Transcript: 264. Giorgio Pini on Scotus on Knowledge

Peter hears about Duns Scotus' epistemology from expert Giorgio Pini.

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: We're going to be focusing on Scotus's theory of cognition or knowledge. And in order to get at what's special about Scotus, I thought it would be a good idea to first ask you about his predecessors. Maybe we could focus on Aquinas because Aquinas is famous, and also Scotus responds to him quite extensively. What is the kind of basic idea that Aquinas would have about how we come to have knowledge of the world around us through our sense experience?

Giorgio Pini: Thomas Aquinas' idea was that we get knowledge of everyday objects, let's say a giraffe, by starting up with sensory properties. So for example, color of the giraffe, or the smell of the giraffe, all the things that we can get acquainted with by our senses. Then we develop that sort of information through our cognitive powers. So our sensory power, our memory and finally our mental powers. What do we get at the end of the story? Well, we get a concept of a giraffe that is for Aquinas a form that is present in our mind. And that form corresponds to the form of the giraffe out in the world. The two are very similar, even the same in some respects. For that reason, for Aquinas, we can get to the essence of things in the world - know what a giraffe is, starting with our senses and ending up with concepts in our mind.

Peter Adamson: And this concept would basically involve all of the essential properties of what a giraffe is. So there's nothing left out.

Giorgio Pini: Yes, there is nothing left out. Aquinas is aware that it may be very difficult and it may also take a long time to get all the essential properties - something that a biologist can do in many years. But he's pretty confident that it is something that we can do just relying on our senses and our cognitive powers.

Peter Adamson: What happens then after we die? Because Aquinas thinks that what happens in the beatific vision or when we get to heaven, as it were, is that our cognitive access to the truth improves quite a lot. And from what you just said, it sounds like there's not much room for improvement.

Giorgio Pini: Yeah. For Aquinas, basically the same pattern, the same kind of explanation works in the next life, of course with some sort of modification. In the next life we will not be acquainted with everyday material objects like a giraffe. Our knowledge will be of God, a very different kind of object. So in order to get the knowledge of God, we will not be able to rely on our senses clearly. At the same time, Aquinas is willing to keep the basics of his account of knowledge. And he says that we still have a form in our mind, a form of God, when we know God. The way we acquire it is not through our senses, but basically God himself will give us this form. The peculiar idea that Aquinas has is that in the case of the beatific vision of our knowledge of God in the next life, God will play the role both of the object, what we know, and of the form through which we know that object. So God will play two roles, so to speak.

Peter Adamson: As if God were both the giraffe and the image of the giraffe. So that's a very special case, obviously, but in general terms, he thinks that the cognitive mechanism is the same. You get a form.

Giorgio Pini: Exactly. You get a form through different channels: through the senses in the case of this life, directly from God in the next life. But the cognitive mechanism that is in us is basically the same, and it works in the same way. In a way, we can say that God has to adapt to it, because for us to know is just to have a form in our mind. So if God wants to be known by us, he has to play the role of the form as well - of this image.

Peter Adamson: And this is one of the things that Scotus is going to question and challenge, because he thinks there's a big difference between our knowledge in this life and our knowledge in the next life. To get into that, though, let's start with this life. What would Scotus say is happening when I look at a giraffe? So I'm at the zoo, there's the giraffe, what would he think happens?

Giorgio Pini: Well, on the one hand, he says something that is similar to what Aquinas says, because he thinks that I get acquainted with the giraffe, I know what a giraffe is, starting with the sensory information that I gather from the giraffe, starting from these sensory qualities. So again, the color, the smell, the noise that the giraffe can make in certain circumstances, this is the starting point, like for Aquinas. But then the way this information, the starting information is developed, is a little different for Scotus, because Scotus is very much aware of the problem. He thinks that what these sensory properties, like the smell, the color, the noise that a giraffe makes, what these kind of sensory properties give us is very little information, very, very little. If we think of the gap between the smell of a giraffe and the sophistication of a concept that a biologist has of what a giraffe is, there seems to be a long way to go. And there seems to be no way to just bridge this gap through making the information that is already present in the sensory qualities more and more sophisticated - through some sort of refinement. Scotus thinks that something more is required.

Peter Adamson: And how do I get to this something more? Because it seems like the only access I have to the world around me is through my senses.

Giorgio Pini: That's correct, the only access that I have to the world is through my senses. But we also have very powerful mental capacities of an inferential kind, so that we can make reasonings about the information that we gather through the senses. That was something that Aquinas as well, of course, was well aware of. But for Scotus, it is on these inferential capacities that we have really to focus in order to explain how we get from the sensory information to the more sophisticated concept that we have in our mind. How does the story work for Scotus? Well, again, I start with my direct acquaintance with the smell or with the color. Then I can get a concept of what a color is. But this is still a concept of a property. What a medieval thinker would call an "accident" is not what a giraffe is, what an object is. If we could rely on just our senses and on the development of what we get from our senses that we can carry out, we should stop here. How do we get to the concept of what a giraffe is? Well, at that point, our inferential powers come in and we realize - we reason actually, that if there are properties, there must be a subject underlying them. There must be something, an object that is not a property, but is the thing to which all these properties belong.

Peter Adamson: So you start with these accidents. So it's brown, it smells bad. Let's face it, giraffes are not the most fragrant beasts. It's tall, it's located in the zoo. And then you think, 'well, wait a minute, these accidents are all kind of happening in the same place. So it must be that there's something underneath, so to speak, to which they belong.'

Giorgio Pini: Precisely. Yes. And this is a piece of reasoning. This is not something that we can arrive at only by the information we get from the senses and by some sort of elaboration of that information.

Peter Adamson: And does he actually think that it's literally a conscious piece of reasoning that sort of goes through your mind explicitly? 'Oh, look, there must be something underneath.'

Giorgio Pini: Well, Scotus is not very clear about this, but I don't think that is the case. I think that Scotus thinks that just because our mind is built up in a certain way, it has the power, it is predisposed to work in that way when faced with some accidents. So I do not have to consciously think, 'oh, there is a smell, there is a color, they cannot just float, they do not just float around in reality, but they always come together. So there must be a subject to which they belong.' This is a piece of reasoning that I make sort of unconsciously, if you want, just because my mind is set up to work in that way.

Peter Adamson: Okay, but what if a skeptic came along and said, 'well, I don't believe there's anything underlying, I think that maybe there is a giraffe. But to me, a giraffe is nothing more than a kind of collection or bundle,' as sometimes is said in today's metaphysics - like a bundle theory of a substance. The idea would be that there's nothing more to the giraffe than being a bundle of these properties.

Giorgio Pini: Yes. Well, Scotus is in some ways aware of this possible criticism. So he actually has an argument to show that there must be something underlying, which is not a property, but is a subject of properties. His basic argument is that that is the best explanation to account for the fact that these different accidents, these different properties - a smell, a color, come together and this sort of 'bundle,' if you want, is constant over time. And some of these properties, some of these elements of the bundle can be lost, but other ones are retained and we still recognize some sort of very important identity over time. And that is his argument - that is the argument that he uses to show that there must be an underlying object, an underlying subject, behind these different properties.

Peter Adamson: That's interesting because it actually echoes something Aristotle says in the Categories where he's trying to explain what a substance is and he says a substance is the thing that undergoes change. So for example, human goes from being white to not-white, or from not-white to white. And so that idea of the underlying thing that persists through change, the idea that that's what it really means to be a substance seems to go all the way back to Aristotle.

Giorgio Pini: Absolutely, yes. Aristotle was definitely the main source for Scotus, even though Scotus, like many other scholastic thinkers, used Aristotle in a very inventive way. So for example, concerning this problem of the underlying object, as you said, there is definitely the idea of the Aristotelian substance underlying different changes. But Scotus adds a twist to this idea, if you want, because Scotus thinks that there is also a cognitive side to this story. So that he's talking about not just the structure of reality, the fact that there are underlying subjects, but he's also saying that, 'well, we can find out that there are underlying objects, that there are objects behind the smells, colors, because there is something that goes on over time and remains the same in some sense.' So an idea like that of a substance that started out like something purely metaphysical, if you want, something that tells us something about the way the world is. Now that same idea is being used by Scotus also to illustrate something about the way we know the world is.

Peter Adamson: Let me try a different kind of skeptical response to this theory. Instead of thinking of the substance as a bundle of properties, what if I said: okay, sure, there is something underlying these properties, but I couldn't possibly know what it is because of the way you just set it up, right? So you've told me my access to the world is through sense perception, all the things I get through sense perception are just accidental properties. It seems like the only thing left for the substance to be is an "I know not what," as Locke later will put it.

Giorgio Pini: Yes. Well, on the one hand, Scotus would agree that in this life, we can never have a complete grasp of what a thing is, as he says, a complete grasp of the essence of a thing. On the other hand, he's very confident that even though our grasp is sort of not completely detailed, we can still get a grasp of the essence of something. How can we do that? Well, the problem, as you indicated, is that we have to bridge the gap between properties and what this subject is. Scotus thinks that we can do that because the object underlying these properties is not something of a completely different kind from the properties that are present in that object. After all, we say both about the object and about the properties that they are 'some thing.' that may not be very informative, admittedly, but this is something that for Scotus is very, very important because he argues that if we say both about the object and about the properties that they are something, we must be using the word "something" in the same sense. That is what offers us a bridge between properties and object.

Peter Adamson: So this is referring to the so-called theory of the univocity of being. In other words, the idea that existence or being always means the same thing, whether it's God, an accident, or a substance - which is something I talked about in a recent episode. So the thought there, I guess, would be that: I do have access to accidents. I don't have immediate access to substances, but since substances are beings and accidents are beings, and since being is being because it's univocal, I've got access to something that's of the same type as the thing I really want access to, which is the substance.

Giorgio Pini: Precisely. So the idea is that, as you said, I start up with accidents, then I can form the concept of a being, of something, just out of the little information I get from accidents. Afterwards, after all, even if I am just acquainted with the color or with the smell, I can form the concept of something, of a being, out of that little piece of information that I have. Now that I have the concept of a being, I can make an inference and conclude that there must be something behind those properties, those colors, those smells. What do I know about that something? Admittedly, not very much, but at least I know that it is something in the very same sense of something in which properties, accidents, are something. And I know, of course, that that object is the subject of properties. So at least I have the basis on which I can build up a more and more sophisticated concept of what that thing is. The more information I gather, the more accidents I am acquainted with, the more things I can say about that object.

Peter Adamson: And I guess that also means that I can have a unified science, which is metaphysics, which studies all the beings, accidents, substances, and also God.

Giorgio Pini: Absolutely. So even though Scotus seems to have some sort of skeptical side in what he says, because he thinks that we do not have a direct access to the objects - to even material objects in this world, he is pretty confident that we can build up a science of being, a science of reality in this life. We can have a very solid metaphysics. And the tools by which we build up metaphysics for Scotus are basically two. The first one is the univocal concept of being about which we have just been talking about. Because we have this univocal concept, we can move from our acquaintance of accidents and derive that knowledge of objects. The second tool is our inferential capacities. Scotus argues that we can trust our inferential capacities completely. So for example, we can trust completely the principle of non-contradiction and we can trust completely our capacities to derive consequences from a premise. That is the other way by which, even though I do not have a direct grasp of what a giraffe is - I'm not plugged in to the essence of a giraffe directly, I can arrive at a pretty sophisticated and complex concept of what a giraffe is by saying, first of all, 'a giraffe is an object. Second, it is an object which is the subject of such and such and such properties.'

Peter Adamson: You keep saying "in this life" as a kind of caveat, which implies that things will be different in the next life. We said before, regarding Aquinas, that Aquinas has the idea that cognition will work in the same basic way in this life and in the afterlife. I take it that for Scotus that is not true, so does that mean that in the afterlife I just am plugged in to the essence of giraffe, as you put it? That sounds like paradise to me.

Giorgio Pini: Well, in a way, yes, that's definitely the case. That's the other important difference between Scotus and Aquinas concerning the theory of cognition. In the next life, we will not rely anymore on our senses, clearly. We will not need to make this sometimes complicated inference starting with the senses arriving at the notion of an object underlying the accidental properties. In the next life, we will make use of a special power that we already have in this life, but because of the limitation - our cognitive limitations in this life, we do not use now. This special cognitive power that we have is what Scotus calls intuitive cognition, which is a power to have direct access to the essence of something without all the mediation of the senses of inferential powers that are necessary right now.

Peter Adamson: And this intuitive kind of knowledge, can I have that at all during this life? I mean, is there anything I have intuitive access to?

Giorgio Pini: Yeah, that is actually a controversial point for scholars of Scotus, but Scotus is pretty clear that in this life, there are some cases in which we have this intuitive knowledge of things. So that is also evidence that we are able to have it in the next life because there are a few cases, which are pretty uncontroversial for Scotus, in which we have this intuitive direct grasp of the essence of something in this life. Examples are our own cognitive faculties and possibly even our own mind. How do we know our own cognitive faculties? Well, clearly not through sensory accidents because cognitive faculties are not things that have sensory accidents.

Peter Adamson: Like I don't smell myself thinking or...

Giorgio Pini: Exactly. I don't smell myself thinking. But I do know that I think. How do I know? Well, according to Scotus, because I have a sort of direct access to my power of thinking and that direct access is this cognitive knowledge.

Peter Adamson: Right. So the way that I would access what a giraffe is in the afterlife is the way that I access the fact that I'm thinking about giraffes right now.

Giorgio Pini: Yes. There is a little complication about that because in the next life, the main object of knowledge will be God. And God is an object important enough to be basically the main, if not the only, object of knowledge in the next life. But I will know God through this intuitive knowledge directly without any mediation. So no need of a 'form of God' as Aquinas had thought. And by knowing the essence of God directly, I will also know in a sort of secondary way, but very powerful way, all the essences of the other things because all the essences of the other things are contained in some way in God.

Peter Adamson: So I do get the giraffes after all. That's all I care about.

Giorgio Pini: Absolutely. And in a much better way than I can get the giraffe in this life.

Peter Adamson: Just out of curiosity, this very heavy restriction on our intuitive knowledge in this life, is that a punishment for The Fall or is it just because we're embodied or both? Or is it not clear?

Giorgio Pini: It is not clear in the sense that Scotus takes into account both the possibilities that you mentioned. He says that it may be due just to The Fall as a sort of a punishment for The Fall, maybe now we have to get the essence of things in a roundabout way through the senses, through inferences. We are not able to do it directly anymore. And in only a few cases like the knowledge of our own cognitive powers, or even of our volitions, we can do that in a direct way. So this could be a consequence of The Fall or it could just be the fact that we are embodied beings - that we have a body. And so God decided maybe to harmonize our body and our minds. And he decided just to create things in such a way that to my power to get knowledge of things, there corresponds my power to get knowledge of sensory accidents through the senses. Scotus doesn't have a definitive view about this, but it's pretty clear that this is a contingent situation. This is true just in this life. And it is also quite clear that for Scotus, this is a cognitive limitation. So the senses are very useful in this life because they are the only door through which I can get access to objects, to material objects. But they are also a very limiting kind of door because they do not give us a direct access to the essence of things. In the next life we do not need that kind of limiting channel. We can get access to the essences of things in that sort of direct way.

Peter Adamson: One last question, speaking of the afterlife, let me ask you something about Scotus's afterlife in the historical tradition. A lot of the things you've said, for me, ring bells with people like Descartes or Hume. So for example, the idea that we have some kind of immediate access to the fact that we're thinking sounds a lot like Descartes' famous Cogito argument. The idea that we only get access to material substances through the kind of sense impressions they make on us sounds like Hume and the other empiricists. Is that just a coincidence, or is there a historical link between Scotus and these early modern thinkers?

Giorgio Pini: No, I don't think it is a coincidence. Of course, there are many differences between Scotus and these early modern thinkers. For example, as I said, Scotus was never a skeptic and never even went through a stage of skepticism because he always had full confidence in our inferential capacities and in our ability to make up a univocal concept of what something is. Also, for Scotus, sensory properties are not just in my mind. They are out there in the world. They are objective features of the world. And that is quite an important difference between Scotus on the one hand, and I would say all late medieval thinkers on the one hand, or most of them, and early modern thinkers. At the same time, there are indeed some striking similarities. And that is not a coincidence because Scotus had a very strong influence on many people thinking and writing after him. More specifically, he had a very strong influence on people writing textbooks of metaphysics or on cognition. For example, like Francisco Suarez, for example, a Spanish thinker active in the 16th century who wrote an entire system of philosophy. Suarez was heavily influenced by Thomas Aquinas, but he was also heavily influenced by Scotus. Actually, we can say that he read Aquinas through Scotus. Suarez, in turn, was influencing a tradition of textbooks that were the sort of textbooks with which, for example, Descartes was familiar with when he studied in the Jesuit college. He was given access to these kind of textbooks. So in this way, even though it is in an indirect way, I think that it is correct to say that Scotus had an influence on early modern thought. 


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