260. Once and for All: Scotus on Being

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Duns Scotus attacks the proposal of Aquinas and Henry of Ghent that being is subject to analogy.



Further Reading

• J. Descortes and R.J. Teske (trans.), Henry of Ghent: Questions on God’s Existence and Essence (Leuven: 2005).

• A.B. Wolter (trans.), Duns Scotus: Philosophical Writings (Indianapolis: 1987)


• R. Cross, Duns Scotus (New York: 1999).

• R. Cross, “Duns Scotus on Essence and Existence,” Oxford Studies in Medieval Philosophy 1 (2013), 172-204.

• A.J. O’Brien, “Duns Scotus’ Teaching on the Distinction Between Essence and Existence,” New Scholasticism 38 (1964), 61-77.

• J. Paulus, “Les Disputes d’Henri de Gand et Gilles de Rome sur la distinction de l’essence et de l’existence,” Archives d’Histoire Doctrinale et Littéraire du Moyen Âge 13 (1942), 323-58.

• J.F. Wippel, “Godfrey of Fontaines and the Real Distinction between Essence and Existence,” Traditio 20 (1964), 385-410.

• T. Williams (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Duns Scotus (Cambridge: 2003).

• B. Wolter, Scotus and Ockham: Selected Essays (St. Bonaventure NY: 2003).­

Stanford Encyclopedia: Medieval theories of analogy

Stanford Encyclopedia: Duns Scotus


Paul Trembath on 11 September 2016

MP3 name

Hi. This is HoPWaG 260, but the name of the MP3 when downloaded says 261. 

In reply to by Paul Trembath

Peter Adamson on 11 September 2016

260 vs 261

Thanks, I had caught the mislabeling apart from the name of the .mp3! Fixed now.

Michael Tavuzzi on 11 September 2016

The podcast itself is

The podcast itself is numbered 261 instead of 260 as it should be.

"Being" in the present discussion should be translated into Latin as "ens" and not "esse," for if you do so the entire discussion over the univocal/analogical saying of the term "being" - in both Scotism and Thomism the term "being" is said (dicitur) of things, while the ratio entis is predicated (praedicatur) ... - will get terribly tangled up. Moreover, if you translate being as "esse" talk of the distinction (accept it or deny it) between esse and essentia will become rather obscure.

Still following this great series of podcasts with interest and pleasure every Sunday night with a befitting nightcap - and I have been teaching the history of medieval philosophy since the mid 1970s ! Well done !


In reply to by Michael Tavuzzi

Peter Adamson on 11 September 2016

number and esse

Thanks, I fixed the number.

Re. the translation of "esse" and "ens," that is tricky because both would naturally be translated into English as "being." I actually deliberated over how much to get into it, but since I assume listeners mostly don't know Latin I was trying to keep it simple. In this episode, the reason I said esse and not ens was basically because Aquinas does not call God ens ipsum (as far as I know) but rather esse ipsum. However, though I basically agree with your point, I think that the debate covered in the episode applies to both terms: if ens is univocal, so is esse, and vice-versa, since they are just different forms of the same word. When discussing the contrast to essence I usually cheat a bit by speaking of "existence"; this is in part because it reflects the Arabic situation where the noun for existence (wujūd) is not a form of a verb that means "to be" (it actually comes from a verb meaning "to find").

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Peter Adamson on 12 September 2016

More on being

By the way, an interesting wrinkle here I should have mentioned in my response to you: in the Liber de Causis the Latin translator chose to use "ens" to refer to created being, rather than divine being which is "esse", which may have influenced Thomas' usage. I think I'm remembering that right, at least!

Omar on 16 September 2016

The essence of hypercubes

Hello Peter,

In this episode you mentioned how Godfrey argued that we can only grasp the essences of things that already exist, such as triangles. What would he say if we were to describe a hypercube to him, since as a 4-dimensional figure it cannot exist, by definition, in your universe yet we can talk about it and its properties in as much detail as a regular cube. We cannot visualise it, but we can certainly understand all of its properties. Moreover, to anticipate the objection that even imaginary things like pegasi are just conglomerations of things that already exist, the hypercube is a unique object that cannot really be constructed by putting together multiple 3D objects that exist in our universe.

Would our failure to visualise it be considered as a failure to truly grasp its essence? Or would this be a valid counter example to Godfrey's claim?



In reply to by Omar

Peter Adamson on 17 September 2016


Thanks, that's a great question! Of course hypercubes are an anachronistic case but Avicenna, impressive thinker that he is, basically anticipates your worry. He gives the example of a chiliagon (a 1000 sided figure) which does not exist in reality though we can grasp it. His point is that this can and does have mental but not real existence. I am not sure what Godfrey would say about this; but I suspect he'd say that all such entities are abstractions and modifications of ideas we did get from actual reality. One might also go so far as to argue that these things have no real essences if they do not have extramental reality - if they don't really exist, there is nothing to know, and why posit an essence if there is nothing to know? But I share your (and Avicenna's) intuition that some essences have only mental but not extramental or concrete existence.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Andrew on 28 May 2023

Hypercubes, late continuation

Hey Peter, extremely late to the party and this might only be a tangential musing to the subject but just want to throw my opinion out there.

From a mathematical perspective, 4 dimensional objects do have hard and fast definitions. I'm abstracting this out to 4 dimensional objects generally since I would find using a hypersphere an easier example, but this point should apply to any 4 dimensional objects. The definition of the space a hypersphere takes up is V = 1/2 pi^2 R^4 (where V is volume in 4 dimensions, pi is, well, pi, R is the radius of the sphere, and ^ just means raising something to the power of something. Nothing about the radius here is anything special, just to cover all basis, since it is just a line length independent of any axis or how many there are). Compare this to the definition of a the volume of a regular sphere, V = 4/3 pi R^3, and it should be obvious that from a mathematical perspective there isn't any special trouble when it comes to defining and talking about 4 dimensional objects. Those are both exact mathematical definitions. Wouldn't we say the definition for the sphere's volume captures its essence, at least as defined as the space taken up in three dimensions? If so, why wouldn't it for the 4d case. If not, then I think I have a misunderstanding of what an essence exactly is, because this would certainly seem to me the essence of a sphere from the point of view of geometry. 

In reply to by Andrew

Peter Adamson on 28 May 2023


Right, the question is not actually whether hypercubes (etc) have definitions or essences, but whether they are purely mental entities. For Avicenna, essences are in themselves neutral with respect to existence, and can receive either mental or extramental ("concrete") existence. So if you just stipulate the defining properties of something like a hypercube presumably what you've done, on his view, is to realize that essence so that it exists in your mind. There is a scholar named Saleh Zarepour who has done some work on the status of mathematical objects in Avicenna so you can read him to find out more about how Avicenna handles this kind of example. 

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Andrew on 28 May 2023

The line between metaphysics and physics

I was mostly responding to the second half of your comment, when you started talking about Godfrey (also, when you said "one might go so far...", by one do you mean Godfrey, someone radicalising Godfrey's position, or just a more radical position that isn't related to Godfrey's position, if that makes sense). 

Getting a little off topic, this makes me wonder how exactly the content of essences relate to metaphysics. Of course, to some extent it does, as how Avicenna and others have talked about that if the essence is contradictory, then the essence rules out its own existence (or something along those lines, it is already confusing enough to talk about essences as "not having received being", implying the essences somehow don't exist until they receive being (how does it make sense to talk about something before it exists? not in the sense that that we are talking about the future, when it will exist, but somehow how it is in the present while it doesn't exist), a point you yourself have brought up a few times that I am either forgetting the replies to or you haven't brought up any, but it gets even worse when talking about contradictory essences being unable to receive being in the first place because it seems like we wouldn't be able to call it an essence at all even if it makes sense to talk about non-existing essences waiting to receive being), the special case of God's essence implying existence, but beyond those two cases the actual content of any essence seems to not matter according to this theory of metaphysics and it is left to the case of theoretically God willing an essence into being (actually don't know if Avicenna would agree with that considering his very abstract idea of God that doesn't directly know particulars which weirdly enough implies in my mind that he couldn't bring essences into being since the essence would be substantiated in a particular, no?), or to physics by which I mean, shall we say, "the world working itself out", the domain of actually existing things acting on each other that would bring other things in and out of existence. 

To put it in a linguistic metaphor, putting aside the two special cases the theory seems like a Syntactic theory, that is it only cares about the structure of being rather than any content. This seems to work until we start talking about some specifics. Does the answer as to why horses exist and the answer as to why unicorns don't exist lay purely on the non metaphysical level, i.e. that it was either an arbitrary choice on God's part or that was just how the evolution of the world/universe went as to why horses exist and unicorns don't? Intuitively for that case maybe so, but what about 4d objects? Intuitively this seems like a different case somehow, and yet nothing in the essence of 4d objects themselves seem to rule out their existence, despite that we (unless some Lovecraftian monster is about to give us a rude awakening, or some string theory like M-theory which posits 9 spatial dimensions gets experimental evidence somehow) know it is impossible since we exist in a universe that has 3 spatial dimensions. If there is a metaphysical explanation for the difference, it seems like it would require the theory to be Semantic instead of Syntactic to explain that difference specifically but also to answer the specific question this has been building up to - is there a metaphysical reason why some essences seem, by nature or not (given that the analysis of the relevant essences for this question does not rule out their potential to exist or not, like unicorns or hypercubes) can only ever have mental existence or can possibly have extramental existence? These musings make me wonder further specific questions - what is the nature of space and time in relation to metaphysics? Did Avicenna ever write about that? Maybe with relation to a 4d spatial universe it would be an anachronistic case but did he ever consider if the universe could have been 2d spatially? Does space and time have an essence?

Sorry for such a long comment just to ask the simple question of if there is any interesting metaphysical reasons behind why some essences seem to only have mental existence and can't have extramental existence, even if the their essences don't seem to rule out their existence. Just to add on one final question - what about essences that seem to imply change, i.e. essences that within their very definition the potential of non being? A lot of the philosophy so far seems to take it for granted that things are stable and any change is due to something outside acting on said thing, but what about cases where the change is internal? To take a example, life - for me it just seems inventible that if you are alive you will someday die, that it is within the nature of living things that they aren't immortal. Maybe a broader example could be the existence of entropy means that everything is undergoing internal change. Or another example, a student. The very essence of a student means that they will become learned will no longer be a student, if nothing goes wrong. Final example, a flame, which by its nature eats up the oxygen around it, so unless something else is producing more oxygen, there will be less oxygen which will eventually mean the flame dies out. I probably sound very Hegelian with that line of thinking haha.

In reply to by Andrew

Peter Adamson on 28 May 2023


Well there is a lot to unpack there, and we want to distinguish between Godfrey's position (which I am a bit rusty on by now), Avicenna's position (which I think I understand) and just a general commitment to essentialism. But sticking just with the latter, essentialists are presumably people who think that reality is somehow constituted by a range of essences or natures; but beyond that they could disagree on many points. In particular, if you think about the following items: round squares, hypercubes, Sherlock Holmes, computers, humans, these are five different classes of object (impossible, abstract, fictional, real but artefact, real and natural) and an essentialist may or may not recognize essences for each class, though presumably they would always want to have essences at least for the last class. Even for a case like "student" that could be explained away as being merely relational, so not a real essence. It helps here to think about why we want essences in the first place: one main reason would be that they are the target of scientific knowledge. So that would perhaps point us towards wanting essences for, say, hypercubes and humans but not round squares or Sherlock Holmes. Still I think the main point to see for starters is just that each type is "up for grabs" and an essentialist doesn't need to be committed to having essences for just any general term you can invent.

Niklas on 1 October 2016

The ornithological turn

I for one welcome our new duck overlords.

giorgio on 26 March 2017


This is the first lecture of HistoryofPhilosophy.net I listened to. I find it very interesting indeed and now plan to go systematically through the entire website. Full marks for the content, if I may say so. However, the attempt to mix philosophy and humour is in my opinion unfortunate. I am here to learn about philosophy, not to hear weak jokes about Bill Clinton, die Esse in German, a cute French seller, etc. etc. To me this is positively annoying, to the point that it constitutes a disincentive to the - necessary - re-listening of the lecture. I recoil and am distracted from the substance every time I realise that the trite old joke is approaching. I am  sure I am not alone. Congratulations for the substance, but please let us not mix it with silly distractions.

In reply to by giorgio

Peter Adamson on 26 March 2017


Yes, I can see how someone might feel that way: philosophy is serious business after all. I guess it is an extension of my teaching style where I use humor to "wake up" the students and keep them engaged. My sense is that many more listeners appreciate this aspect of the series than not - it is frequently commented on as something people appreciate about the podcast and has elicited few complaints - and given that I am 300+ episodes in (counting India) at this point I am not going to suddenly change the tone of it now. So, hope you can bear with the occasional puns and jokes. (And by the way, that joke about Germans thinking "De Ente" is about ducks is one of my all time favorites! I can't believe you don't at least like that one.)

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Sam on 12 December 2017


This was the first podcast I listened too, apart from the Richard Cross one, and I enjoyed the jokes!

In reply to by Peter Adamson

JSutt on 15 September 2019

Goodness me, I hope you don't

Goodness me, I hope you don't drop the humour, no matter how (good-naturedly) eye roll inducing. If I wanted dry exposition I would read, well, virtually any philosophy textbook in existence!

In reply to by JSutt

Emily on 15 September 2019

He who laughs last ...

"He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad." Plus an insatiable desire to fill all philosophical gaps! Please keep us thinking and laughing for many years to come.

In reply to by Emily

Peter Adamson on 15 September 2019


Thanks folks! I suspect that most of the audience prefers the series with the bad puns and so on, but it's nice to have some confirmation.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Giorgi on 25 February 2022


The jokes are great :) They actualize the proprium of my species.

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