John Duns Scotus

All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated


DUNS SCOTUS, JOHN (c. 12661308), Franciscan philosopher and theologian, and founder of the school of Scotism. Born in Scotland and trained by his paternal uncle at the Franciscan friary at Dumfries, Scotland, Duns Scotus entered the Franciscan order at an early age and was ordained a priest. As a bachelor of theology he studied and taught at Oxford, completing his lectures on Peter Lombard's Sentences, which he began revising as the Ordinatio in 1300. When in 1302 the turn came for the English province to provide a talented candidate for the prestigious University of Paris, Duns Scotus was sent. During the demonstrations against Boniface VIII initiated by Philip the Fair, Duns Scotus sided with the pope and, as a consequence, was exiled from France. Just where he spent his exile is unknown, but with the death of Boniface and the accession to the papacy of Benedict XI, the church's ban against the king and the university was lifted, and Duns Scotus returned to complete his Paris lectures on the Sentences. He became regent master probably in 1305.

During his regency Duns Scotus conducted quodlibetic disputations covering a wide variety of theological and philosophical questions about God and creatures proposed by his audience. His later version of these questions (Quaestiones quodlibetales ), like his Ordinatio (begun at Oxford, and hence referred to as the Opus oxoniense ), was not finished at the time of his untimely death, yet these two works were widely copied for distribution and are largely responsible for his fame as a philosopher and theologian. In addition he left a number of important philosophical works on logic, psychology, and metaphysics, presented in the form of questions suggested by the works of Porphyry and Aristotle. Like Collationes oxoniense et parisienses (shorter questions on specific philosophical and theological topics), these were probably the result of disputations Duns Scotus conducted for the Franciscan students at Oxford and Paris. The most extensive and influential of these philosophical works are the Quaestiones subtilissime super libros Metaphysicorum Aristoteles and the important Tractatus de Primo Principio, a compendium of what reason can prove about God. Duns Scotus left Paris in the fall of 1307 to teach at the Franciscan house of studies in Cologne, where he died the following year. His remains rest in the nave of the Franciscan church near the Cologne cathedral, where he is venerated as blessed.

In his writings, Duns Scotus views theology as a practical science rather than a theoretical science, inasmuch as it gives human beings the necessary knowledge to reach their supernatural end. This end consists in sharing in the inner life of the Trinity in heaven. Developing Richard of Saint-Victor's insight that perfect love wants the beloved to be loved by others, Duns Scotus envisions the motive for creation as follows. God first loved himself, then he freely decided to create co-lovers of his infinitely lovable nature. Being orderly in his love, he next predestined Christ's human nature to share this glory and gave this nature the highest possible grace that could be bestowed upon a creature. Christ, the God-man, purchased grace for both angels and humanity. But because God foresaw Adam's sin and humanity's consequent fall from grace, Christ came as a suffering, rather than a triumphant, mediator. The most perfect form of mediation, however, would have been to preredeem, and Scotus proposes this as the rationale for Mary's immaculate conception, an argument that became basic for defenders of that doctrine until its declaration in 1854 as a dogma by Pius IX. Finally, God willed the sensible world to serve humanity.

As a philosopher, Duns Scotus modified the Aristotelian influence current in his day with insights of Augustine of Hippo, Anselm of Canterbury, Richard of Saint-Victor, and Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna). Developing Ibn Sīnā's conception of metaphysics, Duns Scotus provided a powerful rational proof for an infinite being, who he believed had revealed himself to Moses as the "I am who am."

In his philosophical system, Duns Scotus stressed the metaphysical primacy of the individual, each with its own unique "haecceity," which exists only because God's creative love wanted just "this" and not "that." On the other hand, he logically analyzed what individualized created natures must have in common, if scientific knowledge of them is to become possible.

Duns Scotus adopted the peculiar "Augustinian" tradition of the earlier Franciscan school, which stressed the "supersufficient potentiality" of the will for self-determination, and showed how it could be reconciled with the Aristotelian notion of an active potency, if one rejected the controversial principle that "whatever is moved is moved by another." In this and other ways he brought the earlier anti-Aristotelianism of his Franciscan predecessors into the mainstream of what contemporaries considered essential to Aristotle's philosophical system. For instance, he indicated how Aristotle's criteria for rational and nonrational faculties could be used to prove that the will, not the intellect, is the primary rational potency. Nonrational faculties are determined to act in one way, said Aristotle, all other conditions being the same; rational faculties are free to act in more than one way and thus are the basis of all creativity in the arts. If that be so, Duns Scotus argued, the intellect is nonrational, since it has but one mode of acting determined by the objective evidence. In this it resembles all active potencies that are collectively called "nature." The will alone has the basic freedom, when it acts with reason, for alternate modes of acting. Thus for Duns Scotus the distinction between nature and will represents the primary division of active potencies, corresponding roughly to the Aristotelian division of nonrational and rational.

Original also is Duns Scotus's development of Anselm of Canterbury's distinction of the will's twofold inclination, or "affection," namely, love of the advantageous on the one hand and love of what is right and just for its own sake on the other. As the seat of the former, the will is only an intellectual appetite that seeks happiness and self above all else. Only by reason of its affection for justice is the will free to moderate this self-seeking and, according to right reason, love what is good objectively for its intrinsic worth. Unlike Anselm, however, Duns Scotus understood justice not merely as a supernatural, infused gift, called "gratuitous grace" or "charity," but as a congenital or innate freedom of the will, free precisely because it liberates the will from that necessity Aristotle claimed was characteristic of all natural agents, namely, to seek happiness and the perfection of their nature above all else.

These two affections of the will are not volitions as such; though they incline the will, they do not necessitate it or cause it to act. The will itself determines how it will act, but when it does it acts in accord with one or the other of these affections. While the affection for the advantageous corresponds with Aristotle's conception of choice, the affection or bias for justice is an essentially Christian notion. This inclination, according to Duns Scotus, has a twofold effect: (1) it enables the will to love God above all else for God's own sake, and (2) it allows the will to moderate its natural inclination for happiness and self-actualization, either as an individual or as a species, and to love according to right reason. Thus the affection for justice provides the natural basis for a rational ethical philosophy. Both affections are essential to human nature, but they can be perfected supernaturally and directed to God as their object. Charity perfects the will's affection for justice, inclining it to love God for his own sake; hope perfects the will's affection for the advantageous, inclining it to love God because he has shown his love for us in this life and because he will be our ultimate happiness in the life to come.

Another important psychological notion of Duns Scotus' that influenced subsequent scholastics is his conception of intuitive intellectual cognition, or the simple, nonjudgmental awareness of a here-and-now existential situation. First developed as a necessary theological condition for the face-to-face vision of God in the afterlife, intellectual intuition is needed to explain our certainty of primary contingent truths such as "I think," "I choose," "I live," and to account for our awareness of existence. Duns Scotus never makes intellectual intuition the basis for his epistemology. Neither does he see it as putting persons into direct contact with the external sensible world, with any substance material or spiritual, or with an individual's haecceity, for in this life, at least, human intellect works through the sensory imagination. Intellectual intuition seems rather to be identified with the indistinct peripheral aura associated with all our direct sensory-intellectual cognition. We know of it explicitly only in retrospect when we consider the necessary conditions for intellectual memory.

The notion of intellectual intuition continued to be a topic of discussion and dispute down to the time of Calvin, who, influenced by the Scotist John Major, used an auditory rather than a visual sense model of intellectual intuition to explain our experience of God. Whereas Duns Scotus restricted intuition of God to the beatific vision in the afterlife or to the special mystical visions given to the prophets or to Paul of Tarsus, John Major explained that we may also experience God intuitively whenever he "speaks to our soul" through some special inspiration.


The Scotistic Commission (Rome) began publishing a critical edition of the collected works of Duns Scotus in 1950. The Luke Wadding edition (Lyons, 1639), reprinted as John Duns Scotus: Opera omnia, edited by L. Vivès (Paris, 18911895), contains the major portion of his writings. A critical edition of the Tractatus de Primo Principio, edited by Marianus Mueller (Freiburg im Breisgau, 1941), has been reprinted with translations in several languages. I have added to my earlier edition and translation an extensive commentary on this work in A Treatise on God as First Principle (Chicago, 1983). Selections from the Ordinatio are available in my Duns Scotus: Philosophical Writings (Edinburgh, 1962). The most recent edition of the Quodlibetal Questions (Latin text and Spanish translation) is by Felix Alluntis, Obras del Doctor Sutil Juan Duns Escoto (Madrid, 1968); an English translation by Felix Alluntis and myself is entitled God and Creatures: The Quodlibetal Questions (Princeton, 1975). An extensive bibliography by Odulfus Schaefer, Bibliographia vita operibus et doctrina Iohannis Duns Scoti (Rome, 1950), covers nineteenth- and twentieth-century secondary literature. This has been updated to 1965 by Odulfus Schaefer in the Acta ordinis Fratrum Minorum (Florence) 85 (1966) and by Servus Gieben in Laurentianum 6 (1965). Contemporary interest in Duns Scotus's thought is apparent from the international Scotistic Congresses held every five years, the proceedings of which are published under special titles in the general series "Studia Scholastico-Scotistica" (Rome, 1968) by the Societas Internationalis Scotistica. Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality (Washington, D. C., 1986) contains a large selection of Latin texts that I have translated into English.

Allan B. Wolter (1987)

views updated

John Duns Scotus

The Scottish philosopher and theologian John Duns Scotus (c. 1265-1308) contributed to the development of a metaphysical system that was compatible with Christian doctrine, an epistemology that altered the 13th-century understanding of human knowledge, and a theology that stressed both divine and human will.

The century from 1250 to 1350 can be considered the high point of the scholastic movement in philosophy and theology. During that period a number of important developments took place which influenced European thought in subsequent centuries. The first of these developments was the attempt to construct a metaphysical system that would remove or reduce apparent conflicts between natural reason and the truths of revelation, allowing each a specific domain with a certain number of truths in common. This development is often termed the "synthesis of faith and reason" and is considered one of the major achievements of medieval philosophy. A second development was the perfection of an empirical approach to knowledge and the perfection of the critical tools of logic and scientific inquiry, a movement with important long-range results for the history of modern thought. The third development was the creation of a theological system that would protect the Christian conception of the omnipotence and freedom of God while upholding a practical system in which salvation would be granted to any man who earnestly sought it. In each of these developments Duns Scotus made an important contribution.

His Life

John Duns Scotus was born into a landowning family in the southeastern corner of Scotland, an area strongly influenced by the social, political, and religious institutions of England. According to one tradition, his father was Ninian Duns, who held an estate near Maxton in Roxburghshire. After receiving his early education, possibly at Haddington, John Duns entered the Franciscan convent at Dumfries about 1277-1280 and received instruction there from his paternal uncle, Elias Duns.

Shortly before 1290 John Duns was sent to Oxford, probably to continue his study in the liberal arts. It may have been at Oxford that he received the nickname "Scotus" or "the Scot." While at Oxford he was ordained to the priesthood on March 17, 1291, by Oliver Sutton, Bishop of Northampton.

Scotus, as he eventually came to be called, seems to have completed his study in the arts before 1293, for in that year he began his study for the higher degree of theology at Paris under Gonsalvo of Balboa. Returning to Oxford in 1296, Scotus continued his study of theology and commented on the Book of Sentences by Peter Lombard, a standard requirement of any theological faculty in a medieval university and an activity which made the candidate a "bachelor of the Sentences." Having read the Sentences at Oxford (and possibly also at Cambridge), Scotus returned to Paris in 1302 and in that year read the Sentences for the second or third time.

Because of his opposition to King Philip IV's call for a general council against Pope Boniface VIII, Scotus was exiled from France in 1303 and probably returned to Oxford for a year. In 1304, however, Scotus returned to Paris and completed the requirements for the degree of master of theology in 1305. For the next 2 years he held the chair of theology at the Franciscan convent in Paris, debating with other theologians and increasing his reputation. One of his most important works, Quaestiones quodlibetales, contains Scotus's version of many debates in which he engaged during this period.

Scotus was transferred in 1307 to the Franciscan house of study at Cologne, Germany, where he lectured until his death on November 8, 1308. He was buried in the chapel of the convent.

Relation between Philosophy and Theology

Under the impact of the revival of Aristotle in the 13th century, several theologians attempted to argue for the "scientific" nature of theology. This movement was short-lived, and by the end of the 13th century the scientific quality of theology had been rejected on the grounds that theology did not possess the same type of evidence nor was its method demonstrative in the same sense as mathematics or Euclidean geometry.

Scotus contributed to a more exact understanding of the relation between philosophy and theology. He emphasized the practical and affective nature of theology, denying to it the rigorous demonstrative quality of the Aristotelian sciences. Scotus, however, shared with St. Thomas Aquinas the belief that truth was one and that theology and philosophy do not contradict each other but represent two different approaches to the same truth.

The relation of philosophy and theology, for Scotus, was based on the nature of their respective sources: reason and revelation. Scotus's formulation of this problem followed the pattern established by St. Thomas Aquinas, although Scotus restricted the number of theological truths that could be established by natural reason, unaided by revelation.

Metaphysical Beliefs

Scotus understood metaphysics as that aspect of philosophy that studies the nature of being itself rather than any particular object possessing being that exists in external reality. Being, understood in this way, was a concept common to God and man. Moreover, certain disjunctive attributes or antinomies could be applied to being, such as "infinite-finite" or "necessary-contingent." On the basis of his belief that the term "being" applied to God and man in the same sense and that one part of a disjunctive requires the other part, Scotus established a proof for God's existence based on the nature of being. The existence of finite, contingent beings requires the existence of an infinite, necessary being, namely God.

Epistemology and Empiricism

Scotus shared with St. Thomas Aquinas a strong belief in the primacy of sense experience in the process of human knowledge. Scotus, however, gave the intellect of man a more active role in cognition than was customary in the late 13th century. In opposition to the more common Aristotelian epistemology, he argued that the intellect could come into direct contact with the object to be known. Scotus therefore played a very important role in the transformation of medieval epistemology from a conception of the intellect as a passive receptacle that knows only universal concepts to a view of the intellect as an active mind that knows individual things.

Theological Beliefs

The main feature of Scotus's theology is the importance he gives to the primacy of the will in both God and man. In contrast to St. Thomas Aquinas, who tended to emphasize the intellect or reason, Scotus stressed the freedom of the divine will and the freedom of the human will within an order freely chosen by God.

The freedom of God, for Scotus, means first of all that creation was not necessary. God not only chose the type of world He wished to create; He chose to create. Having once chosen, however, it is the nature of God to abide by his decisions. Although He always retains the power to do otherwise, He never arbitrarily reverses His decisions.

The second area where God's freedom is evidenced is in man's salvation. God, for Scotus, predestines those He wishes to save apart from any foreseen merits. Moreover, God retains His freedom to accept or reject the Christian who fulfils the divine commandments.

This absolute power of God is limited by His own free decision to allow man freedom and to award eternal life on the basis of human merit. Man, for Scotus, is also primarily will and is united to God through love more than through reason. Man has the freedom to fulfil God's demands and thus obtain salvation.

Marian Doctor

The last important area of Scotus's thought concerns his teaching on Mary, the mother of Jesus. Duns Scotus is known as the Marian doctor because of the high status he accords to Mary. Scotus taught that Mary was born without the stain of original sin, a doctrine known as the Immaculate Conception and eventually recognized as dogma in the Roman Catholic Church. The support of Scotus's teaching by many within the Franciscan order facilitated the development and final acceptance of that doctrine.

Further Reading

The best biographical sketch of Duns Scotus can be found in Alfred B. Emden, A Biographical Register of the University of Oxford to A.D. 1500, vol. 1 (1957). Among the many histories of medieval philosophy that include the thought of Scotus, the clearest description can be found in Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, vol. 2 (1950). There are several more detailed studies in English of various aspects of Scotus's thought. Two excellent studies of Scotus's metaphysics are Cyril L. Shircel, The Univocity of the Concept of Being in the Philosophy of John Duns Scotus (1942), and Allan Wolter, The Transcendentals and Their Function in the Metaphysics of Duns Scotus (1946). The best study of Scotus's epistemology is Sebastian Day, Intuitive Cognition: A Key to the Significance of the Later Scholastics (1947). A more general evaluation of Scotus's thought and his impact on modern philosophy is provided in J. F. Boler, Charles Peirce and Scholastic Realism: A Study of Peirce's Relation to John Duns Scotus (1963). □

views updated

Duns Scotus, John

(b. Roxburghshire, Scotland, ca. 1266; d. Cologne, Germany, November 1308)


Little is known of the life of John Duns Scotus, who was among the outstanding thinkers of the later Middle Ages. He entered the Franciscan order probably in 1279 or 1280 and was ordained in 1291. He studied first at Oxford University and then at Paris University, returning to Oxford in 1300 to complete the requirement for his doctorate. Before he could take his degree, however, he was once again sent by his superiors to Paris, where he finally became a doctor of theology in 1305, having been temporarily banished from France in 1303, together with about seventy other friars, for supporting Pope Boniface VIII in his quarrel with the French king, Philip the Fair. We last hear of him at Cologne in 1308, teaching in the Franciscan house there.

Duns Scotus’ premature death together with the vicissitudes of his career have combined to make his writings more than usually problematical. Only gradually is the correct relation between his lectures at Paris and those at Oxford being established, while the authority of other works ascribed to him has still to be definitively established. His major writings are his two commentaries on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, a compendium of theology, which constituted one of the main exercises for a degree in that subject. Because of his studies in the theological faculties of both Oxford and Paris, Duns Scotus wrote two such commentaries, Opus Oxoniense and Reportata Parisiensis. Each was left in an unfinished state, as were all his other main works; the unraveling of the correct relation of the two commentaries to each other has been one of the preoccupations of the Scotist editorial commission over the past thirty years and is still not complete. Even when it is, Duns Scotus’ thought will always be incompletely understood. Within a few years of his death his teaching had been developed by his followers into a definite set of tenets, from which it is sometimes difficult to disentangle his own positions. Scotism became one of the dominant schools of later medieval thought, and much in Duns Scotus’ teaching formed the point of departure for William of Ockham’s own, more far-reaching radicalism.

Like the majority of medieval thinkers, Duns Scotus was primarily a theologian. He sought to provide a new, metaphysical basis for a natural theology, which would thereby free such discourse from dependence upon natural phenomena. Duns Scotus was writing in the aftermath of the great 1277 condemnations at Paris and at Oxford of over 200 theses that had applied criteria drawn from the sensory world to the articles of Christian faith. The condemnations had crystallized the danger inherent in employing the categories of nature in seeking knowledge of the divine. As a consequence, many theologians in the years immediately before Duns Scotus had sought a return to the older, traditional stress upon inner, nonsensory awareness as the source of higher knowledge. Duns Scotus, however, denied the human mind any but a sensory source for its knowledge. Accordingly, the problem was how to arrive at concepts that could be held independently of sensory experience. Scotus found the answer in metaphysics—the study of being in itself—and more specifically in the notion of being. As a concept, being was the most universal of all categories, under which every other concept fell. In this most generalized form, being was univocal: it applied indifferently to all that is, regardless of different kinds of being. It therefore transcended the physical properties of specific beings known through the senses; thus, if it could be applied to God, it would free any discussion of him from reliance upon physical categories. In that way, God could be the object of metaphysical, as opposed to physical, discourse. Duns Scotus held that the way to this lay in considering being in its two main modes, infinite and finite. Infinite being was by definition necessary and uncaused, while finite being was dependent upon another for its existence and, so, contingent. Accordingly, metaphysics could adduce God’s existence as necessary being and that of his creatures as finite. But that was as far as it could go. Beyond saying God was first being, one could know his nature only when one turned from metaphysics to theology; in like manner, what he had ordained for creation belonged to the articles of faith, not to natural reason.

The effects of Duns Scotus’ reorientation of metaphysics were to put a new stress upon infinity and contingency. On the one hand, only God was infinite and, so, beyond the compass of human discourse; once having established God as the first infinite being, metaphysics could offer no analogies between the divine and the created. There was no place for Aquinas’ five proofs of God’s existence drawn from knowledge of this world, just as Duns Scotus allowed none to the older Augustinian doctrine of divine illumination of the soul, by which the soul was enabled to know eternal truths. On the other hand, creatures, since they were merely contingent, had no other raison d’être than God’s having willed them. God’s will was the only reason for the existence of that which was finite and need not have been. Moreover, God was absolutely free to do anything save contradict himself, which would limit him. Duns Scotus gave a renewed emphasis to God’s omnipotence by reviving the distinction between God’s ordained power as applied to this world and his absolute power by which he could do anything. Whereas by his ordained power he had decreed the unchanging laws that govern creation, by his absolute power God could supersede those laws and thus, for example, reward a man without first having infused him with grace. Duns Scotus does not appear to have pressed very far the contrast between these two aspects of God’s power, but in this, as in stressing God’s infinity, he opened the way to a much more radical application by William of Ockham and his followers.

The significance of Duns Scotus in the history of thought is that he broke away from the previous ways of establishing a natural theology. In doing so, he limited the area of meaningful natural discourse about the divine and gave new force to the contingent nature of creation. He thereby took an important step in separating natural experience and reason from revealed theological truth and from the preordained determinism against which the condemnations of 1277 had been especially directed. Those of the next generation, above all William of Ockham, were to make unbridgeable the gulf thus opened between knowledge and faith and to arrive at new and fruitful ways of interpreting natural phenomena.


Duns Scotus’ works were collected as Opera omnia, 12 vols. (Lyons, 1639; repr., Paris, 1891–1895). A new critical edition by the Scotist Commission, under C. Balic, at Rome is in progress.

Modern editions of individual works include Tractatus de primo principio, ed. and with English trans. by E. Roche (New York, 1949). Selections from Duns Scotus in English translation are contained in John Duns Scotus: Philosophical Writings, A. Wolter, ed. and trans., which also provides a selected bibliography. A fuller bibliography is to be found in E. Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy (London, 1955), pp. 763–764.

Gordon Leff

views updated

Duns Scotus, John (c.1265–1308). Little is known for certain of Duns Scotus' life. He is said to have been a Franciscan, born at Duns in Berwickshire, and to have studied at Oxford and Paris. His burial was at Cologne. He wrote extensively on grammar, logic, philosophy, and theology. He was concerned primarily with the nature and attributes of God, but distinguished between faith (theology) and reason (philosophy). If his concerns and parameters were still essentially medieval, his methodology was modern. Duns Scotus was greatly admired for the rigour of his thinking, yet, when medieval scholastic philosophy fell into disfavour in the 16th cent. as idle speculation, his name was borrowed to coin the word ‘dunce’.

J. A. Cannon

views updated

Duns Scotus, John (c.1265–1308), Scottish theologian and scholar. A profoundly influential figure in the Middle Ages, he was the first major theologian to defend the theory of the Immaculate Conception, and opposed St Thomas Aquinas in arguing that faith was a matter of will rather than something dependent on logical proofs.

In the 16th century his name, through his followers the Scotists, became associated with a scholasticism characterized by hair-splitting and useless distinctions, which was seen as inimical to the new learning; from this developed the word dunce.

views updated

John Duns Scotus

c. 1266-1308

Scottish philosopher and theologian who helped establish the framework for the scientific method by distinguishing between causal laws and empirical generalizations. The author of numerous works, including commentaries on Aristotle, Duns Scotus outlined a philosophical theory that came to be known as Scotism, in opposition to the Thomism of Thomas Aquinas and his adherents. Among the notions put forth by Duns Scotus was the idea that matter, as matter, has some verifiable existence and reality all its own. The stubbornness and obstructionism of his followers, in the face of the changes associated with the Renaissance, led to the coining of the term "dunce" to describe someone unable or unwilling to recognize an obvious fact.

views updated

Duns Scotus, John (1265–1308) Scottish theologian and scholastic philosopher. His main works were commentaries on the writings of the Italian theologian Peter Lombard. He founded a school of scholasticism called ‘Scotism’.

More From

You Might Also Like