John Duns Scotus

(ca. 1266-1308), Scottish theologian and philosopher


AD 1266
November 8, 1308


Born in Duns, Duns Scotus entered the Franciscan order and studied at the universities of Oxford and Paris. He later lectured at both universities on the Sentences, the basic theological textbook by the Italian theologian Peter Lombard. In 1303 he was exiled from Paris for refusing to support Philip IV, king of France, in his quarrel with Pope Boniface VIII over the taxation of church property. After a brief exile Scotus returned to Paris, and he lectured there until 1307. Toward the end of that year he was sent to Cologne, where he lectured until his death on November 8, 1308, in Cologne.

His most important writings are two sets of Commentaries on the Sentences and the treatises Quodlibetic Questions, Questions on Metaphysics, and On the First Principle. Scotus combined the Aristotelian theory of knowledge directed to the nature of physical objects as achievable by the abstractive power of the intellect with the Franciscan view of the soul as a substance in its own right with powers of intellection not confined to sensible reality. This subtle mingling of divergent tendencies and his skillful method of analysis, especially in his defense of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, earned him the title of Doctor Subtilis (Latin, "the Subtle Doctor").

In his system of philosophy Scotus closely analyzed the concepts of causality and possibility in an attempt to set up a rigorous proof for the existence of God, the primary and infinite being. He held, however, that in order to know the truth in all its fullness and to fulfill one's eternal destiny, a person must not only make use of the insights afforded by natural knowledge or philosophy but must also be taught by divine revelation. Revelation supplements and perfects natural knowledge, and, in consequence, no contradiction can exist between them. For Scotus, theology and philosophy were distinct and separate disciplines; they were, however, complementary, because theology uses philosophy as a tool. In his view, the primary concern of theology is God, considered from the standpoint of his own nature, whereas philosophy properly treats of God only insofar as he is the first cause of things. With regard to the nature of theology as a science, however, Scotus departed sharply from his Dominican forerunner, Thomas Aquinas. Whereas Aquinas defined theology as primarily a speculative discipline, Duns Scotus saw theology as primarily a practical science, concerned with theoretical issues only insofar as they are ordered toward the goal of saving souls through revelation. He argued that through faith a person may know with absolute certainty that the human soul is incorruptible and immortal; reason plausibly may argue the existence of such qualities of the soul, but it cannot strictly prove that they exist.

Like Aquinas, Scotus was a realist in philosophy, but he differed from Aquinas on certain basic issues. A major point of difference concerned their views of perception. Scotus held that a direct, intuitive grasp of particular things is obtained both through the intellect and the senses. Aquinas maintained that intellect did not directly know the singularity of material things but only the universal natures that are abstracted from sense perceptions. Scotus held that universals as such do not exist apart from the human mind, but that each separate or "singular" thing possesses a formally distinct nature that it shares in common with other things of the same kind. This fact, he taught, provides the objective basis of our knowledge of essential truths. Following the Franciscan tradition established by the Italian theologian St. Bonaventure, Scotus stressed human freedom and the primacy of human will and acts of love over the intellect. He avoided an arbitrary or voluntarist view of God's acts, although he pointed out that the actual existence of things depends on a free decision made by God, and he argued that moral obligations depend on God's will. That will, he taught, is absolutely free and not shaped or determined by particular motives. God commands an action not, as Aquinas asserts, because he sees it to be good; he makes it good by commanding it.

Scotus was one of the most profound and subtle of the medieval theologians and philosophers known as Schoolmen. For many centuries after his death his followers, called Scotists, engaged in controversy with the adherents of Aquinas, who were called Thomists. In the 20th century the influence of Scotist philosophy was still strong within the church. Duns Scotus was a staunch supporter of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which Pope Pius IX defined as a dogma of the Roman Catholic church in 1854.

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