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Ordered by Love:
An Introduction to John Duns Scotus

by thomas m. ward
angelico, 174 pages, $26

Rodney Dangerfield famously claimed to get no respect, but in fact he was admired enormously by his fellow comics. Though it feels faintly impious to liken Blessed John Duns Scotus to a comedian, the comparison is, at least in this regard, apt. Scotus has nothing like the reputation in the popular mind enjoyed by other scholastics. He has long been overshadowed by St. Thomas Aquinas. Even St. Anselm is more familiar, at least to the many undergrads who have been introduced to his ­ontological argument for God’s existence in a Philosophy 101 course. Scotus’s work, by contrast, is primarily read by academic specialists in medieval philosophy and theology. But it is greatly esteemed by those who know it, including those of us who ultimately favor the thought of Aquinas.

Scotus is a philosopher’s philosopher and a theologian’s theologian. He is called the Subtle Doctor because of his predilection for fine conceptual distinctions and painstaking argumentation. This predilection can make his writings forbidding even for the professional. But this technical rigor by no means reflected mere pedantry. It illuminated rather than obfuscated, and plumbed depths ­unimagined by less penetrating minds. Reading Scotus is a bit like watching the fictional detective Adrian Monk at work: At first you wonder why he’s nitpicking obsessively over esoteric details, until you see that he’s noticed something crucial that nobody else has and that solves the problem. But Scotus’s interests were not all coldly logical or otherwise irrelevant to the concerns of the ordinary believer. His arguments played a decisive role in the Church’s proclamation of the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate ­Conception.

Though much of Scotus’s work is available in English, it can be difficult for the non-specialist to know exactly where to look for it. Moreover, having found it, the uninitiated reader soon wishes he had a guide. Philosopher Thomas M. Ward’s new book is a superb one, and may well become the standard introduction to Scotus’s thought. Ward writes with elegant clarity, simplifying the medieval thinker’s ideas as far as possible without oversimplifying. He treats most of Scotus’s most important and influential contributions to philosophy and theology. And he situates them in the contexts of ­Aristotelian philosophy and Franciscan spirituality that informed the mind of the great Scotsman.

Largely and surprisingly neglected in contemporary philosophy and theology is Scotus’s argument for God’s existence in De Primo ­Principio and elsewhere. Though in some respects similar to the proofs of a First Cause familiar from Aquinas, Scotus’s argument is set out at much greater length and in extraordinary detail. (The prominent atheist philosopher Graham Oppy, while rejecting the argument, nevertheless characterizes it as “magisterial” and “a major intellectual achievement.”)

By way of a subtle analysis of possibility and causality, Scotus argues first that it would not be possible—let alone actual—that things should be caused to exist unless there were a First Efficient Cause (where, as ­Aristotle adepts know, an efficient cause is the sort of cause that brings something into being). By a distinct line of reasoning, Scotus then argues for a First Final Cause of things (where a thing’s final cause is, in Aristotelian philosophy, the end or goal toward which it aims). Third, ­Scotus argues for the existence of that which is First in Perfection, or supreme in the hierarchy of goodness.

His next move is to assert that anything possessing any one of these three features must possess the other two as well. The upshot is that it is one and the same being who exhibits this “Triple Primacy.” Scotus then shows that when we consider further the nature of this ultimate being, we find that we must ascribe to it further divine attributes, such as infinity, unicity, and simplicity. This is just a sketch of the overall strategy—again, ­Scotus sets the argument out at length and in technical detail. Ward does not get into all these technicalities, but he explains the basic thrust of the argument in a way that is as comprehensible and painless as possible for the beginner.

More familiar to contemporary philosophers and theologians is ­Scotus’s doctrine of the univocity of theological language. Here he is traditionally pitted against Aquinas, who held that such language is analogical. For Aquinas, when we say, for example, that God is good or has power, we aren’t using these terms in exactly the same sense as when we ascribe goodness or power to human beings or other parts of the natural world. Rather, we are saying that there is in God something analogous to what we call goodness and power in us. Scotus, by contrast, holds that we are in fact using these terms univocally. That is to say, words like “power” and “goodness” have the same meaning when we apply them to God as when we apply them to us and to other ­created things.

Critics of Scotus have argued that this position effectively makes of God merely one being alongside others—rather than Subsistent ­Being Itself, as Aquinas holds—and thereby assimilates him to the world of created things. Ward counters that the critics are fallaciously reading a metaphysical implication out of what is really a semantic ­thesis—a claim about the meanings of our words rather than about the nature of the reality to which those words refer. Properly understood, Ward maintains, Scotus’s position is not far from Aquinas’s own. Scotus is merely insisting that there must be sufficient commonality to the meanings of the terms we use when speaking of created things and of God, so that to reason from the ­creation to God as its creator is not to commit a fallacy of equivocation. And Aquinas takes the same view.

Whether this suffices to defuse the longstanding and complex dispute over the nature of theological language is bound to be controversial. So, too, is Scotus’s disagreement with Aquinas about the nature of material things. Like Aquinas and other followers of Aristotle, Scotus holds that a physical substance is composed of matter and form (where, to a first approximation, matter is the stuff out of which a thing is made, and form is the distinctive way in which that stuff is organized). More precisely, it is the substantial form of a thing that makes it a thing of a certain specific kind. Hence, that gold is a distinct substance from water, and a dog a distinct substance from a tree, reflects the difference in their substantial forms. (Substantial form contrasts with what is called accidental form, which does not determine the specific kind to which a thing belongs. For example, a dog’s color is a merely accidental form rather than a substantial form, since a dog remains a dog whether it is brown or black or gray.)

Now, Aristotelians like ­Aquinas take the human soul to be the substantial form of the body, that which makes a human being a thing of the specific kind it is. But as Ward explains, Scotus holds that the body retains its form even after the soul leaves it at death. This view contrasts with that of ­Aquinas, who believes that since the soul is gone after death, what remains is not strictly the person’s body, but only material constituents that temporarily retain the body’s superficial features (such as its shape and color) before decay sets in. Scotus’s motivation was theological. He thought it more appropriate to hold that it was strictly Christ’s body that remained after his death, given that Christ’s body would still be owed veneration and should not be treated as just any physical object. The body, Scotus concluded, must therefore have a form of its own, which is not lost when the soul departs.

Ward explains ­Scotus’s position and its significance with admirable clarity, but it would have been good to know how he thinks the follower of Scotus should reply to objections raised by followers of Thomas ­Aquinas. Aquinas held that a thing can have only a single substantial form, or it wouldn’t really be a single true substance in the first place. It would instead be an aggregate of as many different substances as there are substantial forms. In the case of the body, the Thomist would object that if it has a form of its own, which persists even when the soul is gone, it would follow that soul and body are distinct substances rather than a unity. The body would be something complete in its own right, and the soul (and thus, presumably, the person) an entirely separate thing. And this would imply a sharply dualistic divide between soul and body, of the kind associated with Plato and Descartes. Such a view differs radically not only from the standard Aristotelian position, but from traditional Christian anthropology.

It is understandable that Ward would not deal with every technical controversy over Scotus’s views in a book meant to be introductory and accessible to a reasonably wide ­audience. But since many of his readers are bound to be sympathetic to or at least familiar with Aquinas, it might have been advisable to address at least briefly the sorts of objections Thomists are likely to raise.

In any event, in general, Ward seems more inclined to soften rather than play up the philosophical differences between ­Scotus and Aquinas. We have already seen this in the case of the debate over univocity. It seems to be true also where the nature of the will is concerned. Traditionally, a distinction is drawn between intellectualist and voluntarist theories of the will. The former take the intellect to be ­prior to the will, in the sense that the will is always directed at what the intellect holds to be good. The ­latter take the will to be prior to the intellect, or at least to have some independence of it. Hence, for the intellectualist, you can will to read a certain book review (say) only if your intellect judges that it would in some way be good to do so (even if, of course, it also recognizes that it might be boring and thus unpleasant). But for the voluntarist, the will might opt for an action regardless of the intellect’s judgment about it. Aquinas is commonly classified as an intellectualist and Scotus as a voluntarist, though each of their positions is more complicated than this quick characterization indicates.

Apparently concerned to downplay the differences here, Ward speaks of Scotus’s “so-called voluntarism” and emphasizes that for Scotus, “the will is incapable of willing anything blindly” and “can only operate on information presented to it by the intellect.” At the same time, he says, for Scotus, the will is free to reject what the intellect tells it is good. The critic will want to know how these claims can be reconciled. If the will opts to do otherwise than the intellect instructs, would this not be willing blindly? Or if it is rather a matter of the will’s rejecting one option proposed by the intellect in favor of another option proposed by the intellect, wouldn’t this make ­Scotus a kind of intellectualist after all? Again, for the many among his readers who are likely to be familiar with Thomism, Ward might have said at least a little more about how followers of Scotus would rebut such objections.

Where theological (as opposed to philosophical) matters are concerned, Ward does not soft-pedal the differences between Scotus and Aquinas. This is understandable, given that on one such issue—the aforementioned doctrine of the Immaculate Conception—Scotus’s position ended up being more influential than Aquinas’s. (Both were writing before the Church had pronounced on the subject; exactly what Aquinas’s view was is a matter of controversy.) Scotus also thought, as Aquinas did not, that the Incarnation would have occurred even if man had not sinned. Whatever one thinks of Scotus’s theology, Ward effectively conveys how it was motivated by genuine piety no less than by abstract theological reasoning.

Ward offers lucid treatments of other characteristic Scotist themes, such as the haecceity, or “thisness” that Scotus thinks we must attribute to any particular thing in order to account for its individuality or distinctness from other members of its kind. Especially useful is Ward’s exposition of Scotus on the virtues.

As I have said, Thomists might want a bit more discussion of how Scotus could be defended against the objections they’d raise. But it would be churlish to make too much of this. For the point of Ward’s book is precisely to put the spotlight for once on Scotus rather than Aquinas. It succeeds in its aim of showing why the Subtle Doctor ought to be taken seriously as a great philosopher and theologian in his own right, rather than just as a foil to the Angelic Doctor.

Edward Feser is professor of philosophy at Pasadena City College.

Image by Cherubino via Creative Commons. Image cropped.