what is univocity?

Univocity, we are told, comes from Duns Scotus. This is said to be a univocity of the concept of being, rather than a univocity of being per se. The exact nature of this distinction is not clear to me.

  1. The former view asserts that we can conceptualise radically different types of being, but the concepts we form of them must contain the same concept of being.
  2. To get to the latter (i.e. the contrast between conceptual and metaphysical univocity) we need something like this: when we conceive putatively radical difference, we conceive it, and thus we do not really conceive it. Yet radical difference may nevertheless be.

For Scotus the inference from (1) to (2) would be underwritten by metaphysical equivocity, as commitment to the latter follows from the distinction between the being of concepts and any being radically different from this type of being.

In this post I consider the following hypothesis: that in Bergson and Deleuze we see an attempt to preserve the idea that radical difference is unthinkable in some interesting sense (i.e. roughly that it requires the use of reason and not just of the understanding), without admitting the need for metaphysical equivocity.

First a note on analogy. Scotus asserts that analogy presupposes univocity, and thus is not a genuine alternative to it. If this means that we cannot conceptualise equivocity, then I suppose it is true, but not especially probative. However, if analogy is just a way of distinguishing between conceptual and metaphysical univocity (specifically, a way of granting the necessity of conceptual univocity whilst preserving metaphysical equivocity), then it won’t be touched by Scotus’ argument – and indeed Scotus himself does not really touch it, since for him God remains metaphysically transcendent.

Now, Scotus gives numerous arguments for conceptual univocity, but I will just gloss one basic argument, which can then guide the rest of the discussion. Let God be as conceptually transcendent as you like – still God is not nothing. Thus, whatever it is that God and I have in common, such that neither of us is nothing, that is the univocal concept of being. Focusing on this argument is particularly useful given the critique of nothingness we find in Bergson, which is adopted by Deleuze. To paraphrase the latter’s account of the former, we attain a homogeneity of being in general by muddling together differences in kind via opposing them all to nothingness (1988:20). The critique of nothingness (and of possibility, these being intertwined), seems to emerge from the first stage of Bergson’s method, where we take the bad composite of space-time and divide it up so as to reach the difference in kind between time and space. The illusions of possibility and nothingness are fundamental and endemic, and here the connection with Kant is explicitly invoked. Of course, if these differences in kind end up being only differences in degree after all, then what was suppressed in the first movement of Bergson’s method will emerge again in the third.

I want to frame the problem as follows: why think that conceptual univocity is mere conceptual univocity? In discussions of Scotus’ position the idea is usually put like this: there is univocal being, but only at the conceptual level. But it is typically not clarified what this distinction presupposes. I suspect that any serious devaluation of conceptual reality along these lines actually requires Scotus’ metaphysical equivocity. This gives us a way of understanding Deleuze’s narrative on univocity, which shows the influence of Bergson: Scotus and Spinoza both accept univocity of predication (i.e. conceptual univocity), but neither accepts univocity of existence understood as metaphysical univocity. (Of course the point is more ambiguous when applied to Spinoza than to Scotus.)

In Creative Evolution, Bergson makes a connection that might seem natural in light of the basic argument for conceptual univocity I have attributed to Scotus:

If we pass (consciously or unconsciously) through the idea of the nought in order to reach that of being, the being to which we come is a logical or mathematical essence, therefore non-temporal (p. 298).

The inference here is from Scotus’ argument to the conclusion that the univocity thus established is logical or mathematical (i.e. conceptual), where this is then contrasted with some other metric for evaluating univocity (temporal-metaphysical for Bergson, generic-metaphysical for Scotus). For Bergson it is because logic is associated with Platonism and timelessness, whereas reality is fundamentally durational, that logical univocity doesn’t get us all the way to metaphysical univocity. (Keep in mind that duration is given for Bergson.) And we know why Scotus rejected the inference from logical to metaphysical univocity: he wanted to preserve the transcendence of God.

Note that Bergson actually thinks that there is no concept of absolute nothingness, and thus that the Scotist argument is fictive in some sense. It is almost as if, for Bergson, the avoidance of transcendence is fused to the avoidance of logic as an arbiter of metaphysical reality. That is more than just saying that logic is not metaphysically neutral – it is something nearer to the view that logic necessarily distorts our view of reality. This theme from Bergson then matures into Deleuze’s critique of representationalist thinking – which the latter associates with analogical thinking and thus with metaphysical equivocity.

For Bergson, it is the same thing to reach (or aspire towards) real univocity, and to reach (or aspire towards) non-logical univocity. That is why we need a special method to do metaphysics – indeed two methods, two types of intuition. At the end of his book on Bergson, Deleuze writes (1988: 112):

Everything happens as if that which remained indeterminate in philosophical intuition gained a new kind of determination in mystical intuition – as though the properly philosophical “probability” extended itself into mystical certainty.

In my mind, however, aspiring for real univocity and moving away from logical univocity are distinct operations, and there is no such thing as “representationalist thinking”, no internal connection between logic and Platonism or immutability. There are only contingently wrong ways of thinking – in particular, the persistent belief that there could not have been nothing. Obviously this is too big of a point to defend here, but mentioning it does at least allow us to see a fork in the road revolving around the following question: why can’t we just equate logical and metaphysical univocity? Some readings of Spinoza certainly proceed in this manner. Again, can’t we just take Scotus’ argument and drop his commitment to the transcendence of God? After all, it seems to be the latter commitment that rules out the former equation – so why not kill two birds with one stone?

It seems to me that the answer to this question for Bergson is that Scotus’ argument presupposes the availability of the concept of absolute nothingness. For Bergson doesn’t only want to argue that “self-sufficient reality is not necessarily foreign to duration” (CE: 298)*, but that nothingness is a pseudo-concept. Indeed he even offers an argument linking these two points in terms of the PSR: if there could have been nothing, then any possible reality is to this extent insufficiently grounded. That is, if we admit the coherence of the concept of nothingness, then we have to posit logically necessary existence, which leads us back to Spinoza or Leibniz (CE: 276-7) – since only logically necessary existence is sufficient to conquer non-existence. (Without the PSR this is a fallacy: logically possible existence is sufficient to conquer the necessity of non-existence.)

Again, if we accept the legitimacy of the question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’, we invariably end up failing to grant duration the ontological status it deserves. For Bergson rejecting nothingness is key to rendering the PSR compatible with duration and freedom.

Deleuze’s understanding of univocity is mediated by Bergson and he has an unusual argument for it that bears the mark of this influence: univocity, he says, means that beings cannot be categorically or formally distinct but only different in degree of power. (I am paraphrasing from one of his lectures.) Being is power (or at least, this is one of the names of Being), and each being realises this unique being to a different degree. The connection here between univocity and the denial of ultimate differences in kind is developed in Bergsonism. There we see that univocity precludes the difference in kind between memory and matter, as it does between Substance and modes – but only after the original way of denying this difference (via the spatialisation of time) is corrected.

This Deleuze-Bergson argument is worth examining. I will look at it in my next post. After criticising it I will examine what Deleuze has to say about possibility, before attempting in (in the same sketchy manner I have proceeded in this post) to articulate an understanding of univocity in terms of the original Scotist argument, based as it is on the concept of nothingness.

*cf. Deleuze (1988: 15): ‘reconciling truth and creation’.


  • Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, trans. Arthur Mitchell, (Dover: 1998).
  • Gilles Deleuze, Bergsonism, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam, (Zone: 1988).
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