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Turner on the Platonic/Augustinian Principle Operative in Milbank’s Reading of St. Thomas

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

January 27, 2008

Denys Turner identifies what he labels an “Augustinian principle” governing Milbank’s reading of St. Thomas-a principle that Turner believes leads Milbank astray in his interpretation of Aquinas’ five ways.  According to Turner, Milbank sees the Summa Theologiae as reflecting Thomas’ shift to a more mature theological strategy in comparison to the more overtly philosophical approach of the Summa Contra Gentiles. In the Summa Theologiae, Milbank discerns a reconfigured relation between philosophy and sacra doctrina that involves a more away from an Aristotelian to a more Augustinian strategy.  Thus, according to Milbank, in the Summa Theologiae a posteriori demonstration from creatures plays a weak role … and there is in fact much more Augustinian a priori (so to speak) argument-in terms of ‘what must’ belong to perfection-than is usually allowed.”[1] Turner then spells out what he discerns as Milbank’s Augustinian and ultimately Platonic hermeneutical principle with regard to Thomas, as well as the some of the implications of Milbank’s interpretation in relation to Thomas’s, as it were, “argument” strategy in the five ways. 

If we are to know the most perfect good ‘to be’, there must exist, prior to any theological expansion of the radical unknowableness of God into an account of the divine attributes, ‘a certain preontological insistence of the ideal’, so that we can respond to it; respond, that is to ‘an as it were a priori vision of the good’ [Milbank, "Intensities," p. 455].  But since Thomas explicitly prohibits any a priori philosophical theology which, in the manner of Anselm’s Proslogion argument, would purport to prove the necessary existence of the highest perfection from that perfection’s being the highest, there is no argument which by itself can get you to that a priori vision-indeed, it could not have the character of the a priori if it was argument from creatures which got you there-and so ‘the only thing that authenticates perfection must be some sort of experience of it actuality’ [Ibid., p. 456].  Moreover, such an experience of ‘highest perfection’ must be presupposed even to Thomas’s a posteriori proofs of the existence of God [Ibid., pp. 459-460].[2]

In light of the fact that if this read is correct, it would seem to make Thomas guilty of a rather elementary logical error, viz., the fallacy of petitio principii, Milbank opts for the conclusion that Thomas was not presenting his arguments in the five ways as formally valid proofs for God’s existence. 

Turner, not surprisingly, thinks that Milbank’s reading of Thomas is seriously flawed.  First of all, Turner directs us to Thomas’ fourth way and emphasizes that Thomas did not claim that we have knowledge of degrees of goodness in finite things only because we already possess knowledge of perfect goodness, viz., the goodness which is God.  Turner also denies that Thomas, unlike Anselm, Bonaventure, Descartes and Augustine, holds the following proposition to be true:  “we can perceive relative degrees of a quality only if we have prior knowledge of what would count as the maximal degree of it.”[3] Rather, Thomas presents his fourth way as an attempt to argue for the existence of some maximal or supreme goodness because we meet with varying degrees of goodness in the things of our experience.  According to Turner, even if one rejects the inferential validity of Thomas’ fourth way, “the argument is clearly presented as an inference, moreover to a cause, ‘which we call God.’”[4]  Secondly, Turner fundamentally disagrees with Milbank’s claim that to engage in natural theology, that is, to attempt to offer logically valid proofs for God’s existence necessarily involves one in some form of “Scotist onto-theology.”  In fact, Turner’s main purpose in writing this book is to argue that “there are reasons of faith why in principle the existence of God should be thought rationally demonstrable and that it is worthwhile revisiting the theology of Thomas Aquinas to see why this is so.”[5]  Turner goes on to point out that Milbank misreads Thomas as claiming that inferential validity requires a univocity of terms.  According to Turner, Milbank thus bases his claim of the impossibility of scientific demonstration of God’s existence on a Scotist principle that Thomas himself never accepted.  Both Thomas and Scotus agreed that inferential validity rules out the use of equivocal terms, but Thomas did not conclude with Scotus that analogical terms could not yield a valid inference.  

Turner closes the section with the claim that Milbank’s objection to logically valid proofs for the existence of God “appears to rest on the supposition that if transgeneric demonstration is invalid, then an inference which purported to transgress the boundary between any created genus and God, who is beyond every genus, must by at least the same token be invalid” (p. 201).  This, however, according to Turner is a non sequitur.  As Turner explains,

To suppose without more ado that because an inference is invalid by the fallacy of equivocation if it crosses from one genus to another it must be at least as invalid if it crosses from generic being to God, who is beyond every genus, is to suppose, without more ado, that the gap to be crossed between one genus and another and the gap to be crossed between generic being and God are logically the same kinds of gap, only-one supposes-‘bigger’ in the latter case (p. 201). 

In other words, to assume that these gaps are logically the same kinds of gaps is to place God and creation on the same scale-it is just a bigger gap that must be crossed with regard to God and creation than the gap between one genus to another. 

Turner then adds that this non sequitur is significant because it shows that Milbank’s critique is operating on a Scotist assumption.  Neither Thomas nor Scotus nor Milbank hold that God belongs to a genus, yet, Turner says, “though Scotus, unlike Milbank and Thomas, so construes the ‘gap’ between God and creatures as to be logically of the same kind as that between one genus and another, Milbank, like Scotus and unlike Thomas, holds that inference could cross the gap between creatures and God only if that gap fell univocally within a common genus” (p. 201). 

I see Turner’s point; however, I am still not completely convinced that Scotus is really guilty of viewing these “gaps” as being of the same logical status.  After all, Scotus’ definition of the infinite is, “What I call ‘infinite’ is what excels any actual or possible finite being to a degree beyond any determinate measure you take or could take.”[6]  Couldn’t this be read as suggesting that for Scotus, the difference between God and creation is incommensurable?  


[1] Milbank, “Intensitites,” Modern Theology 15.4, October 1999, p. 455, as quoted in Turner, Faith, Reason and the Existence of God, p. 196. [2] Turner, Faith, Reason and the Existence of God, p. 196. [3] Ibid., p. 198. [4] Ibid., p. 198. [5] This quote is taken from the opening page of the book which has no page number. [6] Wolter and Frank. Duns Scotus Metaphysician, p. 59.  As found in Reportatio IA in the “reply to the third question”. 

Part IV: Denys Turner on Scotus: Univocity and Inference-A Brief but Related Divergence from Turner’s Text

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

January 18, 2008

[I recommend reading part III or you might find yourself wondering what this post has to do with Denys Turner].

By “primary adequate object” (PAO), Scotus means that our intellect is proportionate to and commensurate with the object in question (being) and has the ability to actualize the potencies involved.  Being as being as the PAO is understood as “primary” in two senses:  (1) in regard to commonnesss, i.e., commonness in predication and (2) in regard to virtuality.  Neither of these primacies, if taken in isolation, would be sufficient;  however, the two combined cover the entire realm of that which can be known (for us).[1]  At least one important aspect that Scotus wants to emphasize in his teaching is that in knowing the PAO, which for humans is being (ens), the concept pertains to all other things that one would know within the range of our cognitive faculties. In other words, for us, in all that we know-whether a tree, a human being, or God-we also come to know the concept of being; hence, the commonness of the concept.  As Peter King puts it, Scotus wants to show that the concept of being is “‘adequate’ in the sense that it is univocally predicable in quid of whatever the intellect can grasp.”[2]  This does not mean, however, that Scotus believes that being is predicable quidditatively of either ultimate differences or proper attributes.

This brings us to Scotus’s distinction between quid (the “what”) and quale (the “how”).  According to Scotus, the concept of being or ens is an irreducibly simple quid.  Irreducibly simple qualia or ultimate differentiae constitute a range and are properties.  Examples of ultimate differentiae include:  (1) the transcendental attributes one, true, good (which are coextensive with ens); (2) “thisness” or haecceitas, which is an individuating difference; (3) ultimate specific differences which give us particular kinds but not a genus; (4) primary difference pairs (e.g., finite/infinite, contingent/necessary, etc.); and (5) pure perfections (e.g., life, wisdom, will, etc.).  In sum, we might say that ens is a quidditative concept that speaks to the “what is it” question, whereas the qualia or ultimate differentiae encompass a wide range of notions and address how something is.  We arrive at ens (as a quidditatively simple concept) and the ultimate differences at the end of a process of resolution. 

As King explains, an ultimate differentia is that which itself does not have a differentia and which cannot be further resolved.[3]  In the Ordinatio, Scotus gives us two proofs for his claim that being is not univocally predicated in quid of ultimate differences.[4]  The first states that in order to avoid an infinite regress, we must have some differences that themselves cannot be further resolved (de-composed) and consequently, of which being is not predicated univocally. Scotus’ second proof[5] states that we have concepts that are conceptual composites consisting in determining and determinable conceptual “components.”  The focus is of course on those concepts to which we arrive after the process of resolution that are irreducibly simple and which themselves display these non-resolvable concepts.  In other words, what we end up with is the purely determinable concept of being and the purely determining ultimate differences.[6]  Here Scotus displays his comfort with radical diversity, as he does not feel compelled to press ens and the ultimate qualia into a Parmenidean-like unity.[7]

In paragraph 134 (Ordinata I, dist. 3, q. 3), Scotus addresses proper attributes.  Concisely stated, “a proper attribute is a feature that includes its subject in its definition, though not conversely.”[8]  Here Scotus appeals to the analogy of explicating odd or even-in doing so, one must appeal to the concept of number, but not vice versa.  This indicates that a “proper attribute does not belong to the essence of its subject, even if it is conjoined to it necessarily.”  According to Scotus, what are often called the traditional transcendentals, viz., one, true, good, are proper attributes of being and are coextensive with being, yet each adds its own distinctive to the concept of being that is not being itself; hence, being is not predicated quidditatively (but rather in quale) of its proper attributes.[9]

Now that we have mapped out the quid/quale distinction, we return to the idea of the primacy of commonness.  What is characteristic of genera, species, individuals, the essential parts of each, and even uncreated being (God) is that each is a res, and each will give us (at the end of the process of resolution) the irreducible notion of being.[10]  This is not to say that in the order of ontology, we are dealing with the same being-as if we have a continuum of being and God is merely the supreme being at the top and creatures are somewhere in the middle.  Scotus time and again distinguishes between uncreated being (God or infinite being) and created being (all other beings)-a point that Turner readily acknowledges-and specifically claims that he is dealing with the concept of being.[11]  When Scotus speaks of commonness, he is pointing to the fact that to each of these concrete beings, ens is not repugnant.  So we have uncreated being, then we have created beings which are composites of some sort; however, the ens that we obtain at the end of the resolution process is a subject of which we can make predications and about which we form propositions.  It is crucial here to note that ens does not exist except as that which is determinable as infinite or finite.[12]  The ultimate differences then qualify or determine being-they are not themselves forms of being; yet, they are not nothing.  Stated slightly differently, the qualia (as determining elements) inhere in a subject or ens which is determinable.  Because the ultimate qualia are not themselves subjects but are as it were attached to a subject, they are not definable.[13] 

As we mentioned above, according to Scotus, the primacy of common predication does not apply to ultimate differences or to proper attributes.[14]  Hence, in order to cover the full range of knowability, he must introduce the primacy of virtuality.[15]  In light of the fact that being is not predicated in quid of the ultimate differences or proper attributes, yet these inhere in a subject that is definable and to which something can be essentially predicated, the primacy of virtuality provides a way for these quasi-definitions to be accounted for.  Here we should keep in mind that Scotus’ concept of being is a very thin concept-the ultimate differences and proper attributes are not deducible from Scotus’ (irreducibly simple) concept of being.  As we recall, for Scotus, one can think about being and be ignorant or indifferent as to whether, e.g., being is finite or infinite.   Here Frank and Wolter provide a helpful explanation, bringing together a number of things discussed up to this point.

It is the concrete objects or physical entities-such as man, God, or Paul-or the composite concepts that represent such objects-namely, the generic, specific, or individual concepts-which are not irreducibly simple, that can be said to contain virtually these secondary intelligibles.  It is the concrete objects or physical entities to which our concepts refer that move or motivate the intellect, not only to form notions that can be said to contain being univocally but also to form concepts that express essential differences or attributes of quiddities.  Because being can be given a univocal meaning, it can retain that univocal meaning when said to be that which these ultimate qualia qualify.[16]

In sum, we might say that a subject is ultimately a quid-something of which one can ask, “what is it?”   The predicate either tells us what the subject is definitionally (e.g., a human being is a rational animal) or the predicate consists of qualia that do not reduce to a general or more specific quiddity.  Consequently, qualia do not speak to what something is, but how something is and thus are called denominating terms.[17]  In other words, for Scotus these fundamental qualities only exist in so far as they are qualifications of something to which being belongs by a primacy of commonality. Thus, the ultimate differences have an existence only in virtue of the quidditative reality.  In Scotus’ final analysis, we have a transcendental notion of being, convertible transcendental attributes, ultimate differences, which include disjunctive transcendental pairs, and pure perfections etc. None of these are species of the genus “being.” Rather, they are primarily diverse and are irreducibly simple concepts distinct from the irreducibly simple, quidditative concept of ens.  Here again we should stress that it is incorrect (as Turner correctly emphasizes) to suggest that Scotus teaches that being is the ultimate univocal genus to which all things are ultimately reduced.  Clearly, his doctrine is not a kind of Parmenidean idea of the undifferentiated One that diffuses everything, nor is it form of pantheism.  Likewise, Scotus’ teaching is not that ultimate differences or attributes can somehow be deduced from the simple concept of being. Such an interpretation would make Scotus’ concept of being as it too thick.  Scotus, in sharp distinction from any Parmenidean-inspired anxiety arising from the radical (irreducible) reality of qualia, is quite at home with the diversity that results from this irreducibility.  

Unfortunately, I have to end this series with this post, as classes begin next week.  I have not yet finished Turner’s book, but I must say that I have greatly enjoyed his book up to this point, particularly his chapters on the sacramental shape of reason and his comparison of St. Thomas and Meister Eckhart.  Perhaps, during Spring Break I will have some time to re-visit these subjects and to finish Turner’s book.  


[1] Cf. Ordinata I, dist. 3, q. 3, n. 137. [2] King, “Scotus on Metaphysics,” p. 19. [3] Ibid., p. 19. 

[4] Ordinata I, dist. 3, q. 3, n. 132 [p. 575].

[5] Ordinata I, dist. 3, q. 3, n. 133 [pp. 575-576].

[6] King, “Scotus on Metaphysics,” pp. 19-20. 

[7] Perhaps here one might suggest that contra Radical Orthodoxy’s critique of Scotus’ doctrine of univocity as an all-encompassing category, Scotus in fact allows for a unity-in-diversity in the created order that reflect the unity-in-diversity of the Triune God. 

[8] Ibid., p. 20. 

[9] Ibid., p. 20.

[10] Ordinata I, dist. 3, q. 3, n. 137 [p. 576].

[11] Ordinata I, dist. 3, q. 3, n. 137 [p. 576].  As Thomas Williams states, “[t]he doctrine of univocity is a semantic doctrine.” (“The Doctrine of Univocity is True and Salutary,” p. 576).

[12] Concisely stated, “[b]eing, predicated in quid and as a noun, is regarded by the Scholastics as the first and fundamental concept in the essence of any real thing; it is the ultimate subject capable of existing outside the mind or imagination, the ultimate quid.  It does not express the whole essence or entity of that of which it is predicated; rather, it only expresses the ultimate determinable and common element to be found in anything or any notion that is capable of being resolved into several simpler elements” (William A. Frank and Alan B. Wolter. Duns Scotus Metaphysician, p. 160). 

[13] See Frank and Wolter for a detailed discussion of Scotus’ argument here.  Duns Scotus Metaphysician, pp. 162-163.

[14] Ordinata I, dist. 3, q. 3, n. 131 [p. 575].

[15] “All attributes of being are included in being, and are included virtually in what is inferior to it.  Therefore, those to which being is not definitionally univocal are included in those to which it is thus univocal. And so it is obvious that being has the primacy of commonness to the primary intelligibles, that is, to the definitional concepts of genera, species, individuals, and the essential parts of all these, as well as to uncreated being.  And it has the primacy or virtuality to intelligibles included in these primary intelligibles, that is, to the qualificative concepts of the ultimate differentiae and its own attributes” Ordinata I, dist. 3, q. 3, n. 137 [p. 576].

[16] William A. Frank and Alan B. Wolter. Duns Scotus Metaphysician, pp. 163-164.

[17] Ordinata I, dist. 3, q. 3, n. 150 [p. 577]. 

Part III: Denys Turner on Scotus: Univocity and Inference

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

January 16, 2008

[Part II]

In this section Turner engages Scotus’s critique of Henry of Ghent’s teaching on analogy and claims contra Richard Cross that Henry’s doctrine of analogy must be distinguished from St. Thomas’s.  Moreover, according to Turner, though it is the case that Scotus shows Henry’s position to be seriously flawed and even incoherent, St. Thomas’s doctrine of analogy does not so easily fall when hit with Scotus’ barrage of arguments.  As Turner reminds us, Scotus’s insistence that being must be predicated univocally of God and creatures was fueled by his belief that “on no other account could the possibility of the natural knowledge of God be justified” (p. 136).   With this in mind, Turner then proceeds to unpack Henry’s teaching on analogy in order to highlight the problems that Scotus unearthed in Henry’s position.   On Henry’s account, all predicates predicated of God and creatures are predicated analogically.  Furthermore, and here the problems begin to emerge,

[f]or any predicate predicated analogically of God and creatures, there are two, as he calls them, ‘irreducible’ concepts; that is to say, two concepts neither of which is capable of further reduction to any simpler concept, one of which is predicated of God, the other of creatures (p. 138).

For example, if I say, “God is good” and “Olga is good,” the predicate “is good” contains two diverse, irreducible concepts which, on the one hand, given their irreducibility “can have nothing in common with each other,” and yet, on the other hand, the two predicates are said to be like one another because that which is predicated of the creature is due to “divine creative causality” (p. 137).  God’s goodness, for example, being the cause of goodness in creatures.  If you press Henry’s position, as indeed Scotus does, it seems that we end up either with equivocity or univocity.  For example, if Henry’s two concepts are in fact irreducible, then how is this different from equivocity?  If they are in some way similar, is the similarity a point of univocal contact?  If so, then Scotus has won the day.  But what about Henry’s claim that the likeness between the two concepts is founded in divine causality?  Here presumably Henry would claim that “cause” is not predicated univocally or equivocally but must be predicated analogically.  However, if this is the case, then given Henry’s own logic, “there must be a simple concept of ‘cause’ predicated of God, and another simple concept of ‘cause’ predicated of creatures, neither reducible to the other, and linked through…what?” (p. 138).  Needless to say, Henry’s argument results in an infinite regress, and seems to prove Scotus’s claims rather well, viz., “either we cannot talk about God at all, or, if we can, some predicates must be predicable of God and of creatures univocally” (p. 138).  As we shall see in chapter nine, although Turner readily grants that Scotus does a fine job demolishing Henry’s position, Turner does not believe that Scotus’s criticisms apply to Thomas’s doctrine of analogy. 

Turner begins the next section by stating that for Scotus, “‘being (ens) is the proper object of the intellect and is predicated univocally of anything whatsoever.”  Turner goes on to say that when this proposition is taken together with another of Scotus’ unambiguous claims, viz., that “ens is not a genus and the logic of ens is not that of a genus [Ordinatio 1 d8 q1 a3, n. 108]” the result is incoherent, or rather incoherent to those operating within a Thomistic paradigm.   As Turner explains, “[f]or Thomas, univocity is defined in reference to genus; as we shall see, for Thomas a term is predicated univocally if, whether truly or falsely, it is predicated in accordance with its definition, and a definition is the conjunction of the genus and a differentia” (p. 139).  Although Turner, if I am reading him rightly, seems to find Scotus’ position confused, he does make clear that Scotus is not claiming that being is predicated of the infinite, which for Scotus can only refer to God, and the finite as genus is to species; yet, being is predicated univocally of both God and creatures.  Turner, however, does not seem to stress, as does much of the standard secondary literature on Scotus, that Scotus’s doctrine of univocity is a semantic doctrine that concerns the concept of being.[1] 

Here I wonder whether a more in depth engagement with Scotus’s teaching on (1) being as the primary adequate object of the intellect, as well as his (2) parsing of the quid/quale distinction, might further the conversation.  (In saying this, I am in no way claiming that I fully understand Scotus’s teachings on these topics, nor am I simply dismissing Turner’s arguments.  However, in my next post, I plan to present a brief summary of the two topics mentions above (1)-(2), with the hope that fruitful conversation will ensue. 


[1] As Stephen Dumont observes, “it is worth stressing that the debate is over the univocity of the concept of being.  Both Henry and Scotus hold that being is not a single reality (res, realitas) common to God and creatures but two wholly diverse realitates proper to each. At issue is whether any concept which is positive and real, as opposed to a mere second intention, can be applied univocally to these two diverse realitates” (“The Univocity of the Concept of Being in the Fourteenth Century,” n. 6, p. 3).

Part II: Denys Turner on Scotus: Univocity and Inference

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

January 13, 2008

[Part I]

Continuing his elucidation of Scotus’s teaching on univocity, Turner again turns to the Ordinatio (1 d3, q1-2) and summarizes Scotus’s claim that one can be certain that God exists but at the same time doubt whether He is finite or infinite.  For example, it is possible for both a Christian and an idolater to agree that God exists, and yet for the Christian to assert that God is infinite and the idolater that God is finite.  These conflicting or rather contradictory claims with regard to God’s nature can only stand as genuine contradictory claims if the concept of existence predicated of God by both parties is univocal.  So even if one were to prove to the idolater that his understanding of God as fire or any other finite object is false and that God in fact is infinite, neither the removal of the false concept of finitude, nor the addition of the true concept of infinitude does anything in the way of altering the idolater’s belief that God exists.  Thus, according to Scotus, it follows that the concept of existence must be univocal (p. 129).  Turner claims that this inference is invalid and provides the following counter analogy.  Imagine that you and I catch a glimpse of some indeterminate moving object in the distance.  Both of us are certain that there is indeed something moving out there, but we differ over what that something is.  I happen to believe it to be an ostrich; whereas you believe that I have some kind of ostrich-shaped impediment in my eye.  Turner questions the soundness of the contention that there is a univocal meaning for the existential quantifier predicated of the moving object (the ostrich) and an ostrich-shaped speck in my eye.  To conclude that there is an indeterminate sense of the existential quantifier in our example above is, according to Turner,

about as intelligible as saying that there is a univocal meaning for the demonstrative pronoun ‘this’, denoting some property of ‘thisness’ possessed in common by everything you can point to by means of the word; it would be as if someone where to say:  ‘This is an ostrich, this is a man; differ they may as an ostrich and a man do, but see how they share in both being ‘this’!
(p. 130). 

Henry of Ghent of course rejected Scotus’s teaching on univocity, and attempted to argue against the idea of a neutral, indeterminate concept of being between God and creatures and for a determinate concept of existence “as a function of what it is that is said to exist” (p. 130).  In other words, the existence of a dog is a canine existence and that of a cat is a feline existence.  However, Scotus counters, and rightly so, that Henry’s thesis would turn all predication of existence into mere equivocation and render impossible any univocal predication.   For example, if the predicate term is determinate to the subject of which it is predicated, then when predicating “man” of both Plato and Socrates, we end up with two different concepts of man-one for Plato and one for Socrates.  If we try to correct this rather undesirable result by claiming that the concept man is complex and contains within it something common both to Plato and Socrates, then that something which both share would be the univocal concept to which Scotus keeps pressing us.  If we go the first route with Henry, we land in equivocity.  If we attempt to revise the position by appealing to a complex concept in which there is some similarity predicable of different subjects, then we are back to the univocity that Scotus has been arguing for in the first place.  Interestingly, Turner states in footnote twelve that though Scotus’s arguments here are directed at Henry of Ghent, Scotus seems to think that they likewise apply to Thomas’s version of the doctrine of analogy, as does Richard Cross.[1]

Turner concludes this section by noting that in Scotus’s account there are certain predicates, which “contain in their ‘formal notions’ no particular reference to anything created” (e.g., wise, intellect, will) [p. 132].  Though it is the case that we come to know the meanings of such predicates from creatures by abstracting all creaturely reference and imperfections from these concepts and ascribing to their formal notion the highest perfection, we then arrive at concepts in their most maximal or perfect degree.[2]  In other words, the meaning of these concepts in their “formalities” is in no way altered when we removed the creaturely reference.  “Therefore, Scotus concludes, they are predicated in the same sense, that is, ‘univocally’, of both God and creatures, albeit to different degrees” (p. 132). 

In the next section of his essay, Turner compares and contrasts the views of Thomas and Scotus with regard to what the idolater and the Christian mean when the former claims, e.g., “fire is God,” and the latter that “fire is not God.”  Both Thomas and Scotus reject the assertion that the idolater and the Christian are using the term “God” equivocally.  For Scotus, as we saw in a previous post, in order for a genuine contradiction of the same subject to stand, the meaning of the predicate must be univocal.  Thomas, however, does not think that this conclusion follows. Rather than situate himself within an either/or framework-either equivocity or univocity-Thomas believes there is a third option, viz., analogy, and moreover, that a genuine contradiction can occur when a predicate term is stated analogously of the same subject.  Because Thomas accepts the legitimacy of analogical predication as described in the contexts above, he can claim that in some sense the idolater who claims that fire is God is predicating something truly about fire, viz., that it manifests some analogous sense of divinity or sharing in divinity.  Highlighting the contrast between Scotus and Thomas on this particular point by way of how each would answer the following question, Turner states,

if the idolater is in some way ‘wrong’ about God, in what way is he wrong?  For Scotus, the idolater is ‘wrong’ because, knowing what the word God means, he misattributes it to something which could not in any way be God in the true sense; for there is no sense at all in which something other than God can be said to be ‘divine’.  For Scotus, then, the idolater is wrong in the way the atheist is wrong, in that what he says is simply false.  For Thomas, however, there is a genuine, if only derived and secondary, sense in which what the idolater calls ‘God’ is truly divine.  Therefore, Thomas says, as between what the idolater and the true believe affirm there is neither equivocity, nor univocity, but some analogy (p. 135).

Although he gives a more detailed discussion of St. Thomas’s doctrine of analogy in alter chapter entitled “Analogy and Inference,” here Turner notes in passing Thomas’s broad account of the doctrine as found in Summa Theologiae (1a q13 a10 corp.).  According to Thomas, a word is predicated analogically when “its meaning in one sense is explained by reference to its meaning in another sense.”  Thus, healthy is predicated of diet in a derivative way and in reference to healthy as predicated of the body, which is said in a primary way, as a healthy diet is the cause of the health of the body.  Stated slightly differently, health properly “resides in” a body and not in a diet, nonetheless, both senses of health are analogically related, as the derivative sense is explained by reference to its primary sense.  When applied to the case of the idolater and the atheist, both of whom are mistaken about God, the kinds of mistakes themselves differ so to speak in kind.  The atheist understands precisely what the Christian means when she asserts that God exists and claims just the opposite, viz., God in fact does not exist.  The idolater, however, who holds fire to be God believes that fire in some sense shares in or manifests divinity and thus assumes that the participation or semblance of divinity to be God himself.  As Turner points out, “this mistake is like supposing that a diet is healthy in the same way in which a body is healthy-which, of course, it is not, for you cannot take a diet’s blood pressure” (p. 136).  Hence, the idolater’s error is a failure to properly state how the fire is divine, viz., “by analogical extension from the true God” (p. 136). 


[1] Cf. Cross, Duns Scotus, pp. 34-5.  Turner, however, disagrees (cf. pp. 137-39 of the book under discussion). [2] Cf. Ordinatio 1 d3 q1, arg. Iv. 

Part I: Denys Turner on Scotus: Univocity and Inference

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

January 9, 2008

In chapter seven of his book Faith, Reason and the Existence of God, Turner begins by giving of brief summary of Radical Orthodoxy’s critique of Scotus.  According to Radical Orthodoxy, Scotus’ onto-theological downfall involves the following:  (1) Scotus believes that it is possible to demonstrate God’s existence by natural reason apart from appeal to the premises of divine revelation.  Hence, for Scotus, natural theology is possible, and he readily engages in it.  (2)  God’s existence can be demonstrated only if existence is predicable univocally of God and creatures.  (3)  In order for being to be predicable of God and creatures then we must “have available to us some concept of ‘existence’ which is neutral as between any difference there can be between the Creator and the created-the difference, namely, between ‘infinite’ and ‘finite’ being” (p. 125).  This third proposition in particular is claimed by the proponents of Radical Orthodoxy to make Scotus guilty of onto-theology.  (4) “[I]f there are any predicates predicable univocally of God and creatures, a fortiori those same predicates must be predicable univocally, that is to say neutrally, also as between any and all differences of creatures one from another” (pp. 125-126).    

Though Turner is clearly not an advocate of Radical Orthodoxy and finds a number of flaws in their claims, he does in agreement with Radical Orthodoxy hold that Scotus’s insistence that existence must be predicated univocally between God and creatures (and not analogically as St. Thomas claims) is problematic. However, Turner’s reason for this particular criticism of Scotus is quite out of step with Radical Orthodoxy’s sensibilities, viz., Turner wants to show that the existence of God can in fact be demonstrated without the necessity of a univocal concept of being between God and creatures.  Hence, for Turner, Scotus and St. Thomas (at least according to Turner’s read), natural theology is a valid enterprise. 

Quoting from the Ordinatio (1 d3, q1-2), Turner highlights two ways in which Scotus attempts to define univocity.  The first definition is summarized by Turner as follows: “‘p’ is univocally predicated so long as ‘p’ and ‘~p’ are contradictories” (p. 127).  The second definition states that in order for a deductive inference to be valid, the middle term must have the same meaning when related to the major and minor premises.  Although Scotus’s definitions seem fairly straightforward, Turner argues that Scotus’ second definition is

but a condition of deductively inferential validity which depends upon, and is not itself a definition of, the univocal predication of terms.  For of course we cannot know that a deductive inference is valid unless we know that the middle term is predicated univocally in both antecedents; hence we cannot know that the middle term is univocally predicated from the fact that the inference is valid.  To say, as Scotus does, that ‘univocity’ of meaning is that possessed by such middle terms as are required for deductive validity is to beg the question:  the determination of validity presupposes criteria for the determination of univocity, not the other way around (pp. 127-128). 

If Scotus’s second definition is amiss, then how do things stand for his first definition, viz., that a term is univocal if a contradiction results when we affirm and negate it of the same subject (e.g.,  Igor is wise, and Igor is not wise)? According to Turner, who here appeals to Richard Cross to support his claim, this definition of univocity does not state both necessary and sufficient conditions of univocity and thus is deficient as a definition.[1]Scotus gives us only necessary conditions, and, as Turner will attempt to argue in a subsequent chapter, viz., chapter ten, “there are terms, predicated of the same subject, the affirmation and denial of which are genuine contradictories, even though the affirmation and denial are related only analogically” (p. 128). 


[1] Cf. Cross, Duns Scotus, Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 37. 

Part I: Denys Turner on Uttering Performances and the Theological Rhetoric of Meister Eckhart

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

January 5, 2008

Meister Eckhart 

In chapter 5, “Reason and Rhetoric,” of his book, Faith, Reason and the Existence of God, Turner engages in a fascinating discussion of Meister Eckhart’s theological rhetoric.  By the terms “rhetoric” and “rhetorical,” Turner has in mind, not some sophistic mode of communication, nor a derogatory label, but rather all the ways in which human speech-acts communicate qua performed in distinction from what is communicated merely by the words themselves regardless of how they are performed/uttered.  Summarizing his previous, more detailed discussion of “uttering performances,”[1] Turner writes, “[a]ctions ‘speak’, as gestures do.  Verbal utterances are actions too, and so ‘utter’ as all actions speak, and not just as words uttered.  Therefore, within verbal utterances we may distinguish between what is said in saying the words, and the meaning which the action of saying them bears” (p. 98).   To illustrate, Turner gives the example of Judas’ kiss-a kiss, which communicates irony because in the action of greeting Jesus with a kiss, Judas’ is actually betraying Jesus.  We are able to grasp two meanings in the one act of kissing because we perceive a distinction to be made between what is said by the action or utterance, and what is communicated in its being acted out or uttered.  This distinction is also seen in our willfully refraining from acting or uttering.  For example, consider what is communicated by silence when one spouse decides to engage the other in what is commonly called silent treatment.   As Turner explains, “these two ways in which a communicative act can ‘mean’ may stand in many different kinds of relationship with one another” (p. 98).  In the case of Judas, we have a relationship of contradictory meanings.  However, a complementary relationship may also exist, as in the case of a kiss between a bride and groom. 

With these material and formal distinctions of communicative meanings in mind, Turner embarks on his discussion of the differences in rhetorical “feel” between Eckhart and St. Thomas.  Though both men were Dominicans, educated in the same priory and perhaps both studied under Albert the Great, the Eckhart and Aquinas manifest stark, and one could even say, polar opposite rhetorical strategies.  According to Turner, these strategies are not simply due to differences in temperament and use of stylistic imagery, but instead flow from a more fundamental difference of “theological strategy.”[2]  

Oliver Davies, who is well-known for his work on Meister Eckhart, describes Eckhart’s theology as a kind of “poetic metaphysics,” in which there is a “foregrounding of the language itself, of the signifier.”[3]  To this description, Turner adds that Eckhart’s poetic theological discourse is itself rhetorically performative or exhibits, as it were, “a quasi-sacramental character” (p. 100).  That is, Eckhart’s language not only says something, but “it is intended to do something by means of saying,” which is, as Turner mentions in an earlier chapter, according to the classical medieval account, the nature of a sacrament-”a sacred sign which effects what it signifies” (p. 100).  With regard to Eckhart, it is commonly claimed that his abundant use of negative imagery and language is indicative to his strand of apophaticism. Turner, however, regards this surfeit of negative imagery as merely incidental because it doesn’t get to the heart of what apophaticism truly is.  Negative metaphors, after all, are still metaphors and hence still language;  “and if the ‘apophatic’ is to be understood as that which surpasses all language, then, as the pseudo-Denys says, it lies beyond both ‘affirmation’ and ‘denial’” (p. 101). In other words, the apophatic is not a particular kind of language, but is the failure of language.  Hence, the extreme negativity that marks Eckhart’s theological discourse

is not just something said by means of emphatically negative vocabularies, for it consists in his sense of the failure of all language as such, even of negative language.  Nonetheless, Eckhart the preacher wants theological language in some way to participate, as one might put it, in the event of its own failure.  Negativity, therefore, is not just a stylistic or decoratively metaphoric emphasis of Eckhart’s theology; it is a living, organizing, feature of the language itself and is intrinsic to its compositional style as theological writing (p. 101).

In one sense then, it is a language, but this language simultaneously says and unsays.  As Turner so aptly put it, Eckhart,

‘foregrounds’ the signifier only immediately to disrupt its signification, block it, divert it, postpone it.  Thereby the language performs rhetorically what it says technically:  the performance utters what the utterance performs.  And this rhetorical device, as it were of forcing the sensuous, material sign the character of its own self-subversion as signifier, is what accounts for that most characteristic feature of Eckhart’s language:  its rhetorical self-consciousness, its strained and strenuous, hyperactively paradoxical extravagance-its apophasis by excess.  The language, naturally, bursts at the seams under the pressure of the excessive forces it is being made to contain, the language as body bursts open under the pressure of it overloaded weight of significance
(p. 102). 


[1] Cf. chapter 3, pp. 68ff. 

[2] Turner notes that from the late thirteenth century onward, we find sharp turn towards “a more conscious cultivation of a distinctive theological rhetoric,” and that it is possible that these new rhetorical techniques in theology were connected with “the emergence of vernacularity as a major theological medium” (p. 99, 100).

 [3] Meister Eckhart:  Mystical Theologian, London:  SPCK, 1991, p. 180, as quoted in Turner, p. 100.