John Duns Scotus
John Duns Scotus c. 1266-1308
The following entry presents an overview of the life and works of John Duns Scotus.
Scottish theologian and philosopher.
Among the most influential of the medieval Scholastic thinkers, Scotus is regarded as both an outstanding logician and a profound theologian. Categorized as a philosophical realist, Scotus is principally associated with the explication and justification of Christian faith. His popular reputation rests on an assortment of what are considered brilliant logical arguments on theological subjects, especially his rational defense of the Church doctrine of Immaculate Conception, his elaborate proof of the existence of an infinite being in the tradition of St. Anselm, and his distinctive perception of human knowledge as a conjunction of reasoning and divine revelation (concretized in his identification of two forms of cognition, intuitive and abstractive). Other prominent elements of Scotus's thought include his understanding of causation in relation to the existence of God, his epistemological claim that universal concepts derive from the common nature shared by singular entities, and his placement of beatific love and will above human knowledge and intellect. On a politico-historical level, Scotus is additionally noted for his support of the Roman Catholic Church in disputes against the worldly power of kings. His principal writings are two monumental but unfinished theological treatises, the Ordinatio (c. 1308) and Quaestiones quodlibetales (c. 1308; God and Creatures: The Quodlibetal Questions). Although Scotus's official beatification awaits the completion of a standard, critical edition of his writings, Scotism, the school of theology based upon his work, prevailed in Roman Catholic thought in the universities of Europe for centuries after his death, and his intellectual legacy continues to engage a range of modern theologians and philosophers.
Relatively little is known about Scotus's early life, aside from his place of birth in Duns, Berwickshire, Scotland, a small village not far from the English border. While other dates have been proposed, significant evidence from his university records suggests that he was likely born in the spring of 1266 or shortly before. Said to have exhibited a youthful interest in the Church, Scotus joined the Minorite Friars (Franciscans) in Oxford, England while still a boy, before embarking on a thirteen-year course of theological study in 1288. While the details of Scotus's first eight years of theological training remain open to conjecture, it is known that he was ordained a priest in Northampton on March 17, 1291 and that he completed his training to become a master of theology at Oxford University. As a student at Oxford in 1297, Scotus began preparing lectures on Peter Lombard's Sentences, the basic theological text of the medieval European university. His final three years at Oxford were occupied with delivering his theological commentary, as well as with lecturing on the Bible, and completing a year-long process of public disputation of the foregoing materials. By 1301, Scotus had completed all of the requirements necessary for elevation to master status in his field; a long list of students in a similar position at Oxford, however, forced him to wait until 1305 before he could officially claim his degree.
In 1302, Scotus accepted an appointment to the University of Paris as lecturer in theology and English representative of the Franciscan Order. Scotus lectured from the fall of that year to the summer of the following before his allegiance to Pope Boniface VIII in a dispute with King Philip IV (the Fair) over the taxation of Church property forced him to flee France along with the other foreign-born university students and masters who refused to side with the French monarch. Most accounts suggest that Scotus spent the ensuing nine months of exile in England at Cambridge, although some doubt exists as to the precise dating of Scotus's stay there, and he may have returned to Oxford instead. Scotus continued to revise and expand his lectures from Oxford, Cambridge, and Paris into his Ordinatio. He returned to Paris in 1304, and subsequently offered his virtuoso defense of the Immaculate Conception. Risking expulsion from the university if he failed to counter the objections of his peers, Scotus argued with subtle brilliance that Mary's lack of Original Sin does not contradict Christ's universal redemption of humankind. Some within the Dominican Order considered Scotus's views heretical, and the theologian met with harsh secular opposition as well. Possibly in part to shield himself from authorities incensed by the dispute, Scotus accepted a position as Master of theology at Cologne University in Germany. He lectured there between 1307 and his death in November of the following year. Scotus's body, since venerated as blessed by the Roman Catholic Church, was interred in the nave of the Conventual Church, which stands adjacent to the Cologne Cathedral. After his death, Scotus's former students began the process of completing his Ordinatio and Quaestiones quodlibetales by appending material from their notes and reports of his lectures. Hundreds of fourteenth-century manuscripts and numerous subsequent editions of Scotus's work survive, writings that have been accumulated for the Vatican edition of the Ordinatio, an ambitious reconstruction of the work as Scotus left it.
Scotus's untimely death and the fact that many of his most significant writings were left incomplete makes it difficult to date them accurately. Nevertheless, scholars observe that Scotus's principal theological works consist of his Lectura, lectures he delivered at Oxford from about 1297 to 1300, which were later collected and expanded as his Ordinatio. Commentators also place his major theological treatise, the Quaestiones quodlibetales, near the end of his career, noting that all but the last of its twenty-one questions were completed by November of 1308. Of his early work, Scotus, like many great medieval theologians that preceded and followed him, wrote extensive commentaries on the Sentences of the twelfth-century Italian thinker Peter Lombard, presenting these as lectures while a university student. The Lectura documents his conception of theology as a practical rather than speculative study of God (in contradiction to the belief maintained by his intellectual predecessor the Dominican Scholastic Thomas Aquinas). Structured as a series of questions put forward and then answered in a form paralleling that of the Sentences, Scotus's Lectura espouse the view that human knowledge of God must ultimately arrive through a process of divine revelation. Likewise, they subordinate philosophy to theology, suggesting that the logical tools of reason may be applied in order to demonstrate the existence of an infinite being (God), although a final acceptance must be made on faith. The Lectura also contain Scotus's early thoughts on an issue of profound importance to his writing, the distinction between intuitive and abstractive cognition—knowledge of things whose existence is established (intuitive) versus knowledge of things not actually present or known to exist (abstractive). The Lectura also introduce the key concept of haecceity (literally “thisness”), a fundamental element in Scotus's epistemological definition of individuality. With his Ordinatio (sometimes called the Opus oxoniese), Scotus offered an exhaustive expansion of his earlier commentaries on the Sentences. Even in its unfinished state, the Ordinatio covers the full range of theological inquiry and reflects Scotus's thought on the nature of God, the Holy Trinity, Christ, and the Virgin Mary; his work as a moral philosopher, including analysis of reason, faith, and choice; discussion of the link between human freedom and divine will; and designation of love, as opposed to knowledge, as the utmost expression of worldly perfection. An understanding of the will as a moral and rational agent also figures prominently in Scotus's theological treatise, and features his combined understanding of human proclivities toward happiness and justice, the so-called affectio commodi and affectio justitiae.
The Quaestiones quodlibetales, derived from Scotus's work after he obtained the status of master in theology, reflects Scotus's most mature thought on the subjects of faith and divinity. Comprised of twenty-one questions and answers, the work presents two main subjects: God and God's creatures. Among the inquiries, Question 17 deals with the human drive toward virtue and discusses various types of moral goodness such as hope, faith, and charity in the contexts of rationality, will, and the love of God. Scotus's other works of note include his Tractatus de primo principio (c. 1301-08; A Treatise on God as First Principle), a short collection documenting his view of philosophy in regard to theology, in which he summarizes a number of principles concerning God that are provable through the application of reason. The more purely philosophical Quaestiones super Metaphysicam (probably written early in Scotus's academic career, circa 1301) presents a range of inquiries prompted by the metaphysical writings of Aristotle and the Neoplatonist Porphyry.
Scotus's contemporaries sometimes referred to him as the “Doctor Subtilis” (Subtle Doctor) for his elegant method of theological proof and argumentation. Since his death, a growing Roman Catholic devotion to the cult of the Virgin likewise buoyed esteem for the “Marian Doctor” and his seminal defense of the Immaculate Conception. The sixteenth century and the rise of humanism witnessed a considerable backlash against the intellectual dominance of Scotism, leading to the popular designation of “Dunce,” derived from Duns, for a person deemed “incapable of thought.” Scotus's reputation survived the assault of the humanists, however, and maintained its theological supremacy. The publication of his twelve-volume Joannis Duns Scoti, Doctor Subtilis, opera omnia, edited by Luke Wadding, in 1639 marked a high point of academic interest in Scotism during the seventeenth century. A subsequent redaction of Scotus's collected works, generally referred to as the Wadding-Vivès edition, appeared late in the nineteenth century, but was not without serious limitations. The first two volumes of a critical edition of Scotus's writings were published in 1950 under the editorial guidance of the Croatian scholar Carl Balic; by 1966 six volumes, representing the text of the first of the four books of Scotus's Ordinatio were complete. Continued work on the standard, Vatican edition of Scotus's opus has continued into the twenty-first century. Meanwhile, modern commentators on the writings of Scotus have principally continued a tradition of philosophical engagement with the thinker's texts, with particular emphasis on Scotus's moral thought, analysis of human and divine will, and explanation of contingency and freedom in the framework of faith and love of God. Additionally, many scholars have pointed out the enormity of Scotus's influence on western thought, recognizable in such diverse contexts as the Reformation theology of John Calvin, the poetic experience of the nineteenth-century Englishman Gerard Manley Hopkins, or the ideas of the twentieth-century American philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce.
Lectura (theological lectures) c. 1297-1300
Collationes (theology) c. 1301-08
Quaestiones super Metaphysicam (philosophy) c. 1301
Tractatus de primo principio [A Treatise on God as First Principle] (theology) c. 1301-08
Reportatio I (theology) c. 1305
Ordinatio [Opus Oxoniense] (theology) c. 1308
Quaestiones quodlibetales [God and Creatures: The Quodlibetal Questions] (theology) c. 1308
John Duns Scotus: Philosophical Writings (translated by Allan B. Wolter) 1962
God and Creatures: The Quodlibetal Questions (translated by Felix Alluntis and Allan B. Wolter) 1975
Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality (translated by Allan B. Wolter) 1986
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SOURCE: Burr, David. “Scotus and Transubstantiation.” Medieval Studies 34 (1972): 336-60.
[In the following essay, Burr studies the reasoning and conclusions of Scotus on the subject of the Transubstantiation of Christ, comparing his arguments with those of St. Thomas Aquinas and subsequent Scotist theologians.]
John Duns Scotus remains somewhat of an enigma to the average student of intellectual history. Since the so-called “Thomistic synthesis” is usually accepted by the non-specialist as the quintessence of medieval religious thought, Scotus is relegated to a rather shadowy existence as the “other great medieval theologian,” without any clear notion of what was so great about him. His identification as the Subtle Doctor does little to ease doubts on this score, since some observers wonder if this subtlety may have been achieved at the cost of catholicity.
In no area of Scotus' thought is the ambiguity of his position more apparent than in his eucharistic thought. It has long been recognized that his notion of transubstantiation differs from Thomas' view in some very basic ways. The precise nature of this difference is less clear than one might imagine, however, since much of the relevant research has been prompted by something resembling ulterior motives.1 The following study will attempt to provide reasonably objective answers to two questions. First, how did...
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SOURCE: Frank, William A. “Duns Scotus's Concept of Willing Freely: What Divine Freedom beyond Choice Teaches Us.” Franciscan Studies 42, no. 20 (1982): 68-89.
[In the following essay, Frank analyzes the conjunction of freedom and necessity in Scotus's understanding of divine will.]
The claim that God enjoys a volition that is simultaneously free and necessary challenges the standard meaning of willing freely that is anchored in the condition of a choice between alternatives.1 It has been claimed before that Duns Scotus' assertion of the compatibility of freedom and necessity in volition proves critical to a proper understanding of his voluntarism. Alluding to this teaching is one way of fulfilling the obligation encumbent on a reader of Duns Scotus to counter an entrenched tendency in the received history of philosophy that sees in Scotus' doctrine of the free will the origins of a prevailing modern notion of liberty as a fundamental arbitrariness, a radical freedom of indifference.2 What is accomplished in this analysis of certain Scotistic teachings is a demonstration of the core meaning of willing freely. This is an account of the univocal meaning at work in an understanding of any operation of the free will. The contrast in the compatibility of seemingly contradictory properties signals an analysis of free will that must be enlarged beyond the benchmark case...
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SOURCE: Craig, William Lane. “John Duns Scotus on God's Foreknowledge and Future Contingents.” Franciscan Studies 47, no. 25 (1987): 98-122.
[In the following essay, Craig explicates Scotus's view of the infallibility of divine foreknowledge, together with his proposition that such foreknowledge does not imply total determinism or a lack of future contingency.]
John Duns Scotus's best treatment of God's foreknowledge and future contingents is found in distinctions 38.2-39 of book one of his Opus Oxoniense, or Ordinatio, in which he discusses whether God has determinate, certain and infallible, immutable, and necessary cognition of existents and whether such knowledge is compatible with contingency in things.1 We may leave aside the question of the immutability of God's knowledge, but the other questions are important for an understanding of Scotus's view on God's knowledge of future contingents and the problem of theological fatalism. Although Scotus presents a string of objections to be dealt with at the outset of his inquiry, I think his own position will be clearer if we do not follow his procedure, but rather first examine his own view on the matters at hand and then with that in mind see how he deals with the objector's arguments.
SCOTUS'S POSITION ON GOD'S KNOWLEDGE
In elaborating his own view of God's knowledge, Scotus is at...
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SOURCE: Dumont, Stephen D. “Theology as a Science and Duns Scotus's Distinction between Intuitive and Abstractive Cognition.” Speculum 64, no. 3 (July 1989): 579-99.
[In the following essay, Dumont probes the distinction between two types of thought—intuitive and abstractive cognition—within Scotus's definition of theology as a true science rather than simply the product of faith and beatific vision.]
By all accounts one of the most influential philosophical contributions of Duns Scotus is his distinction between intuitive cognition, in which a thing is known as present and existing, and abstractive cognition, which abstracts from actual presence and existence.1 Recent scholarship has focused almost exclusively on the role given intuitive cognition in the justification of contingent propositions and on the debates over certitude which arose from the critiques of Scotus's distinction by Peter Aureoli and William of Ockham.2 However warranted this focus on the problem of certitude and the role of intuition in its solution might be, it has obscured the actual context in which fourteenth-century thinkers very often discussed Scotus's famous distinction. As the Appendix [see Speculum 64 no. 3 (July 1989): 594–99] to this article makes clear, Scotus's contemporaries, including Ockham and Aureoli, nearly always treated intuitive and abstractive cognition under the rubric...
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SOURCE: Dumont, Stephen D. “The Propositio Famosa Scoti: Duns Scotus and Ockham on the Possibility of a Science of Theology.” Dialogue 31, no. 3 (summer 1992): 415-29.
[In the following essay, Dumont considers Scotus's contention that theology is a science in a verifiable, Aristotelian sense, and contrasts this view with William of Ockham's repudiation of Scotus's argument.]
Duns Scotus's famous proposition was first attacked in a short polemical treatise attributed to Thomas of Sutton.1 By the time of Ockham, the proposition was known as the propositio famosa, so called by Walter Chatton,2 Ockham's colleague at Oxford and London, who defended it against Ockham's lengthy critique.3 At Paris, during the same period, it was called the propositio vulgata and was used approvingly by Francis of Meyronnes,4 Peter of Navarre5 and Durandus St. Pourçain.6 This “famous proposition” was so controverted because on it depended the acceptance, with Duns Scotus, or the rejection, with Ockham, of theology as a strict, propter quid science. As its detractors and defenders must have realized, it also struck at the heart of the divergent philosophical outlooks of Duns Scotus and Ockham. For all of this, Duns Scotus's famous proposition and its history have all but escaped notice.
I. THEOLOGY AS...
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SOURCE: Wolter, Allan B. “Reflections on the Life and Works of Scotus.” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 67, no. 1 (winter 1993): 1-36.
[In the following essay, Wolter recounts the twentieth-century editorial history of Scotus's collected works.]
Scotus's early death left all his major works in an unfinished state. But so great was his fame and following that his disciples made every effort to put his writings before the public, particularly the two most important works on which his fame as a theologian has largely depended, one is his monumental commentary on the four books of the Sentences, the other his magisterial Quodlibet. The former was the more important since it covered the whole field of theology; the latter's importance stemmed from its character as a late magisterial work. Except for the last question, Scotus's revision of his Quodlibet was complete,1 but the revision of his more extensive Sentence commentary (now known as his Ordinatio) still had numerous lacunae. It began as a revision of the Lectura, his original lectures at Oxford. He cites 1300 as the year he is writing this second question of the prologue.2 How far his revision had proceeded before he left for Paris is difficult to determine. It is clear from the Vatican edition that as late as 1304, he was still dictating questions not only for Bk. IV of his...
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SOURCE: Wolter, Allan B. “Scotus on the Divine Origin of Possibility.” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 67, no. 1 (winter 1993): 95-107.
[In the following essay, Wolter illuminates a principal element of Scotus's mature metaphysical theory regarding divine knowledge of the potential and the actual.]
The Questions on Aristotle's Metaphysics, in the opinion of the Scotistic Commission is a work Duns Scotus composed early in his academic career. Portions of what he wrote there are more fully developed in his Oxford Lectura.1 According to the editors working on a critical edition at the work at the Franciscan Institute of St. Bonaventure University, however, the original work has been revised, and this may explain the references the Sentence-commentaries.2
Book IX seems to be one of the more mature portions of the work, however, with its masterful analysis of the various meanings of potency and act, but like other portions of this early work it presents certain questions with only probable answers and needs to be complemented with what Scotus says elsewhere in his later commentaries on the Sentences.
Santogrossi's essay undertakes to examine one aspect of “potency,” namely that opposed to actuality, and unpacks what Scotus has to say about the possible as a non-existent object.3 He...
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SOURCE: Ingham, Mary Elizabeth. “Scotus and the Moral Order.” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 67, no. 1 (winter 1993): 127-50.
[In the following essay, Ingham evaluates Scotus as a moral philosopher and assesses his discussion of the moral life.]
Twenty years ago, scholarship on Scotist thought centered upon the question: Is Scotus a voluntarist? Thanks to the serious research advanced by notable scholars,1 this question no longer preoccupies us. Scotus's “voluntarism,” if the term must be used, is not the radical advocacy of an indetermined will, but the reasoned presentation of a view of reality in which selfless love for the good, and not merely knowledge of the good, is the principal activity characteristic of human perfection.
What interests us today is the ethical model or paradigm which Scotus presents for moral activity. We seek to understand the workings of the intellect in mutuality with a will which is free for self-determination, free to love the highest good in and for itself, free to move beyond concerns of self-preservation. The intricate dynamic between reasoning and willing provides the basis for moral objectivity. Notwithstanding the emphasis placed upon subjective acts of love and choice, the Scotist ethical presentation affirms the existence of a rational, objective moral order. As the following pages will illustrate, the centrality of...
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SOURCE: Boler, John. “An Image for the Unity of Will in Duns Scotus.” Journal of the History of Philosophy 32, no. 1 (January 1994): 23-44.
[In the following essay, Boler concentrates on Scotus's moral theory of dual affectiones (basic inclinations toward happiness and justice) and the relationship of this duality to the philosopher's understanding of the underlying unity of will.]
Scotus adopts from Anselm the terminology of two “affections of will.”1 The affectio commodi and the affectio justitiae2 are basic wants or inclinations in rational agents, postulated to explain (a) severally, the various wants such agents have, and (b) in combination, the unique character of “rational appetite” (i.e., will) in a moral context.3 The framework of the present article, however, is a restricted one: to examine the problem of the unity of a will with more than one inclination. And even within that context, my present purpose is quite specific: to examine one model Scotus offers for understanding that unity.4
Section 1 is a brief sketch of Scotus's doctrine of dual, basic inclinations. Section 2 is a still briefer statement of a possible problem of unity in such a will. Sections 3 through 6 present and analyze Scotus's analogy of the relation between the dual affectiones with that between genus and specific difference...
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SOURCE: Cross, Richard. “Duns Scotus on Goodness, Justice, and What God Can Do.” Journal of Theological Studies. n.s. 48, no. 1 (April 1997): 48-76.
[In the following essay, Cross analyzes and rejects Scotus's assertion “that God has libertarian freedom with regard to all his actions,” contending that such a claim creates an ethical contradiction between God's contingent action and the premise that God always acts in accordance with right reason.]
The claim that God is omnipotent is not exactly the same as the claim that God can bring about any (broadly) logically possible state of affairs: i.e., any state of affairs all of the descriptions of which are logically possible. For example, God cannot bring about any logically necessary state of affairs.1 He cannot bring about any contingent state of affairs the description of which entails that God does not bring that state of affairs about. (For example, I take it that necessarily my free actions are brought about only by me, and not by God.)2 Most modern philosophers of religion (and many medieval ones as well) hold that God's having certain attributes entails that there are some logically possible states of affairs which God cannot bring about. For example, perfect goodness coupled with omniscience might entail that it is impossible for God to bring about a morally bad action.
There are a number of ways in...
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Broadie, Alexander. “Duns Scotus on Sinful Thought.” Scottish Journal of Theology 49, no. 3 (1996): 291–310.
Outlines and critiques Scotus's notion of free will as it pertains to the question of whether an internal act of thought can be “morally improper.”
Additional coverage of Scotus's life and career is contained in the following source published by the Gale Group: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 115.
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