John Duns Scotus

John Duns Scotus / Philosophers and Historians

'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.