Aristotle’s theory of knowledge. Scotus and Aquinas did not disagree on everything and here, among others, is one of the best places to understand; namely, that our natural knowledge of God begins with our experience of sensible things. Scotus, however, will draw a different conclusion from Aquinas’s own; whereas Aquinas believed that there was always some slippage in the language we used about God, Scotus argued that we can use words with exactly the same meaning.
Before we really get into this, however, professor Williams remarks that it would be pleasant to have a word on the difference between Franciscans and Dominicans. Both orders are opposed to one another and each has parallels in the debate between Aquinas and Scotus.
Typically, the Franciscans were thought to be hostile to Aristotle while the Dominicans were acceptive of Aristotle. There is some truth to this. But, this is too simplistic. So, a better way to explain the difference would be to say that the Franciscans were much more in the spirit of Augustine than the Dominicans tended. Like Augustine, the Franciscans continued to emphasize the role of the will and the role of love more than the role of intellect and knowledge; in particular, they tended to have a more radical view of the freedom of the will (God and human) than did the Dominicans. Of course, these are merely general tendencies or characteristics of the two orders. Broad strokes.
Turning back to Scotus’s account of God, then, the first thing we see from him is a refutation of the alleged difference between what God is and what God is not. Aquinas had insisted that we cannot be limited to saying what God is not. Scotus goes further and argues that the whole distinction is ill-conceived.
The first argument that Scotus gives is that any negation presupposes an affirmation. Turning away from God for a moment, take the claim that “Dogs are not reptiles”. The only reason we can say this is because we have some positive idea of “reptile”. Thanks to this positive idea, we can exclude any possibility that doesn’t fit with that idea. Same thing with God; we cannot say that God is [something] unless we already have some kind of positive idea of God.
The second argument that Scotus gives is simply one sentence: “Negations are not the object of our greatest love”. The point of doing natural philosophy is not knowledge for the sake of knowledge, it is knowledge for the sake of love. If natural theology can only give us negations, then what good is it? One cannot have supreme love for a negation. This gives credence to Scotus’s claim that theology is a practical rather than a theoretical science (“science” in that it is a discipline structured by argument; by calling it practical, he means that the ultimate aim is not knowledge but action).
Understanding in-depth Scotus’s ultimate argument would take far longer than what a single lecture can offer as he offers multiple points under multiple sub-headings and draws on some of the most difficult work in Aristotle. Instead, professor Williams gives us the kernel of the idea: Scotus is carrying on the same premise as Aquinas. Where Scotus differs from Aquinas we can think of Scotus’s actions as attempts to rectify perceived mistakes so that the shared project may be better fulfilled. Aside from both sharing an idea of an infinite regress, both philosophies share an initial beginning with an observation of Sensible Things; both accept the basic Aristotelian view of knowledge that Aquinas had accepted. Scotus, however, parts company with Aquinas on one crucial matter; whereas Aquinas had insisted that the fact that all of our knowledge is derived from creatures, means that the language we use when speaking about God will always be inadequate. Knowledge of God derived from creatures is fragmentary and incomplete—therefore, our language will be inadequate since that is where we draw our experience from (creatures). This was why Aquinas denied the possibility of one word being used to describe both God and creatures. Scotus, however, defends univocal predication.
Scotus defines univocal predication as ‘to deny it as being one in the same thing would be a contradiction’. To Scotus, there is no slippage. Scotus gives several arguments for univocal predication.
The first can be begun with an analogy. Suppose we know that someone is a mother. We do not if she is a good or bad mother. In our situation of doubt, we can be sure of one thing is that the concept we have in mind when we think of ‘mother’ is the same concept whether she is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ mother. The word ‘mother’ must mean the same thing, otherwise, the question would be irrational. In the same way, we can know that God is a being despite not knowing whether he is a finite being or an infinite being. So, it is the same concept of ‘being’ whether in its infinite or finite forms. To Scotus, using Reason carefully, we will discover that God is, of course, an infinite being. But, the meaning and concept of being have not changed.
Scotus view today is still being debated today. The alleged universality of being has its defenders and subtractors. It is a debate that is still very much alive. In 2005, for example, the journal Modern Theology, devoted a whole issue to Scotus with a special focus on his theory of universality. Fundamentally, the core rejection of universality is that it rejects the uniqueness of God. Some objectors would even go as far to claim that Scotus’s theory is on the same level as idolatry since this theory put God on the same level as creatures in having what he shares with creatures—his being—be on the same level, albeit simply differently rendered (infinite vs. finite). Scotus’s defenders would counter by saying that this objection rests on a misunderstanding; the doctrine of universality does not say that God and creatures have something in common. Rather, the concepts talk about the concepts involved in understanding them, not the being itself, per se.
This brings us to Scotus’s second argument for universality. This argument is effective since it uses Aquinas’s own theories against him. Aquinas had said that all our concepts had come from creatures. Scotus agrees on that point. But, where will these analogous concepts come from, these concepts which are like creatures but not quite different? They can’t come from anywhere; if all our concepts come from creatures, then the concepts we apply to God will also come from creatures. In other words, this is univocal predication since the concepts which came from creatures must be the same. Therefore, if we can’t use the concepts we get from creatures, then we can’t talk about God (which is false).
Scotus’s third argument goes back to Anselm. Anselm said that God taught us it is better to be than not to be and Anselm figures out what we can say about God by asking which characteristics are better to have than not to have. Scotus agrees with Anselm on this point (Scotus calls his understanding of this “Pure Perfections”). A pure perfection is anything which does not imply limitation. Scotus takes this a step further and says that pure perfections must be of univocal predication of God.
Here is the argument: if you are going to use Anselm’s test to figure out what we can say about God, you first have to come up with your concept; say the concept of good. Then you check out the concept and see if it is better to be good than not good. You realize that it is. So, you predicate good of God. That concept won’t work unless it is the same concept in both cases. You might say that the concept of the pure perfection only applies to the creatures and the concept we apply to God has to be something different (or vice versa). But, this would be a mistake. In short, one would be coming up with an idea that says it is better to be than not to be and yet this is something that also doesn’t apply to God, which is a contradiction.
Why does universality matter?
There are three reasons. First, without universality, we do not know what we are saying when we speak of God. We would be using our ordinary language to speak of God, but that language would have a different meaning while not being able to specify what that meaning is (think of the issue surrounding analogical meaning and the earlier example given concerning one’s niece and a photograph of a niece). The second reason is closely related. Without universality, Scotus reasons, the keywords in our arguments would change meanings, they would mean one thing when applied to creatures and another thing when applied to God. But, an argument where the keywords change meaning is a bad argument. Terms must be kept constant. Without universality, there are no sound arguments for theology to use. Universality, then, allows us to construct meaning and language when we talk about God. Both of these points then establish a third; universality is necessary for us to know anything about God at all. Because we know God based on Sensible Experience, our understanding of God is based on creatures. Scotus still, though, takes it a step further. To Scotus, we can acquire a concept that only applies to God. This is Scotus’s ‘Proper Concept of God’. Scotus accepts the claim that we accept all of out concepts from creatures but then goes and says that we can have a concept that isn’t shared by creatures, a bold move. But, this isn’t inconsistent because Scotus isn’t going back on his initial claim. Why is because among those general concepts on which we initially came to know God, are concepts of pure perfections (good, wise, being, etc.), and if you take any of these pure perfections to the highest degree, then the concept you will end up with will apply to God alone. Meaning, both God, and Socrates are wise but only God is supremely wise. Therefore, take all the pure perfections to the highest degree and through applying them to God, we will have an even better understanding of God.
But, the best concept of all is the one of infinite being; why is because it is the simplest concept but also the most fruitful; infinite isn’t an extra concept added on to being. Rather, infinity is ‘the mode of God’s being’, as Scotus himself puts it. What this means it that ‘infinite being’ is not like the concept of a ‘white fence’ or ‘hot coffee’. In the latter two, we can easily separate them out into distinct concepts, not so with infinite being which is inseparable from one another. The expression of infinite being may be two words, but the concept is one—being in an unlimited way. This concept is also the most fruitful since all the other divine attributes can be deduced from infinite being. Since God enjoys being in an infinite way, we can conclude that God is omnipotent in all things. This is to say that we can acquire all of this through natural reason despite our being, being fundamentally different from God.