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Reviewed by:
  • The Philosophy of John Duns Scotus
  • Oleg Bychkov
Antonie Vos. The Philosophy of John Duns Scotus. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006. Pages: xii + 654

It is difficult to do justice to a monumental study such as PJDS in a short review: only time will determine its real significance. We can only offer some preliminary comments, and in spite of anything we have to say, the mere fact that the book contains such a wealth of information justifies for it a permanent place on a bookshelf of a student of medieval thought.

The title of PJDS deserves special attention. While we have books on Scotus's theology or particular topics of his thought, there has been no comprehensive study of his "philosophy," seemingly for a good reason: Scotus is clearly a "fundamental" (Tracy) and systematic theologian who simply uses some classic tools of ancient philosophers (logic) and some of their texts and ideas as material ("authorities") for his own discussions. So first of all one needs to determine what constitutes "philosophy" in such a case. V. devotes considerable attention to this question, but unfortunately only at the very end of the study, in Part III, which constitutes (especially Chapters 14 and 15) almost a separate monograph on the historiography of the debate about "medieval philosophy" and Scotus's role in it. Dichotomizing medieval thought into "philosophy" and theology in recent debates comes from the post-Enlightenment habit of seeing "philosophy" (or "science"), as opposed to "theology," as something positive in itself. In Chapter 14 V. makes a good observation that "philosophy" and "theology" in ancient and medieval thought are simply two systems that can be coherent in themselves but differ fundamentally as far as their premises are concerned. Using the terminology of contemporary hermeneutical-postcritical analysis, one could say that both disciplines are intratextual systems, with their own internal logic but with different "starting points," opened to a conversation ad extra to various degrees. The classification "intratextual system" based on a solid theoretical foundation in the hermeneutical-postcritical tradition (which Vos does not provide) would eliminate the unnecessary dichotomy in ancient and medieval [End Page 526] thought. Indeed, it is difficult to see why some of Plato's, Aristotle's or Stoic texts should be classified as "philosophy," not to mention those of Plotinus and Proclus that are often clearly "theology." As a whole, V.'s verdict (Chapter 16) is that Scotus has his own coherent system of thought based on contingency, as opposed to the "necessitarianism" of ancient (and some modern) philosophers. As for the role of "philosophy," V.'s analysis of recent scholarship (Chapter 15) shows that "medieval philosophy" is often understood as the logical tools in the service of theology: the interpretation that explains the recent interest in the fourteenth-century thought where those tools were best developed.

The book in general is quite readable, despite occasional infelicities in the English and some typos. V. employs a variety of styles, from purely scholarly, which includes a straightforward exposition of relevant texts, with some analysis of the diachronic development of issues, to more literary, ornate and emotional. Similarly varied is his presentation of issues: from dry exposition to creating prolonged "mystery plots" that lead to "discoveries." Unfortunately there is also some unevenness in the text flow: from very smooth to abrupt transitions from one statement to another (cf. 279, 326).

Although the book will definitely benefit a variety of readers, the exact readership is difficult to pinpoint. Some sections, such as the extended discussion of distinctions and relations in the section on logic, presuppose a very basic audience; often much of the material from previous sections is repeated (cf. the section on ontology compared to that on logic). Yet other sections (e.g., Chapter 13 on God; cf. 468ff, 507) presuppose a rather sophisticated reader who is familiar with the context of the discussion and is able not only to follow but also anticipate the author's train of thought.

PJDS provides an excellent coverage of Scotus's work, with one notable exception: the Reportatio tradition. Even though the Wolter/Bychkov edition-translation of Rep. I-A appeared perhaps too late to be included, other books existed...