[4.15.6] John Duns Scotus on Universals, Individuation and Haecceity

John Duns Scotus (the “Subtle Doctor,” 1265/66–1308 AD), in his works “Quaestiones in librum Porphyrii Isagoge,” “Quaestiones Quodlibetales,” “Quaestiones super libros Metaphysicorum Aristotelis” and “Ordinatio” discusses the problem of universals and individuation:

  • Universals are in the mind, and they are real because their content – the common nature is real.
  • Common nature is a subkind of essence (quiddity, see [3.3.1]), which has unity (of a lesser kind than numerical unity) and, as such, reality. They can be found both in individuals and in universals.
  • Scotus rejects the theories of individuation based on accidents (see [4.3.2] and [4.5.1] ) or matter (see [4.9.8]).
  • His solution for the problem of individuation is based on the concept of Haecceity (thisness), which is the “lowest level” essence individuating the particular.
  • Scotus thinks that we cannot know the haecceity (at least in this life), even though we can know singulars.

Here are Scotus’s responses to Porphyry’s questions (see [2.5]):

Porphyry’s questionsUniversals according to Boethius
(a) whether genera and species [universals] are real or are situated in bare thoughts aloneare in the mind, and they are real, because their content – the common nature is real
(b) whether as real they are bodies or incorporealsare incorporeals
(c) whether they are separated or in sensibles (individuals) and have their reality in connection with themare in connection with the sensibles

The following OntoUML diagram presents Duns Scotus’s model of universals and individuation:

Scotus on universals and individuation
MindA human mind, which “contains” universals, and as such common natures.
“Scotus argues that, if the nature when presented as an object to the intellect is actually singular, then the intellect is fundamentally misunderstanding the nature presented in the object, since it is ‘understanding’ it in a manner opposed to the way the nature actually is. For the nature is always apprehended by the intellect as universal, not as singular. Second, Scotus contends that anything that has its proper and adequate unity in the form of a real unity less than numerical unity cannot be one through numerical unity.”
Universal“With respect to the intellectual faculty, the nature’s presence in the soul provides only the content of the universal notion, not the predication of many, and that is why its community stands in need of further indetermination for true
exclusive part of Mind; represents Individual
IndividualAn individual thing.
CommonNatureCommon nature is a subkind of essence (quiddity), which has unity, and as such reality. They can be found in individuals and also in universals in the mind.
“Like Avicenna, Scotus thinks that the nature never exists apart from concrete things outside the mind or thoughts in the mind and that there is, nonetheless, a natural priority enjoyed by the nature with respect to either manifestation of the nature, within the mind or without. But there the similarities to the doctrine of Avicenna stop. First, the nature is so lacking in determination to singularity that the nature could of itself be conjoined to a principle of singularity other than a given one. Clearly, this means that the nature enjoys a level of ontological priority and identity that it retains even in the singular item outside the mind, where it is in its contracted state. Next, the nature has a real being outside the mind precisely because it has its own entity that naturally enters into the constitution of the singular item outside the mind. Third, because the nature has its own entity, it has its own unity, and it is this minor unity that is sufficiently indifferent to allow the nature of itself to be found, in principle, with any given individuating principle. As Scotus states elsewhere, a lesser, or minor, unity is compatible with a greater unity.
[…] What we have in Scotus’s ontology of universals, accordingly, is the doctrine of a common nature, not that of Avicenna’s neutral nature; in this doctrine, the community of the nature is described negatively (“the nature is not of itself this”), yet that description points to a positive feature. Scotus stresses the community of the nature in a paragraph summarizing his views:
‘To confirm the opinion [stated], it is clear that community and singularity are not related to the nature, as being in the intellect and true being outside the soul are. For community belongs to the nature apart from the intellect and likewise too does singularity, and community belongs to the nature in its own right, whereas singularity belongs to the nature through something in the thing that contracts the nature. But universality does not belong to a thing in its own right. And that is why I grant that we should seek the cause of universality, but no cause of community should be sought apart from the nature. And once the community within the nature is posited in accord with its proper entity and unity, we must necessarily seek a cause of singularity to add something to that nature to which it belongs.’
[…] The nature, even as it is found in this stone, has its own adequate, proper, and real unity that is less than numerical unity. Hence, the nature even as found in this stone has a lesser, or minor, unity proper to itself.”
subkind of Essence; shared part of Individual and Universal
HaecceityEveryone, Scotus avows, recognizes that there is individual unity, implicitly at least acknowledging that such unity consists in the individual thing’s noninstantiability. Yet if there is individual unity, there must be some positive being corresponding to it to provide the ontological foundation for such unity. Such positive being cannot be that of the specific nature, since the formal unity of the nature is quite different from that of the individual inasmuch as the formal unity of the specific nature is indeterminate and open to multiple instantiations, whereas the unity of the individual thing is precisely a unity that is not in any way open to multiple instantiations. Therefore, there must be an individual entity that functions as the ontological fundament of individual unity. Having reasoned to the existence of such an entity [Haecceity, haeceitas (‘thisness’)], Scotus is at pains to describe what it is. According to the very terms of the theory he proposes, the positive entity that is the ultimate source of the individual thing’s unity cannot be an object of scientific knowledge, since it cannot be something of which we can form a quidditative concept, that is, a concept that could be essentially predicable of many. If individual entity prompted our intellects in the present life, it would be indicative of what the individual is as such in contradistinction to any and all other individuals, real or possible.”subkind of Essence; exclusive part of Individual
EssenceEssence (or quiddity), see [3.3.1].

Related posts in theory of Universals: [1.2.2][1.3.1][1.3.2][2.5][2.7.3][4.3.1][4.3.2][4.4.1][4.5.2][4.9.8], [4.11]


  • All citations from: Noone, Timothy B., “Universals and Individuation”, 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.)
  • Adamson, Peter, “ONE IN A MILLION: SCOTUS ON UNIVERSALS AND INDIVIDUALS“, History of philosophy without any gaps podcast series

First published: 6/5/2021

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