Catholicism portal. John Duns c. 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. Duns Scotus was given the scholastic accolade Doctor Subtilis "the Subtle Doctor" for his penetrating and subtle manner of thought.

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It then offers an overview of some of his key positions in four main areas of philosophy: natural theology, metaphysics, the theory of knowledge, and ethics and moral psychology. His family name was Duns, which was also the name of the Scottish village in which he was born, just a few miles from the English border.

The minimum age for ordination was twenty-five, so we can conclude that Scotus was born before 17 March But how much before? The conjecture, plausible but by no means certain, is that Scotus would have been ordained as early as canonically permitted. Scotus studied philosophy and then theology at Oxford beginning some time in the s. In the academic year —99 he commented on the first two books of the Sentences of Peter Lombard. After Boniface died in October the king allowed the exiled students and masters to return, so Scotus could have returned in the late fall of to resume his lectures on the Sentences.

Scotus became Doctor of Theology in and was Franciscan regent master at Paris in — He was transferred to the Franciscan studium at Cologne, probably beginning his duties as lector in October He died there in ; the date of his death is traditionally given as 8 November.

These probably date to around ; the Quaestiones super De anima is also very likely an early work the editors date it to the late s or early s. It had been unidentified for centuries but was recently identified and edited by Giorgio Pini. There is an Ordinatio i. Finally, Scotus lectured on the Sentences at Paris, and there are various Reportationes of these lectures. A critical edition is in progress; at present we have a transcription of a reasonably reliable manuscript of Book I.

Although the Paris lectures themselves were later than the Oxford lectures, it seems probable that parts of the Ordinatio —Book IV and perhaps also Book III—are later than the corresponding parts of the Reportatio.

Finally, there is a work called Theoremata. Though doubts have been raised about its authenticity, the recent critical edition accepts it as a genuine work of Scotus. Natural theology is, roughly, the effort to establish the existence and nature of God by arguments that in no way depend on the contents of a purported revelation.

But is it even possible for human beings to come to know God apart from revelation? Scotus certainly thinks so. Like any good Aristotelian, he thinks all our knowledge begins in some way with our experience of sensible things. But he is confident that even from such humble beginnings we can come to grasp God. Scotus agrees with Thomas Aquinas that all our knowledge of God starts from creatures, and that as a result we can only prove the existence and nature of God by what the medievals call an argument quia reasoning from effect to cause , not by an argument propter quid reasoning from essence to characteristic.

Aquinas and Scotus further agree that, for that same reason, we cannot know the essence of God in this life. The main difference between the two authors is that Scotus believes we can apply certain predicates univocally—with exactly the same meaning—to God and creatures, whereas Aquinas insists that this is impossible, and that we can only use analogical predication, 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.

See medieval theories of analogy for details. Scotus has a number of arguments for univocal predication and against the doctrine of analogy Ordinatio 1, d. Aquinas had said that all our concepts come from creatures. Scotus says, very well, where will that analogous concept come from? Those are the only concepts we can have—the only concepts we can possibly get.

Another argument for univocal predication is based on an argument from Anselm. Consider all predicates, Anselm says. Now get rid of the ones that are merely relatives, since no relative expresses the nature of a thing as it is in itself.

Now take the predicates that are left. Let F be our predicate-variable. For any F , either. A predicate will fall into the second category if and only if it implies some sort of limitation or deficiency. Scotus has his own terminology for whatever it is in every respect better to be than not to be. A pure perfection is any predicate that does not imply limitation. So Scotus claims that pure perfections can be predicated of God. But he takes this a step further than Anselm. Then we check out the concept to see whether it is in every respect better to be good than not-good.

One can see this more clearly by considering the two possible ways in which one might deny that the same concept is applied to both God and creatures. One might say that the concept of the pure perfection applies only to creatures, and the concept we apply to God has to be something different; or one might try it the other way around and say that the concept of the pure perfection applies only to God, and the concept we apply to creatures has to be something different.

Take the first possibility. Such a view would destroy the idea that God is the greatest and most perfect being. So then one might try the second possibility: the concept of the pure perfection really applies only to God.

But the whole way in which we came up with the idea of the pure perfection in the first place was by considering perfections in creatures—in other words, by considering what features made creatures better in every respect. So this possibility gets the test backwards: it says that we have to start with knowing what features God has and thereby determining what is a pure perfection, but in fact we first figure out what the pure perfections are and thereby know what features God has. Not only can we come up with concepts that apply univocally to God and creatures, we can even come up with a proper distinctive concept of God.

We know God in the way that we know, say, a person we have heard about but have never met. That is, we know him through general concepts that can apply both to him and to other things. In another sense, though, we can have a proper concept of God, that is, one that applies only to God. If we take any of the pure perfections to the highest degree, they will be predicable of God alone. Better yet, we can describe God more completely by taking all the pure perfections in the highest degree and attributing them all to him.

The argument is enormously complex, with several sub-arguments for almost every important conclusion, and I can only sketch it here. Different versions of the proof are given at Lectura 1, d.

Scotus begins by arguing that there is a first agent a being that is first in efficient causality. Consider first the distinction between essentially ordered causes and accidentally ordered causes. In an essentially ordered series, by contrast, the causal activity of later members of the series depends essentially on the causal activity of earlier members.

For example, my shoulders move my arms, which in turn move my golf club. My arms are capable of moving the golf club only because they are being moved by my shoulders. Scotus next proves that the three primacies are coextensive: that is, any being that is first in one of these three ways will also be first in the other two ways. Scotus then argues that a being enjoying the triple primacy is endowed with intellect and will, and that any such being is infinite.

Finally, he argues that there can be only one such being. But the divine infinity deserves more detailed treatment. As a first approximation, we can say that divine infinity is for Scotus what divine simplicity is for Aquinas.

But there are some important differences between the role of simplicity in Aquinas and the role of infinity in Scotus. The most important, I think, is that in Aquinas simplicity acts as an ontological spoilsport for theological semantics. Simplicity is in some sense the key thing about God, metaphysically speaking, but it seriously complicates our language about God. The divine nature systematically resists being captured in language. That is, our best ontology, far from fighting with our theological semantics, both supports and is supported by our theological semantics.

If we are to follow Anselm in ascribing to God every pure perfection, we have to affirm that we are ascribing to God the very same thing that we ascribe to creatures: God has it infinitely, creatures in a limited way. One could hardly ask for a more harmonious cooperation between ontology what God is and semantics how we can think and talk about him. Scotus ascribes to Aquinas the following argument for the divine infinity: If a form is limited by matter, it is finite.

God, being simple, is not limited by matter. Therefore, God is not finite. This, as Scotus points out, is a fallacious argument. But even apart from the fallacy, simplicity is not going to get us infinity.

So simplicity does not entail infinity, because finitude is not the result of composition. The infinite is that which is not bounded by something else. But Scotus thinks we can have a positive conception of infinity, according to which infinity is not a negative, relational property, but instead a positive, intrinsic property.

How do we acquire that conception of positive, intrinsic infinity? The story goes like this. What you can have and in fact do have, Aristotle thinks is a quantitative infinity by successive parts.

The next step is to imagine that all the parts of that quantitative infinity remained in existence simultaneously. That is, we imagine an actual quantitative infinity. Scotus then asks us to shift from thinking about an actual quantitative infinity to thinking about an actual qualitative infinity.

Think of some quality say, goodness as existing infinitely: so that there is, as it were, no more goodness that you could add to that goodness to make it any greater. Rather, the specific degree of goodness of a thing is just an intrinsic, non-quantitative feature of that thing. Infinite being is just like that.

Infinity is not some sort of accidental addition to being, but an intrinsic mode of being. That is, we can deduce the other infinite perfections from infinite being. The various real theoretical sciences are distinguished by their subject matter, and Scotus devotes considerable attention to determining what the distinctive subject matter of metaphysics is.

That is, the metaphysician studies being simply as such, rather than studying, say, material being as material. The study of being qua being includes, first of all, 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.

Scotus also identifies an indefinite number of disjunctions that are coextensive with being and therefore count as transcendentals, such as infinite-or-finite and necessary-or-contingent.


Authors/Duns Scotus/Ordinatio



Duns Scotus



John Duns Scotus


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