Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Introduction to Scotus

Here is a handy introduction to Scotus for the philosophical layperson. Written by Jack Allen.

Here are his thoughts on why Scotus is not read much today.

Given all these major doctrines, one might wonder why Scotus doesn’t get much air time these days. To my mind there are three reasons. Firstly, since the Enlightenment, Medieval philosophy has been seen as backward, superstitious, or just a bit weird. This attitude is encapsulated by David Hume’s famous Enlightenment claim that “If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion” (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 1748). Scholasticism, then, has been given a fairly hard time, often by influential philosophers who have not engaged with it in any deep manner.
Secondly, there is St Thomas Aquinas. Since Pope Leo XIII wrote Aeterni Patris in 1879, great philosophical importance has been given to Aquinas in Catholic and Anglo-Catholic thinking. The 1917 Code of Canon Law claimed that Aquinas’ methods should be used in teaching philosophy and theology. The popularity of Aquinas (which is certainly not entirely unjustified), combined with the negative view of Scotus put about by the Radical Orthodoxy movement, has led to a marginalisation of Scotus’ work.
Thirdly, Scotus’ writings are famous for being difficult to read. It is easy to disparage Scotus for the same reason it is easy to disparage any postmodernist: their writing is dense and subtle, and it can be difficult to see what they are saying, if anything. And not only is Scotus’ Latin tight and elliptical – earning him the title of ‘the Subtle Doctor’ – but little of his work is available in English, although more is becoming available year on year.