John Duns Scotus

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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...

(The entire section is 4,278 words.)