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  • Duns Scotus on Time and Existence: The Questions on Aristotle’s “De interpretatione.” by John Duns Scotus
  • Allan Bäck
John Duns Scotus. Duns Scotus on Time and Existence: The Questions on Aristotle’s “De interpretatione.” Translated with introduction and commentary by Edward Buckner and Jack Zupko. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2014. Pp. xiv + 386. Cloth, $69.95.

This book offers a translation of two short commentaries by John Duns Scotus on Aristotle’s On Interpretation. It comes with an introduction, notes, and a commentary. I think that this book would be difficult for a novice; perhaps the intended audience is someone with a general familiarity with medieval philosophy, although not necessarily with medieval logic. I do not think that someone just interested in general logical issues, such as existential import or future contingents, will find much to interest her here, despite some remarks in the commentary (e.g. 173).

In the introduction, Buckner and Zupko discuss these commentaries and their place in Scotus’s corpus. It seems that they were written by Scotus himself rather early (4, 6–7). They omit some doctrines, such as “the synchronic conception of modality” (9), which Scotus endorsed later in his career (317–18)—although perhaps Scotus is just following earlier commentaries or the curriculum for which these commentaries seem to have been written.

The introduction does a good job of placing these commentaries in their immediate historical context, though less so with the Greeks or Arabs. The notes too have references to other texts of Scotus and of his contemporaries, along with many translations of pertinent passages. The comments made on Scotus’s commentaries are generally helpful, in the mode of an explication de texte, although, to repeat, I think that a beginner would be often confused.

The comments are not as helpful on logical doctrines. For example, Scotus’s second syllogism at 29 (7) does not look much like its rendition (175). Again, the translators do not consider the standard meaning of ‘perfect syllogism’ from Aristotle’s Prior Analytics 24b22–24 (277 n. 18). Also, the discussion of the role of the copula seems to miss the point. It would be helped by consulting some neglected secondary literature, like the last chapter of Bäck’s Aristotle’s Theory of Predication. Buckner and Zupko try to assimilate Scotus’s theory of predication to the current one (300). In doing so, they obscure some big differences, noted for example by Ignacio Angellelli in Studies on Gottlob Frege and Traditional Philosophy. The Aristotelian inference ‘Caesar is a man; therefore Caesar is’ is not well-formed in Frege-Russell logic (52).

The texts themselves do not seem to have much originality. If I compare Scotus’s commentaries on On Interpretation with earlier ones, for example, those of Abelard or Albert (or Avicenna), and with those of Greek commentators such as Simplicius or Ammonius, I find them rather elementary—aside from Scotus’s penchant for a complex structure. Like Aquinas, Scotus seems to follow the tradition of Boethius and Proclus/Ammonius, which was rather old-fashioned already with Aquinas.

The translators suggest that Scotus was the first in medieval times to allow for “synchronic contingency,” “alternative possibility at a given time” (317)—not in this commentary but in his later writings. However, already Aristotle allows that a coat may or may not be cut up, now or in the future (19a12–13). So what is the innovation? Scotus has the position that future contingent statements are indeterminate in truth value (157)—a standard view from Ammonius onwards. In the commentaries, Scotus accepts the traditional medieval doctrine of those such as William of Sherwood that “if it is false that you are at Rome now, at t1, then it is necessarily false that you are in Rome at t1” (317–18). But all this amounts to is Aristotle’s doctrine of hypothetical necessity (19a23–27); in modern terms, if ├Φ, then├□Φ. In this way, contradictory statements about the present may both be contingent, absolutely, even though hypothetically only one of them is necessary.

The translation is readable and reliable, although some technical doctrines, like that of a statement of...


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