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John Duns Scotus

John Duns Scotus / Philosophers and Historians

  • Name  : Scotus
  • Born  : c. 1265
  • Died  : 1308
  • Category  : Philosophers and Historians
  • Finest Moment : The claim that universal concepts are based on a 'common nature' in individuals.

'A brilliant philosopher who caused the word dunce to enter the dictionary'

Also known as the Subtle Doctor (Doctor Subtilis), he was Scottish but of uncertain origin; he may have been born in or around Duns, in Berwickshire (there is a statue of him there). What is certain is that he had a brilliant mind, and was one of the most influential philosophers of the 14th century.

He was ordained as a priest in Northampton in 1291, and was at Oxford in 1300, alternating between there and Paris for some time. A short period of exile, from 1303-4 took place when he sided with the papal party in a dispute with the King, Philip the Fair. In 1305 he was created Doctor of Theology in Paris. Moving to Cologne as professor, he lectured there until his death on 8 November, 1308. He was buried in the Franciscan church.

Scotus was a transitional figure, seeing a difference between faith and reason for example, and between theology and philosophy. He was therefore somewhat dangerous on these grounds, and his departure for Cologne may have been a hasty one. He made the controversial claim that Mary need never have contracted original sin, which seemed to conflict with the doctrine of Christ's universal redemption. He made a brilliant defence of the Immaculate Conception, which was immediately challenged by secular and Dominican colleagues.

When the same question arose in a solemn disputation, the secular master Jean de Pouilly declared the Scotist thesis not only improbable, but even heretical. At a time when Philip the Fair had initiated heresy trials against the wealthy Knights Templars, these words may have sent a fiery breath down Scotus' neck.

Renaissance scorn of the dry academic arguments used by disciples of Scotus led to the coinage of the word 'Duns' or 'dunce', meaning a 'dull, obstinate person, impervious to the new learning'. Bit of a paradox really.

He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1993.

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