Duns Scotus, John (c. 1266–1308)

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(c. 12661308)

As with many of the medieval Schoolmen, little is known of the early life of John Duns, the Scot (or Scotus), a theologian and philosopher. From the record of his ordination to the priesthood by Bishop Oliver Sutton at Northampton on March 17, 1291, it is inferred that he was born early in 1266. Rival traditions, neither of which can be traced to medieval sources, link him with each of the two main branches of the Duns family in Scotland. According to one account, he was the son of Ninian Duns, a landowner who lived near Maxton in Roxburghshire, received his early schooling at Haddington, and in 1277 entered the Franciscan convent at Dumfries, where his uncle was guardian. Another popular tradition, however, states that his father was the younger son of the Duns of Grueldykes, whose estate was near the present village of Duns in Berwickshire. As a bachelor of theology, Scotus lectured on the Sentences of Peter Lombard at Cambridge (date unknown), at Oxford about 1300, and at Paris from 1302 to 1303, when he and others were banished for not taking the side of King Philip the Fair against Pope Boniface VIII in a quarrel over the taxation of church property for the wars with England. The exile was short, however, for Scotus was back in Paris by 1304 and became regent master of theology in 1305. In 1307 he was transferred to the Franciscan study house at Cologne, where he died the following year.


Scotus's early death interrupted the final editing of his most important work, the monumental commentary on the Sentences known as the Ordinatio (or in earlier editions as the Commentaria Oxoniensia or simply the Opus Oxoniense ). An outgrowth of earlier lectures begun at Oxford and continued on the Continent, this final version was dictated to scribes, with instruction to implement it with materials from his Paris and Cambridge lectures. A modern critical edition of the Ordinatio, begun by the Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis (Vatican Press) in 1950, is still in progress. Though less extensive in scope, Scotus's Quaestiones Quodlibetales are almost as important; they express his most mature thinking as regent master at Paris. Also authentic are the Quaestiones Subtilissimae in Metaphysicam on Aristotle's Metaphysics ; some forty-six shorter disputations held in Oxford and Paris and known as Collationes ; and a series of logical writings in the form of questions on Porphyry's Isagoge and on Aristotle's Categories, De Interpretatione and De Sophisticis Elenchis. The Tractatus de Primo Principio is a short but important compendium of natural theology; drawing heavily upon the Ordinatio, it seems to be one of Scotus's latest works. Like the Theoremata, a work whose authenticity has been seriously questioned, the Tractatus was apparently dictated only in an incomplete form and left to some amanuensis to finish.

Theology and Philosophy

Like the majority of the great thinkers of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, Scotus was a professional theologian rather than a philosopher. One of the privileges accorded mendicant friars like the Franciscans and Dominicans was that of beginning their studies for a mastership in theology without having first become a Master of Arts. The philosophical courses they took in preparation were pursued in study houses of their own order and were, as a rule, less extensive than those required of the candidate for an M.A. As a consequence of this educational program their commentaries on the philosophical works of Aristotle were usually written later than those on biblical works or on the Sentences of Peter Lombard; also, the most important features of their philosophy are frequently found in the context of a theological question. This does not mean that they confused theology with philosophy in principle, but only that in practice they used philosophy almost exclusively for systematic defense or explication of the data of revelation. But in so doing, these theologians assumed that philosophy as a work of reason unaided by faith played an autonomous role and had a competence of its own, limited though it might be where questions of man's nature and destiny were at issue.

This critical attitude concerning the respective spheres of philosophy and theology became more pronounced around the turn of the fourteenth century. Thus, we often find Scotus not only distinguishing in reply to a particular question the answers given by the theologians from those of the "philosophers" (Aristotle and his Arabic commentators) but also pointing out what the philosophers could have proved had they been better at their profession. On the other hand, the genuine interest in the logical structure of "science" (episteme ), as Aristotle understood the term, led to an inevitable comparison of systematic theology with the requirements of a science such as Euclid's geometry.

Paradoxically, it is in the attempt of the Scholastics to show to what extent theology is or is not a science that we find the most important expressions of their ideas of a deductive system. This is particularly true of the lengthy discussions on the nature of theology in the prologue of Scotus's Ordinatio. Similarly, if we look for the origin of some important and influential philosophical concepts that lie at the heart of Galileo Galilei's mechanics, we find them in the medieval discussions of "the intension and remission of forms" (that is, how qualities like hot and white increase in intensity). It was in his analysis of how a man might grow in supernatural charity, for instance, that Scotus introduced his theory of how variations in the intensity of a quality might be treated quantitatively. This key notion, developed by the Merton Schoolmen and extended to the problem of motion, made possible Galileo's description of the free fall of bodies.

Scotus was most concerned with what philosophy has to say about God and the human spirit. Though his ethical views and philosophy of nature are not without interest, Scotus was primarily a metaphysician.


Scotus was thoroughly familiar with the writings of Avicenna, whose concept of metaphysics Scotus brought to the service of theology. Avicenna agreed with Averroes that Aristotle's metaphysics was meant to be more than a collection of opinions (doxa ) and had the character of a science (episteme ) or body of demonstrated truths, where "demonstration" is understood in the sense of the Posterior Analytics. They also agreed that this science was in great part concerned with God and the Intelligences responsible for the movement of the planetary spheres. But Averroes believed that the existence of God is proved by physics or natural science (by Aristotle's argument for a prime mover), whereas Avicenna developed a causal proof within the framework of metaphysics itself. Scotus argued that the Averroistic view subordinates Aristotle's "first philosophy" to physics when it should be autonomous. Moreoverand more importantone needs a metaphysician to prove that the "prime mover" is the First Being, and metaphysics provides more and better arguments for God's existence than this particular physical proof. Part of the difficulty with the physical proof stems from Aristotle's axiom that "whatever is moved is moved by another." Scotus did not regard this as intuitively evident or deducible from any other such principles. Furthermore, he saw numerous counterinstances in experience, such as man's free will or a body's continued motion after external force is removed.

the transcendentals

Scotus saw metaphysics as an autonomous science concerned with the transcendentals, those realities or aspects of reality that transcend the physical. Its subject matter, as Avicenna rightly maintained, is being as being and its transcendental attributes. In contrast with St. Thomas Aquinas, who restricted transcendental to such notions as have the same extension as "being," Scotus treated any notion applicable to reality but not included in one of Aristotle's ten categories as transcendental. At least four classes of such can be enumerated. Being (ens ) is the first of the transcendental notions. It is an irreducibly simple notion of widest extension that is used to designate any subject whose existence implies no contradiction. "Existence" refers to the real or extramental world. Next come the three attributes coextensive with being"one," "true," and "good"for to be capable of existing in the extramental world, the subject must have a certain unity and be capable of being known and being desired or willed. Third, there are an unlimited number of attributes such as "infinite-or-finite," "necessary-or-contingent," "cause-or-caused," and so on, that are coextensive with being only in disjunction. Finally, there are many other predicates whose formal notion or definition contains no hint of imperfection or limitation. These are known as pure or unqualified perfections. In addition to being (ens ), its coextensive attributes, and the more perfect member of each disjunction, this class of transcendentals includes any attribute that can be ascribed to God, whether it pertain to him alone (such as omnipotence or omniscience) or whether it also is characteristic of certain creatures (such as wisdom, knowledge, free will).

Disjunctive attributes

Like Avicenna, Scotus regarded the disjunctive transcendentals as the most important for metaphysics, but being Christian, he conceived these supercategories of being somewhat differently. Avicenna held that creation proceeded from God by a necessary and inevitable process of emanation, whereas for Scotus creation was contingent and dependent on God's free election. Therefore, for Scotus the less perfect member of each disjunction represents only a possible type of real being, whereas for Avicenna these possible types must all eventually be actualized, and therefore the complete disjunction is a necessary consequence of "being." Scotus expressed this difference in what might be called his "law of disjunction":

In the disjunctive attributes, while the entire disjunction cannot be demonstrated from "being," nevertheless as a universal rule by positing the less perfect extreme of some being, we can conclude that the more perfect extreme is realized in some other being. Thus it follows that if some being is finite, then some being is infinite, and if some being is contingent, then some being is necessary. For in such cases it is not possible for the more imperfect extreme of the disjunction to be extentially predicated of "being" particularly taken, unless the more perfect extreme be existentially verified of some other being upon which it depends. (Ordinatio I, 39)

The task of the metaphysician, then, is to work out the ways in which the various transcendental concepts entail one another. One of the more important conclusions that will emerge from such an analysis is that there is one, and only one, being in which all pure perfection coexists. Such an infinite being we call God.

proof for god's existence

Scotus suggested that the metaphysician might use any pair of disjunctives to prove God exists (and here he seems to be in the tradition of William of Auvergne and the "second way" of St. Bonaventure). However, the one metaphysical proof he chose to work out in any detail seems to be a synthesis of what he considered the best elements of all the proofs of his predecessors. Henry of Ghent, whose writings so often served as the springboard for Scotus's own discussion of any problem, had tried to bring some order into the many proofs advanced during the Middle Ages by grouping them under two general headings, the way of causality and the way of eminence. The first drew its inspiration from Aristotelian principles, whereas the second was Augustinian in tone and stemmed from the School of St. Victor and the Monologion of St. Anselm. The way of causality was further divided by Henry accordingly as God is treated as the efficient, the final, or the exemplar cause of creatures.

Scotus simplified the causal approach by eliminating the exemplar cause as a distinct category. He treated it as merely a subdivision of efficiency and implied that the cause in question is intelligent and does not act by a blind impulse of nature. As for the way of eminence, it was treated not simply in terms of its Platonic or Augustinian origins but as having a foundation in Aristotelian principles as well. The proof was developed in two principal parts, one dealing with the relative attributes of the infinite beingefficiency, finality, and eminent perfectionand the second with the absolute property of his infinity. Given the infinity of God, Scotus essayed to show there can be but one such being. Each section is a concatenation of closely reasoned conclusions, some thirty-odd in all.

The argument was perhaps one of the most elaborate and detailed proofs for God's existence constructed during the Middle Ages, and apart from any intrinsic merit as a whole it is of considerable historical interest. From the time Scotus first formulated it, he subjected the proof to several revisions, mainly in the direction of greater conceptual economy and logical rigor. In what seems to be the final version (in the Tractatus de Primo Principio ), the proof is prefaced by two chapters that represent an attempt to formalize what a Schoolman at the turn of the fourteenth century must have regarded as the basic axioms and theses of the science of metaphysics. Other interesting aspects of the argument appear in answer to possible objections to the proof. One anticipates Immanuel Kant's causal antinomy. Aristotle and his Arabic commentators maintained that the world with its cyclic growth and decay had no beginning. How, then, can one argue to the existence of an uncaused efficient cause? Scotus's solution reveals the influence of Avicenna. On the ground that whatever does not exist of itself has only the possibility of existence as something essential to itself, Avicenna argued that this holds not only of the moment a thing begins to be but of every subsequent moment as well. The true cause of any effect, then, must coexist with and conserve the effect and therefore must be distinguished from the ancillary chain of partial causes that succeed one another in time.

Scotus developed this distinction in terms of what he called an essential versus an accidental concatenation of causes. A series of generative causes such as grandparent, parent, and child, or any sequence of events such as those later analyzed by David Hume, would be causes only accidentally ordered to one another in the production of their final effect. Where an essential ordering or concatenation exists, all the causal factors must coexist both to produce and to conserve their effect. This is true whether they be of different types (such as material, formal, efficient, and final) or whether they be a chain of efficient or final causes, such as Avicenna postulated for the hierarchy of Intelligences between God and the material world. While infinite regress in accidentally ordered causes may be possible, Scotus said, the chain as a whole must be essentially ordered to some coexisting cause that guarantees the perpetuity of what is constant or cyclic about such repetitive productivity. But no philosopher postulates an infinite regress where the concatenation of causes is essential and all must coexist. One does not explain how any possible effect is actually conserved, for instance, by assuming an infinity of links upon which it depends.

Technical demonstration

How is any proof that begins with factual propositions demonstrative or scientific in Aristotle's sense of demonstrative? Are not all such premises contingent? With Avicenna obviously in mind, Scotus explained that pagan philosophers could admit that every factual proposition is necessarily true because of the deterministic chain of causes that links it to the first creative cause, God. According to pagan philosophers, this is true not only of eternal entities like primary matter or the inferior or secondary Intelligences but also of all temporal events brought about by the clockwork motions of the heavenly bodies that these Intelligences cause. Empirical explanations of temporal events are required only because the human mind is unable to trace all the intricate links of causal efficacy that make any given event a necessary and inevitable consequence of God's essential nature.

If such a theory were true, Scotus argued, it would eliminate all genuine contingency from the world and thus conflict with one of the most manifest truths of human experience, namely, that we are free to act otherwise than we do. Should one deny such an obvious fact, it is not argument he needs but punishment or perception. "If, as Avicenna says, those who deny a first principle should be beaten or exposed to fire until they concede that to burn or not to burn are not identical, so too ought those who deny that some being is contingent be exposed to torments until they concede that it is possible for them not to be tormented" (Ordinatio I, 39). If true contingency exists, however, it can only be because the first cause does not create the world by any necessity of nature. But if the whole of creation depends upon God's free will, then every factual or existential statement about it will be radically contingent. How, then, can any proof from effect to cause satisfy Aristotle's demand that demonstration begin with necessary premises? One could argue legitimately, but not demonstratively, from such an obvious fact as contingency. Yet, Scotus maintained, it is possible to convert the argument into a technical demonstration by shifting to what is necessary and essential about any contingent fact, namely, its possibility. For while one cannot always infer actuality from possibility, the converse inference is universally valid. What is more, Scotus added, statements about such possibilities are necessary; hence, he preferred to construct the proof from efficiency in the mode of possibility thus: Something can be produced, therefore something can be productive; since an infinite regress or circularity in essentially concatenated causes is impossible, some uncaused agent must be possible and hence actual, since it cannot be both possible and incapable of being caused if it is not actually existing.

One can argue similarly of the possibility of a final cause or of a most perfect nature. (Scotus's argument in this connection bears a curious parallel to Ludwig Wittgenstein's about simple objects in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.) Scotus saw God as the necessary or a priori condition required to make any contingent truth about the world possible; these possibilities must be a part of God's nature, "written into him from the beginning"; as source of all possibility, he himself cannot be "merely possible." It is in God's knowledge of, and power over, these limitless possibilities that we discover what is fixed, essential, and noncontingent about not only the actual world but about all possible worlds as well. Since God is the fixed locus in which all possibilities coexist, he must be infinite in knowledge, in power, and therefore in his essence or nature. Since contradictions arise if one assumes that more than one such infinite mind, power, or being exists, there can be but one God.

Theory of Knowledge

After establishing the existence of an infinite being to his own satisfaction, Scotus undertook an analysis of the concepts that enter into statements about God, and in so doing he threw considerable light upon his own theory of knowledge, particularly upon how he considered notions that transcend the level of sensible phenomena to be possible.

univocity and the transcendentals

Some of the earlier Schoolmen like Alexander of Hales, St. Bonaventure, and Henry of Ghent fell back upon various theories of innatism or illuminationism (in which elements from St. Augustine and Avicenna were grafted upon the Aristotelian theory of knowledge) to account for such knowledge as seems to have no foundation in the data of the senses. These hybrid interpretations of Aristotle had this in common: His theory was used to explain only how general or universal concepts applicable to the visible world are abstracted from sense images. But where any notion applicable to God was involved, some illumination from a transcendent mind was thought to be required. Not only did this hold for notions obviously proper to Godsuch as "necessary being" and "omnipotence"but also for such seemingly common transcendentals as "being," "true," and "good." Although the latter terms were predicated of creatures as well as of God, their meaning was not univocal. Associated with each term were two similar, and hence often indistinguishable, meanings, both simple and irreducible to any common denominator. One was believed to be proper to creatures and to be abstracted from sensible things by the aid of an agent intellect; the other was proper to God, and since it transcended in perfection anything to be found in creatures, it must be given from above. It was maintained that these innate ideas, impressed upon the soul at birth, lie dormant in the storehouse of the mind, to be recalled like forgotten memories when man encounters something analogous in sensible experience. The discovery of God in created things, then, was explained much like Plato's account of how man recalls the transcendent world of ideas.

As Aristotle's own writings became better known, however, the popularity of such theories diminished. More and more Scholastics followed Thomas Aquinas in rejecting any special illumination theory to explain man's knowledge of God, but like Thomas they failed to see that this required any modification of the traditional doctrine of the analogy of being and other transcendental terms. Scotus seems to have been the first to see the discrepancy between the two positions. He pointed out that if all of our general notions (including those of being and its transcendental attributes) are formed by reflecting upon sensible things, as Aristotle explained, then some notions such as being must be univocally predicable of God and creatures, or all knowledge of God becomes impossible. Arguing specifically against Henry of Ghent, who claimed we have either a concept of being proper to God or one common to finite creatures, Scotus insisted on the need of a third or neutral notion of being as a common element in both the other concepts. This is evident, he said, because we can be certain that God is a being while remaining in doubt as to whether he is an infinite or a finite being. When we prove him to be infinite, this does not destroy but adds to our previous incomplete and imperfect notion of him. The same could be said of other transcendental notions, such as wisdom or goodness. Indeed, every irreducibly simple notion predicable of God must be univocally predicable of the finite and created thing from which it was abstracted. Any perfection of God is analogous to its created similitude, but we conceive such a perfection as something exclusive or proper to God through composite concepts constructed by affirming, denying, and interrelating conceptual elements that are simple and univocally predicable of creatures. For even though every such element is itself general, certain combinations thereof may serve to characterize one, and only one, thing. Although such concepts are proper to God, they retain their general character and do not express positively the unique individuality of the divine nature. Hence the need for proving that only one God exists.

Scotus also held that the transcendental notion of being (ens ) is univocal to substance and accidents as well as to God and creatures. We have no more sensible experience of substance than we do of God; its very notion is a conceptual construct, and we would be unable to infer its existence if substance did not have something positive in common with our experiential data.

the formal distinction

The concept of the formal distinction, like univocity of being, is another characteristic metaphysical thesis connected with Scotus's theory of knowledge. Though usually associated with his name, the distinction did not originate with him. It represents a development of what is sometimes called the "virtual distinction" or "conceptual distinction with a foundation in the thing." The latter is an intermediate between the real distinction and that which is merely conceptual. The difference between the morning star and evening star, for example, is purely conceptual. Here one and the same thing, the planet Venus, is conceived and named in two different ways because of the different ways or contexts in which it appears to us. The real distinction, on the contrary, concerns two or more individual items, such as Plato and Socrates, body and soul, or substance and its accidents. Though two such things may coexist or even form a substantial unity or accidental aggregate, it is logically possible that one be separated from the other or even exist apart from the other. The Scholastics generally recognized the need of some intermediary distinction if the objectivity of our knowledge of things is to be safeguarded. How is it possible, they asked, to speak of a plurality of attributes or perfections in God when the divine nature is devoid of any real distinction? How is it possible for a creature to resemble God according to one such attribute and not another? Similarly, if the human soul is really simple, as many of the later Scholastics taught, how can it lack all objective distinction and still be like an angel by virtue of its rational powers and unlike the angel by reason of its sentient nature? All agree that it is possible for the human mind to conceive one of these intelligible aspects of a thing apart from another and that both concepts give a partial insight into what is objectively present to the thing known.

To put it another way, there is a certain isomorphism between concept and reality, in virtue of which concept may be said to be a likeness (species ) or picture of reality. This "likeness" should not be construed in terms of the relatively simply way a snapshot depicts a scene, but perhaps something more akin to Wittgenstein's "logical picture," being based upon what shows itself in both the world of facts and our thoughts about the world. In virtue of this intelligibility of form, we can speak of ratio (the Latin equivalent of the Greek logos or the Avicennist intentio ) either as in things or as in the mind. To the extent that this ratio or intelligible feature is a property or characteristic of a thing, we are justified in saying that the individual possessing it is a so-and-so. Though such rationes can be conceived one without the other because their definitions differ and what is implied by one is not necessarily implied by the other, nevertheless, as characteristic of a specific individual, they constitute one thing. They are not separable from that individual in the way the soul can be separated from the body, or a husband from his family. Not even the divine power can separate a soul from its powers or the common features of the individual from what is unique (his haecceity ).

Thomas spoke of this nonidentity as conceptual, with the qualification that it does not arise merely in virtue of thinking mind but "by reason of a property of the thing itself." Henry of Ghent called it an intentional distinction, but he added that the distinction is only potential prior to our thinking about it. Scotus, however, argued that if something has the native ability to produce different concepts of itself in the mind, each concept reflecting a partial but incomplete insight into the thing's nature, then the distinction must be in some sense actual. Put in another way, there must be several "formalities" in the thing (where "form" is understood as the objective basis for a concept and "little form" or formality as an intelligible aspect or feature of a thing that is less than the total intelligible content of a thing). Here again Scotus argued (on a line later followed by Wittgenstein) that a thing's possibilities, unlike their actualization, are not accidental but are essential to it and must have some actual basis. If a thing is virtually two things inasmuch as it is able to be grasped in two mutually exclusive ways, this nonidentity of intelligible content must be prior to our actually thinking about the thing, and to that extent it exists as a reality (realitas ) or in other words, objectively. This nonidentity of realities, or formalities, is greatest in the case of the Trinity, where the peculiar properties of the three divine persons must be really identical with, but formally distinct from, the divine nature they have in common. This formal nonidentity holds also for the divine attributes, such as wisdom, knowledge, and love, which although really one are virtually many.

The formal distinction was also used by Scotus to explain the validity of our universal conceptions of individuals, a Scotistic thesis that influenced C. S. Peirce. Unlike the "nominalists," Scotus did not believe that the common features of things can be accounted for fully in terms of their being represented by a common term or class concept. Some objective basis for this inclusion is required, and this similarity or aspect in which one individual resembles another he called its common nature (natura communis ). This common nature is indifferent to being either individualized (as it invariably is in the extramental world) or being recognized as a universal feature of several individuals (as it is when we relate the concept of this "nature," such as "man," to Peter or Paul). The common nature is individualized concretely by what Scotus called its thisness (haecceity), which is a formality other than the nature, a unique property that can characterize one, and only one, subject.

Scotus consequently rejected the Aristotelian-Thomistic thesis that the principle of individuation is identified somehow with matter by reason of matter's quantitative aspect. This thesis would seem to make individuality something extrinsic to the thing itself, or at least the effect of something really other than the thing itself, since matter or matter signed with quantity is really distinct from the form. The requirement of haecceity is a logical one, according to Scotus, for in practice we do not differentiate individual persons or objects because we know their respective haecceity (that is, their Petrinity, Paulinity, their "thisness," or "thatness"), but because of such accidental differences as being in different places at the same time, or having different colored hair or eyes. However, this individuating difference, he insisted, is known to God and can be known by man in a future life, where his intellect is not so dependent upon sense perception.

knowing as an activity

Though Scotus rejected illumination in favor of what is basically an Aristotelian theory of knowledge, his teaching on the subject shows the influence of some other of Augustine's ideas, notably the active role of the intellect in cognition. Scotus's position is midway between the Aristotelian passivism (the "possible intellect" as a purely "passive potency" receives impressions from without) and Augustine's activism (the intellect as spiritual can act on matter, but matter cannot act upon the spirit or mind). Scotus believed that the so-called possible intellect actively cooperates in concept formation and other intellectual operations. This activity is something over and above that which is usually ascribed to the "agent intellect." Intellect and object (or something that is proxy for the object, such as the intelligible species where abstract knowledge is involved) interact as two mutually complementary principles (like man and woman in generation) to produce concepts. Since these concepts reflect only common or universal characteristics of individuals rather than what is uniquely singular about them, it cannot be the singular object itself that directly interacts with the mind, but an intelligible likeness (species) that carries information only about the "common nature" of the object and not its haecceity. The formation of such a likeness or species is the joint effect of the agent intellect and sense image working together as essentially ordered efficient causes. It is in this way that Scotus interpreted the Aristotelian distinction of agent and possible intellect.

intuitive versus abstractive cognition

Although the above description accounts for man's abstract intellectual knowledge, Scotus believed that the human mind is capable of intuitive knowledge as well. By this he understood a simple (nonjudgmental) awareness of an object as existing. Where abstract cognition leaves us unable to assert whether a thing exists or not, one can assert that it exists from intuitive cognition of anything. In such a case no intelligible species of the object need intervene, for the mind is in direct contact with the thing known. While most Scholastics limited intuitive knowledge to the sense level, Scotus argued that if the human intellect is capable only of abstract cognitionwhat can be abstracted from sense encounters in the way described by Aristotlethen the face-to-face vision of God promised to us in the afterlife becomes impossible. Consequently, our ideas of the proper object of the human intellect must be expanded to account for this.

Scotus thought that rational considerations also require us to admit some degree of intuitive power in man even if the full ambit of this power cannot be established by a philosopher. There are many primary contingent propositions of which we are absolutely certain (such as "I doubt such and such" or "I am thinking of such and such"). Since this certitude cannot be accounted for by any amount of conceptual analysis of the propositional terms, we must admit some prior simple awareness of the existential situation that verifies the proposition. This cannot be mere sensory knowledge, since the existential judgment often involves conceptual or nonsensory meanings, as in the examples given above. It is not clear that Scotus wished to assert that in this life we have intuitive knowledge of anything more than our interior acts of mind, will, and so on. This would seem to limit intellectual intuition to reflective awareness and would be consistent with his statements that we have no direct or immediate knowledge of the haecceity of any extramental object. However, he believed that in the afterlife man by his native powers will be able to intuit any created thing, be it material or spiritual, and to that extent man's mind is not essentially inferior to that of the angel. On the other hand, it is not merely because of man's lapsed state that his mind is at present limited to knowing the intelligible features of sense data but also because of the natural harmony of body and mind that would obtain even in a purely natural state.


The human capacity for certitude was also discussed, with Henry of Ghent as the chief opponent. Henry, Scotus explained, appealed to illumination, not for the acquisition of our everyday concepts about the world, since these are obtained by abstraction, but for certitude of judgment. Although the "mechanics" of the process are not fully clear, two "mental images" or species are involved, one derived from creatures, the other imparted by divine illumination from above. Since both the human mind and the sensible object are subject to change, no species or likeness taken from the sensible object and impressed upon the mind will yield invariant truth. Something must needs be added from above. Scotus made short shrift of this theory. If the conclusion of a syllogism is no stronger than its weakest premises, neither does a blending of an immutable and a mutable species make for immutability. Furthermore, if the object is so radically mutable that nothing is invariant under change, then to know it as immutable is itself an error. By way of contrast, Scotus set out to show that certitude is possible without any special illumination. This is certainly the case with first principles and the conclusions necessarily entailed by them. Such necessary truths assert a connection or disconnection between concepts that is independent of the source of the concepts. It is not, for example, because we are actually in sense contact with a finite composite that we can assert that a "whole" of this kind is greater than a part thereof. Even if we erroneously perceive white as black and vice versa, a judgment like "white is not black" precludes any possible error because it depends only on a knowledge of the terms and not on how we arrived at that knowledge.

A second type of certitude concerns internal states of mind or actions. That we are feeling, willing, doubting are experiential facts that can be known with a degree of certitude equal to that of first principles or the conclusions they entail.

A third category concerns many propositions of natural science where a combination of experience and conceptual analysis gives us certitude. Reposing in our soul is the self-evident proposition: "Whatever occurs in a great many instances by a cause that is not free is the natural effect of that cause." Even if the terms are derived from erring senses, we know this to be true, for the very meaning of nature or natural cause is one that is neither free nor acts haphazardly. If experience reveals recurrent behavior patterns where no free intelligent agent is involved, then we are evidently dealing with a natural cause. If the same situation recurs, we can be certain at least of what should result therefrom. That the effect expected actually does occur depends upon two further conditions: that the natural course of events is not interrupted by some unforeseen causal factor and that God does not miraculously intervene. Even sensory perception can be analyzed critically to exclude any reasonable doubt. Conflicting sense reports produce such illusions as the stick immersed in water that feels straight yet appears to be bent. Yet there is always some self-evident principle possessed by our mind that enables us to decide which sense perceptual information is correct. Here it is the proposition "Any harder object is not broken by something soft that gives way before it." There are many areas of knowledge, then, where humans are perfectly well equipped to arrive at certitude without any special divine enlightenment.

The Domain of Creatures

exemplar ideas

Scholastics generally accepted Augustine's theory that before creatures are produced, they preexist in God's mind as archetypal ideas. Scotus differed from Bonaventure and Thomas, however, by denying that God knows creatures through such ideas. Every creature is limited and finite as to intelligible content. To make God's knowledge of a creature dependent upon this limited intelligibility of any given idea denigrates the perfection of his intellect; if there is any dependence of idea and intellect, it must be the other way round. Only the infinitely perfect essence can be regarded as logically, though not temporally, antecedent to God's knowledge of both himself and possible creatures. Since possible creatures are written into the divine nature itself, in knowing his nature God knows each possible creature, and in knowing the creature he gives it intelligibility and existence as an object of thought. Like the creative painter or sculptor who produces an idea of his masterpiece in his mind before embodying it in canvas or stone, God, if he is not to act blindly but intelligently, must have a guiding idea or "divine blueprint" of the creature that is logically prior to his decision to create it. Creatures, then, are dually dependent upon God; they depend upon his infinitely fertile knowledge for their conception as exemplar ideas, and they depend upon the divine election of his omnipotent will for their actual existence. This tendency to distinguish various "logical moments" in God, and in terms of their nonmutual entailment to set up some kind of order or "priority of nature" among them, is characteristic of much of Scotus's theological speculation and became a prime target for William of Ockham's subsequent criticism.

theory of matter and form

The hylomorphic interpretation formerly attributed to Scotus was based on the De Rerum Principio, now ascribed to Cardinal Vital du Four. Scotus, unlike most of his Franciscan predecessors, did not accept the view of Solomon ben Judah ibn Gabirol (Avicebron) that all creatures are composed of matter and form. He considered both angels and human souls as simple substances, devoid of any real parts, though they differ in the formal perfections they possess.

Since Scotus did not equate matter with potency (as did St. Bonaventure), nor did he consider it in any way a principle of individuation (as did St. Thomas), there was no reason to postulate it in spiritual creatures either to explain why they are not pure act like God or to account for the possibility of a plurality of individuals in the same species. Hence, against Thomas, Scotus argued that even though angels lack matter, more than one individual of the same species may exist. More important, Scotus, like John Peckham and Richard of Middleton before him, insisted that matter must be a positive entity. Peckham's view grew out of his Augustinian theory of matter as the seat of the "seminal reasons," but Scotus rejected this germinal interpretation of inchoate forms and argued that if matter is what Aristotle thought it to be, it must have some minimal entity or actuality apart from form. It is true that primary matter is said to be pure potency, but there are two types of such passive potency; one is called objective and refers to something that is simply nonexistent but that can be the object of some productive creation. Matter as the correlative of form, however, is a "subjective" potency or capacity; it is a neutral subject able to exist under different forms and hence is not really identical with any one of them. Absolutely speaking, God could give matter existence apart from all form, either accidental or substantial. In such a case, matter would exist much like a pure spirit or the human soul.

William of Ockham followed Scotus on this point, as well as in his view that the primary matter of the sun and planetary spheres is not any different from that found in terrestrial bodies, though the substantial form in question may be superior to that of terrestrial elements and compounds.

the human soul as form

From man's ability to think or reason, Scotus argued that the intellective soul is the substantial form that makes man precisely human. But to the extent that reason can prove the soul to be the form of the body, it becomes correspondingly more difficult to demonstrate that the soul will survive the death of the body. While the traditional arguments for immortality have probabilistic value, only faith can make one certain of this truth. On the other hand, if the soul must be a spiritual substance to account for the higher life of reason, at least one other perishable "form of corporeity" must be postulated to give primary matter the form of a human body. Though to this extent Scotus agreed with the pluriformists against St. Thomas, it is not so clear that he would postulate additional subsidiary forms. A virtual presence of the lower forms (elements and chemical compounds) in the form of corporeity would seem to suffice. The form of corporeity has dimensive quantity, that is, it is not the same in each and every part of the body, as is the human soul. The same may be said of the "souls" of plants and animals. Though the human soul has the formal perfections of both the vegetative and the animal souls, these components are not really distinct parts. A formal distinction between the soul's faculties or powers suffices to account for this.

free will

Particularly in his conception of free will, Scotus departed in many respects from contemporary positions. The will is not simply an intellective appetite, a motor power or drive guided by intelligence rather than mere sense perception. Freedom of will, in other words, is not a simple logical consequence of intelligence but is unique among the agencies found in nature. All other active powers or potentialities (potentiae activae ) are determined by their nature not only to act but to act in a specific way unless impeded by internal or external causes. But even when all the intrinsic or extrinsic conditions necessary for its operation are present, the free will need not act. Not only may it refrain from acting at all but it may act now one way, now another. The will has a twofold positive response toward a concrete thing or situation. It can love or seek what is good, or it can hate or shun what is evil. Moreover, it has an inborn inclination to do so. But unlike the sense appetites, the will need not follow its inclination. Scotus rejected Thomas's theory that man is free only if he sees some measure of imperfection or evil in a good object and that the will is necessitated by its end (the good as such), though it is free to choose between several means of attaining it.

But Scotus saw a still more basic freedom in the will, one that Aristotle and Plato failed to recognize. Their theory of human appetites and loves can be called physical in the original sense of that term. All striving, all activity stems from an imperfection in the agent, whose actions all tend to perfect or complete its nature. Physis or "nature" means literally what a thing is "born to be" or become. Since what perfects a thing is its good, and since striving for what is good is a form of love, we could say that all activity is sparked by love. The peculiarity of such "love," however, is that it can never be truly altruistic or even objective. It is radically self-centered in the sense that nature seeks primarily and above all else its own welfare. If at times we find what appears to be altruistic behavior, it is always a case where the "nature" or "species" is favored at the cost of the individual. But nature, either in its individual concretization or as a self-perpetuating species, must of necessity and in all that it does seek its own perfection. This is its supreme value, and the ultimate goal of its loves. Such a theory presents a dual difficulty for a Christian. How can one maintain that "God is love" (I John 4.16) and how can man love God above all things if self-perfection is his supreme value? Thomas tried to solve the problem within the general framework of the Aristotelian system by making God the perfection of man. In loving God as his supreme value, man is really loving himself. Love of friendship becomes possible to the extent that he loves another as an "other self." This solution had its drawbacks, for certain aspects of Christian mysticism must then be dealt with in a Procrustean way. It leaves unexplained certain facets of man's complex love life. Finally, the theory commits Thomas, as it did Aristotle, to maintain that the intellect, rather than free will, is the highest and most divine of man's powersa view at odds with the whole Christian tradition and particularly with Augustine.

Scotus tried another tack, developing an idea suggested by St. Anselm of Canterbury. The will has a twofold inclination or attraction toward the good. One inclination is the affection for what is to our advantage (affectio commodi ), which corresponds to the drive for the welfare of the self described above. It inclines man to seek his perfection and happiness in all that he does. If this tendency alone were operative, we would love God only because he is our greatest good, and man's perfected self (albeit perfected by union with God in knowledge and love) would be the supreme object of man's affection; it would be that which is loved for its own sake and for the sake of which all else is loved.

But there is a second and more noble tendency in the will, an inclination or affection for justice (affectio justitiae ), so called because it inclines one to do justice to the objective goodness, the intrinsic value of a thing regardless of whether it happens to be a good for oneself or not. There are several distinguishing features of this "affection for justice." It inclines one to love a thing primarily for its own sake (its absolute worth) rather than for what it does or can do for one (its relative value). Hence, it leads one to love God in himself as the most perfect and adorable of objects, irrespective of the fact that he happens to love us in return or that such a love for God produces supreme delight or happiness in man as its concomitant effect. Third, it enables one to love his neighbor literally as himself (where each individual is of equal objective value). Finally, this love is not jealous of the beloved but seeks to make the beloved loved and appreciated by others. "Whoever loves perfectly, desires co-lovers for the beloved" (Opus Oxoniense III, 37). Recall the tendency to make others admire the beautiful or the sorrow felt when something perfectly lovely is unloved, desecrated, or destroyed. If the affectio commodi tends to utter selfishness as a limiting case, the first checkrein on its headlong self-seeking is the affectio justitiae. Scotus wrote:

This affection for what is just is the first tempering influence on the affection for what is to our advantage. And inasmuch as our will need not actually seek that towards which the latter affection inclines us, nor need we seek it above all else, this affection for what is just, I say, is that liberty which is native or innate in the will, since it provides the first tempering influence on our affection for what is to our own advantage.
(Ibid., II, 6, 2)

The will's basic liberty, in short, is that which frees it from the necessity of nature described by Aristotle, the need to seek its own perfection and fulfillment above all else. Here is the factor needed to account for the generous and genuinely altruistic features of human love inexplicable in terms of the physicalist theory.

Scotus therefore distinguished between the will with respect to its natural inclinations and the will as free. The former is the will considered as the seat of the affection for the advantageous. It views everything as something delightful, useful, or a good for oneself and leads to the love of desire (velle concupiscentiae ). As free or rational (in accord with right reason), the will is the seat of the affection for justice that inclines us to love each thing "honestly" or as a bonum honestum, that is, for what it is in itself and hence for its own sake. Since only such love recognizes the supreme value and dignity of a person and finds its highest and most characteristic expression when directed toward another, it is usually called the love of friendship (velle amicitiae ) or of wishing one well (amor benevolentiae ).

Ethical and Political Philosophy

Although not primarily an ethicist, Scotus did solve enough specific moral problems from the standpoint of his general system of ethics to make it clear that his ethical system falls well within the accepted code of Christian morality of the day. Yet it does have some distinctive features, most of them growing out of the theory of the will's native liberty. Without some such theory, Scotus did not believe a genuine ethics is possible. If man had only a "natural will" (a rational or intellectual appetite dominated by the inclination for self-fulfillment), he would be incapable of sin but subject to errors of judgment. On the other hand, if the will's freedom is taken to mean nothing more than simple liberation from this inclination of nature, its actions would become irrational and governed by chance or caprice. What is needed is some counterinclination that frees man from this need to follow his natural inclination yet is in accord with right reason. This is precisely the function of man's native freedom. Man's reason, when unimpeded by emotional considerations, is capable of arriving at a fairly objective estimate of the most important human actions in terms of the intrinsic worth of the goal attained, the effort expended, the consequences, and so on. By reason of its "affection for justice" the will is inclined to accept and to seek such intrinsic values, even when this runs counter to other natural inclinations of self-indulgence. But being free to disregard the inclination for self-indulgence and to follow the higher dictates of justice, man becomes responsible for the good or evil he foresees will result from either course of action. It is the exercise of this freedom that is a necessary, though not a sufficient, condition for any action to have a moral value.

The other requisite conditions become apparent if we consider the nature of moral goodness. An action may be called good on several counts. There is that transcendental goodness coextensive with being which means simply that, having some positive entity, a thing can be wanted or desired. But over and above this is that natural goodness which may or may not be present. Like bodily beauty, this accidental quality is a harmonious blend of all that becomes the thing in question. Actions also can have such a natural goodness. Walking, running, and the like may be done awkwardly or with a certain grace or beauty. More generally, an activity or operation of mind or will can be "in harmony with its efficient cause, its object, its purpose and its form and is naturally good when it has all that becomes it in this way" (Opus Oxoniense II, 40). But moral goodness goes beyond this natural goodness. "Even as beauty of body is an harmonious blend of all that becomes a body so far as size, color, figure and so on are concerned," Scotus wrote, "so the goodness of a moral act is a combination of all that is becoming to it according to right reason" (II, 40). One must consider not only the nature of the action itself but also all the circumstances, including the purpose of its performance. An otherwise naturally good action may be vitiated morally if circumstances forbid it or if it is done for an evil end.

Right reason tells us there is one action that can never be inordinate or unbecoming under any set of circumstances: the love of God for his own sake. "God is to be loved" is the first moral principle or ethical norm. This and its converse, "God must never be hated or dishonored," are two obligations from which God himself can never grant dispensation. He is the one absolute intrinsic value, which cannot be loved to excess; but "anything other than God is good because God wills it and not vice versa" (III, 19).

Scotus argued here as in the case of the divine intellect. The intelligibility of a creature depends upon God's knowing it, and not the other way around. So too its actual value or goodness depends upon God's loving it with a creative love and not vice versa. This obviously applies to transcendental goodness, which is coextensive with a thing's being, but it also holds for natural and moral goodness as well. If the infinite perfection of God's will prevents it from being dependent or necessitated by any finite good, it also ensures that creation as a whole will be good. God is like a master craftsman. For all his artistic liberty, he cannot turn out a product that is badly done. Yet no particular creation is so perfect, beautiful, or good that God might not have produced another that is also good; neither must all evil or ugliness be absent, particularly where this stems from a creature's misuse of his freedom. Nevertheless, there are limits to which God's providence can allow evil to enter into the world picture. He may permit suffering and injustice so that humankind may learn the consequences of its misbehavior and through a collective sense of responsibility may right its social wrongs.

While certain actions may be naturally good or bad, they are not by that very fact invested with a moral value; they may still be morally indifferent even when all circumstances are taken into consideration. Only hatred and the "friendship-love" of God are invested with moral value of themselves, and as the motivation for otherwise naturally good or indifferent actions they may make the actions morally wrong or good. Otherwise, the action must be forbidden by God to be morally wrong or commanded by him to be morally good. To that extent, moral goodness too depends upon the will of God. However, it is important to know that some actions are good or bad only because God commands or forbids them, whereas he enjoins or prohibits other actions because they are naturally good or bad, that is, they are consonant or in conflict with man's nature in the sense that they tend to perfect it or do violence to it. Such are the precepts of the natural law embodied in the Decalogue and "written into man's heart."

But note that what makes obedience to this instinctual law of moral value is that it be recognized and intended as something willed by God; otherwise, good as it may be naturally, the action is morally indifferent. This too is a consequence of man's native liberty, which can be bound only by an absolute value or the will of its author. To the extent that the first two commandments are expressions of the first moral principle and its converse, God can never make their violation morally right or a matter of indifference; the same does not hold of the last seven, which regulate man's behavior to his fellow man. God granted genuine dispensations from natural law, permitting polygamy to the patriarchs so that the children of God might be multiplied when believers were few. This might be permitted again if plague or war so decimated the male population that race survival was threatened. In such a case, God would reveal this dispensation to man, probably through his church.

human society

Although Scotus wrote little on the origin of civil power, his ideas of its origin resemble John Locke's. Society is naturally organized into families; but when they band into communities they find some higher authority necessary and agree to vest it in an individual or a group, and decide how it is to be perpetuatedfor example, by election or hereditary succession. All political authority is derived from the consent of the governed, and no legislator may pass laws for private advantage or that conflict with the natural or divine positive law. Private property is a product of positive rather than natural law and may not be administered to the detriment of the common good. More striking, perhaps, than Scotus's social philosophy was his theological theory (which influenced Francisco Suárez and, more recently, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin) that the second person of the Trinity would have become incarnate even if man had not sinned. Intended as God's "firstborn of creatures," Christ represents the alpha and omega not only of human society but of all creation.

Known to posterity as the "subtle doctor," Scotus is admittedly a difficult thinker. Almost invariably his thought develops through an involved dialogue with unnamed contemporaries. Although this undoubtedly delighted his students and still interests the historian, it tries the patience of most readers. His style has neither the simplicity of St. Thomas's nor the beauty of Bonaventure's, yet as late as the seventeenth century he attracted more followers than they. Like students who unconsciously mimic the worst mannerisms of their mentor, many of Scotus's disciples seemed bent more on outdoing him in subtlety than in clarifying and developing his insights, so that for both the humanist and reformer "dunce" (a Duns-man) became a word of obloquy. Yet there have always been a hardy few who find the effort of exploring his mind rewarding. Even a poet like Gerard Manley Hopkins regarded his insights as unrivaled "be rival Italy or Greece," and the philosopher C. S. Peirce considered Scotus the greatest speculative mind of the Middle Ages as well as one of the "profoundest metaphysicians that ever lived." Even existentialists, who deplore the efforts to cast his philosophy in Aristotle's mold of science, find his views on intuition, contingency, and freedom refreshing. Scotus's doctrine of haecceity, applied to the human person, invests each individual with a unique value as one wanted and loved by God, quite apart from any trait he shares with others or any contribution he might make to society.

Despite his genius for speculation, Scotus considered speculation merely a means to an end: "Thinking of God matters little, if he be not loved in contemplation." Against Aristotle, he appealed to "our philosopher, Paul," who recognized the supreme value of friendship and love, which, directed to God, make men truly wise.

See also Alexander of Hales; Anselm, St.; Aristotle; Augustine, St.; Augustinianism; Averroes; Averroism; Avicenna; Bonaventure, St.; Galileo Galilei; Henry of Ghent; Ibn Gabirol, Solomon ben Judah; Kant, Immanuel; Locke, John; Medieval Philosophy; Peckham, John; Peirce, Charles Sanders; Peter Lombard; Plato; Richard of Mediavilla; Saint Victor, School of; Scotism; Socrates; Suárez, Francisco; Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre; Thomas Aquinas, St.; Universals, A Historical Survey; William of Auvergne; William of Ockham; Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann.


editions and translations

Opera Omnia, edited by L. Wadding, 12 vols. (Lyons, 1639), reprinted with L. Vivès, ed., 26 vols. (Paris, 18911895), contains most authentic and some spurious works, with commentaries by seventeenth-century Scotists. The seven volumes of the critical Vatican edition, edited by C. Balić and others (Vatican City, 1950), contain only the first book of the Ordinatio and seven distinctions of the Oxford lectures. The edition may run to thirty or forty volumes.

For Tractatus de Primo Principio, see M. Mueller's edition (Freiburg im Bresgau, 1941) and new editions with English translations by Evan Roche (St. Bonaventure, NY, 1949) and Allan Wolter (Chicago, 1965); the latter is titled Duns Scotus: A Treatise on God as the First Principle.

Wolter's book contains translations of two questions from the first Oxford lectures; his Duns Scotus: Philosophical Writings (Edinburgh and London, 1962) is in Latin and English, and the paperback reprint (Indianapolis, 1964) appears without Latin. The question translated in Free Will, edited by S. Morgenbesser and J. Walsh (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962), is Scotus's earlier view, which he modified slightly; cf. C. Balić, "Une Question inédite de J. D. Scot sur la volonté," in Recherches de théologie ancienne et médiévale 3 (1931): 191208. A translation of a question on the need for theology appears in Medieval Philosophy, edited by Herman Shapiro (New York: Modern Library, 1964), and in Nathaniel Micklem, Reason and Revelation (Edinburgh, 1953); on Christ as alpha and omega of creation in C. Balić, Theologiae Marianae Elementa (Sibenik, Yugoslavia, 1933), a Latin edition, and Allan Wolter, "D. Scotus on the Predestination of Christ," in The Cord (St. Bonaventure, NY), 5 (December 1955): 366372, an English translation.

studies and bibliographies

The best introduction to the vast literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is O. Shäfer, Bibliographia de Vita, Operibus et Doctrina I. D. Scoti Saecula XIXXX (Rome, 1955); also see A. B. Emden, A Biographical Register of the University of Oxford to A.D. 1500, Vol. I (Oxford, 1957), pp. 607610, and the annual Bibliographia Franciscana (Rome), especially Vol. XI (1962) on.

Most general histories and studies as late as C. R. S. Harris, Duns Scotus (Oxford, 1927), use the inauthentic De Rerum Principio or other spurious works. Recommended are the following more recent histories of medieval philosophy: P. Böhner and Étienne Gilson, Christliche Philosophie von ihren Anfängen bis Nikolaus von Cues, 3rd ed. (Paderborn, 1954); Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Vol. II, Part II (Westminster, MD, 1950); Armand Maurer, Medieval Philosophy (New York: Random House, 1962); and Julius Weinberg, A Short History of Medieval Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964).

See Franciscan Institute Publications, Philosophy Series (St. Bonaventure, NY): Allan Wolter, Transcendentals and Their Function in the Metaphysics of Duns Scotus (1946), for his metaphysics; P. Vier, Evidence and Its Function according to Duns Scotus (1947), and Sebastian Day, Intuitive Cognition (1947), for his theory of knowledge; and R. Effier, J. D. Scotus and the Principle "Omne Quod Movetur ab Alio Movetur" (1962), for his theory of motion and of the will.

W. Hoeres, Der Wille als reine Vollkommenheit nach Duns Scotus (Munich, 1962), on the will; J. F. Boler, Charles Peirce and Scholastic Realism (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1963), on Peirce's relation to Scotus; and especially the volume of essays commemorating the seventh centenary of Scotus's birth, J. K. Ryan and B. Bonansea, eds., Studies in Philosophy and the History of Philosophy (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1965), Vol. III, may also be consulted.

Allan B. Wolter, O.F.M. (1967)

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Duns Scotus, John (c. 1266–1308)

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