John Casey

title.none: Williams, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Duns Scotus (John Casey)

identifier.other: baj9928.0412.023 04.12.23

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: John Casey, Northeastern Illinois University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Williams, Thomas, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Duns Scotus. Series: Cambridge Companions to Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. xvi, 408. $65.00 0-521-63205-6. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.12.23

Williams, Thomas, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Duns Scotus. Series: Cambridge Companions to Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. xvi, 408. $65.00 0-521-63205-6. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

John Casey
Northeastern Illinois University

There are some books one can safely purchase without bothering to research reviews. For their careful selection of editors and contributors, keen editorial sense for audience, sensitivity to historical and contextual issues, and high philosophical caliber, installments of the Cambridge Companion series certainly fit this description. And this one does not by any means constitute an exception. Like the Cambridge Companions to Ockham, Augustine and Aquinas, the Cambridge Companion to Duns Scotus edited by Thomas Williams covers the range of canonical philosophical and theological issues one would expect of any medieval philosopher, as well as the variations appropriate to the philosophical achievements definitive of Duns Scotus. In addition to this each of the 13 contributions comes from either top-notch Scotus scholars (such as Timothy Noone, Richard Cross, and Thomas Williams himself) or well known interpreters of later medieval philosophy more generally (such as Robert Pasnau, Dominik Perler, Peter King, Bonnie Kent and Calvin Normore).

Among those unfamiliar with medieval philosophy, John Duns Scotus (1265/66-1308) looms as one of the least understood and, without a doubt, one of the most challenging of the major medieval thinkers. His own peculiar blend of diverse philosophical traditions--the Augustinian and the Aristotelian--is exceedingly complex on its own terms. His vast body of work--spread across an increasing number of volumes in the new Vatican critical edition--covers a broad range of philosophical and theological topics. Much of this work remains to be translated, and so it lies out of reach of those not trained in Latin. The philosophical environment within which Scotus worked and lived had already ossified; his texts, his methods, his topics, and his language, though at times very strange to us, faithfully reflect the methods and practices of philosophical writing of the later Middle Ages. Finally, understanding Scotus requires a good deal more knowledge of the entire medieval philosophical tradition than is the case with many other medieval philosophers of his stature. By the time Scotus read and absorbed Aristotle and Augustine, they had already been picked over and commented on for centuries by some very acute minds.

Considering these obstacles, Williams's task as editor of the Cambridge Companion to Scotus must have been a daunting one. Not only did he have to determine just which subjects to include but he also had to decide what sort of picture to present to the reader. On the one hand, Scotus the medieval thinker, like most medieval thinkers, develops his thought in a detailed and complicated conversation with a vast philosophical tradition; on the other hand, Scotus the philosopher merits attention on his own terms. Deciding which of these paths to follow poses difficulty to any editor of this sort of volume. While this is true to some extent of any medieval philosopher, and especially in the case of Scotus, satisfying both demands would require an impossibly cumbersome volume or perhaps volumes.

What makes this task even more challenging, however, is the relative paucity of secondary literature of an introductory nature on Scotus. While monograph studies of Augustine, Aquinas and Ockham abound, there are (to my knowledge) only two monograph studies of the whole of Scotus's thought currently in print (Duns Scotus in the Oxford Great Medieval Thinkers series by Richard Cross, a contributor to this volume, and Scotus for Dunces by Mary Beth Ingham). For the most part, then, those unfamiliar with Scotus's work must turn to scattered and brief introductions to translated texts and general histories of medieval philosophy, or to volumes such as the present one, the only one of its kind in recent years.

In addition, there remains the question of just how much knowledge--or indeed even how much interest--to presume on the part of the reader. Indeed, one major hurdle medievalists have to overcome is explaining why anyone should care about what they spend all day or all night reading in the first place. For one reason or another, it is simply not obvious that medieval philosophers should be studied. On the one hand, medievalists can and often do claim that their subject bears very strong resemblances to the methods and topics of contemporary analytic philosophy. (Very few medievalists in the United States--I can think of only one off-hand work in the continental tradition). On the other hand, beyond simple likeness of style and substance, medievalists can claim that analytic philosophers have much to learn from medieval philosophers such as Scotus. Either way one chooses to look at it, it is certainly the case that introductory volumes on medieval philosophers have to overcome a certain amount of diffidence on the part of the philosophical reading public--much more so than is the case with those who study Aristotle, Descartes, or Kant, for instance.

All of this leaves Williams with the problem of introducing a philosopher as difficult and as important as he is unknown. Williams's solution is to leave it in the hands of his contributors, and he leaves them a fair amount of leeway in their methods of approach. Some place Scotus squarely in his own philosophical and textual tradition, developing and explaining his connections to Augustine, Avicenna, Aquinas, Ockham and beyond. Others eschew the tradition (or limit it to brief mention in the footnotes) in favor of a detailed analysis of Scotus's position on a particular topic. A few even presume no interest in or knowledge of Scotus or medieval philosophy at all. No one of these methods of approach dominates, although any one of them would have been entirely justifiable. And the fact that none of them does prevail is a good thing, as it reflects some of the many ways one can approach medieval philosophical texts.

Turning now to the book itself, The Cambridge Companion to Scotus is arranged more or less in the traditional fashion. There is a rather brief introductory chapter written by the editor about the depressingly few clear details of Scotus's short life and the uneven but improving status of the editions of his works. To this end, Williams includes very helpful notes on the most recent available editions of Scotus's works as well as snippets on some possible incorrect attributions. In addition to this, Williams incorporates some brief though useful explanations of some of the important methods of medieval philosophical writing, such as the differences between an ordinatio and a reportatio. More detailed and helpful descriptions of these terms can be found elsewhere in recent literature (such as John Marenbon's Later Medieval Philosophy), but their inclusion here is most welcome. Simply learning how to read a medieval philosophical text poses nearly as much of a challenge as understanding it.

The book then opens with a chapter on Metaphysics by Peter King, followed by several metaphysically flavored chapters. This chapter bucks the usual tendency of contextualizing the issue at hand in favor of a thematic approach that encompasses the breadth and depth of Scotus's vertiginously complex metaphysical system. One might have expected of a such treatment some discussion of the philosophical context, including perhaps reference to Scotus's immediate contemporaries (or even Aquinas), to the intellectual fate of Scotus's key metaphysical doctrines, or even to the development of Scotus's own thinking over time. This last point is somewhat surprising given the emphasis on Scotus's intellectual development discussed in Williams' introduction. But explaining Scotus's metaphysics is a difficult enough task already without the added problem of just what sorts of historical or philosophical context to mention. And King certainly does succeed in giving the reader a clear sense of the key role Scotus's doctrine of univocity played in the broad spectrum of his metaphysical system. This complexity makes this chapter difficult reading, however enlightening.

On the subject of difficult reading, chapter two, "Space and Time" (Neil Lewis), chapter four, "Dun's Scotus's Modal Theory" (Calvin G. Normore), and chapter 6 "Duns Scotus on Natural Theology" (James F. Ross and Todd Bates) take on similarly difficult metaphysical topics. Of these chapters, the very difficult--the topic again, not the writer--but rewarding entry of Calvin Normore deserves special mention. Normore structures his piece around the place of Scotus's modal theory in later medieval philosophy, with an eye to the limitations of the textual tradition of Scotus's works, and with an explicit identification of his source texts. This is beneficial on two counts. First, unlike many articles of this sort, which reconstruct or manufacture a position from several different source texts (and then mentioned only in footnotes), this contribution consistently reminds the reader that the positions being discussed have a specific textual basis. Second, it takes seriously the current status of textual scholarship. While the amount of context necessary may be in the end an editorial decision--one as good as the other--solid textual scholarship simply cannot be overlooked. Among the remaining of the chapters on metaphysics, Tim Noone's "Universals and Individuation," which discusses one of the most well known of Scotus's doctrines, stands as a paradigm for clear, engaging philosophical prose on a topic often ridiculed as hopelessly pointless, dated, and abstruse by those not familiar with or sympathetic to medieval philosophy.

While the first several chapters deal with metaphysical and theological topics, the last several chapters discuss issues relating to Scotus's "epistemology" and moral philosophy. These chapters are by and large more successful at penetrating the blinding complexity of Scotus's thought than the chapters on metaphysics and theology. Of these, Robert Pasnau's "Cognition" (Chapter 9) does much to address the kinds of questions readers not trained in medieval philosophy might have. Where, such a reader might wonder, is the chapter on epistemology? This category, Pasnau points out, "serves medieval philosophy poorly" (285). Pasnau argues that what concerned medieval philosophers, and by the way what concerns philosophers today, is not what distinguishes knowledge from true belief, but rather how "we manage to form true beliefs" (285), hence the category, "cognition." And what follows as an absolutely limpid and illuminating discussion of several noteworthy features--mental representation, intuitive cognition, and divine illumination among them--of Scotus's conception of cognition in its relation to the larger medieval tradition.

The last three chapters follow Pasnau's example. Indeed some of the most enlightening contributions to this volume concern Scotus's comparatively less well known moral philosophy. These are "Scotus's Theory of Natural Law" (chapter 10), by Hannes Mohle, "From Metaethics to Action Theory" (chapter 11), by Thomas Williams, and "Rethinking Moral Dispositions: Scotus on the Virtues" (chapter 12) by Bonnie Kent. Much like Pasnau's contribution, each of these chapters approaches its narrowly identified theme with an eye toward Scotus's unique place in his own philosophical tradition, as well as the independent significance of the topic at hand. Considering the complexity of Scotus's thought, the depth of the medieval tradition, and Scotus's often impenetrable prose, this is no small achievement. Take Mohle's piece for example. Mohle underscores how Scotus's concept of the will, and the consequent need for a clear conception of a natural law as a practical truth rather than a teleological end, constituted a profound break with the Aristotelian and Thomistic tradition. The reader is treated to a terse survey of a vast topic, but in the end the reader is none the poorer for it. For while broad discussions such as those of Mohle, Williams and Kent, may leave the specialist unsatisfied, they offer the non-specialist a window into the mind of an important and complex medieval philosopher in the act of challenging an entire philosophical tradition.

This is more or less the story that this particular installment of the Cambridge Companion tells. And while readers unfamiliar with Scotus may find some of the discussions of Scotus's metaphysics as difficult as the original, The Cambridge Companion to Scotus, makes significant strides in the direction of opening up the work of an essential medieval philosopher to non-specialists. More than that, for its clearer contributions, it also holds open the possibility of reinvigorating the excitement and interest the expert.