264. Giorgio Pini on Scotus on Knowledge

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Peter hears about Duns Scotus' epistemology from expert Giorgio Pini.



Further Reading

• G. Pini, Categories and Logic in Duns Scotus: An Interpretation of Aristotle’s Categories in the Late Thirteenth Century (Leiden: 2002).

• G. Pini, “Scotus on the Objects of Cognitive Acts,” Franciscan Studies 66 (2008), 281-315.

• G. Pini, “Scotus on Knowing and Naming Natural Kinds,” History of Philosophy Quarterly 26 (2009), 255-72.

• G. Pini, “Scotus on Doing Metaphysics in statu isto,” in M.B. Ingham and O. Bychkov (eds), John Duns Scotus, Philosopher (Munster: 2010), 29-55.

• G. Pini, “Can God Create my Thoughts? Scotus’s Case against the Causal Account of Intentionality,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 49 (2011), 39-63.

• G. Pini, “Scotus on Intuitive and Abstractive Cognition,” in J. Hause (ed.), Debates in Medieval Philosophy (London: 2014), 348-65.

• G. Pini, “Scotus’s Questions on the Metaphysics: A Vindication of Pure Intellect,” in F. Amerini and G. Galluzzo (eds), A Handbook to Commentaries on the Metaphysics in the Middle Ages (Leiden: 2014), 359-84.

• G. Pini, “Two Models of Thinking: Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus on Occurrent Thoughts,” in G. Klima (ed), Intentionality, Cognition, and Mental Representation in the Medieval Philosophy (New York: 2015), 81-103.


Otter Bob on 8 November 2016

A Distaste for the Medievals?

I thought it best to wait until I had listened and reviewed all five episodes on Duns Scotus. Now I've got so many questions and problems that I'm having trouble keeping it all straight. But I'll limit my concerns, for now, to two issues in separate posts.

The first issue is the current negative attitudes towards the Medieval period. Two posts to Episode 263 refer to “this old crap” and “...how the culture of most science grads is to think that Medievals as some sort of people that checked their brain out the door for a few centuries.” I do understand that neither of these remarks are held to be true by the authors of the comments, and your (Peter's) replies are informative, persuasive and generous almost to a fault (“Maybe a matter of taste!”---perhaps with some irony).

Such prejudices are far from being just occasional. But what I think is a major undercurrent to all this is a view that the Christian, Jewish and Islamic philosophy of this time was so heavily dependent upon a certain theology. We moderns (present company excepted), being more high-browed (like giraffes) and living in a secular age, find all this “God-talk” as irrelevant and thus to be dismissed out of hand. To be a bit more precise: it's the Abrahamic notion of God as an individual substance (often with enhanced human traits), being the creator of all else and personally involved in the world which is thought to be repugnant and an obstacle to serious philosophical work. You have certainly shown us that the better thinkers of the so-called “Dark Ages” have much more refined and well-reasoned positions on the Divine and that they deserve more credit and attention than they receive today.

But this is how I want to phrase the issue: If we leave aside this appeal to God as a first principle of all that exists, with a nature from which we can draws inferences about how and why things are as they are, and who functions as the ultimate justification for certain positions---if we do that subtraction, is there any significantly new problems or intriguing discussions within Medieval thought that go beyond the investigations of the Classical Greek thinkers? Or is all this just commentaries, particularly on Aristotle? The Medieval thinkers certainly had their disagreements with the Ancients, who had their own disputes. But despite their fine intellects and subtle distinctions, do they represent, without the theology, anything more than “footnotes” to (to be bit more generous) the Greek philosophers?

Let me use Scotus for some examples of alleged important innovations.  Take his view of the univocity of Being and the other transcendentals, with God as the first principle of these (Ep. 260). Aristotle, of course, raised the issue of univocal versus equivocal terms and gave arguments for his position that “being” (and, I suspect, “good” and “one”) are equivocal terms—but equivocal in a certain way, namely pros hen, as you, explained in this episode and showed the linkage to the Medieval notion of analogy. Scotus, of course, differed from Aristotle. But his position on the univocity of Being doesn't seem to be that original. I thinking not only of Aristotle's consideration of it but also one interpretation of Parmenidean thought. Scotus' two arguments for univocity require a conception of God, so apart from such an appeal, I don't see much of a position at all without God.

Scotus has a new definition of possibility in that what is contingent is what implies no contradiction (Ep. 261). As you remark, the groundwork was laid by previous thinkers, e.g., Aristotle. I think it's debatable whether this is a truly new definition or even that it is coherent. But it's coherency is beside the point here. What I do note is your explanation of Scotus' three moments in the order of Nature (at about 14:50). Moments of what? I assume three moments of possibility. Or is it three moments of actuality or a mixture? You probably see here that I am referring back to the Aristotelian distinction between possibility and first and second actuality. With the (somewhat poor) example of a lion: we begin with the first possibility that a lion could exist (nothing self-contradictory). Then we have the second possibility or first actuality of a lion existing but as a young pup needing further development, but not the bestowal of additional new capacities for development. Finally comes the full actuality of a mature, healthy lion. Should I accuse Scotus of baldy stealing an idea here and twisting it to suit his purposes or have I done the twisting? No seeing a significant difference between his first and second moments, I may be misconstruing his position.

Trying to move on more quickly, I'll just note at least one of the antecedents to Scotus' Divine Command Theory (Ep. 262). Is this not the same issue as found in Plato's Euthyphro? Does God commmand us to do X because it is good or is X good because God so commands? Scotus plumps for the latter and so does Euthyphro, before Socrates goes to work.

The concept of common natures is another important theme in Scotus' thinking (Ep. 263). For my case that there is “nothing new under the sun”, I'll stick my neck out and suggest that Scotus is referring to nothing other than the differentia discussed in Plato and Aristotle (the specific differences that distinquish the species in one genus). Lord knows the Scholastics, including Scotus, went to town with this item almost ad naseum, and I'm hardly competent or foolish enough to get caught up in a comparison of the features of common natures versus differentia. So this is only a conjecture.

Enough!  I would enjoy going on to discuss the origins of the concepts of “thisness” and cognitive intuition in the Greek philosophers. But I'll rest my case and anticipate some fascinating examples of true innovation, independent of their theology, by the variety of thinkers in these later centuries. I've learned the lesson that I can get befuddled and blunder into some grand misinterpretations and self-demolishing analyses, so I'm not fully confident here. But I sure would appreciate some constructive criticism and suggestions as I continue my difficult but pleasurable investigations with these Islamic and Christian philosophers.


In reply to by Otter Bob

Peter Adamson on 8 November 2016

Originality of Scotus

Wow, that's a wonderful and very detailed response to the episodes, thank you. It strikes me that you're thinking about this in sufficient depth that you probably want to just go read up on Scotus and delve deeper, rather than getting more of my take on it. But, without getting into each invididual issue too deeply here, let me say generally that you are broadly right that Scotus is innovating within broad issues that are already in Plato and Aristotle. (Of course one could argue that the entire history of philosophy is pretty much only doing that!) So for example the Euthyphro dilemma is raised by Plato but explored with unprecedented detail (well, except maybe in Islamic theology) by Scotus. His is the first really sophisticated non-Islamic version of a divine command theory of ethics, which is nothing to sneeze at even if Plato, in a few lines, sketched out the possibility of such a position. Similarly, problems about the univocity of being are raised but not explored in nearly the same way by Aristotle: and by the way you don't actually need God to get into Scotus' position, since you could frame the whole thing as a question about whether the being of material substances and of their accidents is univocal or not, so limit the discussion only to that non-divine context.

So in general I think I would say Scotus makes dramatic leaps forward on several issues that had been around since antiquity, and also advances certain issues to the fore that had receded into the background somewhat. And his positions had often been anticipated, by Avicenna and others, but not defended with such detailed acuity. An exception might be his view on individuation: here I struggle to think of anyone who has really even put forward a position like his, though of course others had tried to solve the problem. His view on universals by contrast can be read pretty plausibly as a convincing reading of what Avicenna wanted to say.

Otter Bob on 8 November 2016

Limits to the Powers and Absolute Freedom of God?

[My second issue]

God cannot (according to Scotus):

Create actual properties that are not underlaid by some subject.

Create Secretariat, that famously winning horse, without him having the common nature of horseness.

Render a principle of inference, such as modus ponens, invalid.

Choose to make the Principle of Non-Contradiction false.

Make every being an intrinsically necessary being.

Even contemplate looking for advice to some objective independent set of ethical standards.

Create the essence of anything without first grasping it.

        Ep. 262, c. 6:20   Even the natures of things are, for him [Scotus], ultimately

        grounded in God's will. Before God creates giraffes, he first grasps their natures

       and so creates them in intelligible being.

Release us from the obligation to love Him.

Once he has laid down the contingent but consistent and coherent natural and moral order of the created world, decide that sex outside marriage is never permissible.

Allow us to be fully happy and blessed solely by attaining human natural virtue.

Create, do or think what it intrinsically repugnant, incompatible, self-contradictory.

Etc, Etc.


Whow!  Should we agree to lay such limitations on the divine? Who do we think we are? Such hubris is sure to lead to our downfall. Despite Scotus' fine arguments, let's just remove the last limitation and allow God Absolute Freedom and Power, period, full stop, with no qualifications. Shall we not say that God can think, do and create what is absolutely repugnant even though it is self-contradictory? After all, for we mortal and corrupted humans, the Divine is truly ineffable. To argue otherwise will require assuming that the Law of Non-Contradiction is necessarily true and that is part of the question.

Otter Bob on 10 November 2016

Thank you for the compliment.

Thank you for the compliment. I knew I was reaching a bit but, anticipating that you would respond, I hoped to draw others in. But yes, we are in broad agreement. We do stand on the shoulders of the giants, Plato and Aristotle, which phrase I thought originated from Newton having never looked up its lineage back to the 12th century. (For those interested, see Wikipedia: “Standing on the shoulders of giants”.) I will go and read up further on Scotus. But I also have that old problem with books: Upon questioning, they just say the same thing back. If I can talk to someone I respect and who will put up with me, I find that far superior.

Although Scotus often makes me feel all stuffy in the head (with distinctions), I would never sneeze at his thinking. But I bet those few lines of Plato have had an influence far beyond their length. For example, does this fundamental particle have a negative charge because it is an electron or is it an electron because it has a negative charge? Or, are the Marx brothers' movies funny because people laugh at them or do people laugh at them because they are funny? In each example are both ways of putting it true and true in the same way? (For other readers and if interested, see Ep. 216 and the exchange between Peter and I.)

I agree that Aristotle and Scotus come at the univocal/equivocal distinction in different ways and that you could get into the issue without invoking God in the way you suggest. I'm not sure Scotus could get to it that way, if he believes that infinite being is prior to limited being in reality as opposed to how we come to have a cognition of being. But I better be careful here, and that's not the issue anyway.

Could we satisfy Scotus by undoubling the double negative of Henry of Ghent's proposal? We could say in a positive way that an individual is one different (changing “not identical”) member from the members of the same species and it is a whole individual (changing “not divisible into further individuals”)? All we have to do is get past the difficulties with the various ways we speak of one, unity, singular, simple, same, different, and whole (being facetious).

Scotus uses the distinction between a genus and its different specific differences as an analogy for understanding how the haecceity (“total form of the individual” or “singular nature”) of a particular can explain both the 1) indivisibility of a particular into further particulars and 2) the individuality of a particular both a) in itself (especially over time) and b) from other particulars. If we again employ that Euthyphro type of question, we might ask: Is a particular thing an individual because it has a haecceity (thisness) or does it have a haecceity because it is an individual? Scotus, I believe, argues for the former. But I still don't believe in Scotus' haecceities as an additional feature of particulars. And I don't have the time either to wait for the next life nor have the surety of arriving so that I can grab hold onto a haecceity. But I do believe in “thisnesses” in that I can point out this identical twin Adamson versus that identical twin Adamson. So perhaps I can also, by intuitive cognition, grasp directly and immediately in the here and now the thisness of an individual. But neither an intuitive grasp nor an ostensively pointing will do any better than the totality of the individual's accidents (back to Gilbert of Poitier exactly one year and seven months ago to Ep. 216). I keep insisting that the being of a particular being is the fact that it is this some (kind of) thing or other. But darn it, that won't explain either the indivisibility or individuality of a particular. Maybe I don't believe in particulars any more, but then I am, as an individual, in trouble. Can I have time to think about all this (like the rest of my life or at least until we get to Ockham next year)?

I better get started and I'll take any help I can get. Thanks again.

In reply to by Otter Bob

Peter Adamson on 10 November 2016

More Scotus

I tend to agree about haecceities - just one thought though about your undoing the double negation of Henry's solution. I suspect what Scotus would say about that is basically what he says to Henry's version: if we say two particulars are different, rather than not the same, then we are just re-stating the fact that needs to be explained (i.e. that this rose is different from that rose), rather than explaining the fact.

Stoev on 31 December 2016

Intuitive and discursive knowledge

I am excited to understand that Kant's distinction between intuitive and discursive cognitive faculties can be traced back to Scotus.

Thanks for all these episodes on Scotus!

Xaratustra on 21 February 2017

Intuitiv knowledge

Hi Peter,

Thanks for the nice episodes on Scotus. In this last episode, similar to episode 242, the topic got very close to issues of self awareness, and I actually enjoyed very much Scotus' view on the intuitiv knowledge of certain things that do not need sense perception. Two questions come to my mind:

One is, if philosophers of the east ever got this far on this issue? (I was expecting that Avicenna got very close with his flying man).

Second is that I was wondering if any philosopher ever argued that this kind of intuitiv knowledge is actually not real, but rather an "emergent phenomenon". This may sound deeply "atheistic" and I am not sure if one can expect this from medieval philosophers to questions things so far. It would be interesting if someone did.

Many thanks

In reply to by Xaratustra

Peter Adamson on 22 February 2017

Intuitive knowledge

The answer to the first question is definitely yes - as you mention Avicenna is an example with the flying man but then there is "knowledge by presence" as covered in the episodes on Suhrawardi and the Illuminationists. Check out also Kaukua's book "Self-Awareness in Islamic Philosophy."

I'm not sure I understand the last question, though - usually people don't talk about knowledge as being emergent, but rather consciousness or mental phenomena in general. Could you elaborate?

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Xaratustra on 15 March 2017


Thanks for the reply. Just received the Kaukua's book, so I am eager to go through it. I am actually happy that I have meanwhile come further into the episodes on the Indian philosophy though. This would help me better explain my second point. Because what I actually mentioned in my question as the "self" being an "emergent phenomenon" seems to be similar to that of the Buddhist tradition (as compared to the concept of self in the Upanishads). Like you mention grains that make up a heap, the concept of self would "emerge" from nothing after there is enough substance? If I understood the Buddhist view correctly, then this would be the answer to my question, only wondering why philosophers of further west (including islamic world) ever had a go at this?

In reply to by Xaratustra

Peter Adamson on 19 March 2017


Actually if you wait for just a couple of episodes, in the India series we are about to get to Carvaka and they take exactly this view. In fact our episode is about whether they can be called "emergentists" regarding the mind and the answer is yes. The Buddhists would not agree: for them there is no enduring self or mind of course, there are only momentary mental events.

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