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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 103

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.

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Cause and the First Principle

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 660

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...

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