John Duns Scotus Essay - Critical Essays

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.

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.

Principal Works

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...

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David Burr (essay date 1972)

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...

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William A. Frank (essay date 1982)

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....

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William Lane Craig (essay date 1987)

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...

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Stephen D. Dumont (essay date July 1989)

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...

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Stephen D. Dumont (essay date summer 1992)

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...

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Allan B. Wolter (essay date winter 1993)

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...

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Allan B. Wolter (essay date winter 1993)

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....

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Mary Elizabeth Ingham (essay date winter 1993)

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...

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John Boler (essay date January 1994)

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...

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Richard Cross (essay date April 1997)

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...

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Further Reading


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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