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IV. Filosofia scolastica e tardo-scolastica

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Jan A. Aertsen
Metaphysics as a Transcendental Science

Introduction
Most medieval commentators on Aristotle did not adopt the theological conception of metaphysics that prevailed among the Neoplatonic commentators in late
Antiquity, but understood metaphysics as the universal science of being, as ontology1. The medieval transformations of the Aristotelian concept of First Philosophy were characterized by Ludger Honnefelder as the second beginning
of metaphysics2. Generally, I am not inclined to minimalize the importance of
medieval philosophy, but in this case I wonder whether the phrase is historically appropriate. If there is a second beginning of metaphysics, there are good
reasons for claiming that Arab philosophy rather than the Latin philosophy of
the thirteenth and fourteenth century deserves this place in the genealogy of
Western metaphysics. Avicennas views on the proper subject of First Philosophy and his doctrine of the primary notions of the intellect determined the foundations of metaphysical thought in Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Henry of
Ghent and John Duns Scotus.
This claim does not mean, of course, that medieval metaphysics was not the
scene of far-reaching changes of received conceptions. An original contribution
was the understanding of metaphysics as a transcendental science. The expression seems anachronistic, for the term transcendentalis does not occur in
medieval texts; their authors always speak of transcendens or the plural form
transcendentia. The reason that in modern studies the term transcendental is

1 The classic study on this subject is A. ZIMMERMANN, Ontologie oder Metaphysik? Die Diskussion ber
den Gegenstand der Metaphysik im 13. und 14. Jahrhundert, Peeters, Leuven 1998 (2nd ed.). Cfr. the contribution of C. Steel to this volume.
2 L. HONNEFELDER, Der zweite Anfang der Metaphysik. Voraussetzungen, Anstze und Folgen der
Wiederbegrndung der Metaphysik im 13./14. Jahrhundert, in J.P. BECKMANN / L. HONNEFELDER / G.
SCHRIMPF / G. WIELAND (Hrsg.), Philosophie im Mittelalter. Entwicklungslinien und Paradigmen, Meiner,
Hamburg 1987, 165-186.

Quaestio, 5 (2005), 377-389

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used for transcendens in retrospect, will become clear at the end of our essay.
The idea of a transcendental science presupposes a doctrine of the transcendentals, which certainly has Aristotelian and Avicennian sources, but in its doctrinal elaboration was an achievement of the thirteenth century. Duns Scotus was
the first to use the expression scientia transcendens and modern scholarship has
attributed to him a decisive role in connecting metaphysics with the transcendentals.
In several studies, Honnefelder underlined the discontinuity (a crucial
break) between Scotuss conception of metaphysics and that of the thirteenth
century3. Scotuss innovations, he states, were twofold. First, his scientia transcendens becomes the whole of metaphysics in contrast to, for instance,
Aquinass conception, in which the doctrine of the transcendentals comprises
only one part of metaphysics. Furthermore, in Scotuss conception First Philosophy cannot be the science of the first being, but only of the first known, the concept of being; it is ontology and not onto-theology, as it had been for the commentators belonging to the first generation after the reception of Aristotle, Albert the Great and Aquinas.
In my paper I will suggest another view of the relationship of Scotuss metaphysics to earlier medieval conceptions, in particular to Aquinass4. To that end
the focus will be on two issues. The first is Scotuss notion of scientia transcendens: I shall analyse the text in which he introduces the notion and argue that
this text, which is generally considered as programmatic for Scotuss project, is
traditional rather than innovative. The second issue is the medieval concept(s)
of transcendens (transcendental). The innovative character of Scotuss project
need not to be demonstrated by marginalizing the importance of the doctrine of
the transcendentals in the thirteenth century, but becomes clear by his new understanding of what is transcendental. The medieval concept of transcendentality turns out to be not homogeneous. That will be the subject of the second part
of my paper.

3 Good summaries of Honnefelders numerous studies on this topic can be found in L. HONNEFELDER,
Metaphysics as a Discipline: From the Transcendental Philosophy of the Ancients to Kants Notion of Transcendental Philosophy, in R.L. FRIEDMAN / L.O. NIELSEN (eds.), The Medieval Heritage in Early Modern
Metaphysics and Modal Theory, 1400-1700, Kluwer, Dordrecht-Boston-London 2003, 53-74, 59: Scotus ideas [...] represent a crucial break; and ID., La mtaphysique comme science transcendantale entre
le Moyen ge et les Temps modernes, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris 2002.
4 Cfr. my discussion with Honnefelders view in J.A. AERTSEN, Medieval Philosophy and the Transcendentals. The case of Thomas Aquinas, Brill, Leiden-New York-Kln 1996, 432-434. See also S.D. DUMONT, Scotuss Doctrine of Univocity and the Medieval Tradition of Metaphysics, in J.A. AERTSEN / A. SPEER
(eds.), Was ist Philosophie im Mittelalter?, Akten des X. Internationalen Kongresses fr mittelalteliche
Philosophie, de Gruyter, Berlin-New York 1998, 192-212.

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I. Scotuss notion of scientia transcendens


I.1. A programmatic text: Scotuss prologue to the first book of
his Questions on the Metaphysics
The expression scientia transcendens appears at the beginning of Scotuss work
Questions on the Metaphysics. In the prologue to the first book, he argues that
what is most knowable in the first way (primo modo) is what is most common
(communissima), such as being qua being and its properties. There follow two
references to Avicennas doctrine of the first conceptions of the intellect and a
reference to Aristotles ontological description of First Philosophy in book IV
of his Metaphysics, which makes clear that the consideration of these communissima belongs to the domain of metaphysics5.
Scotus next makes an additional remark about the need for this science. Because the most common things are first known, they cannot be treated in any particular science; they are the very condition of the possibility of a particular science. Therefore, it is necessary that some universal science exists that considers these transcendentia as such6.
On the basis of this conclusion, in which Scotus introduces the term transcendentals as another name for the communissima, he presents an (etymological) explanation of the name metaphysics: It is from meta, which means transcends, and ycos, which means science. It is, as it were, the transcending science (scientia transcendens), because it is concerned with the transcendentals7.

5 IOANNES DUNS SCOTUS, Quaestiones in Metaphysicam, I, ed. G. Etzkorn, The Franciscan Institute, St.
Bonaventure, N.Y. 1997, 8, prol., n. 17: Maxime scibilia primo modo sunt communissima, ut ens in quantum ens, et quaecumque consequuntur ens in quantum ens. Dicit enim Avicenna I Metapysicae cap. 5
quod ens et res imprimuntur in anima prima impressione, quae non acquiritur ex aliis notioribus se. Et
infra: quae priora sunt ad imaginandum per se ipsa sunt ea quae communia sunt omnibus, sicut res et
ens et unum. Et ideo non potest manifestari aliquod horum per probationem, quae non sit circularis. Haec
autem communissima pertinent ad considerationem metaphysicae secundum Philosophum in IV huius in
principio: Est scientia quaedam quae speculatur ens in quantum ens, et quae huic insunt secundum se
[...]. Engl. transl. by G.J. ETZKORN / A.B. WOLTER, Questions on the Metaphysics of Aristotle by John Duns
Scotus, I, Franciscan Institute, St. Bonaventure, N.Y. 1997.
6 IOANNES DUNS SCOTUS, Quaestiones in Metaphysicam, I, prol., n. 18, ed. Etzkorn, 8-9: Cuius necessitas ostendi potest sic: ex quo communissima primo intelliguntur ut probatum est per Avicennam , sequitur quod aliora specialioria non possunt cognosci nisi illa communia prius cognoscantur. Et non potest
istorum communium cognitio tradi in aliqua scientia particulari, quia qua ratione in una, eadem ratione
in alia [...], et ita idem multotiens inutiliter repeteretur , igitur necesse est esse aliquam scientiam universalem, quae per se consideret illa transcendentia.
7 IOANNES DUNS SCOTUS, Quaestiones in Metaphysicam, I, prol., n. 18, ed. Etzkorn, 9: Et hanc scientiam vocamus metaphysicam, quae dicitur a meta, quod est trans, et ycos scientia, quasi transcendens scientia, quia est de transcendentibus.

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This explanation, Honnefelder argues, would reveal the originality of Scotuss


metaphysics: he made the step to transcendental philosophy8.
This interpretation seems to me questionable, for Scotuss argument in this
supposed programmatic text adopts the common understanding of transcendentals as the communissima in the thirteenth century which is not quite, as
we shall see in the second part of our paper, Scotuss view. What deserves special attention is the fact that the understanding of metaphysics as the transcendental science is based on what is most knowable primo modo (in the first
way). Apparently, there is another orientation, a second way. We have to
reread the text in full and consider its structure and purpose.
II.2. The structure of the prologue
Scotuss purpose in the prologue is to show the dignity or nobility of this science
on the basis of Aristotles famous opening sentence of the Metaphysics: All men
by nature desire to know. The syllogistic argument is as follows:
Maior: If all men by nature desire to know, then they desire most of all the greatest knowledge or science. As the Philosopher indicates, the greatest science
is about those things that are most knowable (maxime scibilia).
Minor: Things are said to be most knowable in two ways: either (i) because they
are the first of all things known, without which nothing else can be known, or
(ii) because they are what is known most certainly. In either way this science
is about the most knowable.
Conclusion: This science [metaphysics] is therefore the greatest science and,
consequently, most desirable9.
Scotus provides a proof of both parts of the minor. We have seen his proof of
the first part; the proof of the second part of the minor reads: What is knowable
most certainly are principles and causes, and the more they are prior the more
certainly they are known. For from these stem all the certainty of what is posterior. But this science considers such principles and causes. Scotus refers to the

8 L. HONNEFELDER, Duns Scotus: Der Schritt der Philosophie zur scientia transcendens, in W. KLUXEN
(Hrsg.), Thomas von Aquin im philosophischen Gesprch, Alber, Freiburg-Mnchen 1975, 229-244.
9 IOANNES DUNS SCOTUS, Quaestiones in Metaphysicam, I, prol., n. 16, ed. Etzkorn, 7-8: Nunc propositio ipsa [scil. omnes homines natura scire desiderant] est applicanda, videlicet ad ostendendum dignitatem et nobilitatem huius scientiae, sic: si omnes homines natura scire desiderant, ergo maxime scientiam maxime desiderabunt. Ita arguit Philosophus I huius cap 2. Et ibidem subdit: quae sit maxime scientia, illa scilicet quae est circa maxime scibilia. Maxime autem dicuntur scibilia dupliciter: vel quia
primo omnium sciuntur sine quibus non possunt alia sciri; vel quia sunt certissima cognoscibilia. Utroque
autem modo considerat ista scientia maxime scibilia. Haec igitur est maxime scientia, et per consequens
maxime desiderabilis.

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first book of the Metaphysics, in which Aristotle states that First Philosophy is
wisdom, dealing with the highest causes10.
The core of Scotuss argument in the prologue is the twofold orientation of
metaphysics. This science considers what is first known, that is, the communissima or transcendentals (and for this reason metaphysics is called transcendental science), as well as what is ontologically prior, the first causes. The first
outcome of our reading is that from this text as such one cannot draw the conclusion that for Scotus the whole of metaphysics is a transcendental science.
II.3. Comparison with Aquinass prologue
The traditional character of Scotuss prologue particularly emerges in comparison with the prologue of Aquinass Commentary on the Metaphysics. Scotuss prologue furnishes evidence that he was familiar with Aquinass commentary, for he
cites verbatim (nn. 5-7) Aquinass arguments for Aristotles claim that all men
by nature desire to know. Comparing the two prologues with one another, we
notice a number of striking similarities.
(i) Scotus wants to show that the most desirable and greatest science is about
those things that are most knowable. Aquinass purpose is similar. He reasons
that there must be a first and highest science and then defines its distinctive feature: the first and highest science treats of the most intelligibles (maxime intelligibilia)11.
(ii) According to both thinkers what is most knowable or most intelligible
can be understood in several ways. The first way in Aquinas corresponds to Scotuss secundo modo. Aquinas relates the first meaning of the most intelligibles
to causality, since the intellect derives its certainty from the knowledge of the
causes. Therefore that science ist the highest which considers the first causes12.
The second way in which Aquinas understands the most intelligibles cor-

10 IOANNES DUNS SCOTUS, Quaestiones in Metaphysicam, I, prol., n. 21, ed. Etzkorn, 10: Secunda pars
minoris probatur sic: certissima cognoscibilia sunt principia et causae, et tanto secundum se certiora
quanto priora. Ex illa enim dependet tota certitudo posteriorum. Haec autem scientia considerat huiusmodi principia et causas, sicut probat Philosophus, I huius cap. 2, per hoc quod ipsa est sapientia.
11 THOMAS DE AQUINO, In Metaph., prol., ed. M-R. Cathala retractatur cura et studio R.M. Spiazzi, Marietti, Torino-Roma 1950, 1: [...] ita scientia debet esse naturaliter aliarum regulatrix, quae maxime intellectualis est. Haec autem est, quae circa maxime intelligibilia versatur.
12 THOMAS DE AQUINO, In Metaph., prol., ed. Cathala / Spiazzi, 1: Maxime autem intelligibilia tripliciter
assumere possumus. Primo ex ordine intelligendi. Nam ex quibus intellectus certitudinem accipit, videntur esse intelligibilia magis. Unde, cum certitudo scientiae per intellectum acquiratur ex causis, causarum
cognitio maxime intellectualis esse videtur. Unde et illa scientia, quae primas causas considerat, videtur
esse maxime aliarum regulatrix.

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responds to Scotuss first mode, for he relates intelligibility to universality.


Hence that science is pre-eminently intellectual which deals with the most universal principles. These are being (ens) and that which is consequent upon being [...]13. In this way Thomas connects the science of metaphysics with the doctrine of the transcendentals.
Unlike Scotus, Aquinas distinguishes a third type of the most intelligibles,
but, as it will turn out, this difference is not essential. The most intelligibles
can be taken in a third way from the cognition of the intellect. From this point
of view intelligibility relates to immateriality, for something has intellective power in virtue of being free from matter. The most intelligibles are therefore
things which are altogether free from matter, such as God and the intelligences14.
(iii) After his account of what is most intelligible in the sense of what is most
common Aquinas adds, as Scotus does, a remark that emphasizes the need for
this science. His considerations are the same: Principles of this kind should not
be treated in any one particular science. Since each genus of beings needs these
principles for its knowledge, they would with equal justification be treated in any
particular science. They should therefore be studied in one scientia communis15.
(iv) Aquinass distinction of three types of the most intelligibles corresponds
to the three descriptions of First Philosophy, presented in Aristotles Metaphysics: it is knowledge of the highest causes (book I); it considers, in contrast
to the particular sciences, being-as-being (book IV); and it is theology, since
it deals with the immaterial and the divine (book VI). At the end of the prologue
Aquinas explains the names given to this science on the basis of the three types
of the most intelligibles. Like Scotus, he reserves the name metaphysics for
the study of the communia and gives a methodological reason for this reservation. This science is called metaphysics, insofar as it considers being and

13 THOMAS DE AQUINO, In Metaph., prol., ed. Cathala / Spiazzi, 1: Secundo ex comparatione intellectus ad sensum. Nam, cum sensus sit cognitio particularium, intellectus per hoc ab ipso differre videtur,
quod universalia comprhendit. Unde et illa scientia maxime est intellectualis, quae circa principia
maxime universalia versatur. Quae quidem sunt ens, et ea quae consequuntut ens [...].
14 THOMAS DE AQUINO, In Metaph., prol., ed. Cathala / Spiazzi, 1: Tertio, ex ipsa cogntione intellectus. Nam cum unaquaeque res ex hoc ipso vim intellectivam habeat, quod est a materia immunis, oportet
illa esse maxime intelligibilia, quae sunt maxime a materia separata [...], sicut Deus et intelligentiae.
15 THOMAS DE AQUINO, In Metaph., prol., ed. Cathala / Spiazzi, 1: Huiusmodi autem non debent omnino indeterminata remanere, cum sine his completa cognitio de his, quae sunt propria alicui generi vel
speciei non possit. Nec iterum in una aliqua particulari scientia tractari debent, quia cum his
unumquodque genus entium ad sui cognitionem indigeat, pari ratione in qualibet particulari scientia
tractarentur. Unde restat quod in una communi scientia huiusmodi tractentur.
16 THOMAS DE AQUINO, In Metaph., prol., ed. Cathala / Spiazzi, 2: [Dicitur] Metaphysica, in quantum
considerat ens et ea quae consequuntur ipsum. Haec enim transphysica inveniuntur in via resolutionis,
sicut magis communia post minus communia.

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what follows upon it, for these transphysica are discovered in the process of resolution (in via resolutionis) as the more common after the less common16.
From our analysis we may conclude that Scotuss supposed programmatic text
does not express a crucial break with tradition. All elements in his prologue
can be traced back to Aquinass prologue: its purpose, its argument, the remark
about the need for this science and the explanation of the name metaphysics.
Scotuss introduction of the phrase scientia transcendens is not essentially different from Aquinass account of the name, since it continues the thirteenth century linking of metaphysics with the doctrine of the transcendentals. Albert the
Great, in his Commentary on the Metaphysics, was the first to relate the question
as to the proper subject of metaphysics with the doctrine; this science, he states,
is concerned with the prima and transcendentia17. For Aquinas, metaphysics is
the scientia communis, because it considers ens commune, a term he adopts from
Avicenna.
I.4. The problem of the unity of metaphysics
In still another respect a comparison between Scotuss and Aquinass texts is instructive, for both are faced with the same problem. In their prologues, they describe the manifold orientations of First Philosophy. In the case of Scotus, metaphysics deals with the transcendentals and the first causes; in the case of
Aquinas, it considers the first causes, what is most common and the immaterial,
divine being. How are these objects related to one another? Their multiplicity
raises the problem of the unity of metaphysics.
This question is in fact Aquinass main concern in his prologue. He argues
that the threefold consideration of the most intelligibles should not be attributed to different sciences, but to one. For the immaterial substances (type iii) are
the first and universal causes (type i) of being (type ii). Now it belongs to the
same science to consider the proper causes of any genus and the (subject-)genus
itself. So it must belong to the same science to consider the separate substances
and being in general (ens commune), which is the genus of which these substances are the common and universal causes18.

17 ALBERTUS MAGNUS, Metaph., I, tract. 1, c. 2, ed. B. Geyer, Mnster 1960 (Opera omnia, vol.
XVI/1), 5.
18 THOMAS DE AQUINO, In Metaph., prol., ed. Cathala / Spiazzi, 1-2: Haec autem triplex consideratio,
non diversis, sed uni scientiae attribui debet. Nam praedictae substantiae separatae sunt universales et
primae causae essendi. Eiusdem autem scientiae est considerare causas proprias alicuius generis et genus
ipsum. [...] Unde oportet quod ad eamdem scientiam pertineat considerare substantias separatas, et ens
commune, quod est genus, cuius sunt praedictae substantiae communes et universales.

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Aquinass next step is the determination of the proper subject of metaphysics;


it was under Avicennas influence a central topic among the Latin commentators,
because the proper subject of a science establishes its unity. He argues that, although the consideration of this science is threefold, metaphysics does not study
any one of these three as its subject, but only ens commune. Aquinas again appeals to the general structure of a science: For the subject of a science is that
whose causes and properties we seek, but not the causes themselves. Hence
God is not the proper subject of metaphysics, but rather the end of its inquiry19.
Scotus, too, deals with the problem of the unity of metaphysics, not in the prologue, but in the first question of the first book. He recalls his description of the
twofold orientation of First Philosophy in the prologue: Concerning the object
of this science, it has been shown that this science deals with the transcendentals. Likewise it has been shown that it is concerned with the highest causes.
He observes that there are various opinions about the question of which of these
ought to be its proper object Scotus has in mind the discussions in Arab philosophy and concludes: Therefore the first question is whether the proper
subject of metaphysics is being-as-being, as Avicenna claimed, or God and the
intelligences, as Averroes assumed20.
Scotuss reply is a long and a somewhat curious text, in which he does not
take a univocal stand. He extensively discusses arguments pro and con Averroess as well as Avicennas positions and finally raises the question How God
can be the subject of metaphysics? Scotus answers that God can be called the
subject of this science, if subject is taken in the sense of what is primarily
intended, the end of metaphysical inquiry21. But he himself advances several
doubts (dubia) about this view.
Of particular interest is the sixth doubt, which questions the unity of metaphysics. The doubt assumes that metaphysics has to be split up into two sciences, a metaphysica transcendens a term that undoubtedly refers to the phrase

19 THOMAS DE AQUINO, In Metaph., prol., ed. Cathala / Spiazzi, 2: Ex quo apparet, quod quamvis ista
scientia praedicta tria consideret, non tamen considerat quodlibet eorum ut subiectum, sed ipsum solum
ens commune. Hoc enim est subiectum in scientia, cuius causas et passiones quaerimus, non autem ipsae causae alicuius generis quaesiti. Nam cognitio causarum alicuius generis, est finis ad quem consideratio scientiae pertingit.
20 IOANNES DUNS SCOTUS, Quaestiones in Metaphysicam, I, q. 1, ed. Etzkorn, 15: De isto autem obiecto huius scientiae ostensum est prius quod haec scientia est circa transcendentia; ostensum est autem
quod est circa altissimas causas. Quod autem istorum debeat poni proprium eius obiectum, variae sunt
opiniones. Ideo de hoc quaeritur primo utrum proprium subiectum metapysicae sit ens in quantum ens
(sicut posuit Avicenna) vel Deus et Intelligentiae (sicut posuit Commentator Averroes). Note that Scotus
uses the terms subject and object interchangeably.
21 IOANNES DUNS SCOTUS, Quaestiones in Metaphysicam, I, q. 1, n. 140, ed. Etzkorn, 64.

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scientia transcendens in the prologue and a science, dealing with the divine,
with the result that there will be four theoretical sciences, transcendental metaphysics and three special sciences (theology, mathematics and physics)22. Scotuss doubt anticipates the splitting up of metaphysics into two distinct sciences,
a general metaphysics and a special metaphysics, which was established in
German School philosophy of the seventeenth century23.
Scotus rejects the idea of the division of metaphysics into a transcendental
and a special science and defends, like Aquinas, the unity of metaphysics. The
study of the divine cannot be separated from transcendental metaphysics, since
all things naturally knowable of God will be transcendentals. The purpose of
this science will be the perfect knowledge of being, which is knowledge of the
first being. But what first occurs to the intellect as most knowable is being in
general, and from this the primacy of the first being will be established24.
Knowledge of being in general is the basis of our natural knowledge of God. For
Scotus, too, First Philosophy has an onto-theological structure25.

II. Medieval Concepts of Transcendentality


In the first part of our paper we have established that Scotuss account of metaphysics as scientia transcendens is traditional. In his Questions on the Metaphysics, the real innovations in Scotuss project remain mostly hidden, insofar as
his own understanding of what is transcendental is not identical with that in the
thirteenth century. In the second part of the paper we will state briefly the different concepts of transcendentality.
II.1. Common feature
The medieval doctrines have in common that they conceive the notion of tran-

22 IOANNES DUNS SCOTUS, Quaestiones in Metaphysicam, I, q. 1, n. 155, ed. Etzkorn, 69: Igitur metaphysica transcendens erit tota prior scientia divina, et ita erunt quattuor scientiae speculativae: una transcendens, et tres speciales.
23 Cfr. E. ROMPE, Die Trennung von Ontologie und Metaphysik. Der Ablsungsproze und seine Motivierung bei Benedictus Pererius und anderen Denkern des 16. und 17. Jahrhunderts, Diss. Bonn 1968.
24 IOANNES DUNS SCOTUS, Quaestiones in Metaphysicam, I, q. 1, n. 161, ed. Etzkorn, 71: Ideo vitando
quattuor esse scientias speculativas, et hanc ponendo de Deo, omnia naturaliter cognoscibilia de ipso sunt
transcendentia. Finis huius est perfecta cognitio entis, quae est cognitio primi. Sed primo occurrens et
notissimum intellectui est ens in communi, et ex ipso probatur primitas.
25 Cfr. O. BOULNOIS, Quand commence lontothologie? Aristote, Thomas dAquin et Duns Scot, Revue
Thomiste, 95 (1995), 85-108.

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scendental in opposition to categorial. The surpassing, suggested by the term


transcendens, concerns Aristotles central doctrine of the ten categories, irreducible to one another. Although they are the genera generalissima, they are nevertheless surpassed towards predicates, signifying that what is common to
things, as being and one26.
A lead for the semantic transcendence of being might have been Aristotles
statement in book III of his Metaphysics: Being (ens) is not a genus. Aristotles
argument is that if being were a genus, a difference would have to be found
which would restrict being to its various species. But no difference participates
in the essence of a genus, for then a genus would be twice included in the definition of the species. A difference is outside the essence of the genus. There is, however, no difference at all to be found that would be outside of being, for what is outside of being is nothing, and non-being cannot be a difference. Therefore being
cannot be a genus27. Aristotles statement, expressing the transcategorial character of being, has a negative connotation: in contrast to the categories, being
does not contribute anything to the definition that indicates what something is.
The medievals converted Aristotles negative statement into a positive one: Being is a transcendens, because it surpasses the categories. The reformulation is
at the same time a sign of a more positive interpretation of the semantic value of
being: this most common predicate signifies a basic feature of reality.
The opposition of transcendental to categorial is fundamental for the medieval doctrines. This is evident in Aquinass classic account in De veritate q. 1,
a. 1, which is based on the distinction between the particular modes of being,
signified by the categories, and the general modes of being, signified by the transcendentals. The same opposition returns in Scotuss definition of transcendens
in his Ordinatio (I, d. 8, p. 1, q. 3, n. 114): A transcendental does not have a
genus, under which it is contained, because that which belongs to a genus is
necessarily limited. Despite this basic agreement between Aquinas and Scotus,
their specific concepts of transcendentality diverge and consequently their models of metaphysics are different.
II.2. Aquinass concept
The current expression for transcendentia in the thirteenth century was commu-

26 ALBERTUS MAGNUS, Summa theologiae, I, tract. 6, q. 27, c. 3, ed. D. Siedler, Mnster 1978 (Opera
omnia, vol. XXXIV/1), 205: Bonum dicit intentionem communem et est de transcendentibus omne
genus sicut et ens. THOMAS DE AQUINO, De malo, q. 1, a. 1 ad 11, ed. Leonina, vol. XXIII, 7: [...] prout
genus dici potest quod genera transcendit, sicut ens et unum.
27 ARIST., Metaph., III, c. 3, 998b17-28.

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nissima. This designation does not mean, however, that the concept of transcendental was purely extensional. Evidence for that is another regular name
for the transcendentia, taken from Avicenna: they are also called the prima, the
first conceptions of the intellect, included in everything that anyone apprehends28. Yet the universal extension was typical of the thirteenth century concept of transcendental. Because of their commonness they surpass the categories in the sense that they are not determinate to one of them. Albert the Great
as well as Aquinas express this commonness in a striking formulation: Transcendentals run through (circumeunt) all the categories29.
When the commonness of a transcendental refers to what is common to the
categories, then its immediate consequence is that God is not included in the notion of transcendental, because he is not in a genus. God transcends the categories, but in another sense than the transcendentals; he is outside (extra) any
genus. God does not fall under the range of the transcendentals, but is rather
transcendent (the term taken in its modern sense).
Aquinas interprets, in line with his model of metaphysics, the relation of God
to the transcendentals as a causal relation. Like every science, metaphysics
seeks the causes of its subject. Ens commune, he states, is the proper effect of
the highest cause, God30. He is not part of the subject, but its cause. Thomas connects the two poles of his metaphysics, transcendental being and God, with two
different kinds of commonness, predicative and causal commonness. The first
kind is applicable to the subject of this science: being is common by predication. The other (Neoplatonic) kind is applicable to God: his causality extends to
all that is, because he is the cause of being-as-being31.
The distinction of two kinds of commonness implies, however, that the subject of metaphysics, ens commune, is proper solely to created being; the com-

28 Cfr. THOMAS DE AQUINO, Summa theologiae, I-II, q. 94, a. 2, ed. Leonina, vol. VII, 169: In his autem
quae in apprehensione omnium cadunt, quidam ordo invenitur. Nam illud quod primo cadit in apprehensione, est ens, cuius intellectus includitur in omnibus quaecumque quis appehendit.
29 ALBERTUS MAGNUS, Metaph., X, tract. 1, c. 7, ed. B. Geyer, Mnster 1964 (Opera omnia, vol.
XVI/2), 441: Utrumque istorum [sc. unum et ens] sequitur et circuit omnes categorias. THOMAS DE
AQUINO, De virtutibus in communi, q. un., art. 2 ad 8, cura et studio A. Odetto, in Quaestiones Disputatae
II, Marietti, Torino-Roma 1965, 712: [...] in transcendentibus, quae circumeunt omne ens.
30 THOMAS DE AQUINO, Summa theologiae, I-II, q. 66, a. 5 ad 4, ed. Leonina, vol. VI, 436.
31 THOMAS DE AQUINO, Super librum De causis Expositio, lect. 4, ed. H.D. Saffrey, Socit Philosophique, Friburg / Nauwelaarts, Louvain 1954, 27: Cuius quidem ratio est, secundum positiones platonicas, quia [...] quanto aliquid est communius, tanto ponebant illud esse magis separatum et quasi prius
a posteriobus participatum, et sic esse posteriorum causam. For the two kinds of commonness, see AERTSEN, Medieval Philosophy and the Transcendentals cit., 119 ff.
32 Cfr. the adnotation of Duns Scotus in his Quaestiones in Metaphysicam, I, q. 1, ed. Etzkorn, 15,
in which he refers to a view, which is in fact that of Aquinas: Nota quod, secundum communiter lo-

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monness of what is transcendental is confined to finite being32. Must not the


boundaries of this subject be surpassed, is not a more comprehensive notion of
commonnes to be found, which includes God in some way, since he is, after all,
the first being? On the basis of such a notion, subsequent thinkers developed a
different model of metaphysics, in which God is integrated into its subject.
II.3. Scotuss concept
Henry of Ghent interpreted ens commune, the subject of metaphysics, as being
common to God and creature in an analogous way33; the logical consequence of
this view is that God is part of the subject. A further step was made by Scotus,
who maintains that the subject of metaphysics is being common to God and creature in a univocal way. Consequently, the consideration of God is part of the explication of the inner modes of being. Scotuss thesis of the univocity of being,
which ushered in a new chapter in the history of the transcendentals, has received much attention. Less attention has been paid to his transformation of the
concept of transcendentality itself.
Scotus does not consider commonness as a necessary condition of a transcendental. It is true, as the doctrines in the thirteenth century taught, that the
communissima are transcendental, but the reverse does not hold; transcendentals are not necessarily the communissima. What is essential for the notion of
transcendental is the negation of everything that belongs to a genus, what is
accidental, on the other hand, is its extension to many things34. This separation
of transcendentality from commonness enables Scotus to include God in the
transcendental domain.
Scotus proposes a new formulation of the traditional view that God is not in
a genus by converting the negative statement nullum dictum de Deo est in genere
into its positive equivalent quodlibet dictum de Deo est transcendens35. Just as
Aristotles negative statement being is not a genus was converted into the positive statement being is a transcendens, so the traditional view that God is not
in a genus was reformulated by Scotus in a positive manner to the effect that what

quentes, ens est hic subiectum in quantum est commune ad decem praedicamenta, et non in quantum est
commune ad omne ens [...]. Intelligitur ergo de ente creato.
33 HENRICUS DE GANDAVO, Summa quaestionum ordinariarum, a. 21, q. 3, ed. Parisiis 1520, f. 126E:
[...] ens commune analogum ad creatorem et creaturam.
34 IOANNES DUNS SCOTUS, Ordinatio, I, dist. 8, pars 1, q. 3, n. 114, ed. Vaticana, IV, 206: [...] ita transcendens quodcumque nullum habet genus sub quo contineatur.Unde de ratione transcendentis est non
habere praedicatum supraveniens nisi ens, sed quod ipsum sit commune ad multa inferiora, hoc accidit.
35 IOANNES DUNS SCOTUS, Ordinatio, I, ebd., n. 112, Adnotatio, ed. Vaticana, IV, 205.

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is proper to God is transcendens. The two poles of metaphysical orientation, that


which is common and that which is divine, are so brought together into the notion of transcendens.
One could wonder whether there is not an ambiguity in this new concept of
transcendentality36. This ambiguity can be illustrated by an idea that is typical
of the Scotistic doctrine, the idea of grades of transcendentality. Petrus
Thomae, a Spanish Scotist of the first half of the fourteenth century, takes these
grades according to the way, in which universals are ordered in the so-called Porphyrian Tree. What is, as it were, genus generalissimum in the order of transcendentals is being (ens); to this grade of transcendentality (transcendentia)
all notions that are convertible with being are reduced. What is, as it were,
species specialissima or rather individuum is the divine essence (essentia divina). Petrus Thomae concludes that what is not transcendental per communitatem communicationis, is nevertheless transcendental propter eminentiam entitatis37.
This conclusion indicates that the Scotist concept of transcendental is
based on two quite different processes of transcensus: the one surpasses what is
categorial by the commonness of predication, the other by the eminence of being. The two poles of the metaphysical orientation, brought together into the notion of transcendens, come back in the double meaning of this concept, which,
in modern terms, could be signified as transcendental and transcendent.
The exact origin of the term transcendentalis, probably framed on analogy with
praedicamentalis, is unknown. In the sixteenth century, Francisco Surez, in his
influential Disputationes metaphysicae, used the term as synonym of transcendens. The emergence (and the success) of the term transcendental could be
motivated by the desire to remove the ambivalence in the concept of transcendens we observed.

Cfr. O. BOULNOIS, Quand commence lontothologie? cit., 108.


PETRUS THOMAE, Quodlibet, p. 1, q. 1, ed. M.R. Hooper / E.M. Buytaert, The Franciscan Institute,
St. Bonaventure, N.Y. 1957, 12: Ad cuius evidentiam est advertendum quod gradus in transcendentibus
sic possunt accipi: in transcendentibus enim invenitur aliquid quod est quasi generalissimum, aliquid
quod est [quasi] genus subalternum, aliquid quod est quasi genus specialissimum, et aliquid quod est
quasi species specialissima. Genus generalissimum, ut ipsum ens; et ad istum gradum transcendentiae
reducuntur omnia convertibilia cum ente; [...] species specialissima, immo quasi individuum, ut divina
essentia. Quaelibet non sic transcendens per communitatem communicationis, est tamen transcendens
propter eminentiam entitatis.
36
37