The Scottish philosopher and theologian John Duns Scotus (c. 1265-1308) contributed to the development of a metaphysical system that was compatible with Christian doctrine, an epistemology that altered the 13th-century understanding of human knowledge, and a theology that stressed both divine and human will.
The century from 1250 to 1350 can be considered the high point of the scholastic movement in philosophy and theology. During that period a number of important developments took place which influenced European thought in subsequent centuries. The first of these developments was the attempt to construct a metaphysical system that would remove or reduce apparent conflicts between natural reason and the truths of revelation, allowing each a specific domain with a certain number of truths in common. This development is often termed the "synthesis of faith and reason" and is considered one of the major achievements of medieval philosophy. A second development was the perfection of an empirical approach to knowledge and the perfection of the critical tools of logic and scientific inquiry, a movement with important long-range results for the history of modern thought. The third development was the creation of a theological system that would protect the Christian conception of the omnipotence and freedom of God while upholding a practical system in which salvation would be granted to any man who earnestly sought it. In each of these developments Duns Scotus made an important contribution.
John Duns Scotus was born into a landowning family in the southeastern corner of Scotland, an area strongly influenced by the social, political, and religious institutions of England. According to one tradition, his father was Ninian Duns, who held an estate near Maxton in Roxburghshire. After receiving his early education, possibly at Haddington, John Duns entered the Franciscan convent at Dumfries about 1277-1280 and received instruction there from his paternal uncle, Elias Duns.
Shortly before 1290 John Duns was sent to Oxford, probably to continue his study in the liberal arts. It may have been at Oxford that he received the nickname "Scotus" or "the Scot." While at Oxford he was ordained to the priesthood on March 17, 1291, by Oliver Sutton, Bishop of Northampton.
Scotus, as he eventually came to be called, seems to have completed his study in the arts before 1293, for in that year he began his study for the higher degree of theology at Paris under Gonsalvo of Balboa. Returning to Oxford in 1296, Scotus continued his study of theology and commented on the Book of Sentences by Peter Lombard, a standard requirement of any theological faculty in a medieval university and an activity which made the candidate a "bachelor of the Sentences." Having read the Sentences at Oxford (and possibly also at Cambridge), Scotus returned to Paris in 1302 and in that year read the Sentences for the second or third time.
Because of his opposition to King Philip IV's call for a general council against Pope Boniface VIII, Scotus was exiled from France in 1303 and probably returned to Oxford for a year. In 1304, however, Scotus returned to Paris and completed the requirements for the degree of master of theology in 1305. For the next 2 years he held the chair of theology at the Franciscan convent in Paris, debating with other theologians and increasing his reputation. One of his most important works, Quaestiones quodlibetales, contains Scotus's version of many debates in which he engaged during this period.
Scotus was transferred in 1307 to the Franciscan house of study at Cologne, Germany, where he lectured until his death on November 8, 1308. He was buried in the chapel of the convent.
Under the impact of the revival of Aristotle in the 13th century, several theologians attempted to argue for the "scientific" nature of theology. This movement was short-lived, and by the end of the 13th century the scientific quality of theology had been rejected on the grounds that theology did not possess the same type of evidence nor was its method demonstrative in the same sense as mathematics or Euclidean geometry.
Scotus contributed to a more exact understanding of the relation between philosophy and theology. He emphasized the practical and affective nature of theology, denying to it the rigorous demonstrative quality of the Aristotelian sciences. Scotus, however, shared with St. Thomas Aquinas the belief that truth was one and that theology and philosophy do not contradict each other but represent two different approaches to the same truth.
The relation of philosophy and theology, for Scotus, was based on the nature of their respective sources: reason and revelation. Scotus's formulation of this problem followed the pattern established by St. Thomas Aquinas, although Scotus restricted the number of theological truths that could be established by natural reason, unaided by revelation.
Scotus understood metaphysics as that aspect of philosophy that studies the nature of being itself rather than any particular object possessing being that exists in external reality. Being, understood in this way, was a concept common to God and man. Moreover, certain disjunctive attributes or antinomies could be applied to being, such as "infinite-finite" or "necessary-contingent." On the basis of his belief that the term "being" applied to God and man in the same sense and that one part of a disjunctive requires the other part, Scotus established a proof for God's existence based on the nature of being. The existence of finite, contingent beings requires the existence of an infinite, necessary being, namely God.
Scotus shared with St. Thomas Aquinas a strong belief in the primacy of sense experience in the process of human knowledge. Scotus, however, gave the intellect of man a more active role in cognition than was customary in the late 13th century. In opposition to the more common Aristotelian epistemology, he argued that the intellect could come into direct contact with the object to be known. Scotus therefore played a very important role in the transformation of medieval epistemology from a conception of the intellect as a passive receptacle that knows only universal concepts to a view of the intellect as an active mind that knows individual things.
The main feature of Scotus's theology is the importance he gives to the primacy of the will in both God and man. In contrast to St. Thomas Aquinas, who tended to emphasize the intellect or reason, Scotus stressed the freedom of the divine will and the freedom of the human will within an order freely chosen by God.
The freedom of God, for Scotus, means first of all that creation was not necessary. God not only chose the type of world He wished to create; He chose to create. Having once chosen, however, it is the nature of God to abide by his decisions. Although He always retains the power to do otherwise, He never arbitrarily reverses His decisions.
The second area where God's freedom is evidenced is in man's salvation. God, for Scotus, predestines those He wishes to save apart from any foreseen merits. Moreover, God retains His freedom to accept or reject the Christian who fulfils the divine commandments.
This absolute power of God is limited by His own free decision to allow man freedom and to award eternal life on the basis of human merit. Man, for Scotus, is also primarily will and is united to God through love more than through reason. Man has the freedom to fulfil God's demands and thus obtain salvation.
The last important area of Scotus's thought concerns his teaching on Mary, the mother of Jesus. Duns Scotus is known as the Marian doctor because of the high status he accords to Mary. Scotus taught that Mary was born without the stain of original sin, a doctrine known as the Immaculate Conception and eventually recognized as dogma in the Roman Catholic Church. The support of Scotus's teaching by many within the Franciscan order facilitated the development and final acceptance of that doctrine.
The best biographical sketch of Duns Scotus can be found in Alfred B. Emden, A Biographical Register of the University of Oxford to A.D. 1500, vol. 1 (1957). Among the many histories of medieval philosophy that include the thought of Scotus, the clearest description can be found in Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, vol. 2 (1950). There are several more detailed studies in English of various aspects of Scotus's thought. Two excellent studies of Scotus's metaphysics are Cyril L. Shircel, The Univocity of the Concept of Being in the Philosophy of John Duns Scotus (1942), and Allan Wolter, The Transcendentals and Their Function in the Metaphysics of Duns Scotus (1946). The best study of Scotus's epistemology is Sebastian Day, Intuitive Cognition: A Key to the Significance of the Later Scholastics (1947). A more general evaluation of Scotus's thought and his impact on modern philosophy is provided in J. F. Boler, Charles Peirce and Scholastic Realism: A Study of Peirce's Relation to John Duns Scotus (1963).