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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

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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 more perfect. Turning then to Plotinus and to the Neoplatonic tradition, he affirms the traditional preference for unity: Plurality is never to be posited without necessity. Order is due to simplicity. It is really the preference for simplicity that dictates that the fewest possible principles should be introduced, and this is one of the strongest arguments for positing only a single first principle.

Then Duns Scotus offers his version of the traditional “proofs” for God’s existence, phrasing it as being a demonstration “that some one nature is simply first.” However, Duns Scotus prefers to couch his argument in terms of “possibles,” rather than to argue from the nature of the actual natural world. If his reasoning holds for all possible states, he argues, then it would hold for whatever set of states happens to be actual, whereas an argument based on actualities need not hold necessarily for possible states. With Duns Scotus, and later with Ockham, an increasing stress is placed on simply considering the order of possible entities as something prior to (and thus nearer to God than) the actual order of nature.

Duns Scotus follows the traditional view that an ascent through an infinite series of prior levels or causes is impossible. He concludes merely that it is possible that some single causal principle should be simply first, not the assumed existence of a God. As a preliminary step, and as the limit of philosophical argument, God is proved simply to be possible, and then only in the form that “an efficient causality simply first is possible.” Metaphysics explores possible arguments; it does not support dogmatic conclusions.

Furthermore, Duns Scotus never attempts to prove that such a cause that is simply first is necessarily itself uncaused. He simply goes on to argue that this is possible, because it is not affected by anything else and yet it affects other things independently. A first cause in the possible order is then shown to be required to bring some set of possibles into actual existence. From this point on, such a being can be examined as to its nature, although it is merely a being whose possible existence (although perhaps it has now become probable) has been established. Duns Scotus reasons: Such an uncaused being must be necessary in itself because it depends upon no prior causes. Of itself, it is impossible for such a first cause not to be.

Singularity and Simplicity

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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

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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 other cause is moved necessarily and everything is caused necessarily. The locus of the problem of freedom is not in human nature; it really revolves around an issue concerning God’s initial action. If God’s creative act is necessary, if he has no freedom of movement in originating the natural order, then it is hardly likely that people could move contingently or freely when even God cannot.

Now Duns Scotus turns to the question of human will. If there is to be freedom in humans’ causal activity, then people must act contingently. If such contingent action is to be possible, God must first of all have been open to such possibilities in his initial creative act. However, nothing, says Duns Scotus, is a principle of contingent operation except will. This is the source of Duns Scotus’s “voluntarism.” Anything other than an action that is contingent on the will is a necessary action, so that the possibility of allowing for contingency depends upon upholding a doctrine that gives a primary place to the will, both in humans and in God. Contingency means that the act is dependent on the will’s direction. Any view that wishes to preserve at least some human actions as being free must begin with the divine nature and preserve will as an independent power within that nature. Will can give rise to contingent actions and opens a freedom to humanity, through the similarity discovered between the activity of human will and God’s.

The First Principle wills nothing outside its nature of necessity; consequently neither does it cause any effect necessarily. There could be no contingency in any second cause in causing unless there were contingency in the First Principle in willing. The presence of evil demands that God be free either to will or not to will this less perfect order into existence. Thus God’s freedom in willing allows humans a similar freedom in willing and opens the way for contingent causation. Every effect in nature is contingent, because it depends upon the efficiency of the First Principle, whose efficiency is contingent.

God’s Infinity

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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 finite. The meaning of the infinite is grasped negatively, as that which exceeds any given finite limit. Because finiteness itself does not belong essentially to the meaning of being, the natural intellect can easily come to see that “being” may be classified as either finite or infinite. This means that the human intellect apprehends being in general as neither finite nor infinite and then goes on to see whether the particular being it is dealing with is or is not actually finite (subject to limits) or whether it is to be understood negatively as exceeding all finite limits. Such a doctrine allows a much more direct and natural understanding of the divine nature than is usual among theologians.

What is infinite can also be a being, although other beings are finite. The natural intellect finds nothing repugnant or difficult about understanding the concept of an infinite being. On the contrary, “infinite being” seems to be the most perfectly intelligible concept. The argument for the intelligibility of infinity comes from the will. The human will is never satisfied by any finite object. It is always restless, always seeking something greater than any finite end. After this is understood, it is possible to grasp what infinity means: a lack of any specifiable limit or end.

God has the power to actualize all possible states simultaneously, but he does not choose to do so. Some states mutually exclude one another at any given moment, and other possibilities his will does not choose to actualize. If all possible states existed simultaneously, our world would be absolutely unlimited. Duns Scotus believes the natural order to be finite, its limits representing the original self-restraint of the divine will in creating.

Thus Duns Scotus’s First Principle comes to have some of the attributes (will, contingent choice, freedom) that are usually associated with human activity, although in other respects (power, unlimited knowledge, infinity) it belongs to no natural genus. Here is a view that, in certain respects, makes the First Principle very much like a human and in other respects distinguishes it radically. Yet more important than this is the overall modernity of Duns Scotus’s thought. “Freedom” and “will” predominate in these considerations, and a tentative quality pervades the argument as a whole. Duns Scotus represents not so much the decline of medieval theology as the beginning of a modern metaphysical spirit.


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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 Press, 1999. An accessible account of Scotus’s religious thought that focuses not only on the distinctive features of his philosophy but also on his lasting insights.

Gilson, Étienne. The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy. London: Sheed and Ward, 1936. An older but still important account of medieval thought, including the views of Dun Scotus, by a major twentieth century interpreter.

Langston, Douglas C. God’s Willing Knowledge: The Influence of Scotus’ Analysis of Omniscience. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press. 1986. A worthwhile appraisal of Dun Scotus’s important efforts to interpret the relationship between God’s knowledge, will, and freedom.

Ryan, J. K., and B. W. Bonansea, eds. John Scotus, 1265-1965. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1965. Important interpreters discuss a wide range of philosophical and theological topics in the thought of Duns Scotus.

Weinberg, Julius R. A Short History of Medieval Philosophy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966. Provides a careful analysis of the key concepts and theories in the philosophical theology of Dun Scotus.

Wolter, Allan B., ed. Introduction to A Treatise on God as First Principle, by John Duns Scotus. Chicago: Forum Books, 1966. Wolter explains Duns Scotus’s views about logic, necessity, contingency, and freedom and shows how those concepts are crucial for Scotus’s understanding of God.

Wolter, Allan B., and Marilyn McCord Adams, eds. The Philosophical Theology of John Duns Scotus. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990. This volume reflects a late-twentieth century revival of interest in medieval philosophy and theology and the work of Duns Scotus in particular.


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