Who was John Dun Scotus?
John Duns Scotus (1266 – 1308) is generally reckoned to be one of the three most important philosopher-theologians of the High Middle Ages. Scotus has had considerable influence on both Catholic and secular thought. The doctrines for which he is best known are the "univocity of being," that existence is the most abstract concept we have, applicable to everything that exists; the formal distinction, a way of distinguishing between different aspects of the same thing; and the idea of haecceity, the property supposed to be in each individual thing that makes it an individual. Scotus also developed a complex argument for the existence of God, and argued for the Immaculate conception of Mary. He was given the medieval accolade Doctor Subtilis (Subtle Doctor) for his penetrating and subtle manner of thought.
Little is known of Scotus apart from his work. His date of birth is thought to have been between 23 December 1265 and 17 March 1266, based on his ordination to the priesthood in the Order of Friars Minor (the Franciscans) at Saint Andrew's Priory in Northampton, England, on 17 March 1291. The minimum age for ordination at the time was 25 and it is generally assumed that he would have been ordained as soon as this was permitted. That his contemporaries called him Johannes Duns, after the medieval practice of calling people by their Christian name followed by their place of origin, suggests that he came from Duns, in Berwickshire in Scotland.
According to tradition, he was educated at the Franciscan studium at Oxford, a house behind St Ebbe's Church, in a triangular area enclosed by Pennyfarthing Street and running from St Aldate's to the Castle, the Baley and the old wall, where the Franciscans had moved when the University of Paris was dispersed in 1229–30. At that time there would have been about 270 persons living there, of whom about 80 would have been Franciscans.
He appears to have been in Oxford in 1300–01, taking part in a disputation under the regent master, Philip of Bridlington. He began lecturing on Peter Lombard's Sentences at the prestigious University of Paris in the Autumn of 1302. Later in that academic year, however, he was expelled from the University of Paris for siding with Pope Boniface VIII in his feud with Philip the Fair of France, over the taxation of church property.
Scotus was back in Paris before the end of 1304, probably returning in May. He continued lecturing there until, for reasons which are still mysterious, he was dispatched to the Franciscan studium at Cologne, probably in October 1307.
According to the fifteenth century writer William Vorilong, his departure was sudden and unexpected. He was relaxing or talking with students in the Prato clericorum or Pre-aux-Clercs – an open area of the Left Bank used by scholars for recreation, when orders arrived from the Franciscan Minister General. Scotus left immediately, taking few or no personal belongings. He died there in Cologne (Germany) in November 1308; the date of his death is traditionally given as 8 November. He is 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. (trans. "Scotland brought me forth. England sustained me. France taught me. Cologne holds me.") He was beatified by Pope John Paul II on March 20, 1993.
Scotus’ great work is his commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, which contains nearly all the philosophical views and arguments for which he is well known, including the univocity of being, the formal distinction, less-than-numerical unity, individual nature or ‘thisness' (haecceity), his critique of illuminationism and his renowned argument for the existence of God. His commentary exists in several versions. The standard version is the Ordinatio (also known as the Opus oxoniense). It is a revised version of lectures which he gave as a bachelor at Oxford.
The initial revision was probably begun in the summer of 1300 – see the remarks in the Prologue, question 2, alluding to the Third Battle of Homs in 1299, news of which probably reached Oxford in the summer of 1300. It was still incomplete when Scotus left for Paris in 1302. The original lectures were also transcribed and recently published as the Lectura.
The two other versions of the work are Scotus' notes for the Oxford lectures, recently published as the Lectura, the first book of which was probably written in Oxford in the late 1290s, and the Reportatio parisiensis (or Opus parisiense), consisting of transcriptions of the lectures on the Sentences given by Scotus when he was in Paris. A reportatio is a student report or transcription of the original lecture of a master. A version that has been checked by the master himself is known as a reportatio examinata.
By the time of Scotus, these 'commentaries' on the Sentences were no longer literal commentaries. Instead, Peter Lombard's original text was used as a starting point for highly original discussions on topics of theological or philosophical interest. For example, Book II Distinction 2, about the location of angels, is a starting point for a complex discussion about continuous motion, and whether the same thing can be in two different places at the same time (bilocation). In the same book, Distinction 3, he uses the question of how angels can be different from one another, given that they have no material bodies, to investigate the difficult question of individuation in general.
Scotus wrote purely philosophical and logical works at an early stage of his career, consisting of commentaries on Aristotle's Organon. These are the Questions on Porphyry's Isagoge and Aristotle's Categories, Peri hermeneias, and De sophisticis elenchis, probably dating to around 1295. His commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics was probably written in stages, the first version having started around 1297, with significant additions and amendments possibly after the completion of the main body of the Ordinatio.
His Expositio on the Metaphysics was lost for centuries but was recently rediscovered and edited by Giorgio Pini. In addition, there are 46 short disputations called Collationes, probably dating from 1300–1305; a work in natural theology (De primo principio), and his Quaestiones Quodlibetales, probably dating to Advent 1306 or Lent 1307. A number of works once attributed to Scotus are now known to be inauthentic. There were already concerns about this within two centuries of his death, when the sixteenth-century logician Jacobus Naveros noted inconsistencies between these texts and his commentary on the Sentences, leading him to doubt whether he had written any logical works at all.
The Questions on the Prior Analytics (In Librum Priorum Analyticorum Aristotelis Quaestiones) were also discovered to be mistakenly attributed. In 1922, Grabmann showed that the logical work De modis significandi was actually to be by Thomas of Erfurt, a fourteenth-century logician of the modist school. Thus the claim that Martin Heidegger wrote his Habilitationsschrift on Scotus is only half true, as the second part is actually based on the work by Erfurt.
Reputation and influence
Colophon from the edition of Scotus' Sentences commentary edited by Thomas Penketh (d. 1487) and Bartolomeo Bellati (d.1479), printed by Johannes de Colonia and Johannes Manthen,Venice in 1477. It reads Explicit Scriptum super Primum Sententiarum: editum a fratre Johanne Duns: ordinis fratrum minorum Printed versions of scholastic manuscripts became popular in the late fifteenth century.
Owing to Scotus' early and unexpected death, he left behind a large body of work in an unfinished or unedited condition. His students and disciples extensively edited his papers, often confusing them with works by other writers, in many cases leading to misattribution and confused transmission.
Most thirteenth-century Franciscans followed Bonaventura, but the influence of Scotus (as well as that of his arch-rival William of Ockham) spread in the fourteenth century. Franciscan theologians in the late Middle Ages were thus divided between so-called Scotists and Ockhamists. Fourteenth century followers included Francis of Mayrone (d. 1325), Antonius Andreas (d. 1320), William of Alnwick (d. 1333), and John of Bassolis (d. 1347), supposedly Scotus' favourite student.
His reputation suffered during the English reformation, probably due to its association with the Franciscans. In a letter to Thomas Cromwell about his visit to Oxford in 1535, Richard Layton described how he saw the court of New College full of pages from Scotus's work "the wind blowing them into every corner". John Leland described the Oxford Greyfriar's library in 1538 (just prior to its dissolution) as an accumulation of 'cobwebs, moths and bookworms'.
Despite this, Scotism grew in Catholic Europe. Scotus' works were collected into many editions, particularly in the late fifteenth century with the advent of printing. His school was probably at the height of its popularity at the beginning of the seventeenth century; during the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries there were even special Scotist chairs, e.g. at Paris, Rome, Coimbra, Salamanca, Alcalá, Padua, and Pavia.
It flourished well into the seventeenth century, and its influence can be seen in such writers as Descartes and Bramhall. Interest dwindled in the eighteenth century, and the revival of scholastic philosophy, known as Neo-Scholasticism, was essentially a revival of Thomistic thinking. The twentieth century, however, has seen a resurgence of interest in Scotus, particularly among secular philosophers such as Peter King, Gyula Klima, Paul Vincent Spade and others.
Today, Scotus is considered one of the most important Franciscan theologians and was the founder of Scotism, a special form of Scholasticism. He came out of the Old Franciscan School, to which Haymo of Faversham (d. 1244), Alexander of Hales (d. 1245), John of Rupella (d. 1245), William of Melitona (d. 1260), St. Bonaventure (d. 1274), Cardinal Matthew of Aquasparta (d. 1289), John Peckham, Archbishop of Canterbury (d. 1292), Richard of Middletown (d. about 1300), etc., belonged.
He was known as "Doctor Subtilis" because of the subtle distinctions and nuances of his thinking. Later philosophers in the sixteenth century were less complimentary about his work, and accused him of sophistry. This led to his name, "dunce" (which developed from the name "Dunse" given to his followers in the 1500s) to become synonymous for "somebody who is incapable of scholarship".
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