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Philosophy of the 14th century – Duns Scotus (1)

Duns Scotus
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(Duns Scotus)

The first symptom of this disintegration is found in the movement of ideas inaugurated by Duns Scotus, the subtle doctor. He had a very short career: born in Scotland around 1265, he studied the “arts” and theology at various universities, including Oxford and Paris. He commented on the Sentences in Cambridge before 1300, then in Oxford and Paris, where he became a doctor in 1306. He died in Cologne in 1308. The only authentic text of his commentary on the Sentences is the Ordinatio, the best report being that of Oxford. We owe him Questions on Porphyry and several logical works of Aristotle, as well as on Metaphysics, as well as the De primo principio and the Theoremata and Quodlibets. Grammatica speculativa and De rerum principio, which appear in the Wadding-Vivès edition, are authored by Thomas d’Erfurt and Vital du Four.

Duns Scotus does not fit into any of the currents that we have followed; to those who make him an Augustinian, (1) we must object to the very strong criticism he makes of the theories most dear to the school: that of intellectual knowledge as illumination, that of seminal reasons contained in matter and innate knowledge contained in the soul. But he is even less Thomistic: his most famous doctrines, the actual existence of matter, individuation through form (haecceity), the priority of the will, are in conscious and deliberate opposition to those of Saint Thomas.

One of the essential features which distinguishes and isolates it is the unhesitating affirmation of what one could call the historical character of the Christian vision of the universe: creation, incarnation, imputation of merits of Christ, these are, on the part of God, free acts in the fullest sense of the word, that is to say which could not have taken place and which depend on an initiative of God which has no reason other than his own will. The credo ut intelligam of Saint Anselm, the effort to scrutinize the motives of God are in direct opposition to this new spirit. And this is why he singularly lengthened the list of pure objects of faith, of credibilia, “which are all the more certain for Catholics because they do not rely on our blind and often vacillating understanding, but find a firm support in the most solid of truths”: omnipotence, incommensurability, infinity, life, will, all-presence, truth, justice, providence, that is to say almost all the divine attributes that Saint Thomas deduced from the notion of God as the cause of the world, are for Duns Scotus objects of faith. He undoubtedly admits, however, a rational proof of the existence of God, the proof a contingeritia mundi which forces us to pass, not from the changing being of which we have the experience, but from mutability as such to ‘necessary being which has in itself its reason for being’. This proof cannot start, as Saint Anselm wants, from the notion of “the greatest being that one can think of”; because this notion which is not a simple and innate idea was formed by us starting from finite beings, and it would first be necessary to show that it is not contradictory.

We could summarize these views by saying that any trace of the neo-Platonic spirit, that is to say, of affirmation of the continuity and hierarchy between the forms of reality, has almost disappeared in Duns Scotus. If Augustinism affirmed continuity in being and therefore continuity in knowledge, and Thomism continuity in being but discontinuity in knowledge, Scotism could have the formula: discontinuity in being and discontinuity in knowledge. Duns Scotus uses, in fact, all the concepts that we saw impose themselves in the twelfth century: possible intellect and agent intellect, matter and form, universal and individual, will and understanding; but while, among previous thinkers, these concepts were called, linked, hierarchized, organized, the aim of Duns Scotus seems to be to show independent terms, each of which separately has a full and complete and sufficient reality, which are undoubtedly added, but without being demanding.

Source: Émile Bréhier(1951). Histoire de la philosophie, Presses Universitaires de France. Translation and adaptation by © 2024 Nicolae Sfetcu

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