Duns Scotus (1265-1308)

The earliest major philosopher with a clear Scottish connection was Duns Scotus – not a name, but a description “the Scot from Duns”. Though widely acknowledged as a major philosopher of the medieval period, relatively little is known about his life. He was born in 1265 or 1266, at the Scottish Borders town of Duns situated a few miles from the border with England. At an early age he won the patronage of Scottish Franciscans who took him to Oxford, probably because of his intellectual promise, there being no universities in Scotland at the time, and was then ordained priest at a very young age in the English diocese of Lincoln. Subsequently educated at the universities of Cambridge and Paris, he began lecturing at the prestigious University of Paris in the autumn of 1302. Not long after, he was expelled for being one of the friars who sided with the Pope in his dispute with King Phillip the Fair of France. Where Scotus went during his exile is unknown, but he returned to Paris in 1304 and resumed his teaching. About three years later, for reasons that remain uncertain, he was sent as lector to the Franciscan college at Cologne. He died there in 1308, on November 8th tradition holds.

Duns Scotus was the author of several important theological and philosophical works. These include two monumental commentaries on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, one written in Oxford, the other in Paris, a short treatise on natural theology, and at least one commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics. The authenticity of other works attributed to him is uncertain. Known as "Doctor Subtilis" because of the subtle distinctions he employs, Scotus is considered one of the most important Franciscan theologians, and gave his name to a special form of Scholasticism – ‘Scotism’. This cannot in any serious sense be considered a distinctively Scottish school of thought, not least because philosophy at the time of Scotus as a European enterprise, closely tied up with Christian theology, and none of its exponents can properly be identified with distinguishable national cultures, which barely existed in the medieval period.

Yet his connection with the later Scottish tradition is not nugatory. The fact that he was called ‘Scotus’ by his contemporaries at Paris (to distinguish him amongst innumerably many Friar Johns) marks him out as notably Scottish even in his own day, and though knowledge of his life is scanty, what is known is owed in large part to the philosopher John Mair, who included him in a History of Britain published in 1521 and composed, probably, when Mair was at St Andrews. There is also a philosophical connection. Generally considered a metaphysical ‘realist’, Scotus held that universal terms are not merely classificatory names, but identify kinds of things that share a real common nature. Realism in this sense was widely endorsed by later Scottish philosophers.

Gordon Graham, Princeton Theological Seminary