October 04, 2005

Scotus, Heidegger, and Derrida

Back in 1915 Heidegger wrote his thesis on the philosophy of Duns Scotus. Even in his latter work you can see echos of Scotus in his thought. His work on Scotus focused in on the theory of categories and meaning. Scotus had argued that Aristotle's categories of being was but one system and did not exhaust reality. To those familiar with C. S. Peirce note that his focus on categories started with Kant, but quickly oriented around Scotus as well. Indeed like Scotus he focused on various systems of categorization based upon a three-fold recursive method of categorizing being. One of Scotus' many significant contributions to philosophy was the recognition that different disciplines require different categories. Most importantly he broke with Aristotle in the belief that one could easily discern all the kinds of categories from a quick look at nature. Thus for Scotus the question of metaphysics, the study of being qua being, becomes the question of how an object gives itself to a subject. Put an other way, it becomes an analysis of how a subject comes to interpret objects.

This sounds very Kantian, and there are many important parallels. I confess I don't know if Kant was familiar with Scotus. But just as we can see a kind of proto-phenomenology in Kant, I think we can in Scotus as well. (And while many argue for important differences, both Heidegger and Peirce develop a phenomenology that recognizes this multiplicity of categories as objects give themselves to a subject. Further both reject a simple theory of correspondence in terms of there being some clear mirror of reality. For Peirce this is manifest in his strong fallibilism as well as what some term his semiotic realism. For Heidegger truth becomes unveiling rather than correspondence.
Most interesting is the role of semiotics in metaphysics. For Scotus this "tie" between hermeneutics, signs and reality is quite pronounced. It is for both Heidegger and Scotus as well. The significance of any phenomena, its meaning and reality, must be seen to arise holistically out of our understanding and activities. I believe in Peirce we can see a similar move with the pragmatic maxim that the meaning of anything is found in its practical consequences. (Meaning not what we do because we believe, but what we do to establish the meaning as true) I could go on with all sorts of parallels along these lines. However I'm not here to write a paper. I just want to point out that two rather important traditions: the realist forms of pragmatism and Heideggarian phenomenology can find a common base in Duns Scotus. As such, I think many readers of this blog might find Scotus rather a significant figure.
I have to confess that I've started up reading on Scotus many times. However those of you who've delved into medieval philosophy know that it is at times an alien landscape. The Cambridge Companion to Duns Scotus is one of the better examples in that series. (Some, like the Companion to Heidegger, are a bit of a disappointment) I'd heartily recommend it. However an other excellent source (and what started this whole train of thought) is the web site of Peter King from the University of Toronto. He remarkably has almost all his philosophical writings up online. I've been reading through some of his writings on Duns Scotus and he does the remarkable job of taking a difficult philosopher and making him very accessible. OK, perhaps not that accessible. You'll quickly be plunged into lots of categories and metaphysics. But I find him an excellent historical philosopher.If I could suggest a few writings that I intend to go back and reread because they were so good:Duns Scotus' Metaphysics. This was one of the better articles in the afore mention Cambridge book. It is excellent and I'd heartily recommend it to introduce Scotus. If you're interested in Heidegger or Peirce (or for reasons I'll get to Derrida) I think you might enjoy it.
Duns Scotus on the Common Nature. This is extremely interesting relative to Heidegger's Being and Time period. Further, I think a lot of his deconstruction of Leibniz in The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic end up being similar to Scotus as well. The basic question is what takes us from the common nature (say horseness) to the individual. Not only is this relevant to Heidegger, but more particularly to Derrida. Scotus says that when an individual differentia is combined with the common nature the result is the concrete individual that really differs from all else and yet really is the same as others of the same kind. How Scotus considers this, especially as he contrasts it with universals as understood at the period, is quite interesting. I confess this is one I'll be rereading a few times. A quick quote from King: "the individual differentia, then, must produce this primary diversity, and hence involve no general or categorial features in itself." (12) I should note, that I believe there are very important differences here from Heidegger or Derrida. This isn't some proto-differance.
October 10, 2004:

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