|John Duns Scotus|
Duns, County of Berwick, Kingdom of Scotland
8 November 1308 (aged 41–42)
Cologne, Electorate of Cologne, Holy Roman Empire
|Metaphysics, theology, logic, epistemology, ethics|
|Univocity of being, haecceity as a principle of individuation, Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary|
|Blessed John Duns Scotus, O.F.M.|
The Subtle Doctor
|Religious and priest|
Roman Catholic Church
|Beatified||20 March 1993, Vatican City by Pope John Paul II|
|Major shrine||Franciscan Church, Cologne, Germany|
John Duns, O.F.M., commonly called Scotus or Duns Scotus (; c. 1266 – 8 November 1308), is generally considered to be one of the three most important philosopher-theologians of the High Middle Ages. Scotus has had considerable influence on both Catholic and secular thought. The doctrines for which he is best known are the "univocity of being," that existence is the most abstract concept we have, applicable to everything that exists; the formal distinction, a way of distinguishing between different aspects of the same thing; and the idea of haecceity, the property supposed to be in each individual thing that makes it an individual. Scotus also developed a complex argument for the existence of God, and argued for the Immaculate Conception of Mary.
- Life 1
- Work 2
- Realism 3.1
- Univocity of being 3.2
- Individuation 3.3
- Formal distinction 3.4
- Voluntarism 4.1
- Existence of God 4.2
- Illuminationism 4.3
- Immaculate Conception 4.4
- Veneration 5
Later reputation and influence 6
- Later medieval period 6.1
- Sixteenth to nineteenth centuries 6.2
- Twentieth century 6.3
- Bibliography 7
- See also 8
- Notes 9
- References 10
- External links 11
Little is known of Duns Scotus apart from his work. His date of birth is thought to have been between 23 December 1265 and 17 March 1266, born into a leading family of the region. The site of his birth, in front of the Pavilion Lodge, near the North Lodge of Duns Castle, is now marked by a cairn which was erected in 1966 by the Franciscan friars of the United Kingdom to mark the 700th anniversary of his birth. Duns Scotus received the religious habit of the Friars Minor at Dumfries, where his uncle, Elias Duns, was guardian.
Duns Scotus' age is based on the first certain date for his life, that of his ordination to the Catholic priesthood at the Church of Saint Andrew in Northampton, England, on 17 March 1291. The minimum canonical age for ordination to the Catholic priesthood is 25 and it is generally assumed that he would have been ordained as soon as it was permitted. That his contemporaries called him Johannes Duns, after the medieval practice of calling people by their Christian name followed by their place of origin, suggests that he came from Duns, in Berwickshire, Scotland.
According to tradition, Duns Scotus was educated at the Franciscan studium at Oxford, a house behind St Ebbe's Church, in a triangular area enclosed by Pennyfarthing Street and running from St Aldate's to the Castle, the Baley and the old wall, where the Friars Minor had moved when the University of Paris was dispersed in 1229–30. At that time there would have been about 270 persons living there, of whom about 80 would have been friars.
Duns Scotus appears to have been in Oxford by 1300, as he is listed among a group of friars for whom the Minister Provincial of the English Province (which included Scotland) requested faculties from the Bishop of Lincoln for the hearing of confessions. He took part in a disputation under the regent master, Philip of Bridlington. He began lecturing on Peter Lombard's Sentences at the prestigious University of Paris towards the end of 1302. Later in that academic year, however, he was expelled from the University of Paris for siding with Pope Boniface VIII in his feud with King Philip IV of France over the taxation of church property.
Duns Scotus was back in Paris before the end of 1304, probably returning in May. He continued lecturing there until, for reasons that are still mysterious, he was dispatched to the Franciscan studium at Cologne, probably in October 1307. According to the 15th-century writer William Vorilong, his departure was sudden and unexpected. He was relaxing or talking with students in the Prato clericorum or Pre-aux-Clercs – an open area of the Left Bank used by scholars for recreation – when orders arrived from the Franciscan Minister General; Scotus left immediately, taking few or no personal belongings.
Duns Scotus died unexpectedly in Cologne in November 1308; the date of his death is traditionally given as 8 November. He is buried in the Church of the Friars Minor there. His sarcophagus bears the Latin inscription:
Scotia me genuit. Anglia me suscepit. Gallia me docuit. Colonia me tenet.
(Scotland brought me forth. England sustained me. France taught me. Cologne holds me.)
The story about Duns Scotus being buried alive, in the absence of his servant who alone knew of his susceptibility to coma, is probably a myth. It was reported by Sir Francis Bacon in his Historia vitae et mortis.
Scotus’ great work is his commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, which contains nearly all the philosophical views and arguments for which he is well known, including the univocity of being, the formal distinction, less-than-numerical unity, individual nature or ‘thisness' (haecceity), his critique of illuminationism and his renowned argument for the existence of God. His commentary exists in several versions. The standard version is the Ordinatio (also known as the Opus oxoniense), a revised version of lectures he gave as a bachelor at Oxford. The initial revision was probably begun in the summer of 1300 – see the remarks in the Prologue, question 2, alluding to the Third Battle of Homs in 1299, news of which probably reached Oxford in the summer of 1300. It was still incomplete when Scotus left for Paris in 1302. The original lectures were also transcribed and recently published as the Lectura.
The two other versions of the work are Scotus' notes for the Oxford lectures, recently published as the Lectura, the first book of which was probably written in Oxford in the late 1290s, and the Reportatio parisiensis (or Opus parisiense), consisting of transcriptions of the lectures on the Sentences given by Scotus when he was in Paris. A reportatio is a student report or transcription of the original lecture of a master. A version that has been checked by the master himself is known as a reportatio examinata.
By the time of Scotus, these 'commentaries' on the Sentences were no longer literal commentaries. Instead, Peter Lombard's original text was used as a starting point for highly original discussions on topics of theological or philosophical interest. For example, Book II Distinction 2, about the location of angels, is a starting point for a complex discussion about continuous motion, and whether the same thing can be in two different places at the same time (bilocation). In the same book, Distinction 3, he uses the question of how angels can be different from one another, given that they have no material bodies, to investigate the difficult question of individuation in general.
Scotus wrote purely philosophical and logical works at an early stage of his career, consisting of commentaries on Aristotle's
Early Middle Ages
High Middle Ages
Mysticism and reforms
Early Middle Ages
High Middle Ages
Late Middle Ages
By country or region
Doctors of the Church
and liturgical rites
An important question since the 1960s has revolved over whether Scotus' thought heralded a change in thinking on the nature of 'being', a change which marked a shift from Aquinas and other previous thinkers; this question has been particularly significant in recent years because it has come to be seen as a debate over the origins of 'modernity'. This line of argument first emerged in the 1960s among popular French philosophers who, in passing, singled out Duns Scotus as the figure whose theory of univocal being changed an earlier approach which Aquinas had shared with his predecessors. Then, in 1990, the historian of philosophy Jean-Francois Courtine argued that, between the time of Aquinas in the mid-thirteenth century and Francisco Suárez at the turn of the seventeenth, a fundamentally new approach to being was developed, with Scotus taking a major part in its development. During the 1990s, various scholars extended this argument to locate Scotus as the first thinker who succumbed to what Heidegger termed 'onto-theology'. In recent years, this criticism of Scotus has become disseminated in particular through the writings of the 'Radical Orthodox' group of theologians, centred around John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock.
For some today, Scotus is one of the most important Franciscan theologians and the founder of Scotism, a special form of Scholasticism. He came out of the Old Franciscan School, to which Haymo of Faversham (died 1244), Alexander of Hales (died 1245), John of Rupella (died 1245), William of Melitona (died 1260), St. Bonaventure (died 1274), Cardinal Matthew of Aquasparta (died 1289), John Peckham, Archbishop of Canterbury (died 1292), Richard of Middletown (died c. 1300), etc., belonged. He was known as "Doctor Subtilis" because of the subtle distinctions and nuances of his thinking. Later philosophers in the sixteenth century were less complimentary about his work, and accused him of sophistry. This led to his name, "dunce" (which developed from the name "Dunse" given to his followers in the 1500s) to become synonymous for "somebody who is incapable of scholarship".
On the one hand, Scotus has received interest from secular philosophers such as Peter King, Gyula Klima, Paul Vincent Spade and others.
The twentieth century saw a resurgence of interest in Scotus, with a range of assessments of his thought.
Despite this, Scotism grew in Catholic Europe. Scotus' works were collected into many editions, particularly in the late fifteenth century with the advent of printing. His school was probably at the height of its popularity at the beginning of the seventeenth century; during the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries there were even special Scotist chairs, e.g. at Paris, Rome, Coimbra, Salamanca, Alcalá, Padua, and Pavia. It flourished well into the seventeenth century, and its influence can be seen in such writers as Descartes and Bramhall. Interest dwindled in the eighteenth century, and the revival of scholastic philosophy, known as Neo-Scholasticism, was essentially a revival of Thomistic thinking.
His reputation suffered during the English reformation, probably due to its association with the Franciscans. In a letter to Thomas Cromwell about his visit to Oxford in 1535, Richard Layton described how he saw the court of New College full of pages from Scotus's work "the wind blowing them into every corner". John Leland described the Oxford Greyfriar's library in 1538 (just prior to its dissolution) as an accumulation of 'cobwebs, moths and bookworms'.
Sixteenth to nineteenth centuries
Owing to Scotus' early and unexpected death, he left behind a large body of work in an unfinished or unedited condition. His students and disciples extensively edited his papers, often confusing them with works by other writers, in many cases leading to misattribution and confused transmission. Most thirteenth-century Franciscans followed Bonaventura, but the influence of Scotus (as well as that of his arch-rival William of Ockham) spread in the fourteenth century. Franciscan theologians in the late Middle Ages were thus divided between so-called Scotists and Ockhamists. Fourteenth century followers included Francis of Mayrone (died 1325), Antonius Andreas (died 1320), William of Alnwick (died 1333), and John of Bassolis (died 1347), supposedly Scotus' favourite student.
Later medieval period
Later reputation and influence
Long honored as a Blessed by the Order of Friars Minor, as well as in the Archdioceses of Edinburgh of Cologne, in the 19th-century the process was started seeking his recognition as such by the Holy See, on the basis of a cultus immemorabilis, i.e., one of ancient standing. He was declared Venerable by Pope John Paul II in 1991, who officially recognized his liturgical cult, effectively beatifying him on 20 March 1993.
During his pontificate, Pope John XXIII recommended the reading of Duns Scotus' theology to modern theology students.
Another of Scotus' positions also gained official approval of the Roman Catholic Church: his doctrine on the universal primacy of Christ became the underlying rationale for the feast of Christ the King instituted in 1925.
Scotus' argument appears in Pope Pius IX's 1854 declaration of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, "at the first moment of Her conception, Mary was preserved free from the stain of original sin, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ." Scotus' position was hailed as "a correct expression of the faith of the Apostles".
Perhaps the most influential point of Duns Scotus' theology was his defense of the Immaculate Conception of Mary (i.e., that Mary herself was conceived without sin). At the time, there was a great deal of argument about the subject. The general opinion was that it was appropriately deferential to the Mother of God, but it could not be seen how to resolve the problem that only with Christ's death would the stain of original sin be removed. The great philosophers and theologians of the West were divided on the subject (indeed, it appears that even Thomas Aquinas sided with those who denied the doctrine, though some Thomists dispute this). The feast day had existed in the East (though in the East, the feast is just of the Conception of Mary) since the seventh century and had been introduced in several dioceses in the West as well, even though the philosophical basis was lacking. Citing Anselm of Canterbury's principle, "potuit, decuit, ergo fecit" (God could do it, it was appropriate, therefore he did it), Duns Scotus devised the following argument: Mary was in need of redemption like all other human beings, but through the merits of Jesus' crucifixion, given in advance, she was conceived without the stain of original sin. God could have brought it about (1) that she was never in original sin, (2) she was in sin only for an instant, (3) she was in sin for a period of time, being purged at the last instant. Whichever of these options was most excellent should probably be attributed to Mary. This apparently careful statement provoked a storm of opposition at Paris, and suggested the line 'fired France for Mary without spot' in the famous poem "Duns Scotus's Oxford," by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
- When one of those that come together is incompatible with certainty, then certainty cannot be achieved. For just as from one premise that is necessary and one that is contingent nothing follows but a contingent conclusion, so from something certain and something uncertain, coming together in some cognition, no cognition that is certain follows (Ordinatio I.3.1.4 n.221).
Scotus argued against the version of illuminationism that had been defended earlier in the century by Henry of Ghent. In his Ordinatio (I.3.1.4) he argued against the sceptical consequences that Henry claimed would follow from abandoning divine illumination. Scotus argued that if our thinking were fallible in the way Henry had believed, such illumination could not, even in principle, ensure "certain and pure knowledge."
The existence of God can be proven only a posteriori, through its effects. The Causal Argument he gives for the existence of God says that an infinity of things that are essentially ordered is impossible, as the totality of caused things that are essentially caused is itself caused, and so it is caused by some cause which is not a part of the totality, for then it would be the cause of itself; for the whole totality of dependent things is cause, and not on anything belonging to that totality. The argument is relevant for Scotus' conception of metaphysical inquiry into being by searching the ways into which beings relate to each other.
Existence of God
Scotus was an Augustinian theologian. He is usually associated with voluntarism, the tendency to emphasize God's will and human freedom in all philosophical issues. The main difference between Aquinas' rational theology and that of Scotus' is that Scotus believed certain predicates may be applied univocally – with exactly the same meaning – to God and creatures, whereas Aquinas insisted that this is impossible, and that only analogical predication can be employed, in which a word as applied to God has a meaning different from, although related to, the meaning of that same word as applied to creatures. Duns struggled throughout his works in demonstrating his univocity theory against Aquinas' analogy doctrine.
Like other realist philosophers of the period (such as Aquinas and Henry of Ghent) Scotus recognised the need for an intermediate distinction that was not merely conceptual, but not fully real or mind-dependent either. Scotus argued for a formal distinction (distinctio formalis a parte rei), which holds between entities which are inseparable and indistinct in reality, but whose definitions are not identical. For example, the personal properties of the Trinity are formally distinct from the Divine essence. Similarly, the distinction between the 'thisness' or haecceity of a thing is intermediate between a real and a conceptual distinction. There is also a formal distinction between the divine attributes and the powers of the soul.
Scotus elaborates a distinct view on hylomorphism, with three important strong theses that differentiate him. He held: 1) that there exists matter that has no form whatsoever, or prime matter, as the stuff underlying all change, against Aquinas (cf. his Quaestiones in Metaphysicam 7, q. 5; Lectura 2, d. 12, q. un.), 2) that not all created substances are composites of form and matter (cf. Lectura 2, d. 12, q. un., n. 55), that is, that purely spiritual substances do exist, and 3) that one and the same substance can have more than one substantial form—for instance, humans have at least two substantial forms, the soul and the form of the body (forma corporeitas) (cf. Ordinatio 4, d. 11, q. 3, n. 54). He argued for an original principle of individuation (cf. Ordinatio 2, d. 3, pars 1, qq. 1–6), the "haecceity" as the ultimate unity of a unique individual (haecceitas, an entity's 'thisness'), as opposed to the common nature (natura communis), feature existing in any number of individuals. For Scotus, the axiom stating that only the individual exists is a dominating principle of the understanding of reality. For the apprehension of individuals, an intuitive cognition is required, which gives us the present existence or the non-existence of an individual, as opposed to abstract cognition. Thus the human soul, in its separated state from the body, will be capable of knowing the spiritual intuitively.
The doctrine of the univocity of being implies the denial of any real distinction between essence and existence. Aquinas had argued that in all finite being (i.e. all except God), the essence of a thing is distinct from its existence. Scotus rejected the distinction. Scotus argued that we cannot conceive of what it is to be something, without conceiving it as existing. We should not make any distinction between whether a thing exists (si est) and what it is (quid est), for we never know whether something exists, unless we have some concept of what we know to exist.
He followed Aristotle in asserting that the subject matter of metaphysics is "being qua being" (ens inquantum ens). Being in general (ens in communi), as a univocal notion, was for him the first object of the intellect. Metaphysics includes the study of the transcendentals, so called because they transcend the division of being into finite and infinite and the further division of finite being into the ten Aristotelian categories. Being itself is a transcendental, and so are the "attributes" of being—"one," "true," and "good"—which are coextensive with being, but which each add something to it.
Univocity of being
Scotus is generally considered to be a realist (as opposed to a nominalist) in that he treated universals as real. He attacks a position close to that later defended by Ockham, arguing that things have a common nature – for example the humanity common to both Socrates, Plato, and Plutarch.
A number of works once believed to have been written by Scotus are now known to have been misattributed. There were already concerns about this within two centuries of his death, when the 16th-century logician Jacobus Naveros noted inconsistencies between these texts and his commentary on the Sentences, leading him to doubt whether he had written any logical works at all. The Questions on the Prior Analytics (In Librum Priorum Analyticorum Aristotelis Quaestiones) were also discovered to be mistakenly attributed. In 1922, Grabmann showed that the logical work De modis significandi was actually by Thomas of Erfurt, a 14th-century logician of the modist school. Thus the claim that Martin Heidegger wrote his Habilitationsschrift on Scotus is only half true, as the second part is actually based on the work by Erfurt.
In addition, there are 46 short disputations called Collationes, probably dating from 1300–1305; a work in natural theology (De primo principio), and his Quaestiones Quodlibetales, probably dating to Advent 1306 or Lent 1307.