Duns Scotus, John (c.1266–1308)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-B035-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

5. Univocity of the transcendental concepts

One of Scotus’ most striking metaphysical positions was that being and the other transcendentals could be conceived as univocally common to God and creatures, substance and accident. In this, he broke with the unanimous view of the thirteenth century that being could not be predicated univocally of substance and accident, much less of God and creatures. The common scholastic opinion, based directly on Aristotle, was that being was predicated of God and creatures neither univocally nor equivocally but according to analogy (see Being). Univocal predication was taken to violate God’s transcendence over creatures and equivocity to render natural knowledge of God impossible. Rather, being was said to be predicated according to analogy, which meant that it was asserted of God in a primary sense and of creatures in a related but derived sense. Analogy was therefore construed as a middle way between the extremes of univocity and equivocity, balancing the competing demands of God’s transcendence and knowability.

In general, Scotus’ position was that some univocal concept of being common to God and creatures was presumed by the traditional conviction that knowledge of the divine nature or attributes was naturally attainable. Scotus singled out Henry of Ghent for sustained attack on this score as part of a comprehensive and critical appraisal of his entire theory of knowledge, which was in general Augustinian (see Augustinianism). In his treatment of analogy, Henry was much more emphatic and explicit than previous discussions had been in claiming that being, when conceived in its utmost generality, did not form a single, common notion (ratio), but only two exclusive and proper concepts, one applicable only to God and the other only to creatures. He repeatedly stressed that there could be no separate notion of being distinct from those proper to either God or creature, so that being could be conceived only as either finite or infinite, created or uncreated. To admit an absolute concept of being apart from these two would simply be an admission of one common to both. Scotus argued from several angles that Henry could not consistently maintain that being resolved only into two proper notions, having no conceptual element in common, and at the same time uphold the possibility of natural knowledge of God.

Of Scotus’ several arguments for univocity – at one point he outlines ten – the one labelled ‘from certain and doubtful concepts’ was regarded by his contemporaries as the most compelling. This argument was aimed squarely at Henry’s repeated insistence that there could be no concept of being apart from the analogous and proper notions of infinite and finite being applicable exclusively to God and creature (see Henry of Ghent). An intellect certain about one concept but doubtful about others, has a concept about which it is certain that is different from the concepts about which it is doubtful. We can be certain that God is a being, while doubting whether God is infinite or finite being. Therefore, the concept of being is different from, and hence univocal to, the concepts of infinite or finite being. Scotus takes the first premise to be evident, for a given intellect cannot be both certain and doubtful of the same concept. The second premise is true de facto because past thinkers, such as the Presocratics, disagreed as to whether the first principle was finite or infinite. Yet, in attempting to establish one of these alternatives, no philosopher ever doubted that the first principle was a being. Being must therefore have a separate, distinct concept.

Put more generally, Scotus’ point is that prior to demonstration, the intellect is doubtful whether God is an infinite or finite being. Yet, such a demonstration must be based upon something certain about God, for otherwise it would proceed from premises doubtful in all respects. Thus, unless the concept of being is admitted as certain, apart from the doubtful concepts of infinite and finite which are themselves the object of demonstration, no certain reasoning about God will be possible. Henry’s refusal to admit a concept of being distinct from any proper to God therefore entails that the intellect is either certain and doubtful of the same notion or certain of none at all.

In a similar line of attack, Scotus is more explicit still that Henry’s denial of a univocal concept of being renders natural knowledge of God impossible. A creature causes a concept that is either common to it and God or proper to God alone. Since Henry denies the former, he must hold the latter to explain the natural origin of our concepts of God. Scotus, however, argues that it is impossible for a creature to cause directly any concept wholly proper to God. In general, an object can only produce a concept of what it contains either as an essential part or an essential property, as is evident from the traditional division of essential predicates. Obviously, the creature can contain nothing proper to God as either a part or property of its essence without violating divine transcendence. Thus, if a creature can directly produce any concept applicable to God at all, it must be one that is common rather than proper.

Finally, Scotus applies these same criticisms to the very foundations of all scholastic accounts for natural knowledge of God, the Anselmian doctrine of pure perfections and the Pseudo-Dionysian procedure of removal and eminence. According to Scotus, both of these presuppose univocity, so that ‘All the masters and theologians seem to use a concept common to God and creature, although they deny this verbally when they apply it’ (Lectura 1 d.3 n.29). Anselm’s doctrine holds that we attribute to God those perfections found in creatures which are pure in the sense that, conceived in themselves, they entail no imperfection, such as will, intellect or wisdom. These perfections are defined by Anselm generally as ‘what absolutely is better to be than not’ (see Anselm of Canterbury). But by this definition, something is first determined to constitute a pure perfection and then on that basis attributed to God, not the reverse. Pure perfections abstracted from creatures must therefore have some meaning that is prior to any they have as proper to God alone. Scotus makes the same point regarding the Pseudo-Dionysian methods of removal and eminence (see Pseudo-Dionysius). According to Scotus, all metaphysical inquiry about God proceeds by taking some formal notion (ratio formalis) and removing from it all imperfections with which it is found in a creature. For example, we take the formal notion of the will – the power for opposites – and remove any limitations connected with its existence in a creature, such as variability. We then attribute it to God by conceiving of it not just as lacking imperfection, but as possessing the greatest degree of perfection, such that it is omnipotent. This process presumes that the formal notion of the will stripped of creaturely limitations is the same notion of will assigned the highest degree of perfection; otherwise the first step of the procedure would simply have no relevance to the second. If nothing of the notion abstracted from creatures remains when we attribute it to God, then perfections in creatures have nothing to say about the perfection of God.

The outcome of the above arguments is Scotus’ revision of the structure of the concept of transcendental being. In place of Henry’s scheme, where being taken in its ultimate generality resolves into a pair of simple notions proper to God and proper to creatures, Scotus admits a single, simple concept which is common to both. As a result, the analogous concepts of being proper to God and proper to creatures, which for Henry were simple and irreducible, became for Scotus composite, comprising the common notion of being and the determining concepts of infinite and finite.

It is important to stress that in these arguments Scotus does not entirely set aside the received doctrine of analogy. He of course admitted that the concepts of being proper to God and proper to creature were analogous. His fundamental point is rather that unless there is some underlying concept of being common to these analogous ones, then they will in fact turn out not to be analogous at all but purely equivocal, thus rendering natural knowledge of God impossible. What Scotus did set aside was reliance on the analogous relationship itself as sufficient to account for any proper concept of God. Since knowledge of a relation is posterior, not prior, to any knowledge of the terms related, analogy does not explain but presupposes a knowledge of being as proper to God. Accordingly, some univocal, conceptual community between God and creatures is demanded by the traditional project of natural knowledge of the divine nature or attributes.

Citing this article:
Dumont, Stephen D.. Univocity of the transcendental concepts. Duns Scotus, John (c.1266–1308), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-B035-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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