Monday, September 6, 2010

Do Aquinas and Scotus disagree on univocal predication of God?

Duns Scotus defines univocal predication as follows: P is univocal provided that Px&~Px is always a contradiction, and hence P can be used in multiple lines of a syllogism. Famously, Aquinas says that no positive term can be univocally predicated of a creature and of God, while Scotus says that some can be univocally predicated, for instance "being". I suggest, however, that the disagreement could be merely verbal, due to the two philosophers using the word "univocal" differently.

For here is a way of developing Aquinas' position. When I attribute wisdom to God and when I attribute wisdom to Socrates, the truth grounds of my attribution are different but related. In the case of God, the truth ground of my attribution is the simple God, who is identical with wisdom. In the case of Socrates, the ground is Socrates' accident of wisdom inhering in Socrates. We have a ground or truthmaker heterogeneity here: the same claim is true for different reasons. If the grounds were completely different, the word "wisdom" would be equivocal. However, the grounds are not different but analogically related, and hence "wisdom" is analogical.

Now, let us plug this into Scotus' definition. "Wisdom" will be univocal in Scotus' sense if and only if it is a contradiction to suppose of x that x is wise and that x is not wise. But on Aquinas' view, as I read him, this is a contradiction. For either x is God or x is not God. If x is God, then "x is wise" and "x is not wise" are claims that are true if and only if, respectively, x is or is not identical with wisdom, and hence x cannot both be wise and non-wise. If x is not God, then "x is wise" and "x is not wise" are claims that are true if and only if, respectively, x has or does not have wisdom, and hence x cannot both be wise and non-wise. In either case, a contradiction ensues from supposing that x is wise and not wise.

The analogy thesis on my reading is about the grounds of the predication. What grounds there must be for the predication to be true differs depending on whether the subject of predication is divine. But this does not allow for a contradiction.

Consider the following predicate H: "if ___ is an animal, then it is a healthy animal, and if it is urine, then it is indicative of health, and if it is food then it is productive of health, and ..." This is meant to be an expansion of Aquinas' and Aristotle's favorite example of an analogical predicate, "is healthy". But now notice that while the grounds of "x is H" differ depending on what x is, nonetheless no x can both satisfy H and not satisfy H. That a horse is healthy and that its urine is healthy tell us different things about the horse and urine, respectively, but in the case of the horse, only one thing is said by attribution of H, and in the case of urine, only one thing is said by attribution of H.

Granted, we might expand the example and allow that there are two senses of "The horse is healthy". In the primary sense, it means that the horse is in good physical condition, while in the secondary sense, it means that if the horse were made into food, that food would be healthy. I am not aware of Aquinas allowing such a case, however. So it is quite possible that Aquinas thinks that in analogical predication, only one kind of ground is allowed for each particular subject of predication. And if so, then the predicate satisfies Scotus' definition of univocity, and can be used as the middle term in a syllogism.


  1. Interesting. Two questions.

    1. The first is is textual. You are saying that for Scotus, some predicate F is attributed to some x univocally iff 'x is F' and 'x is not F' are contradictory. Is that right? If so, where are you getting this definition in Scotus? I'm just curious, that's all.

    2. The second question has to do with the idea you're proposing. Some people see Scotus as arguing this: Aquinas's theory of analogy is all well and good in principle, but it does not tell us how to ascertain whether our analogical predications of God are true, because we cannot know the conditions that make them true.

    Indeed, it is certainly true that a horse is healthy and that a vial of its urine is a sign of the horse's health, but I know those two statements are true because I know the conditions that make them true.

    In the divine case, though, Aquinas seems to hold that we do not know the sense in which God is 'wise', or the sense in which God 'exists', and so on. So, thinks Scotus, we do not know the conditions (or grounds) that make our predications of God true.

    As Scotus sees it, or at least this is how the interpretation of his criticisms that I am considering goes, this means that Aquinas's view leaves us with no way to ascertain whether we are saying anything true about God.

    Of course it _would_ be true (analogically) of God that he is wise or that he exists, _if_ we could know what makes those sorts of predications true. But we don't (on Aquinas's view), so Aquinas leaves us with rather empty theological statements.

    What's your view on this interpretation of Scotus?

  2. On the textual point, I take it that Alex is going from Op. Ox. I, dist III, q i (Philosophical Writings, Wolter, tr., p. 20): "I designate that concept univocal which possesses sufficient unity in itself, so that to affirm and deny it of one and the same thing would be a contradiction. It also has sufficient unity to serve as the middle term of a syllogism, so that wherever two extremes are united by a middle term that is one in this way, we may conclude to the union of the two extremes among themselves."

  3. Yes, that's the text I had in mind. I don't know what this does to Scotus' larger point. At least it shows that lack of univocity, as Scotus defines it, isn't the problem, since Aquinas' predications are univocal in Scotus' sense.

  4. It seems to me that Aquinas' analogy is not univocal in Scotus' sense. Here's why. Take this syllogism:

    1. Ed the horse is healthy.
    2. Whatever is healthy is a sign of a bodily condition.
    3. So, Ed is a sign of a bodily condition.

    The conclusion is false because of equivocation. The health in 2 is what we mean when we say that, say, urine is healthy. Ed isn't healthy in that sense. But Ed is in peak physical shape. So, Ed is healthy (in the primary sense) and it's not the case that Ed is healthy (in the sign sense). (The latter conjunct here doesn't mean that it's not the case that if Ed were urine, Ed would be healthy in the sign sense. It means that it's not the case that Ed as he is now is healthy in the sign sense.)

    Here's another syllogism:
    1. God is wise.
    2. Whatever is wise is a substance.
    3. So, God is a substance.

    Aquinas denies the conclusion (SCG I.25). The sense of wisdom in 2 is an accident, but in 1 it's God himself, so not an accident. God is not healthy in 2's sense.

    Although in some cases affirming and denying health of the same subject is a contradiction, that's only when the word is used in the same sense, so univocal. (Socrates is wise and it's not the case that Socrates is wise.) But in other cases it's not a contradiction, and that's when the word is analogical or equivocal.

    I'm interested in your thoughts on this.

  5. Good point, Chris, but it seems to me that in both syllogisms, 2 requires restricted quantifiers to be true. And if one then adds the necessary implicit premise that the entity in 1 falls within the scope of these quantifiers, the arguments become valid.

    Thus, the first argument becomes:
    1. Ed the horse is healthy.
    1a. Ed is an observable diagnostic.
    2. Every observable diagnostic that is healthy is a sign of a bodily condition.
    3. So, Ed is a sign of a bodily condition.

    This is valid but unsound.

    The second argument becomes:
    1. God is wise.
    1a. God is a substance.
    2. Whatever substance is wise is a substance.
    3. So, God is a substance.

    This is valid but question-begging, and it's sound iff the conclusion is true.

  6. Alex, great reply, but I'm still not convinced Aquinas' analogical terms meet Scotus' criteria for univocity. Two reasons, corresponding to his criteria:

    1. Even after the argument's modification, it is true that Ed is healthy and not healthy if we take the first instance of health to affirm that Ed is in good physical condition and the second conjunct to deny the sign kind of health to Ed as he now is. So, it seems health in the first conjunct and health in the second aren't univocal.

    2. In the revised arguments, we're still not using health as a middle term. We're using, e.g., observable diagnostic that is healthy as a middle term. But that's only one sense of health. So the revised arguments only show that health in that sense is univocal.

    Do you think I'm right about this? Do you think it's possible to use health in the bodily condition sense and health in the diagnostic sense as a middle term in a syllogism?

  7. It may help to clarify what Scotus is going for by referring to what he argues later in the text mentioned by Brandon. He says that in the two propositions "God is a finite being" and "God is an infinite being", "being" must be an univocal concept. For someone may be sure that the First Principle exists, but dubious as to whether the First Principle is finite or infinite.