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Lecture 2: Scotus, Freedom and the Power of Intellect

IN THE first lecture I dwelt on St Anselm's formula ‘fides quaerens intellectum’—‘faith seeking understanding’, and maintained that that formula describes the entire medieval philosophical enterprise. For during the Middle Ages faith set the agenda for philosophy, whose chief task was conceived to be the clarification of the objects of faith. In that sense the Proslogion, though very short, is a paradigm, perhaps ever the paradigm, of medieval philosophy.

However, it is not only the objects of faith that call for philosophical investigation; so also does the concept of faith itself. With the exception of hell, a topic long overdue for theological rehabilitation, I shall not have a great deal to say about objects of faith. Instead the focus will be on the act of assenting in faith. Saying ‘yes’ as an act of faith is just one species of assent. Other sorts of act also fall under the genus ‘assent’, and since we learn a great deal about a thing by noting what it is that distinguishes it specifically from other things which are generically the same, I shall enquire into the nature of other sorts of assent, such as on the one hand the assent of mere opinion, and on the other hand the assent which we give to an evident perceptual truth, such as that this sheet of paper is white. But granted that assents of opinion, of faith and of knowledge are acts of three different sorts, what precisely is the difference between them? Members of the circle of John Mair had a good deal to say in reply to this question, and I shall be exploring their responses.

To anticipate subsequent discussion I should say now that the two notions that were given most work to do in the effort to differentiate the various forms of assent were those of will and intellect. In this lecture and the next, therefore, my attention will be directed to the analysis of these two faculties of mind. No Pre-Reformation Scottish philosopher looked more deeply than did Duns Scotus into the concepts of will and intellect, and his writings in this field exercised a profound influence on his Pre-Reformation Scottish successors. For these reasons it is to his writings that I shall now turn. The positions we establish concerning will and intellect will then be put to use in the later lectures as we come to grips with those late-medieval Scottish discussions on the nature of the assent of faith. More immediately I shall examine the faculties of will and intellect and the companion doctrines of voluntarism and intellectualism, and that examination will underpin the next lecture when I investigate the claim that it is will, and not intellect, that has primacy in the human mind.1

Voluntarists and intellectualists are in dispute with each other on a wide range of matters, with voluntarists emphasising the role of will and of our freedom in our relations with the world, in contradistinction to the intellectualists who emphasise the role of intellect and of our theoretical knowledge. The dispute is clearly articulated in the diverse responses to the question whether it is will or intellect that has primacy. Voluntarists say will has primacy and intellectualists ascribe primacy to intellect. I shall deal with this matter later.

First, I shall consider the opposition between voluntarists and intellectualists in respect of their teachings on the existential status of values. The crucial question in this area is whether values exist by an act of will or whether they are independent of will though available for inspection by our intellect. This is a particularly important question in the context of these lectures because an exaggerated version of Scotus's answer to this question is a major element in Scotism, as we shall see.

The dispute regarding values is best understood, I believe, if placed in the broader context of the dispute between nominalists and realists, the principal dispute in the universities of the Middle Ages. I stated in Lecture One that the tradition of Scottish philosophy is essentially the history of a dispute between nominalists and realists. The dispute between voluntarists and intellectualists is another major feature of that same tradition. The link between the disputes is that voluntarists tend to embrace nominalism and intellectualists realism. These terms are slogans at the moment, but I hope I shall have given them intellectual substance before this series of lectures is completed. The technical terms that I have just been casting round me were certainly not mere slogans for the men of the Middle Ages about whom I am speaking, for the issues for which the terms are shorthand closely concern matters of faith, and therefore concern the salvation of souls. Mistakes in this area were seen as dangerous. Of false teachings it could be said: non solum mortua sunt sed mortifera—not just dead but deadly.

In Lecture One I commented on the significance of the fact that Lawrence of Lindores, first rector of the University of St Andrews, banned the teaching of the realist philosophy of Albert the Great, a ban revoked as soon as Lawrence ceased to be rector, and we saw also that half a century later John Ireland was involved in a fight conducted by the University of Paris to overturn a ban imposed by Louis XI on the teaching of nominalist philosophy. Nominalism plainly touched a raw nerve in some people, and realism did likewise in others. One of the questions at issue was precisely whether values are objects of will, that is, are willed into existence, or whether they exist independent of will.

The fact that there are moral values prompts enquiry into the way they exist. One solution, sometimes called the ‘divine command theory’, focuses upon the role of God's will. It states that whether a mode of action is good or not depends upon God's will, as that will is expressed in His commands. On this account God is not constrained to command us to perform particular kinds of acts because He has an intellectual grasp of their goodness, but on the contrary His commanding us to perform them is itself what makes such acts good. In short, it is not through their being good that He comes to see them as good; it is that through His commanding them they become good. The goodness of such an act exists therefore by divine fiat. It is held in existence by an act of divine will.

One consequence thought by some to follow from this position is that it would be impossible for us to work out by an exercise of reason how we ought to behave. We must consult not reason but the divine will, howsoever that is made manifest. The doctrine that moral values are a consequence of the promulgation of the Commandments, the ‘divine command theory’, is thus thought to lead to ethical irrationalism; ‘irrationalism’ because according to this doctrine there is no rational basis to morality; the basis is divine command. It is commonly held that this form of irrationalism was taught by Scotus, and the doctrine is itself a central plank in the platform called Scotism. In Lecture Three, however, I shall demonstrate that Scotus taught a variety of ethical rationalism.

I do not know how many philosophers there are today, perhaps few, who would espouse the divine command theory of morality. But a secular version of the theistic theory has found favour in recent decades with very many philosophers. The modern secular version is to the effect that it is we human beings who create our values by an act of choice; and that, contrary to appearances, we are not merely confronted by our values, as if they had a totally distinct reality, existing independently of our will, and constraining us from the outside. This secular version of the divine command theory is to be found in certain of the writings of Sartre, and it is even on the title page of John L. Mackie's book on moral philosophy: Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong.

Let us suppose that it is by an act of will, whether divine or creaturely, that the values by which we are to live are created, and suppose further that the will by which the values come into existence is not itself constrained by an intellectual act by which it is seen that those are the values which ought to be imposed. One conclusion is that the ethical theory here described is relativist. The moral law is relative to the will which produces it. A different will is free to produce a different set of moral values, and furthermore the same will, even and perhaps especially the divine will, can first will one set and then replace it by another.

I should say, as an aside and perhaps tendentiously, that the fact that voluntarism is a progenitor of ethical relativism might well, all by itself, make us hesitate to ascribe at any rate an unqualified voluntarism to Duns Scotus. Had the relevant Vatican authorities sensed the slightest whiff of relativism in Scotus's writings, he would assuredly not have been accorded the title beatus. The recent encyclical letter Veritatis Splendor by John Paul II contains a strongly worded denunciation of moral relativism in all its forms. For example, in its opening paragraph the encyclical describes the results of original sin in these terms: ‘Giving himself over to relativism and scepticism man goes off in search of an illusory freedom apart from truth itself’ And later the encyclical declares: ‘The primordial moral requirement of loving and respecting the person as an end and never as a mere means also implies, by its nature, respect for certain fundamental goods, without which one would fall into relativism and arbitrariness’ (para. 48).

The presence of these and similar assertions in the encyclical is not however one of my reasons for thinking that Scotus was not in any full-blooded sense a relativist in his teaching on the existence of values. Their presence is merely a reason for holding that others who would speak with authority on the question of whether Scotus was a relativist or not must have thought that he was not one. My own reasons for holding that Scotus was no relativist are not grounded in the authority of others. Instead they are all firmly grounded in Scotus's own clear statements of his position—I am speaking about statements in which he attaches morality very firmly indeed to right reason, and makes clear his belief that we can by the exercise of reason learn how we ought to behave. Consulting the Bible is therefore not the only route to the truth about moral matters. We can of course consult the Bible, and will find the truth if we do. The point is that we can also find the truth by consulting our reason. In Lecture Three I shall cite some of the relevant passages in Scotus's Ordinatio.

I said earlier that voluntarists tend to embrace nominalism, and I should like now to begin to explore this link. Nominalists ascribe to the mind a role in the production of certain elements and features of world that we naturally tend to think of as possessing an independent reality, that is, a reality independent of the activity of our mind. The adversaries of nominalists are realists, who say that those elements and features that we naturally think of as possessing an independent reality do in fact have such a reality. What elements and features? Among those in dispute between the two philosophical camps are, precisely, values It follows from my characterisation of voluntarists that they will be nominalist about values, as I shall now explain.

Voluntarists hold that though our values appear to us to have an independent reality, they are in fact brought into existence, and maintained in existence, by an act of a mental power, a will. It does appear to us that we are confronted by our values which present themselves as distinct realities, existing independently of our will and constraining us from outside. But the nominalist invites us to note the word ‘appear’ in that description. That may be how values appear to us. But according to nominalists it is not how values do in fact exist. We are not always conscious of our mental acts by which we produce the things that we then see as independent. We have an almost magical ability to create things and then project them into the outer world so that they present themselves to us as if they are really of and from that outer world and not from us at all.

The nominalism about values that I have just described should be contrasted with realism about values. A value realist holds that values have an independent existence in the sense that the value possessed by a thing is not a matter subject to will. Nevertheless the value realist does hold that values are possible objects of intellect, available, that is to say, for discovery by intellect, and for inspection by it, leading to a judgment of the value's fittingness as a practical principle. This is an intellectualist view of values. Hence value realists are intellectualist and not voluntarist as regards their teaching on the mode of existence of values. And to the extent that the ethical realist holds that values are not objects of will, he rejects the doctrine of ethical relativism.

The dispute between realists and nominalists in the Middle Ages is commonly regarded as having been fought most especially in connection with the so-called problem of universals. I should therefore pause here to note that the dispute between voluntarists and intellectualists, those who emphasise the role of will, and those who emphasise the role of intellect, carried over into discussions of universals. Indeed there is a remarkable parallel between discussions about values and about universals, as we shall now see. I press this point here because Scotus has been regarded as the arch-voluntarist, and it is therefore as well to be clear about the kinds of thing that mark out the voluntarist's position.

Universals are the natures which are common to members of a given species by virtue of which they are members of their species. What is the mode of existence of these universals or common natures? Voluntarists hold characteristically that they are mental entities, the concepts formed in and by our intellect enabling us to classify the contents of our world. Otherwise stated, they are principles of classification. How we classify things is of course often a matter of choice, in the dual sense that, first, we construct principles of classification by choice, and secondly, it is commonly a matter of choice which principles of classification we bring to bear. That these concepts, which are principles of classification, are universal means simply that the concepts are predicable of an indefinitely large number of things. In so far as universals are concepts of the kind I have just been speaking about, universals certainly do not have an existence independently of us human beings. That is, the voluntarist tends to be nominalist on the subject of universals.

On the other hand the realist holds that universals have a relatively independent existence, being able to get along without our mental acts, so that for example, the sheephood in virtue of which particular animals are in the species sheep, cannot just be a concept in the mind, a principle of classification; on the contrary, sheephood must be in each and every sheep. And it is only in virtue of that common nature being in each of those animals that we are able to classify them the way we do. There is undoubtedly a great deal to be said in support of this realist position. The immediate point however upon which I wish to focus is that in so far as common natures exist as independent realities in things in the outer world, universals are indeed possible objects of intellect, though not objects of our will. Hence the realist is intellectualist about universals; he is not voluntarist about them.

In brief, the debate between voluntarists and intellectualists, between those who assign primacy to will and those who assign it to intellect, comes very close at times to being the debate between nominalists and realists, and, as already indicated, that latter debate has characterised the Western philosophical enterprise, and assuredly has characterised the Scottish philosophical tradition, from the start. Indeed it is still with us. I conclude that the dispute between voluntarists and intellectualists is of the first importance in the history of philosophy. It is easy to attach personal names to the dispute. As far as reputation goes, the great intellectualist is St Thomas Aquinas, and the great voluntarist is John Duns Scotus. Later I shall argue against this way of personalising the dispute, for it is easy, rather too easy, to exaggerate the philosophical distance between these two great thinkers.

There is a spectrum here, with extreme positions and intermediate ones. As a matter of conceptual fact, and also of historical, voluntarism shades into intellectualism. It is at this point that my reservations about the personalisation of the dispute start to take shape, for Duns Scotus, Doctor Subtilis to subsequent generations of scholastic writers, inhabits a rather shady part of the spectrum, a part in which the two categories apply to him in almost equal measure. Scotus is undoubtedly a voluntarist of sorts, but let us determine precisely what sort. I am sure that the usual modern account of his voluntarism fails to take due cognisance of some of his key pronouncements, and in consequence greatly underestimates the role he ascribes to intellect in the guidance.

This point derives particular significance from the fact that though Scotus is thought by some to be the leading exponent of voluntarist philosophy,2 he is also thought to be a realist at least in respect of his teaching on universals. But how can he be a realist on that central topic given that voluntarism is so closely allied to nominalism? The first step to resolving this difficulty is to recognise slogans for what they are—alternatives to thought. Voluntarism, realism, and so on are very crude categories, each allowing room for systems of great variety and littering from each other in ways both gross and subtle. It is necessary to get inside Scotus's system, and to see in detail to what extent he deserves the title ‘voluntarist’ and to see indeed what the term means as applied to his ideas. Without some knowledge of the details we cannot properly understand his doctrine that will has primacy over intellect.

More immediately, discussion of whether it is will or intellect that has primacy presupposes that the two faculties are sufficiently distinct for either to have primacy over the other. Yet that presupposition is not free of difficulty. Two positions, one associated with Henry of Ghent (d. 1293), a master of theology at the University of Paris c. 1275–c. 1292, and the other associated with St Thomas Aquinas, have to be considered here, and the positions figure significantly in Scotus's philosophy since he constructs his own doctrine explicitly in opposition to those two others.3

Henry of Ghent is interpreted by Scotus as having identified will and intellect with each other and both with the soul. The pressure to make such an identification stems chiefly from the metaphysical intuition that mind has a special unity, one so great that it is impossible for any part of it to be really distinct from any other. If two parts were really distinct then it would be possible for one to exist without the other. But, to take just one example, it is absolutely impossible for there to be acts of will by a human agent where his intellect is not engaged; willing that does not involve at least the intellectual grasp of an end which is the object of the act of will, would be abstract will. And in reality there is no abstract will. Our acts of will are not willings without qualification, they are willings of some object grasped by intellect. Will is therefore in reality inseparable from intellect. What is the underlying metaphysical situation which explains this inseparability? Henry's reply is that though mind acts in different ways—it wills and it understands—it is a single principle of action, mind, which performs those distinct acts. According to this view, therefore, the fundamental metaphysical categories that should be deployed in discussions of mind are those of agent and act. We are dealing here with the oneness of the agent in relation to diverse acts, rather than the oneness of a substance which has a diversity of accidents.

It is true that Henry says that the powers of mind are really distinct from each other, but Scotus interprets him as using the term ‘really’ in a relative sense only. The theory that emerges is something subtle, but important for an understanding of Henry's philosophy of mind, and I should like to comment on it. Henry is saying that mind is related to acts of several distinct kinds. There are therefore a number of kinds of relation of which mind is an end point.4 These relations are real. Or at any rate let us say that they have as much reality as Henry of Ghent ascribes to relations, as opposed to the things which form the termini of relations. Let us grant therefore that the relations in question, those between a mind and its diverse kinds of act, do have some sort of reality, even if it is a reality that is vicarious, in the sense that, in Henry's word, it is a reality ‘contracted’ from or drawn from the thing, the mind, to which the act is related as to its agent. Henry's claim that relations have a sort of reality is relevant to our purposes since it is his contention that the relations in which the acts of a mind stand to the mind are what powers of mind are. Intellect is thus a relation between a mind and its acts of understanding; will is a relation between a mind and its acts of willing; memory is a relation between a mind and its acts of remembering; imagination is a relation between a mind and its acts of imagining.

On this view it is no mistake to suppose that acts of willing and understanding are distinct from each other; neither is it a mistake to say that there are distinct powers of mind, so long as nothing more is meant than that mind performs distinct kinds of act and is therefore related to distinct kinds of act. The mistake which Henry of Ghent is concerned to expose is the mistake of referring these different sorts of act to different parts of mind, as if mind had a multiplicity of separable parts when in reality it is an indivisible unity.

In contrast with Henry of Ghent's position is that of St Thomas Aquinas. As Scotus reads Aquinas the latter holds that intellect and will have different kind of being from mind, for mind is the substance of which will and intellect are accidents. And will and intellect are also district from each other, being different accidents of mind.

It is plain that Scotus sees merit in each of these mutually opposed positions. For Henry of Ghent takes due notice of the fact that mind and its faculties form an unbreakable unity, and Aquinas is responsive to the fact that acts as different as willing and understanding must be referred to metaphysically distinct principles of action.

Scotus responds to the merit in each of these mutually incompatible positions by seeking a compromise between them. The compromise comes in the form of the deployment of his most distinctive concept, not one that he invented but one he made his own. It is that of the formal distinction, or more precisely the formal objective distinction (distinctio formalis a parte rei).5 In order to be clear about Scotus's teaching on the relation between intellect and will, it is necessary to know how he deploys the distinction I have just mentioned. I shall therefore dwell on it for some moments.

Scotus deployed countless distinctions. Among them there is one, somewhat reflexive, between different sorts of distinction. Among the distinctions in common currency throughout the Middle Ages are the distinctio realis and the distinctio logicalis, the real distinction and the logical distinction. Two things are really distinct if the cessation of either does not imply the cessation of the other. On the other hand the distinction between the definitum and the definiens of a definition is merely logical. Thus something can be classified equally as a human being and as a rational animal, and the difference of classification is not based upon different features of the thing—the objective ground of its classification as a human being is really identical to the objective ground of its classification as a rational animal.

The question arises as to whether two things can be distinct in a more than merely logical way, yet without being really distinct. William Ockham, greatest of the medieval nominalists, answered in the negative, and attacked his fellow-Franciscan Scotus of the immediately preceding generation for giving an affirmative answer. The intermediate distinction Scotus deployed is the ‘formal objective distinction’. He holds that in the human mind will and intellect are bound together in an absolutely unbreakable bond, absolute in the sense that not even God could annihilate one while preserving the other. In that sense they are not really distinct; that is, will and intellect are not distinct beings. Nevertheless they are not indistinguishable, for it is a matter of common experience that our will can say ‘no’ to whatever proposal intellect may commend to it. Yet if will and intellect are, in the sense just outlined, not really different, how are we to speak of the difference between them? Scotus calls them different ‘formalities’ of mind. A single reality can have several forms, say a tactile form and a visual form, simultaneously. The sheet of paper feels smooth to the touch, and it has a shiny white appearance. The smoothness, shininess, and whiteness are not distinct parts of the sheet of paper, but different forms that the one reality, the sheet, takes. In this context Scotus speaks not of forms but of formalities. His doctrine is that the single reality, mind, has simultaneously several distinct formalities, a will and an intellect, a memory and an imagination. Mind is the active principle in us. Some of its acts take the form of willing, and some of understanding, some of its acts take the form of remembering and some of imagining. And the act takes the form it does because the agent, mind, takes the form of a wilier, or an understander, and so on. What Scotus refuses to lose sight of is the fact that it is one and the same identical mind that takes these various forms. Its oneness is not in the least compromised by the fact that mind takes these various forms.

In making sense of the formal distinction we should hold on to the context of its formulation. It is not a distinction plucked randomly out of the air, but is instead forced upon Scotus by the need to find a com-promise position between the unacceptable and mutually incompatible positions of Henry of Ghent and St Thomas Aquinas. Since the distinction between will and intellect is formal, yet grounded in reality, Scotus can maintain both that mind is one and that the very different sorts of act, of will on the one hand and intellect on the other, must be referred to different principles of action.

One further distinction must here be made, that between two sorts of will.6 We need to be clear about these two sorts, for when Scotus ascribes primacy to will over intellect, it is just one of these sorts of will that is at issue.

There are certain imperatives with which we seem by our very nature to be confronted. Most fundamentally the organism demands its continued existence. We can of course decide to reject the demand, but if we do then we do not silence that natural voice within us; instead we overrule it. The organism wills one thing, and we will to the contrary, and on such an occasion the organism might lose. But there are many other things also that we will by our nature; nourishment, warmth, sleep, and so on. All these things contribute to our perfection, the perfection of the natural organism. I am speaking here of its flourishing or well-functioning. The principle in us by virtue of which we have a natural tendency or bias or inclination to our perfection is in a sense a principle of passivity. For when, if ever, we give nature its head and follow through such tendencies we are living according to nature and nature's laws; we are responding passively to nature as it is articulated in us.

But there is within us another principle, this time an active one, which is also termed ‘will’. This latter principle is exercised when we do not passively sit back and let nature take its course, but instead we interfere, as we almost always do, with the orderly working out of nature. We stand against nature and either will contrarily to it, or we will consistently with it but not in virtue of being compelled by nature. That there is such a principle in us is evidenced by the fact that a person can overcome his natural fear of death, and will his death. The fear remains, that voice of nature within us, willing the organism to do whatever is necessary to ensure its survival. And yet we can take a stand against our nature by saying ‘no’ to its demand. The will by which we reject life and instead go voluntarily towards death, is clearly a different principle of action within us from the natural principle by which we will to live. If the latter sort of will should be called ‘natural will’, what should the former sort be called? Scotus says that it is a ‘free will’.

There are two reasons, one negative, the other positive, for calling it free. The first is plain, namely, that it is free from nature in this sense at least, that it is not determined to act by any act of nature. To say that an act of will is determined by natural law would be to say precisely that the act is unfree. This is in an obvious sense a negative characterisation of will.

We should not be taken in by the term ‘negative’. Negative freedom, though negative, is an awesome thing. Let us pause to gain a sense of this. Contrast on the one hand the whole system of nature in its infinite power, with on the other hand us human beings, finite, all too finite, almost nothing at all in the presence of the overwhelming power of nature. Yet ‘overwhelming’ is not quite the right word here, and it is important to see why. The natural world does not determine me to lift this pencil. Left to the devices of nature neither this pencil nor my hand would rise. But they are not left to the devices of nature. They are left to my devices, and I will to lift the pencil. It is as if whenever I exert my will I take on the whole system of nature and win. If indeed nature is infinite in its power, then my ability to stay at a distance from nature, so that there is a kind of space between myself and it, and act in a way that is not determined by it—this implies that my own will also is, in a certain sense, infinite in its power. Far from being overwhelmed by nature I am so powerful as to be able to use nature to secure ends which it has not determined for me. It is with this power in mind that I speak of the awesomeness of the power of the human will.

That however, as just stated, is to characterise free will negatively; we are saying what it is free from. But Scotus is equally interested in the positive characterisation of such a will; and in developing the positive side he employs a distinction between rational and irrational powers.7 He takes the distinction from Aristotle,8 but what he makes of it is more than, and perhaps entirely other than, anything intended by Aristotle. In Scotus's hands the distinction becomes that between a power which can produce opposite effects, this being a rational power, and that which can produce only one effect, this being irrational. For example, our free will is rational since in one and the same circumstance we can will to walk and equally will to run; we can will to speak and equally will to be silent. A fire, on the other hand, is not a rational power, since it heats the object that is adjacent to it, and it can do nothing about that. That is its nature, and it is constrained entirely by nature's laws.

The formulation of this distinction needs to be tightened up, as Scotus was well aware. To say that a free will, a rational power, can produce opposite effects is not to imply that it can produce them simultaneously. Such an act would be impossible. It is to say instead that at the moment it produces one effect, it could equally, and in the very same circumstance, have produced another effect instead.

But this concept of a free will is not plain sailing. How should we deal with the argument that if a free will is equally able, from within its own resources, to produce opposite effects, then which of the opposites it produces is not explained simply in terms of the power of the will; the fact that that particular effect rather than any other was produced must therefore be explained by reference to some further power, for example, desire. And if it must be explained in some such way then the free will is, after all, not equally able to produce each of the opposite effects. Indeed by itself it apparently cannot produce either of them.

The reply to this criticism of the claim that a free will qua rational power can produce opposite effects is that the criticism is based upon a misunderstanding of the nature of free will. What makes it free is precisely that without any further determination, and in particular without input from any further psychological power, will is able to determine, from within its own resources, which of the various possible effects equally within its power it should will into actuality.

I shall now change the direction of my attack on the distinction between rational and irrational powers, and shall consider the claim that the distinction can be reduced to an absurdity. Scotus holds that a rational power can produce opposite effects, and instances will; and on the other hand an irrational power can produce only one effect. An attack could be mounted against this account on the grounds that there are many things that we do not think of as rational or as free which can nevertheless produce opposite effects, and those things therefore must after all be free. Consider the sun as an example of an irrational power, a power which is in no sense free. Yet as regards its effects on our corner of the universe, it blackens and it bleaches, it promotes life and it also kills. In other words the sun produces opposite effects, and therefore counts as a rational power, and therefore is free. Yet it manifestly is not free. What, then, has gone wrong with the account?

The answer is that the sun can indeed produce opposite effects, but those effects are not equally open to it. In precisely those circumstances in which it blackens a given object it could not bleach it. In precisely those circumstances in which it fosters life in a given object it could not kill it. When Scotus speaks about a power being rational in the sense that it can produce opposite effects, he means that in the identical circumstance in which it produces one of those opposite effects it could equally produce the other.

In order to provide further clarification of the crucial distinction between rational and irrational powers I should like to follow through one further possible line of attack on it. If will is truly free then it must, as we have seen, be able to will opposites. Will can certainly will good qua good, and hence it should be able to will the opposite to that, namely, evil qua evil. But surely it cannot do that. Surely whenever a person wills evil it is for the sake of a greater good, or it is evil perceived by the agent as good. Hence will is determined to will what it perceives to be good, say, happiness. In that case it is determined to a single effect, and in that case it is not free.

Scotus's reply to this difficulty is to concede the premisses but to resist the conclusion that will is determined to a single effect and therefore is not free. His reply is that faced with a good, say happiness, will can will it, or nill it, or simply refuse to choose. It is true that it cannot respond by willing misery, an evil, for its own sake. But it still has an alternative available to it, that of doing nothing. Since will, faced with the possibility of happiness, can refrain from willing happiness, it is not determined to a single effect. Hence the argument under consideration does not prove that will is not free.9

But if our will is free, what role remains for our intellect in determining which acts we shall perform? Can intellect play any role without encroaching on our freedom? And if it cannot, then is our freedom not bought at the cost of a profound irrationality at the heart of all our acts? These are the questions I shall address in the next lecture, when I investigate the doctrine of the primacy of the will.

  • 1.

    In this chapter and the next I make use of the invaluable selection of Scotus's writings: Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality, Selected and translated with an Introduction by Allan B. Wolter, O. F. M. For an extended discussion of the topic of this chapter see B. M. Bonansea, ‘Duns Scotus's voluntarism’ in J. K. Ryan and B. M. Bonansea (eds), John Duns Scotus 1265–1965. That paper is reprinted as chapter two of B. M. Bonansea O.F.M., Man and his Approach to God in John Duns Scotus.

  • 2.

    Another contender for this title is Immanuel Kant. For his contribution to the debate see especially Critique of Practical Reason, Pt. 1, Bk. 2, Ch. 3, Sect. 3, and L. W. Beck, A Commentary on Kant's Critique of Practical Reason, London 1960, pp. 249–50.

  • 3.

    A key text is Opus Oxoniense II, d. 16, quaestio unica; in Scotus, Opera Omnia, ed. Wadding, vol. XIII, pp. 23a–59b. Scotus there discusses a number of opposed positions including those of Henry of Ghent and Aquinas. Scotus represents Aquinas's position thus: ‘Intellectus et voluntas sunt duae potentiae realiter distinctae inter se, et ab essentia animae (de memoria modo non loquor); passiones enim animae sunt illae duae potentiae et proprietates, et accidentia fluentia ab ipsa; accidens autem realiter differt a substantia’, ibid., p. 24a–b (See Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Pt. 1, q. 77: De his quae pertinent ad potentias animae in generali). Scotus represents Henry's position thus: ‘Alii dicunt quod potentiae animae sunt idem essentiae animae, distinctae tamen inter se realitate relativa, ita quod potentia animae non dicit nisi esse cum respectu coassumpto… quod anima secundum se comparatur ad diversos actus, sunt in anima diversi respectus qui dicuntur diversae potentiae, et per huiusmodi diversos respectus determinatur ad diversos actus’, ibid., pp. 35b–36a.

  • 4.

    For Henry of Ghent on relations, see Mark G. Henninger, S.J., Relations: Medieval Theories 1250–1325, pp. 40–58.

  • 5.

    Scotus's position is stated unambiguously: ‘Sic ergo possumus accipere de intellectu et voluntate, quae non sunt partes essentiales animae, sed sunt unitive contenta in anima quasi passiones eius, propter quas anima est operativa, non quod sint essentia eius formaliter, sed sunt formaliter distinctae, idem tamen identice et unitive ut in Primo Libro probatum est de attributis divinis’, Opera Omnia, ed. Wadding, vol. XIII, pp. 43b–44a.

  • 6.

    Wolter, Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality, pp. 180–3.

  • 7.

    For Scotus on rational and irrational powers see Wolter, Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality, pp. 144–73. Wolter's text is a revised version of Scotus, Opera Omnia, ed. Wadding, vol. VII, pp. 606–17.

  • 8.

    Aristotle, Metaphysics IX, 1046 b 1–4: ‘It is clear that some potencies will be nonrational but others will be with reason. Hence all the arts or productive sciences are potencies.’

  • 9.

    See Wolter, op. cit., pp. 144–5, 192–5, esp. pp. 194–5: ‘Hence, when [will] is shown happiness, it can refrain from acting at all. In regard to any object, then, will is able not to will it or nill it, and can suspend itself from eliciting any act in particular with regard to this or that. And this is something anyone can experience in himself when someone proffers some good. Even if it is presented as something to be considered and willed, one can turn away from it and not elicit any act in its regard.’