Responding to Dr. Feser on the Formal Distinction

I’d like to briefly interact with a post by Dr. Edward Feser entitled Scotus on Divine Simplicity and Creation but first let me say I highly recommend Dr. Feser’s work and I also recognize he has reached a level of knowledge I will never be able to attain. With that being said, I’m a little confused by his apparent rejection of the formal distinction offered by Blessed Duns Scotus.

Dr. Feser says:

Scotus does not agree with the Thomist position that theological language is analogical.  He takes such language to be univocal.  Hence when we speak of God’s goodness or wisdom, say, we are using “goodness” and “wisdom” in the same sense as when we speak of human goodness or wisdom.  Now, as applied to human beings, “goodness” and “wisdom” are to be defined differently, and so they are also to be defined differently when applied to God.  But that entails, for Scotus, that there is a formal distinction between God’s goodness and God’s wisdom.

Dr. Jared Goff, a Scotist scholar, stated in an interview I conducted with him here, that univocity for Scotus applies to theological language and syllogisms. However, there is still room for analogical language in Scotism, as can be seen in the writings of Scotus himself. Assuming this is true, it is important for the reader to keep this in mind, because when Dr. Feser correctly notes the Scotist rejects analogical language when speaking of “theological language”, the reader may not be aware that Scotus still made room for analogical language elsewhere. With that distinction to the side, Dr. Feser seems to indicate the Scotist formal distinction was born out of a univocal approach to language, and presumably, we should reject it if we are to maintain analogical language.

If I have understood Dr. Feser correctly (and there is a strong possibility I have not), I do not believe it logically follows that the formal distinction itself is beyond repair. Just because Scotus formulated the distinction because of his commitment to univocity, doesn’t mean one cannot use the concept and adapt it to an analogical approach to language. Is there anything inherent in the formal distinction itself which excludes its use by a Thomist? Dr. Mark Spencer, and Gennadios Scholarios, seem to deny any conclusion of the sort in this paper and in this article. Therefore, I would be inclined to agree with them over Dr. Feser, unless the latter can demonstrate why the formal distinction itself is unsound.

Assuming there is nothing inherent in the formal distinction that makes its use by the Thomist inadmissible, it might be worthy to considers its application for the essence and energies debate, as I briefly demonstrated here. I’ll admit, Dr. Feser’s apparent rejection of the formal distinction was in the context of theological language, creation and voluntarism, but the reader is left with the impression that he rejects the formal distinction in principle because he also states:

For example, Thomists would reject Scotus’s view that theological language is univocal, his notion of a formal distinction, and his voluntarist account of the will.

It is this seemingly sweeping rejection of the formal distinction that may need to be questioned further, for the reasons I’ve stated above.

Leave a Reply