Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus: Natural Theology in the High Middle Ages. By Alexander W. Hall


Pp. xvi, 170 , London/New York , Continuum , 2007 , $130.00/£65.00 .

C. S. Peirce, in seeking fundamental categories phenomenally attainable by the mind, once opined that Scotus and Ockham were the greatest metaphysicians of the mediaeval era. Subsequent investigations, however, have constantly confirmed Q. Skinner's axiom that any response constitutes a determination of pre-existing arguments or conversations, and Scotus and Ockham prove no exception since both used reflections of their predecessors to launch new speculative trajectories.

The author of this work seeks to contrast Aquinas's and Scotus's understandings of science and demonstration, analogy and univocity, signification and understanding, and infinitude, although he cautiously affirms that their doctrines are in some ways compatible. (pp. 134, n. 28) The first succinct chapter offers a serviceable overview of Aquinas and Scotus at the University of Paris with the former's career ending before the 1277 condemnations by church authorities of some of his own along with various Averroist doctrines, and the latter's beginning in the wake of emphasis on divine omnipotence over causal necessity in created nature. Hall clearly presents Scotus's efforts to temper Henry of Ghent's tactic to accommodate the condemnations by appealing to special divine illuminative assistance to assure certainty, for such implies not only that God and creatures are unknowable, thus vitiating theological discourse, but also that analogical notions of being and goodness are mainly attainable through conceptual abstractions. (pp. 17–20, 77, 87–90) To do so, Scotus shifts reference to the notion of infinitude as signifying transcendentally and confusedly what is proper to God as indefinable and unique in order to regulate mediate knowledge of the divine essence derived from creatures ‘in a manner comparable to Aquinas's way of eminence, causality and remotion.’ (pp. 24–5)

Chapter two is dedicated to Aquinas's assimilation of Aristotle's canons of demonstrative reasoning and how they may be used to reveal the divine being as cause of creaturely perfections. The following chapter examines, perhaps in an excessively brief manner, how Thomas utilises demonstrative reasoning in conjunction with analogical attributions in a variety of ways to conclude that the divine being is ‘pure actuality.’(p. 73) Chapter four focusses on Scotus's acknowledgment that ‘scientia’ may be certain, and offers a clear presentation of his final position that there are four certain knowledges: self-evident principles and conclusions; things known through experience; our actions; and actual sense perceptions.(pp. 77–85) While contending that the imposition of names is ultimately derived from experience, Scotus insists against Henry of Ghent that we validly attain qualitative and relative concepts of God, such as that God is good. (pp. 92–3) Chapter five explores implications of Scotus's view that ‘naming follows understanding, nonetheless we can name more distinctly than we understand,’ for a term can truly signify the infinite God even though we cannot form a comprehensive intellection of the infinite and must settle for conceiving ‘a transcendental characteristic joined with the notion of infinitude.’(p. 99)

Chapter six considers how Scotus's ‘theory of transcendental signification relies on a concept of being univocal to God and creatures,’ which in itself is no categorial genus and is neither identical with finitude or infinitude yet is common to both. (pp. 104–5) Said commonality is no genus englobing creatures and God, and thus Scotus can coherently assimilate Aristotle's conclusion that ‘difference is not the same as diversity’ (Metaphysics x, 3, 1054a13-32), which implies that God and creatures are not merely different, but maximally diverse. (p.106) Incidentally, Aquinas would agree but his principles and rationale for this inference differ.

This repertory of Scotus's conclusions concerning infinitude is presupposed in the final chapter to reveal not only how he determines the reference of transcendental concepts, but also how he deduces concomitants of actual infinite being, such as that divine simplicity must possess all perfections within unity in diversity.(pp. 110 & 116–7) Thus his modal distinction between actual infinite God and finite creation is ‘beyond any relative measure of proportion that could be assigned.’ (p. 119) Hall definitively demonstrates the error of viewing Scotus as advocating an equivocity of degrees between God and creatures, but one may wonder whether it is unqualifiedly correct to assert that ‘Scotus's sentiment does not entail apophaticism,’ for is it not possible to discern implicit surrogates for such in Scotus's reworkings of Anselmian and Bonaventurean themes? (pp. 6 & 165, n. 7)

Throughout Hall evidences sensitivity regarding implications of Scotus's texts, but portrayals of Aquinas, though solid, are not on a par. There is virtually no examination of how Aquinas differs from Scotus in developing the Avicennian doctrine of ‘common natures,’ which for the former are not objects of abstractive categorial apprehension, but rather only able to be reasoned to as being virtually operative in all attributions. Common both to existing individual beings and to abstract universals possessing unity in the mind, such natures neither exist nor have unity, and their role as an explanatory factor in predication is only attained as a conclusion.

Arguably, this matter lies at the heart of Aquinas's approach to analogical attributions as residing principally within exercised judgments which may continually refine our notions of act, perfection, and other transcendents, for not only do we remain in ‘darkness of ignorance’ in our knowledge of the divine being, we also do not attain any originative direct abstractive apprehension of the ‘esse’ of created things. However, Scotus's granting of reflexive priority to what J. F. Courtine astutely describes as a ‘logic of the transcendental’ inevitably implies that his and Aquinas's understandings of being, strictly speaking, can neither be opposed nor mutually refute one another.

While careful comparisons should reveal profound analogical accords between Aquinas's doctrines of ‘esse’ and analogy with Scotus's ‘haeccitas’ and univocity of being, in spite of certain shared explanatory principles and conclusions their utilisations of these principles and developments of rationales are nonetheless diverse.Without deepening one's appreciation of this one risks misunderstanding the novel shift of focus and profound contributions subsequently offered by William Ockham regarding the ever continuing discussion of the relative priorities between things, thoughts, and terms.