John Duns Scotus

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4278

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.

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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 Categories, De Interpretatione, and De Sophisticis elenchis; and the Tractatus de Primo Rerum Omnium Principio, a compendium on natural theology. Two works formerly attributed to Duns Scotus, De rerum principio and De modis significandi, seu Grammatica speculativa, have been rejected as authored by others.

Near the end of 1307, Duns Scotus was suddenly called away from Paris, having been unexpectedly appointed to a professorship at Cologne, Germany. According to some scholars, the reason for this abrupt departure is that his teacher and loyal friend, Master Gonsalvus of Balboa, had transferred him to Germany because he feared for his protégé’s life, given the heated resistance to his defense of the Immaculate Conception. Duns Scotus’ theory at this time seemed to many to conflict with the Church’s doctrine of Christ’s universal redemption, and he had been hotly challenged by his secular and Dominican colleagues. Indeed, at one quodlibetal disputation the secular master Jean de Pouilly had denounced the thesis as heretical and hinted that Duns Scotus deserved severe punishment.

This threat came at a particularly unpropitious time, for King Philip IV of France, supported by Pope Clement V of Rome, had but recently instituted trial proceedings against the military religious order known as the Knights Templars. The Knights Templars, who had originated in the Crusades, were rich and powerful. Their chief rival was another military religious order, which had also originated in the Crusades, called the Knights Hospitallers. The Knights Hospitallers were favored by the pope. King Philip distrusted the power of the Knights Templars and coveted their possessions. Consequently, he had lodged charges of heresy and immorality against them. Under these circumstances, Duns Scotus’ life was surely in danger if a charge of heresy could have been proved against him.

In any case, Duns Scotus had not long to live. He lectured at Cologne until near the end of 1308, when he died prematurely, on November 8, at the age of forty-two. His body was buried in the Franciscan church at Cologne, where it still lies. Although canonical proceedings for his beatification have been initiated twice since his death—once in the early twentieth century—he has never been canonized by the Church. In the Franciscan Order, however, he is known as “Blessed” Duns Scotus, and his name is included in the Franciscan martyrology. He is also thus venerated in the German dioceses of Cologne and Nola.

The basis of Duns Scotus’ metaphysics is “being” (ens). For him, being is the primary object of man’s intellect. He distinguishes, however, between spiritual and material beings. God, the Divine Spirit, is the Supreme Being, that is, He is “pure” being, self-generated and uncreated. Although angels are in like manner immaterial, their spirit is less pure than that of the Divine Spirit; having been created, they are distanced from God. The human soul is also immaterial; breathed into the body by God to give it life, it lodges temporarily in its prison house, further distanced from “pure” being until it is released by death. For Duns Scotus, all created substances are composed of matter (Materia) and form (forma). He calls the common substate of all created beings materia prima. Passive and receptive to corporeal forms, it is the subject of substantial and accidental change without the mediation of any substantial form. In other words, it is a terminus creationis. Duns Scotus insists on the unity and homogeneity of matter in all created beings. Everything that is created partakes univocally of this materia prima, which is indeterminate, matter without form, and only just removed from “nothing.”

Duns Scotus distinguishes between “essence” (what makes a thing what it is) and “existence” (actual being). Between the two, he holds, is a distinctio formalis a parte rei, a formal property that is partly logical and partly real. Since an imaginary being has essence without having existence, however, substance (substancia) is an essence which has existence. In attempting to solve the questions of what gives existence to an essence and what constitutes the individual thing, Duns Scotus proposes that every created thing is composed of two realities: the “universal” and the “particular.” The universal essence is the natura (what is common to all concrete realities of the same species). It is “form” that confers natura on matter. Form and matter constitute concrete substance in the “real” world, or what is taken to be reality. Matter in itself is indeterminate, but form is determining. It is form that communicates being to matter by determining “genus” and “species.” Compounded, form and matter make a “unity.” It is haecceitas, however, the principle of individuation—that confers singularity and uniqueness on a thing. Thus haecceity, like matter and form, has its own unity. According to Duns Scotus, between the natura and the haecceitas is a difference that is partly conceptional but is also partly an objective ground in reality itself and independent of the mind. The unity of this composite is less than the numerical unity of the individual as such. What actually constitutes the individual as a concrete object is neither matter nor form nor compositum as such, for all three of these factors can be conceived of logically as universals. Hence the singular and unique thing is a composite of this matter, this form, and this compositum. Duns Scotus’ view that the universal has an objective ground in reality is termed in philosophy “moderate realism.”

The concepts described above are among the most important speculations in Duns Scotus’ philosophy. Others of similar importance can be only mentioned here in the space allowed: One such is his theory of the “plurality of forms,” which he applies only to organic creation. His conception is that the essence of the whole contains the essences of all the parts and includes a plurality of partial forms. All beings which possess life share in this plurality. Another significant theory is Duns Scotus’ idea of the “hierarchy of forms.” He arranges the forms in their order of perfection. The perfection of a form depends on its distance or separation from matter, that is, the range from corporeal matter to the matter or stuff of which spirits are composed. The further a form is separated from corporeal matter, the more potent is its activity. Duns Scotus’ theory of the plurality of forms must be distinguished from his theory of formalities and his concept of distinctio formalis. In this theory he distinguishes the forms of the intellect (distinctio rationis tantum) from those which are “real” (distinctio realis) and their merely physical counterparts, or res. Although the idea of the plurality of forms is a metaphysical concept, that of the formalities and of distinctio formalis is a logical one.

Although in modern times Duns Scotus has been admired principally for his philosophy, by profession he was a theologian. While he considered philosophy to be the foundation of theology, at the same time he viewed the former as inferior to the latter. Only theology, he held, can solve the mysteries of religion, but it must be aided by divine revelation if certainty is to be attained, for human reason alone cannot prove the omnipotence of God or the immortality of the human soul. He teaches that natural law depends upon the will of God and that God’s will and man’s will are free. Indeed, for Duns Scotus will is superior to intellect, a view that reveals his voluntarism. Furthermore, according to him, the final happiness of man will be attained by an act of perfect love of God in the next life. In philosophy, he is an empiricist in affirming that all knowledge comes through the senses and that knowledge of the particulars of sense is the foundation of higher cognition, and hence of the natural sciences and scientific knowing. In his division of the speculative sciences, his placing of logic midway between grammar and metaphysics shows his awareness of their close connection. In this way he acknowledges the importance of “language” in philosophical discussion.


John Duns Scotus is not to be taken simply as another medieval Scholastic. His philosophy contains much that is original, even unique. Emphasizing criticism, his thinking displays rigor as well as subtlety and depth as well as brilliance. It is true that he composed no single work in which the whole of his philosophy is clearly set forth as a system; nevertheless, a fairly well-rounded system can be extracted from his two major works: Opus Oxoniense and Quaestiones quodlibetales. Duns Scotus had the courage of his convictions and mercilessly attacked those masters whom he considered either inconclusive or erroneous in their thinking. He cared not that their schools might be distinguished or that their names were authoritative and prestigious. His Latin style has been criticized, not unjustly, for its difficulty of comprehension; it does require sustained concentration if it is to be comprehended. Duns Scotus is by no means inferior to Saint Thomas Aquinas as a thinker.

Franciscan Duns Scotus, inheritor of the Augustinian-Franciscan tradition, founded the Scholastic school of Scotism. Franciscan teachers tended to follow his lead. In the fourteenth century, the principle Scotists were Francis of Mayron and Antonio Andrea. During the fourteenth and the fifteenth centuries, there appeared the following Scotists: John of Basoles, John Dumbleton, Walter Burleigh, Alexander of Alessandria, Lychetus of Brescia, and Nicholas De Orbellis. Among the Scotists of the period that marks the transition from Scholasticism to modern philosophy were John the Englishman, Johannes Magistri, Antonius Trombetta, and Maurice the Irishman. Since Duns Scotus rejected the principle that all bodies are moved by other bodies as a physical proof of God’s existence and viewed corporeal substance more dynamically, some scholars have declared that the tendency of his physics prefigured that of the German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Duns Scotus has also been called the Immanuel Kant of Scholastic philosophy because he resembles Kant in his refusal to accept without criticism any theory, regardless of its popularity or how strongly it was supported by the authority of great names. Here the resemblance stops, perhaps, since for Kant the supreme tribunal was moral consciousness, whereas for Duns Scotus it was divine revelation.

The high quality of Duns Scotus’ thought is further attested by his influence on modern philosophers and literary figures of the nineteenth and twentienth centuries. His voluntarism (which he owes to Henry of Ghent) prefigured that of the Germans Arthur Schopenhauer, Eduard von Hartmann, and Friedrich Nietzsche, although whether they were familiar with his work is uncertain. He has, however, exerted a direct influence on such twentienth century philosophers as the American pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce, the German existentialist and phenomenologist Martin Heidegger, and the French paleontologist and cosmic evolutionist, the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Peirce referred to Duns Scotus as one of the “profoundest metaphysicians that ever lived” and the greatest speculator of the Middle Ages. Heidegger believed him to be, in the words of Arne Naess, “the most penetrating of the scholastics and greater even in significance for the philosophy of the Middle Ages than Thomas Aquinas.” Indeed, in 1915 Heidegger qualified himself as a university lecturer with his book Die Kategorien- und Bedeutungslehre des Duns Scotus (1916; “The Theory of Categories and Meaning in Duns Scotus”). Naess writes, “It could be said of Heidegger that it was Scotus, together with Kant and Brentano, who aroused him from his theological slumbers.” It is evident that the teleological philosophy of Teilhard de Chardin and his attempt to square scientific evolutionary theory with the Christian worldview is based on conceptions intrinsic to the ontology and cosmology of Duns Scotus.

Further, two modern literary men, the late nineteenth century English poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins and the American poet, religious writer, and Trappist monk Thomas Merton, were both deeply impressed by the thought of Duns Scotus. Their ideas and poems show his influence. Struck by Duns Scotus’ idea of haecceitas, Hopkins was moved to the notion of “inscape” and a person’s response to individuality. He called the unique quality of a singular thing the “inscape” and the response to this insight the “instress” (or sometimes simply the “stress”). A number of his poems aim to disclose “inscape” and to provoke “instress.” He was also affected by Duns Scotus’ conceptions of the Immaculate Conception and of the Trinity. Although Hopkins wrote a poem to honor the Scholastic, entitled “Duns Scotus’s Oxford,” such poems as “God’s Grandeur,” “Pied Beauty” and “The Windhover” plainly honor Duns Scotus much more than the honorary poem. Thomas Merton wrote several poems to memorialize the Scholastic. One such is “Duns Scotus,” in which he calls him Mary’s “theologian,/ Nor has there been a braver chivalry than his precision,” adding that “Language was far too puny for his great theology: But, oh! His thought strode through those words/Bright as the conquering Christ/Between the clouds of His enemies.” In another poem, “Hymn for the Feast of Duns Scotus,” Merton poetizes the Scotist Trinitarian doctrine. In still another poem, “Dry Places,” the Trappist echoes Duns Scotus’ theology of the Incarnation.


Bettoni, Efrem. Duns Scotus: The Basic Principles of His Philosophy. Edited by Bernardine Bonansea. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1961. Simple, relatively untechnical, and clear exposition of Duns Scotus’ ontology, epistemology, theology, and ethics by comparing and contrasting them with the doctrines of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, and Henry of Ghent. Fails, however, to convey a real sense of the originality, precision, and subtlety of Duns Scotus’ mind.

Campbell, Bertrand James. The Problem of One or Plural Substantial Forms in Man as Found in the Works of St. Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus. Paterson, N.J.: St. Anthony Guild Press, 1940. Compares and contrasts the Thomistic theory of the unity of form with the Scotist theory of the plurality of forms and their bearing on their respective cosmologies, especially in the concepts of space and time.

Effler, Roy R. John Duns Scotus and the Principle “Omne quod movetur ab alio movetur.” St. Bonaventure, N.Y.: Franciscan Institute, 1962. Tells the story of Duns Scotus’ rejection of the principle of motion embodied in the proposition “Everything which is in motion is moved by another.”

Grajewski, Maurice J. The Formal Distinction of Duns Scotus: A Study in Metaphysics. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1944. An examination of Duns Scotus’ formal distinctions between being and its transcendentals, between common nature and hacceity, and between the soul and its faculties.

Harris, Charles R. S. Duns Scotus. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1927. Despite a grave deficiency, this work is still worth reading for some excellent analyses that are well supported. Harris’ blunder lies in his heavy reliance on the text of De rerum principio, which, unfortunately for him, was declared inauthentic by textual scholars while his book was still in proof. His heavy reliance on this spurious text, which is strongly Augustinian, gives Harris’ view of Duns Scotus’ philosophic position an unsupported bias.

Ryan, J. K., and B. W. Bonansea, eds. John Scotus, 1265-1965. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1965. Fifteen essays covering a wide range of philosophical and theological topics by such distinguished Scotist scholars as Balic, Bettoni, Wolter, Bonansea, Alluntis, Effler, Barth, Oberman, Saint-Maurice, and others.

Shircel, Cyril L. The Univocity of the Concept of Being in the Philosophy of Duns Scotus. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1942. Successfully explains the view that the concept of being by which we know God and substance can be none other than univocal.

Wolter, Allan Bernard. The Transcendentals and Their Function in the Metaphysics of Duns Scotus. St. Bonaventure, N.Y.: Franciscan Institute, 1946. Successfully explains the task of Duns Scotus in finding the ways in which the transcendental concepts involve one another in his metaphysics.

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