Modern Ontology – How Did We Get Here? Pt. 2

In my last entry, I examined Charles Taylor’s explanation of what a pre-modern ontology consisted in. I value Taylor’s work extremely, in large part because instead of focusing simply on the articulation of the beliefs of significant individuals, he focuses on reconstructing an entire habitus: “the lifestyle, values, dispositions and expectations of particular social groups that are acquired through the activities and experiences of everyday life.” 

I, however, will not be able to do that, and must instead work with significant thinkers. In today’s post, I will examine the philosophical groundwork that was laid during the high medieval period (the same period Taylor was discussing on the level of habitus), which in turn permitted the development of a modernist epistemology and ontology. Subsequent posts will look at the thinking of key Reformation thinkers as they work out this new construal in various ways. 


II. Foundations of Ontological Change

The world described in my last post is a sacramental world, where elements are thought to cohere with one another in ways moderns regard as magical, because it rested on a sacramental ontology. This ontology understood reality (or being) as participating in God in a neo-platonic sense (we can trace this from early times through Athanasius and into Aquinas). Knowledge concomitantly was understood as functioning by sacramental analogy, in a schema in which

both faith and reason are included within the more generic framework of participation in the mind of God: to reason truly one must be already illumined by God, while revelation itself is but a higher measure of such illumination, conjoined intrinsically and inseparably with a created event which symbolically discloses that transcendent reality, to which all created events to a lesser degree also point.[1]

 This is what is meant by a sacramental ontology.

Duns Scotus (1266 – 1308), however, “argued that the idea of analogous being simply does not make sense.”[2] James K.A. Smith describes Scotus’s perspective: “Both the Creator and the creature exist in the same way or in the same sense. Being, now, becomes a category that is unhooked from participation in God and is a more neutral or abstract qualifier that is applied to God and creatures in the same way.”[3] Hans Boersma explains that this concept of Scotus’s, the univocity of being as opposed to participation, “serves as one of the blades of modernity’s scissors that cut the real, sacramental presence of God in the natural world.”[4] Scotus’s univocity of being flattens the ontological horizon. This by no means demanded the diminution of sacramentality, but it was a necessary and even sufficient condition for thinkers to do so. With this framework in place, it became possible to “understand being in an unambiguous, sheerly  ‘existential’ sense, as the object of a proposition, without reference to God, who is later claimed ‘to be’ in the same univocal manner.”[5]

A second philosophical move that allowed of the reconfiguring of sacramentality was the move of William of Ockham (1287 – 1347) toward nominalism.[6] In a debate that can be traced in virtually identical terms to Plato and Aristotle, Ockham favored the Aristotelian assertion that universal forms have no existence independent of the minds that perceive (rightly or wrongly) the commonality between disparate objects. Hence, Ockham’s main point was that “there is no need to postulate any factors other than the mind and individual things in order to explain the universal. The universal concept arises simply because there are varying degrees of similarity between things.”[7]

For Ockham, any two things were similar not because they shared or participated in some “form” or “nature,” but simply because God (who, thanks to Scotus’s univocity of being, is no longer necessarily tied to the conditions of creation) willed them to be similar.[8] This willing on God’s part is arbitrary as regards creation: God could have willed otherwise. With these two pieces in place, it was inevitable that nature would come to be seen as “fully equipped to act without special divine assistance.”[9]  Moreover, “if the actual order of nature functioned as an independent entity directed only by its own teleology, the elevation to grace had to be regarded as a divine addition to the realm of nature.”[10] Nature had become, in principle, disenchanted: whereas all things had been understood to participate in the being of God and find their coherence therein, now two distinct orders could be perceived, and places such as churches and graveyards as well as acts such as the Eucharist or baptism could be seen as belonging in one or the other. This is the first step, both logically and chronologically, in the modern diminution of sacramentality.

A similar move occurred along moral grounds, and we see in a successive series of attempts at reform a critique of the established church’s handling of the power that it possessed in the form of blessed bread, blessed candles, holy water, saints’ relics and the like. The church had always had to “police the boundary between the licit and the illicit” uses of such power, as “there were always dubious uses of causal power, like employing the Host as a love charm; and frankly evil ones, like a Mass for the dead said for a living person, in order to hasten his demise.”[11] But beginning with Wycliffe (1320–1384) and the Lollards, then the Hussites, and eventually taking root in the Protestant Reformation was a critique of the whole concept that these things had power in themselves irrespective of the merit or intentions of the one invoking the power.[12] This came to a head particularly in Northern European debates over indulgences, a central issue to the Reformation. Yet for the moral and social critique to enter into the realm of arguments that could be leveled in the first place, the kinds of philosophical moves Scotus and Ockham had put in play were required. The Reformers, then, were not the initiators of modernity, as might appear on a surface–level reading, but were the first inheritors of modernity come of age.

This inheritance is what we will be examining next. 

[1] John Milbank, “The Theological Critique of Philosophy,” Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology (London, Routledge: 1999), 24.

[2] Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011), 74.

[3] James K. A. Smith, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-Secular Theology (Grand Rapids,

MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 97.

[4] Boersma, Heavenly Participation, 74.

[5] John Milbank, “Only Theology Overcomes Metaphysics,” New Blackfriars 76 (1995): 334.

[6] “Toward” as Ockham affirmed the existence of universals as concepts in our minds, therefore remaining, technically, a conceptualist rather than a nominalist himself. Nevertheless, it was doubtless Ockham who pushed the

[7] Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, 3 vols. (New York, NY: Image/Doubleday, 1963), III:69.

[8] Boersma, Heavenly Participation, 81.

[9] Louis Dupré, Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1993), 177.

[10] Ibid., emphasis mine.

[11] Taylor, 72.

[12] Taylor, 72.



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