Review of Subtle Wisdom: John Duns Scotus's Philosophy of the Human Person
The Franciscan friar John Duns Scotus is known as the "Subtle Doctor" (Doctor Subtilis). He earned this designation by showing evidence that his mind was acute or capable of making important distinctions. Whether one agrees with Scotus doctrinally or philosophically, his thoughts on metaphysics and the human person are worthy of consideration. The late Etienne Gilson appropriately said that Scotus was no "mean metaphysician." In this small but effective work on Scotus, Tim Weldon clearly and intriguingly brings out the significance of Scotus' thought on the human person.
In the work "Subtle Wisdom" we learn about the historical background of Duns Scotus. The Subtle Doctor was apparently born in Scotland, educated at Oxford, lectured and served as regent master of theology in France, then died at Cologne (Germany). The year 1992 was also important from a Scotist perspective in view of the fact that Pope John Paul II pronounced Scotus "Blessed," thereby paving the way to sainthood for the Medieval thinker. It's also interesting to discover that Scotus produced a number of complex philosophical-theological works in his short lifetime. Weldon provides an approximate chronological outline of Scotus' oeuvre on pages 11-12. Editions for these works and their Latin titles are supplied in this portion of Weldon's book.
What constitutes the human person for Scotus? What does it mean to be a person? Weldon insists that Scotus would summarize human personhood in terms of love (page 14). That is the Franciscan way. To demonstrate this point, Weldon quotes Augustine of Hippo ("My weight is my love"), The Seraphic Doctor (Bonaventure) and other Franciscans who bear witness to the idea that Franciscans tend to define the human person within the context of love while affirming a teleology that represents God as the final cause of all things (human beings included). All things have come from God; hence, all things return to Him.
For Scotus, not only are we knowers, we are principally and inherently lovers as well. The Bible commands that we love God first, then it enjoins us to love our neighbors. Love is that which defines human persons: other theologians have called love "the primal ethical." But just what does the term "love" mean? Plato visited this question in his famous work "Symposium." However, in everyday conversation, the word "love" is used somewhat ambiguously. Scotus nonetheless views the will as "the seat of love and ethical action in the human person" (51). He argues that the will is rational, it's the locus of choice that is capable of acting in harmony with reason. Since for Scotus, the will's object is the good (bonum), the will "is inclined to self-determine in accordance with the good" (53). He also believes that we have no greater obligation than to love God (Deus diligendus est). Yet love for neighbor and ourselves is presupposed in the command to love God. And how do we manifest love for God or neighbor unless such love is willed by us?
Weldon touches on an aspect of Scotus' thought that can be particularly difficult to understand, namely, the philosophical concept of haecceities. Scotus coined the Latin term "haecceitas." Although it may be to some extent opaque, the concept seems to reveal something profound about the human person. Human persons are unique: they are "unequivocally, irreducibly, and indivisibly unique" for Scotus (66). The teaching about haecceities thus emphasizes the metaphysical role of individuation or it seeks to clarify in what sense things are individuated. Haecceitas literally means "thisness" (68). It potentially signifies the personal and indistinguishable nature of humans:
"As a determining, individuating principle, the genius of the concept of haecceity and its sacred reality has to be understood within the Franciscan worldview, specifically the Scotistic framework of creation and the place of the human person within creation" (70).
Weldon has briefly provided readers with a preliminary education of the Subtle Doctor.