Welcome back to Metaphysics According to Magnus at Uppsala University - Today’s date is April 14th, 1519.

In this week’s lecture, we’ve arrived at an interesting point in history - a bit over two-hundred years ago, Duns Scotus, then known as Johannes Duns, wrote a brief text asserting views on Metaphysics. Scotus was an ordained priest, and a well educated man, mostly known for lecturing and writing in England, France, and even Germany briefly before his death. His sarcophagus reads: Scotia me genuit. Anglia me suscepit. Gallia me docuit. Colonia me tenet. Beautiful, isn’t it?

Now, you should be wondering why I include such a character as this in my class. The answer is simple: Scotus provides us with one of the clearest definitions and explanations of Metaphysics, while still progressing the field in a meaningful way through his teaching on the Univocity of Being. You’re familiar with the term “being qua being” from my lecture on Aristotle some time ago, and it has popped up here and there since then. Indeed, Scotus also took this as his narrow definition of Metaphysics - that it is the study of being itself. Moreover, we can clarify that even categories of beings can be studied within Metaphysics; unless they are understood as concepts, in which case, Scotus asserts that it is then a study within Logic instead. About these categories, Scotus argues that there are exactly 10 - take note! - they are:

  1. Substances - which are specifically being or existing in a truly independent sense, while the following 9 categories would be called accidents or accidental by both Scotus and Aristotle.
  2. Quantity
  3. Quality
  4. Relation
  5. Action
  6. Passion
  7. Place
  8. Time
  9. Position
  10. State

I’ve shortened the monologue portion of this lecture in order to allocate some time at the end for an interactive discussion to see if you can out-think Scotus by conceiving of additional categories, or combining the stated categories into fewer, so keep that in mind through the rest of the lecture.

I’m eager to mention what I believe is Scotus’ most important contribution to the field of Metaphysics before moving on to the prime content of the lecture - his belief in the Univocity of Being. And this, as you may already know, directly counters the better-known Thomas Aquinas, and truly, nearly everyone else who has conceived of the difference at all. We will come back to Univocity of Being a bit later.

Let’s examine the ever popular distinctions between matter, form, body and soul. Scotus maintained the common understanding of the Aristotelian forms. As a review, let’s start with “Accidental Change” which is a change in the accidents associated with, or held within a substance. This is in distinction to “Substantial Change” which occurs when a substance comes into being, or ceases to exist. We can also use the terms of “Matter” as what proceeds through substantial change, along with “Substantial Forms” which give matter their definite, unique, and individual substance, and “Accidental Forms” which are a substance’s accidental qualities, in the same way that Aristotle formed the concepts.

But Scotus doesn’t stop there in his teachings on metaphysics. There are three important distinctions that he makes which evoked some disagreement from his contemporaries.

  1. There exists matter that has no form whatsoever
  2. Not all created substances are composites of form and matter, and
  3. An individual substance may have more than one substantial form.

As you can tell, these are incredibly important distinctions that Scotus ventures. Let’s examine them in turn, and hopefully you’ll see how the three naturally stem from one another: Prime matter is that matter which has no form whatsoever. It is unformed matter. It is unclear whether or not Aristotle believed in such a concept or not - though I tend to think that he did conceive of prime matter as fact, due to his use of it in asserting substantial change as fact. The other side of the argument simply holds a more nuanced view than Aristotle-- but regardless, prime matter is an important distinction that Scotus makes.

This belief in prime matter logically leads to his next important distinction - that not all created substances are composites of form and matter. This is easily understood by the example of prime matter itself - it is a substance, a real material thing, yet it is without form. This particular deviation from popular belief causes issues with conceiving of heavenly beings; namely, angels and God. Without prime matter, we are left with the popular equivocation of matter with potentiality, and form with actuality. Yet with it, matter is not potential - it is actual. Thus, the disagreement about heavenly beings - those who do not assert prime matter see angels as composites of form and some sort of spiritual material, and God as pure, and perfect actuality or form. Yet prime matter rejects such equivocations outright - implying that even an entirely immaterial being would not necessarily be bereft of potentiality.

Now, onto the third distinction - that substances may have multiple substantial forms. It seems logical given the definition of substantial forms that we may need some number of them in order to bring forth the actual parcel of matter its definite, unique substance.

Yet, let’s think through a counter example where we name the soul itself as the single, substantial form of an individual. When this person dies, their soul leaves, causing substantial change to the person. That is to say, that the body that was the matter which was brought forth from its substantial form - the soul of that person - is no longer there. It is replaced by a corpse. Yet this counter is difficult to assert in light of the observation that the body is in fact the same body before and after death - as Scotus asserted. Furthermore, if the soul is the only substantial form which informs the body of how it should be, wouldn’t the body dissipate into nothingness or prime matter once the soul left? Yet it does not. Thus, there may be more than one substantial form for an individual substance. Specifically in this example, there is some form of the body, and some animating form - the soul - and the body will degrade over time without animation.

As another topic of further inquiry, I challenge you once again to out-think Scotus. For he attempted on this topic to argue for the hopeful truth that the soul can exist apart and after the body, yet his attempts could not even persuade himself. Can any of you find some convincing argument that the soul is eternal? Scotus concluded that proving such is outside of our capabilities.

While there are still a couple of unmentioned topics that Scotus explains in his undertakings in metaphysics, they are part of a broader discussion that others have, perhaps, done a better job at illuminating. So, instead of discussing those in this lecture, I will return to the topic of Univocity of Being. In lay terms, Univocity of Being means that there is no distinction between a thing’s existence, (what it is) and its being (that it exists). This follows from the simple argument that we don’t know what existence could possibly mean outside of having some concept of what it is that actually exists.

This topic becomes particularly important when applied to the highest study of metaphysics, (in Aristotle’s view) that is, theology. Here, we can elaborate that if we know something of the existence of one thing, and something of the existence of another thing, then in the same way we know that both exist. In other words, there is only one sort of existence. The prime distinction that the Univocity of Being makes in theology is specifically that the being of God is not substantially different that the being of man. This does not assert that God’s being it is not perfect or infinite, but only that there is but a single type of being qua being - existence is common to both man and God. In religious thought, this concept of God brings Him closer to, and makes Him more personal with man. The alternative belief is commonly associated with the unknowability of God.

A more theologically oriented perspective here is to say that God created finite existence as an extension of his own infinite existence. Both exist in the same way, except that our existence is finite, while His is infinite. Now consider this in relation to my question on the soul before - perhaps we could make some argument concerning the infinite nature of the soul using this concept of the Univocity of Being in relation to theology?

I will end with that question. Now, would any of you venture to counter Scotus on categories, or have any of you found a proof for the infinitude of the human soul? Let’s hear it, and perhaps you may contribute to our understanding of being qua being.