John Duns Scotus Biography and Philosophy (Scottish Theologian and Philosopher)


Who is John Duns Scotus? Information on John Duns Scotus biography, life story, works and philosophy.

John Duns Scotus; (1265/1266-1308), Scottish theologian and philosopher, known as the Subtle Doctor. He was born in Duns, Berwickshire, Scotland. He entered the Franciscan order at the age of 15 and was ordained a priest in 1291. Scotus seems to have studied in Paris from 1293 to 1296 and to have returned to England to lecture on the Sentences of Peter Lombard at Oxford. In 1302 he was teaching at Paris, but was banished in June 1303 for his support of Pope Boniface VIII against King Philip IV (the Fair) of France. In 1304 he again taught in Paris and became regent master of theology in 1305.

Toward the end of 1307, Scotus was transferred to Cologne, where he died suddenly on Nov. 8, 1308. His remains are buried in the choir of the Franciscan church in Cologne. Scotus is venerated as a saint within the Franciscan order, but the cult is not universally recognized.

The canon of Scotus’ work has long been uncertain, partly because his works, which include treatises on grammar, logic, metaphysics, and theology, have come down to us mainly in reports written by his pupils, often with additions of the reporter’s own composition. Recent studies have proved that certain works long attributed to Scotus are definitely spurious. The Opus Oxo-niense and Reportata Parisiensia, his commentaries on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, are undoubtedly authentic and constitute, together with the Quaestiones quodlibetales and the De primo principio, the best source of Scotus’ doctrine. Other authentic works are his various commentaries on Aristotle’s logic, the Quaestiones in libros Aristotelis de anima, left incomplete, the Collaticmes Oxonienses and Collationes Parisi-enses, and the Quaestiones subtilissimae in rrieta-physicam Aristotelis (the first nine books only). The authenticity of the Theoremata is still under discussion.

John Duns Scotus

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Scotus’ works were edited by Luke Wadding (12 vols., Lyon 1639) and reprinted by L. Vives (26 vols., Paris 1891-1895). A commission of Franciscan scholars, headed by Father Charles Balic, is preparing a critical edition of all Scotus’ works, Opera omnia, studio et Cura Commissionis scotisticae ad fidem cadicum edita (Vatican City 1950- ). By 1963 seven volumes of his works were completed.


Scotist Philosophy:

Scotus is the leader of the Franciscan school of philosophy and theology, just as St. Thomas Aquinas is the leader of the Dominican school. Powerful thinker that he was, he attempted to harmonize Augustinianism and Thomism into a superior synthesis that would overcome the contrast between the two systems and make up for their deficiencies. For this reason criticism occupies an important place in his writings. Such criticism is directed not against Thomistic doctrines alone but against Augustinian doctrines as well. Because of his depth of thought and sharpness of mind, Scotus’ place as philosopher and theologian is among the highest.

In philosophy, he maintains that the proper object of the human intellect is being as being and not merely the essence of material things, as Aquinas teaches. The concept of being is uni-vocal, which means that it can be predicated in the same way both of God and of creatures, prescinding from their intrinsic modes of being, such as finiteness and infinity. Thus Scotist univocity leaves intact the metaphysical transcendence of God.

Scotus accepts the theory that matter and form are the substantial principles of material bodies. Yet he departs from Aquinas in saying that prime matter is not pure potentiality. Matter has an act of its own, the act of being matter, independently of fonn. To assure the objectivity of our universal concepts, Scotus elaborates the theory of the common nature (natura communis) as a distinct “formality” that exists singularly in concrete things and becomes universal in the intellect. While the common nature—for example, humanity—makes a thing belong to a particular species, the principle of individuation, or that which distinguishes one individual from the rest within the same species, is for Scotus a positive perfection which he calls haecceitas, or “thisness.”

According to Scotus, there are two forms in man, the form of corporeity (forma corporeitatis) and the soul. The form of corporeity is the ultimate disposition of matter that enables it to receive the soul, and remains in the body even after the soul’s departure. Scotus refuses to consider intellect and will as faculties really distinct from the soul, as Aquinas teaches. Between the soul and its faculties, as well as between the faculties themselves, he admits only a “formal” distinction (distinctio formalis a parte rei). This distinction obtains between entities or formalities that exist in one and the same thing but are neither really distinct nor formally identical. Scotus holds that the immortality of the soul is known by faith, and that no strict metaphysical demonstration of it is possible. The natural reason can only produce “probable and persuasive arguments” for the support of this doctrine.

Scotus argues to the existence of God from efficiency, finality, and the degrees of perfection, taking as his starting point the possibility of thifigs rather than their actual existence. The possibility of things is a metaphysical truth; their actual existence is only a fact of contingent experience. For him, radical infinity is the attribute that best distinguishes God from creatures and constitutes Him in his absolute unicity and perfection. It represents also the climax of his metaphysical proof for God’s existence. Creation is primarily an act of the will of God, so that things exist and are true and good because God wills them. However, God wills always “in a most rational and orderly way.”

Ethics and Theology:

Scotus’ ethics is an attempt to show that goodness and duty are meaningful only inasmuch as they are related to supreme goodness and duty. Against Aquinas, he admits the possibility of morally indifferent acts in the concrete. He also maintains that only those of the Ten Commandments that concern our duties toward God belong to the natural law in the strict sense. The other commandments belong to the natural law taken in a broad sense.

The theology of Scotus centers on the notion of God as love. Creation is the effect of God’s love, inasmuch as He communicates His goodness to creatures so that they will love Him freely. Sanctifying grace is identical with the infused virtue of charity and has its seat in the will. The sacraments are not the physical cause of grace, although they really produce grace. Because of his theory of the superiority of the will over the intellect, Scotus asserts that man’s heavenly happiness will consist primarily in the love of God.


Divine love shines particularly in the Incarnation of the Word, which, according to Scotus, would have taken place even if Adam had not sinned. For Christ is the archetype, the center and end of the universe both as man and as God, and His Incarnation could not have been determined by the original sin. Redemption is also a work of love. Yet, in Scotus’ view, the merits of Christ are only infinite in a broader sense.

Although several of Scotus’ doctrines have gained wide recognition even among theologians outside his school, his name has gone down in history as closely associated with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, of which he became the champion.

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