The Philosophy of John Duns Scotus. By Antonie Vos


Pp. ix, 654 , Edinburgh University Press : 2006 , $275.91.

This monumental work on the life and thought of Franciscan John Duns Scotus brings aspects of historical and philosophical research together with close textual analysis. This book is clearly the work of a lifetime of research, teaching and study on the thought of the Subtle Doctor. Vos organizes the philosophical content of the volume around the question of language and logic. In this way, the centerpiece is Scotus's important and innovative notion of possibility understood as synchronic rather than diachronic contingency. This insight frames his metaphysics, epistemology and serves as a model for understanding divine freedom ad extra. The innovative notion of contingency is historically situated as the result of Scotus's fundamental rejection of necessitarian models of human action, found both in Aristotle and in Arab thought (Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd, in particular). In its totality, Vos's study offers something found in no other recent monograph on Scotus (and there have been several). In a single volume, there is something for the beginner (close reading of Scotus's arguments), something for the advanced (a consideration of the historical situation of Scotus's philosophy), and something for the expert (a final section on the history of medieval philosophy and the role of 19th and 20th century historians and scholars).

Vos begins the study with a presentation of the Life and Works of Scotus (Part I). Here, the reader is led through the historical facts about the life of John Duns, against the background of the relevant secondary sources whose recent work has been so helpful in placing the Franciscan in his appropriate context (Courtenay, Wolter, Roest). In addition, however, Vos introduces other important historical and contextual information on the generation that influenced Scotus's philosophy: Godfrey of Fontaines, Henry of Ghent, Giles of Rome. He also presents and discusses at some depth the issues surrounding both the chronology of Scotus's works and the debates surrounding aspects of the critical editions.

Part II, the longest of the book at over 300 pages, involves a careful presentation and close reading of the different philosophical aspects of Scotist thought: logic, ontology, epistemology, physics, ethics and the philosophy of God. In each area, Vos makes use of multiple Scotist texts, from his Opera Philosophica to the three Commentaries on the Book of Sentences (Lectura, Ordinatio, Reportatio). But his textual study is not mere literalism. Where he presents each philosophical branch, Vos surrounds and embeds his textual presentation with information useful to the reader who is unfamiliar with the complexities of medieval philosophy. This is seen, for example, in Chapter 6 where he devotes his discussion to conceptual strategies used by medieval logicians in general and Scotus in particular, and in Chapter 5 on the Ars Obligatoria where he provides information about medieval approaches to various logical questions. In each chapter and textual discussion, Vos provides helpful references to the positions of other key thinkers whose works influenced Scotus. The three-fold organization of each chapter (historical, systematic and textual) can make for difficult reading at times, where a great deal of information is given in a few pages. For the steadfast reader, patience and diligent attention pay off, as the portrait of Scotus which emerges from the study is rich and nuanced. Indeed, every aspect of this book argues against a simplistic interpretation of the Subtle Doctor.

Part III (Background and Foreground: Ancient Modern Philosophy), offers an extremely full and interesting discussion of the way Scotus understands Aristotle and Ibn Sina (Avicenna), and the way in which the Franciscan differs from his contemporaries, such as Henry of Ghent. In chapter 15, Vos presents a veritable compendium of histories of medieval philosophy and multiple historical approaches to Scotus. This chapter is fascinating reading, especially for anyone unfamiliar with the historical debates surrounding Scotus and his place in the history of Medieval Philosophy broadly understood, or the Catholic/Christian Philosophical Tradition, more narrowly considered. In the final chapter, ‘Philosophy in a New Key’ Vos reflects both on the significance of Scotus's logical innovations (synchronic contingency) and with his role in the historical moment of growing tension between medieval philosophy and theology. Vos concludes: ‘It was Duns Scotus himself, standing amid the collision of fides and intellectus, who contributed most to the articulation of alternative thought.’ (580) The book closes with an exhaustive and impressive bibliography and helpful indices.

Anyone familiar with Vos's other works knows well the importance of linguistic/logical analysis and the centrality of contingency for the author's interpretation of the Subtle Doctor. Vos's personal commitment to and enthusiasm for Scotist thought pervades the work. They underlie the enormous sympathy he brings to his interpretation of the Franciscan's texts and account for the impressive level of detail that he brings to each element of the overall philosophical vision. On the one hand, this is not a book for the fainthearted. On the other hand, it is definitely a work that rewards thoughtful reading and reflection.