Henry of Ghent and John Duns Scotus on the Formal Distinction

I’m currently writing on Henry of Ghent and soon I’m going to start looking at Scotus’s interpretation of him, so I found the following quote very interesting:

“If I am not mistaken, the precise difference between Scotus and Henry boils down to this. If you grant their common scholastic assumption that our concepts and reality are somehow isomorphic, then the mere possibility of conceiving one property without the other requires some actual nonidentity or distinction of properties a parte rei logically prior to and as a condition for our thinking of one apart from the other. (Recall in this connection what Wittgenstein says in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 2.012-2.0121). One can of course deny the isomorphism as Ockham does, but if you concede it as Aquinas and henry do, it seems difficult to escape Scotus’s conclusion.”

–Allan Wolter, “The Realism of Scotus,” The Journal of Philosophy, 1962: 729.

The distinctio formalis is one aspect of one of Duns Scotus’s most original philosophical theses, namely his view that an individual thing is the particular individual it is in virtue of some principle which he calls its haecceitas. Richard Cross has a good article on medieval theories of haecceity which explores Scotus in much more depth on this question, if someone is interested.

Here are the Wittgenstein quotes referenced:

2.012. “In logic nothing is accidental: if a thing can occur in an atomic fact the possibility of that atomic fact must already be prejudged in the thing.”

2.0121. “It would, so to speak, appear as an accident, when to a thing that could exist alone on its own account, subsequently a state of affairs could be made to fit.”

“If things can occur in atomic facts, this possibility must already lie in them. (A logical entity cannot be merely possible. Logic treats of every possibility, and all possibilities are its facts.)”

“Just as we cannot think of spatial objects at all apart from space, or temporal objects apart from time, so we cannot think of any object apart from the possibility of its connexion with other things.”

“If I can think of an object in the context of an atomic fact, I cannot think of it apart from the possibility of this context.”


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