Reflecting on 21 Centuries of Faith

Bl. John Duns Scotus…Part Deux

Joe continues his discussion today on the philosophy of Bl. John Duns Scotus.  I truly appreciate his focus on universals and the variances in the though of Scotus and Aquinas.  Wonderful article.  Thanks again Joe!

Philosophy of Bl. John Duns Scotus

In the world of Philosophy, especially in periods of the High and Later Medieval period, the question of the day centered around the problems of universals.  Within this problem is the ever present battle of the two dominant schools of Philosophy, that of the Platonic and Aristotelian schools of thought.  The Platonic school deals with universals in the same way it deals with the way it handles the apprehension of knowledge.  That is to say that it begins with a singular cause and all things share in the cause.  As a result, you come to know the effects as sharers in the cause.  In the Aristotelian school you know about the cause by means of its effects.

What is amazing, during the Scholastic Age, is the progression of thought from one thinker to another.  We see this in the progression from the Platonic school of thought that seems to reach its climax at the same time that Aristotelian thought makes its way into philosophical and theological thought, by means of St. Thomas Aquinas who encountered its reintroduction at the University of Naples.  Aquinas’ thought encouraged this transition in that Scotus carries the thought of Aquinas a step forward, while injecting his own thought into it.  We see the distinction rather clearly if we compare how both Aquinas and Scotus define universals.

Aquinas argued the following:

  • Universals have independent, intelligible reality as “Ideas” in the mind of God, though they are not ontologically distinct from God.
  • Universals “exist” in the sensible world only in things and not apart from them.
  • Human beings, using the abstracting/comparing functions of reason, discover identical, common “form” in different material things.  This is how we come to have imperfect, approximate knowledge of universals.
  • True universals cannot be known “in themselves” by human beings in this life.

By contrast, Scotus argued universals in the following way:

  • Universals exist as universals only in the human mind.
  • Universals are not just figments of our imagination but are grounded in reality, in what Scotus calls essence or common nature.
  • The individual and the universal are two different aspects of this common nature.  The common nature itself is neither universal nor individual, but has the capacity to be both.
  • The common nature becomes singular in individual things through “contraction” (the principle whereby universal properties exist only through their particulars).  The “individuating feature” of a particular thing, its “haeccity”(thisness), contracts the common nature to singularity.
  • The common nature becomes universal through the abstraction of the human intellect.

So we see that Aquinas still holds on to a bit of Platonic philosophy in that his idea of universals share in the same understanding of that universal which is held in the mind of God.  So what we perceive as the universal understanding of what a chair is, is the same understanding of what God would know of them and we know them by means of analogy, as the idea that God would know as chair would be the perfect understanding, while the human mind only comprehends a limited understanding of chair.

Scotus, on the other hand, being a bit more Aristotelian than Aquinas, would argue that we understand universals to be both grounded in reality in that they exist as well as being what is the most common understanding of what something is, in this case we will continue to use the idea of a chair.  Scotus would say that a chair exists both as a quality of being, in that it exists, but also that it is part of the understood “consciousness” that man understands it through the particulars that chair presents to the human mind.

The Scholastic Age continues to be the gift that keeps on giving, for Medieval historians, philosophers, and theologians.  An age that was dominated, by the reckoning of some historians, by only a handful of thinkers, is now turning out to be an age that is turning out a great many thinkers, including Blessed John Duns Scotus, who are being translated and studied with renewed interest.  What an exciting time it is to be a Catholic who is interested in Medieval thought.

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