Duns Scotus, John (c.1266–1308)

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

12. Universals and individuation

Generally speaking, Scotus is regarded as a realist on the issue of universals because he admits that the universal has some reality and unity prior to any act of the intellect and accordingly that it has some sort of real distinction – the so called formal distinction – from the individual. On this score, he was attacked by William of Ockham, who, committed to a thorough nominalism, denied any sort of distinction within the individual that would grant the universal a reality of its own (see Nominalism; Universals). As such, Scotus and Ockham are typically viewed as poles in the fourteenth-century strain of the realist–nominalism debate. Scotus, however, was not an extreme realist. For instance, he argued at length against Henry of Ghent’s theory which accorded the essences of things a real being in the mind of God antecedent to their creation (see Henry of Ghent). Even Ockham places Scotus next to last in his series of opinions ranked according to their degree of realism.

Scotus does not directly treat the problem of the reality of universals, as one finds it treated in the commentaries of Boethius and Abelard, but rather addresses it in the course of determining the principle of individuation. By Scotus’ time, the thirteenth-century discussion of individuation had become highly involved, leading Peter Olivi to remark that there was ‘an endless forest of opinions on the matter’. Scotus reaches his own position after a lengthy examination and rejection of five possible views: a common opinion that there is no need to posit a separate principle of individuation, followed by four specific views: negation (Henry of Ghent), actual existence (a common view), quantity (Giles of Rome) and matter (a common view attributed to Aristotle). Scotus devotes a separate question to the elimination of each of these opinions, leaving him to conclude in a sixth view what the principle of individuation must be.

The greatest burden of Scotus’ entire discussion is the refutation of the first view that there is no need to posit a distinct principle of individuation. The issue is whether a common nature, such as equinity or humanity, is of itself individual. This first view holds that the nature is individual of itself, so that there is no need to account for its individuality by any other factors than those that bring the nature itself into actual existence, namely, the generating causes themselves. It is not, in this view, that the nature is first produced as universal and then some intervening causes are required to contract it to a singular instance, for the nature is produced and exists only as singular. To the contrary, what is required is an explanation of the nature’s universality, for this does not belong to the nature as it exists absolutely and in reality but only in relation to the intellect.

In essence, what Scotus is combating is the nominalistic position that reality is thoroughly singular and hence individuality requires no explanation. Scotus mounts two main arguments against this view, both of which bring out his realism. The first is that the object of a power, insofar as it functions as its object, is naturally prior to the act of that power. The reason is that a cause is prior to its effect, and the object is a cause of the act of a power. However, if the nature is of itself singular insofar as it is prior to an act of the intellect, then the intellect in its act of understanding will grasp its object in a way contrary to the very nature of that object itself, namely, as common rather than singular. Therefore, the nature cannot be of itself singular but must be the common antecedent to an act of the intellect.

Scotus’ second argument issues in his doctrine of a lesser or ‘minor’ unity. He maintains that the nature must have its own proper unity which is both real and less than the numerical unity of the singular. Otherwise, every real unity would be numerical, which is false. The reason is that many relationships are recognized as real in the sense that they are not mind-dependent, yet are not based on things numerically one but on species, genera and other common classes. Therefore, these must have unity which is less than numerical but nonetheless real. For instance, the basis of all physical change, which is real, is contrariety; but things are not contrary insofar as they are numerically one, for then there would be as many contraries as individuals. Thus contraries – hot and cold, up and down – must each be one by a unity that is real but less than numerical. Or again, the relation of similarity is real in the sense that it is not simply the product of the mind. It cannot be based on what is numerically one, for then all things would be equally similar. Conversely, there are degrees of diversity that are not merely mind-imposed, so that Socrates differs more from rock than from Plato. This would not follow, however, if all unity were numerical, for then all individuals would be equally diverse.

Accordingly, Scotus concludes that the natures of things, such as equinity and humanity, are not of themselves individual but are the common antecedent to any act of the intellect. From this it follows that natures taken in themselves are not, strictly speaking, universal either, for universality in the strict sense is a relation of reason resulting from an act of the intellect. Quoting Avicenna’s famous text on the common nature (natura communis), Scotus says that the nature taken in itself is neither universal nor singular: ‘Equinity is nothing else but equinity alone. Of itself it is neither one nor many, neither universal nor particular’ (Ordinatio 2 d.3 n.31) That is, according to Scotus, although the nature is never found except as universal in the mind or as singular outside the mind, it cannot of itself be either. If equinity were in itself universal, so as to include the note of universality in its definition, it could not be predicated of any singular instance, for no individual is a universal. If it were singular of itself, it could be asserted of only one instance. Thus, in order to be capable of realization in either state, the nature taken in itself must be neutral with respect to both. It is this common nature that forms the proper object of the intellect, functions as the predicate in true, universal statements, and has the real, lesser unity demonstrated above.

Given that the natures or essences of things are not of themselves singular, they must be made such by some individuating factor, just as they are made universal in the strict sense by an intervening act of the intellect. As indicated, Scotus rejects four candidates for this individuating principle. The first is Henry of Ghent’s position that a nature is individual when it cannot be pluralized further (for example, Socrates cannot be multiplied) and is not identified with another (Socrates is not Plato).Thus, Henry concluded that a nature is individuated by a twofold negation. Scotus argues that an individual is something positive and thus cannot be caused by negation. In any event, Henry’s theory does not give an exact cause, for every negation presupposes something positive. What is sought then is the positive factor that causes these two negative properties of an individual.

The next opinion is that actual existence individuates, which is based upon the principle that actuality distinguishes. Since existence is the ultimate act, it must cause the ultimate distinction, namely, individuality (see Henry of Ghent). Against this, Scotus argues that while existence is an act, it is not an act relevant to individuation. At issue is what makes some substance, such as a horse or stone, individual. Existence is an act outside of and posterior to the whole predicamental line of substance; it is in this sense that existence is often said to be ‘accidental’, for it lies outside the essence or natures of things. One of the more common views was that individuation was caused by quantity, since a form was taken to be pluralized insofar as it was found in an extended, material substrate. Scotus replies that if accidents are posterior to substance, this holds a fortiori of individual substance, since Aristotle identifies this as substance in the primary sense. Therefore, quantity as a accident is posterior to whatever makes a substance individual. Elsewhere, Scotus deploys this same line of reasoning against the Boethian theory that a collection of accidents individuates (see Boethius, A.M.S.). Finally, he rejects the standard Aristotelian view that matter individuates, since matter is in itself indeterminate and indistinct. It cannot therefore be a principle of distinction.

From all of this, Scotus concludes that the principle of individuation must be something real and positive in the substantial order as opposed to any kind of accident, whether existential or categorical, and, while not a substantial form itself, the ultimate reality or perfection of that form. In other words, the principle of individuation is a further substantial difference added to the specific nature; indeed, Scotus calls it an ‘individual difference’. While the individual difference is of course not a further specific difference, Scotus depicts it as functioning metaphysically in a closely analogous way. Thus, just as the specific difference renders the nature of which is it a part incapable of division into any further species, so the individual difference renders the singular absolutely indivisible. Further, the specific difference is a reality formally distinct from, and actual with respect to, the reality of the genus. Also, the individual difference is actual with respect to the reality of the specific nature and formally distinct from it. Finally, the individual difference is irreducibly simple and hence wholly diverse from any other individual difference. In this it is comparable to ultimate specific differences, which are absolutely simple and diverse. The individual difference, however, is unlike any specific difference, because it adds no further quidditative or essential reality. If the nature or essence of a thing be considered its form, then the individuating difference may be considered ‘material’ in the extended sense that it contributes no common essence or nature but rather contracts such a nature to an ultimate subject. Posterity has labelled this individual difference haecceitas or ‘thisness’, a term used sparingly by Scotus himself and then usually to mean the state of being singular (singularitas) rather than the principle of individuation itself.

The significance of Scotus’ theory of individuation is that it breaks with the fundamental Greek conception of the species as the principal locus of both being and intelligibility, codified in the Latin tradition by the Boethian dictum that ‘The species is the entire being of an individual.’ As schematized in the so called Porphyrian tree, differences proper in the category of substance were seen to end with the final species and individuation was explained through something extrinsic, whether by way of accidents or matter. Scotus, however, extends the process of division and differentiation in the substantial line past the species and down into the constitution of the individual itself, going so far as to place the species and individual difference in a relation of potency and act akin to that of genus and specific difference. He thus accords the individual a true reality and admits as a consequence that the individual is per se intelligible. In so elevating both the reality and intelligibility of the individual, Scotus’ realism on the issue of universals is decidedly un-Platonic.

Citing this article:
Dumont, Stephen D.. Universals and individuation. 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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