Category: Persons

John Duns Scotus

John Duns Scotus (c. 1266-1308) devised an inventive philosophical-theological system, in which he either interprets or rejects platonic motives. He exerted great influence upon Modern Philosophy.

John (Johannes) Duns Scotus (c. 1266-1308, also known as Doctor Subtilis) was a Franciscan priest, an appointed master of theology in Paris and Oxford, and an excellent scholastic philosopher. To a great extent, the impact of his work laid the ground for the transition from medieval to modern philosophy.

According to Scotus, the subject of metaphysics is not the first or supreme being, i.e., god, but the being in its universality: the being qua being. Metaphysics does not concern theology, but ontology. Scotus breaks through by discounting the analogia entis, that is, the theory by which the meaning of "being" is predicated differently upon god than upon creatures, or upon substance than upon its accidents. For Scotus, au contraire, being as being retains one and the same meaning. The univocation of being is based on the fact that it is something in its own right; that it rests on its pertinent ratio formalis. Being is defined as that which contains no contradiction; as that which is not impossible. Furthermore, what is not impossible is that which is intelligible. This combination (of Neoplatonic origin) between intellect and being will culminate in Kant's idea of a transcendental philosophy, where the conditions for the intelligibility of being are simultaneously the conditions for being in general.

Scotus is similarly innovative when it comes to the problem of universals, and the principle of individuation. The traditional interpretation of Aristotelianism had it that twoindividuals of the same kind, e.g. two individual persons, share in the exact same form or nature: "humanity". But, given that they both have this common form, we are compelled to ask:what is it in them that makes them distinct? The traditional view puts forward mater as the principle of individuation. Scotus declines this claim; on his view, two individuals of the same kind differ not only on account of their mater, but of their form as well. The individual distinction that is predicated onform was named “haecceity” (haecceitas).

With regard to the "humanity", that is, the common form that two individuals of the same kind share in, Scotus maintains that in itself it is neither something universal nor something singular, but something "indifferent" towards universality and singularity. For that reason, form is eligible to exist either as a universal (in mind), or as a singular (in particular beings). Even though this conception (drawn on Aviccena's Neoplatonism) cannot be affirmed as platonic (in the common use of the term), nevertheless, it classifies Scotus among the so-called "realists". Scotus' account on the subject of free will is also original. The traditional (and initially platonic) view was that will desires, by nature, what is good. Scotus, on the contrary, clams that no freedom can be recognized in a will that is bound to desire only the good. Freedom implies the complementary desire of evil, i.e. the rejection of reason. On the one hand, Scotus radicalizes the Aristotelian concept of will as the power of the opposites (potentia oppositorum); on the other, he opens the way to the -characteristically modern- nominalistic voluntarism by emphasizing on the relation between will, reason, and the good.

Author: Thanos Samartzis
  • Cross, R. Duns Scotus. Oxford, 1999.
  • Wolter, A.B., Frank, W.A. Duns Scotus: Metaphysician. Lafayette, 1995.
  • Gilson, Ét. Jean Duns Scot: Introduction à ses positions fondamentales. Paris, 1952.
  • Williams, T. ed. The Cambridge Companion to Duns Scotus. Cambridge, 2003.
  • Wolter, A.B. The Philosophical Theology of John Duns Scotus. Ithaca, 1990.
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