[4.15.7] John Duns Scotus on Causation and Ordering

John Duns Scotus (the “Subtle Doctor,” 1265/66–1308 AD), in “De primo principio” analyzes the phenomenon of causation on the metaphysical level affects existence: how the existence of things generate the existence of other things.

  • Being is transcendentally divided by disjunctions, like priority and posteriority (see also [4.15.1]), which relate and define the ordering of things.
  • Scotus defines different sub-kinds of order based on the types of dependence between the prior and posterior.
  • Order of duration (earlier vs. later) and the order of eminence (perfect and less perfect in essence) are independent orders, where the posterior is existentially independent on the prior.
  • Causal dependence (like the Aristotelian four causes [1.3.4]) defines causal order, while non-causal dependence generates the order of dependence. These two orders combined in essential order form causal chains, where each “cause cannot only cause its effect but can also cause the causality of its effect.”

Scotus thinks that each essential order assumes the existence of at least one uncaused cause external to the order. This is the basis of his proof of the existence of God.

The following OntoUML diagram presents Duns Scotus’s model of causation:

Scotus on causation & ordering
ThingAn existent, a thing.prior to Thing
BeingThe being (existence) of a thing.charactrizes Thing
Order“Being […] is transcendentally divided by disjunctive attributes. One such attribute is the division “prior or posterior”: beings may be ordered to one another with respect to some kind of priority or posteriority.” relates Thing to Thing
Independence“The items ranked by each are independent [independence] of one another with regard to their position in the respective orderings.” characterizes OrderOfDuration& Eminence
OrderOfDuration&Eminence“One such attribute is the division ‘prior or posterior’: beings may be ordered to one another with respect to some kind of priority or posteriority. Instants of time, for example, fall into a single linear order of ‘earlier’ and ‘later’; Scotus calls this the ‘order of duration.’ Equally, we can rate beings, or perhaps their natures, by how ‘perfect and noble in essence’ they are: this is Scotus’s ‘order of eminence‘. Neither of these instances of priority and posteriority is causal, of course. The items ranked by each are independent of one another with regard to their position in the respective orderings.”subtype of Order
Dependence“other relations of priority and posteriority involve (essential) dependence, namely, when the prior could be without the posterior, but not conversely (De primo princ. 1.8). Accidents depend on substance this way; children likewise depend on their parents in this way, at least for coming into being (although not for their continued existence). Yet Scotus construes dependence as more than just necessary connection, explaining it as follows: “Even if the prior were necessarily to cause the posterior, and hence not be able to be without it, this is not because it requires the posterior for its being, but conversely”characterizes EssentialOrder
EssentialOrder“Scotus holds that an essential order consists in items that are related by a priority ordering in either a causal line or in the orders of eminence or a variety of noncausal dependencies sketched in the first two paragraphs of this section [see at Non-Causal Dependence], where essential orders are set apart from accidental orders by three features: (1) the posterior depends per se on the prior insofar as the posterior is in its turn a cause; (2) the causality of the prior has a distinct character since it is more perfect or complete; and (3) all members of the series are simultaneous. The key idea at work here is that a cause cannot only cause its effect but can also cause the causality of its effect. Consider the following example. I hold a stick in my hand, and with it I move a stone; the stick has the power to move the stone, since it does so, but it can only exercise that causal power because of my activity. The stick is the proximate cause of the stone’s motion, and I am the remote cause of the stone’s motion; we could say with equal justice either that the stick moves the stone or that I do. But more important, I am the proximate cause of the stick’s causality, since the stick only causes the stone’s motion through my exercise of my causal power.
The stick might have the power to move the stone (the way a soap bubble, say, never could), but the power is inert until I exercise my powers. Thus, my power to bring about the stick’s causal activity is more perfect and complete than the stick’s mere power to do so. Furthermore, it is clear that the stick exercises its causality to move the stone only so long as I amexercising my powers; the stick’s causality must be concurrent with my exercise of my causality. Hence, they are simultaneous.”
subtype of Order
CausalDependenceCausal dependence is a “specific kind of dependence, namely, one in which the dependence of the posterior on the prior is direct, having to do with the exercise of powers. This is why causality falls within the province of metaphysics. For the division “to be why another is” (cause) and “to be due to another” (effect) classifies beings independently of anything specifically physical, that is, regardless of change or motion.”characterizes CausalOrder; subkind of Dependence
FourCauses“Scotus’s ‘fourth division’ (De primo princ. 1.15) is the ‘wellknown’ classification of the four types of causes and their corresponding effects: formal, final, material, and efficient.76 Each kind of cause can be given a purely metaphysical interpretation. Furthermore, each produces its own proper result: the formal cause produces what is formed (formatum), the material cause what is made material (materiatum), the final cause its end (finitum), and the efficent cause its effect. These results may coincide in reality, as when the material and formal causes constitute a single thing: for instance, the marble and the shape are combined by the sculptor to produce a statue. The material and final causes are intrinsic, whereas the efficient and final causes are typically extrinsic. In this example, the sculptor is the efficient cause and his payment (say) the final cause. The example of the sculptor, simple as it is, illustrates an important thesis about causality: multiple causes can act concurrently to produce a given effect. Scotus argues that the four causes not only combine to produce a given effect, but that they are essentially ordered in their production of one and the same thing (De primo princ. 2.29–32), a conclusion explored below. subkind of CausalDependence
CausalOrderCausal order is a subtype of order characterized by causal dependence.subtype of Order; exclusive part of EssentialOrder
Non-CausalDependence“[…] there can be dependence where we would not ordinarily speak of causality. A substance is not normally the “cause” of its contingent accidents, nor is a subject the cause of its proper attributes. […] Scotus specifically introduces a noncausal kind of dependence that plays a key role in his proof of God’s existence: his “third division” of the order of dependence (De primo princ. 1.11–4), which comes in two varieties. Although noncausal, this dependence relation is induced by causal relations, in particular by the presence of a common cause.”subkind of Dependence; characterizes OrderOfDependence
FirstKind“A given cause can have one or several effects, and each of these effects can, in turn, be itself a cause that may have one or several further effects. (These effects-turned-causes can produce their own effects either of themselves or in combination with other partial co-causes, of course.) Thus we have a partial order defined over all the effects of a given cause. Adjacent elements in the partial order are proximate, nonadjacent elements remote. Now suppose that A is the proximate cause of both B and C, but that A cannot cause C until it has caused B. (It’s not that B concurs in causing C; A just has to get B out of its system, so to speak, before causing C.) In this case, says Scotus, C depends on B. The relation is not causal, since neither is the cause of the other, although they have a common proximate cause. This is Scotus’s first kind of noncausal dependence relation.”subkind of Non-CausalDependence
SecondKind“For the second, suppose that A has the two proximate effects B and C, but further that B causes D. In this case D is the proximate effect of B but the remote effect of A(or equally B is the proximate cause of D and A is the remote cause of D). Here C and D have a common cause, namely A, although the former is a proximate effectof A and the latter a remote effect of A. In such a situation, says Scotus, the remote effect depends on the proximate effect of their common cause – that is, D depends on C. But the relationship of C and D, again, is not itself causal, for neither is the cause of the other. This is Scotus’s second kind of noncausal dependence relation.”subkind of Non-CausalDependence
OrderOfDependence“The order of dependence, though, is not identical with the causal order; it is more general. First, there can be dependence where we would not ordinarily speak of causality.”subtype of Order; exclusive part of Essential Order


  • 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: 13/5/2021
Updated: 14/5/2021

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