Duns Scotus

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Devil's in the details
Not to be confused with SCOTUS, ya dunce!

Duns Scotus (c. 1265—1308) was a Roman Catholic philosopher and theologian. Details of his early life are not entirely clear, but he was probably born in Duns in Scotland, hence the name by which he came to be known.


He is known as the Subtle Doctor, on account of the perceived subtlety of his thinking. He was the founder of the philosophical school of Scotism, which was influential during the later Middle Ages. However, later critics claimed that his subtlety was nothing more than sophistry, and as a result his name is the origin of the English word dunce. He taught at the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Paris.

Forcible baptism[edit]

Scotus taught that duly constituted authorities could get Jewish children baptized against the wishes of their parents. Naturally in the opinion of the dunce the Roman Catholics were the only group who properly understood how to worship God. If Jewish parents failed in their duty to introduce their children to the locally popular one true faith then properly constituted authorities could intervene and get the children baptized. Similarly, if Jewish parents did not recognize their own need for baptism as well as that of the child the authorities could have them forcibly baptized.[1]

Other theology[edit]

His greatest contribution to Catholic thought was his popularization of the argument potuit, decuit, ergo fecit, Latin for God could do it, it was appropriate that God do it, therefore God did it (or, as we would put it "Goddidit"). It would become a foundational principle in Catholic theology and a standard way for the religious to get out of losing arguments. This principle was originally formulated by Anselm, but it was Scotus who popularised it.

Scotus used this principle to argue for the Immaculate Conception of Mary (i.e., her conception free of original sin); God could have made her free from original sin, it was fitting for God to do so, therefore God must have done so. And somehow it was not "appropriate" to free the rest of us from original sin at conception.

Worth noting is that the potuit, decuit, ergo fecit argument — if accepted — essentially excludes as contradictory the simultaneous acceptance of any theodicy (i.e., solution to the problem of evil) which doesn't land either in dystheism or in the absence of God.[notes 1]


Scotus also made significant contributions to various topics in medieval philosophy, including the problem of universals, skepticism, and the nature of free will.[2]

The problem of universals is how can we say two separate objects are the same kind of thing, both chairs or people or whatever. Duns Scotus was a realist about universals, believing each example of a class shares a common essence (natura communis), but rejected Plato's idea that the universal existed outside the object in another world of Platonic forms. Take that, Plato!

He rejected skepticism, saying that human beings could by their own senses have a true knowledge of the world. He also dismissed the idea that we need God to somehow show us something in order to be able to recognise it in the world. He pointed out that even if God gives us some kind of ideal vision, we've no way of directly relating that to the changing evidence of our senses, and therefore our knowledge of the world must come simply from the world.

He also rejected Thomas Aquinas's theory of free will. Aquinas, based on Aristotle, claimed that people always choose to do what will make them happy. Duns Scotus said that this would mean people don't really have any freedom, and therefore people could choose either to be happy or meh indifferent whatever, although they couldn't choose to be miserable. The fact that you're not yourself when you're hungry (as proven by the marketing department for Snickers™) — while not proving Scotus right — proves Aquinas wrong.

Blessed dunce[edit]

Thanks to Pope John Paul II in 1993 (only 685 years after his death), the Roman Catholic Church considers him blessed, which means they believe he is in Heaven, can intercede on behalf of people who pray to him, and is the third of four steps on the way to becoming a saint.[3] Long before then, he was venerated in forward-thinking Edinburgh and Cologne.[4]

See also[edit]


  1. This is obviously because you can't solve some problems with appeals to the alleged omnibenevolence, omnipresence and omnipotence of your intervening deity while at the same time accepting the existence of evil in the world.


  1. DUNS SCOTUS, JOHN:What would he have done to atheists?
  2. John Duns Scotus, Plato (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  3. What's the origin of the dunce cap?
  4. Duns Scotus, Catholic Online