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John Duns Scotus – The ‘Subtle Doctor’ – Philosopher of the Month

John Duns Scotus (b. c. 1265/1266–d. 1308) was one of the most significant Christian philosophers and theologians of the medieval period. Scotus made important and influential contributions in metaphysics, ethics, and natural theology. Little was known of his life but he was born in Scotland, became a Franciscan monk, spent his learning and professional life at Oxford and Paris, and died in Cologne. He was also the first theologian to defend the theory of Immaculate Conception. The doctrine of Immaculate Conception holds that God preserved the Virgin Mary from the taint of original sin from the moment she was conceived. Although Aristotle’s ideas were prevalent during the turn of the 13th century, he belonged to Franciscan tradition which, as opposed to Aristotle, emphasised the power of faith and will. He was also much influenced by Arabic philosophers, especially Avicenna, with their emphasis on Being as the metaphysical object.

Scotus’s approach to philosophy was characterised by rigorous philosophical analysis, meticulous exposition of arguments and its use of technical concepts. Because of his nuanced and technical reasoning, he was referred to as the “subtle doctor.” Notably, Scotus made a distinctive contribution to natural theology in his proofs of God’s existence and the attributes of God. His arguments are both original and highly complex, establishing God as an efficient cause, an ultimate final cause, and a most eminent being, and finally as an “infinite being.” He took up some aspects of Aquinas’s arguments that all our knowledge about God starts from creatures but also presented his own arguments as modifications. Scotus’s univocal concept of being – the idea that words describing the nature of God mean the same thing as they apply to creatures and people – is also arguably his most famous position in this respect. He argued that we can apply certain predicates univocally to God and creatures with exactly the same meaning. This is in opposition to Aquinas who thought that this was not possible and that we can only use analogical predication to describe God’s attributes. His concept of God as infinite being was particularly important to him as he considered that it is the best available concept available to us for describing God, as it “virtually contains” all the infinite perfections associated with God.

Scotus is also considered a realist on the core issue of the universal. He believed there are universal realities (concepts or things that exist outside the mind), endorsing the Arabic philosopher Avicenna’s theory of the “common nature,” according to which essences or nature have their existence and priority in the mind or singular outside it. But he also believed that they only exist in the particular things that they exemplify once they are contracted (made individual) with the haeccity (thisness) of the things to create the individual.

He also developed distinctive theories on the human intellect and will. In his view, we are capable of attaining our knowledge of the truth by the exercise of the power of our intellect or our natural capacities without any special divine help. He opposed scepticism which denied any possibility of certain knowledge, and also a view by Henry of Ghent which held that we need a special divine illumination to help grasp the truth. His voluntarist theory of will for self-determination and as a rational power is a radical departure from the intellectualistic account of view à la Thomas Aquinas. He considered will as a higher and greater power than the intellect since it is a free power by which human beings choose or rejects the things that the intellect presents to them. He however did not accept Aquinas’s conception of will as a desire for happiness and his eudaimonistic conception of morality which was defined in terms of human happiness. Scotus believed the will has a second affection for justice. The will’s inclination/affection for justice plays an important role in enabling us towards our libertarian freedom and fulfilment.

Scotus’s masterpieces were the revised commentary on the writings of the Italian theologian Peter Lombard’s Sentences, known as the Ordinatio, the 12th-century compilation of authoritative passages that theologians had to comment on before qualifying as masters, and his questions on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, considered his most difficult work. Due to his early death, he was unable to carry out a final revision of most of his important works. His influence on later generations of thinkers was considerable and extended beyond the Middle ages.

Featured Image: photo by Rainier Ridao on Unsplash.

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