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.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Duns Scotus: Quid sit Praxis?

THE WILL OF MAN IS A RATIONAL faculty: the will is bound hand-in-glove with the intellect in all human moral acts, in that confluence of intellect and free will that gives rise to rationally-drive acts Scotus calls praxis, actio. The word praxis is a transliteration of the Greek word πρᾶξις. The word is adopted by Scotus from Aristotle where he used it as one of three basic activities of free men: theoria (θεωρία), praxis (πρᾶξις), and poiesis (ποίησις), which correspond respectively with three kinds of knowledge, theoretical, practical, and productive. (In Latin, the corresponding words are contemplatio (or contemplation), actio (action), and creatio (fabrication or creation).

The word praxis includes both the practice by which an intellectual or practical habit may be acquired, as well as the manner in which an idea is applied to, realized, or made extrinsic. It has therefore a very practical connotation. Although Aristotle used the term praxis within the context of politics or social life, Scotus applied it to the ethical life. It is an important concept in his thought. Indeed, according to Nikolaus Lobkowicz, Duns Scotus was the first medieval thinker to pose explicitly the problem of praxis, the first, moreover to ask simply, "What is action?" Quid sit praxis?* References to praxis pepper Scotus's works.

What is praxis? For Scotus, praxis or action is "an act of some power or faculty other than the intellect, that naturally follows an act of knowledge or intellection, and is suited by nature to be elicited in accord with correct knowledge if it is to be right." Lectura, prol., pars 4, qq. 102 (Wolter, 127).

Various components are identified by Scotus in that short definition. Praxis is something other than the intellect, i.e., it is something that stems from the will. Praxis follows the intellect and so in some ways is guided but not necessarily compelled by the intellect. Praxis is an elicited act as it follows an elicited act of free will, and, in a sense, may even be said to that elicited act of free will. Finally, praxis is ordered by nature to conform to true practical knowledge if it is to be right. This suggest both that there is a true and false practical knowledge, and that an elicited act of will can be right or wrong, and so ultimately a right praxis, a praxis strictly so called, and a wrong praxis, a praxis which is inauthentic. To be right and true, praxis must be based upon an elicited act of free will that corresponds to true practical knowledge. Praxis will be wrong or false, and not really praxis at all, either if the prior practical knowledge which the elicited act of will relies upon is wrong or if the elicited act of free will chooses something other than what the practical intellect shows as true.

Praxis then is an elicited act of will separate and apart from the intellect since it comes after an act of intellect. It is something that pushes outward, external from the mind as it were into the world at large, to think, to make, to do, to use, to hate, to love. Whatever action may be involved, it extends outside itself: it has impulse, action, resolve: it affects others in the world at large even while affecting one's self. It is, however, first informed by the intellect, and so it is rationally-driven. Actions that are not preceded by intellectual activity are not praxeis. The beating heart, the digestive process, the powers of sense, the so-called acts of man, do not involve prior intellectual acts and so are not comprehended by praxis. "[N]othing," says Scotus, "is formally praxis except a commanded or elicited act of the will, because no act other than that of the will is elicited in agreement with a prior act of the intellect. For the actions of all the other powers could precede any act of the intellect, but not so with an act of the will." Id. (Wolter, 128) In short, the free will and the practical intellect are combined in praxis, the intellect proposing, the will commanding. It is in praxis, action, that the will and the practical intellect combine. Repeated praxeis lead to habits, to virtue, and then these habits inform future praxis.

Scotus states that praxis "is suited by nature to be elicited in agreement with right knowledge for the practice to be right." Lectura, prol., pars 4, qq. 1-2 (Wolter, 127) For praxis or moral action to be right, the elicited or commanded act of will must be in agreement with right knowledge. Accordingly, there is practical knowledge that is right and practical knowledge that is wrong. The former steers the will the right way. The latter steers the will in the wrong way. But it is apparent that not only must the practical knowledge in the intellect be in accord with truth, the elicited act must correspond to that truth. Scotus acknowledges the possibility that the elicited act could be contrary to what the intellect rightly points out as true. Though the intellect has an obvious important role to play, in Scotus's view, the will is the principal factor that makes an act praxis or practical, and in fact, it is the elicited act of free will, and not necessarily the end result, that is praxis.

Since a commanded act has the character of praxis only because of some elicited act that could precede it possesses such, it follows that only the will's elicited act is primarily praxis. And because the formal meaning of praxis is to be found primarily in an act of the will, all other actions are practice only in virtue of some act of the will.

Furthermore, a practical act is in the power of the practitioner. But no action is solely in our power except an act of the will and by virtue of such. Hence, praxis or practice is primarily attributed to an act of the will.

Lectura, prol., pars 4, qq. 102 (Wolter, 128). Scotus states later in his discussion that "praxis generally is not the end result," meaning that praxis is not the defined by its end; rather praxis is the will-act itself and is defined by its object. And yet praxis is concerned with both means and end, but in a manner the praxis that deals with means is also subsumed in the praxis that deals with the end. (Wolter, 135).

In some ways, Scotus's notion of praxis is conventional. In other ways, it represents and innovation. One way in which Scotus is conventional is in his division of theoretical and practical knowledge. The sort of knowledge that is involved when it comes to action or practice (praxis) is practical knowledge, not merely theoretical knowledge. Theoretical knowledge "remains within the intellect alone," whereas practical knowledge "extends to practice." Lectura prol, pars. 4, qq. 1-2 (Wolter, 127). In dividing the intellect into theoretical and practical, Scotus follows the traditional distinction between the practical intellect and reason and the theoretical intellect and reason. The reason that is specific to the will and which informs its role in commanding action is practical reason, and its knowledge (scientia) is practical. It is thereby distinguished from speculative or theoretical knowledge which never ventures outward, as it were, into the world at large. Speculative knowledge is knowledge for knowledge's sake. Practical knowledge is knowledge for action's sake.

Scotus distinguishes between the intellect, knowledge-habit, and act. He rejects Godfrey of Fontaine's view that the intellect, having an end in view, is only incidentally or accidentally practical, and that only knowledge-habit and act, having an object in view, are essentially practical. Scotus does not accept the proposition that the intellect proposes an end and the will is really only involved in the object, in the means to that end, as if the will were a servant to the intellect. Scotus insists that "it is in virtue of the same thing that intellect, act, and habit are called practical," though he agrees that the intellect is accidentally practical, whereas habit and act are essentially practical. He rejects Godfrey of Fontaine's intellect/end and habit-act/object distinction. Praxis incorporates both the end and the means to that end.

Scotus also rejects Henry of Ghent's proposition that it is the end in view that makes a habit practical, and in fact what is the principle circumstance to be considered in determining the rightness or wrongness of an act. Rather, Scotus insists that it is the object and not the end that defines whether the intellect, the habit, or the act are considered practical or not. "It is by reason of the object that knowledge is called practical," and what is true of the intellect is true of the habit and of the act. It is focus upon the object that distinguishes the speculative intellect and theoretical knowledge or habit from the practical intellect and practical knowledge or habit.

As a result of his rejection of the concept that the intellect is involved with the end, and the practical knowledge only with the means, Scotus insists that theology is a practical science. He rejects Henry of Ghent's proposition that theology is not concerned with praxis since it is only concerned with the end, that is, God, and not with the means required to obtain that end. The will, Scotus points out, is concerned with both ends and means. The will is concerned not only with the general end, but with the end in particular, in the concrete. There has to be some faculty that determines whether a particular act is suited to both the end in general and the end in particular, and when the particular end is God, "theology is practical, directing one to a particular end," God Himself. (Wolter, 131). Because theology is directive, it follows that it is a practical science.
[O]ne must say that theology is purely and simply a practical habit. For it is a a practical consideration that is the sort of consideration that is naturally prior to praxis, in agreement with which practice is suited by nature to be elicited in the right way. . . . There are two conditions, then, for a consideration to be practical. One is agreement with praxis, and this it has from its object, which it apprehends directly. The other is the note of priority, which it has from the intellect. Therefore the intellect apprehending an object accord to rules which praxis can be caused through the movement of the will is practical. But the intellect perfected by the habit of theology apprehends God as one who should be loved and according to rules from which praxis can be elicited. Therefore, the habit of theology is practical.
Wolter, 132.

The Scotist emphasis on free will informed by the intellect, and on its role in praxis results in a fascinating application. For Scotus, God is not a Being that is only intellectually known. For Scotus, God is a Being that is practically known. In other words, God is known by praxis, or perhaps better yet, God is done by praxis. God is the "doable knowable," the cognoscibile operabile, an object of knowledge that can only be reached by praxis, by action.** And ultimately, praxis is driven by one law: Deus diligendus est. The central principle of praxis is the immutable principle that Deus diligendus est, God is to be loved. So fundamental is it that even the praxeis of God are in accord with it. "Divine power is governed by the fundamental principle of praxis: Deus diligendus est (God is to be loved)," Ingham writes. "As a necessary axiom for all moral judgment, even God chooses in accord with it." Ingham, 30. Man ought to do no less.

*This post relies upon Antonino Poppi, "La nozione di πραξιϛ e di φρóνησιϛ nell' Ordinatio di Giovanni Duns Scoto," Historia Philosophiae Medii Aevi (1992), 873-86. Unfortunately, only some excerpts and not the entire article were available to me. Poppi refers to N. Lobkowicz, Theory and Practice: A History of a Concept from Aristotle to Marx (London: Notre Dame, 1967), 71.
See Lobkowicz, 74.

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