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Brief Lives

Duns Scotus (1265/66-1308)

Jack Allen considers the influential ideas of a medieval philosopher-monk.

John Duns Scotus is the most impressive and influential British philosopher of whom most people have never heard. This fact is itself rather impressive given that, along with Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham, he is reckoned to be one of the most important philosopher-theologians of the High Middle Ages of the Eleventh to Fourteenth Centuries.

Life In Brief

Scotus remains a rather mysterious man. You may have noticed that the date of his birth is given as ‘1265/66’. In truth we simply do not know when he was born. We know that he was ordained as a priest on the 17th March 1291, and given that the minimum age for taking holy orders at the time was twenty-five, it is generally assumed that Scotus was twenty-five when he was ordained. It seems that Scotus had joined the Franciscan Order before his priestly ordination, but it is difficult to date that event too, as auspicious as it was.

We know that Scotus was lecturing in Oxford by 1300, and that by 1302 he had made it to Paris, by far the most prestigious university in the Medieval world. By the end of 1302, in what is probably the most well documented event of his life, Scotus was forced to leave Paris by the French king Phillip IV for siding with the Pope in a dispute over the taxation of church property. This event is so well documented that in 2011 Italian director Fernando Muraca made a film about it called Duns Scotus.

Scotus was back in Paris by 1304, before being dispatched to the Franciscan Stadium in Cologne by the Master of the Order in 1307. Legend has it that Scotus was in Paris talking with his students by the Left Bank when the request to go to Cologne came, and he left immediately, taking nothing with him. Scotus died suddenly in Cologne on the 8th November 1308, the date on which his feast is still celebrated.

Scotus’ life, whilst short, was defined by a brilliant mind. He developed several doctrines which remain influential today, including the Immaculate Conception, the belief in voluntarism of the will, the univocity of being, and the idea of ‘heacceity’. I shall go through each of these in turn, although the only way to truly know any philosopher is to read them for yourself.

Freedom For Scotus

By far Scotus’ most famous doctrine is that of the Immaculate Conception. It was for this doctrine, rather than for his philosophy, that Scotus was beatified.

The Immaculate Conception is the belief that the Virgin Mary was conceived without Original Sin. On the traditional Western Christian view, Original Sin is the idea that Adam’s sinfulness is passed down to all of humanity through sexual reproduction. That Mary had been absolved of her sins by Christ before his conception had been defended since St Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo in 1098. That Mary had been absolved of her sins before her conception was controversial throughout the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries. Thomas Aquinas had even rejected the doctrine, claiming that if Mary had been without sin she could not have been absolved by her son (Summa Theologiae III, q.27, a.2, 1265-1274). Scotus, however, claimed that it was to God’s great merit that he preserved Mary from sin altogether, because of her unique place in the history of salvation. This doctrine is still held as dogma by the Roman Catholic Church.

This takes us onto the next of Scotus’ doctrines: voluntarism. Previously, Aquinas had claimed that freedom comes from the intellect, a free action being any that is generated through reason (Summa Theologiae I, q.83). It is in binding oneself to reason that one is free, with the will being an intellectual appetite. Scotus, however, disagreed. He claimed that if the will were like that then it would be a slave to reason’s ability to identify good things. As Scotus puts it, “Insofar as the will is merely intellective appetite it would actually be inclined in the highest degree to the greatest intelligible good” (Ordinatio II, d.6, q.2, 1301). In other words, if free will were nothing but using reason to identify the best thing to do, then one would not be free, but rather, would be forced to do that thing. Instead, Scotus thinks that a free will is one that can “control itself in eliciting its act so that it does not follow its inclination, either with respect to the substance of the act, or with respect to its intensity, to which the power is naturally inclined” (Ibid). To put this another way, freedom is not just about doing what’s rational, but about being able to control your actions, either to altogether stop doing something, or to moderate whatever it is you’re doing.

John Duns Scotus
John Duns Scotus portrait by Clinton Inman 2018. Facebook him at clinton.inman

The link this idea has to the idea of the Immaculate Conception is that Scotus believes that God too acts with this voluntarist freedom. Scotus claims that since creation is contingent, God could have structured it in a different way, and can do so now. For instance, it has pleased God to arrange the world to have free, rational beings living in a certain environment, but it could have been, and could be, otherwise. Similarily, it is quite possible for God to choose to prevent someone from ‘contracting’ sin, if it so pleases him. This is exactly what happened in the case of Mary, Scotus argues: God chose to arrange the world so that Mary never came into contact with sin.

This understanding of God’s freedom goes all the way up to the claim that at least some moral claims are moral because God commands them. Scotus’ discussion of this is found in Ordinatio III, d.37, where he talks about the Ten Commandments. To Scotus, the first three Commandments (“You shall have no other gods before me”; “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain”; and “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy”) are necessarily true, because they all derive from the claim: “If God exists, he is supremely good, and is to be loved as such.” This is a claim which is true by definition so even God could not make it false. But to Scotus the seven other Commandments are contingent, meaning that God could have put them together differently, as they do not relate directly to God’s necessary goodness. He uses the Commandment “You shall not steal” to explain this theory. Scotus was a Franciscan, an order devoted to a life of poverty. So, as far as he was concerned it was entirely possible for a society to exist without property, and so for humanity to not absolutely need the property rights enshrined in this Commandment. But Scotus claims that it takes quite an exercise of will to live a life of absolute poverty, so God commands a defence of property for the sake of encouraging people to live together peacefully.

That’s Just Like Duns Scotus

This brings us to Scotus’ most controversial doctrine: the doctrine of the univocity of being. Thomas Williams, in his article ‘The Doctrine of Univocity is True and Salutary’ (Modern Theology, Vol 21, 4, 2005), defines ‘univocity’ thus: “Notwithstanding the irreducible ontological diversity between God and creatures, there are concepts under whose extension both God and creatures fall, so that the corresponding predicate expressions are used with exactly the same sense in predications about God as in predications about creatures” (p.578). This quotation is in Academic, so it will need to be broken down. Firstly, the phrase, “Notwithstanding the irreducible ontological diversity between God and creatures” means God is different from things out in the world, but that’s irrelevant here. Secondly, the phrase “there are concepts under whose extension both God and creatures fall” shows us that we’re talking about concepts rather than physical things. So univocity is about how we talk, not about the things themselves, as it were. Finally the phrase, “so that the corresponding predicate expressions are used with exactly the same sense in predications about God as in predications about creatures.” To predicate something about something is to assert some characteristic or property of it. For example, in the proposition ‘the cat is cute’, cuteness is predicated of the cat. So this last phrase means that when we say ‘God is wise’ and ‘Socrates is wise’, ‘wise’ has the same meaning in both cases. The doctrine of univocity asserts that this sort of correspondence of meaning holds for all possible predicates of God, even if God’s predicates are infinite and perfect, and ours are not.

You might think that this idea is obvious, even trivial; but this claim is in opposition to the doctrine of analogy, most famously put forward by Aquinas, which holds that predicates about God are only in some very limited sense similar to predicates about (say) humans. So, we call God ‘wise’ only because he does things that look like the sort of thing wise humans do, but without really knowing what the wisdom of God amounts to. Aquinas makes this move to defend his claim that God is unknowable to us (Summa Theologiae I, q.12, a.2). The problem is that if the doctrine of analogy is correct, we are comparing things we know – humans – to something we don’t know – God – meaning that ultimately it is impossible to talk meaningfully about God. Hence Scotus promotes the doctrine of univocity.

The doctrine of univocity is Scotus’ most controversial doctrine mostly because of how it has been received by the school of theology known as Radical Orthodoxy. According to this school, Scotus reduces God to being the same sort of thing as people, thereby committing a terrible insult against God’s greatness, and also leading to the modern secular world – something they view as a generally bad thing (although here I am paraphrasing for the sake of brevity). However, as I mentioned (and as both Fr. Daniel Horan and Prof. Thomas Williams have worked to show), Scotus is not interested in a metaphysical thesis, but a semantic one: he’s discussing how we can talk about God, not what God is. But this mistake has become more popular as Aquinas’s popularity has grown, and is now, sadly, rather commonly held.

Scotus’ final major doctrine is that of heacceity – a Latin phrase often translated as ‘thisness’. Something’s heacceity is that aspect of it that makes it an individual, but this works in a way such that it has no quality itself. For instance, my heacceity is what holds all the disparate parts of me together as me. Scotus is a form pluralist, believing that every part has its own substantial form that makes it the type of thing it is. For example, my heart and my lungs are both made of flesh, but with a different form that makes them a heart and a lung. All of my parts – the diverse physical and the one mental part – are held together by a heacceity, with all the parts together making me into me.

Why should one believe such a thing? In essence, Scotus is using Ockham’s Razor, but in reverse. Ockham’s Razor is the principle often quoted as: “Thou shalt not multiply entities beyond necessity.” In other words, one should not say that something exists without good reason. Generally, this is used to deny the existence of things, shaving away (hence the name) at the beard of metaphysics to make it tidier. Scotus, however, claims that there is a necessity to say that something makes individuals into themselves, since there clearly are individuals. Hence there must be such a thing as a heacceity. This is a little like an astronomer claiming that from its gravitational effect on other planets there is some unseen planet. There is an effect, so there must be a cause.

Legacy & Death

Given all these major doctrines, one might wonder why Scotus doesn’t get much air time these days. To my mind there are three reasons. Firstly, since the Enlightenment, Medieval philosophy has been seen as backward, superstitious, or just a bit weird. This attitude is encapsulated by David Hume’s famous Enlightenment claim that “If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion” (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 1748). Scholasticism, then, has been given a fairly hard time, often by influential philosophers who have not engaged with it in any deep manner.

Secondly, there is St Thomas Aquinas. Since Pope Leo XIII wrote Aeterni Patris in 1879, great philosophical importance has been given to Aquinas in Catholic and Anglo-Catholic thinking. The 1917 Code of Canon Law claimed that Aquinas’ methods should be used in teaching philosophy and theology. The popularity of Aquinas (which is certainly not entirely unjustified), combined with the negative view of Scotus put about by the Radical Orthodoxy movement, has led to a marginalisation of Scotus’ work.

Thirdly, Scotus’ writings are famous for being difficult to read. It is easy to disparage Scotus for the same reason it is easy to disparage any postmodernist: their writing is dense and subtle, and it can be difficult to see what they are saying, if anything. And not only is Scotus’ Latin tight and elliptical – earning him the title of ‘the Subtle Doctor’ – but little of his work is available in English, although more is becoming available year on year.

However, the popularity and influence of Scotus is growing. In 1966, the Franciscans put up a cairn in his hometown of Duns, Scotland, to mark his 700th birthday. In 1993, Scotus was beatified, meaning that one sometimes sees him referred to as ‘Blessed John’. In 2012, the critical edition of Scotus’ works, called the Vatican Edition, was completed.

Scotus is buried in the Church of the Friars Minor in Cologne. On his tomb is this 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.”

Nothing is known about Scotus’ death save for its suddenness, although Francis Bacon’s Historia Vitae Et Mortis (1636) recalls a legend about Scotus being buried alive. According to the legend, Scotus’ servant was the only person who knew about his master’s tendency to fall into deep comas that appeared like death, and so they buried him while he was in a trance. Whilst this story is almost certainly apocryphal, the recent history of Scotus’ works is very much a story of vibrant philosophy buried by contemporary tastes. I only hope that the translation of Scotus’ works into English saves him from being buried alive yet again.

© Jack Allen 2018

Jack Allen has just finished his BA in Philosophy at King’s College London. His thesis was on the Scotist response to the Euthyphro Dilemma. He will be continuing at King’s as a postgraduate, working more in the area of Scholastic ethics.

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