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Tag Archives: Pascal Engel

A River Runs Through it: Scotus, Spinoza and then Davidson



In recent conversation the connection between contemporary philosopher Donald Davidson and Spinoza has come up, a connection which I have felt runs in several directions. Previously the only thing I had strictly read on this is Davidson and Spinoza: Mind, Matter and Morality by Floris van der Burg, which in my view aside from its conclusions on morality, is very instructive to the matter. Yet today I stumbled upon another source, this one more accessible (only 13 pages): From Duns Scotus to Davidson: Anomalous Monism, Supervenience and the Formal Distinction  Pascal Engel, Conférence, Universita di Verona, 1998, Inédit [or here]

(I am coming to think that in order to fully understand the heritage of Spinoza’s treatment of the attributes they will have to be related not only to Scotus’s formal distinction, but also to the Scotus/Aquinas debate, along with its Neoplatonic influences (both Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius). Here is a thread of Medieval panpsychism which constitutes another story. Spinoza’s treatment of epistemology has strong Augustinian or Pseudo Dionysius principles, in synthesis with Duns Scotus’s univocality of Being, formal treatment of the “names of God”. A synthesis whose ultimate informing sources I have yet to track down.)

In any case, I was looking into the Duns Scotus-Spinoza connection, one written about intriguingly by Deleuze in ’68; I posted some relevant and extensive quotations from Deleuze here:  Spinoza as a Scotist: Formally Distinct and Univocal, for there is very little internet presence of this idea, and not everyone relishes wading through Deleuze.

So it was nice to run into this essay which draws the thread straight through from Duns Scotus to Spinoza’s treatment of the Attributes to Davidson’s distinction between causal relation and a causal explanation. I feel that there are even more important and productive connections between Davidson and Spinoza, mostly found in the homologous order of the Triangulation of Knowledge in Davidson and Spinoza’s grounding of the social within the Imiations of the Affects, but this essay is an excellent source of the armature of Spinoza’s treatment of the same, identity and causation such that it can be effectively read in contemporary terms.

Key to the interpretion is Scotus’s notion of the Formal Distinction, which is something found neither in the intellect, nor even fully in real things, but one could say, in the real of their expression (something that bothered Occam to no end). It is a formal individuating difference, as it is presented here by Engel:

To summarize Scotus claims about distinctions. Entities which are separable by divine power, in the sense that one can exist while the other does not, are “absolutely really” distinct, and those which cannot be so separate are “absolutely really” the same. But within the class of entities which are “absolutely really” the same, we can find pairs of entities which are “qualifiedly” distinct. For example where a and b are absolutely really the same but each is definable independently of the the other, a and b are “formally” distinct. The formal distinction is, as Duns Scotus says, “on the side of things”; it is not a mere conceptual or rational distinction. Thus formal distinction is compatible with real sameness. This is the doctrine which is important for my purposes here: certain things which are true of an entity can be distinct although they belong to the common nature of this entity. The individuating difference is in the individual in question really the same as the common nature that it determines, but nevertheless formally distinct from it (4)

It was just this formal distinction within an identity of Same which allowed Spinoza to make his Attribute distinctions of parallel expressions. For those interested even in one aspect of this trinity of thinkers, Engel does a succinct job of expressing each thinker’s position, and then clearly relates each as a heritage of the next.