In Libri 1, Quaestio XX, sec. 26, of Duns Scotus's In Octo Libros Physicorum Aristotelis, Duns Scotus gives expression to a common tenet of a doctrine of the Forms when he writes

[S]ed forma non cognoscitur nisi ex operationibus....

which roughly translates as "[B]ut form is not known [to us] except from [its] operations".

I have two questions about this:

  1. Is "operationibus" dative or ablative in this construction? I know that "ex" typically takes the ablative, but Allen and Greenough's New Latin Grammar notes that "ex" + dative can occur as the Dative of Separation, a form of the Dative of Reference (sec. 381):

    Note. -- The Dative of Separation is a variety of the Dative of Reference. It represents the action as done to the person or thing, and is thus more vivid than the Ablative.

    That would sort of make sense if the idea was to emphasize how the Forms "impress themselves upon us". I suppose that would make the better translation something like "[B]ut form is not known [to us] except by reference to [its] operations [on us] (?)"

  2. What is the best way to translate "operationibus"? I went with "operation", but I suspect it has a technical use or a use idiosyncratic to Medieval Latin here. Especially given that these are commentaries on Aristotle, I am tempted to think it is being used in relation to his Four Causes. Given that one translation of "operatio" given by Wiktionary is "effect, result" I'm tempted to see this as referring to the efficient causes of our knowledge of From.

    EDIT: Thanks to cnread's helpful comment, question 1 is largely moot. There is no "ex"+dative, so "operationibus" is certainly ablative.

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    You've somewhat misread Allen & Greenough. That section is talking about verbs that have ex as a prefix (e.g., extorqueri). As a preposition, ex always has an ablative with it.
    – cnread
    Sep 28, 2017 at 1:45
  • @cnread Ah, I see, I saw the "ex periculo" below and sloppily thought that was "ex"+dative -- missing completely the sentence that precedes (that explicitly notes it's an ablative construction). Thanks for correcting my confusion!
    – Dennis
    Sep 28, 2017 at 1:46
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    I checked The Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British sources (DMLBS) via the ΛΟΓΕΙΟΝ website. It too gives 'effect' as one definition (#10) of operatio. However, I'll leave it to others here to chime in about whether it's the best, most philosophically sound definition in this passage, and whether you're right to read a reference to efficient causes. In the meantime, it might be worth your while to take a look at the other 9 definitions that DMLBS gives, and the definitions from other sources that the ΛΟΓΕΙΟΝ site uses.
    – cnread
    Sep 28, 2017 at 4:38
  • Interesting question. I don't think this is about efficient causes: those are, I believe, distinguished from forms as a different kind of cause. The artisan is an efficient cause of a statue of Athena; but its form is the (generalised) form of (the goddess) Athena. They're in different categories. And yet a (casual) translation "through its operations" would seem to make sense.
    – Cerberus
    Sep 28, 2017 at 5:10
  • @Cerberus I think that on the Aristotelian in re conception of forms we gain knowledge of them through their realizations (as opposed to a Platonic ante rem conception where we have direct access to the forms through a sort of intuition). So, my thought was that this might be saying that the efficient cause of our knowledge of the forms is through the things that possess them. Something like a process abstraction from their instantiations. But this isn't really my area, so I'm not sure all that's correct.
    – Dennis
    Sep 28, 2017 at 8:54


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