John Duns Scotus on Concepts

Dissertation abstract

How do we acquire our concepts? What is their ontological status? How are they related to the extra-mental world? These are only a few of the major questions concerning concepts that puzzled late medieval thinkers, forming one of the most exciting philosophical debates that took place between the second half of the thirteenth and the first half of the fourteenth century. John Duns Scotus (d. 1308) is considered a leading figure in this debate; scholars believe that he “wrought a revolution in the philosophy of mind” by offering “startling new ideas about cognition, making a radical break with his predecessors and contemporaries” (King). Modern scholars of medieval philosophy have devoted much attention to Scotus’s view on the intentionality of concepts, but little on issues such as the origin and ontological status of the concepts. My dissertation contributes to the ongoing research by filling this gap.

First, I provide a critical edition of question 13 of Scotus’s Quaestiones quodlibetales,his last and most important work on the ontology of cognitive acts and how they relate to the extra-mental world. A critical edition is indispensable because the Latin text that is currently available to scholars is very difficult to understand due to textual flaws of transcription and omitted passages.

Second, I examine Scotus’s new idea of an essential order between object and intellect in the co-causation of the cognitive act (intellectio). Scotus argues that this essential order is required to ensure both the reliability of our cognition as well as the freedom of the knower in the cognitive process.

Finally, I discuss the theoretical implications of Scotus’s idea that cognitive acts are a special sort of activity (operatio) in the Aristotelian category of “quality” and not of “action.” According to Scotus this explains the intentionality of concepts, that is, how and why concepts are about their objects, and why only the cognition of an existent and actually present object can fully perfect the human intellect, through what Scotus calls a “relation of contact.” This final step will also involve a study of the peculiar terminology Duns Scotus uses, such as the distinction between “objective being” and “subjective being,” as well as the expression “diminished being” (esse diminutum). I conclude that Scotus’s view on the ontological nature of the cognitive act provides a more plausible explanation of how the cognitive faculty cognizes the extra-mental world, and gives a more reliable epistemological foundation to human cognition.