John Duns Scotus Introduction - Essay


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.