Friday, April 20, 2012

John Duns Scotus and the Crisis of the West, Part 2

MacIntyre's Critique of Scotus

As we have seen, numerous thinkers, included Benedict XVI, have seen in John Duns Scotus' thought a turning point for Western Christianity. While we lament the failure of most modern thinkers (Josef Pieper is a remarkable exception) to connect all the dots that lead from archaic ontology through Plato to the present, the recognition of Scotus' significance for Western thought is a welcome development. We, of course, believe it is essential to see Scotus and other similar figures as parts of a continuum—in line with Whitehead's insight that Western thought is largely a series of footnotes to Plato. In this second look at Scotus' thought and its influence on subsequent Western thought we will begin by considering Alasdair MacIntyre's fine critique of Scotus in his important work, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition. MacIntyre's discussion of Scotus can be found on pages 152-156. Importantly for our purposes, MacIntyre (like Pieper before him) discusses the importance of Scotus' influence with regard to the relationship of “philosophy” and “theology” or “religion.”

Since Scotus' thought is best viewed as an Augustinian reaction to that of Thomas Aquinas, MacIntyre begins (151) by situating Aquinas with regard to the dominant Augustinian tradition--of which Scotus was a principal champion. MacIntyre first notes that Aquinas was “eccentric to … the dominant and orthodox mainstream.” For MacIntyre, what is remarkable in that regard is not the rejection of Aquinas by that mainstream, nor the Condemnation of 1277 itself (which was the reaction of the mainstream to a complex of "Aristotelian" ideas, including some purporting to be be those of Aquinas), but rather “the way in which Aquinas was nonetheless repeatedly revived and invoked after that initial rehabilitation which led to his canonization [in 1323].”

Now, MacIntyre is making a number of important points. In the first place, it is significant that Aquinas' opponents were in the theological tradition. What this means is that Aquinas was not opposed by official Church teaching but by Augustinian theologians who formed the dominant theological tradition, which in the past two hundred years had taken on a progressively more institutionalized and academic complexion. Further, MacIntyre points out that the element within the institutionalized tradition that “defeated” Aquinas was the “curriculum.” The curriculum sanctioned by tradition, says MacIntyre, could find no room for Aristotelian thought as a systematic whole. Instead, given elements of Aristotelian thought were accepted or reacted against on an ad hoc basis, and led to ad hoc revisions in the tradition. And the reason why the tradition was unable to incorporate Aristotelian thought as a whole within the curriculum was because to do so would have involved a thoroughgoing examination of what their own mode of enquiry was about.

MacIntyre illustrates this mindset by considering Scotus' reaction against Aquinas on the issue of whether, through natural reason, man can know anything at all about an end/telos of human nature in an “afterlife.” What interests MacIntyre in this is that Scotus maintains the negative: knowledge of an end of man beyond this life, he claims, can only be known by faith, not by reason. Now, all Augustinians held to the Christian belief in an afterlife, but Scotus here is siding with the Averroists (Aristotelians) that such knowledge is had only by faith and opposing Aquinas' contention that natural reason can give us access to such knowledge. Why would Scotus the Augustinian oppose Aquinas on an issue that appears to strengthen the faith, while siding with the Averroists who were the bane of Augustinian tradition?

The reason is because Scotus was driven by strictly theological concerns as framed by his tradition, and by the Platonic vision of human nature that had been incorporated into that tradition. The Platonic vision of man was that a human being is essentially a soul that uses a body but which is distinct from the body to the point of being an independent being. It is that view that Scotus is primarily concerned to defend, and so he opposes Aquinas' view that we can by reason arrive at knowledge of an afterlife because Aquinas' view is based on his understanding that man is a substantial unity of body and soul, rather than being a soul that merely uses a body. Why should this be so? The reason lies in the fact that the Platonic elements that had been incorporated into the Augustinian tradition had attained the status (for purposes of that tradition) of dogma yet, as David Knowles and Gilson have pointed out, by the time of Scotus Augustinian theologians had been forced to recognize that the complex of Platonic inspired doctrine regarding the soul was “hard to defend philosophically” (Knowles, Evolution of Medieval Thought, 276). And, since the Platonic view of man is that man was essentially a soul, that meant that Augustinian doctrine on the very nature of man was also “hard to defend philosophically.” Scotus' response, in the circumstances, amounted to saying: if our position cannot be defended by use of reason, then no use of reason regarding these issues can be allowed.

Regarding Scotus' tactics, MacIntyre points out that Scotus' use of the distinction between faith and reason allows him to evade “coming to terms with Aquinas' much deeper and more sophisticated Aristotelian understanding of the relationship of body and soul.” But the use of such tactics also means that the true area of disagreement will not be immediately apparent, since no full and open contrast of views will occur. Again the question: Why? We note that for Augustinian tradition, not the Church, these Platonic elements had become virtual principles/dogmas of theology—the notion of human enquiry, in which Aquinas was engaged, was lost to the tradition and had been replaced by the rational manipulation of dogmas which were, as historical research has shown, of dubiously Christian provenance. True enquiry into the meaning of existence had been replaced by academicism and traditionalist orthodoxy.

Thus, the Augustinian hostility toward Aquinas was motivated in large measure by hostility to reasoned enquiry as such. This approach had progressed to such a point that MacIntyre says that “The relationship of soul to body, indeed the existence of body, had been something of an embarrassment to later Augustinians ...” (153) Which is to say that Augustinians felt constrained to defend positions that they knew could not be rationally justified and to attack anyone who offered alternative explanations—or to attempt to shut down all enquiry.

Again we stress that Aquinas' alternative approach was not an embarrassment to the Church itself—as witness Aquinas' thorough “rehabilitation” and canonization (1323). However, as a measure of the Augustinian hostility to Aquinas, MacIntyre tells the amusing yet tragic story of how as early as 1282, less than ten years after Aquinas' death in 1274, the Franciscan order prohibited the copying of Aquinas' Summa Theologiae unless it was accompanied by a “correction” of Aquinas' “errors” that had been penned by the Franciscan Walter de la Mare in 1279 (Dominican wags referred to the "correction" as a "corruption"). Again please note: this was an initiative of the Franciscan order, which had become a sort of de facto defender of the Augustinian tradition. It was not an initiative of the Church, nor did it reflect Church teaching vis a vis Aquinas' positions. As MacIntyre explains, Scotus had, in effect, “adopted epistemological positions which protect Augustinianism from any systematic interprenetration of theology and Aristotelian philosophy. And this is his consistent attitude, evident also in his Augustinian account of the primacy assigned to the will over the intelligence.” (154)

This, of course, is the area we have just explored (John Duns Scotus and the Western Crisis). MacIntyre is quick to point out that Scotus' traditionally motivated rejection of Aquinas deprived himself of any viable alternative to the voluntarism he ended up embracing--which had more in common with orthodox Islamic thought than with Christianity. And this, as MacIntyre states, “had a consequence of the first importance for future history”--as Benedict XVI has also pointed out.

 MacIntyre also maintains that Scotus' approach had a further serious impact on reasoned enquiry in any Christian setting:
Paradoxically Scotus, whose philosophical enquiries were at every point controlled by his theological conclusions and whose primary interest was in protecting the autonomy of Augustinian theology from the inroads of either Averroist [i.e., Muslim] or Thomistic Aristotelianism, set the scene instead for the emergence of philosophy as an autonomous discipline or set of disciplines, with its own defining problematic. Much else of course had to happen later, both intellectually and in the curriculum. Nonetheless, viewed from a Thomistic perspective, it is at this point that philosophy is redefined as an autonomous academic discipline, whose boundaries are institutional boundaries, and ceases to be itself a tradition of enquiry. (TRVME, 155-156)
Note that MacIntyre states that Scotus “set the scene” for this development. We will later have occasion to discuss Pieper's similar observation re Occam. At this point we will simply point out that Pieper first observes that, although Occam “declared his opposition to Duns Scotus,” he (Occam)
nevertheless led the way along the very same path upon which Duns Scotus had first set foot. William of Ockham's doctrine, too, can be regarded as a reaction, pushed further and further, to the Averroism” of the theses condemned in 1277. Above all, he too laid stress on the principle of absolute divine freedom, which was to be understood primarily as unlimited freedom, which was to be understood primarily as unlimited freedom in the exercise of power. (S, 147)
Pieper then offers substantially the same historical perspective as MacIntyre, but emphasizes that while Scotus was the first to set foot on this path, Occam marks a clear break with the past:
Let us consider the second feature of medieval scholasticism—its setting within the area of the Church. That, above all, seems clearly over and done with. And in fact it was a symbolic event when William of Ockham fled from the Minorite cloister to the German imperial court. For he was traversing the same path, but in a reverse direction, as was traversed at the beginning of the epoch by Cassiodorus when he abandoned his political office at the court of the Gothic king and retired to the cloister. From William of Ockham's time on, philosophy once more took up its residence in the larger “breathing space” of the “world.” Today we can scarcely imagine any other state of affairs. (S, 155)
Nevertheless, the larger point is that Scotus and Ockham--like Bonaventure before them--were part of a continuum of thought that stretched back to Augustine. The continuum corresponds to the "vein of Augustinianism" that Pieper noted, and which, as we pointed out, "is, in fact, the Platonic spirit that Pieper (Scholasticism, 76) noted, stretching from Augustine to Anselm, through Alexander of Hales, Bonaventura, Albertus Magnus and Duns Scotus to Descartes and Leibniz. And Kant and his progeny as well, we should add."

The Wider Historical Perspective

It is very much worth considering MacIntyre's and Pieper's perspectives. We have spent a considerable amount of time examining the relation of the phenomena commonly referred to as “religion” and “philosophy.” Both clearly arose from man's search for meaning, which found expression originally—and universally for mankind—in the “archaic ontology” of heavenly archetypes described by Mircea Eliade. Different cultures experienced different degrees of development from that original expression of meaning.  In most of the more advanced cultures those developments included attempts to find alternative means of expression which utilized discursive reason rather than metaphor or myth. For example, in many cultures concepts abstracted from mythic forms of expression were used as the basis for further speculation on the nature and meaning of reality--Dawson and others have described this in both the Chinese and Indian civilizations. Another typical phenomenon was the development of a sense of estrangement from or even hostility towards mythic forms of expression, as elite social elements lost contact with the experiences that gave rise to myth, and of the proper uses of and limitations of myth as a form for expressing meaning. This reaction against myth often occurred as the result of a self conscious development of rules for manipulating concepts and argumentation: logic and dialectic. This type of reaction was clearly present in Greek civilization, beginning with the earliest Milesian thinkers. It became even more important as it became apparent to deeper thinkers and social critics that the  myths of the Olympian gods—even those in the culturally revered Homeric poems—had lost contact with the formative experiences and taken on a largely literary life of their own.  Such was the importance of the search for meaning that even such iconic works of Greek civilization came under attack from reformers who sought more appropriate and less anthropomorphic ways to express the meaning of existence.

This rationalistic critique did not result in a complete break between Greek religion and philosophy, despite the symbolism of the death of Socrates. In fact, as Eliade stressed, Greek philosophy (and especially Platonic thought) in fact represents a rational expression and attempt at systematization of the archaic ontology. What we do find, however, and what can give the impression of a more complete dichotomy than is warranted, is an increasingly abstract level of discussion and a structuring and separation of different lines of enquiry: logic, physics, metaphysics, ethics, politics, etc. Nevertheless, all these fields of Greek “philosophy” can be shown to have close ties to Greek religious thought and to have a “religious” motivation. At the same time, the rationalist critique of the forms of expression of archaic ontology unquestionably point toward a drive to break free of the constraints of archaic ontology as embedded in myth--no matter how ultimately ineffective those attempts turned out to be.

At first glance the case of Israel presents a stark contrast to the Greek case for, as presented in the Israelite scriptures, the prophets of Israel subjected the “religions” of surrounding cultures to a type of deconstructive critique which derided the use of myth and the ineffectiveness of "idol worship." In fact, however, as we have seen, this critique arose from a rejection of Israel's own archaic religious past, which embodied a typically West Semitic form of thought (this critique thus also involved a systematic misrepresentation of the true nature of Israelite religion). Nevertheless, this process of reinventing the religion of Israel involved a highly rational critique of “pagan” religion and its forms of expression as well as, ultimately, the development of the distinctive Israelite notion of God as universal creator. However, and this is an important distinction from the Greek experience, this rational critique took place within Israel's religious elite rather than among a skeptical and alienated intellectual elite as in Greece, and thus it never resulted in a true dichotomy between “religion” and “philosophy” (we do not here consider the skeptical elements in wisdom literature). The later influence of “philosophy” within Israelite/Judaic culture derived from the influence and prestige of Greek Hellenistic culture and the acceptance of Greek (especially Platonic) modes of thinking.

Early Christianity, building upon its origins in late Israelite thought, saw itself as a superior alternative to Greek philosophy. In this sense, Christianity reintegrated philosophy with religion in ways that went beyond Jewish reactions to Hellenistic culture, and that for two reasons. In the first place, because Christianity built upon the Israelite insight into the createdness of all reality—an insight that surpassed in explanatory power those of archaic ontology, including the Greek thought that developed from the archaic ontology—it had an essential tendency toward reasoned enquiry. This can be seen as early as Paul's address at the Areopagus and in his letter to the Romans. To this extent, the early Christians remained within the Jewish tradition. However, there were further developments that became important for Christian self understanding and for Christian anthropology. Because the identity of the Father God as creator was central to Christian belief, faith in the historical Jesus—only Son of that Father—encouraged and even in a sense demanded reasoned enquiry into both Christian faith as well as the nature of reality itself. In this sense, Christian faith broke free from the archaic elements that were still embedded in Jewish religion. In the second place, God's self revelation in Jesus expanded upon Jewish insights by offering a heightened view of God as personal and as the universal creator who had entered history in a unique way. This self defining universalism allowed and even encouraged Christianity to subsume all that was of value in human enquiry within its own overarching insight—in this way Jesus truly drew all to himself. (We have examined these developments in four earlier essays: The Identity of God: Creator, Creation Ex Nihilo In Early Christian Thought, The Identity of God: Trinity, and Trinity and Revelation.) As a result, such was the confidence that Christians felt in the confluence of their faith with reason that they even referred to their faith as nostra philosophia--”our philosophy.” Importantly, these developments also, and uniquely, placed Christian thinkers in a position to develop a universal theory of man in history that could do justice both to archaic ontology as well as to reasoned enquiry (cf. especially Chesterton's Thomist View of Myth).

Unfortunately, these developments of Christian faith suffered crucial setbacks as a theological tradition developed—not because of theoretical difficulties per se but rather from cultural and sociological developments within the Christian community. As the early Church grew, the influx of Hellenistic intellectuals into the Church increased apace, and among those intellectuals were many with a background in Greek “philosophy.” Many of these converts saw Platonic (and especially Neoplatonic) thought—which had a distinctly “religious” cast, due to its origins in archaic ontology—as congenial to their new faith. We can focus on three areas in which non-Christian inspired influences, both Greek and Jewish, had a crucial effect on Christian thought, and which tended to reinstate a divide between “theology” and “philosophy.”

The first was the influence of the Platonic vision of man. For Platonism, man is essentially a soul using a body. The earliest Christian thinkers had recognized that this doctrine was ultimately incompatible with Christianity, which—based both on earlier Jewish thought as well as on the Christian faith in resurrection—held that man is a substantial unity of soul and body: the body is as essential to man as the soul. Unfortunately, later Christian thinkers, attracted by the “spiritual” tone of Platonic and Neoplatonic teaching, tended to accept this Platonic view somewhat uncritically. True, they usually (but not, at first, always) rejected pagan elements such as the notion of the soul preexisting the body, but there were other important consequences to the Platonic view, the chief of which figured prominently in the Augustinian tradition, as we have seen: by separating soul from body, Platonism develops an inherent tendency toward skepticism, which is inimical to the history based Christian faith. The fact that these Platonic elements were accepted more in the nature of dogmas rather than as conclusions of reasoned enquiry, coupled with the strong Platonic bias toward skepticism, produced a strong tendency to establish an artificial barrier between “faith” (often understood, at least implicitly, in the non-Christian sense of “subjective certitude”) and reason when, as inevitably happened, these dogmas came under critical attack. While such Platonic notions did not directly affect official Church doctrine, they had over the centuries become common theological currency and were largely unquestioned for many centuries, thanks to the prestige of Augustine, who was the primary mediator of Platonism to the West (cf. Augustine and the West). As we have noted repeatedly--especially in discussing Scotus--these Platonic influences strike directly at the heart of the Christian understanding of human nature, undercutting many fundamental areas of Christian teaching, including the natural law morality that has been part of Christian teaching since the very beginning.

The second area of influence involved Jewish as well as Greek elements. It was perhaps natural that the many Jewish converts to Christian faith should desire that their faith should have the prestige of sacred writings, of “scripture.” We will not here go into the development of the notion of “scripture as revelation” in Israelite thought—it was a somewhat late development within Israel and was not complete yet by the time of Jesus—but it bears repeating that Jesus himself appears to have had a distinctly “modern” view: he understood that he himself was the revelation of the Father; that revelation was not simply a matter of a collection of books (cf. Jesus and the Israelite Scriptures). Now, it's important to recall that Jewish thought during the centuries immediately before and after Jesus was often influenced by Greek Hellenistic thought, usually of a generally Platonic bent (Philo of Alexandria is the preeminent example). Therefore, it is not simply a question of Christians adopting a “Jewish” model of revelation. The attraction to allegorical interpretations of “scripture,” for example, extremely important in its consequences, unquestionably contained Greek and even Gnostic elements. For our purposes, what is especially important is the non-Christian tendency of this view of revelation as literary rather than personal and historical: its clear tendency is to downplay the historical nature of Christian faith and its basis in human experience that is subject to the control of reason. The fondness for and constant resort to allegory and typology—under the heading of “spiritual” interpretation--greatly increases the potential for subjectivity in the interpretation of Christian faith, once again raising a barrier between faith and reason. We, of course, note that the Church has always attempted to control such excesses, but these tendencies have for many centuries been common currency both in academic theology as well as in lay piety.

The final “area” is more in the nature of a specific example or application of influences on Christian theology that ultimately derive from archaic ontology. The doctrine of Original Sin, with its many difficulties for Christian faith (cf. Paul and the Yetzer Ha-Ra, Early Christian Thought on Original Sin and Original Sin: The Later Fathers), is the prime example of the deleterious effects of these types of influences. A review of this doctrine as developed by the later Fathers reveals its origin in mythic thought typical of archaic man and later gnostic deformations of myth. Once again, the important point for our purposes is the way in which a doctrine of this type—accepted as dogma but based on non-Christian foundations and even outright mistranslations of Scripture—strikes at the heart of the Christian understanding of human nature and erects an artificial barrier between “faith” and reason. And, given that Christian faith is faith in God's self revelation in history, in Jesus of Nazareth, any involvement of a non-historical type of thought in place of a reasoned understanding of human nature is certain to have disastrous effects. Included among those effects is the strong tendency to return Christian “faith” to the realm of myth and archaic ontology, denigrating if not destroying its essential basis in history and reasoned experience—and especially in the person of Jesus. We saw how this tendency gained significant influence in the “Platonism of the Fathers” (Gilson's phrase) and, especially in the doctrine of Original Sin, has beset the Church with insoluble theological and philosophical disputes and difficulties for 1600 years. Such a withdrawal from the true Christian life of faith is a problem that the Church has struggled with for two millennia, and is best understood as representative of a temptation rooted in human nature, a continuing temptation that can be managed but not eliminated. The indispensable means for managing such a temptation is a theory of history and human nature that allows also for an understanding of revelation in that context. Fortunately, there are signs that the more and more Christians are coming to appreciate the resources that scholarship has placed at their disposal for managing such problems.


  1. "Since Scotus' thought is best viewed as an Augustinian reaction to that of Thomas Aquinas"

    Oh dear, O dear! “Connecting the dots” does appear to be what's going on with Alasdair MacIntyre and this anti-Scotus set. Scotus's works are available in translation for people like MacIntyre to read, yet all their references are to secondary sources (and often, as here, to secondary sources from those who haven't bothered to read Scotus either). There is simply no excuse for this lack of rigour in scholarship. Just “reckoning” something about Scotus, and then citing others who also reckon something similar, but without anyone going to the actual texts to demonstrate their highly controversial views, really ought not to be allowed to pass without comment. When Bertrand Russell did this with Aquinas the Thomists were rightly vexed, and yet they do precisely this with Scotus. Seriously, read Scotus’s works and show us the texts!

  2. Perhaps I failed to do justice to MacIntyre's full perspective in the sentence that you seized upon. His actual words--which I quote a bit further down--do provide that perspective, and I do address that fuller context at some length:

    "Paradoxically Scotus, whose philosophical enquiries were at every point controlled by his theological conclusions and whose primary interest was in protecting the autonomy of Augustinian theology from the inroads of either Averroist [i.e., Muslim] or Thomistic Aristotelianism, set the scene instead for the emergence of philosophy as an autonomous discipline or set of disciplines, with its own defining problematic. Much else of course had to happen later, both intellectually and in the curriculum. Nonetheless, viewed from a Thomistic perspective, it is at this point that philosophy is redefined as an autonomous academic discipline, whose boundaries are institutional boundaries, and ceases to be itself a tradition of enquiry. (TRVME, 155-156)"

    If it makes any difference to you, MacIntyre is very far from failing to recognize Scotus' creativity in reworking the Augustinian tradition with regard to the new philosophical realities following 1277.