Duns Scotus, John

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Duns Scotus, John

John Duns Scotus (dŭnz skō´təs) [Lat. Scotus=Irishman or Scot], c.1266–1308, scholastic philosopher and theologian, called the Subtle Doctor. A native of Scotland, he became a Franciscan and taught at Oxford, Paris, and Cologne. The exact canon of Duns Scotus' work is unknown; the best known of his undoubtedly authentic works are On the First Principle and two commentaries on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. He put Aristotelian thought to the service of Christian theology and was the founder of a school of scholasticism called Scotism, which was often opposed to the Thomism of the followers of St. Thomas Aquinas. Scotism has had considerable influence on Roman Catholic thought and has been to some degree sponsored by the Franciscans.

In metaphysics, Duns taught the "univocity of being" ; by this he meant that being must be regarded as the ultimate abstraction that can be applied to everything that exists. He is also known for the use of the "formal distinction," a subtle manner of distinguishing between different aspects of the same thing. The Scotists deny that matter is the principle of individuality and insist that individuation of things is caused by a determination called "haecceitas" or "thisness." According to Scotus, the essence of things as well as their existence depends not on the Divine Intellect but on the Divine Will; his philosophy accordingly is voluntaristic in its entire spirit. It is possible to prove the existence of God, but the ontological proof of St. Anselm is modified: the idea of God's possible existence involves his necessary existence, but knowledge of that possible existence must be demonstrated from sensible things, i.e., from experience. Scotus taught that the state arose from common consent of the people in a kind of social contract. He also denied that property was ordained by natural law.

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