Duns Scotus, John (c.1266–1308)

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

6. Primary object of the intellect

Given univocity, it seems to follow directly that being is the primary object of the intellect, for the concept of being is common to, and hence more primitive than, any notion proper to either God or creatures. Scotus in fact draws this conclusion, arguing that unless the concept of being is univocal, there can be no object encompassing all that the intellect can know. Thus, in addition to ensuring the possibility of natural knowledge of God, the other important epistemological function of univocity is to provide the intellect with a primary or defining object.

To avoid what he saw as equivocation on the issue, Scotus distinguished three different viewpoints from which an object of the intellect could be considered primary: generation or origin, perfection and adequation. The first two were relatively uncontroversial, since there was broad agreement that all knowledge originated from the senses and that God constituted the highest knowable object. Accordingly, Scotus concluded that the specific nature of the sense particular was first in terms of the generation or origin of knowledge. In a similarly conventional position, Scotus put God as the first object in the order of perfection absolutely speaking, while the most perfect object proportioned to our intellect was the sensible nature. (Scotus, like most, refined these positions with various qualifications and distinctions.) The order of adequation, however, was more disputed, for here the primary object defined the nature of the intellectual power as such.

By ‘adequate’ Scotus meant what Aristotle called the ‘commensurately universal’, which formed one of the conditions of strict demonstration outlined in the Posterior Analytics. The adequate object of a power is that which is coextensive and commensurate with all objects over which that power ranges. It is in this sense that the primary object circumscribes the scope of a power and hence marks it off as distinct from other powers. In general, Scotus recognizes two ways in which an object may be adequate: either because it forms a universal nature or aspect (ratio) found in all things which a power surveys, such as colour in the case of sight, or because it is a single, most perfect object that includes within itself all the other objects governed by a power. In the case of the intellect, Scotus says that an object is adequate in the first way by community or predication, for it is common to and hence predicable of all that is intelligible; in the second way, an object is adequate virtually, for by understanding it, the intellect is moved to understand all else that is intelligible.

Scotus reports two competing opinions on the adequate object of the intellect, representing broadly Aristotelian and Augustinian theories of knowledge. The first is the well-known position of Aquinas, taken to represent the Aristotelian orientation, that the adequate object of the human intellect is the essence or quiddity of the sense particular. Scotus argues against Aquinas’ position on both theological and philosophical grounds, maintaining in each case that the adequate object concerns the nature of the power as such. Theologically, Scotus rejects Aquinas’ position because, in limiting the scope of the created intellect in its nature to the material quiddity, it rendered the knowledge of the immaterial essence of God promised in beatitude impossible. On the same grounds, Scotus rejects Aquinas’ explanation that, since ‘grace perfects nature’, the intellect will be elevated by a supernatural quality that will enable it to attain an immaterial object. While Scotus of course holds that a supernatural grace is required for our intellect to have direct vision of God, he denies that any supervening quality can modify a power so as to change its adequate object. In that case, the power is not simply perfected but, by definition, transformed into a power of an altogether different nature. Philosophically, Scotus argues that on Aquinas’ position the science of metaphysics would be impossible, for the intellect cannot acquire a science whose object exceeds the scope of the primary object of the intellect itself. But the object of metaphysics, being qua being, is more universal than material natures.

The second opinion, which represents an Augustinian approach, is that of Henry of Ghent, who posited God as the primary object of the intellect. As indicated above, Henry held that being and the other transcendentals taken in their utmost generality resolved into two distinct notions, one proper to God and the other to creatures. Henry had to designate one of the two as primary as regards our intellect, and he argued that those proper to God were prior. This followed from his strong commitment to an Augustinian theory of illumination, according to which the essence of a creature was truly known only by reference to its eternal archetype or idea in the mind of God (see Augustinianism). Scotus replies that, as indicated, if God is the adequate object of the created intellect, the divine nature must either be common to or virtually include all that is intelligible. The divine essence is obviously not universally common to all intelligible objects, since God cannot be predicated of creatures. Although the divine essence does virtually include all that is intelligible, God is not on this account the adequate object of any created intellect. If this were the case, then the human intellect would be moved to understanding all intelligibles by a single object, namely the divine essence, rather than directly by those intelligibles themselves. The divine essence, of course, can function as an object in this way only for the divine intellect, which is to say that God is the adequate object of the divine mind alone. By way of a corollary to his refutation of Henry, Scotus also excludes on similar grounds substance as the adequate object of the intellect in the sense that it virtually contains accidents. This would mean that accidents could only be known through substance, which is false, since accidents themselves can move the intellect as intelligible objects.

Having excluded both God and substance in his refutation of Henry, Scotus concluded that no single object can be primary for the created intellect in the sense that it virtually contains all else that is intelligible. Therefore, if there is a primary, adequate object of the intellect, it must be such owing to its community. Since nothing is more common than being, it must be the primary object of the intellect. Scotus notes that this presupposes a univocal concept of being, so that if univocity is denied the intellect can have no adequate object.

In making being the primary object of the intellect, Scotus was in fact tacitly advancing yet a third opinion, that of Avicenna (see Ibn Sina). In central passages of his Metaphysics, Avicenna had made being both a primary conception of the mind and, in explicit contradistinction to either God or substance, the proper subject of a universal science of metaphysics. These texts strongly implied that Avicenna had seen being as the primary object of the intellect, prior to both God and creatures. Henry of Ghent had already explicitly raised just this interpretation of Avicenna in order to reject it forcefully on the grounds that it entailed a univocal concept of being. Henry’s analysis was not lost on Scotus, who adopted the Avicennian position as a consequence of his doctrine of univocity.

Citing this article:
Dumont, Stephen D.. Primary object of the intellect. 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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