Underrated Philosophers IV: John Duns Scotus

General Note: there will eventually be something other than this series again. I might even get back to talking about publishing, for those who like that—possibly even the next post! Just not yet.

17542vScotus, like Machiavelli, is another philosopher who might get certain people going after me with pikes for calling him “underrated.” After all, he’s probably the second most studied Scholastic philosopher after Aquinas, so how underrated or unappreciated  can he be?

Well, Christopher Marlowe is the second most namedropped Elizabethan playright in high school English classes, yet I’d never read Edward II until after I’d specifically told my English tutor I wanted to read no Shakespeare at all in my Elizabethan drama tutorials. Just because people mention him as the also ran and occasionally make their students read the (very short) Doctor Faustus doesn’t mean he actually gets real attention. He’s still “not Shakespeare,” rather than ever becoming “Christopher Marlowe.”

Similarly, Scotus, along with Bonaventure, Ockham, and every other Scholastic, remains “not Aquinas.” Fat Tommy remains the default (and usually right) opinion, with everyone else judged correct by how much they agree with the Angelicus. Never mind that some of his positions were entirely unique (meaning everybody else ever must be wrong), some were condemned, and some get used as “it’s not a straw man if you can cite it!” canon fodder by every later author.

Not that I think Aquinas is bad, mind you, no matter what some of my ex-colleagues in the School of Philosophy might tell you; he’s still absolutely brilliant, if a bit dull to read.* It’s just that, for my money, I’ll take Scotus.

Now, granted, Scotus isn’t the easiest philosopher to read  seeing as, unlike Aquinas (who had between one and one army of secretaries working for him at any given time), most of his works never actually made it much past the initial draft—but, for a fan of Pascal and Wittgenstein, “unfinished and weird” isn’t much of an obstacle. Sure, it’s helpful when the translator completes the sentences that trail off after three words, actually completes the paragraph-long citations that, in the text, say “the subject of this, etc.” and tells you when “above” means “last paragraph” or “60 pages ago.” So yes, I’m grateful to good editors, translators, and book designers when they make him comprehensible, because it’s worth it.

I know I’ve alluded to the intellect/will distinction in Scotus’s moral psychology mirroring the Wille/Willkür distinction in Kant’s—and how prudence in Scotus seems at times to play the role of what determines a chosen categorical maxim that directs the will to act (to lapse into Kantspeak). I think Scotus is the only person capable of writing a defense of metaphysical universalism—that is, that redness, straightness, and all other qualities are actual things, albeit with “less than numerical unity” (whatever that means, JDS), that are shared between and are instantiated in multiple individual things—that I can actually believe on alternate Thursdays, the ones on which I’m not a modal realist. Both David K. Lewis and Duns Scotus are capable of making me almost believe in things that are completely insane and can’t possibly be true, but are so obviously the consequence of clear reasoning from common sense principles.

Which brings me to his greatest philosophical achievement: the only proof of God’s existence I’ve ever seen worth the name. Sure, there are others like Pascal and Kierkegaard who write great arguments for believing in God, but to make a good argument that the Big Honkin’ Omnieverything that’s not respectable for someone who reads Simone de Beauvoir to think exists really does exist, and it does all the things a BHOe should do…well, that’s impressive.** Sure, it takes him 70 pages to do it, which is 69 more than most intro philosophy courses think Scholastic Godproofs should get, but what you get out of them…

It’s one thing to write a Godproof that logically works, getting you from premises to some conclusion. It’s another thing entirely to write one that’s so compelling, such a brilliant work of the intellect, that it forces you to agree with it, even if you’re suspicious of Godproofs on general principle.

The details of the proof are way too complicated to go into here (and, I suspect, I’d bore most of my not-easily-bored audience if I did), but here’s why it’s cool, besides what I’ve already said: Scotus starts out by assuming that, if you’re going to do a proper proof, you can’t base it on anything that could possibly be different—like, say, the fact that the world exists.

That’s right. “Something exists” isn’t a solid enough proposition for Scotus to start with. Completely obvious, beyond trivial, Augustine and Locke will laugh at you if you question it,*** but for this, not good enough.

Instead, Scotus ends up inventing contemporary modal logic—or, really, what we today call S5. Scotus uses the two alternate formulations of the fifth axiom in S5 to start off his proof, like so:

The world exists.
Whatever exists, must be possible.
Whatever is possible, must necessarily be possible.
Therefore, it is necessarily possible for the world to exist.

This gives him a premise that is necessarily true in any possible situation, including those in which the world does not exist—which is exactly what his standard of proof requires, and is somewhere that all five ways of Aquinas, which assume that the world exists, fail.****

And so the proof puts along in its rather disorganized and cosmological fashion, showing the triple primacy, that Aquinas’s five ways are really three ways, and then can be shown to be, in the end, synonymous (and thus referring to the same being, rather than five different beings), that this triple primacy does God things, and that Anselm’s ontological argument can be saved.



The ontological argument is something people only trot out if they’re making fun of Godproofs, trying to disprove Godproofs, or have a very inflated opinion of their own logical abilities. No sooner had Anselm sent the Proslogion to the scribes than it had been ripped to shreds. Aquinas, as everyone in the SoP knew, put the final nail in the ontological argument’s coffin. My Kant professor knew it had been a rough week for everyone when nobody took vigorous and vocal issue with Kant’s claim that the ontological argument is the best (albeit still unworkable) Godproof.

And here’s a mind more brilliant that which cannot be conceived (well, not easily) trotting out an ontological argument.

Okay, let’s be honest: it’s about two paragraphs, in an aside, and only brought out after Scotus has pretty much proved what he wants. He’s just tying up loose ends at this point. Quite frankly, he’s showing off. He’s developed a new system of logic that’s so powerful, it can even save Anselm’s great philosophical football.

The thing is, it doesn’t really work as an independent argument (Scotus still needs to do all the cosmological heavy lifting that a mere ontological argument, much less the very finite abilities of the human intellect to conceive of great things, can’t do), nor is it really Anselm’s. The latter can be excused; Scotus clearly intends it to be fairly novel, rather than simply plugging in modal logic to Anselm. The latter can’t be—which is just fine for JDS, since he doesn’t try.

Almost seven hundred years later, however, Alvin Plantinga does. For whatever reason, serious people who should know better take him seriously and not only act like he came up with something new in the history of philosophy, but also an argument worth discussion.*****

Pff. Scotus did it better. Nobody should be surprised.

*Sadly, I can no longer read Aquinas, and don’t know if I’ll ever be able to again. After two articles, I start having flashbacks to grad school—the isolation, the depression, the tortured writing, the frustration…it all comes back. I try to cut it off before the rage starts at three. It’s sad, really; I’ve lost something that was an important part of my life for so many years. Let this be a warning to anyone who thinks grad school is a good idea.
**Not that people who read SdB should be reading Scotus or working at my Press (and vice-versa). I really shouldn’t take it as a compliment that people can’t get a good ideological read on me whenever I talk philosophy—it usually means they think I’m from an enemy school of thought because I quote Forbidden Books—but I do anyway.
***Actually, Locke will tell you to stick your hand in a glass furnace and tell yourself it doesn’t actually hurt. I blow glass. Hold your hand anywhere near a glass furnace, and yes, it will hurt.
****Technically speaking, the Five Ways are “dialectical arguments,” not actual proofs—they’re logically sound, but “only” based on evidently true premises, rather than necessary ones. That said, as far as evidently true premises go, “stuff exists” is a pretty good one.
*****Plantinga is one of those writers I’m less impressed with (and I wonder more how anyone can take seriously) the more I read. When you spend half your book destroying the metaphysical underpinnings you’d need to make your proof a proof of anything worth calling God, then spend the next half arguing that you’ve just cooked up a Godproof, and then, when called on it, claim you weren’t really writing a Godproof, just something to make people think about believing in God, well, the choice† words come out
†and unprintable for parental/employer audiences

3 thoughts on “Underrated Philosophers IV: John Duns Scotus

    • Glad I could help, even if accidentally! A lot of this is more-or-less lifted from my notes on Tim Noone’s Scotus lectures—although, granted, without the side references to Peter John Olivi, Henry of Ghent, Godfry of Fontaines, Richard of Mediavilla, Richard Rufus of Cornwall, Richard Fishacre, and what would happen once Ockham, Calcidius, Suarez, and David Lewis start working with these ideas.

      In case you haven’t already noticed from reading the literature, Dr. Noone’s a pretty interesting fellow—with great taste in bourbon and bluegrass, if you ever get to meet him.

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