Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Scotus provocatively claims that given what the intellect is and how it functions the intellect is not a rational potency

As Hannah Arendt brings to our attention, the concept of the will has a history, and its history was decisively shaped by Christian theologians and philosophers.[1] As Arendt so aptly puts it,
“[f]reedom becomes a problem, and the Will as an independent autonomous faculty is discovered, only when men begin to doubt the coincidence of the Thou-shalt and the I-can, when the question arises: Are things that concern me only within my power?”[2]
The Greeks of course spoke a great deal about natures, desire, and with Aristotle, we see the emergence of the faculty of choice (proairesis). However, the idea of a distinct faculty of the will as a source of its own movement is decisively absent in ancient thought. Such a suggestion in fact would have been considered contradictory, for it challenges a deeply held Greek assumption, viz., that which is moved is moved by another. In this paper, I discuss Scotus’ understanding of will (in contradistinction to a nature) as a distinct, active power, which entails his concept of the will as self-determined. The discussion of the will as self-determined logically leads to another unique contribution of Scotus’, viz., his notion of superabundant sufficiency, which I shall likewise engage albeit briefly.
In order to gain clarity as to Scotus’ view of the will as an active power, let us turn to Scotus’ discussion of the will as a rational faculty, as found in Questions on the Metaphysics IX, q. 15.[3] Because the first two objections raise what seem to me the most crucial questions, I have chosen to focus solely on them. Following my discussion of these objections, I engage Scotus’ own opinion. As was mentioned in the opening paragraph, for a Greek philosopher such as Aristotle, self-motion was considered incoherent, as it violated the generally accepted principle that everything that is moved is moved by another.
Scotus, however, against the majority view both classical and medieval, argued that the will is self-moving. Scotus opens his discussion in Questions on the Metaphysics IX, q. 15, by asking,
“[i]s the difference Aristotle assigns between rational and irrational potencies appropriate, namely, that the former are capable of contrary effects but the latter produce but one effect?”[4]
In typical fashion, Scotus replies with two answers: (1) Aristotle’s answer fails and (2) Aristotle’s schema is correct. After these opening replies, we find two articles, which address respectively: how Aristotle’s distinction is to be understood, and what is the rationale for Aristotle’s distinction. Scotus then lays out three objections to Aristotle’s view, gives his own opinion, and then tests his own opinion by offering two possible objections followed by two corresponding replies. The final section closes with Scotus’ replies to the initial arguments.
The first objection (Scotus’ objection) leveled against Aristotle’s view with regard to rational potencies producing contrary effects is as follows: if a potency is capable of producing contrary effects, then it should be able to produce simultaneously contrary effects. Having already elucidated his own understanding of the distinction between nature and will and having argued for the will as a self-determining, active potency,[5] Scotus says the following:

As for the initial argument at the beginning, it is clear that a rational potency, such as the will is said to be, does not have to perform opposites simultaneously, but can determine itself to either alternative, which is something the intellect cannot do.[6]

In other words, Scotus claims that the will because of its self-determining ability not only falls in line with Aristotle’s criteria for what it is to be a rational power, but it also surpasses Aristotle’s demands, and hence, is more rational than the active power of the intellect. In order to make this move, Scotus introduces what is now commonly referred to as synchronic contingency, which involves a distinctive understanding of possibility. In part II, I offer a brief sketch of Scotus’ innovative notion.
Part II: Scotus and the Will as a Self-Determined Active Power from Per Caritatem by Cynthia R. Nielsen Scotus begins by making a distinction between a proposition about the possible in a divided sense verses a proposition about the possible in a composite sense. In the latter case, such a proposition is false, as it is not possible that at the same time I both sit and do not sit. However, in the divided sense, such a proposition is possible, valid and in no way contradictory. For example, while I am sitting, it is possible that I could not be sitting.[1] Scotus goes on to provide more refined version of his view in the following passage.
To put the matter in another way, one could say that when the will is in a certain state of volition, it is in that state contingently, and that its present volition stems from it contingently, for if it does not do so then, it will never do so, since at no other time does it proceed from the will. And just as this particular volition is contingently in the will, at that very same moment the will is a potency with power over the opposite; and this holds for that moment in the divided sense. Not that it could will the opposite at the same time as it wills this, but in the sense that it has the power to will the contrary at that very instant, by not willing the other at that instant. For at this very instant it could, nevertheless, posit the other, in a divided sense, and do so not necessarily but contingently.[2]
Here we see Scotus’ insistence on the spontaneity and contingency inherent to the will as a free, active power. Likewise, Scotus wants to emphasize that even when the agent wills x rather than y, she still possesses the capacity or potency-in light of what the will itself is and the contingency involved in all of its volitions-for the opposite. Scotus is in no way advocating a contradictory state of affairs, rather he is stressing the self-determining nature of the will to act in a way such that it retains the “power to will that contrary at that very instant, by not willing the other at that instant.” In other words, the unactualized possibility is always present as a genuine (or real) possible reality.
This brings us to the second objection, which in effect says that if a power stood before opposites and was equally open to both (i.e., undetermined to either), it would not act. Consequently, an indeterminate power seems to require external determination in order to act. In Scotus’ reply to this second objection, he gives two possible responses depending upon which active power one has in mind. If one has the will in mind, given what Scotus has already said about the nature of the will as a self-determining active power, then according to Scotus, “it is able to do what it does with no conceivable predetermination to act,” as that simply is what it is to be a will that is free. However, if the power that is in view happens to be the intellect, we have a different situation. As Scotus explains:
if the argument refers to the intellect knowing opposites, then it is true that the intellect can accomplish nothing externally unless it be determined from some other source, because it knows contraries after the manner of nature, and is unable to determine itself towards any one of these opposites. Hence, it will either act towards both or not act at all. And if one concludes from this that the intellect does not suffice to qualify as a rational potency, it follows from what has been said that this is true.[3]
Paradoxically, Scotus provocatively claims that given what the intellect is and how it functions (i.e., “it knows contraries after the manner of nature”), one must conclude that the intellect is not a rational potency. Moreover, if the situation was such that wills did not exist, then the deterministic conclusion seems inescapable.

1 comment:

  1. Cynthia who is one of the crowd of very earnest "theory" bloggers, seems to specialise in torturing herself with her long winded convoluted posts which are/were summed up by Shakespeare via his words: "much to do about nothing" or perhaps "full of sound and fury and signifying nothing".

    As though anyone can discover the Truth about anything by engaging in the usual totally godless abstract and abstracting, left-brained verbiage and anal-ysis of the usual philosophers and theologians---theologians being the big talkers of big religion.