Duns Scotus

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Together with Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham, John Duns Scotus (1265/66–1308) 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 Roman Catholic and secular thought. The doctrines for which he is probably 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, or 'individuating difference', an attribute or principle 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.

Scotus was called Doctor Subtilis (Subtle Doctor) by other medieval writers, such as Ockham, for his penetrating and subtle thought.



It is now generally accepted that he came from Scotland

Little is known of Scotus apart from his work. His date of birth is thought to have been between 23 December 1265 and 17 March 1266. 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.[1]

It has been argued, particularly by Irish Franciscans, that Scotus was Irish, based on the argument that the term 'Scotia' referred in the early Middle Ages to Ireland as well as Scotland, and that there is an intriguing reference to St Patrick (the patron saint of Ireland) in an Expositio of Aristotle's Metaphysics, by Antonius Andreas, a near contemporary of Scotus.

However, it is now generally accepted that he came from Scotland. The site of his birth, in front of the Pavilion Lodge, near the North Lodge of Duns Castle, is marked by a monument erected in 1966 by the Franciscan friars of the United Kingdom to mark the 700th anniversary of his birth.

Scotus's age is estimated 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 age for ordination to the priesthood is 25 and it is generally assumed that he would have been ordained as soon as it was permitted.[2]

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,[3] 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.[4]

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 ecclesiastical 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[5].

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.[6]

He 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.[7]

The colophon of Codex 66 of Merton College, Oxford, says that Scotus was also at Cambridge, but we do not know for certain if this is true, or if it was, when he was there.[8] It may have been during his enforced absence from Paris between 1303 and 1304. However, Oxford seems a more likely place for the exile, since some of his Oxford Lectures refer back to what he taught in Paris[9].


News of the Third Battle of Homs between the Muslim Mamluks and the Mongols in 1299 probably reached Oxford in the summer of 1300

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,[10] 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.[11] 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, even though 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 Organon. These are the Questions on Porphyry's Isagoge and Aristotle's Categories, On Interpretation, and Sophistical Refutations, probably dating to around 1295.[12] His commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics was probably written in stages, the first version having started around 1297,[13] with significant additions and amendments possibly after the completion of the main body of the Ordinatio.[14] His Expositio on the Metaphysics was lost for centuries but was recently rediscovered and edited by Giorgio Pini.[15]

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.

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.[16] The Questions on the Prior Analytics (In Librum Priorum Analyticorum Aristotelis Quaestiones) were also discovered to be mistakenly attributed.[17] In 1922, Martin 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.


Univocity of being



Scotus holds: 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 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.

Formal distinction

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.[18] There is also a formal distinction between the divine attributes and the powers of the soul.





Existence of God



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."[19]

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).

Immaculate Conception

God could do it, it was appropriate, therefore he did it

Perhaps the most influential point of Duns Scotus' theology was his defence of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. The general opinion at the time 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 of the Immaculate Conception 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's principle, "potuit, decuit, ergo fecit" (God could do it, it was appropriate, therefore he did it), 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.[20]

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.

Later reputation and influence

Later medieval period

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 mistaking works by other writers for his, 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.[21] Fourteenth century followers included Francis of Meyronnes (died 1325), Antonius Andreas (died 1320), William of Alnwick (died 1333), and John of Bassolis (died 1347), supposedly Scotus' favourite student.[22]

Sixteenth to nineteenth centuries

Scotus's 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".[23] John Leland described the Oxford Greyfriar's library in 1538 (just prior to its dissolution) as an accumulation of 'cobwebs, moths and bookworms'.[24]

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, rather than Scotism.

In the Logic Museum

There is an extensive range of Scotus’s work in the Logic Museum, some of it in parallel Latin-English translation. See Authors (Duns Scotus)

External links


  1. Although Vos (2006, p. 23) has objected that 'Duns' was actually his family name, as someone from Duns would have been known as 'de Duns'.
  2. Brampton C. K, "Duns Scotus at Oxford", 1288–1301 Franciscan Studies 24, 5–20
  3. Vos 2006 p. 27. See also Bert Roest, A history of Franciscan education (c. 1210–1517) , Brill 2000
  4. Vos 2006 p. 27
  5. According to Little (1932), royal commissioners visited the Franciscan convent on 25 June 1303 and asked each friar individually whether he consented to the king's proposals. Of the 181 who replied, 87, including Scotus and Gonsalvus, declined consent and were ordered by the King to leave France within three days.
  6. Narratur de Doctori Subtili qui in Prato clericorum, visa Generalis Ministri obedentia, dum actu Regens esse in scholis Parisiensibus, aut pauca aut nulla de rebus habita dispositione, Parisis exivit ut Coloniam iret, secundum ministri sententiam. William Vorilong, Opus super IV libros Sententiarum II, d. 44, q. 1 f. 161va.
  7. 1638
  8. Latin text: "Haec de ordinatione ven. Fratris J. duns de ordine fratrum Minorum, qui floruit Cant Oxon et Parisius et obiit in Colonia." – quoted in Little ("Chronological Notes on the Life of Duns Scotus", English Historical Review 47, 1932, 568-82), p. 571, citing Callebaut 1928 (André Callebaut, "Le Bx. Jean Duns Scot a Cambridge vers 1287-1300", Archivum franciscanum historicum 21 (1928), 608-611)
  9. The editors of the Vatican edition mention a manuscript of Lectura dist. 5, q.5, Dixi Parisius primo quod ... (I said in Paris that ...).
  10. "Pini 2005"
  11. See e.g. Wolter 1995, p. 76 and passim
  12. See the introduction to the critical edition: Duns Scoti Quaestiones in librum Porphyrii Isagoge et Quaestiones super Praedicamenta Aristotelis (Opera philosophica, I), xxix–xxxiv, xli–xlii.
  13. Pini 2005, "Univocity in Scotus’s Quaestiones super Metaphysicam: The Solution to a Riddle", Medioevo 30, 2005, 69–110
  14. Ibid, although this is speculative
  15. Thomas Williams (2009). "John Duns Scotus", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  16. Ashworth 1987
  17. R.P.E. Longpre
  18. Honderich p. 209
  19. Robert Pasnau, "Divine Illumination", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  20. Ordinatio III, d.3, q.1
  21. Janz
  22. William Courtenay, "Early Scotists at Paris: A Reconsideration" Franciscan Studies 69, 2012, 175–229
  23. R.W. Dixon, History of the Church of England from the Abolition of the Roman Jurisdiction, 1:303
  24. Catto, Jeremy, "Franciscan Learning in England, 1450–1540", in The Religious Orders in Pre-Reformation England, ed. Clarke 2002
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