[4.15.10] John Duns Scotus on Intuitive and Abstractive Cognition

John Duns Scotus (the “Subtle Doctor,” 1265/66–1308 AD), in “Quodlibetum,” “Ordinatio” and “Quaestiones super libros de anima” outlines the process of human cognition:

  • Cognition is based on sense perception of the material world, with corporeal organs as substrate. Objects in the external world generate sensible species in the sense-organs.
  • Sensible species are further processed and stored in the internal senses (common sense, sense memory, and imagination). Phantasms are generated by the imagination based on sensible species.
  • In abstractive cognition, the agent intellect abstracts common natures, universals from the phantasms, while intuitive cognition cognizes present singular objects.
  • The possible intellect understands universals and present singular objects and generates discursive knowledge.

The following UML Use Case diagram presents Scotus’s model of the human cognition:

Scotus on intuitive and abstractive cognition

Use cases:

5 EXTRERNAL SENSEs(5 EXTERNAL SENSES) apprehend the sensible quality [sensible species] of an external object (UC1): “The simplest form of sensation, sensation per se, occurs when one of the five external senses apprehends the sensible quality that is its proper object: when sight sees color, for instance, or hearing hears sounds. Speaking more broadly, one sees darkness, or sees a human being. This is sensation per accidens.” (Normore, 2003)
External senses are:  touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste
Common sense(Common sense) distinguishes sensations and perceives what we sense [sensible species], and also time and magnitude (UC2): “the common sense is responsible for distinguishing different sorts of sensations from each other (sounds from sights, for example), and that it is responsible for perceiving that we sense. […] Scotus is happy to affirm, with Aristotle, that the common sense perceives time and magnitude—the common sensibles.” (Cross, 2014)includes UC1
Imagination(Imagination) stores and recalls sense images, sensible species in the absence of their objects; creates phantasms (UC3): “The imagination stores sense images in the absence of their objects, and is the faculty that recalls such images. […] As he sees it, the imagination conjures up things irrespective of their being past […]
[…] So there is a kind of sense cognition that is non-perceptual, and the phantasm is the relevant habit or species that allows for this kind of cognition. There is nothing surprising about this, since no one holds that imagination requires the presence of its objects, or that it is perceptual. The imagination is such that it can have acts whose contents are fixed by the phantasms:
The phantasm … represents with its whole power the object as singular to the imagination (virtuti phantasticae), for there is then an actual imagination of that object in the singular.” (Cross, 2014)
includes UC2, UC4
Sense memorySense memory stores sensible species (UC4): “sense memory has the pastness of its objects attached to it in some way. […] the sense memory is responsible for remembering past sensations, and the objects of those sensations, as past. Scotus maintains that in this kind of recall the cognizer has the past act as her immediate object and the (sensory) object of that act as her remote object. So we have memory of the past as past by having memory of past acts of sensation. Scotus holds that there must be a species impressed by the past sensory act (to make the act relevantly, but of course not really, present to the subject). […]
So the mechanisms of perception require sensible species. But Scotus holds that we have a number of sense operations that are not in fact perceptual: particularly, memory and imagination; and we have some dysfunctional sense operations too, such as hallucination. And, Scotus maintains, all of these require species. First of all, he holds that we need sensible species in order to account for sense memory: not in this case our memory specifically of past sensations, but our memory of the objects of such sensations. […]
As we have seen, Scotus holds that there is a kind of sense memory—memory of past events as past—that requires that the past sensation is the immediate object of recollection” (Cross, 2014)
Agent IntellectAbstractive cognition: (agent intellect) abstracts intelligible species, common natures, universals from phantasms (UC5): “Scotus holds, in good Aristotelian fashion, that there is an agent intellect, and that it is the faculty that (partially) causes intelligible species. […] the agent intellect is as a power for abstracting intelligible species from phantasms […]
The object of abstractive cognition is (standardly) the common nature, but abstraction precludes existence and presence, and in so doing (it seems) basically excludes the individuating feature. Abstraction enables us to grasp the common features of a kind. […]
The content of an abstractive cognition is a universal, a definition: it is a conceptualization of a common nature, sufficient to give some kind of account of such natures, and sufficient to ground the various general predications that we might want to make about kinds of thing.” (Cross, 2014)
includes UC3
Agent Intellect Intuitive cognition: (agent intellect) cognizes present singular objects (UC6): “There is another act of cognizing, which, although we do not experience so evidently in ourselves, is possible. It is precisely of a present object, as present, and of an existent object, as existent. […]
Given that existence is a necessary condition for real presence, it follows that intuitive cognition necessarily has the existent as its object. […]
But a further distinction, between intuitive and abstractive cognition, follows from this, and we need to keep it in mind if we are to understand everything that Scotus says on the matter. I noted that the object of both kinds of cognition is the common nature; and I take it that Scotus would allow too the singular in the case of intuitive cognition, albeit falling short of de re cognition of the singular . But—crucially—the contents of each kind of act are different from each other. Intuitive intellectual cognition acquaints the cognizer with the object, though in such a way that the content of such a cognition can figure in syntactic complexes (to use Scotus’s example, ‘Peter is sitting down’). […] He holds that all propositional knowledge is intellectual, and he seems to suppose that the intellect’s forming contingent propositions about singulars (not, I take it, propositions about singulars de re) requires that all the relevant mental contents inhere in the intellect, not the senses Elsewhere, Scotus gives an example of the kind of thing he has in mind: the intellect can know that Peter is sitting down (sessio Petri), on the basis of which, presumably, it can form the contingent proposition ‘Peter is sitting down’: where the point of the discussion is that the intellect can form (tensed) propositions about ‘the present’, propositions whose contents are simply current perceptual experiences.‘” (Cross, 2014)
inludes UC2
Possible intellect(Possible intellect) knows/understands intelligible species and present objects (UC7): “the possible intellect is the ‘intelligence’ the power for occurently cognizing, for ‘receiving the act of undestanding’. […]
Since, according to Aristotle, again as interpreted by Scotus, the faculty that actually thinks, and that stores intelligible species, is the possible intellect, the possible intellect must include both memory and intelligence.” (Cross, 2014)
includes UC5, UC6, UC8, UC9
Intellectual MemoryIntellectual memory stores intelligible species and past intellective acts (UC8): “Scotus refers to the faculty responsible for storing intelligible species as the ‘memory’ (memoria), and he holds too that the memory is the relevant causal power that produces occurrent cognitions. […]
The idea is that memory—the storehouse for intelligible species in humans causes, jointly with these species, occurrent cognitions. […]
And the possible intellect is the ‘memory’ too, the storehouse for intelligible species and cognitive dispositions. Evidence for this comes from Augustine: scientia is stored in the memory, and the term here is used to refer to habitual cognitions— intelligible species. The point is that the presence of scientia brings it about that the intellect can occurrently cognize without any further change—it is in accidental potency rather than essential potency.” (Cross, 2014)
Intelligence(Intelligence) thinks (UC9): “Following Augustine, at least as interpreted by Scotus, occurrent cognitions inhere in the intelligence, which is thus the power that actually thinks, or that has the relevant operation (or rather, the activity is the soul’s, and the memory grounds the activity […]).
Scotus makes the point as follows, using Augustine’s terminology of the mental word to refer to an occurrent cognition: Therefore, the word can be described as follows: the word is an act of the intelligence, produced by perfect memory, existing only with an actual act of intellection. […] And from these things it is clear that the word pertains neither to the will nor to the memory (because it is the second part of the image, not the first or the third), and consequently it is not an intelligible species or habit, or anything that pertains to the memory. Therefore it is somethingthat pertains to the intelligence.” (Cross, 2014)


ObjectA material object in the external world.generates sensible species in the sense organs.
User of the soulA human person.uses UC7


  • Normore, Calvin G., “Duns Scotus’s Modal Theory”, The Cambridge Companion to Duns Scotus, Cambridge University Press 2003, ed. Thomas Williams
  • Cross, Richard, “Duns Scotus’s Theory of Cognition”, Oxford University Press, 2014
  • Williams, Thomas, “John Duns Scotus“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

First published: 10/6/2021

[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