260. Once and for All: Scotus on Being

Posted on 10 September 2016

Duns Scotus attacks the proposal of Aquinas and Henry of Ghent that being is subject to analogy.

Further Reading

• J. Descortes and R.J. Teske (trans.), Henry of Ghent: Questions on God’s Existence and Essence (Leuven: 2005).

• A.B. Wolter (trans.), Duns Scotus: Philosophical Writings (Indianapolis: 1987)


• R. Cross, Duns Scotus (New York: 1999).

• R. Cross, “Duns Scotus on Essence and Existence,” Oxford Studies in Medieval Philosophy 1 (2013), 172-204.

• A.J. O’Brien, “Duns Scotus’ Teaching on the Distinction Between Essence and Existence,” New Scholasticism 38 (1964), 61-77.

• J. Paulus, “Les Disputes d’Henri de Gand et Gilles de Rome sur la distinction de l’essence et de l’existence,” Archives d’Histoire Doctrinale et Littéraire du Moyen Âge 13 (1942), 323-58.

• J.F. Wippel, “Godfrey of Fontaines and the Real Distinction between Essence and Existence,” Traditio 20 (1964), 385-410.

• T. Williams (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Duns Scotus (Cambridge: 2003).

• B. Wolter, Scotus and Ockham: Selected Essays (St. Bonaventure NY: 2003).­

Stanford Encyclopedia: Medieval theories of analogy

Stanford Encyclopedia: Duns Scotus


Paul Trembath 11 September 2016

Hi. This is HoPWaG 260, but the name of the MP3 when downloaded says 261. 

Peter Adamson 11 September 2016

In reply to by Paul Trembath

Thanks, I had caught the mislabeling apart from the name of the .mp3! Fixed now.

Michael Tavuzzi 11 September 2016

The podcast itself is numbered 261 instead of 260 as it should be.
"Being" in the present discussion should be translated into Latin as "ens" and not "esse," for if you do so the entire discussion over the univocal/analogical saying of the term "being" - in both Scotism and Thomism the term "being" is said (dicitur) of things, while the ratio entis is predicated (praedicatur) ... - will get terribly tangled up. Moreover, if you translate being as "esse" talk of the distinction (accept it or deny it) between esse and essentia will become rather obscure.

Still following this great series of podcasts with interest and pleasure every Sunday night with a befitting nightcap - and I have been teaching the history of medieval philosophy since the mid 1970s ! Well done !


Thanks, I fixed the number.

Re. the translation of "esse" and "ens," that is tricky because both would naturally be translated into English as "being." I actually deliberated over how much to get into it, but since I assume listeners mostly don't know Latin I was trying to keep it simple. In this episode, the reason I said esse and not ens was basically because Aquinas does not call God ens ipsum (as far as I know) but rather esse ipsum. However, though I basically agree with your point, I think that the debate covered in the episode applies to both terms: if ens is univocal, so is esse, and vice-versa, since they are just different forms of the same word. When discussing the contrast to essence I usually cheat a bit by speaking of "existence"; this is in part because it reflects the Arabic situation where the noun for existence (wujūd) is not a form of a verb that means "to be" (it actually comes from a verb meaning "to find").

Peter Adamson 12 September 2016

In reply to by Peter Adamson

By the way, an interesting wrinkle here I should have mentioned in my response to you: in the Liber de Causis the Latin translator chose to use "ens" to refer to created being, rather than divine being which is "esse", which may have influenced Thomas' usage. I think I'm remembering that right, at least!

Omar 16 September 2016

Hello Peter,

In this episode you mentioned how Godfrey argued that we can only grasp the essences of things that already exist, such as triangles. What would he say if we were to describe a hypercube to him, since as a 4-dimensional figure it cannot exist, by definition, in your universe yet we can talk about it and its properties in as much detail as a regular cube. We cannot visualise it, but we can certainly understand all of its properties. Moreover, to anticipate the objection that even imaginary things like pegasi are just conglomerations of things that already exist, the hypercube is a unique object that cannot really be constructed by putting together multiple 3D objects that exist in our universe.

Would our failure to visualise it be considered as a failure to truly grasp its essence? Or would this be a valid counter example to Godfrey's claim?



Thanks, that's a great question! Of course hypercubes are an anachronistic case but Avicenna, impressive thinker that he is, basically anticipates your worry. He gives the example of a chiliagon (a 1000 sided figure) which does not exist in reality though we can grasp it. His point is that this can and does have mental but not real existence. I am not sure what Godfrey would say about this; but I suspect he'd say that all such entities are abstractions and modifications of ideas we did get from actual reality. One might also go so far as to argue that these things have no real essences if they do not have extramental reality - if they don't really exist, there is nothing to know, and why posit an essence if there is nothing to know? But I share your (and Avicenna's) intuition that some essences have only mental but not extramental or concrete existence.

giorgio 26 March 2017

This is the first lecture of HistoryofPhilosophy.net I listened to. I find it very interesting indeed and now plan to go systematically through the entire website. Full marks for the content, if I may say so. However, the attempt to mix philosophy and humour is in my opinion unfortunate. I am here to learn about philosophy, not to hear weak jokes about Bill Clinton, die Esse in German, a cute French seller, etc. etc. To me this is positively annoying, to the point that it constitutes a disincentive to the - necessary - re-listening of the lecture. I recoil and am distracted from the substance every time I realise that the trite old joke is approaching. I am  sure I am not alone. Congratulations for the substance, but please let us not mix it with silly distractions.

Peter Adamson 26 March 2017

In reply to by giorgio

Yes, I can see how someone might feel that way: philosophy is serious business after all. I guess it is an extension of my teaching style where I use humor to "wake up" the students and keep them engaged. My sense is that many more listeners appreciate this aspect of the series than not - it is frequently commented on as something people appreciate about the podcast and has elicited few complaints - and given that I am 300+ episodes in (counting India) at this point I am not going to suddenly change the tone of it now. So, hope you can bear with the occasional puns and jokes. (And by the way, that joke about Germans thinking "De Ente" is about ducks is one of my all time favorites! I can't believe you don't at least like that one.)

Sam 12 December 2017

In reply to by Peter Adamson

This was the first podcast I listened too, apart from the Richard Cross one, and I enjoyed the jokes!

JSutt 14 September 2019

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Goodness me, I hope you don't drop the humour, no matter how (good-naturedly) eye roll inducing. If I wanted dry exposition I would read, well, virtually any philosophy textbook in existence!

"He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad." Plus an insatiable desire to fill all philosophical gaps! Please keep us thinking and laughing for many years to come.

Thanks folks! I suspect that most of the audience prefers the series with the bad puns and so on, but it's nice to have some confirmation.

Giorgi 25 February 2022

In reply to by Peter Adamson

The jokes are great :) They actualize the proprium of my species.

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