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People > Scottish Philosophers > John Duns Scotus

Notable Scots: Philosophers & Academics

John Duns Scotus (c.1266-1308):

Theologian & Philosopher

"The whole of Scotus's theology is dominated by the notion of love. The characteristic note of this love is its absolute freedom. As love becomes more perfect and intense, freedom becomes more noble and integral both in God and in man."
~ Fr. Charles Balic, O.F.M. 1
John Duns Scotus
John Duns Scotus

John Duns Scotus (John Duns the Scot), nicknamed Doctor Subtilis (the Subtle Doctor) for his complex, nuanced manner of thought, was born in Duns, Berwickshire. Duns was one of the most important and influential theologian-philosophers of the High Middle Ages. An Aristotelian realist of the Scholastic tradition, he left his mark on discussions of topics as disparate as the semantics of religious language, the problem of universals, divine illumination, and the nature of human freedom. The impact of his thought was formally recognized in 1993 when he was beatified by Pope John Paul II. Little is known about his life before his ordination to the priesthood at St. Andrew's Priory in Northampton in 1291.

Duns began his formal studies at Oxford in 1288 and by the fall of 1302 he was lecturing on Peter Lombard's Sentences at the prestigious University of Paris. But before the academic year was over, Scotus, along with eighty other friars, was expelled for siding with the Pope in his dispute with the king over taxation of church property. They were readmitted the following spring, and Scotus was appointed the Franciscan regent master in theology at the university that fall. He continued to lecture at Paris until he was dispatched to the studium in Cologne in 1307, where he died shortly thereafter. Legend speculates that Scotus was in a coma, not yet dead, when he was buried in the Church of the Franciscans in Cologne. His sarcophagus bears the Latin inscription: Scotia me genuit. Anglia me suscepit. Gallia me docuit. Colonia me tenet ("Scotland brought me forth. England welcomed me. France taught me. Cologne holds me").

Not everyone was so impressed with the Subtle Doctor, however. Later philosophers accused him of sophistry, and his family name (Duns) became a term used to refer to someone who employed sophistry in argument. In the sixteenth century, when Dunsmen (followers of Duns) opposed the new philosophies of humanists and reformers, the term duns evolved to mean a person incapable of scholarship. The "dunce cap" was modeled from Duns' canonical hat - formerly a symbol of knowledge, it became a tool used to humiliate unruly students in the classroom.

The doctrines for which Duns is best known, along with his outstandingly complex argument for the existence of God and the Immaculate Conception of Mary, are the "univocity of being"; the formal distinction; and the idea of haeccity, a term he coined to denote the discreet properties or characteristics in each individual thing that makes it individual.

Memorial Bust
Memorial Bust

Being Aristotelian, Duns believed that knowledge began with the experience of things. His doctrine of the univocity of being denied a real distinction between essence - the fundamental attributes that make something what it is - and existence - the thing as it is experienced in the world. Duns purported that we should not distinguish between what a thing is and whether a thing exists since we cannot formulate a concept of something unless it exists. Existence, therefore, is our most abstract concept, and applicable to everything.

Once Duns demonstrated the univocal nature of the universe, he went on to formulate a way of distinguishing between different aspects of the same thing. The "formal distinction" holds between entities that are inseparable and indistinct in reality, but whose definitions aren't identical. For example, while the soul, the will, and the intellect, are all inseparable and indistinct from each other, they are not the same thing. The same applied to the concept of the Holy Trinity: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit cannot be separated from each other, nor can one exist or be conceived of without the other; yet the definition of the Father is not the definition of the Son or the Spirit, etc.

Duns also developed a distinct view on hylomorphism, a Socratic notion that identified substance as matter and form. Duns opposed this limited definition of substances and held that there exists prime matter, which underlies all change and has no form, and purely spiritual substances, which are not made of form or matter. He also asserted that one and the same substance can have more than one substantial form (a human being can have the form of the body and the form of the soul, for example). This underlies Duns' notion of individuation - the process by which the undifferentiated becomes individual. For Duns, reality can only be understood through the existence of the individual, because only the individual human soul can have an intuitive cognition of spiritual knowledge.

Scotus also tackled the problem of whether Mary was tainted by original sin - a theological conundrum unresolved in the Middle Ages. He supported the concept of an Immaculate Conception by suggesting that Mary was redeemed before her conception in anticipation of Christ's death and resurrection. Five and a half centuries later, Pope Pius IX drew on Duns' work when he promulgated the papal bull of 1854 that made the Immaculate Conception Catholic dogma.

  1. Father Charles Balic, O.F.M., is the foremost 20th-century authority on Scotus. Cf. New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, p.1105.
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