Duns Scotus on Transcendentals

Written by on June 31st, 2013. Subject: Philosophy. Filed in Metaphysics, about Duns Scotus Transcendentals

|||Scotus, John Duns. Concerning Metaphysics Philosophical Writings of Duns Scotus. Translated by Allan Wolter. Indianapolis: Hacking Publishing Company, 1987.|||

Fontana dell’Acqua Paola Now a doubt arises as to what kind of predicates are those which are predicated formally of God, for instance, “wise”, “good”, and the like. I answer that before “being” is divided into the ten categories, it is divided into infinite and finite. For the latter, namely finite being, is common to the ten genera. Whatever pertains to “being”, then, in so far as it remains indifferent to finite and infinite, or as proper to the Infinite Being, does not belong to it as determined to a genus, but prior to any such determination, and therefore as transcendental and outside any genus. Whatever [predicates] are common to God and creatures are of such kind, pertaining as they do to being in its indifference to what is infinite and finite. For in so far as they pertain to God they are infinite, whereas in so far as they belong to creatures they are finite. They belong to “being”, then, prior to the division into the ten genera. Anything of this kind, consequently, is transcendental. p. 2.

The transcendentals were a popular topic in the Middle Ages. On one hand you have Thomas Aquinas, with his distinction between essence and esse1, and his theory of participation. With these tools, he explains that God is Wisdom, Truth, Goodness, etc. Through our esse, we analogically participate in these qualities, which are properly attributes of God. For John Duns Scotus, this presents a problem. How is wisdom both attributed to God, who is above the genera, and at the same time a quality present in Him?

As is seen in the quote above, Duns Scotus presents his own solution, one that avoids the problem present in Aquinas’ account. Let us for the moment accept the two distinctions that Aquinas and Duns Scotus would accept, namely, the division of being2 into infinite and finite and also the division into the ten genera of Aristotle. The solutions presented by these two thinkers will depend on whether being is a genus or not. If it is not a genus, as Aquinas (following Aristotle) holds, then something predicated of God and a creature must be predicated analogically. The division between infinite and finite is independent of the division into the ten genera. For Duns Scotus, however, the division of being is first into infinite and finite. Under finite being lies the ten genera. In this way, anything that can be predicated of both God and creatures must be above the division between infinite and finite being. These predicates, then, are coextensive with being. That is why Duns Scotus is able to call these predicates (i.e. wise, good) transcendentals.

For Duns Scotus, then, those attributes which apply only to finite creatures can belong in the ten categories. His list of transcendentals, on the other hand, can be much longer. Aquinas lists five transcendental properties of being (“unum, res, bonum, verum, aliquid”, “one, thing, good, true, something”). For Duns Scotus, the list of transcendentals might include other attributes, such as merciful, kind, and loving.

And then, after all of that, there is the age-old question, “Is beauty a transcendental?” Based on what Duns Scotus has said so far, what would his answer be?

About Brandon Bridger

Brandon Bridger graduated from the College of St. Thomas More. He is currently doing graduate course work in philosophy at the Catholic University of America.

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  1. “to be”. 

  2. Ens in Latin, also expressed as “id quod est” (“that which is”).