Saturday, January 9, 2010

Scotus in English

Unlike for St Thomas, most of Scotus' writings have not been translated into English. None of his most important theological works have been translated in full. The situation is better for St Bonaventure, but there is still no translation of his Sentences in book form comparable to the excellent and relatively cheap translation of the Summa theologiae by the Dominican Fathers.

That being said, one can go a pretty long way towards studying Scotus in English. This is mostly thanks to the labors of the late Fr Allan Wolter, who was a one-man Scotus publishing powerhouse. Wolter has published both anthologies of excerpts and some complete works, sometimes with commentary and sometimes without. These are the books I would recommend most highly:

Duns Scotus, Metaphysician, published by Purdue. Anthology of long excerpts from different works. Lots of commentary, covers a number of Scotus' most unique or famous arguments and positions.

A Treatise on God as First Principle, published by Franciscan Herald Press. The first complete work by Scotus you want to read, concerning proofs for the existence and attributes of God. Contains probably the most metaphysically complex and sophisticated proof of God's existence ever. My edition, the second (1982) has a very full commentary.

Questions on the Metaphysics of Aristotle by John Duns Scotus, published by Franciscan Institute Press. Read this to test your manhood: it's two volumes of 600 pages each, not for the faint of heart. No commentary. A very impressive, very confusing, very stimulating, very difficult work. I spent a summer trudging through the whole thing (before my Latin was good enough to read the original) and wrote my M.A. thesis on a little bit of it.

A Treatise on Potency and Act, also by Franciscan Institute Press. This consists of Book Nine of the Questions on the Metaphysics just cited, but with commentary and other helps.

All of the above (except the complete Metaphysics Questions) include the Latin with the English, which may come in handy if your Latin is so-so or if you plan on learning it. To really study Scotus or any scholastic, of course, you should learn Latin well enough to not need a translation. If it's any consolation, it takes significantly less effort to learn to read Thomas or Bonaventure than to read Virgil or Livy. Scotus is somewhat of a different matter because his Latin is weird and abstruse and difficult. Of course he's abstruse and difficult in English; there's no getting around it. But he's not syntactically complex or using a huge vocabulary like the classics.

I should mention that Wolter's commentary is not always very helpful. I remember it being pretty good in the "Metaphysician" volume, so-so in the "First Principle" volume (sometimes very illuminating and sometimes baffling), and completely useless in the "Potency and Act" volume.

Also necessary to mention is the Wolter-Bychkov edition and translation of Scotus' Reportatio I-A, also put out by Franciscan Institute, which is in two huge volumes. I didn't mention these above because I haven't read all the way through the first volume and don't have the second, but if you really want to study Scotus' theology and you can't read the Ordinatio in Latin (or can't afford it or find it), you will probably want this.

So there you have it. Just shell out a few hundred bucks, give it a couple years of onerous study, and you can be a Scotist too! While you're at it, learn Latin, dredge up another thousand from somewhere, and buy the Opera Philosophica and what's been produced so far of the Vatican edition! Then, if there's any water left in the well, send some of the good stuff over to us at The Smithy. I'm still missing a couple of volumes.


Brandon said...

I'm pretty impressed by the summer of the Questions on the Metaphysics; I once tried working through it and never managed to get very far.

Michael said...


If I remember rightly Faber and I both did it around the same time, when he was living with my family, and the mutual encouragement and the discussion no doubt helped.

If it makes you feel any better the early books are much more chaotic and confusing than the later ones; according to the editors the last several books are much more highly finished, perhaps intended for publication and perhaps written later as well, when Scotus had thoroughly formulated his positions and wasn't just exploring. The early books have a rough, haphazard feel that makes for very difficult reading, but it's a little better when one realizes that often there may not be a real and definite Scotistic doctrine expressed in every question: he's feeling his way around the subject before committing himself. When you realize this it becomes pretty interesting to watch.

So perseverance with the work definitely pays off; nevertheless the questions are certainly very difficult from beginning to end. I would never recommend that someone pick up Scotus before a quite thorough grounding in some of the easier important scholastics like St Thomas and St Bonaventure.

I think the best gateway into the study of medieval philosophy and theology is the following course: 1) St Thomas' Aristotelian commentaries (especially the big important ones, i.e. Physics, Metaphysics, De anima, Nichomachean Ethics): 2) Summa contra gentiles; 3) St Bonaventure's Itinerarium and Breviloquium; 4) Some of Bonaventure's Disputed Questions, e.g. on the Mystery of the Trinity or on the Knowledge of Christ; 5) you have to read at least one or two short logics, e.g. William of Sherwood or Peter of Spain.

Without some such grounding I don't think a lot of the other less-known and/or more difficult authors are going to make a lot of sense. You have to start with what's most accessible. For instance, the Contra gentiles is comparatively a very accessible scholastic work; it's certainly more manageable in size and scope than Summa theologiae, and also makes fewer assumptions, both in form and in doctrine, that are difficult for modern readers to cope with. Summa contra gentiles was the first full-length scholastic work I read, at the tender age of 18, and I was blown away. All the same, I got pretty confused in a number of places, because I just didn't have a thorough enough grounding in Aristotle (despite reading a great deal of Aristotle in college that year) to always know what was going on. You have to know Aristotle first, and not Greek Aristotle or Modern Aristotle, but the Philosopher as the medievals read him, so to my mind Thomas' literal line-by-line expositions, with Aristotle's text, are an indispensable preparation.

It also helps a good bit, of course, if you've read plenty of Augustine, Boethius, Anselm, and some of the other Fathers. Non omnia possumus omnes, however, and there's only so much one can actually recommend as necessary background before getting started.

I suppose the other approach to this kind of expansive reading program is just to rely very heavily on the secondary literature for orientation. I don't recommend this at all, however. Modern concerns are so different from medieval ones that there's an almost ubiquitous and almost inevitable distortion. And sadly the more a scholar tries to relate his medieval subject to modern interests, the more of a distortion there tends to be. This isn't necessary or universal, but it's just the way things usually are.

Anyway this comment is getting out of hand and isn't really directed at you anymore, Brandon. Sorry for the ramble.

Brandon said...

I've actually come to think, with regard to Aquinas that it's a good idea to start with some of the scriptural commentaries; then move to the Aristotelian commentaries, then to the SCG, then to the ST. This is exactly the opposite direction I went, since I first became interested in Aquinas by through the Dominican Fathers translation of the ST at about 15 (I had more free time on my hands than a teenager should), then later the SCG, then to figure out particular things the Aristotelian commentaries (I've always thought the Metaphysics was the most fun, but the Physics is most useful for understanding Aquinas), and didn't really get into the scriptural commentaries until late. But this was really all backward, and not at all how one should do it.

I go back and forth on recommending Bonaventure's Itinerarium for those starting out; I think it ends up being a fairly advanced work due to its concision. But read in tandem with the Breviloquium, it would probably be more navigable, and there's something to be said for starting it early and letting it unspool, so to speak. I always recommend the De reductione artium; it's like a handy tourist map to the medieval city of thought.

Michael said...


This is where I admit that I haven't read any of St Thomas' scripture commentaries in full, just parts here and there. So I shouldn't say anything about it. I will anyway though! My impression is that they wouldn't be as useful for understanding scholastic philosophy and theology as simply spending the same amount of time reading the Fathers. And if you want the mind of the Church on scripture, I would go to the Fathers first too. I would be far more likely to read St Gregory's Moralia in Iob than Thomas' commentary on same. (In fact I read five books and keep meaning to go back to it.)

I have spent a lot of time with the Catena aurea and got most of the way through Luke, and I think very highly of it indeed. All the same I don't see how it's going to help very much with the Summa or Ordinatio.

As for the Itinerarium, Philotheus Boehner's edition has a really excellent commentary which helps a lot, although you need some Latin to make full use of it. I haven't looked to much at the revision by Zachary Hayes--which translates everything in the notes, I believe--since I got turned off by the ugly format and trumpeted inclusive language, so I don't know if it's otherwise as good.

Brandon said...

I have Boehner's version, but it's still an awful lot of unpacking.

I think there's a fairly straightforward sense in which the Moralia provides more insight into scholastic philosophy and theology, given that it was a major fountainhead for many of its ideas. But it's in much the same sense that one can get a better idea of scholastic philosophy and theology by reading the Bible and Aristotle themselves.

But an advantage of Aquinas's scriptural commentaries (say, the one on Job or the one on Hebrews) is that they often show more clearly than anything else how philosophy and theology are interacting on the points that would have been considered most important, in the sort of context that would have been considered most important. The extensive discussions of providence in Job, or of the person of Christ in Hebrews, raise questions that have to be dealt with in a commentary, even a literal one; so that, for instance, you have philosophical discussions seeded throughout the commentaries. You really learn more about Aquinas's account of providence from his commentary on Job, or his account of the Church from his commentaries on the Pauline letters, than you can get elsewhere, and a better sense of how their use of Scripture is not prooftext-based than you can get from most of the other scholastic genres (which presuppose, when theological topics come up, that readers will be able to see what sort of interaction with Scripture is being presupposed by a casual mention of a verse, rather than laying it out explicitly).

Michael said...

Well, you certainly make a good case for reading them. Thomas' commentary on Matthew is the only one I have, I think; maybe I should take a look. I'm still not sure about starting there, though. No longer sure where I'd advise someone to start in any case. I had a conversation with my brother about this tonight (He's a Dominican.) We ended up having our old argument about Thomacentrism in modern Catholic literature and pedagogy and didn't get very far, but it was enough to cast doubt on my little program above. As he reminded me, not everyone could use the approach I did and an approach has to be tailored to a given person. So maybe it's no use asking "where should one begin?" at all. Where you can, I guess, or with the book or teacher you have; branch out from there; don't form your opinions too early.

I have Boehner's version, but it's still an awful lot of unpacking.

Fair enough!

Brandon said...

I think some of the bite can be taken off of that argument by realizing that not everyone who is going to be genuinely interested in the scholastics is going to have the interest in the scholastic thought as such that you and I and some other people had the luck to develop early on. For someone else, perhaps starting later and lacking the leisure, they may be able to get a better understanding of what they need to understand about Aquinas from, say, reading The Aquinas Catechism and Chesterton's St. Thomas Aquinas and Panofsky's Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism and never going any farther. (And it won't necessarily be a bad understanding at all. In fact, within its limits it might be extraordinarily good.) But the fact that a suggested set of recommendations has a narrower base than might be hoped doesn't mean it isn't of value even for people for whom it is not wholly helpful. It just means that the trial-and-error is never limited. (A sort of analogue in learning the practical reason's problem in dealing with the multitude of contingent particulars.) It's true that everyone does have to start where they are and go from there. But nobody knows where they are or the best direction to go until they get advice from others; and the advice of people who haven't walked exactly the same road will still be valuable if it has any relevance at all.

Michael said...

Good points all, Brandon.

Anthony said...

I for one appreciate the list. I've been wondering what work by Scotus to read first. What I've read so far about his philosophy has got me excited (and puzzled -- how did anyone ever get the idea Scotus was a nominalist?). If I only I had the time to learn Latin.

BTW, I know you aren't too fond of secondary literature, but what do you think of Ingham and Dreyer's The Philosophical Vision of John Duns Scotus (ISBN: 081321369X), assuming you're familiar with it?

Michael said...

Anthony, I mentioned in another thread here a big debate I was having a couple days ago on What's Wrong With The World. There a Thomist was claiming that Scotus is a (closet?) nominalist and leads inexorably to modernism, etc., the standard line. This line is, ah, not convincing.

One explanation of the myth might be the impression in many minds that Scotus leads to Ockham, given their close temporal and spatial proximity, the fact that they were in the same order, and the fact that Ockham uses Scotus as a frequent foil for his ideas. This is all wrong though, because in many ways Ockham is the antithesis of Scotus, the inside-out-fog version. Sure, maybe there could be no Ockham without Scotus, but that doesn't mean Scotus is responsible! It's like Husserl and Heidegger.

This is just a guess.

About the Ingham and Deyer book: I believe I flipped through it a few years ago and found it pretty facile, more cheering than thinking going on. I would recommend instead Copleston's treatment of Scotus his History of Philosophy, one of Wolter's collections of essays, or Antoine Vos' book The Philosophy of John Duns Scotus. Perhaps Faber has his own to add?

Lee Faber said...

on ockham and scotus: I've even argued with contemporary thomists who have claimed that scotus taught ockham, and so was responsible in that sense. But such theories of causation bite both ways. If one plays the narrative game, there is no reason not to say that Aquinas' didn't cause Scotus.

I would agree on the book recs, though I would cut out the wolter essays and stick with copleston; a general overview is all you need, and if you supplement copleston with the first few chapter's of Vos on the history of scotist scholarship you have everything you need.

Anthony said...

Why did I leave a comment pertaining to this topic on another post? Thought I was more blog-savvy than that...

Anyway, Lee's comment reminds me of one of the issues with such lists: It's hard to design one that's relevant and adequate for everyone. As an autodictat in medieval philosophy (the medieval phil course I took in college was worthless) who will probably never take another university course in philosophy, I expect to have to rely on introductory books as a (poor) substitute for live professors. That's why, from my point of view, "the more the merrier" when it comes to such intros. I do appreciate that both of you think Copleston is reliable enough to start with -- I happen already to own that volume. Thanks! And thanks to Michael for the helpful comments on Wolter, etc.

Michael said...

the medieval phil course I took in college was worthless

Well do I believe it!

I expect to have to rely on introductory books as a (poor) substitute for live professors.

In fact I expect that if you make good book choices the books are likely to be far more useful than nearly any live professor you'd be likely to get. In most (not all) of the courses I ever took I thought I learned less from the professors than from just reading the books.

The thing is, you have to stop reading introductions sometime and get around to trying the real thing. But it requires a lot of time and labor, there's no getting around it.

Anthony said...

In most (not all) of the courses I ever took I thought I learned less from the professors than from just reading the books.

I'll have to grant you that point. I had a couple outstanding professors who helped me get far more out of the course than I would have on my own; perhaps that makes me too hopeful that the experience could be repeated.

The thing is, you have to stop reading introductions sometime and get around to trying the real thing.

I don't think it can be underestimated how useful it is to read philosophy in the original language. In translation, one must separate the connotations we have for certain words as they are glossed in English. Sometimes it's easy (prudentia, virtus), but it gets harder as the concepts get more complex and different philosophers use words in different ways. In my experience, coming back to translations I read of Chinese philosophy ten years ago, there is much less word salad there now, since I can "see" the Chinese behind the translation. I would think something similar is the case with Latin.

That's one reason intro books help. There is the danger, of course, that you'll get a Heidegger on Greek, who may radically (though brilliantly) distort things. If it weren't for you guys, I probably would have started out with Richard Cross on Scotus.

You can tell I don't get to discuss these things much in real life.

Michael said...

I wanted to add here that I went and read over the first 40 pages of Ingham's Philosophical Vision of John Duns Scotus--the amount available in Google Books--and am changing my stance on it. It seems like a very competent introduction overall. It must have been Scotus for Dunces I was thinking of.