In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Duns Scotus

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Philosophy Duns Scotus
Giorgio Pini
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0334


John Duns Scotus (b. c. 1265/1266–d. 1308) was a major medieval philosopher and theologian whose brilliance and originality is difficult to overstate. Many of his views on metaphysics, ethics, the theory of cognition, and philosophical theology were both groundbreaking and controversial. His influence on later thought has been pervasive and extends well beyond the Middle Ages. His approach to philosophy and theology is characterized by his relentless use of arguments, strong reliance on technical concepts, and a remarkable degree of abstraction. Those features earned him the sobriquet of “Subtle Doctor.” A member of the Franciscan order, he spent his professional life in Oxford, Paris, and (briefly) Cologne. Due to his early death, he was unable to carry out the final revision of most of his works, the format of which was strongly influenced by the educational system of his time. His masterpiece, the Ordinatio, is a commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences, the 12th-century compilation of authoritative passages that theologians had to comment on before qualifying as masters. Duns Scotus’s method is more piecemeal than systematic, but it is possible to identify some common trends in his thought. A significant feature of his approach to philosophy and theology is his insistence on our current cognitive limitations and his acute awareness of the problematic relationship between senses and intellect, which tinges many of his insights in metaphysics and the theory of cognition. Other characteristic aspects of his thought are his reliance on counterfactual arguments to separate what is necessary from what is not in any given situation, his insistence on the contingent character of many aspects of the created world, and his emphasis on God’s freedom and on human (and angelic) will’s capacity for self-determination. Often characterized as the “other” great medieval thinker, Duns Scotus has routinely been contrasted unfavorably with Thomas Aquinas, to whose “normality” he would represent the exception. Sadly, this has sometimes resulted in prejudiced hostility to Duns Scotus’s thought and has been an obstacle to a historically accurate and philosophically precise understanding of many of his views. Thus, Duns Scotus might still be occasionally presented as the proponent of an updated version of Augustinianism characterized by a renewed stress on the arbitrary nature of God’s decisions, as opposed to Aquinas’s more sober Aristotelianism and the emphasis on the goodness and ultimate intelligibility of God’s nature and ways of acting. Serious research, however, has shown that this characterization is grossly inaccurate. In fact, Aquinas was not Duns Scotus’s main interlocutor or target. More often than not, Duns Scotus’s questions and problems were just different from those of Aquinas.

General Overviews

Recent introductions to Duns Scotus’s thought embrace his piecemeal approach to philosophy and give up any attempt to reduce his views to a single set of basic principles. Williams 2003 is a multi-authored collection of articles offering a reliable treatment of the main aspects of Duns Scotus’s thought. It is particularly recommended for readers favoring the clear analysis of arguments over historical context. Both Dumont 1998 and Williams 2015 are excellent overviews that will prove helpful for those who need to get a first general idea of Duns Scotus’s thought. Gilson 1952 is the only single-authored, book-length treatment that comes to grips with all the major aspects of Duns Scotus’s thought. Its overall interpretation is somewhat flawed by its failure to recognize Henry of Ghent’s role as Duns Scotus’s main source and opponent, as well as by Gilson’s strenuous effort to present Scotus as the champion of an approach to philosophy that favors essence over existence. Nevertheless, readers who are already familiar with Duns Scotus will profit from Gilson’s suggestive exposition. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Ingham and Dreyer 2004 is an elementary introduction to Duns Scotus’s key views. Its search for simplicity comes sometimes at the expense of philosophical accuracy, but its attempt to read Duns Scotus against his historical background offers an interesting counterbalance to treatments less sensitive to contextualization.

  • Dumont, Stephen D. “Duns Scotus, John.” In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward Craig. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-B035-1

    Short but excellent guide to Duns Scotus’s key positions on metaphysics, cognition, and the theory of the will. Extended attention is devoted to the demonstration of God’s existence. The list of Duns Scotus’s edited works has not been updated in the online version, so it does not reflect the current status of research.

  • Gilson, Étienne. Jean Duns Scot: Introduction à ses positions fondamentales. Paris: Vrin, 1952.

    English title: “John Duns Scotus: Introduction to his main views.” This work is strongly influenced by its author’s philosophical commitments—in particular, his intention to present Duns Scotus as the champion of essence over existence. Still, this remains the most comprehensive exposition of Duns Scotus’s thought, and its attempt to present a systematic picture of Duns Scotus commands respect. Not for beginners. Republished in 2005.

  • Ingham, Mary Beth, and Mechthild Dreyer. The Philosophical Vision of John Duns Scotus: An Introduction. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2004.

    An elementary exposition of some of Duns Scotus’s main views in metaphysics, cognition, and ethics. Some effort is made to consider Duns Scotus in his historical context. Suitable for undergraduates.

  • Williams, Thomas, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Duns Scotus. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    Fairly comprehensive volume, with chapters written by some of the best specialists on Duns Scotus, with strong emphasis on analytic accuracy and less on historical context. An excellent place to get a first, but accurate, idea of Duns Scotus’s contribution to philosophy.

  • Williams, Thomas. “John Duns Scotus.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2015.

    A reliable and philosophically rewarding introduction to Duns Scotus’s life, works, and thought. Regularly updated.

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