Jacques Maritain Center : History of Philosophy / by William Turner


Life. John Duns Scotus, Doctor Subtilis, the most gifted opponent of Thomism, rises above the plane of mere controversialists and takes rank among the great schoolmen, if not among the greatest. He was born, according to some writers, in 1266; according to others, in 1274. Where he was born is also uncertain, the most common opinion being that England was his birthplace.{1} At an early age he entered the Franciscan order, and made his studies at Oxford, where the Anti-Thomistic party was for the time triumphant. From 1294 to 1304 he taught at Oxford. In 1304 he began to teach in Paris; in 1308 he was transferred to Cologne, where he died the same year.{2} Both at Oxford and at Paris Scotus enjoyed a reputation as a teacher which was unequaled by even the greatest of his predecessors.

Sources. The Opus Oxoniense, which together with other works was composed while Scotus was at Oxford, is a commentary on the Books of Sentences. The works, or rather the lecture notes, which he composed at Paris were collected by his disciples under the title Reportata Parisiensia, or Opus Parisiense. The complete works of Scotus were published by Luke Wadding, Lyons, 1639. This edition was reprinted by Vives, Paris, 1891. Monograph: Pluzanski, La philosophie de Duns Scotus, Paris, 1887.{3}


The philosophy of Duns Scotus is characterized by criticism and subtlety. Owing, perhaps, to his predilection for mathematical studies -- a predilection which is said to be due to the influence of Roger Bacon -- Scotus was too much inclined to reject as inconclusive the philosophical arguments of his predecessors. He attacked, without distinction of school, and, apparently, without the least respect for the prestige of a great name, the doctrines of Alexander of Hales, St. Bonaventure, Roger Bacon, Henry of Ghent, and, above all, St. Thomas. Such is the subtlety of his speculations that even the mind trained in Scholastic modes of thought has considerable difficulty in following his line of reasoning.{4}

Philosophy and Theology. Scotus, while agreeing with St. Thomas that philosophy and theology are distinct sciences, insists on the inferiority of the former, maintaining that human reason is incapable of solving such problems as the immortality of the soul. Indeed, his doctrine on this point comes dangerously near to the Averroistic principle that what is true in theology may be false in philosophy.{5}

Divine Attributes. St. Thomas taught that there exists only a distinctio rationis, or logical distinction, between the divine nature and the divine attributes, -- justice, power, etc. Scotus maintains that the distinction in question is not merely logical, neither is it real, but something which is partly real and partly logical -- distinctio formalis a parte rei. This celebrated distinction, sometimes referred to as the Scotistic distinction, is not easy to understand. Its opponents contend that it implies a contradiction. It is more than logical, for it exists a parte rei, independently of the mind; and it is less than real, for it is a distinction not of things, but merely of formalities, which may exist in one and the same thing, as, for example, the distinction between animality and rationality in man.{6}

According to Scotus, the essence of things, as well as their existence, depends, not on the divine intellect, but on the divine will.

Matter and Form. Scotus revives the doctrine of universal matter, which the first Franciscan teachers had borrowed from Avicebrol:

Ego autem ad positionem Avicembronis redeo; et primam partem, scil. quod in omnibus creatis per se subsistentibus tam corporalibus quam spiritualibus sit una materia, teneo.{7}

All created substances are, therefore, composed of matter and form. Scotus, with characteristic subtlety, distinguishes three kinds of materia prima:

Materia primo-prima, habens actum de se omnino indeterminatum respectu determinationis cujuslibet formae; materia secundo- prima, quae est subjectum generationis et corruptionis, quam mutant agentia creata, seu Angeli seu agenda corruptibilia; materia tertio- prima, quae est materia cujuslibet artis et materia cujuslibet agentis naturalis particularis.{8}

The substantial form is not, as St. Thomas taught, essentially one. It determines the matter to a higher mode of being; but this determination gives rise to an indetermination, or potency, with respect to a higher form; thus, the generic form leads to the specific, and the specific to the individual, so that the more complete is the determination of matter the greater is the plurification of forms in matter.

Omnis forma sive plurificatlo est de imperfecto et indeterminato ad perfectum et determinatum, de uno materiali ad plura formaliter distincta.{9}

Doctrine of Universals. In the Quaestiones Acutissimae super Universalia Porphyrii{10} Scotus develops a doctrine of moderate realism. In his metaphysical treatises he defends the plurality of substantial generic and specific forms (formalitates), which have an objective reality, and a kind of unity inferior to numerical unity. In this manner Scotus prepares the way for his followers, who built on his metaphysical doctrines a system of exaggerated realism.{11}

Essence and Existence. Between essence and existence there is, according to Scotus, a "distinctio formalis a parte rei."{12}

The Principle of Individuation is neither matter nor form nor quantity but an individual property added to these. This property was called by the Scotists the thisness (haecceitas) of a thing.{13} Scotus denies the Thomistic doctrine that there cannot be two angels of the same species: "Simpliciter possibile est plures angelos esse in eadem specie."{14}

Voluntarism. The philosophy of Scotus is voluntaristic in its entire spirit. Scotus explicitly teaches that the will is superior to the intellect. "Voluntas imperans intellectui est causa superior respectu actus ejus. Intellectus autem si est causa volitionis, est causa subserviens voluntati."{15} St. Thomas taught that the intuitive contemplation of the Divine Essence in the beatific vision is the principal and indeed the essential element in man's final happiness: Scotus teaches that it is by the act of perfect love of God in the next life that final happiness is to be attained. In a similar spirit of voluntarism, Scotus holds that the natural law depends on the will of God and that actions are good because God has commanded them, while St. Thomas, true to the principles of intellectualism, taught that natural law depends on the mind of God, and that God commands certain actions because they are good. Scotus maintains that human reason alone cannot prove the omnipotence of God{16} and the immortality of the human soul: St. Thomas taught that these truths are demonstrable by reason.

There are many other points of contrast between the tenets of the Subtle Doctor and those of the Angel of the Schools. The antithesis between the two great teachers is not to be explained by the "wish on the part of Brother John to contradict whatever Brother Thomas had taught": it is an antithesis arising out of the difference in the mental temperaments of the two men, the difference between an intellectualist and a voluntarist.

Historical Position. Scotus is frequently described as the Kant of Scholastic philosophy. He certainly resembles Kant in his refusal to accept without criticism any theory, no matter how universally received or how strongly supported by the authority of great names. The resemblance is accentuated by the fact that both Scotus and Kant are voluntarists, both maintaining that will is superior to intellect, and that human reason cannot demonstrate the truths which most vitally affect the destiny of man. But, remarkable as the resemblance is, no less striking is the contrast between the two philosophers. Kant appeals to the moral consciousness to prove the truths which reason cannot demonstrate: Scotus, on the contrary, appeals to revelation. Scotus places the supernatural order of truth above all philosophical knowledge, and consequently his criticism is partial and relative to the natural order of truth, while Kant's is radical and absolute. For Kant there is no court of appeal superior to the moral consciousness; for Scotus the supreme tribunal before which all truth is judged is divine revelation.

Scotus inaugurates an age of talent rather than of genius. The influence of St. Bonaventure, Albert, and St. Thomas seems to have silenced for a while the contentions which distracted the earlier schoolmen.{17} But now that the great constructive thinkers have disappeared, the intellectual knight-errantry of Abelard's day once more comes into vogue, and minds incapable of constructive effort devote themselves to analysis and controversy. It is among these lesser lights that Scotus, subtle and penetrating as his mind was, must be classed. For, while he excelled even the greatest of the schoolmen in critical acumen, he was wanting in that synthetic power which St. Thomas possessed in so preeminent a degree, and which more than any other quality of mind stamps the writer or thinker as a philosopher.


In Scotus the opponents of Thomism found a champion. From this time forth the Franciscan teachers follow the leadership of Duns Scotus, while the Dominicans range themselves behind St. Thomas. The principal Scotists were Francis of Mayron (died 1327), surnamed Magister Acutus Abstractionum, and Antonio Andrea (died 1320), surnamed Doctor Dulcifluus. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries there appeared also the following Scotists: John of Basoles, John Dumbleton, Walter Burleigh (Doctor Planus et Perspicuus), Alexander of Alessandria, Lychetus of Breach, and Nicholas De Orbellis. The best known of the Thomists of this period are Gerard of Bologna (died 1317), John of Naples (died 1330), Peter De Palude (Pierre de la Palu) (died 1342), and John Capreolus{19} (1380-1444), who was surnamed Princeps Thomistarum.

In the course of time the controversy between the rival schools absorbed the attention which should have been devoted to the development of Scholastic philosophy in relation to the scientific doctrines introduced at the opening of the modern era. This, as we shall see, is one of the reasons why Scholasticism failed to accommodate itself to the scientific movement.

{1} Wadding, in a Life prefixed to the works of Duns Scotus, gives Ireland as the birthplace of the Subtle Doctor, and supports his contention by several arguments. He quotes the following epitaph (date unknown):

Scotia me genuit, Anglia me suscepit,
Gallia me docuit, Colonia me tenet.

{2} For the extraordinary stories circulated at a later time as to the manner of Scotus' death, cf. Wadding in the Life above referred to, pp. 13 ff. For dates, cf. Chartul., II, p. 113, n.

{3} Frassen's Scotus Academicus (Paris, 1672) and Fr. Hieron. de Montefortino's Venerabilis Joannis Duns Scoti Summa Theologica (Rome, 1723) are valuable aids to the study of Scotus' system. They are both being republished by the Franciscans of the convent of Sant' Antonio (Rome, 1900 ff.).

{4} Cf. for instance, Quodl., Q. VII.

{5} Cf. In IVum Sent., Dist. XLIII, Q. II (Opus Oxoniense, Venice, 1598, VoL II, folio 136); also Quodl., Q. VII (Opus Oxen., II, 22).

{6} For explanation of the Scotistic distinction, cf. In Ium Sent., Dist. VIII, Q. IV (Opus Oxon., I, 170), and Dist. II, Q. VII (Opus Oxon., I, 81).

{7} De Rerum Princip., Q. VIII, Art. 4 (Opera, Vol. III, p. 52).

{8} Loc. cit., Art. 3 (Opera, ibid., p. 5).

{9} Loc. cit., Art. 4; cf. also Opera, Vol. VIII, p. 649.

{10} Pp. 4 ff.

{11} Cf. In IIum Sent., Dist. III, Q. I (Opera, Vol. VI, p. 335), and In Ium Sent., Dist. VII (Opera, Vol. V, p. 702).

{12} Cf. In IIIum Sent., Dist. VI, Q. I. Sometimes, as In IIum Sent., Dist. XVI, Q. I (Opera, ed. Wadding, Vol. VI, P. II, p. 763), Scotus speaks as if the distinction were conceptual, or, at most, modal.

{13} Cf. In IIum Sent., Dist. III, Q. VI (Opera, Vol. VI, p. 413). In the Reportata Parisiensia (Opera, ed. Wadding, Vol. XI, P. I, p. 329) the word haecceitas is used to designate the positive entity which is the principle of individuation.

{14} In IIum Sent., Dist. III.

{15} In IVum Sent., Dist. XLIX, Q. IV.

{16} Cf. Quadl., Q. VI.

{17} For a description of the dialectical sophistry employed in the Parisian schools at the end of the twelfth century, cf. Alexander Neckam, De Naturis Rerum, ed. Brewer, pp. 302 ff.

{18} Cf. De Wulf, Hist. de la phil. méd., pp. 364 ff.

{19} The principal work of Capreolus, Defensiones Theologiae Divi Thomae, has been republished quite recently (Tours, 1900-1902).

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