John Duns Scotus wrote in conscious opposition to Saint Thomas Aquinas, as William of Ockham did after him. Duns Scotus and Ockham felt there were certain deficiencies in Thomas’s position, especially as it related to Christian doctrine. Both were somewhat more avowedly philosophical than Thomas, and both preferred to separate more radically philosophy and theology as disciplines. The appearance of Aristotle in translation was new in Thomas’s day, and both Duns Scotus and Ockham seem closer to Aristotelianism than does Thomas, perhaps because the Aristotelian corpus had had more time to be appraised, with erroneous impressions corrected and Platonic glosses removed.

Cause and the First Principle

Eminence versus dependence is the first and traditional division. Whatever is perfect and nobler in its essence is prior, according to Duns Scotus. That which causes but is itself uncaused is first, and everything of a more dependent nature is posterior. The prior is whatever is able to exist without the posterior, whereas the posterior cannot exist without the prior. This division is accurate even if the prior produces the posterior orders necessarily. After this first and essential division of being, the posterior orders may then be subdivided.

Duns Scotus goes on to quote Saint Augustine with approval: There is not anything at all that brings itself into being. Nothing that we know from its nature to be an effect can be its own cause. Some aspects are ruled out as being incidental. Only certain crucial relations and orders are to be considered, not all data. The goal of such a delimited investigation is an understanding of the first cause in causing, although in addition to this, myriad efficient causes are needed to account for the majority of temporal events. An efficient cause acts for the love of some end; a first cause produces from itself without ulterior motive. No causation, therefore, is perfect other than that which comes from a first cause itself uncaused; lesser causes necessarily have some imperfections connected with them.

Duns Scotus departs from Aristotle in making “matter” prior according to independence, whereas Aristotle completely subordinates matter to form. However, Duns Scotus reasserts with Aristotle the priority of form according to eminence, because it is...

(The entire section is 660 words.)

Singularity and Simplicity

It becomes evident that there could be only one being of such a nature, because the kind of necessity that belongs to a being that owes its existence to no outside cause cannot be shared. Because there cannot be multiple beings all of whom derive the necessity of their existence from themselves, the unique perfection of such a single and preeminent nature is ensured. Duns Scotus turns from the internal consideration of such a first principle to argue that, moreover, there is nothing about the multiple entities in the world that requires more than a single first principle for their explanation. Because multiple first principles are not necessary, it would be foolish to posit more than the single first cause that the explanation requires.

A multitude cannot be from itself; a first cause is required to explain such existence. A unitary and unique being requires no previous cause; it can explain multiple beings without itself requiring explanation. Explanation ends when simplicity is reached. In the essential orders, an ascent is made toward unity and fewness, ending in one cause. Such a first efficient cause contains every possible actuality. No possible entities can be conceived of as being outside its nature. Thus it is perfect.

Nothing shares perfectly unless it shares, not of necessity, but from the liberality of its nature. Such a consideration of what perfection means leads Duns Scotus on to consider the divine will. If such a first principle must share its being with other beings, due to its natural liberality, then “will” must have an important place in such a nature as essential to its perfection. Along with this necessary endowment of will, Duns Scotus describes his God as being simple, infinite, and wise. Such essential simplicity excludes all possible composition in the divine nature. It is not a being made up of parts as other beings are. None of its perfections are really distinct from the others, although our language and the process of analysis force us to consider each perfection as if it were in some way separate and distinct.

Contingency and Will

It seems perfectly acceptable to Duns Scotus to say that the First Efficient is intelligent and endowed with will, although such assertions require special argument to support them and special qualifications to accept them. For instance, most intelligence looks to some end outside itself, but Duns Scotus’s First Efficient is made unique by being said not to love any end different from itself. Thus the traditional categories are used to describe such a First Principle, but they are qualified in a way that makes their application unique. However, it is when Duns Scotus turns to the question of contingency that he becomes the most radical and the most subject to innovations.

The First Cause causes contingently, Duns Scotus asserts; consequently, it causes freely. The classical tradition had been united in making the creation of lesser orders in nature necessary and in viewing necessity often as the very hallmark of the perfection characteristic of a First Principle. Christian theologians, in considering God’s creative activity, had modified this somewhat, although necessity still seemed to be preferred. Duns Scotus for the first time raises contingency to a central place in the divine nature and designates the creation of the natural order as a free act.

Duns Scotus sees that if any freedom of action is to be preserved for humans, some freedom of action must first be found to be possible in God. For if the First Cause moves necessarily, every...

(The entire section is 590 words.)

God’s Infinity

Will becomes identical with the First Nature although no act of God’s understanding can be an accident. Thus, God’s understanding of all things is necessary, but the action of his will in causing is not. Necessary cognition of everything whatsoever is a part of the divine nature, which means that God understands everything continually. Thus God must understand everything he wills, and this removes the possibility of a blind action by the divine will. With humans, no such necessary understanding exists, so that ignorant action is always possible. God is unique in this respect.

The possible intelligible concepts are infinite, and God must actually understand them all eternally and simultaneously. An intellect capable of such comprehension must itself be infinite and in turn must reside in a nature also actually infinite. God’s infinity is claimed as a consequence of the infinity of possible objects of understanding and of his necessary grasp of them all.

If a being is infinite, then Duns Scotus argues that its various aspects are not formally distinct. Because simplicity must be predicated on God as a primary perfection, Duns Scotus concludes that God must be infinite. Only an infinite principle seems to be free of the distinctions within its nature that cause disruptive multiplicity. A finite entity is subject to division, whereas one characterized by infinity holds all of its attributes together in an essential unity.

How can we understand the infinite? Duns Scotus answers that it is through the finite, for the infinite can be defined only through the use of the...

(The entire section is 656 words.)


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Bettoni, Efrem. Duns Scotus: The Basic Principles of His Philosophy. Edited by Bernardine Bonansea. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1961. A clear account of John Dun Scotus’s metaphysics, epistemology, theology, and ethics.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Medieval Philosophy. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962. An excellent historian of Western philosophy provides a helpful interpretation of Duns Scotus’s thought and its significance in the medieval period.

Cross, Richard. Duns Scotus. New York: Oxford University...

(The entire section is 334 words.)