HomePage Discussion of Scotus

Relative Contributions of Aquinas and Scotus

Tim Williams

A schematic comparison of the respective contributions of St. Thomas Aquinas (TA) and Blessed Duns Scotus (OS) to theological understanding and to the growth and development of the Magisterium.



1. Master of Aristotelian logic.

2. Concerned with universally applicable objective truth.

3. A Dominican.

4. Able to deploy an internally coherent but closed system to discern whether the utterances of pride-filled heretics contradicted the Church's Magisterium.

5. Unable to use this closed system to see the truth of Our Lady's Immaculate Conception.

6. A consolidator and systematizer of existing Catholic thought.

7. Able to deploy syllogistic reasoning to ensure doctrinal coherence.

8. Able to assess the internal coherence of doctrine once the implications (cf. Newman's "Development of Doctrine") of a revealed truth have been more fully brought out, e.g. by Blessed Duns Scotus.


1. "
Decuit, potuit, fecit" ("It was fitting; He could do it; He did it.") Has
a lyrical, poetic logic not syllogistic.

2. A Franciscan, part of whose charism was the "poetry of love" (G.K. Chesterton,"St. Francis off Assisi").

3. Focussed on the uniqueness of things, individuation. Hence, more affinity with poets of all epochs, than with logicians. cf. Wordsworth, who hailed Our Lady as "
Our tainted nature's solitary boast".

And Gerard Manley Hopkins' "
Pied Beauty":

Glory be to God for dappled things -
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced. - fold, fallow, and plough;
And àll tràdes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise Him.

4. Duns Scotus' poetic logic ideally fitted him to dwell on, as an outpouring of Divine Love, the utter uniqueness of Our Lady. His poetic logic enabled doctrinal understanding to expand, culminating, centuries later, in the solemn definition of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception.

The beauty of a dove's tail lies in the "dovetailing "of its feathers. In his unsurpassed detective novel, "The Moonstone", Wilkie Collins uses a brilliant technique of dovetailing a number of witnesses' testimonies. Where these separate narratives overlap, objective truth is discernible. If one may be permitted to apply this simile to our theological understanding of Our Lady, it seems to me that a vital group of feathers is missing: the feathers of millenia-old Jewish poetic insight, lost by the tragic failure of the Jews to recognise Jesus as the Messiah. In the Bible, truth is conveyed by means of poetic analogy:

God is married to the Jewish people; idolatry is seen as infidelity. There is no syllogistic reasoning in the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments. There is no reasoning deployed; there is simply a fatherly set of injunctions to preserve Love. Running through the Old Testament is an essentially poetic spirit, which is probably best exemplified in the Psalms - 150 songs ranging over every shade of human emotion. Very rarely do you see logic deployed. It is nearly always poetic, symbolic, with an overpowering sense of the majesty of God and of His ineffable, inscrutable love.


(To whose insight most of the foregoing thoughts are heavily indebted).

There seems to be an affinity between the Scotian mode and poetic logic. With the latter, a series of images is evoked, which may differ radically from each other, but each containing an element - a least one, that is - that forms a continuity of thought and/or emotion and/or action and /or reaction. In that continuity lies the logic. Symbolistic poetry can be totally obscure, because the continuity may be private to the poet. The imagery of genuine poetry may evoke widening ripples of associated ideas and emotions which is the hall-mark of great poetry.

It seems to me that what we have just said applies par
excellence to, e.g. the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which is infinitely rich in implications. Clearly, the specificity of syllogistic reasoning cannot apply, since the doctrinal concepts are multiplying indefinitely. On the other hand, there is an underlying truth that gives rational continuity to the wealth of ideas and feelings, a feature common to both the logic of great poetry and that of complex doctrinal concepts. I think Pascal's saying, "Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait pas" (the heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing about) is of relevance. With syllogistic thought, the mind says "It must be true", because the concepts are so arranged that there can be no alternative. With a doctrine such as the Immaculate Conception, the mind accepts it because the Formulation meets all the illative (inferential) requirements; but the "must" is conditioned by the richness of the conceptualisation. Hence the need for a Magisterium to regularise the conditioning and declare, "This version is right, all others are wrong".

Page Contents Copyright ©; Mark Alder, Tim Williams and Peter Grace 2001

Version: 3rd March 2001

 HomePage  Discussion of Scotus