Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Duns Scotus: The Distinctio Formalis a Parte Rei

WHAT ARE THE ROLES OF THE WILL AND THE INTELLECT in any moral act according to Duns Scotus? How do these two interact? In answering this question, we must understand that Scotus looks at the will and intellect differently from St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Thomas Aquinas sees a real distinction between the the powers of the soul of intellect and will. "[T]he powers of the soul," says St. Thomas in his Summa Theologiae (S.T. Ia, q. 77, a. 1, ad. 5), "may be said to be a medium between substance and accident, as being natural properties of the soul."* The human power of cognition is therefore really different from human appetition in St. Thomas. The distinction between man's intellect and will is a distinction based upon reality, a distinctio realis, a real distinction.

For Scotus, on the other hand, the distinction between will and intellect not a real difference, yet it is more than merely conceptual or intellectual difference, a distinctio rationis. The difference or distinction between intellect and will is based upon difference with a catch or link with reality, a distinctio formalis a parte rei. Although the distinction between intellect and will is more than a mere concept without any basis in reality, the distinction has a much more attenuated link with reality: it is not a real link, but only a formal link. It refers to two "thinglets" or realitates (the "thinglet" or realitas of intellect and the "thinglet" or realitas of will) in one really indivisible thing or res (the soul).

There is no substantive or even accidental difference between the intellect and the will in Scotus. Scotus takes this position because he will not divide the soul from its powers inasmuch as for him it is not the intellect which thinks and the will which chooses but the soul which thinks through the forms of the intellect and chooses through the form of the will. To see the will or intellect as anything other than formal differences within the soul acting is to attribute to the will or intellect a separateness from the human soul which Scotus finds unacceptable. And yet the distinction between intellect and will is not purely a mental construct: it has some basis in reality. For this reason, Scotus devised a new distinction, one that entered into the annals of philosophy as the distinctio formalis a parte rei. It is central to almost all aspects of his thinking, including his moral philosophy or moral theology.

There are [in Scotus] . . . various 'formalities' in the one human soul, which, though not really distinct (separable) from one another, are distinct with a distinctio formalis a parte rei, since the intellectual [and volitional], sensitive and vegetative activities are formally and objectively distinct; but they are formalities of the one rational soul of man.

Copleston, 536. For Scotus:
[T]he psychological faculties of intellect and will are really identical with the soul but formally distinct from one another, since what it is to be an intellect does not include the will, and what it is to be a will does not include the intellect.
King, 23.

The will and the intellect are therefore much more intimately bound to the human soul and to each other in Scotus's thinking relative to St. Thomas.

The difference between a real distinction and a formal distinction is important to grasp if we want to appreciate the difference between Thomist ethics and Scotist ethics. This is more than esoterica.

The distinctio formalis a parte rei [formal distinction on the side of/with respect of the thing], was a Scotist innovation, and it is a marked feature of the entire corpus of his philosophy. We might quote De Wulf on this:

Scotus invented a new distinction which he called the distinctio formalis a parte rei. While the distinctio realis [real distinction] exists between two really different things, and the distinctio rationis [distinction of reason] multiplies our concepts of one and the same thing, to enable us to consider it from different (d[istinctio] rationis cum fundamento in re [distinction of reason with a foundation in the thing]) or identical (d[istinctio] rationis sine fundamento in re [distinction of reason without foundation in the thing]) standpoints, the distinctio formalis a parte rei points, in one and the same individual substance, to the objective forms or formalities that are realized in it, and really in it, independently of any intellectual act of ours. Having once established this distinctio formalis a parte rei, Scotus makes extensive use of it in his metaphysics. It exists between materia primo prima and its various substantial forms, between God and His attributes, between the soul and its faculties, and in general between the metaphysical grades of being. It pervades the whole Scotist system, and has given the latter a name: by his "formalism" Scotus wished at all costs to remain true to scholasticism.

Maurice De Wulf, History of Medieval Philosophy (P. Coffey, trans.) (London: Longmans Green & Co., 1909), s. 330.

This formal distinction of Scotus is a distinction intermediate between what is merely conceptual (or in the mind) and what is fully real or independent of the mind. We might first try to understand the terms.

A distinctio realis, a distinction in reality, exists between one type of thing and another type of thing: a ball and a peanut are really different, they are different, clearly separable things. There is a distinctio realis, a real distinction, between a ball and a peanut, or between matter and spirit, or between Peter and Paul.

There is a real distinction between a ball and a peanut

The distinction has essentially no origin in the mind, though clearly the mind grasps it. The source or cause of that distinction, however, is entirely or primarily outside the mind: the mind is more or less a passive recipient of that distinction. If there were no mind, the distinction would still exist. St. Thomas would say that the difference between intellect and will is a distinctio realis.

There is a real distinction between Peter and Paul

Some distinctions, however, are entirely mental. We are then dealing with a distinctio rationis. Their origin is only in the mind, and they have no tie to the real at all or their tie to reality may be irrelevant. So, for example, in Ariosto's "Orlando Furioso," we are treated to the distinction between a Griffin, and a Hippogriffin, the Griffin's progeny when mating with a horse. The distinction between these two objects is wholly within the mind since the object has no existence in reality:
For him a filly to griffin bore;
Hight hippogryph. In wings and beak and crest,
Formed like his sire, as in the feet before;
But like the mare, his dam, in all the rest.
Such on Riphaean hills, though rarely found,
Are bred, beyond the frozen ocean's bound.

If there were not some mind--in this instance Ariosto's--to think up this difference between a Griffin and Hippogriffin, it would not exist. This is a distinctio rationis.

There is a mere conceptual difference between a griffin and a hippogriffin

A distinctio rationis can also exist when the mind applies itself to real things, and yet the distinction is a creation of the mind. The distinction has its origin in the mind, though it refers to something real. Again, if there were no mind making the distinction there would be no distinction. There has to be a mind distinguishing for the distinction to exist.

A silver Russian samovar: A decorative heirloom? A means to serve tea?

A silver Russian samovar may be looked at as a means to serve tea or a decorative heirloom. The thing, the res, is the same: a silver Russian samovar. The distinction between it being a means to serve tea or a decorative heirloom is a difference only in the mind's vantage point, in the form taken in the mind. The distinction is in the mind's eye and not in the thing itself. Today may be seen as yesterday's tomorrow or tomorrow's yesterday. Venus may be conceived as the Morning Star or the Evening Star. King, 22.** When referring to Felix, there is no real difference in referring to him as a "black cat," a "chat noir," a "gato negro," or a "schwarze Katze." The distinctions are just names, not in the one cat whoever denominated. Felix, regardless how called, is always the same reality, and calling him the "black cat" or the "chat noir" means nothing outside the mind. Here the distinction is entirely nominal, and nominal rational distinctions do not exist in reality, though they may refer to a real thing.

There are some distinctions that refer to parts of a whole, and yet are real, not intellectual. The difference between Socrates and his hand, between soul and body, between matter and form are real distinctions which we grasp in the mind, but which are real because they have a foundation in reality. In St. Thomas, this is the difference between intellect and will. These are also distinctiones reali.

As King describes the fundamental difference between a distinctio rationis and distinctio realis:
[A distinctio rationis], a distinction of reason, or conceptual distinction . . . is at least partially man-made . . . . In technical terms, the intellect is a total or partial cause of the conceptual distinction. Furthermore, there may be some ground in reality for the mind's drawing a conceptual distinction, a ground which may even cause the mind to do so. But even if there is, what makes a distinction conceptual, rather than real in the broad sense, is not whether there is some objective ground in reality for the distinction [which is irrelevant] but whether the distinction is the product of some sort of mental activity.
King, 22.

Scotus, however, perceived some distinctions that hovered somewhere in between a pure distinctiones reali and a distinctiones rationi. This distinction was less than a distinctio realis, yet more than a distinctio rationis. Scotus found distinctions even here, and he identified formal distinctions and modal distinctions as distinctions hovering between real distinctions and purely conceptual or rational distinctions. As King describes Scotus's "core intuition" regarding formal distinctions, or disinctiones formali:

The core intuition behind Scotus's formal distinction [distinctio formalis] is, roughly, that existential inseparability does not entail identity in definition, backed up by the conviction that this is a fact about the way things are rather than how we conceive them. Since formally distinct items are existentially inseparable, they are really identical, in the sense just defined. Hence, the formal distinction only applies to a single real thing.

King, 22.

A distinctio formalis, a purely formal distinction, is not a distinctio realis. It is, however, not purely a construct of the intellect, a distinctio rationis. A formal distinction exists when one considers the same thing but under different aspects, different perspectives, or different vantage points which have some basis in reality. Some distinctions have some tie to differences or distinctions in the thing, but those these distinctions are not real in the sense that they refer to different things. While they don't refer to different things, they refer to formal distinctions in something one identical thing.

Mount Everest has a North Face and has a South Face. The North Face of Everest is still Mt. Everest, just as the South Face of Everest is still Everest. The North Face of Everest is a realitate or "thinglet" of the thing or res of Everest. It has a link with reality, but it is not a different thing from Mt. Everest. And so also mutatis mutandis for the South Face of Everest. The distinction between the faces of Mt. Everest is a distinctio formalis a parte rei.

The North Face of Everest and the South Face of Everest
A distinctio formalis a parte rei

As King describes Scotus's insight:

The presence of formally distinct items within a thing provides a real basis for our deployment of different concepts regarding that thing, which are thereby anchored in reality. For, by definition, formally distinct items exhibit different properties, and these can serve as the basis for our distinction concepts.

King, 23. While formal distinctions do not refer to different things (res), to real distinctions, yet they refer to distinctions within one thing (res); therefore, one might say that formal distinctions refers to different "thinglets," or different realitates, within one thing or res. [Realitates--"thinglets"--or realitas--"thinglet"--is the diminutive of res--thing (or things, the plural is the same form).] Cf. King, 23. This insight is the famous Scotist distinctio formalis a parte rei.

Again, the formal distinction is more than just conceptual, a parte intellectus: "[f]or the formal and the modal distinctions mark out differences that exist independently of any activity on the part of the intellect." King, 22. The Scotist distinctio formalis a parte rei is more than merely a nominal distinction. It is formal or intellectual distinction of "thinglets" existing in the mind but which are not real "things" with separate existence, but are rather operations or distinctions within the one thing. The distinction is formal, formalis, and yet it has some relation to reality, and therefore it is a parte rei. The distinction which the mind perceives is not wholly one fabricated in the mind; it is a distinction which has some basis in the thing.

In addition to his famous formal distinction, Scotus also identified a modal distinction, a distinctio modalis. This distinction "is meant to be an even lesser distinction than the formal distinction, but nevertheless real in the broad sense." King, 23.

The core intuition behind Scotus's modal distinction is, roughly, that some natures come in a range of degrees that are inseparably a part of what they are, and that this is a fact about the way things are rather than about how we conceive of them.

King, 25.

A modal distinction, certainly based in the real, between Hayek and Wildenstein

For example, despite all her plastic surgery (or perhaps because of it), Jocelyn Wildenstein is uglier than, say, Salma Hayek. There is a modal distinction, a distinctio modalis a parte rei, between Salma Hayek and Jocelyn Wildenstein in the degree of beauty. This distinction is more than just mental: it has an obvious basis in reality. Yet it is a distinction that is not formal since the difference is within the same form (beauty), and expresses a differentiation within that form, based upon a degree of participation or expression of it.
*ST, Iª q. 77 a. 1 ad 5 ("mediae inter substantiam et accidens, quasi proprietates animae naturales."
**Peter King, "Scotus on Metaphysics" in Thomas Williams, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Duns Scotus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).


  1. A few comments:

    --there is no 'modal distinction' in Scotus. There are intrinsic modes, but Scotus never discusses the degree of reality or distinctionthat corresponds to them.

    --King (and Wolter, which is where this originally comes from) are incorrect in claiming that the -tas ending in latin is diminutive (cf. realitas, formalitas). it is abstract. there are no 'thinglests' or whatnot in Scotus.

    --I also don't think that the distinction between intellect and will is especially relevant to ethics. You claim this, but spent the post talking about thef ormal distinction. It would perhaps be more fruitful to discuss the 'metaphysical priority' issue instead, and the relation between acts of will and intellect.

    --scotus' division of distinctions is between those that obtain ex natura rei and those that do not. He defines this term as referring to things that are distinct prior to the operation of any intellect, including the divine. So both the real distinction and the formal disitnction are ex natura rei distinctions that obtain prior to the operation of any intellect. the distinguishing feature between them is separability. a real actual distinction entails the possibility of separability and obtains between items such as the body and soul, form and matter, etc. A formal distinction requires that the distinguenda be inseparable, save by an act of the intellect which can perform 'ultimate abst4raction' on the distinguenda and distinguish their distinct definitions.

    --finally, the 'formal distinction' had numerous antecedents in the franciscan tradition, at least as far back as Bonaventure.

  2. Lee Faber:
    I appreciate your comments. My posts are efforts at struggling with the Scotist material, and your comments are very much appreciated. I have looked at your blog, and can see how much you are devoted to Scotus.
    I tend to agree with your critique of the translation of realitas as "thinglet," as it tends to re-reify, as it were, a distinction which should be formal, abstracted from the real, and not really divisible from the thing. The most obvious substitutes--the English reality and realities--do not seem to capture the notion of realitas, as the words seem to connote something more broad or general than, not necessarily something abstracted from, a res or thing. Do you have any suggestions?

    I intend to address the relationship between will and intellect, and the notion of which has primacy over which. I thought that the difference in understanding will and intellect in Scotus was an important predicate to the subject. But in terms of Scotus's moral theology, I think the issue of primacy of the will over the intellect and the manner of their interaction is more central.

    I think these words of yours captures what I have been able to get from this issue: "A formal distinction requires that the distinguenda be inseparable, save by an act of the intellect which can perform 'ultimate abstraction' on the distinguenda and distinguish their distinct definitions." Now, if I understand it, the distinguenda (which are inseparable from the res) are realitates in the res.

    Thanks for mentioning my postings on your blog.

  3. I'm not entirely sure what realities are, but formalities at least are definitions that are not fabricated by the mind (Thomas himself defined rationes thus in his Scriptum super I SEnt. and this was an area of rapprochment between thomists and scotists in the 14th cen.).

    Off the top of my head, I'm not sure if the distinguenda in a formal distinction are realitates or not. But the are certainly formalitates.

    The formal distinction is probably the aspect of Scotus' thought that has caused the most controversy, at least insofar as people disagreed about what it meant. A good overview of both the modern and 14th cen. debate can be found in Dumont's 2005 article in Vivarium, 'duns scotus parisian teaching on the formal disitnction' if you have access to a library.