John Duns Scotus Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

0111205927-DunsScotus.jpg John Duns Scotus (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: With his new, closely woven synthesis of Scholastic philosophical and theological thought, Duns Scotus created the school of Scotism. His rigorous and subtle critical method and fresh theoretical formulations influenced important later thinkers, from his own time to the present.

Early Life

Little is known for certain about the life, early or late, of John Duns Scotus, both because of the period in which he was born and because his life was not one of action but of thought; he was a thinker rather than a doer. The actions of his early life consisted mainly of going from one place to another to study and prepare himself for the life of a priest and university teacher. The actions of his later life were mostly those of a university teacher—lecturing, disputing, and writing. He was nicknamed by his contemporaries Doctor Subtilis (the Subtle Doctor), a tribute to the keenness of his reasoning as well as to his ability to make fine distinctions of meaning.

The exact date of Duns Scotus’ birth is unknown, but evidence suggests that he was born in the town of Duns in the early months of 1266, no later than March 17. Although town-born, he evidently was the son of a well-to-do landowner known as Ninian Duns of Littledean—an estate still called by this name is located at Maxton-on-Tweed, Roxburgh County, whereas Duns is in Berwick. The Duns family was noted as a longtime benefactor of the Friars Minor, or Franciscans, the religious order founded in 1210 by Saint Francis of Assisi. Indeed, Duns Scotus’ paternal uncle was a member of this order under the name Father Elias Duns. In 1278, Elias Duns was appointed vicar general of the Friars Minor of Scotland. (Jurisdictionally, the Scots belonged to the Franciscan province of England, whose principal center of study was at Oxford University.) Since the boy Duns Scotus evidently displayed a brilliant intellect as well as pious religious devotion, his uncle, who was stationed at the friary of Dumfries, arranged for the twelve-year-old Duns grammar school student to come to the friary to prepare himself for a religious vocation.

Since Duns Scotus was not yet fifteen, however, he had to wait until 1280 before he could be accepted as a novice friar. In 1282, he became a candidate for the bachelor’s degree, which required four years of philosophical training, and had entered Oxford for this purpose, although no extant documentation sustains this assumption. Before his studies were completed, he was ordained into the priesthood by Oliver Sutton, the bishop of Lincoln, Oxford being in this diocese, at St. Andrew’s Church in Northampton on March 17, 1291. Duns Scotus apparently received his bachelor’s degree from Oxford in the following year.

In 1293, Duns Scotus was sent to the University of Paris to obtain his master’s degree. There he studied under Gonsalvus of Balboa until 1296. For some reason, however, he then returned to Oxford without having completed his master’s requirements. At Oxford, he lectured on Peter Lombard’s Sententiarum libri IV from 1297 to 1301. In 1302, he returned to Paris and resumed his studies. In 1303, however, he was forced to leave the university and return to England because he supported Boniface VIII in the pope’s controversy with the French king, Philip the Fair. Duns Scotus’ presence at Oxford from 1300 to 1301 is attested by documentation: His name is listed among the twenty-two Oxford Franciscans who were presented to Bishop Dalderby on July 26, 1300, and a disputation of a master of theology, Philip of Bridington, names Duns Scotus as the bachelor respondent. Following a brief exile, Duns Scotus returned to the University of Paris, where he received his master’s degree in 1305.

If little is known about Duns Scotus’ life, even less is known about his physical appearance as an adult and the kind of personality he displayed to others. Nevertheless, a miniature portrait of him in a fourteenth century manuscript depicts him in the habit of a Grey Friar and holding a folio volume in one hand. Appearing to be engaged in thought, his face is square from forehead to lower jawbone, but his jowl line, ending in a small, receding chin, is pear-shaped. Large and expressive eyes peer pensively from underneath arched eyebrows. His prominent nose is straight and ends with unusually wide nostrils. His mouth is narrow but features full, sensual lips. The hand that holds the book is unusually small. Altogether, Duns Scotus appears a man of short stature and rotund build.

Duns Scotus was evidently a devout monk, a zealous teacher, and an ambitious writer, but the essence of his personality must be extrapolated from his writing style, which, in general, is impersonal in line with his intention to attain absolute objectivity. Utilizing the dialectical approach to the discussion of a topic, Duns Scotus deliberately suppresses the identities of those with whom he enters into dialogue. Yet despite his meticulous analysis and his effort to be precise, his style is difficult and often obscure. Nevertheless, despite his efforts to be impersonal, his style is not fully dehumanized, however lacking it is in emotion and a sense of humor. Never seeking to portray himself in any favorable light, he sometimes falls from grace and displays pettiness, narrow-mindedness, prejudice, and even fanaticism. In his love of God he was undoubtedly sincere, but a love without a tangible object, whether it be God, the Virgin Mary, or simply Everybody, can sometimes, as it appears with Duns Scotus, efface the love of the individual.

His reception of the masters degree from the University of Paris in 1305 stimulated Duns Scotus to ambitious literary activity. Having started on his Ordinatio at Oxford in 1300, he set about to complete this notable work by drawing not only on his original Oxford lecture notes but also on those made at Cambridge (exactly when he taught at Cambridge is not known, but possibly this occurred during his exile) and at Paris. This remarkable commentary, which is also known by the title Opus Oxoniense, on Lombard’s Sententiarum libri IV, has proven to be the most important of his works, although it still remained unfinished at his death.

Life’s Work

In 1305, Duns Scotus was appointed regent master in the Franciscan chair at the University of Paris, and he lectured and disputed there in this capacity until 1307. During this period, Duns Scotus conducted several disputations which are worthy of note. In one, he locked horns with the Dominican master Guillaume Pierre Godin, regarding the principle of individuation, or what makes one thing different from another of the same species. Godin held that matter was the principle of individuation. Duns Scotus denied that that was so. In fact, he held, it was neither matter nor form nor quantity. Rather, he contended, the principle of individuation was a property in itself that was added to the others. Scotists later referred to this property as the haecceitas, that is, the “thisness” of a thing, which individualized it. At the same time, Duns Scotus recognized that individualized created natures must have some common denominator if scientific knowledge were to be gained of them.

Duns Scotus also conducted an important quodlibetal disputation. This was a disputation in which the master accepted questions of any kind on any topic (de quodlibet) and from any bachelor or master present (a quodlibet). Duns Scotus accepted twenty-one such questions to be disputed that concerned God and creatures. Later, he revised, enlarged, and organized them into a work called Quaestiones quodlibetales. As with his Opus Oxoniense, however, he left this work unfinished at his death. Nevertheless, the Quaestiones quodlibetales proved scarcely less important than the Opus Oxoniense. Indeed, the former represented his most advanced thinking. Altogether, his fame depends chiefly on these two works.

Another important disputation in which Duns Scotus engaged at this time was his defense of his theory of the Immaculate Conception. During the Middle Ages, many doctors of the Church were disturbed by the very idea of the Immaculate Conception. Was not Mary a product of human propagation? Was she therefore not a child of Adam and Eve, one who had inherited the original sin of her primordial parents? If so, did she not need Christ as her Redeemer? Therefore, how could Mary, virgin birth notwithstanding, have been free of original sin at her conception of Christ? Although Duns Scotus agreed with the skeptics that Mary would necessarily have needed Christ as her Redeemer, he proposed that mother and Son had been united in the Incarnation and Redemption by virtue of divine predestination and hence were joined together in their life, mission, and privileges. Therefore, he concluded, Mary had been preserved from both original and actual sin by Christ’s Redemption. This theory, however, was not received well by Duns Scotus’ secular and Dominican colleagues and was heatedly debated. Indeed, the idea of the Immaculate Conception continued to be controversial for five centuries before it became approved Catholic dogma.

Although Duns Scotus worked out of the Augustinian-Franciscan tradition, he was influenced by a variety of predecessors. He belongs to no particular school except the one he founded. Among the ancient Greeks, he drew mostly on Aristotle; among the Apostles, he favored Saint Paul; among the Evangelists, he preferred Saint John the Divine; among the later Peripatetics, he was stimulated by Porphyry (a disciple of Plotinus); among the Latin fathers, he drew heavily on St. Augustine of Hippo, Africa; among the Arabians of the East, he was mostly indebted to ibn-Sina (Avicenna); among the Franciscan school, he was attracted to Saint Bonaventura; among the Dominican school, he paid particular attention to Saint Thomas Aquinas; and among the Neo-Augustinians, he followed closely the doctrine of the secular Henry of Ghent. Of Duns Scotus’ other writings of this Paris period, the most significant are the Collationes, short disputations held in Oxford and Paris; Quaestiones subtilessimae super libros Metaphysicorum Aristotelis, on Aristotle’s Metaphysics; Quaestiones acutissimae super universalia Porphyrii, on Porphyry’s Isagoge and Aristotle’s...

(The entire section is 4278 words.)