Who Was John Duns Scotus?

We are sure you have heard the derogatory word “dunce” being used to insult someone before. But do you know how the word came to be? Do you know of any philosopher who is widely known in the Catholic world? Do you know anything about philosophy in the Catholic world?  
This article will shed more light on these questions and will introduce you to John Duns popularly known as Duns Scotus who was a Middle Age Scottish philosopher and theologian. He believed in the existence of God and attempted to use philosophy to prove the existence of God. He was a renowned Catholic and was widely revered to the extent that in 1993, Pope John Paul II beatified him. 
Early Life
No one knows his exact date of birth, but historical accounts show that John Duns Scotus was born in 1266 to a Scottish family in Duns, near the border to England. His surname was Duns because he came from that region and he was called Scotus or “the Scot” because he came from Scotland. He became ordained as a priest in 1291. He was educated at a medieval university in Oxford and became a friar there.
Adult Life
He left Oxford for the University of Paris in 1304 where he became a lecturer. The authorities banished him and others for supporting Pope Boniface VIII in an argument between the Pope and King Philip of France. The Pope died and the new Pope Benedict XI made peace with the King. This allowed John Duns to return to Paris by the end of 1304. Scotus lectured at both Oxford and Cambridge at points of his career. He became a lector in Cologne where he died in November 1308.
Philosophical Beliefs and Contributions
John Duns Scotus had a lot of beliefs in different subject areas in philosophy and theology. But he focused mostly on the existence of God and matter. His commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard was also popular. He also commented on the work of Aristotle.

  • Metaphysics: Scotus studied the work of Aristotle, Averroes and Avicenna on Metaphysics and postulated his own theories. He supported Avicenna on the fact that metaphysics study is qua being. He believed that God is a being.
  • Distinctions: Duns Scotus believed that there is no real distinction between two individuals unless it is possible for one to exist without the other. He believed that God and man are distinct since God can exist without any man. Scotus wrote down many beliefs on real, conceptual and extramental distinction.
  • Universals: John Duns argued on the existence of humanity and animality in the universe. He believed in the Aristotle theory that what is universal is what is one in many and said of many.
  • Individuation: Scotus spoke on the individuation of material and immaterial substances. His views on individuation were argued by Aquinas and Henry of Ghent.
  • The Argument for the Existence of God: Scotus gave various versions of his proof that God existed. The proofs were quite similar in structure, strategy and language. He argued that God is the goal of metaphysics and not its object. He argued that there is only one infinite being.
  • Univocity, Metaphysics and Natural Theology: Scotus gave conditions for a concept to be univocal. He also related philosophy and theology with analogy, univocity and equivocity.
  • Cognition: He spoke on intuitive and abstractive cognition as defined by him. He also related cognition to divine illumination and skepticism.
  • Natural Law: He spoke on actions of biblical characters and questioned the reasons for their actions. He talked about whether they were obeying natural laws or not. He also related this to the will of God
  • Action Theory and Will: Scotus spoke on the basis of human will and argued if they have their sources in the powers of will and intellect.
  • Immaculate Conception: He defended the immaculate conception of Mary. His written work on this was recommended by Pope John XXIII for modern theology students.

A lot of students widely followed Scotus. His work was extensively studied by many including famous people like John Aquinas, Bramhall, Descartes and Bonaventure. He died quite early so he left a lot of work unfinished. His work was popular until the 16th century when interest in his philosophy died down. His followers were called “Dunse” which led to the word “dunce,” a word for someone who is slow-witted.
In the 20th century, his work became popular again. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1993.
As can be seen from the article, John Duns Scotus was a highly influential Scottish philosopher. He was a great contributor to philosophy and Catholic theology. Although he lived a short life, his work influenced a lot of people.
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