Duns Scotus, John (c.1266–1308)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-B035-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

13. Intuitive and abstractive cognition

In the area of epistemology, Scotus’ most influential contributions were the distinction between intuitive and abstractive cognition and the demolition of Augustinian illumination, at least in the highly sophisticated form given to it by Henry of Ghent. While the latter is of broader philosophical interest, virtually every scholastic discussion in epistemology after Scotus utilizes his distinction between abstraction and intuition, which contemporaries claimed originated with him. Scotus’ notion especially of intuitive cognition was, of course, subjected to refinement and revision in subsequent discussions, but always with Scotus’ original definition in mind.

As defined technically by Scotus, intuitive cognition is knowledge of an object insofar as it is actually existing and present to the intellect. Abstractive cognition is knowledge of the object insofar as it is abstracted from actual existence or non-existence. A number of clarifications are in order. First of all, as will be clear from Scotus’ argument for the distinction, both intuitive and abstractive cognition are acts of the intellect proper and do not differ in that intuition grasps the sense particular and abstraction the universal. Both types of cognition have as their object the essence or quiddity as opposed to the sense particular. In intuition, the quiddity is known as being caused by what is existing and present, in abstractive cognition by the intelligible species residing in the intellect as surrogate for the existing object itself. In this context, then, ‘abstractive’ does not for Scotus refer to Aristotelian abstraction of the universal. Second, Scotus is specific that ‘intuitive’ is not here equated with ‘non-discursive’, the common epistemological sense associated with the Augustinian term intuitus (glance), particularly in the context of divine knowledge or the beatific vision (see Augustinianism). Some abstractive knowledge can be ‘intuitive’ in this sense, since it can be non-discursive. Scotus says that he is here taking ‘intuitive’ absolutely, as when we say that we ‘see (intueri) a thing as it really is’.

Scotus argues that the intellect must possess both types of cognition based upon its commonly admitted functions. Thus, the intellect must be capable of abstractive cognition, for otherwise scientific knowledge in the strict Aristotelian sense would be impossible. The reason is that an object is contingent insofar as it is actually existent and present to the intellect. If therefore the intellect cannot grasp an object in abstraction from its existence, all knowledge would be contingent. In other words, the intellect could know no statements about an object as true or false independent of that object’s existential state. Conversely, the intellect must be capable of intuitive cognition, for a perfection found in a lower power must be found in a higher power of the same type. However, the senses, which are cognitive faculties like the intellect, seize the sensible particular as present and existing. Therefore, the intellect must also have this capacity. As Scotus explains, the particular senses have intuitive, sensible cognition of the particular, while the imagination knows the same object abstractively by means of the sensible species which can remain in the absence of the sensible thing itself. The same twofold cognitive capacity must, by parity, be found in the intellect. At the level of sense, however, two separate powers are required for these two different cognitive acts because the sense powers are distinguished by having different material organs. Owing to its greater perfection as an immaterial power, the intellect possesses both capacities in a united way. Furthermore, intuitive cognition is also required to account for the beatific vision, where the divine essence will be known, according to scripture, ‘face to face’; that is, as existentially present to the intellect.

For Scotus, then, the intellect has a direct apprehension of an intelligible object insofar as it is the actually existing and present cause of its cognitive act. The chief philosophical use to which Scotus puts intuitive cognition is to supply certitude for contingent propositions. For example, he claims that by means of intuitive cognition we are as certain about our own acts as we are about necessary, self-evident propositions. After Scotus, the entire fourteenth-century preoccupation with certitude was regularly cast in terms of intuitive cognition. For instance, a common problem discussed was whether God could cause an intuitive cognition of a non-existent object (see William of Ockham §4).

Citing this article:
Dumont, Stephen D.. Intuitive and abstractive cognition. Duns Scotus, John (c.1266–1308), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-B035-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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