthful than its external measurement. Much later, for Michel Henry, things are truthfully manifest to us when compounded with our own intimate self-presence as spiritual-material “flesh” and somewhat betrayed when regarded intentionally, as displayed “corporeally” outside ourselves.12 In either case, one sees in different ways an intensification of the Cartesian component in the French Spiritualist legacy, of which its early twentieth-century exponents like Louis Lavelle were often well aware. And one could argue that the post-World War II turn to phenomenology has exacerbated this recension. This has occurred in two moments: in a first, Husserlian one, there was a drift to a more German subjective idealism and conceptualising account of intentionality; in a second, Levinasian one, the refusal of intentionality (so understood) and renewed concern for a non-alienated inhabitation of the world produced the “theological turn” in French phenomenology, which, as Schmutz suggests, for all its “anti-metaphysical” bias, has engendered a phenomenology itself become metaphysical if not (covertly) speculative in terms of its claims to probe the depths of reality and even to approach the courts of heaven. In such a way, as he further suggests, the trajectories of the pre-war era have been resumed. However, one can add to his analysis that the phenomenological and thereby redoubled Cartesian influence ensured for a while a triumph for the moment of “inward” version of closing the subject-object gap in the French spiritualist tradition.13

What has all this to do with Gilson? Well clearly his desired way to close the gap would be rather that of inward/outward entanglement and interplay, though in a specifically Thomistic mode, which (as more elaborated by Maritain) sees a continuity of form between known and knower. On the other hand, for all this firm and ultimate preference, he is aware and respectful of the Cartesian alternative, which he knows has mediaeval roots. What are the salient features of Descartes in this respect? (1) His realism and non-phenomenalism about the external world of which we are intuitively aware and which trust in the presence of the infinite confirms; (2) His allowing of a certain integral reality to anything which we can clearly and distinctly think; (3) The co-priority he gives to the infinite in our knowledge of being, along with the cogito; (4) The figure of “distance” from the infinite as contrasted with participation in esse to characterise our relationship to God; (5) The importance he gives to the will and its independence; (6) The equality of the will with the intellect in God (which for Descartes amounts to indiscernible identity in an ineffable simplicity).14 In all six instances, Gilson will note how these themes are anticipated and even established by Duns Scotus.

Of course, Gilson does not exhibit the degree of strong sympathy (besides strong critique) of Descartes shown by Michel Henry or Jean-Luc Marion. However, the increased sympathy of the latter is opened up along a research trajectory established by Gilson, as he clearly acknowledges. Gilson might well have felt more amenable to Descartes in the wake of Marion’s careful demonstration that he rejected Suarez’s account of the analogy of attribution as too idolatrously univocal, and his more recent scholarly deepening of Lavalle and Henry’s demonstration that the cogito embraces also the affective and the “eminent” presence of the sensible, which we do not for him primarily know in the external and representational manner of Lockean ideas, but intimately through a union of soul with flesh (as opposed to externally sensed corporeal extension).15 As Marion also shows, in the end Descartes substitutes his own prevailing univocity around cause (which includes God as causa sui) and will.16 For this reason he fails to embrace a more authentic account of analogy that Pierre de Bérulle might have held out to him and instead abandons the “names of God” tradition altogether.

Marion suggests that this means he has to “begin Christian thought again,” yet if he does so, it is partially because he has rightly rejected, out of concern for the ineffability of God, some important aspects of the modern conceptualising episteme as found in Suarez. In this sense, there is already something “postmodern,” albeit inadequately so, about Descartes’s thought, if not always Cartesianism, insofar as he is dubious about typically theologically rationalist modernity—and the same consideration applies in a not totally dissimilar way to both Hume and Kant. Thus for Marion, despite the univocity of cause, the Cartesian way of “distance” towards the infinite holds for him a more than considerable attraction, along with the unilateral besides univocal reach of will beyond reason in the mode of gift and charity.17

Such an ambivalence is also shown by Marion, and then by some other French historians of philosophy towards Descartes’s precursor in some regards, Duns Scotus. Does the latter begin an idolatrous onto-theology, or does he “complete” it as something always lurking within the already conceptualising bias of scholasticism, and then surpass it by the way of charity? God may now be contained within what would much later be called “ontology,” but this is only because it is has been thinned-out to a proto-Kantian transcendental indeterminism, falling short of the real, and so opening more emphatically to view the reality of God as both infinite and free, properly known to us only through revelation. For this perspective, “infinity” may disturbingly limit God to a mode of univocal being, yet the modal primacy of the infinite within being can be regarded as in reality exceeding it, thereby permitting the infinite to most authentically express itself, beyond any “given” to which knowledge is subservient as the ungrounded free gift of charity, the true subject matter of Christian theology.18

But here again, is there not more continuity with Gilson than one might suspect, if one retains perspective? Is not Gilson already significantly ambivalent about Duns Scotus? Why did he write such a huge tome about him if he did not resonate with him to a degree, besides considering him the exponent of an “essentialist” path to which he wished to oppose the Thomist “existential” one? I would suggest that his Scotus book is best read if one bears this double stance always in mind. On the one hand Gilson is implying that the subtle doctor has fatally reduced being to essence regarded in terms of concepts graspable by us, thereby over-privileging reason and its lack of situation. On the other hand, he indicates that the option for essence and for the univocity of being is itself, and paradoxically, a valid existential option, to the degree that, between this and analogy, pure reason alone can scarcely adjudicate.19 Moreover, again and again he suggests that, while Scotus offers solutions that are the polar opposites to those of Aquinas, they nevertheless do the equivalent job of metaphysically orientating us on the same Christian cognitive globe. Thus infinity does the work of esse, haecceity that of existential participation, the divine will that of the Thomist real distinction—and so forth. In either case the imperative of the Exodus naming of God is respected, along with the contingency of the Creation and God’s unconstrained freedom.20 The key differences between the two thinkers are in part explained by Scotus’s far greater Avicennian formalism, but also by his historical situation after the condemnations of 1277. It is implied that, unlike in the case of William of Ockham, Scotus at once tried to respect the new ecclesial demand to remove any tincture of divine necessitation, and yet to repeat, albeit in an altogether different mode, the authentic theological and especially Augustinian tradition.

Our question should then be, regarding his Scotus book: does everything quite add up? How can Gilson entertain two equally valid Christian philosophies without trivialising the importance of philosophy for Christian theology? How can he reconcile a need somewhat to respect 1277 and his evident preference for Aquinas’s pre-1277 thought, much more receptive both of Averroes and of Proclean neoplatonism? Or does he secretly envisage an eventual new synthesis of Thomism with Scotism and, thereby, even with certain elements of Cartesianism, important to the legacy of French spiritualism which was, to some degree, his inherited milieu?

3. Gilson on Scotus

Étienne Gilson’s 1952 book Jean Duns Scot: Introduction à ses positions fondamentales must also be considered in perspective. It is true that textual scholarship and textual attribution in relation to Scotus has advanced considerably since it was written—and this can even make it hard for most readers to follow through on his references in the original French edition.21 However, the degree to which this invalidates his work or renders it outdated can be exaggerated. It is also possible to take him to task for mainly contrasting Scotus with Thomas Aquinas. Yet Gilson is perfectly aware that, in context, Scotus is more often explicitly engaging with Henry of Ghent (and sometimes Giles of Rome, Thomas Sutton, etc.) than with Aquinas, whose positions he nonetheless sometimes deals with, attributively or otherwise. However, Gilson’s interests are ultimately more philosophical than historical and he wishes to contrast what he considers to be the two major ways—essentialist or existentialist—open to the Christian philosopher.

When it comes to historical concerns, then his point is really that Scotus steered a path away from the mainline, Platonically-informed theological legacy, towards something new which nonetheless built upon the existing Franciscan reception of Avicenna and a rereading of Augustine through Avicennian eyes. If Aquinas forms a contrast to this, then it is at once as a spokesman for a more traditional exemplarist, analogical and participatory perspective and for a rethinking of this in more materially-grounded Aristotelian terms, taking account of Averroes, and beyond Aristotle in terms of a new “Exodus metaphysic” of Being. The angelic doctor quite rightly does not figure here as the old path now partially abandoned, but more as a way of rival novelty (if somewhat greater traditional rootedness) that is destined (unlike that of Scotism) in general not to be taken. This attitude is characteristically the mark of the new interwar Thomism; on either side of the channel and to a degree in Germany and Italy also it was seen as a radical, even avant-garde retrieval, naturally able to debate with the modernist philosophy of Bergson and to inform reflection on modernist art and writing, besides inspiring it.22

Thus Gilson is here predominantly concerned to contrast essence and existence, and in some consequence, univocity with analogy. All the same, he did not think that the univocity of being was the most original feature of Scotus’s perspective—it is found, after all, in thinkers preceding him, including, obliquely, Avicenna.23 For Gilson it was rather the formal distinction which, quite rightly, had been held most of all to characterise the Scotist school.

But the formal distinction (as later so-called in the Scotist school) rests upon Avicenna’s doctrine of the plurality of forms. Gilson saw this as an echo of the Platonic ideas, without realising that the echo is much distorted. The ideas as Avicennian forms are now always self-identical “atomic” units, indifferent at once to universal as to individual exemplication. Equinitas est equinitas tantum—the same horse whether really ridden or dreamt about in general.24 Just by reason of this indifference, such an objective form hovers obscurely above both real and intellectual being. It concerns directly neither the form of the hylomorphic real compound, nor the form merely entertained by logic. Precisely for that reason, several subordinate forms may be virtually lurking and ready to burst out on their own account, within a substantive unity that has one governing form. For this governance cannot override the remaining atomic and ideal independence of the formal units, underwritten by their presence in the eternal divine mind itself.25

Scotus further conceptualises form by identifying it, in a proto-Cartesian way, as Gilson stresses, with whatever can be clearly and distinctly thought about something in such a way that this property is not necessarily dependent on something else.26 In this manner, formal distinctness has become more emphatically definable by its thinkability. One might say that metaphysics is thereby already yielding to epistemology, but it is more that the metaphysical is becoming more epistemologically and logically determined. For just as Avicenna’s form is indifferent to reality and logic, so also Scotus’s formal distinction hovers, as Gilson likes to emphasise, between the real distinctions and motions handled by physics on the one hand and the merely cognitive distinctions and processes handled by logic on the other.27 Thus the thinkability of separation does not, for Scotus, mean that the separability is sheerly mental; on the contrary, it rather indicates an unsuspected void in the real. The formal distinction, as Gilson says, is not a mere distinction of reason, and not even one with a fundamentum in re, as sometimes for Aquinas; it rather concerns an aspect of reality integrally united to a substantive unity and yet not absolutely and in all conceivable circumstances bound to it. Thus to give an example mentioned by Gilson, matter for Scotus is thinkable without form, therefore there is a (paradoxical in pure Aristotelian terms) form of matter and this implies that it lay within the divine power to create matter without form, even though God has not in fact willed to do so.28

Despite the primacy as to originality and method ascribed by Gilson to the formal distinction, he nevertheless considers the univocity of being to be primarily determinative of Scotus’s metaphysics and theology, in part because it eventually requires the crucial complementarity of haecceitas. But the most crucial hermeneutic move made by Gilson is to read the univocity of being in terms of what he debatably calls Avicenna’s “essentialism,” or his doctrine of the priority of quiddity as “form,” as just considered, which in Duns Scotus mutated into the formal distinction.29

This move is complex because it has two discernible aspects, if one attends carefully. First, Gilson thinks that Scotus considers being under the mode of quiddity or essence. Just as form is neutral as between real and logical form, so metaphysics is neither physics nor logic, just because it is about ens insofar as it is taken as form or quiddity. It is this “indifference” which renders metaphysics for Scotus a scientia transcendens, as today brought out by Ludger Honnefelder, such that the meaning of “transcendental” has shifted from its usual mediaeval sense of coincidence with all of reality, to mean already a proto-Kantian coincidence only with the dimension of reality that is always conceivably the same. This does not, as yet, betoken in an epistemological fashion, as with Kant, merely perceivable reality in its thinkability, but still, in keeping with an Aristotelian philosophy of form as shared between real things and the understanding of those things, a common formal dimension of the real, besides its conceivability by us. This shift in the meaning of “transcendental” was overlooked by Gilson, for all the support which it gives to his “formalist” reading, although this continuity is in turn not really noted by Honnefelder.30

It is in these formalist-transcendentalist terms that Scotus at one point says that, insofar as metaphysics deals with the quid, it is indifferent to the actual existence of the quid.31 If the mark of the univocity of being is that it is self-identical and does not transgress the law of noncontradiction, then this mark is as much to be found in possible as in actual existence, though in the sense of really and not just logically possible existence32—which for Scotus (in contrast to Aquinas’s more teleological and participatory sense of potential) amounts to logical possibility with the addition of possible actualisation by an adequate efficient cause.

Thus as Gilson realises, Scotus does not, as later Scotists will, go very far with this equating and levelling of the actual with the possible, which would tend towards a “tinology” rather than an “ontology.”33 As for Avicenna, fully-fledged essentia (sometimes distinguished from quiddity as mere formal possibility)34 is always conjoined with existence, just as form is, after all (for all its mooted “indifference”) more fully found in a real substance rather than in a being of reason. Just because neither thinker does really divide essentia from esse (or allow, like Henry of Ghent a fully independent esse essentiae for conceivable being),35 essence always remains for them the core aspect of nonetheless existent reality. This is crucial for understanding that, while Scotus indeed “logicises” his metaphysics, he is never, in treatises explicitly dealing with the res of reality offering pure logical or grammatical considerations.36 (Whereas the logical treatment of mere beings of reason was always, in the Middle Ages, clearly signalled, and generally contained in separate works.)

Yet it seems that, for Scotus and for Gilson’s Scotus especially, being is primarily thought of as essence and even as the still more indifferent “quiddity.” This, in part, gives Gilson the lead for the second aspect of his hermeneutic move which, unlike the first, he admits has no direct textual support—though that does not mean that it is false. Whereas the first gave priority to the essence-aspect of existence, the second reads existence as such, in Scotus, as a kind of form. Hence, most crucially, Gilson considers that the key to univocity of being in the subtle doctor is the way in which he treats being like a kind of super-form and so regards it both as supremely indifferent and as, in effect, formally distinguishable from essence and other irreducible marks of difference.37

How else, thinks Gilson, is one to account for the fact that it is ens as studied by metaphysics and not by logic that is to be considered as univocal? Indeed he argues that Scotus thinks that logic is overwhelmingly preoccupied with the equivocal, since what is “common” to logical differences and implications being so thin as to be almost nugatory.38 By contrast, univocity belongs more naturally to metaphysics just because, in this case, continuities are weightier. Being is always said in the same way just because it always occurs in the same way, in the same fashion that horseness is always horseness, which amounts to considerably more than the logical a always being a or every syllogism obeying the same diagrammatic formula.

It would seem, however, that Gilson is scarcely quite right here. Recent scholarship shows that, to the contrary, Scotus began by agreeing with Henry of Ghent that, in logical terms, being is univocal, albeit in a “confused” manner, whereas in reality finite and infinite are analogically different in so extreme a fashion as to amount to univocity. Later, he came to see the logical univocity of being as precise (since governed by the law of identity) and construed metaphysical being on this logical model, yet without reducing it to the merely logical.39 In Gilsonian terms, this means that the formal indifference of being to logical universality or real instantiation (for Honnefelder its “transcendality”) is more strongly regarded in terms of logical identity, although this quite naturally reinforces the Avicennian tantum. One could choose to consider this “meaning” of being, like the meaning of “horse” as sheerly “semantic” in the sense of its priority to either logical or physical usage. However, this then cannot mean that the semantic lies at a further vacuous remove from the real than does the logical, after the manner of Richard Cross’s construal, which equivalently tends to reduce the formal distinction to a purely mental one.40 To the contrary, to read the univocity of being as “semantic” (a description never given by Scotus himself) must in Scotist terms imply that it occupies a kind of middle ground, exactly that of the formal or transcendental. It is on the middle ground that Scotus has indeed logicised and conceptualised metaphysics, in a revolutionary fashion, but that does not mean that he has replaced it with logic, far less with grammar.

Thus Scotus regards universal form in the intellectual concept as both a “formal object” and as a “diminished being.” Socrates is not “animal” in the mode of this diminishment, just as God is not “being” in the mode of a neutral univocal concept of being. Socrates is only animal as human, God is only being as infinite.41 But this does not mean that “animal” conveys nothing about Socrates, nor that “being” conveys nothing about God (as Cross tends to suggest). “Animal” tells us of Socrates that he is animated, formally in just the way a cat or a dog is; “being” tells us of God that he exists as opposed to does not exist, in just the way that any ens is not a nullity. In this way the concept “supposits” for the exterior thing. Since Scotus is not a nominalist, the “diminishment” of form as universal in the mind implies a real continuity and connection to form as particularised, since both indeed are (as Gilson argued) “the same form as such,” instantiations of the same common concept. Thus we can gloss: animal as such is both Socrates and our idea of him with respect to “animal”; being as such is being as such and the infinite (or the finite), and our idea of the infinite as “infinite being.”

Nor are the implications of Gilson’s error here with respect to logic and univocity all that drastic. It is true that metaphysical unity gives more weight to sheer identity than does logical unity: a horse is more significantly like another horse than the algebraic a is like another a. And Gilson does not make the mistake of supposing that the formal univocity dealt with by metaphysics is a fully real one, in terms of the realities handled either by physics or by theology.42 He is indeed at pains to deny that there is anything exactly “real” in connecting realities that share only the transcendental “being” (besides the other transcendentals) in common and are not united by any genus. Thus both substance and accident exist in the same way, but they have absolutely nothing “really” in common. A fortiori the infinite God and finite creatures have nothing really in common whatsoever.43 Does this then mean that univocal predication is just a necessary way of speaking, as some later Scotists indeed thought and Gilson attributes (perhaps wrongly) to William of Ockham?44 But that would reduce the univocity of being to a thesis in logic or grammar, and Scotus (along with more or less everyone else at the time) does not think of these disciplines as adequately able to approach either real being or God. Instead, according to a third path that defines Scotus’s fabled subtlety, there is a shared formality or formal object in these instances. Substance and accident, God and creatures really exist in absolutely incommensurable ways, but they share, with complete independence, the same neutral existential ground that allows this sheer difference to arise. Gilles Deleuze’s famous gloss is at this point accurate: “the essential in univocity is not that Being is said in a single and same sense, but that it is said, in a single and same sense, of all its individuating differences and intrinsic modalities.”45 Radical sameness and radical alterity are naturally paradoxical allies.

Gilson therefore thinks that the metaphysics of form offers Scotus a double model for construing the univocity of being. But this does not, for him, account for Scotus’s motives in adopting it. These motives are, for Gilson, overwhelmingly theological, though linked to a more rigorous rationalism and conceptualism.46 In the first place, Scotus explicitly rejects Aquinas’s view that the first and natural object of the human intellect is being embodied in a materialised form.47 This is certainly true for human beings in statu lapsus, but how can human beings according to their nature then be destined to see the beatific vision purely with the eye of the soul, if this was also their unfallen condition? It must rather be the case that the human intellect is naturally orientated to the indifference of being that can be both materially and spiritually instantiated. Gilson later indicates just how static a concept of nature this involves on Scotus’s part: there is for him so restricted a real participation in the supernatural, even under grace, that a sheerly natural and self-derived consent of the will is required even for the human reception of the beatific vision.48 In the case of the intellect also, it seems that the human being must already be in the same formal milieu of being as God, if he is to be commensurate enough with him as to eventually be able to see him. There is no sense here then, of a mediating realm where our nature might be transfigured, as nature, beyond itself.

And this is all of a piece with Scotus’s failure to see that we might be able to transcend through judgement and spiritual elevation our sensorily and imaginatively mediated understandings, while inversely God is able symbolically to accommodate himself to their restrictions. Gilson stresses that this failure of vision is linked to his thinking of analogy not in terms of judgement, but of the concept.49 If a name or concept can be analogically extended to God, then Scotus argues that this must be so on the basis of a minimal clear agreement as to just what we are talking about, as defined by the stipulation of self-identity and noncontradiction. On that basis it would seem—to supplement Gilson here—that analogy reduces to a non-analogical blend of degrees of intensity of a univocal quality along with ineffable equivocal difference, just as the divine infinity is for Scotus at once the degree maximum of “the same” being and a mode of being incommensurably different from the finite.50 But for Thomas, as Gilson rightly says, being is identified not in terms of detached concept but of a more inwardly resonating judgement, which not does not regard analogy in terms of a potentially measurable mimetic likeness (requiring a basis of univocal agreement) but of a speculative, if mystically apprehended proportion of contingent and limited perfection to its supremely perfect causal origin.

Gilson, like Erich Przywara, seems wrongly to think of this in terms of a priority of “proper proportion” or “proportionality” in analogy (as for Aquinas’s earlier position)51 which renders, for example, God’s goodness taken in proportionate ratio to himself as our goodness is to ours, rather too sheerly unknown and thereby equivocal in substantive terms—precisely on account of the excessive formal similarity of shared ratio—resulting in a somewhat empty judgement. In order for the judgement of analogy to have real content, it must be (as for the mature Aquinas)52 primarily attributive, thereby ascribing some degree, after all, of substantive resemblance of created thing to creative source, but not in such a way that, as for Scotus, one is talking about a resemblance that requires a third assumed term taken univocally in common. Instead, for Thomistic analogy, God, as the terminus of attribution, is himself also, so to speak, the third term of being, the only thing that renders a remote comparison possible, since he is the coincidence of transcendence in height and the transcendental in scope. Thus creatures are only like God because they derive from him and “as it were” take parts from him, even if inversely, they only participate in God by being remotely like him.53

It is to a degree because of his rather diluted grasp of analogy and participation that Gilson is able somewhat to play down the contrast between Aquinas and Scotus and to see their metaphysical machinery as carrying out equivalent jobs, as we shall further see below. But all the same he is fundamentally right about the correlation of the subjectively judgemental and the actively existential, in line with the concerns of his French contemporaries, which I outlined at the outset. Just as judgement fluctuates without rules and is self-guided and differentiating, so also, for Aquinas, as Gilson brings out, being of itself and without any formal check or constant norm is endlessly and unpredictably various, and naturally manifest in different degrees of instantiation.

This follows, because only the differentiated and individuated fully exists and for Aquinas it is participation in being itself (as Gilson well emphasises) that individuates (even if, in the material realm, this is mediated by “signed” or quantified matter).54 Since, for Aquinas, self-standing, individuated difference coincides with existence, there is no residue of pure being that escapes this real instantiation. The formal thinkability of such a residue provides no warrant for imagining it to be formally rather than just rationally distinguished, while insofar as being is really distinguished from the individual thing taken in its essence, it denotes, not something abstract, but the actual and dynamic realm of the participation of that thing in the divine esse, whereby it is constantly in excess of itself. Inversely, form is not, for Aquinas, formally separable from the act of being but only exists through it, just as we have no empirical or phenomenological warrant for supposing that matter, accidents or subordinate forms can really exist outside their relational subsumption by the architectonically unifying principle of substantive form and individuated actuality.

With Scotus it is altogether otherwise. Given that, according to Gilson’s plausible account, he thinks of being on the model of Avicennian constant form, then it follows that difference must be rather extraneous to being and not resulting from it as an aliquid with which it is transcendentally convertible, as for Aquinas.55 Univocal being, one might say, is given, inert, immune to causality and thereby somewhat infertile. Thus, as Gilson emphasises, for Scotus it extends to being in quid, but not in quale—not, at least immediately, to ultimate, defining differences and to the other passiones or transcendentals besides being.56

And yet, one could elaborate here, these restrictions are somewhat paradoxical. For the more that there is a clear formal difference, then the more there is univocity. Matter is in the “same” being as form, as are accident and substance, and creature and Creator. Since the mark of the divine “thisness” is his infinity,57 then one must assume that every unique haecceitas is in the same, univocal being also. Just because being as such does not differentiate or individuate, and differentiating and individuating are mysteriously locked within their own self-authenticating, self-identical circle, in a manner that is totally “additional” to univocal being, they are still governed by the univocal principle. By contrast, in a way that Olivier Boulnois brings out, the transcendentals and last specifying differences are not directly covered by univocity, just because they are too close to being, since their degree of formal differentiation is weaker and more overruled by a real, simple unity which cannot virtually fly apart.58 Thus to say “unity” or “truth” or “goodness” is but tautologously to say being again, according to the rule of convertibility amongst the passiones, and so if being is said of them in just the same way it is said of being itself, then all the transcendentals seems to collapse back into, or as we might now say, “disquote themselves” as being. Thus a minimal formal distinction remains,59 but this very minimality, in its non-detachable integrity is guarded by the impossibility of predicating univocity in quid of the other transcendentals. For Aquinas, by contrast, to say “true” etc. is only to say “being,” but disquotation is not possible for us, since the transcendentals are differentiated according to our modus cognoscendi, but not, even formally, in reality.60

A similar consideration applies to the specifying differences. Since the defining quality of a species is what allows it really to be existentially instantiated, as “rational” allows there to be human beings, to declare that being is predicated in the same univocal way of, for example, “rational” as it is of the quidditative base “animal,” is somewhat to suppress the real requirement for a final specification in order that anything finite exist at all. Only in the case of God is his quiddity and haecceity sufficient for his existence, which is omni-qualitative. For everything else, the danger would be of implying that, for example, “rational” is entirely at one with the existence which it alone allows. By contrast haecceity, one might interpretatively suggest, although necessary for real being and thereby allowing of it, so ineffably and uncharacterisably coincides with it as to be, by contrast, predicable univocally, in accordance with Deleuze’s insight. Every instantiating absolute uniqueness is “the same” entirely unique uniqueness, at one with real being, whereas a quality like “reason” adds something formally general to being and so different from it. Qualities are so close to being they must be different from it; haecceities are so distant from being that they absolutely coincide with it. As Gilson stresses, even haecceitas is for Scotus a quiddity, indifferent to actual existence (which comes about through causal force, created or divine), but all the same no being exists without ultimate distinguishing.61

Nonetheless, Scotus does not wish to allow some kind of equivocally “other” being in the case of qualities, in denial of real, simple unity: thus he says that both the transcendentals and the last specifying differences are “virtually” included in the quid which is formally univocal.62 This concurs with the way in which Scotus dilutes the full convertibility of the transcendentals by regarding them, also, as formally distinct from each other, even within God.63

Gilson noted that Ockham, by contrast, extended univocity also to the instances of ultimate differences and the transcendentals.64 He ascribed this to the way in which, for Ockham, unlike, as he supposed, Scotus, univocity was first at home in logic, and he further considered that univocity was, in Ockham, wholly a logical doctrine. Nominalism, Gilson considered, had been encouraged by the influence on logic of grammar turned speculative for which, by a natural disciplinary bent, all suppositing by signs might be reduced to naming. As a doctrine it then comes about through the effective usurpation of the place of metaphysics by that of such a speculatively grammatised logic. Yet, as Boulnois now points out, against both Marilyn McCord Adams and Pierre Alferi, Ockham also continues to deal metaphysically with real res, and nominalism indeed remains a metaphysics.65 In Ockham’s case it is less the result of the total displacement of the ontological by the logical as of a kind of generalisation of the principle of univocity of being to all formal universals. Formal resemblance now acquires the kind of minimality of common likeness stripped of any real participatory continuity, such that, for instance, trees are all alone in their similar possession of a coincidentally resembling “treeness,” registered by mind as the minimal universality of resemblance and not, by the mature Ockham, reduced to a pure fiction or flatus vocis. Nonetheless, given the consequent erosion of any sort of inherent “belonging” or “affinity” out there in the world, the formal distinction must itself collapse into a real one. It follows that qualities do not really “stick” to their substances and are really different from them, such that “rational” is completely detachable from animal, even in the case of man, and so no longer at risk of naming fully determinate being twice over. It is for this reason that univocity is, with Ockham, directly predicable of ultimate differences and not—contra Gilson—because this predication concerning being is merely logical. It is rather that the disconnecting power of a more sheerly formal logic has, with Ockham, yet further entered the metaphysical terrain. Equivalently, the convertibility of the transcendentals is further weakened, and univocal being can now be directly predicated of “truth” and “goodness,” etc., because they no longer denote attributes that really coincide with being, but are truly distinct from it.

But somewhat ironically, for Ockham the abandonment of the formal distinction means that in the case of God there is a purer simplicity than for Scotus, including between intellect and will: in God all the transcendentals are really identical—even though for him the Trinitarian persons alone and inconsistently remain formally distinct from the divine essence, just because a nominalist metaphysic cannot really accommodate either substantive relations or their real unity with the simplicity of the divine substance.66

Gilson stresses equally Scotus’s second theological motive in endorsing univocity. This concerns the rational coherence of both our speech about God and our ability to demonstrate his existence.67 In either instance Scotus takes the criterion of rational coherence to be the principle of noncontradiction and concludes that anything that cannot be the opposite of itself possesses a univocally specifiable identity. Being is not said in analogically diverse ways according to attribution ad unum as Aristotle seems to suggest and Neoplatonism endorsed; instead it is said in always the same way and yet cannot be differentially specified like a true genus. If there is no stable meaning to being or to any other perfection, then its analogical attribution to God is meaningless.68 It only varies according to modal degrees of intensity of the formally same thing, like the colour white, and can be more or less formally self-standing, or substantial, according to the divinely willed contingency of the ontological arrangements of creation, or more or less necessary or more or less actual.69 Its supreme degree of intensity, which is nonetheless incommensurably beyond any finitely graspable scale, is the infinite.70 The infinite is for Scotus one of the two “modes” of univocal being that, along with the finite, forms a “disjunctive transcendental,” of which other examples are actual and potential, necessary and contingent.71

It follows that in naming God we ascribe to him an infinite and unknown degree of a transcendental perfection whose essence we do perfectly know in itself—as being, goodness, truth, wisdom, love and so forth. Scotus, in sidelining the priority of judgement, will not allow that our most basically available axiological meanings might be inherently vague and subject to speculative projection: thus, we can elaborate beyond Gilson, he will not grant that in predicating an excellence of God we are ourselves growing further into the meaning of that excellence, if the context of our naming is liturgical, as it was for Dionysius the Areopagite.72 Instead, the priority which he gives to the grasped concept means that all our judgements and projections have to be foundationally based. In this way our reaching for transcendent height depends upon locating it within a transcendental breadth, pre-given in independence of any causal derivation, even from the Creator God. By contrast, analogically to attribute any perfection of God is to seek to rediscover the eminent causal source of that excellence, such that transcendental breadth only splays out here below as a consequence of its descent from an eminent transcendent height.

In this manner, as Gilson underlines, Scotus thinks that the status of rational theology as a science depends upon univocity of being. For otherwise syllogistic demonstration, upon which science depends, lapses for lack of a stable middle term. And indeed Neoplatonism had openly denied to theology a fully apodeictic status, just because it seemed that analogical ascent can be at once only dialectical and mystical. Seeking to understand just how Aquinas thought that he could locate fully scientific demonstrations within an analogical framework that governs all his theology is difficult: perhaps one can gloss this to mean that his notably “physical” proofs, pivoted upon motion and actualisation, gradually become fully demonstrative as we more and more ascend analogically to the divine point of view in our seeking of an ultimate basis for the always relative series of finite causal conditionings.73 This ultimate basis would lie in the divine being as such, but since Aquinas disallows the situation of God within a univocal ens commune, his “five ways” cannot require any shared univocal consistency of meaning as between finite and infinite being. It is surely for this reason that they are not in any sense at all “ontological” proofs, as an absolutely demonstrative “scientific” proof would arguably have to be, as Kant claimed. The “third way” does involve the reduction of contingent possibility to actual necessity, but this is the reverse upward tracing of a divine “moving” descent, since for Aquinas potentiality is something that is participatively on its way to full being.

But for Scotus, by contrast, all proofs, as Gilson underlines, are semi-ontological; as for Thomas fully ontological only from the divine perspective (for which reason Scotus “colours” them with a posteriori reasonings), yet partially ontological for us insofar as we begin with finite beings fully determined in their quiddity by their possible being (as in Aquinas’s both more Aristotelian and more Neoplatonic metaphysics they could not be).74 We can account for their actualisation by appeal to an infinite being whose modality must be prior, and is able efficiently to cause the existence of finite being as finite, precisely because its infinite consistency of identity is compatible with, and lies as it were on the same causal plane, as all the finite consistencies of identity.75 So with Scotus the ontological moment of linkage between God and creatures is divorced from the causal moment, whereas in Aquinas they are combined as emanative descent which is at once a creaturely sharing in the divine Being and the divine power of transmission.

Viewed in this way one can then further underscore Gilson’s insistence that the Thomist and Scotist perspectives are not directly nor even very readily comparable.76 This means that one cannot simply see Scotus as supplying a missing univocal basis for Thomist analogical predication or for Thomist demonstration of divine existence. For in either case the very nature of analogy and of proving is of a very different kind to that which we find in Duns Scotus. As Gilson tirelessly reiterates, the realisation of essence by existence itself through individuating act is barely comparable with the realisation of quiddity and haecceity as essential existence through contingent causal eventuation and ultimately the divine will—which alone brings about being from nothing, though for Scotus finite creatures (as not in Aquinas) can of themselves and non-participatively bring about being from something.77 The one operation assumes analogy of being, the other, univocity.

Gilson is rightly at pains to emphasise that despite, or even because of shared formal univocity, a genuine and full divine transcendence is retained in Scotus through the emphasis on infinity, at once incommensurably distant and boundless, as the key divine property. He appears, more debatably, also to defend the Scotist formal differences within God as compatible with his real simplicity.78 And he even appears to allow Scotus’s kataphatic qualification of Thomist “agnosticism” which construes infinity positively as a somewhat knowable divine distinction, since it can be grasped as the ultimately intense degree of univocally grasped being.79

He does however note, though without further remark, the strangeness of Scotus’s ordering of an atemporal sequence of formally prior and posterior moments in the divine self-understanding.80 Precisely because infinity and not simplicity is the key divine property for Scotus, infinity comes formally first, since other, formally distinguishable divine properties do not precisely coincide with it, as they would in the case of a supreme simplicity (as for Aquinas), by definition. Hence what God knows first is his infinite essence; then the quiddities of all the infinite possibilities in their latent knowability; then their actualised knowability.81 Scotus here stresses that the quiddities do not of themselves cause this actual knowing, but rather God’s infinite knowledge itself does, just as a second sunny field adjacent to a first one is not caused to be sunny by the first, but by the sun itself which shines on both. Nonetheless, one could add to Gilson, in accord with Boulnois, that a certain “representational” interlude seems to intrude here in God himself between what is known—the infinite, the slumbering quiddities—and the knower.82

It is just in terms of this priority of knowable quiddities and God’s actual knowledge of them “prior” to the intervention of his will, that Gilson rightly insists that Duns Scotus was not a “voluntarist” in any straightforward sense.83 To the contrary, infinite truths are for him decided by a purely intelligent representation of the infinite sea of merely rational combinatorial possibilities, in a way that remotely foreshadows Leibniz. What is more, God freely but necessarily wills this knowledge as the good; for this reason, as Gilson remarks, it is not for Scotus that the divine will first wills to love, but that the divine will arises in the first place as inevitable love. This will only assumes the idiom of free choice, purely instigated by the will itself, though under the guidance of reason and charity, when it comes to the divine decision as to which finite possibilities to actualise and in what combination. Of these created actualities, God is then no longer (as Boulnois brings out) the eternal ideal exemplar, as for Aquinas; instead the divine ideas arise only at the stage of his “representation” of the actualisation of this set of possibilities.

The created order in consequence for Scotus consists of certain selected formalities, ordered as to genus and species and actualised as substantive forms, purely spiritual in the case of angels and combined with the formality of matter in the case of the sublunary order. Ludger Honnefelder is here correct to say that Gilson is not quite right to call this “essentialism,” since essence itself is but the secondary upshot in the created ontological order of a particular and contingent free divine selection of some quidditative possibilities, (possessed of a logical “non-repugnance” to being, or a ratitudo for it) rather than others, and in some combinations rather than others.84

Arising within form and of it and yet not as form nor by form, nor as a further formalisation, as Gilson underlines, is the principle of individuation, which is a different principle in every unique thing, finally sealing its possibility of being, which is however actually instigated by an effective external power, created or uncreated (in the case of the totality of finite existences arising from nothing).85 Gilson points out that Scotus shares with Aquinas a rejection of Bonaventure and others’ universal hylomorphism, which made the form/matter distinction coincide with the Creator/created one, thereby Platonically confusing materiality with finitude as such and ascribing to all the angels (where Augustine allowed this only for some of them) a rarefied corporeality.86 Both thinkers exhibit a better grasp of the more transcendent and ontologically deeper and more drastic character of the Creator/created divide. If Aquinas renders it coincident with the ontological difference between Being and beings or between Act and partial act still in potency to full actuality, then Scotus expresses it in terms of the gulf between the simplicity of the infinite and the always composed character of the finite and, like Aquinas, realises that purely spiritual beings can also be composed—in his case of a limited substantive grouping of formalities.

Yet for all that, Gilson also realises that much more is shared for Scotus between infinite and finite than for Aquinas is shared between esse and but partially actual creatures who alone who him share the “same” (since created) ens commune. The meaning and so the formality of being, unity, truth and goodness is the same for Scotus in either case as it is not for the angelic doctor. Also the same is the division between the aspect of determined nature on the one hand and of freedom and love on the other.87

The great French scholar here notes first that Scotus seeks to defend and secure contingency by a rigid contrast between it and anything determinate (either determining or determinated). Second, that Scotus entirely assigns reason to this natural realm. In consequence, the natural and rational contribution to truth is, as Gilson well brings out, if anything more drastically “intellectualist” than with Thomas: God knows in three “signs” his infinity, the possible essences and their truths entirely before the intervention of the will, even though, in God’s case alone that inevitably follows, though as the entirely free supplement of love—thereby ensuring that love also, is formally separate from the understanding.88 One can add here that Scotus distinguishes the Trinitarian persons (whose existence in God is somewhat secondary to the three momentary “signs”) in the same terms: the Father is infinite origin, the Son is reason, the Spirit love.89 Even in the case of the Trinity, Scotus applies his rule that things are self-determined in essence and never relationally: “for no entity does a relation constitute its ratification (or that by which something is a sold being or a true or certain being].”90 As we have seen, the divine loving will becomes a freedom of pure choice in the Creation of the world. And in the angelic and human instances, the will is entirely defined by this freedom, which is univocally the same in formal terms as the divine creative freedom (and can indeed, bring about being). As a result, the human mind imitates the Trinity in a somewhat literal fashion, given that Scotus has already “psychologised” the Trinity in God by much more directly and non-relationally identifying persons with faculties, in a way avoided by either Augustine or Aquinas.91

This is not discussed by Gilson, but he does consider how, for Scotus, the freedom of created spirits, like that of God’s, entirely arises from the will. Though the intellect decides as to truth on its own, the will is entirely free to accept or reject its wisdom, in a way that refuses the determination of the will by the judgement after Plato, Aristotle, Augustine (despite Gilson’s apparent endorsement of Scotus’s invocation of him) and Aquinas. Equally it is the will on its own which decides whether to seek for this or that understanding of such and such a reality and it is this ultimate rule of the will which in fact alone rescues reason from the full determinism that renders its knowing of a thing as entirely inexorable, after the fashion of the seeing of a thing by the eye.92

Even this strong insistence on the independent self-originating of the will in Scotus, can be in fact correlated with his rationalism. First, the will has to be formally distinguished in conceptual terms by what is supposedly unique to it, “outside” reason. Secondly, the construal of will as a choosing of this thing or not, strictly correlates with the dominance of the rule of noncontradiction governing the intellect, according to which a knowable object must either exist or not exist. The lack of an analogical “third way” inside either willing or knowing is exactly what ensures that there is also no third horizon that regards them as always intimately linked, as for Augustine or Aquinas.

The same strict division between natural reason and the will informs Scotus’s approach to law and ethics, as Gilson contends. Scotus, as Boulnois today emphasises, rejected the Aristotelian and Thomist distinction between theoretical and practical reason which understands the latter in terms of thinking towards a rationally known goal which is to be approximated towards by action.93 Instead, for Scotus it is the intervention of the deciding will that renders reason active. Therefore, the role of reason in the case of either theoretical or practical reason is the rational grasp of possibilities, whether of their actual instantiation, or their possible instantiation. In this way the divine understanding is not, as for Aquinas, the absolute simple coincidence of the theoretical and the practical, of simultaneous realisation and expression both in the Trinitarian Logos and in the externally creative act, but is initially and overwhelmingly, solely intellectual—before the will intervenes both as necessary confirmation (of the infinite) and as contingent instigation (of the finite). It is highly significant here that Scotus rejects the Trinitarian “expressivism” of Aquinas’s understanding of all cognition, divine and human; instead, for him, it is kind of pure, if already (and dubiously and again contrast to Thomas) reflexive self-presence, in continuity with the unmediated understanding of Avicenna’s “flying man” and in some anticipation of the Cartesian cogito.94

The Scotist division of intellect and will is mirrored in spiritual creatures. In refuting or nuancing the usual description before 1950 of Scotus as a “voluntarist,” Gilson points out that, for the subtle doctor, conscience is an entirely intellectual matter, whereas for Aquinas’s stronger account of practical reason as teleological, the will is intrinsically involved from the outset; if the will is guided by judgement, practical judgement is in part to do with the lure of right desire by a genuine telos. It is then for Scotus reason that apprehends the natural law and the precepts of the “first table” of the Decalogue to love God and God alone. Scotus, as Gilson indicates, believes that he is offering a true exegesis of Christ’s assertion that the whole of the law is contained in the gospel commandment to love God and one’s neighbour as oneself. But Scotus reads this to mean that a natural and rational obedience to God requires one to follow his commandments. These concern how one should treat one’s neighbour, as set out in the “second table” of the law, and these do not belong to the natural law, as they arise from the contingent willing of God.95 Scotus concludes this on the basis of the fact that, in the Old Testament, God sometimes suspends his commandments in emergencies and permits or even orders killing, stealing, adultery and neglect of parents.

Gilson here wrongly asserts that Aquinas denies these suspensions; in fact he does not, but still allows that the second table proclaims the natural law, precisely because he thinks of this as amenable to equitable or “miraculous” exceptions, since he construes the natural law for human beings as accessible through the exercise of prudential judgement and discernment of the divine will and not through theoretical precept—a contrast of which Gilson might have been aware, in parallel to the case of analogy.96 He is nonetheless right to emphasise that Scotus is not endorsing a divine arbitrariness: the God we should rationally obey is also the God who is love and whom we should naturally and rightly love. His willed commandments are offered out of this love. Nevertheless, they have more of the character for him of a convenient constitution for the post-lapsarian human polity than they do for Aquinas, for whom they are more intrinsic to our human nature. This goes along with the Dominican ascription of property, lordship, rulership and legal connubium to the paradisal state. This was denied by the Franciscans, in an exacerbation of the position of St. Augustine.97

4. Assessing Gilson on Scotus

How should one characterise Gilson’s rendering of Duns Scotus?

As we have seen, it is marked, above all, by a contrast between Scotus as a philosopher of essence and Aquinas as a philosopher of existence. The former is seen as failing to make the real distinction between essence and existence that is made by the angelic doctor. Nevertheless, as we have also seen, Scotus is read, and not without justification, as consistently offering compensations or equivalents for this failure in term of the ineffability and absolute difference and distance of the infinite (equivalent to esse), the excess of individuation over form (equivalent to the excess of act over form) and the independence of the divine will (equivalence to the divine act of being as bringing contingent things about). In this way, both scholastic masters are regarded as theologians of Exodus and of creation ex nihilo, beyond the pre-biblical limitations of the Greeks.

There is therefore a tension in Gilson’s construal. On the one hand he already thinks, somewhat sotto voce, that Scotus marks a key Western caesura. Before him, in a general way, theology was governed by an analogical and participatory construal of the divine names, linked with the primacy of a mystical judgement, resonant with being as such. After him, theology increasingly tends to be dominated by a univocal naming of God under the aegis of a more distant and conceptualising relation to being. Albeit allowing for the already rationalising contributions of Abelard and Gilbert Porreta, this shift in Scotus builds upon the massive difference made to Latin thought by the translations of Avicenna, and his “atomically Platonic” construal of form as static and indifferent, even across the uncreated/ created, infinite/finite divides.98 On the other hand, Scotus is also read by Gilson as offering, after 1270, another valid path, which now more strongly guards against Arabic necessitarianism than the older theology of mystical reason, while providing certain new guarantees of the impenetrable mystery both of God and of creatures, and considerably qualifying the range open either to the divine or to the human will.

Just how stable is this tensional balance? One can argue that it is less stable than Gilson supposed or perhaps wishfully thought, maybe in deference to magisterial history and a desired ultimate harmony of the diverse Catholic intellectual legacy.

In describing Scotus as the supreme metaphysician of essence and Aquinas of existence, Gilson did not simply wish to favour the latter, though clearly he did so to a great and even an overwhelming degree. Instead, despite Scotus’s failure to register the essence/existence real distinction, his very essentialising of existence (as described in the previous section) can be read by Gilson as a one-sided account of a true metaphysics; almost as offering exactly half the truth. Thus what he says about the realm of possibility and intellect need not (it is implied) be seen as entirely wrong; it is just that he does not realise the leading role of existential actualisation in achieving a fully concrete reality. However, to some degree, his wholly novel view of the realm of quiddity as extending to the possibility of the unaccountably unique (haecceitas), phenomenologically manifest and yet ontologically unsoundable, plus the more independent role he grants to the will, compensates for this deficiency. Gilson therefore concedes some similarity and equivalence between the Thomist act of existence on the one hand, and Scotist individuation and willing on the other.99 This may even for him even open up the prospect of a new scholastic synthesis in which haecceity supplies a certain bridge between form and act, while the link of the existential with choice and free-directedness confirms the link between Aquinas and a post-Kierkegaardian stance towards the subjective.

This sounds agreeable enough, but why might it not work? The problem lies with a too simple characterisation of the different stance of the two thinkers towards essence and existence. Arguably it is not that Aquinas strongly divides them and Scotus fails to do so; but, to the contrary, that Aquinas ultimately unites them, whereas Scotus keeps them ultimately too much apart. Or to put this another, and paradoxical way: it would seem that the formal distinction is less of a distinction than is a real distinction but more than is a rational one, whereas, more deeply considered, the formal divide is more of a rupture than the real one.

How can this be so? On Gilson’s reading of Aquinas, existence is presented somewhat as a dimension “beyond” essence, which still remains sovereign in its own domain.100 In the case of God, though he knows all essences as possibilities of participation in him, his own essence is uniquely “to be.” While Gilson naturally realises that God is not unstructured or disordered, he still writes as if the divine essence was his existence, in a sense going beyond a rhetorical expression of the truth that, in God, essence and existence absolutely coincide. This means that, curiously enough and even counterintuitively, one might start to argue that Gilson’s Aquinas is presented slightly too much in terms that already favour a mediable comparison with Scotus. Thus the suggested excess of pure existence over essence looks a little like the formal primacy of the infinite in the later thinker. Equally, and alternatively, it looks a little like the formal excess of the will over the essence-bound intellect of the Scotist account of God. In the case of the structure of created existence, Gilson thought somewhat too simplistically in terms of “another metaphysical layer”—just as form actualises matter, so act in turn actualises form. Yet if, for Thomas, forma dat esse, it is more as if form has been existentially enriched and is consequently regarded as more open-ended.101 It is not then, after all, so obvious that, after Avicenna, Aquinas goes any further than the Boethian distinction between being and essence in terms of a distinction between the quo est and the quid est. For Boethius, that in virtue of which something exists (such as “the soul”) contains also an existential, actualising factor.102 Thus despite much ambiguity of formulation in his texts, one can read the angelic doctor to be saying that form, precisely as form, participates in a fullness of being which is also, in God, a fullness of form or of essence. The latter is rhetorically regarded as the more “receiving” factor, merely because, in the case of a creature, one can specify its essence, without its existence necessarily following. That is because its essence is, unlike the divine essence, limited. Yet if its essence is limited, then so is its existence, being merely contingent and participated and tied to a specific formal mode of being. On this rendering, Aquinas’s strong doctrine of the absolute divine simplicity over-determines even the centrality of esse, and his “natural” (as opposed to his Trinitarian) metaphysics remains after all a metaphysics of “the One” (not beyond being, though significantly beyond quasi-generic, created ens commune). When Aquinas adds to the Greek ontological legacy the biblical, Philonian and Patristic concern with “divine politics” or governance, then one could say the central concept of his thought is ordo—indivisibly united in God, economically unified in diversity in the creation.

Interpreted in this fashion, the Thomist “real distinction” of being and essence in creatures does not mean any absolute separation; rather a dilution of their intrinsic, absolute connection in God. The “reality” of their divide is not like that between one physical object and another, but is rather the mark of contingency in the sense that any creature only exists as this thing through its dependent realisation on an esse which is everything. Thus it is really divided within itself between its own nature, that might not be, and a deeper ultimate ground of its very own being, which yet does not belong to it at all, since it is the being as such and omni-essentiality of God. It is for this reason that, in his commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Aquinas clearly refuses the more extreme versions of the real distinction espoused by his later followers which would involve both an “existence of essence” and an “essence of existence.”103 For Aquinas, by contrast, essence is only real, even as essence, when somewhat possessed of an actually inherent potential for (as opposed to abstract possibility of) further existence, and existence is only real, even as existence, when it is essentially structured. It is, rather, the univocal account of being that reduces it to the pure fact of “being there” or of “possibly being there.” In this crucial fashion it is Scotus who is the more existentialist, just because he makes (in effect and despite immediate appearances) more of an Avicennian essence-existence divide, though again, without going so far as to divide them entirely (with the paradoxical consequence of “existing essence” and “essential existence”) as his own later followers sometimes did.104 But for Aquinas, since being is also the expansion and hidden dimension of form, the act of being is linked at once to a further potential of something for becoming while yet remaining the same thing or person, and yet also to its unique individuation which alone allows it to exist at all.

Although Scotus, like Avicenna (but unlike certain Latin Avicennians) does not allow essence to be fully real on its own, even in God, he nonetheless effectively thinks of essences as formally distinct from existence, in terms of their eternal logical possibility—providing an infinite repertoire from which God selects. Since, as already argued, fully-fledged “essence” means in Scotus “quiddity plus willed causal instigation,” it is not quite right to view him, with Gilson, as an “essentialist,” or as “anti-existentialist.” Yet this qualification only renders the sundering of the conceptualisable and modally possible moment of the real all the more separable from the existential.

And although, again, there is for Scotus no purely indeterminate existence, being can, as Gilson argues, be for him separably thought of a distinct formality, just because it correlates with the purest and most abstractable expression of the law of noncontradiction according to which any real thing, finite or infinite, cannot both be and not be at the same time and in the same manner. It follows that we do not, as for Aquinas, judge such and such an individual to be present with such and such restrictions and such and such potential, but instead we assert (according to sensory intuition) that such and such an ineffable individual is present and that it falls under such and such formal and common concepts, including the formality of being, itself indifferent to particularity or universality, but present as this particular thing and universally thinkable.

In consequence, the formal distinction implies more separability than the real one. For Aquinas, just as matter exists through form, accidents exist through substance and sub-forms through the dominant one (the form of the hand through the form of the body) by perfected participation, so also limited form exists through perfecting act, through imperfect and always ongoing participation. It is the latter alone that is the mark of a real distinction, which asymptotically tends towards a real unification. But by exact contrast, the inherent bias of the formal distinction is towards a drifting away, precisely because it has been adopted in order to divide something where one might have chosen not to do so—in seeing the hand as not fully subsumed, as still to a degree possessing its own form, one regards it as virtually separable, as already no more than a prosthesis.105 Similarly, if, in effect, on Gilson’s reading (which I basically affirm) existence is formally distinct from essence, then essence, especially as the more prior quiddity, tends towards an independent “existence” of abstract conceptual possibility and existence towards an independent “essence” of predicability as “there or not” in an almost proto-Tarskian sense.

A similar consideration applies to the question of individuation. The Scotist notion of a principle of individuation that is within form yet extra to it, and always a different principle of individuation in every particular thing sounds attractive. Yet the price for the formal separability of haecceitas is that a thing is not disclosive of anything beyond itself—in a way that alternatively renders Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poetics either problematic or not really Scotistic after all. (I suspect that the latter is far truer than the former, though the former may not be without some truth.) For the Scotist individual is in a way “self-bounded” and therefore not individuated by situational relation to other creatures and to God as for Aquinas: a view that also seems phenomenologically truer to appearances. Just as much as Scotus, Aquinas renders, beyond Aristotle, the individual a prime reality and a supremely knowable reality. For beyond universal form and “accidentally” individuating matter (as for Aristotle) for Aquinas, after Averrroes, it is indeterminate quantity that paradoxically allows unique determinations. This quantity is a kind of “pre-form,” indicative of a sort of esoteric mediating link between form and matter in Aquinas, coincident with the existential and also expressed by the Averroistic and Albertine notion that matter “elicits” form, which Aquinas also at times espouses. Thus for him the primacy of relation to and participation in divine being is also the primacy of the existing individual. But for Scotus this primacy belongs to an inscrutable, lonely and not-necessarily existing “anti-essence” that is always otherwise in its solitude.106

From all of this one can suggest that Gilson was not quite right to see Aquinas as the metaphysician of existence and Scotus as the metaphysician of essence. As we have seen, this way of viewing their contrast both allows Gilson to indicate Aquinas’s superiority, and to seek a certain correlation of their philosophies and resolution of their differences. But if the point is rather that, in a suitably “subtle” fashion, it is Scotus who more divides essence from existence, then the contrast remains, but the correlation and half-mooted synthesis become more difficult, if not impossible. As to the question of respective superiority, that issue will be left for the moment in abeyance.

Before eventually tackling it, it is important to see that this same revision of contrast can be made with respect to Gilson’s account of Aquinas as intellectualist and Scotus as voluntarist. For once more, Gilson (here somewhat vaguely) implies the superiority of Aquinas’s perspective and yet also suggests a certain complementarity, or even advance, on Scotus’s part, in affirming the autonomy of freedom as an inherently Christian value. And again also, a somewhat questionable difference from Boethius is ascribed to Aquinas in terms of an accentuated role for the independence of the will in human deciding—whereas it would seem that both thinkers allow that guiding judgement involves some dimension of purged affectivity, in the tradition of the Platonic eros.107

The complementarity arises for Gilson in two respects: first, insofar as Scotus is himself largely an intellectualist. As we have seen, human conscience is for him wholly guided by reason, and the divine understanding is wholly guided by the preceding nature of essence and not at all by choice or desire. Second, insofar as Gilson says that the divine will in Scotus plays something of the role of participation in the divine act in Aquinas. For Gilson then, the Scotist fault might be to raise will above intellect, but the Scotist advance might be to better grasp the self-sufficiency and ultimate primacy of the domain of will and charity, while fully granting to intellect its due. The parallel with essence and existence is here complex: Scotus is seen by Gilson as newly allowing to the will its full significance, as he does with essence; at the same time, it is just the increased allowance given to will which permits Scotus somewhat to compensate for his lack of a metaphysics of existence.

But again, what Gilson has arguably failed to see is that the difference between the two thinkers lies not with the one stress or the other, but with a metaphysical separation—a point precisely grasped by Jean-Luc Marion.108 Even if Thomas’s integration of intellect and will was somewhat inferior to that of Augustine’s, it remains more genuinely Augustinian than Scotus’s post-Avicennian division of the two.109 Here Gilson rather overrated the contrast between Avicenna’s Neoplatonic necessitarianism and Scotus’s increased buttressing of divine creative freedom.110 It is true that Avicenna failed to see God as unique creator of all that is, restricting him to emanative source of the intelligences, and true also that Avicenna was reluctant to use any anthropomorphising talk of “will” or “intention” or “motivation” in relation to God. Yet the frequent wrestling of the great Persian philosopher with the aporia of how God as perfect can give rise to anything other than himself, yet how anything can be at all without ultimately arising from God, results in the conclusion that there is some sort of inexplicable caesura in the divine which divides the possible quiddities from the actualised ones.111 Even though this rupture cannot be Neoplatonically named as “decision,” it still arises from the Islamic dimension in Avicenna’s thought, which concerns a monotheism of pure, solitary sovereignty over the cosmos. In Scotus this perspective on divine government is emphasised and the rupture is unambiguously baptised “will.”

It is also, arguably, Avicenna’s Islamic monotheism which pushes him towards thinking of forms in the mode of the “atomised Platonism” which we have already considered. As neutral and fixed essences they become entirely subject to the divine sieving, which somewhat interferes with and complicates the apparent emanative structure. In the case of Scotus the latter is just got rid of, to leave behind a mix of the monotheistic and the “Platonic” purged of any authentic neoplatonism, including that of Augustine. Now we have a duality of the infinite quiddities as understood by God on the one hand, and the infinite divine love and willed creative decisions on the other.

But it seems odd that Gilson did not call into question this duality. For after all, it depends upon just that reduction of thought to conceptualising which he half-objects to in Scotus elsewhere. With no initial desire, God’s thinking must, for Scotus, ineluctably “represent” first the infinite, then the quiddities and eventually, in their possibility, all those created realities which the divine will has selected. Does this not undo inherited Philonian and Patristic notions of divine government, as consummated by Aquinas?112 For these notions, being and ordering, understanding and will, are all “simply” at one in the godhead, such that what, in the cosmos, achieves order, also symbolically reveals the truth. The economy of governance and the economy of disclosure are here at one. Yet the Avicennian current, as consummated philosophically, not within Islam, but by Scotus, starts to undo this epochal synthesis. Now being as being and primarily being as infinite are just “given,” outside the causal order—whether as causing or caused, such that Scotus can shockingly say that it is not true that “because God is God, therefore man is man.”113 God creates through actualisation the various “terms” of our existence and this existence itself, yet not the possible combination “man” since this is not exemplarily rooted in his eternal actuality as eternally bestowed and inherently governing gift, but is rather transcendentally “given,” before and outside a creative ordering.

Infinite being is of course not caused, but nor, for Scotus, is finite being qua being, rather than as specifically finite being, since it is a transcendental placeholder, not something fully real and yet a “formal” dimension of reality that escapes even divine control, since, for Scotus, it is its real transcendental precondition. In a similar fashion, the quiddities of possibility just lie floating in the infinite sea, ready to be representationally spotted by the divine helicoptering patrol. Therefore, both divine being and divine understanding occur momentarily “prior” to his self-affirming and cosmic governance. Even God’s internal personal ordering as Trinity is secondary, and the Logos merely conveys rather than relationally constitutes the Paternal understanding. And this understanding does not, from all eternity, express in his Son the ideas of those things he has decided to create.114 Gilson fails to note that this, by contrast, is the case for Aquinas, such that, even though creation is for him the free decision of the divine will, this decision coincides with the eternal divine being and essence, ensuring a strong parallelism (as recent commentators have brought out) between the internal expression of the Trinity and the external expression of this expression, which reveals God to be expression.115 In overlooking this, Gilson underplays the difference between Aquinas and Scotus on the divine ideas.116 For both, indeed, they are ideas as the divine thoughts of created things, but for Aquinas they are fully exemplary and God was never without them, whereas for Scotus they arise “later” in God and are secondary “representations” or mimetic copies and no longer exemplars at all.

5. Gilson and the “Scotus Story”

The implications of all this are very considerable. It means that Scotus has taken over and even played up a certain blend of the philosophically Platonic and the orthodox Muslim Kalamic emphasis on God as one in the sense of solitary, individual and all-commanding. And that by doing so, the inherited deep structure of Christian thought has been so subtly subverted as to have become speedily indiscernible. For this subversion is not simply or even primarily to do with voluntarism. Instead, it is to do with too sharp a divide between essence and being, and intellect and will, and so between being and providential government.

The irony involved here is very extreme indeed. For undoubtedly the condemnations of 1270 and Scotus’s sincere and profound attempt to pay heed to them were to do with trying to further purge Christian theology of pagan fatalism and dogmatism. The excessive result of this, as so many twentieth-century theologians (Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican) have argued, was a wholesale loss of “symbolic realism” or the view that the cosmos mysteriously discloses God, as the Bible itself declares, thereby allowing the book of the scriptures and the book of nature mutually to illuminate each other. Everything—liturgy, exegesis, architecture, politics and theology—had hitherto depended on that. Recently, this account has come to be known as “the Scotus story.”

For many other modern theologians (both Catholic and Protestant) the loss of symbolic realism was, however, a price worth paying: a more contingent and mysterious cosmos at once more proclaims the hidden majesty of God and opens a more empirical and experimental investigation of nature. In the human sphere, pride is downgraded and we come more to depend upon the divine mercy. Finally, in the case of both God and man the formality of freedom comes to prevail over substantive content—setting the human will free to more love at will, reshape reality and construct economic and political orders based upon contractual mutual respect for liberty, rather than any consensus as to, or imposition of an order whose truth must, for us, remain elusive.117

However, irony arises if one can point out that this alternative, “modern Christianity” (much of the Christianity which we know today) is itself yet more pagan than what it displaced—to a considerable degree, if by no means wholly, in the wake of Scotus. The charge is cogent, because, whereas for the Fathers and Aquinas, necessity had become infused with will, love and beauty to become the economically conveniens, not strictly necessary, yet “obliging” in its very objective desirability, what is brought to a head in Duns Scotus is that will can only guarantee itself as will if it is placed in an absolute contrast with the necessary as its backdrop and counterpoint. But this inevitably means that a purer, and more purely “pagan” necessity must be granted a firmer ontological place. It would then seem that, in a rather Chestertonian way, a desire to extirpate pagan wisdom altogether can only lead to a stronger debased dose of it. There is it seems, no more Christian choice to be had than the transfiguration of the pagan—as is natural, if Christianity is a religion of salvation and not escape nor abandonment.

Thus in the case of Scotus, the primary divine existence and the divine understanding seem too much depersonalised, even over-subject to fate. And if, in the infinite, will follows love rather than the other way round, then even that, at first sight so attractive a proposal, seems to suggest that freedom is over-necessitated by a good that is but the translation into an active register of the imperatives of truth. Beyond that point, all it would seem that is left for will to value is free will itself, in its very distinction from the natural as most fully shown in the power of God to choose this created order or that, according to fiat.

To be sure, God’s decision is guided by both infinite reason and infinite love. But if he thereby chooses the conveniens, this would now appear to be more, as with the regulations of the second table of the Decalogue, by way of instrumental rather than aesthetic convenience.118 For if reason does not from the outset operate with a teleological judgement and in fused company with right desiring, then the governance of will by reason is likely to reduce to something like a respect for the regular, inevitable and utilitarian. Thus a modern duality of fact and value and even of nature and culture is here in sight. As with Newton’s laws of motion, there is ineluctable necessity on the one hand, constraining even God, and on the other, the aberrant, including, finally, the self-instigation of the will. Gilson is entirely right that Scotus cannot be accused of an exultation of the arbitrary, but that is just because for him the will must be half-guided by a still more necessitated order than with Aquinas.

It is therefore not an accident that Scotus, like other Franciscan theologians, had begun to downgrade the centrality of “the common good.” This now started to reduce on the one hand to “what objectively works” and, on the other, to an aggregated good which is the compounded goods of separate beings, individually reducible to their pragmatic well-being on the one hand and their liberty on the other. Hence a certain beginning of contractualism and subjective rights in Scotus, which contemporary Franciscans sometimes celebrate.119 And if will must be defined as the opposite of necessity as its counterpoint, then the same thing tended to be true (as Pierre Rousselot pointed out long ago) for the Franciscans, of gift in relation to contract.120 Contract must be purged of all shared substantive good (as opposed to mutual convenience) in order for gift to stand out in pure unilateral freedom, innocent of any hope for return—in a manner already envisaged by Avicenna.121 One can here interpret Scotus to mean that, if will is self-instigating, then charity as propelled by will and not intellect must be self-controlling and so independent of any reaction by others. Charity ceases, then, to be as it was for the early to high Middle Ages a state of mutual being and becomes instead a one-way deed, paradoxically “owned” by the very one who gives away.122 Sheer disinterest then becomes the crucial mark of love, by implicitly applying the underlying principle of Scotus’s formal reasoning as stressed by Gilson: what defines a thing is what is clearly unique to it and capable of existing without the other things to which it is attached. Our free loving must be most authentically disinterested as to response (which is different from a preparedness for disinterest in extremis), else for its fulfilment it would require the other’s reception. But to thereby define charity non-relationally, as independent of friendship which was, for Aquinas, its core, is clearly questionable, along with the operative, conceptual and not judgement-biased principle of Scotus’s entire philosophy.

It also engenders a splitting of love itself into the affectio commodi, more compelled by the pragmatically convenient and self-serving on the one hand and the affectio iustitiae, respectful of the will, rights and just commodious demands of the neighbour, taken in isolation, on the other (with both involving a rational respect for “circumstance”).123 In refusing traditional eudaemonism, and dividing happiness from value, the Scotist split of nature and will would seem also to foreshadow the division of modern ethics between “Anglo-Saxon” consequentialism and Kantian deontology. But to trace this division to its Scotist root, is to reveal their complicity rather than rivalry, in the same way that pertains between intellectualism and voluntarism.

It is also to demonstrate that “the way of charity” in no way exceeds Scotus’s onto-theological distortion of metaphysics, but to the contrary confirms it, since charity redefined as unilateral freedom of donation is but the residual reverse face of a de-eroticised reason, whose conceptualism both follows upon and supports the reduction of nature to pure determinism, just as will as choice is the reverse face of an operation reason defined by the law of identity. This reduction compromises the ineffable order intrinsic to form and living form, and then in consequence the bond of form between being and understanding. Thus while for Scotus species theory still held, it was overridden by the view that, for both God and created spirits, what defines subjective knowledge is the grasp of an “object” which mimetically “represents” an original reality external to it.124

In one respect, all this analysis abundantly confirms Gilson’s view that the formal distinction and a formalist bias underlay Scotus’s thought. But in another respect it questions whether he took this far enough. The point is not that Scotus stressed form at the expense of actuality, but more that he viewed form in a particular way. This, as we have seen, was on an Avicennian model: equinitas est equinitas tantum. By contrast, one can trace in Aquinas, faintly but surely, the presence of an alternative, Proclean, model of form as fluxus, more strongly present in his teacher Albert the Great. Here, as for Scotus, form in a substantive thing is individual (in rem), in the comprehending mind is universal (post rem); but, unlike Scotus, “before” the thing (ante rem) it is not an indifferent “atomic” quiddity but is dynamically at one with the descending divine presence itself, only tending to differentiation as it gradually “splays out” through all the ranks of being, into differentiated things.125 This concurs with the primacy in Aquinas of notions of divine unity, simplicity and order. The key difference from Scotus is not existence over essence, nor intellect over will, but the original unity of these things only arriving at difference through an emanative process that at once mystically discloses and economically rules (as with the understanding of hierarchy in Dionysius), as compared with an original and eternal duality of fixed form and elective will, expressed in the Creation not as symbolic emanation, but as incidental or efficient combination.

As to historical scholarship, this contrast amounts to the point that, for all his discovery of “Avicennian Augustinianism,” Gilson still underrated the extent to which Avicenna had made a difference and resulted in an “Augustine” construed more essentialistically, subjectively and voluntaristically than was warranted. This in turn tends to undermine Gilson’s over-emphasis on an Aristotelian-Augustinian contrast for the later High Middle Ages, since it was possible to construe Augustine, as Aquinas did, through more Proclean and even through purged Aristotelian lenses, after Averroes. Whether the resulting “Augustine” is less “Augustinian” than the Avicennian one begs many questions that Gilson simply did not raise.

Equally, if Boulnois is right that late mediaeval nominalism is a kind of generalised univocity, assuming also Scotus’s sharp nature/will divide, then Gilson’s continued adherence to the notion that the essential mediaeval gulf is between the via antiqua and the via moderna must also come into question. Realism about universals or its lack does not appear to have been the main line of cleavage, but rather different construals of metaphysics, to which Gilson first inaugurated our attention and yet, in the end, was insufficiently attentive.126 For Aquinas, metaphysics was about being as its subject matter and pointed but remotely to God as cause of being, in such a way as finally to hand theology over to sacra doctrina and to allow a revealed theological revision even of the ontological domain, with the discourse of “the names of God” mediating the metaphysical, rational and revealed theologies127 Scotus largely saw metaphysics as concerning being, and as including God as infinite within the range of its newly “transcendental” subject matter. And yet, as recent researchers have shown, at times toyed uneasily with the idea that it was finally about God and an analogical ascent to him—albeit on a univocal basis which, as I have argued, renders radical analogy untenable.128 What this prevarication fascinatingly shows is Scotus’s unease about the implications of his own approach and an implicit fear that he is danger of overly “containing” God. Yet the model that influenced posterity, both immediately and long afterwards, was the one that not merely made metaphysics to be emphatically about being, but also included God within its subject matter, to the degree that he is formally contained under univocal being. Eventually, as many scholars have now traced, this leads to a conception of metaphysics as pure “ontology” adding a revolutionary “fourth science” to the physics/mathematics/theology division of Boethius after Aristotle and a displacement of the other aspect of Aristotle’s metaphysics onto a more restricted metaphysics, variously named “special metaphysics” or “natural theology.”129 The latter has become regional within a transcendental field, which means that rational, and in its wake revealed theology can no longer be determinative or revisionary of our entire perception of reality. As no longer belonging to our most fundamental layer of assumptions, its claims will eventually seem debatable or dismissible, as by Kant. But to render the study of God a specialism within a broader field is surely an idolatry, for if God is all in all, then he contains breadth as well as height and the only way to dilate the heart outwards, is simultaneously to dilate it upwards.

As we saw at the outset, it was just this prioritising of the transcendental over the transcendent that Gilson and Maritain sought to contest. Those who imagine that they had somehow missed the point of Kant have themselves altogether missed the point of what they were so radically contending in both historical and conceptual terms. In this respect they deserve still to be considered part of a Christian avant-garde. Yet it would seem that Gilson did not quite carry through on his own insights to the degree that he sought to reconcile Scotus with Aquinas. To put this more positively: those who have taken his scholarly legacy further have tended to locate a bigger and perhaps the decisive rupture as occurring with the thought of the subtle doctor.

Yet Gilson’s hesitation still continues to a degree with some of these thinkers, not to mention those, like Ludger Honnefelder, who wish unequivocally to celebrate this rupture as eventually ushering in the thought of modernity, which is thereby rendered more unproblematically compatible with a Catholic outlook. For those who instead see Scotus as inaugurating onto-theology, there remains the question of whether his more consistent rationalism was inevitable, completing metaphysics and yet surpassing it in a way that opens eventually to view a post-Cartesian, more genuine access to God in terms of an inward presence that is at once given and gift, at once saturated form and donation of love, in a manner that attempts, on a subjective foundation, to collapse together the Scotist and modern dualities of nature and freedom, object and subject.130 Perhaps, for this vision, a metaphysics already divided from physics as the study of motion was destined to fade back into ontology and then epistemology and logic, leaving the field clear for a more subjective and direct mode of disclosure, immediately resonating with the hidden real. It would seem that Marion, for all his strictures against Cartesian onto-theology grounded upon univocity, still operates within this space insofar as he questionably sees it as also opening something up beyond itself (beyond a Heideggeran epochal closure of a fated metaphysical period). Thus the blinding Rothko-esque blankness of the original gift-given of “saturated” intuition appears akin to the post-analogical blinding “whiteness” that he graphically traces in Descartes’s theology, as the reverse face of his now “grey” ontology which hovers (in the wake of Scotus’s scientia transcedens) between an epistemology that must be grounded in the self-presence of the knowing subject, and an ontology that must be grounded on the priority of the infinite God, in his sublimely ineffable presence to us.131

However, as already intimated, it might seem that this philosophical path restores in a new way the Scotist and so unexpectedly “pagan” duality: with all of the external, observable and conceptualisable132 handed over to merely mimetic art, science, necessity, the political and the pragmatic—as if some region of our existence was doomed to the relatively barbaric. Nor do the figures of donated “distance” and inexpressible “saturation” seem truly to escape, when exalted, as they inevitably are, into something like “metaphysics” (a vision of how everything is as manifest), the Scotist problems of locating God in merely ontic terms and correspondingly leaving our finite understanding of things and their relative perfections “as they were,” since God’s difference can now be but equivocally respected in a mysticism that has lost what for Dionysius remained an essential Kataphatic moment. In these critical respects, there seems to persist a merely ontic divide between God and creatures, infinite and finite, subjective gift and the externally apparent, that would disallow God’s overriding and subsuming rather than merely partial causality on a concursus model to which Scotus already succumbed.133 The same merely ontic divide ensures that the finite, external and initially apparent must be drastically and non-disclosively random, contingent in the Scotist sense of being possibly otherwise, rather than contingent in the Thomist sense of being radically dependent on the absolute God, yet not possible to be otherwise, since disclosive of his “aesthetically necessary” decree. Because creation is for Aquinas a symbolic manifestation of the divine nature as both knowing and willing, it is as plenitudinous and various as possible; this inexhaustible variety is a crucial mark of its createdness, rather than just its restricted singularity and peculiarity. It is this model which allows the external to us also to be revelatory, along with the internally self-present.

By contrast, the Scotist model removes the possibility of the cosmically theophanic, which is just as biblical as it is pagan. For this reason one must question Honnefelder’s view that the Scotist “discovery” of the contingent as the upshot of pure choice frees Christian thought from a pagan residue by removing the operation of the principle of plenitude and ceasing to think of the Creator/created divide on a hylomorphic model, converted by Aquinas into a combination of the finitely distinguished essential and actual.134 For without any sense of creation as emanation and participation, the radicalness of creation ex nihilo in deriving all from God is subtly compromised. Aquinas does not merely transpose the hylomorphic model, but, by substituting the model of the participation of restricted being in pure Being, removes any literal sense of our being part of God, or of God and creatures belonging to the same cosmic reality. However, by regarding the created thing as utterly contingent and not disclosively participating in God, Scotus both renders it in transcendental terms independently self-affirming, and situates God and creatures in a shared transcendental field of being. In this way, as already argued a new paganism is risked just through the attempt to avoid the pagan altogether.

This situation is exposed when Scotus declares that the meaning of participation to be that the finite is “really” and literally a part of the whole continuum of being as transcendental perfection, of which the infinite is the fullness and maximum degree, while the relational “taking” of a part from the infinite whole, where that part constitutes the totality of what partakes, can only be considered, even from the perspective of the part (contra Aquinas), a relation of reason.135 Thus the consequence of the refusal of analogical participation is to sunder it into two moments that equally dilute the import of the doctrine of Creation: on the one hand the finite stands too independently in being, on the other hand it becomes too literally “a part” of being.

In continuity with this Scotist and Cartesian trajectory, the figure of “distance” would seem one-sidedly to suppress the equal truth of proximity and non-alterity germane to the radical transcendence of the ontologically different God. Equivalently, the figure of a transcendental “passivity” for our known and willed reception of distance and of all realities in pure self-presence,136 would seem to suppress the equally active and synergic character of creaturely reception of God and of other creatures: paradoxically, the lack of any receiving base in their original nullity, requires that they are, from the outset, actively self-instigating in the very radicalness of their degree of absolute derivation. The doctrine of Creation is not then hospitable even to a transcendental residue of given being outside cause, as for Scotus, but nor even to the much more subtle transposition of this givenness into donatedness exposed as still independently transcendental just to the degree that it is predominantly characterised in spatialized terms as the “passive” pole of an inconceivable gulf whose other, wholly active pole is the far, unreachable end of “distance.” This schema remains more like the Scotist or Cartesian one of the priority of the infinite over the finite within a transcendentally shared domain than it is like the Dionysian and Thomist analogical relation between Being and that which participates in it.

On this analysis it would appear that the only way to challenge Scotist onto-theology is through another, alternative metaphysics and not through anything vauntedly post-metaphysical which inevitably builds upon the very slide of metaphysics into foundational epistemology, logic and phenomenology that is the upshot of the onto-theological turn itself. It would seem, therefore, that supposedly post-metaphysical discourses are ironically liable to reproduce ultimate ontic dualities in the mode of inner over-against outer, distance over-against passivity, sublime saturation over against the non-numinous particular and disinterested, anonymous unilateral gift over merely functional exchange and reciprocity.

All these dualities can be summed up as a duality between the manifestatory on the one hand and the externally and relationally ordering on the other. In consequence, the former is viewed apolitically. Scotus, as we have seen, split divine government into an impersonal “pagan” ontological given on the one hand, and divine willing that is both unilaterally loving and randomly selecting on the other. The theological turn in phenomenology equivalently tends to divide mundane ordering from sacral disclosure, even if it may properly wish to temper the former with the latter. Thus Marion says that “[hierarchical] order . . . does not give orders to be executed but lays out ‘sacred things.’”137 Of course he is fundamentally right to restore the true meaning of hierarchy, which is by no means modern hegemonic domination by élites,138 yet its “laying out” is also surely the real divine way of persuasively yet ineluctably giving orders? As we saw with Aquinas, for the Christian politicisation of metaphysics, to disclose is to govern, just as to govern is to disclose. Equivalently, liturgical reception and naming is not merely passive reception and praise, but active theurgic utterance and performance, which, as for Dionysius, can only receive God, by creatively working with him and transmitting his disclosive rule, in such a way that liturgy can “magically” transform the world to provide true government, through its attunement to the divine presence, which of course God ultimately commands and brings about.

Thus one practical equivalent to the theoretical dissolution of divine government is the way in which, as traced by Yves Congar, from the Gregorian reforms onwards, Church government became more and more of a sheerly juridical process, removed from the event of mystical manifestation, which thereby got evermore privatised.139 Under these auspices, as Hans Boersma says, the human started to go its own way in parallel to the Scotist unleashing of the finite as having its own integrity without any intrinsic relation to the transcendent.140 Here the point of regret is not simply that the legal displaced the manifesting, but more deeply that they became divorced, thereby eroding order: both law and deed as expression and expression as structured and ordering.

In a parallel fashion to this depolititicising, the post-Cartesian route of pure phenomenology would seem to continue to require foundations in terms of a search for a basic principle “irreducible” to anything else, and on which everything else depends in a still Scotist idiom. Thus the fundamentally given as gift is still problematically the gift reduced to the sheerly and originally given, and so inevitably to the bipolar rather than to the mutual and spiralling (such that the Trinitarian reciprocity gives itself to us by endlessly brining us within this circle). Yet this drive to reduce to pure manifestation ever since Husserl begins with a bias against the relational and the temporally and spatially untraceable. Nor does readmitting these factors in terms of an “unending task” of reduction assist, since it necessarily requires a now surpassed reduction to lapse back into a measure of merely natural “appearance” insufficiently regarded and so not really comprehended and thereby somewhat delusory.141 The asymptotic trajectory towards the ineffable and yet (supposedly) fully given was therefore on the phenomenological agenda from the outset. And yet, as Derrida in essence once asked, if natural attitudes (towards people, things, words and numbers) are always required at the sequential outset and can never be definitively surpassed and so must always be returned to, then should we not allow that it is equally foundational, in an anti-foundational manner?142 In consequence, a necessarily speculative attitude towards the real, beyond phenomenology, is phenomenologically given. For our speculations and reading of given presences not to be arbitrary (beyond Derridean deconstruction) they must be interpretative construals of divine symbols that participate in the divine reality, as does our responding judgement, construing them.

If it remains true (to acknowledge the advance achieved by phenomenology) that what exists also gives and shows itself (as Plato already saw) such that the ontological domain does not exceed the phenomenological, then nevertheless manifestation presents itself to judgement, interfused with feeling and desire, that must interpret without recourse any “first” donation. No inexorable concept or intuition presents itself to a purely passive subject, even if this intuition be “excessively” saturated. A non-foundationalist phenomenology, without any possibility of reduction beyond the natural attitude, cannot surpass the bounds of inevitable speculation, which is, however, not blind, if we have faith that we can obscurely see beyond the apparently visible.

The only alternative is to sustain a phenomenology without metaphysics as all of philosophy in a manner that involves a kind of endless asymptotic progress towards idealism, as if realism always remained only as something ideally to be purged away, even though it never can be. But such a trajectory requires, as much as realism, a speculative trust, if it is not to be indistinguishable from a sceptical phenomenalism. It then becomes more natural to trust both our judgement and the appearances of things, together with their connatural affinity. And both, by speculative trust, can only be secured against phenomenal dissolution by the affirmation of non-appearing “substance” and “subjective substance” as the ground of appearing, just as Leibniz belatedly realised he would have to add the vinculum substantiale to his monads if they were not to dissolve into dream-like phantoms. It is significant that Maurice Blondel deployed this doctrine in support of the realist undergirding of his spiritualism.143

6. Beyond Gilson

In the wake of recent critiques of phenomenology therefore, Gilson and Maritain look once more highly relevant.144

Since Gilson, there have been at least two responses to his legacy—discounting the minority who deny that he represents an epistemic rupture, for dubious reasons, already dealt with.145 One response agrees with and accentuates his historical verdict, but reverses the philosophical, since Scotus is embraced as the inaugurator of univocity, representation, possibilism and political liberalism. Another response, of the French philosopher-historians, also accentuates his historical verdict and ambiguously sustains while mutating his historical one: Scotus as both subtle disaster and subtle promise. But a third response, sometimes associated with the “radically orthodox” theologians, but actually much more widespread, would both accentuate the historical verdict (which is scarcely then controversial) and purge the philosophical one of all ambiguity. The “Cartesian hesitation” here vanishes.146

This direction then desires a return to the primacy of the analogy of attribution and Proclean participation—as apparently envisaged as one possibility by Jean-Luc Marion in his earlier work on Descartes.147 But does that mean simply a return to Aquinas and authentic Thomism in Gilson’s wake, however much, beyond Gilson, the Neoplatonic dimension of his thought is more accentuated, on the lines indicated above? That is far too large a question for this afterword. Nevertheless, I would suggest that one does not best respect the avant-garde nature of Gilson’s true inspiration, nor his resonance with French spiritualism, by merely turning in that direction. Indeed, what is valid in the Cartesian and radically phenomenological sense of a resonance with reality from within needs to be respected and incorporated, even if a better reconciliation of inner and outer requires a more “speculatively realist” character.148 But what is more, one has to allow that Scotus realised a certain inconsistency in Aquinas between his rationalist approach (dependent on the ultimacy of the law of identity) and his analogical vision. Neither Gilson nor Maritain were able to see that the Renaissance turn to mystical paradox, as supremely with Cusanus, may well have been a post-Scotist and post-nominalist response to this tension.149

What is more, Cusa, like Eriugena and Dionysius himself was able to allow that perfectly concrete things could also be enigmatically “like” God in their very apparent unsuitability. The Thomist gulf between analogy and metaphor starts properly to collapse here, which again can be seen as a response to Scotist objection. If analogy requires a paradoxical resemblance of things to God in their very unlikeness, without a shared, mediating commonality then why, as Scotus validly asked, should not a “stone” also present an analogy to God?150 The response of a more alchemically-informed sensibility was, of course, that it could: if God is the creator of matter, then is he not eminently matter also, especially if the negative simplicity and vanishing density of matter in a way uniquely mirrors him? How else ultimately to render the sacraments more than instrumental, or to avoid a “pagan” placing of the “given” inexorable character of matter subtly outside God’s creative and providential sway? The Scotist response is to worsen this “paganism” by replacing a non-causally “given” matter that divides us from God with a non-causally given “being” that unites us to him, for Scotus in fulfilment of the Exodus naming.151 But the counter-response to Scotus requires, beyond Aquinas, a fuller incorporation of the material into the analogical and participatory outlook, as some Renaissance and Baroque thinkers undertook.

In the same way, even what we take to be the more “occult” and more emphatically Neoplatonic aspects of the Renaissance idiom may have been a response to the crisis of scholastic metaphysical thought, whose dilemmas Gilson did not sufficiently define. As already mentioned, Aristotle had separated “physics” from “metaphysics” in a way that risks handing over the study of the real to physics (as has transpired today) and reducing metaphysics, already concerned with static categories, to categories of logic and perception. But for Plotinus, by contrast, both motion and rest belong to the finite, and rest or halting in fact more so.152 In consequence, substances and ultimate forms are intrinsically in kinetic motion, as constantly being affected and affecting, down to their core being, and are not at this core merely in intransitive act. Intellect is as much infinite circular motion (kinesis and not just energeia) as it is stasis, and the One is the ineffable source of both—inconceivably dynamic as much as it is inconceivably still. (One could indeed say that Neoplatonism already accommodates what is valid in Whiteheadian “process” and refuses what is invalid.)

What is more, Plotinus construed the transgeneric pros hen resemblance across categories in terms of their dynamic generation from the One, thereby supplying an account of transcendent “vertical” becoming to complement Aristotle’s physical account of the temporal, “horizontal” one.153 Because of the dynamic character of analogy, as both vertical and horizontal resemblance and loose affinity (apparent to judgement), and its unthinkable, translogical third way between identity and non-identity, Renaissance thought not unreasonably, and following Proclus, saw these affinities as operating and operable upon by natural magic—allowance of which encouraged later recognition of various “actions at a distance” (like magnetism, gravity, electricity and sub-atomic coordination), vital spontaneities and circular organic cohesions, resembling those of the cosmos at large (as with the circulation of the blood) against the mechanising bias of the Scotist-nominalist legacy, with its duality of pure necessity and pure will.154

In our current drastic plight, is not this “para-physical” mode of metaphysics more promising for us than the pure Aristotelian tradition which, not altogether accidentally, has historically devolved into a transcendental doctrine of the “conditions of possibility” for our “scientific” and aesthetic understandings, themselves dualistically separated? Significantly, the renowned Catholic scholar Antoine Faivre argues that what actually defines Renaissance esotericism, besides its syncretic invention of a “perennial” tradition, is not secrecy nor gnosis, but rather the attempt to close the widening modern gap between metaphysics and cosmology, which includes that between psychology and corporeal medicine.155

For all his counter-impulses to this Renaissance, in fear once more, as with Scotus, of a pagan automatism and restriction of the divine freedom, it is significant that Descartes rejected a univocalist legacy that rendered causality secondary to given being. Instead, as already mentioned, he erected a different univocity around cause itself. This, as Marion argues, impaired his otherwise extremely pure account of the divine simplicity with the divisive notion of a “self-causing.”156 But at least he was thereby making the dynamically moving ontologically ultimate, and somewhat healing the metaphysics-physics divide. It is also the case that the unnamed revisionary metaphysics which Aquinas clearly articulates after and within sacra doctrina is a Trinitarian one, partly after Augustine, which classifies reality in terms of rising and ever more perfect degrees of transitive motion—thereby, beyond, or in an intensification of the Neoplatonic vision, “saving” the significance of horizontal motion at the ultimate vertical level.157

To take up Gilson’s speculative lead today would then require reading Aquinas in a certain way and then looking beyond Aquinas. Thus if Gilson after all played down the difference from Aquinas of Scotus and the difference the latter made, he also did not observe the degree to which not all the difference made by Scotus can be ignored.

Yet one should not wish to perpetuate, in whatever guise, the Scotist undoing of divine government by sundering essence from existence, intellect from will and freedom from mutuality. The deep structure of Scotus’s thought concerns, because of its formalism, the “self-bounded” in a way that is unrealistically allergic to both relation and causal linkage.158 Being here rests within itself, but so does a positive infinity, so do natures, so do individuals and so does the will, in a fashion that almost reduces their efficient causal instigation to a mere occasioning. Government, whether divine, angelic or human, is thereby undone, because it becomes subservient to a given ontology, without gift, inherent meaning or love. All it can add to this is cold command which is at best formal regulation if it does not descend into the arbitrary for the sake of minimum order, palliated by acts of disinterested love, indifferent to the formation of reciprocal community.

By contrast, a maximum order, ordering by attraction, would be throughout a coincidence of ordering with being, but also of being with ordering. This would be best expressed by a metaphysics that understood “to be” as also the Platonic dynamis—as “to be affecting” and “to be affected,” or “to be moving” and “to be moved.” Such a metaphysics would no longer allow, as even Aquinas did, that the divine potentia absoluta was not entirely coincident with his potentia ordinata, on pain of impairing his simplicity, the convertibility of his expressed Logos with his essence, or the infinity of his justice.159 And it would no longer risk even minutely any impersonal, static and unmoving (in an eminent sense) and therefore “ungoverning,” apolitical essence or being. The Trinitarian God is internally governance and distribution, even though he is not, thereby, self-governing or self-controlling, any more than he is self-causing, since the Trinitarian relations do not compromise divine simplicity through a reflexive doubling, just because this relationality is irreducibly substantial and thereby transcendentally singular. Beyond Aquinas, such a still more distinctly Christian metaphysics would thereby be more immune to a Scotist rationalist critique and a Scotist dissolution of true divine order.

  1. Daniel P. Horan, Postmodernity and Univocity: A Critical Account of Radical Orthodoxy and John Duns Scotus (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1914). Horan makes some wildly inaccurate charges against the Radically Orthodox writers: that they think analogy in Aquinas is only a way of negation; that they think that for Aquinas metaphysics is mainly about God and not about being; that they think Scotus was a nominalist; that they think voluntarism and nominalism always coincide. He also says some curious things: viz. that it is strange that RO focusses on infinity as the defining property of God in Scotus (when this is agreed by all to be unambiguous); that (p. 183) the application to God of univocity in quid is stronger than it would be just in quale (when it is the other way round, since the in quale more specifies a thing for Scotus and renders it possibly actual, though in God uniquely the two things simply coincide). He also erroneously describes the res/modus distinction in Aquinas as if it were not a realist one concerning perspective, rather than a speculatively grammatical one concerning verbal and conceptual usage. I leave it to the reader to check all these points. As to the notion of a unique “Cambridge Thomism,” unique to RO, it is preposterous. The RO readings of Aquinas lie manifestly in the tradition of a stress on the Neoplatonic dimension in Aquinas of Fabro, Geiger, Finance, Norris Clarke, etc., while they also borrow heavily from te Velde, Michel Corbin, Rosemann and Venard amongst others.

  2. E.g., Simo Knuttila, Modalities in Medieval Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1993); Frédéric Nef, Qu’est-ce que la métaphysique (Paris: Gallimard, 1994).

  3. Étienne Gilson, Études sur le role de la pensée médiévale dans la formation du système cartésien (Paris: Vrin, 1967).

  4. See Jacob Schmutz, “Escaping the Aristotelian Bond: The Critique of Metaphysics in Twentieth-Century French Philosophy,” Dionysius 17 (1999) 169–200. The shape and content of this afterword is much influenced by this essay. See also Étienne Gilson, The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, trans. A. H. C. Downes (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1991); Being and Some Philosophers (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2016).

  5. Jacques Maritain, The Degrees of Knowledge, trans. Gerard B. Phelan (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1995); see also John Milbank, The Suspended Middle: Henri de Lubac and the Renewed Split in Modern Catholic Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014).

  6. Étienne Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (London: Sheed and Ward, 1980).

  7. See, for a summary and further development, Olivier Boulnois, Métaphysiques rebelles: Genèse et structures d’une science au Moyen Âge (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2013).

  8. See Jean-Luc Marion, Sur la théologie blanche de Descartes, 2nd ed. (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1991).

  9. See again Schmutz, “Escaping the Aristotelian Bond.”

  10. Ibid.

  11. See Dominique Janicaud, Ravaisson et la Métaphysique: Une Généalogie Du Spiritualisme Franҫais (Paris: Vrin, 1969).

  12. Henri Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. T. E. Hulme (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2007); Michel Henry, Incarnation: A Philosophy of Flesh, trans. Karl Hefty (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2015). It is difficult to justify in exegetical terms a Christian reading of incarnation as “flesh” rather than “body” as Henry sought to do.

  13. See John Milbank, Beyond Secular Order: The Representation of Being and the Representation of the People (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 66–72.

  14. On divine simplicity in Descartes, see Marion, Sur la théologie blanche, 285.

  15. Marion, Sur la théologie blanche, 27–159; Sur la pensée passive de Descartes (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2013), 51, 264. With respect to analogy (of which he provides here one of the finest historical and theological accounts) Marion shows first, that Cajetan’s favouring of the analogy of proportionality only succeeds in opposing Scotist univocity, by equally flattening a being shared between God and creatures in terms of a common structure of equivalent, though not by us measurable, ratio. Secondly, that Suarez only restores the primacy of the analogy of attribution against him by accepting, with Scotus, a logical univocity of being and then allowing this to determine his metaphysical conception of being also. In consequence, the very being and other perfections of created things in their entirety are not by Suarez attributed to God as their inner reality, but only the ultimate perfect degree of ultimately univocal perfections of which creatures possess some degree in their own right. See also, on Cajetan, Bruno Pinchard, La Raison dédoublée: La Fabbrica della mente (Paris: Aubier, 1992), 94.

  16. Sur la théologie blanche, 427–54.

  17. Ibid., 455–56.

  18. Jean-Luc Marion, “Une époque de métaphysique,” in Christine Goémé, ed., Jean Duns Scot ou la revolution subtile (Paris: FAC, 1982), 87–95; Olivier Boulnois, Duns Scot: La Rigueur de la charité (Paris: Cerf, 1998). But Boulnois’s later works would seem to insist more strongly upon Scotus’s metaphysical perspective and on the onto-theological character of this perspective.

  19. Étienne Gilson, Jean Duns Scot: Introduction à ses positions fondamentales [1952] (Paris: Vrin, 2013), 624–69.

  20. Ibid., 84–278.

  21. Gilson here always cites the first version of Scotus’s Sentence Commentary, or at any rate under its first title, the Opus Oxoniense. Today this is usually cited in its second, Parisian recension, the Ordinatio. The two texts usually coincide, but not entirely.

  22. See Rowan Williams, Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love (London: Continuum, 2006).

  23. Jean Duns Scot, 87n1.

  24. Humanitas est tantum humanitas, says Scotus: Lectura I d. 5 p. 1 q. un.

  25. Jean Duns Scot, 84–115.

  26. Ibid., 92.

  27. Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy, 456.

  28. Jean Duns Scot, 432–54.

  29. Jean Duns Scot, 84–115.

  30. Ludger Honnefelder, Johannes Duns Scotus (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2005) and La métaphysisque comme science transcendentale, trans. Isabelle Mandrela (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2002). Honnefelder may underplay a continuity with Gilson here because he has some valid reservations about viewing Scotus as “essentialist.” See further below.

  31. Scotus, In Met VI, q. 4 n.2; cited by Gilson in Jean Duns Scot, 80.

  32. See Honnefelder, Johannes Duns Scotus, 77.

  33. See Jean-Franҫois Courtine, Suarez et le système de la métaphysique (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1990), 376–458 ;Olivier Boulnois, Être et representation: une généalogie de la métaphysique modern à l’époque de Duns Scot (XIIIe—XIVe siècle) (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1999), 444–504.

  34. Scotus, Ordinatio, Prologue, III, q. 3, 200; Jean Duns Scot, 48n1.

  35. Scotus, Ord. I, d. 36 q. un. no. 48; Honnefelder, Johannes Duns Scot, 79. But Henry does not accept Aquinas’s real distinction of existence and essence for actual being, the subject of metaphysics.

  36. It is for this reason that contemporary logical or semantic readings of univocity in Scotus are anachronistic with respect to Scotus himself, even if by no means incoherent as one rendering of possibilities opened up by the Scotist trajectory. Yet for this reason there is no warrant whatsoever for thinking the dominant scholarly metaphysical interpretation of univocity in Scotus as metaphysical (albeit in a newly “formal” or else “transcendental” fashion) to be manifestly deluded. The subtle doctor is traceably the forerunner of Kant; to see him as the forerunner of Frege is more debatable; and while he prepares the ground for Kant, in shifting the meaning of “transcendental” in an epistemological direction (see main text above) he does not travel all the way. It is ironic that scholars scornful of “genealogical” claims themselves appear to endorse an excessive genealogy that roots much later contingent theoretical consequence back into its long-term conceptual germ. And to call his thesis about the univocity of being “semantic” rather than logical might seem a little strange, though it is hermeneutically allowable, as indeed Scotus would seem to think that the illogical is meaningless. It is, however, coherent, if the point is that, for the Avicennian-Scotist viewpoint the meaning of, e.g., “horse” is transcendentally prior to either its logical or its real instantiation. But in that case, the argument that “semantic” means totally removed from the real, nearer to logical universality than to real particularity or metaphysical, categorial generality, collapses. At times, Richard Cross, for one, does seem to concede that the “semantic” sense as formal, has some, hard to locate, realist bearing. And this is fair enough as a construal of Scotus. But when he says, on the other hand, that being as univocal no more tells us how anything is than calling a dog an “animal” tells us anything about the real dog, as opposed to its classification, then this cannot be right. For “animal” tells us just that the dog is animated: this would be true even for Ockham’s version of nominalism that allows the truth of mental generalisations (see below in the main text). But to imply that no generalisation has any realistic bearing whatsoever, safe as the aggregate coincidence of separably observed properties, conventionally grouped in common, and then to apply this consideration to the univocity of being in Scotus is to read him in terms of a very extreme indeed, post-Fregean nominalism. The anachronism here is compounded if it is historically true that univocity engendered the later nominalism and not the other way around (again, see further below). For a summary of this current in recent Anglo-Saxon understanding of his thought, see Daniel P. Horan, OFM, Postmodernity and Univocity: A Critical Account of Radical Orthodoxy and John Duns Scotus (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014), esp. 111–13, 181.

  37. Jean Duns Scot, 44–15. Later Scotists spoke of a formal distinction between being and essence; Scotus himself, as Honnefelder points out, spoke of a modal one, with existence in creatures seen as a mode of quiddity: Scotus, Quodlibetal Questions, additio, 1.11; Honnefelder, Johannes Duns Scotus, 220. However, this seems imprecise to his own intent: existence does not for him belong to or result from essence in the way that infinity does from being as its “mode,” in Scotist terms, and equally this way of putting things seems to equate essence with a quiddity sheerly indifferent to existence, in contrast to Scotus’s usages elsewhere. In either case an “essentialism” would be accentuated, whereas to ascribe a “formal distinction, after Gilson, actually moderates the “essentialist” designation. Nonetheless, this passage in Scotus suggests the tendency to a pulling apart of being and essence, which I discuss further below. Scotus did not himself speak in general precisely of a “formal distinction,” but of a non-identitatis formalis: Honnefelder, Johannes Duns Scotus, 42.

  38. Jean Duns Scot, 107–8.

  39. Boulnois, Être et representation, 290.

  40. Richard Cross, Duns Scotus (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). And see n32 above.

  41. Scotus, Ord I d. 8 p. 1 q. 3, 144–47.

  42. Jean Duns Scot, 237.

  43. Ibid., 84–115.

  44. Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy, 496, 788.

  45. Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 36.

  46. Jean Duns Scot, 44–115, 120–28, 149–57.

  47. Scotus, Ord. I. d. 3. p. I qq. 1–3. For the fundamental accounts of univocity of being, human knowledge of God and human cognition in general in Duns Scotus, see the immensely useful editions in English of Ordinatio 1. p. 1 d. 3 in toto and in French of Ordinatio I d. 3 p. I and d. 8 p. I. Respectively, John van den Bercken, ed., On Being and Cognition (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016); Olivier Boulnois, Sur la connaissance de Dieu et l’univocité de l’étant (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1988). Boulnois’s introduction and extensive notes are particularly illuminating.

  48. Jean Duns Scot, 574–624; see also Milbank, Suspended Middle, 85–87.

  49. Jean Duns Scot, 101.

  50. Scotus, Quodlibetal Questions, q. 5 a. 1, 5: 5–10; a. 3, 5:55–56; Ord. I d. 8. p. 1 q. 3 136–39; d. 19, q. 1, 8; Lectura, I d. 19 q. 1. And see Anne Ashley Davenport, Measure of a Different Greatness; The Intensive Infinite, 1250–1650 (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 165–239.

  51. Aquinas, De Veritate, q. 2 a. 11 resp.

  52. ST I q. 13.

  53. Aquinas, In 2 De Caelo 18g; In Boeth de Hebdom 2:26: Participare est quasi partem capere.

  54. Jean Duns Scot, 317–55, 460–77.

  55. Aquinas, De Veritate, q. 1 a. 1 resp.

  56. Scotus, Ord. I d. 3 p. I q. 3 a.1, 131–36 a. 2, 137–51; a. 3, 167–84.

  57. Jean Duns Scot, 465.

  58. Boulnois, Sur la connaissance de Dieu, footnotes to sections 147–51 of Ord. I. d. 3 p. 1 q. 3, pp. 367–68.

  59. Scotus, Ord. I d. 8. p. 1 q. 4, 193.

  60. Aquinas, De Veritate, q. 1 a.1.

  61. Jean Duns Scot, 465.

  62. However, the other transcendentals like truth and goodness are not equivalently the subjects of virtual inclusion. Only being is virtually inclusive: Ord. I d. 3. p. 1 q. 3 a. 3, 167–84.

  63. Jean Duns Scot, 228–54.

  64. Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy, 489–99.

  65. Boulnois, Métaphysiques rebelles, 343–79.

  66. Marion points out how, in the case of Ockham as with Descartes, this extreme simplicity makes their description as “voluntarists” inaccurate—even if our lack of analogical insight into divine preference produces a kind of voluntarism in practice, as far as humans are concerned. See Marion, Sur la théologie blanche de Descartes, 283–86.

  67. Jean Duns Scot, 101–5.

  68. Scotus, Ord. I. d. 8. p. 1 q. 3, 83.

  69. Scotus, Ord. I d. 3. p. 1 q. 1 a.2, 26–55; a. 3, 56–57; a. 4, 58–62; q. 3 a.1, 131–36; a. 2, 137–51; a. 3, 152–66.

  70. Scotus, Ord. I d. 8 p. 1 q. 3, 139–56.

  71. Honnefelder, Johannes Duns Scotus, 75.

  72. See Timothy D. Knepper, Negating Negation: Against the Apophatic Abandonment of the Dionysian Corpus (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2014).

  73. ST I q. 2 a. 3.

  74. Scotus, Ord. d. 2 p. 1 qq. 1–3; De Primo Principio, cc. 3–4; Jean Duns Scot, 177–215; Honnefelder, Johannes Duns Scotus, 95–103.

  75. Scotus, De Primo Principio.

  76. Jean Duns Scot, 625–69.

  77. Ibid., 343–55.

  78. Ibid., 228–54.

  79. Scotus, Ord. I d. 3 p. 1 q. 2 a. 4, 58–60.

  80. Jean Duns Scot, 279–306; Scotus, Quod. q. 5 a. 3, 55–56.

  81. Scotus, Ord. Prol. q. 3 [200].

  82. Olivier Boulnois, “Jean Duns Scot,” ch. 10 of Sur La Science Divine, J.-C. Bardout and O. Boulnois, trans. and ed. (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2002) [a collection of mediaeval texts on God’s knowledge], 244–52, and the texts translated here: Scotus, Ord. I d. 36, 1–3, 27–31, 34–35, 39–45, 48–53; Reportata I d. 36 q. 2, 26–38, 50–64; q. 3, 18–31, 46–69.

  83. Jean Duns Scot, 306–43, 574–624.

  84. Honnefelder, Johannes Duns Scot, 102. It is in this respect not clear to me, as Boulnois claims, that Gilson continued to think, as he seems to have done in his earlier researches, of univocal being in Scotus as a “substitute for the idea of God in us” which would at once regard our notion of being as an a priori sense of the wholly indeterminate possible (as opposed to the real metaphysical entity) and as an a priori presence of God, thereby assimilating Scotus to Henry of Ghent’s belief in the primacy of our knowledge of God through direct divine illumination. But Gilson seems clear in his later book clear that Scotus does not wholly detach metaphysical essence from existence (since it is “formality”). Thus his attribution to Scotus of an “essentialism” is vulnerable insofar as he plays down, as Honnefelder argues, the dissolution of essence into quiddity plus will, and not insofar as he makes is a pure possibility wholly prior to existence, as Boulnois seems here to suggest. Gilson is equally clear that Scotus reduces divine Illumination to a minimum which amounts to God’s causation of our natural understanding, without Aquinas’s account of a constant participation in the divine light, which is arguably more truly Augustinian than the Avicennian Franciscan and Ghentian glosses which render this light too directly present either as an a priori, or an alienation of our mind to the divine realm. See Jean Duns Scot, 215–300; Boulnois, La Rigueur, 19–20; Être et representation, 289–90; Milbank, Suspended Middle, 102–3.

  85. Jean Duns Scot, 460–66; Scotus Ord. II d. 3 p. 1 q. 1, 42; q. 2, 58; q. 3, 61–65; q. 4, 111. And see Bruno Pinchard, “L’individuation dans la Tradition Aristotélicienne,” and Olivier Boulnois, “Genèse de la Théorie Scotiste de l’Individuation,” in Pierre-Noёl Mayaud, ed., Le Probleme de l’Individuation (Paris: Vrin, 1991), 27–50, 51–77.

  86. Jean Duns Scot, 232, 391–431.

  87. Jean Duns Scot, 307–10, 574–75.

  88. Scotus, Ord., Prol q. 3, [200].

  89. Scotus, Quod. q. 1 a. 3, 57–77; q. 3 a. 2, 19–33; q. 4 a. 3, 48–52, 61–63; q. 5 a. 1, 5–60.

  90. Scotus, Ord. I d. 3 p. 2 q. un., 323.

  91. Scotus, Ord. I d. 3 p. 2 q. un. See John Milbank, Beyond Secular Order, 61–64.

  92. Jean Duns Scot, 574–624; Honnefelder, Johannes Duns Scot, 113–15.

  93. Scotus, Reportata I d. 36 q. 3 18; Boulnois, “Jean Duns Scot,” ch. 10 of Bardout and Boulnois, Sur La Science Divine, 249.

  94. Avicenna, De Anima I 1.

  95. Scotus, Ord. III suppl. d. 37; IV d. 15 q. 2; d. 17; d. 33 q. 1; q. 3.

  96. ST II.II q. 154 a. 2 ad 2.

  97. See John Milbank, “Franciscan Conundrum,” Communio 42 (2015) 466–92.

  98. For the anticipations of the Avicennian shift in the Latin west, see Adrian Pabst, Metaphysics: The Creation of Hierarchy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 155–200.

  99. Besides Jean Duns Scot, passim, see Étienne Gilson, Être et l’Essence (Paris: Vrin, 2015), 124–43.

  100. Étienne Gilson, Being and Some Philosophers, 154–89.

  101. See Milbank and Pickstock, Truth in Aquinas (London: Routledge, 2001), 19–59.

  102. Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy, 104–5.

  103. Aquinas, In Met L 2: C 556–60. See also John Milbank, “Manifestation and Procedure: Trinitarian Metaphysics after Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas,” in Tomismo Creativo: Letture Contemporanee del Doctor Communis, ed. Marco Salvioli, OP (Bologna: Edizioni Studio Domenicano, 2015), 33–117.

  104. Olivier Boulnois notes that Scotus can just as well be regarded as an existentialist as he can an essentialist in Duns Scot: La Rigueur de la Charité, 14–22.

  105. See Catherine Pickstock, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), 121–40.

  106. See Aquinas, in Boeth de Trin. Q 4. a. 2 resp., ad 2, ad 3; De Pot Dei, q. 9 a. 7 resp.; ST I q. 76 a. 6 ad 1. I cannot see that Bruno Pinchard in his fine article “Le Principe d’Individuation” is right to say that Thomas ever abandoned this view. See also Boulnois, “Genèse de la théorie scotiste de l’Individuation,” and Pabst, Metaphysics, 272–340.

  107. Étienne Gilson, The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy, trans. A. H. C. Downes (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1991), 304–23.

  108. Marion, La théologie blanche, 285n21: [to translate] “Descartes does not break any less with nominalist ‘voluntarism’ than with the ‘intellectualism’ of Suarez; these two tendencies, far from contradicting each other, already support each other with Duns Scotus.” Marion points that that Descartes’s doctrine of the creation of eternal truths (of maths and logic, including the law of identity), far from being an ultra-voluntarism, is a refusal of the voluntarist-intellectualist complicity since the subtle doctor. Yet divine government is not thereby restored to the degree that the divine essence thereby becomes ineffably inscrutable. Nicholas of Cusa’s paradoxical mediations of the infinite and finite, likewise allowing that “eternal truths” are bound to finitude, would seem to offer here an alternative.

  109. Although, as Marion stresses (La théologie blanche, 283) will “follows upon” intellect for Aquinas, he also makes it clear that teleological appetition of the good and so will, is not extrinsic to intellect as such: “[The] aptitude to good in things without natural knowledge is called natural appetite. Whence also intellectual natures have alike aptitude to good as apprehended through intellectual form; so as to rest therein when possessed, and when not possessed to seek to possess it, both of which pertain to the will.”

  110. Gilson, Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy, 248–68.

  111. Avicenna, Metaphysics (from the Al-Shifā’), VIII, 6, (5), (16), 7, IX, 1, 2 (4–6).

  112. ST I qq. 103–19 [“Treatise on the Divine Government”]. And see Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory, trans. L. Chiesa and M. Mandarini (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011). This book is an inspiration, even if one must dissent from many of its readings, which are sometimes corrected by Dotan Leshem in his The Origins of Neoliberalism: Modeling the Economy from Jesus to Foucault (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

  113. Scotus, Quest. in Met I q. 1, 109.

  114. Scotus, Quod. q. 1 a. 3, 59, 70–71.

  115. Gilles Emery, La Trinité Creatrice: Trinité et création dans les commentaires aux Sentences de Thomas d’Aquin et de ses précurseurs Albert le Grand et Bonaventure (Paris: Vrin, 1995).

  116. Gilson, Being and Some Philosophers, 182.

  117. This is broadly the perspective of Ludger Honnefelder, but also of many modern Franciscan thinkers. See also Emmanuel Falque, Dieu, la chair et l’autre: D’Irénée à Duns Scot (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2008), 429–69. For a critique of such an outlook, see Catherine Pickstock, “Duns Scotus: His Historical and Contemporary Significance,” Modern Theology 21 (2005) 543–74.

  118. Scotus, Ord. III, d. 17, 62–67; Quod. q. 18, a. 18:22. In the first passage, the model for ethical respect for “circumstance” is aesthetic, but the beautiful has itself ceased to be an “absolute quality” and become something more like an aggregate of measurable aspects of size, figure and colour, etc.

  119. See John Milbank, “Against Human Rights: Liberty in the Western Tradition,” Oxford Journal of Law and Theology 1 (2012) 1–32.

  120. Pierre Rousselot, The Problem of Love in the Middle Ages: A Historical Contribution, trans. Alan Vincelette (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2001).

  121. Avicenna, Metaphysica (from The Book of Scientific Knowledge), 36.

  122. See Milbank, “Franciscan Conundrum.”

  123. Scotus, Ord. IV Suppl. d. 49 qq. 9–10. Allan B. Wolter, OFM, significantly describes the affection of justice in totally Kantian terms of a “freedom from nature and a freedom for values” in his Philosophical Theology of John Duns Scotus (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), 151.

  124. Scotus, Quod. q. 13; Boulnois, Être et representation, 405–56; Milbank, Beyond Secular Order, 31–34, 57–66.

  125. See Alain de Libera, Métaphysique et noétique: Albert le Grand (Paris: Vrin, 2005); John Milbank, “Manifestation and Procedure,” 68–69.

  126. Boulnois, Métaphysiques rebelles, passim.

  127. Métaphysiques rebelles, 191–226.

  128. Boulnois sums up and elaborates the conclusions of G. Pini, D. Demange and R. Wood in Métaphysiques rebelles, 291–303.

  129. Boulnois, Métaphysiques rebelles, 313–41, 405–6. Boulnois shows how metaphysics reduced to theology got increasingly equated with the mathematical, such that there is a certain alliance between a metaphysician in the Scotist line like Goclenius and the new Protestant theorist of a first science as mathesis, Pierre Ramus. It is also significant that it was first in Protestant scholasticism, but then in Catholic that a fully independent Ontology was by name accepted: from a Catholic perspective this looked (and rightly) far too subversive of our primary, rational connection to God. Catherine Pickstock’s intuitive linking of Scotus and Ramus in After Writing (47–135) is here borne out.

  130. Jean-Luc Marion, Being Given: Towards a Phenomenology of Givenness, trans, Jeffrey L. Kossky (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002).

  131. Marion, La théologie blanche, 451.

  132. Since the conceptualisable, without the possibility of analogical raising, is confined within itself, the excess over it of intuition, on Marion’s view, also confines reason to the rationalistic. Instead of his scheme, but instead also of the Kantian scheme, which he opposes, whereby the concept only exceeds intuition as abstractly fixed beyond any intuitive exemplification, one could propose one in which both concept and intuition always stay in step, but both equally exceed themselves and point beyond themselves. They do this, not just at the margins, but at their very heart and at every step of gained insight when we simultaneously “see” and “express” in some sort of symbolic structure.

  133. See Milbank, Beyond Secular Order, 42–49, 99–105, 112–13.

  134. Honnefelder, Johannes Duns Scotus, 81, 87, 103.

  135. Scotus, Ord. I d. 8 p. 1 q. 2, 37–38; Honnefelder, Johannes Duns Scotus, 94.

  136. Marion, Sur la pensée passive de Descartes, 217–60.

  137. Jean-Luc Marion, The Idol and Distance, trans. Thomas A. Carlson (New York: Fordham University Press, 2001), 164.

  138. The late English poet Geoffrey Hill was fond of making this crucial distinction.

  139. Yves Congar, Tradition and Traditions, trans. M. Naseby and T. Rainborough (London: Burns and Oates, 1966), 135–36.

  140. Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 54–55.

  141. I am grateful to Ryan Haecker, my masters student at Nottingham University, for this insight.

  142. Jacques Derrida, Voice and Phenomenon: Introduction to the Problem of the Sign in Husserl’s Phenomenology (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2010).

  143. See David Grummett, “Blondel, Modern Catholic Theology and the Leibnizian Eucharistic Bond,” Modern Theology 23 (2007) 618–44.

  144. See Tom Sparrow, The End of Phenomenology: Metaphysics and the New Realism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1914).

  145. This denial rests essentially upon a rationalistic misconstrual of Thomist analogy which imagines that Scotist univocity could act as a foundation for it; on a denial that univocity in Scotus is metaphysical and related to an understanding of metaphysics fundamentally unlike that of Aquinas, which is, in a new way, consistent with the Patristic vision and on the erroneous view that Thomist participation reduces to “imitation,” as it does for Scotus. See Daniel Horan, OFM, Postmodernity and Univocity.

  146. For the most detailed summary, see Catherine Pickstock, “Duns Scotus: His Historical and Contemporary Significance.” Horan’s claims that RO has largely invented “the Scotus story” do it far too much credit. Its contribution lies far more in its extension of a growing unease about the Scotist legacy.

  147. Marion, La théologie blanche, passim.

  148. Nevertheless, the speculative realist approaches of Badiou, Meillassoux, Garcia, Harman et al. can exhibit the opposite danger of closing the subject/object gap purely on the side of “the thing,” even if one welcomes the drift, in Tristan Garcia especially, away from materialism toward realism. A balanced mediation of subject and object would undoubtedly require a philosophy/theology of participated transcendence, in contrast both to philosophies of the transcendent “other” and to philosophies of immanence.

  149. See John Milbank, “From Mathesis to Methexis: Nicholas of Cusa’s Post-Nominalist Realism,” in Relire Cusanus, ed. Isabelle Moulin (Paris: Vrin, 2017).

  150. Scotus, Ord. I d. 3 a. 2, 40.

  151. Scotus, De Primo Principio, Cap I.

  152. Plotinus, Enneads, II, VI.

  153. Enneads, VI, I, 3, 10–20; Milbank, “Manifestation and Procedure.”

  154. See Ernst Benz, The Theology of Electricity: On the Encounter and Explanation of Theology and Science in the 17th and 18th Centuries, trans. Wolfgang Taraba (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2014); Walter Pagel, William Harvey’s Biological Ideas (New York: Karger, 1967); Stephen Gaukroger, The Collapse of Mechanism and the Rise of Sensibility: Science and the Shaping of Modernity 1680–1760 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

  155. Antoine Faivre, Access to Western Esotericism (New York: State University of New York Press, 1994), 3–47. I am grateful here to discussions with Laura McCormack, my doctoral student at Nottingham.

  156. Marion, La théologie blanche, 427–44.

  157. Milbank, “Manifestation and Procedure.”

  158. Scotus, Ord. I d. 36 q. un. n. 48: an existing thing is quod habet ex se firmum et vere esse, beyond mere thinkable or possible being which is merely non-contradictory and so non repugnat esse verum essentiae vel exsistentiae.

  159. See John Hughes, “Creatio ex nihilo and the Divine Ideas in Aquinas: How Fair Is Bulgakov’s Critique,” in Matthew Bullimore, ed., Graced Life: The Writings of John Hughes (London: SCM, 2016), 35–50.

  • Daniel Horan

    Daniel Horan


    Response to John Milbank

    Years ago, while working on Postmodernity and Univocity, I occasionally wondered to myself: “What would John Milbank say about this project?” When I heard that the Syndicate editors had reached out to him and he agreed to respond to my book, I thought that now we would have the chance to see for ourselves. I am grateful to Milbank for taking the time to offer a response, for authors do not always have such an opportunity for potential engagement. However, I am disappointed in the manner in which he executed his response.

    Being as familiar with his work and methodology as I am, I anticipated that Milbank would defend his reading of John Duns Scotus and a fortiori his interpretation of the Subtle Doctor’s legacy. What I did not anticipate was the blatant disregard he would exhibit for the agreed-upon parameters of this symposium. Whereas the editors explicitly ask contributors to “write a 2,000-word, narrowly focused engagement with X’s book, addressing—if possible—a single point in the argument which you deem to be most significant (either because you disagree or because you wish to press X further),” Milbank took it upon himself to submit a 25,214-word, 74-page treatise in response. On one hand, I suppose that can be viewed as complimentary. My book appears to have so inspired Milbank that he simply could not abide by the conventions set up for the typical robust scholarly discussion Syndicate is already well known for curating. On the other hand (and more likely), this is yet another instance of what will likely be Milbank’s most famous legacy, which is not necessarily the content of his thought so much as the style of his argumentation: winding, obfuscating, uncorroborated, pugilistic, and frequently dismissive.

    The editors have left it up to me to decide how to respond, and I have chosen not to engage this diatribe on Milbank’s terms. There are enough unsubstantiated claims—often with no references to primary or secondary literature—to necessitate another volume of critical assessment. I do not care to write a sequel because, as the other respondents have noted in their thoughtful essays, although there is always room for improvement, my work and sourcing already answers many of the overarching problems in the RO Scotus Story. Milbank’s primary thesis here appears to be that Étienne Gilson’s Jean Duns Scot: Introduction à ses Positions Fondamentales is a sound presentation of Scotus’s thought and thereby worthy of emulation. Despite decades of critical assessment of Gilson’s work by specialists in historical philosophy and theology that argue to the contrary (noted throughout pp. 97–156 of my book), Milbank remains steadfast in his commitment to his reading of Gilson’s reading of Scotus. Fine. As I noted in my reply to Hunter, I did not write Postmodernity and Univocity for Milbank or any another Radical Orthodoxy (RO) author because I knew at the outset that they were wedded to their “Scotus Story” and unlikely to change their view. Again, I wrote this book so that everybody else might see the errors of the RO way concerning Scotus, even if the founders and contributors of the movement couldn’t (or, better, wouldn’t) see it themselves.

    The irony that Milbank’s one seeming concession to my argument is an admittance of his doxagraphical hermeneutic is not lost on me. On page 1, he writes that he believes the Scotist debates in the years and centuries after Scotus’s death included disagreement “as to whether univocity concerned primarily logical or real being.” And then adds: “This might prima facie suggest that the semantic reading of Horan and others is respectable also. For this reason I shall not be engaging in any counter-polemic, although I will try to show why the semantic reading is incorrect and anachronistic.” It’s not clear that Milbank even understands what he wants to argue for here. At first, he alludes to the fact (as he does at points throughout the remainder of the text) that both a “semantic” and a “metaphysical” reading of univocity are possible readings, and that Milbank’s (and, by expansion I suppose, Gilson’s) reading is best. And yet, although he claims not to engage in a “counter-polemic,” he states in the same sentence that this is exactly his intention, claiming that my reading (and that of the majority of Scotus scholars) is “incorrect and anachronistic.” So, while he at first admits that a semantic reading of Scotus is respectable, he asserts that his interpretation is better. Yet again, he does not substantiate this preference.

    The irony continues with his accusation of anachronism, given that his whole argument in support of scapegoating Scotus relies not on the work of the Subtle Doctor himself, but on what Milbank alleges are modern interpretations of Scotus and his inheritors long after the medieval Franciscan’s death. There remains no consideration of the truth of Scotus’s own claims or respect for the difficult scholarship necessary to unpack and understand them.

    There is one line amid this lengthy text with which I am in agreement. It appears in the first footnote following a list of grievances that Milbank has with my critical assessment of his work but for which he offers absolutely no substantiated rebuttal or evidence to merit his flip choice of descriptors (“Horan makes some wildly inaccurate charges”). The line with which I agree comes in the form of his exhortation that people can read our respective work and judge for themselves that, presumably from Milbank’s vantage point, I am wrong in my assessment: “I leave it to the reader to check all these points,” he says.

    Indeed, I echo that call for checking all the points and encourage those who so choose to read Milbank’s apologia on Gilson and Scotus posted on the Syndicate website. But I caution those who do. As someone who has labored through Milbank’s arguments for years and has done so once again here, it is often an exhausting and frustrating task. His response to my book is yet another instance of his habitual reliance on obfuscating rhetoric and sweeping claims, which he employs instead of substantive evidence and rigorous engagement with primary sources. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this call for point-checking Milbank leaves to his readers is that, given the history of his own presumptive attitude of unassailable work, he asks more of his readers than he expects of himself.