[4.15.4] John Duns Scotus on the Structure of Composite Substances

John Duns Scotus (the “Subtle Doctor,” 1265/66–1308 AD), in his works “Quaestiones super libros Metaphysicorum Aristotelis,” “Quaestiones Quodlibetales,” and “Ordinatio” writes about the structure of being, categories, substance, essence, form, and matter:

  • Scotus agrees with Aristotle on the division of finite being into ten categories (see also [1.3.2]); the most important of those is substance since it is the only characterized by self-sufficient existence (see also [4.15.3]).
  • Substance and essence are really identical but formally distinct (see [4.15.2]).
  • Essence is a combination of prime matter and substantial form (see also [4.9.1][4.9.2]).
  • Composite substances (like living beings) have other substances as constituent elements (e.g., organs, soul). Each of those has a separate existence. However, the whole composite substance has only one existence. The existence of the constituent elements depends on the existence of the whole.
  • Composite structures have distinct essences from the constituent elements.
  • The partial form orders the constituent elements, while the form of the whole provides its quiddity.

The following OntoUML diagram presents Duns Scotus’s model of individual composite substance:

Scotus on composite substances
Category“Scotus holds that the division of finite being into the ten [Aristotelian] categories is immediate and sufficient: that there must be precisely these ten categories and no others.”
The ten categories are:
(1) substance;
accidental categories: (2) quantity; (3) quality; (4) relatives; (5) somewhere; (6) sometime; (7) being in a position; (8) having; (9) acting; and (10) being acted upon, see also [1.3.2].
Substance; Essence; PrimeMatter; SubstantialFormMain classes in Scotus’s model of substance, see [4.15.3].
CompositeSubstance“Scotus is maintaining that although the constituent elements of a unified whole [composite substance] have their own individual existences, the whole, nevertheless, may have only one existence, and the existences of the constituent elements may be somehow dependent on the existence of the whole.”role of Substance; identical with EssenceOf CompositeSubstance
ConstituentElement“Each of these has some claim to be treated as a being in its own right. […]
The existences of the consituent parts of the composite are not simply added or aggregated; they have instead an essential order to one another, and overall an essential order to the ‘topmost’ substantial form that gives existence to the whole composite, as Scotus goes on to say.”
role of Substance; exclusive part of CompositeSubstance
EssenceOf CompositeSubstance“The essence of the composite [substance] is something distinct from any of its constituent elements: it is a composite of form as such and matter as such. It cannot be identified simply with the substantial form, since that is only one of the constituents of the composite and has its own proper essence and existence, as we have seen. […]
The essence of the composite, then, is tightly linked to all the constituent elements of the composite, as they are essentially ordered to one another. Indeed, it seems as though an individual composite can have an essence only if all its constituents are properly aligned. […]
In short, the essence of the composite is something over and above the parts of the composite, not reducible to them.”
The essence of the composite substance is identical, but formally distinct from the composite substance (see [4.15.2]) .
subkind of Essence
PartialForm“However, the substantial form does give further actuality to the remainder of the elements that make up the composite, and, on this score, it can be called the ‘partial form‘ of the composite.”subkind of SubstantialForm; exclusive part of EssenceOf CompositeSubstance; informs and orders ConstituentElement
FormOfTheWhole“[Partial form] should not be confused with the ‘form of the whole’ (viz. the whole composite), which is ‘not an informing form’ but rather that in virtue of which the composite as a whole has a nature or quiddity.”subkind of SubstantialForm; exclusive part of EssenceOf CompositeSubstance


  • All citations from: King, Peter, “Scotus on Metaphysics”, The Cambridge Companion to Duns Scotus, Cambridge University Press 2003, ed. Thomas Williams
  • Williams, Thomas, “John Duns Scotus“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

First published: 22/4/2021

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