263. One in a Million: Scotus on Universals and Individuals

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Scotus explains how things can share a nature in common while being unique individuals.



Further Reading

• P.V. Spade (trans.), Five Texts on the Mediaeval Problem of Universals: Porphyry, Boethius, Abelard, Duns Scotus, Ockham (Indianapolis: 1994).


• T. Bates, Duns Scotus and the Problem of Universals (London: 2010).

• R. Cross, Duns Scotus’ Theory of Cognition (Oxford: 2014).

• J.J.E. Gracia (ed.), Individuation in Scholasticism: the Later Middle Ages and the Counter-Reformation, 1150-1650 (Albany: 1994).

• G. Pini, “Scotus on Universals: a Reconsideration,”  Documenti e studi sulla tradizione filosofica medievale 18 (2007), 395-409.

• P. King, “Duns Scotus on the Common Nature and the Individual Differentia,” Philosophical Topics 20 (1992), 50-76.

• P. King, “Duns Scotus on Singular Essences,” Medioevo 30 (2005), 111-37.

• M.M. Tweedale, Scotus vs Ockham: a Medieval Dispute over Universals, 2 vols (Lewiston: 1999).


Matěj Cepl on 23 October 2016


(in spirit of creating weird terms) ... I really liked your episode today. However, I think I could use a bit of explanation why this old crap matters at all. You know something like how does the dispute on universals, and (in my opinion) sad reality that it has never been resolved, more like just abandoned reflects on the current disputes. I.e., isn't there some link between the dispute between nominalism and realism and current discussoins about social reality (e.g., gender)? Is gender real or just socially constructed? I know that philosophy is supposed to be dry and boring, but the dispuste about universals seems to get to the limits of what anybody is able to sustain.

Thanks for the show though

In reply to by Matěj Cepl

Peter Adamson on 23 October 2016


It's interesting you picked this topic to pose the question, because actually it is one of the medieval discussions that is most directly relevant to contemporary philosophy. It might be a challenge for me to explain to contemporary philosophers why they should care about Augustine's theory of grace and medieval theories of free will that respond to it; but the universals dispute would be no problem since that is still an ongoing and central debate in philosophy today.

I guess therefore that your question is not really about the topic being old, but why care about metaphysics at all. My response would be: look around you - everything you see is an individual object and has features in common with other things. So what we are trying to explain here is literally one of the most pervasive phenomena that there is, much more pervasive than (say) human ethical concerns, even.

Having said that, it does certainly have knock-on implications for issues you might find it easier to care about, to so speak. For instance, in ethics and politics we need the concept of an individual person, and also need to think about what people do/do not have in common (your point about gender). If you think about disputes over whether certain individuals are persons (e.g. fetuses, brain damaged humans), you might find it more plausible that a rigorous understanding of what makes each individual the individual it is could be quite handy.

But as I say, I don't think that "applied" discussions like this are the real reason it is interesting; it seems to me obviously a deep and puzzling question that is worth thinking about for its own sake. Maybe a matter of taste!

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Matěj Cepl on 24 October 2016

Just contrary...

Sorry, that's my horrible English (being sick doesn't help it, and yes I am a native Czech, so with the rising temperature my familiarity with Shakespeare's language goes down). I meant it just the opposite ... yes, I liked the topic and I think it would be even more encouraging for the listeners if you underscore its relevance to the current discussions.

Ben on 23 October 2016


I must say that despite some people not liking this section on Medieval philosophy I personally have found it not only deeply interesting from a historical perspective but also greatly thought provoking. I often recommend your podcast to people who wish to know more about medieval philosophy.

Anyway, just thought I should write and say that I am amazed and thankful you have put the massive effort into making these jems every week!


In reply to by Ben

Peter Adamson on 23 October 2016


Thanks very much! Very encouraging.

Actually, somewhat to my surprise the medieval episodes haven't been unpopular - the download stats are still high and hardly anyone has complained that I am lingering over it so long. I guess that once you dig into it, it is clear that they are covering lots of different philosophical issues so that there is something for everyone in the medieval period.

Or maybe the impatient people already gave up on me in late antiquity...

Roman Prychidko on 25 October 2016

Podcast comments

As the saying goes ' You can take a horse to the trough but you cannot make him drink' 

NIck on 26 October 2016


Firstly, thank you so much for the the whole series and books.

What a find (for me at least) is John Dun Scotus!

I must admit that even if did not know the works of some of the philosophers, I had some vague recollection of their name and roughly where they fit in history. With Scotus I had never heard of him. So this is enough to make medieval philosophy very interesting.

Another wonderful outcome is that at least for those of us that are scientifically trained, is how the culture of most science grads is to think that Medievals were some sort of people that chcked their brain out the door for a few centuries.

Your episodes are showing that this is not true at all. Continuity was alive and we must look at other areas to find reasons for accelaration and deccelaration of "progress".

The other area I found equally impressive was the time after hellenistic thought passed over to the Greek Church fathers.  These people pondered very hard on difficult topics that hardly anyone today knows or appreciates. Again thinking did not die but continued.

This is an amazing effort, and closing the gaps and shows that there will always be people that will try to make sense of it all and gracious enough to share with the rest of us.

In reply to by NIck

Peter Adamson on 26 October 2016


Great, thanks very much! I couldn't agree more about Scotus - he is a philosopher everyone should know about - and also the Patristic material, which was really the first thing I got to in the podcast that I didn't know well already myself. So I was also thrilled to read up and find out how interesting the Greek Fathers were.

Hristo on 15 September 2018

Intuitive and discursive knowledge

Great episode! Such a clear exposition on such a complicated topic.

I'm very intrigued by the last section about the cognition of individuals. I thought that Kant's distinction between intuitive and discursive knowledge should be traced back to Leibniz. Now I realize that it should be traced back to Scotus.

Alexander Johnson on 22 August 2019

(All) Roses are Red

I know it is a joke, but i find it interesting that we treat the statement A is B, where A is a universal, to mean strictly "All A is B" when this is so rarely the case in practical language.  There are a ton of other possible uses, such as "Apples are [typically/iconically] red," "African Americans [usually] vote democrat," "it is safer [on aggrigate], to wear a seatbelt," "taller waiters [all else being equal] recieve larger tips" and even the Aristotilian "humans [by nature/by essence] have two legs."   I understand why it is strictly true logically (at least Fregian and Stoic logically), but seems to be a pretty big leap to assume A is B was intended as "all A is B" in practice.

-Alexander "Otter" Johnson

Post Script:  I was also wondering why Aquinas was handled different than Augustine.  Both had a typical style but atypical conclusions to those of their own time period, that had little immediate influence but a much larger influence down the road.  It seems a little strange that he was singled out to be handled differently than several similar philosophers such as Augustine.  Is he just, whatever the reverse of trendy is, right now?

In reply to by Alexander Johnson

Peter Adamson on 23 August 2019

A is B

Yes, that's a good point and Aristotle as often is way ahead of you: he distinguishes carefully in the Prior Analytics between particular propositions (so about one, or more than one but not all, items within a class) and universal propositions (all the members of a class). You might remember that the medievals had those special names for syllogistic forms like Barbara and Ferio; the vowels in these mnemonic tags are the distinguish universal/particular and positive/negative propositions. So effectively they regiment a logical terminology for avoiding the ambiguity you are pointing to.

Re. your postscript the reason I tackled Aquinas like that is (a) he is often seen as dominating his period of philosophy, as if he were by far the most important figure of the medieval age, to the point that he is often the only medieval thinker studied in a survey class, and (b) in fact he is more interesting to look at in context by comparing his views to those of contemporaries or near-contemporaries like Albert, Bonaventure, Scotus, etc. Neither of those is really true for Augustine. There I had a different axe to grind which is that he is often not perceived as a late ancient thinker but as early medieval - basically, as a forerunner to Aquinas! So in a way my treatment of both is part of the same effort to decenter Aquinas from the whole story of pre-modern Christian philsoophy, by firstly contextualizing Augustine as a late ancient thinker, and secondly by emphasizing that Aquinas is only one of many scholastics worth our attention.

Brandon Freude… on 10 May 2024

Fuzziness of Universals

Hi - You may have mentioned this, but do medieval philosophers ever talk about the fuzziness of universals? For example, if a horse is born that can’t neigh, does this fail to be an individual within the species horse?  This is for me an argument in favor of nominalism but, in the context of Duns Scotus I almost feel like this extends the concept of individuation to species. You might say that there is still some heacceity that separates a horse from a giraffe even if one of them is missing an important distinguishing feature. A commenter above referenced gender and this feels very relevant here — I don’t know a good definition of “womanhood” or “manhood” that captures everyone’s experience, but these still feel like useful concepts. So maybe the metaphysical definition of a woman isn’t really reducible beyond “woman-ness” or the “this-ness” that separates the species of woman. 

In reply to by Brandon Freude…

Peter Adamson on 11 May 2024


That's a good question but I have to admit that nothing comes immediately to mind - I think that the medievals, living as they did before evolutionary theory etc, were comfortable assuming that there are natural kinds or species that "cut nature at the joints" and that there is a clear boundary between species. There is the argument from "monsters" (like, animals with the wrong number of limbs or whatever) but these were not usually taken to destabilize the scientific taxonomy. For more on this you could listen to the interview I did with Lorraine Daston (episode 396). 

Gender by the way was just assumed to be accidental to each animal species, there is no distinct species or essence of female-human as opposed to male-human. 

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Andrew on 11 May 2024


That last line is quite interesting, given our usual views on what we take people in the past to view gender as. Would this view mean they would be open to the idea of changing your gender? If it is just accidental, then it should be changeable, no? Or that sex/gender isn't binary? Since if there is no essence then the boundaries could be fuzzy no? How about intersex people?

In reply to by Andrew

Peter Adamson on 11 May 2024

Accidental gender

No I didn't mean that; you can also have accidents that can't be lost (Porphyry gives the example of a scar that never heals). The point is just that insofar as you are a human, you are neither a man nor a woman. But it is presumably essential to you as a human that you are either-male-or-female.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Andrew on 12 May 2024

Two more questions

Two questions then
1. Is there a metaphysical fact that makes the difference between if an accident is something that can change or can't be change? Or is that only determined on the physical level? Basically, is the difference between a scar that can heal vs one that can't only determined on the physical level, or is there a difference in the metaphysical level that makes the difference? Hopefully that question makes sense.
2. What would they make of say intersex people then? People that don't quite fit neatly in either of the two biological categories we have for sex?

In reply to by Andrew

Peter Adamson on 13 May 2024


Yes that question makes sense. In general, accidents are not defined in terms of whether they can actually be lost, but in terms of whether their absence is theoretically possible given the definition or essence of the thing. Clearly, any accident that belongs to only some humans is not essential to humans (since otherwise how could the ones who lack it not have it?) so it doesn't really matter whether it is permanent for the humans who have it.

Re. the second question I don't know a text on this, though again Lorraine Daston's work would be a place to look. I fear that the ancients and medievals would, if they considered the issue, just bracket that under the heading of "monstrous births" like cases of missing limbs or whatever. Obviously not a part of their theory one would want to endorse or revive today! 

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Andrew on 13 May 2024

So to your answer to the…

So to your answer to the first question then, I guess the distinction is just determined via matter of fact and it doesn't have any metaphysical distinction (i.e. whether an accident can be lost is a distinction physics makes and not metaphysics) right?

In reply to by Andrew

Peter Adamson on 13 May 2024

Scars etc

Yes I would say so - it's an empirical question (and changeable over time, e.g. developing technology to remove scars).

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Andrew on 13 May 2024

So then, in theory, medieval…

So then, in theory, medieval philosophers could assent to the idea that it was metaphysically possible for someone to change sex, but that it was just (supposedly) empirically impossible? Or is there something else I am missing?

In reply to by Andrew

Peter Adamson on 14 May 2024

Sex change

Yes I think that is exactly right - again, not sure there is a case where anyone considered the question but I wouldn't put it past them, those scholastics loved their thought experiments.

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