[4.15.11] John Duns Scotus on Natural Law

John Duns Scotus (the “Subtle Doctor,” 1265/66–1308 AD), in his work “Ordinatio” writes about the natural law in the context of the Decalogue (Ten Commandments):

  • Natural law, in the strict sense, contains only the self-evident moral propositions, along with those that can be derived from them deductively. These are necessary, non-contradictory propositions, unchangeable even by God’s will. These are the commandments I, II, and probably III.
  • The natural law in the wider sense contains moral propositions that agree with those in the strict sense, but their opposites not. These are the commandments from the second tablet (VI-X).
  • The natural laws in the wider sense are contingent; they depend entirely on God’s free will.
  • Some commandments prescribing ceremonies and customs belong to the positive law.

The following UML Use Case diagram presents Scotus’s model of natural law:

Scotus on natural law
NaturalLaw“The ‘nature’ appealed to by classical and medieval theories of natural law – however it might have been conceived by any particular thinker – was invariably associated with two criteria: it represented an authoritative standard, with determinate content, that was understood as both universal (that is, not prescriptive for just one individual) and accessible to human beings through their natural powers. Because natural law rests on a nature that cannot be changed by human action, it has universal validity. Because human beings themselves belong to that nature, they are in principle capable of knowing the corresponding law. […]
This linking of natural law to eternal law does not merely place the natural law beyond the power of human beings to change. It also raises most pointedly the question of whether, and in what way, the natural law can be changed by divine action. […]
Scotus follows the main thread of this way of posing the problem when he devotes Ordinatio 3, d. 37, the central text in which he develops his conception of natural law, to the question of whether all the commandments of the Decalogue belong to the natural law. […]
Scotus understands all the commandments, both those that belong to natural law in the strict sense and those that belong to it only in the wider sense, as practical truths (vera practica): the former because they are self-evident, the latter because of their accordance or agreement (consonantia) with the former”
subkind of Law
NaturalLawStrictSense“Scotus first offers a purely formal criterion for belonging to natural law: a commandment belongs to natural law in the strict sense if, simply on the basis of the content expressed in the commandment, it is conceptually necessary that the commandment be valid. Nowhere in his work does Scotus trace the content of the natural law back to the eternal law; in fact, the doctrine of eternal law has
no importance in his system. […]
Neither the context in which a commandment is operative, nor the intention with which it is laid down, is relevant to its validity, if it is to count as belonging to the natural law in the strict sense. Scotus then makes clear what he means by this conceptual necessity when he goes on to discuss whether following the commandments is necessary for attaining the ultimate end. Only for these self-evident principles, he concludes, is it the case that what they prescribe is unqualifiedly necessary in order to attain the ultimate end. ‘Unqualifiedly necessary,’ as the context makes clear, means that it is inconceivable that one could repudiate the goodness prescribed in these commandments without thereby also repudiating the goodness of the ultimate end itself. Since the ultimate end of all action is the attainment of the highest good, and the highest good is identical with God, the only commandments that can belong to natural law in the strict sense are those that have God himself as their object. As far as the Decalogue is concerned, the result of Scotus’s reflections is that only the commandments of the first table belong to natural law in the strict sense. So only the first two commandments – Scotus is uncertain about the third – belong to the natural law in the strict sense, since only ‘these regard God immediately as object.’ The content of the natural law in the strict sense can be summarized in the formulation that ‘God is to be loved’ or rather, in the more precise negative formulation, that ‘God is not to be hated.’ This commandment meets the formal criterion of self-evidence because in essence (as Scotus emphasizes in Ord. 3, d. 27) it simply states that ‘what is best must be loved most.’ On this interpretation it becomes obvious that the commandment to love God is a self-evident practical principle and therefore meets the formal criterion for belonging to the natural law. […]”
A natural law in the strict sense is necessary.
subkind of NaturalLaw
NaturalLawWiderSenseNatural law in a wider sense: “The criterion in virtue of which they belong is not their conceptual necessity but their broad agreement (consonantia) with natural law in the strict sense. […] As Scotus makes clear in another context, this conception of consonantia allows for two interpretations. On the one hand, there are commandments that accord with general commandments but whose opposites would also be compatible with those same general commandments; on the other hand, there are those whose opposites are not compatible with the overarching general principles. Only the latter belong to the natural law in the wider sense. […] The commandments of the second table can be counted as belonging to the natural law only in a looser sense.”
These laws are contingent.
subkind of NaturalLaw; in agreement with NaturalLawStrictSense
FreedomFrom Contradiction“The only limit is the limit of God’s absolute power itself; there can be no dispensation from commandments whose validity is outside the domain of God’s absolute power. And the only constraint on God’s absolute power is the requirement of freedom from contradiction. […] Applied to the doctrine of natural law, this means that the natural law in the strict sense comprises all commandments that are such that any dispensation from them would involve a contradiction.”characterizes NaturalLawStrictSense
Agreement”‘Scotus’s concept of agreement is defined negatively insofar as it implies that there is no strict deductive connection that would permit a necessary inference from overarching self-evident principles.
More positively, these commandments can be understood as elaborations (declaratio) or explanations (explicatio) of some overarching general commandment – as Scotus makes clear in an example. Commandments with this sort of consonantia extend general commandments by making them applicable to specific cases.”
relates NaturalLawStrictSense with NaturalLawWiderSense
DivineWillGod’s Will
PositiveLaw“As Scotus makes clear in another context, this conception of consonantia allows for two interpretations. On the one hand, there are commandments that accord with general commandments but whose opposites would also be compatible with those same general commandments; on the other hand, there are those whose opposites are not compatible with the overarching general principles. Only the latter belong to the natural law in the wider sense; the former belong only to positive law. On this understanding, a commandment prescribing certain ceremonies or customs belongs to positive law, since a comparable commandment prescribing other ceremonies – and perhaps even forbidding the practice of ceremonies of the first sort – can also be conceived as being in accordance with natural law in the strict sense.”subkind of Law
  • All citations from: Möhle, Hannes, “Scotus’s Theory of Natural Law”, 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: 24/6/2021

[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