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Lecture 3: The Primacy of the Will

THE UNREMITTING emphasis, in the writings of Duns Scotus, on the concept of will is part of the reason why he has come to be regarded as an extreme voluntarist. Another concept which plays a pivotal role within his system is that of love. Its centrality tends, if anything, to reinforce the perception of him as an extreme voluntarist, for he locates love in the will. Love, in short, is seen as an act of will, a point which at first blush may sound strange, though not so strange when seen within the context of the teaching that we are commanded to love God, and that we would not be commanded to do what we cannot will to do. Therefore we can will to love God, and therefore a voluntarist theologian may be expected to emphasise the role of love in the religious consciousness. And that is precisely what Scotus does.

In this lecture I shall seek to argue that Scotus's reputation as an extreme voluntarist is unwarranted. It has certainly been held by some that Scotus assigns a very much smaller role than does Thomas Aquinas to intellect in the direction of will, but, as I shall argue, Scotus in fact assigns a major and crucially important role to intellect as director of will. He does indeed insist on the freedom of will, but nevertheless sees will as always, or almost always, acting as intellect directs. And this is not an extreme form of voluntarism. It is hardly voluntarism at all. I shall explore here Scotus's teachings on will and shall attend to relevant aspects of his teachings on intellect, the power with which will is routinely contrasted. I hope that in the light of the discussion on these two powers we shall be better able to identify Duns Scotus's stance regarding the doctrine of the primacy of will.

In the first lecture I emphasised the fact that Scotus was a Franciscan friar. There is a popular image of Franciscans derived largely, I think, from the familiar stories of St Francis preaching to the birds and animals of the forest. He is seen as a person in a close bond, a bond of love, with all nature. This image of St Francis is, as no doubt it should be, in close accord with the main thrust of what is thought of as characteristically Franciscan theology. Among the guiding principles of that theology are the doctrines that God's relation to Himself is a relation of love, that the second and third persons of the Trinity were produced through the inner dynamic of that divine love, and that the world was created, and is maintained, by God in an act of love. From all of which it follows that in so far as the emotional form of our stance in relation to the created order is one of love, our lives are an imitatio Dei, that imitation of the divine that was commended by all medieval theologians as the highest form of existence available to us creatures by nature. St Francis was thought by many to have been special in the fulness of his embodiment of that ideal.

The theological ideas I have just formulated are presented in detail by Richard Scot in his De Trinitate, written while living in the Abbey of St Victor in Paris during the latter part of the twelfth century, and they were absorbed into the Franciscan system of thought almost at the start. It is easy to see why those ideas might be peculiarly congenial to St Francis himself, for whom love was at the centre of the universe. And those same ideas must have formed a dominant part of the educational ethos of Duns Scotus's childhood. Scotus, as we have seen, emphasises the closeness of the relation between love and the will, arguing that will is the power within which love is located. I shall shortly consider the meaning of this doctrine, but it may here be noted that in view of Scotus's emphasis upon God as the God of love, and in view also of his doctrine that will is the place of love, it is to be expected that his theological enquiries will focus upon God's will rather than upon His intellect.

Scotus's teachings on the will of God, and particularly on the infinitude of His will, have important implications for the whole enterprise of natural theology. Perhaps I should feel more guilty than I do, lecturing under the aegis of Lord Gifford, in arguing that if we place sufficient emphasis upon the concept of God's infinite will we may have to conclude that it is impossible for natural theology ever to succeed in proving anything whatever about God. It is my own view, and not stated merely out of respect for Lord Gifford, that it is much too early to think about abandoning the discipline of natural theology, but the particular problem associated with the concept of God's infinite will should here be stated in view of the fact that the problem is thoroughly Scotist.

At the heart of natural theology is the idea that a suitably angled investigation of the natural order can lead to the conclusion that God exists, and can lead also to insights into His nature. As regards one large aspect of this theological programme, let us suppose that the relation of God to the created world is somewhat like the relation of a human artificer to an artefact that he has made. It is not in doubt that we can learn about a human artificer by a consideration of his artefacts. Examination of a violin and of a statue yields knowledge of the aesthetic values and the manipulative skills of the violin maker and the sculptor. We might even think that we can learn a great deal about the artificer by considering what he has made.

If the relation between God and the world is somewhat like that between the artificer and his artefacts, why not say that we can learn something about God the Creator by a consideration of the created order? Perhaps we could say that, but it is difficult to do so if God has an infinite will. Let us grant that God created our world by an act of will. We must bear in mind Scotus's doctrine that a free will is able to produce opposite effects. That is, in the very circumstances in which it produces the effect that it does produce it could equally produce an opposite effect instead. This is true even of a finite will. If God's will is infinite then whatever world he creates he must have been able to create an infinitely different world, and he might in fact have created an infinite number of such worlds no less different from each other than any one of them is from ours, worlds utterly inaccessible to the human intellect. I do not find this idea bizarre. What limit, after all, can I suppose God's will to have once I suppose Him able to create our world?

The crucial logical point for our purposes is that God might have created another world with features unimaginably different from the features that our world displays through which we seek to understand the divine nature. This has to be granted once we take seriously the concept of the infinitude of the divine will. But the implication is that what we can learn about God by investigation of our world is vanishingly little compared with what there is to learn about Him. And it is irrelevant whether God has in fact created other worlds. The point that matters is that the possibility of His having created others cannot be ruled out if we say that He has an infinite will. The conclusion is not that we can learn nothing at all about God by investigation of the natural order. No doubt we can learn more than nothing, but not by much.

What has just been said about the perceptual universe can equally be said about what is sometimes termed the moral universe. Since God's will is infinite we cannot rule out the possibility that in some other world He has revealed a set of commandments different from, and indeed incompatible with, the set of commandments revealed to Moses at Sinai. What then can we learn about God by investigation of the Decalogue?

I believe that Scotus saw as well as anyone ever could the extent to which the infinity of the divine will is an obstacle to our learning about God by an examination of the created order. We subsequently find the same emphasis on the divine will in the writings of his great Franciscan successor, William Ockham. And the idea that God is, in the sense just outlined, concealed from us behind His infinite will, may well have been a contributory factor to vital developments in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, in particular the encroachment of humanism. The path to characteristic humanist endeavours is easily described. If we can read off so little about God by a consideration of the natural order, what is left to us as a source of knowledge about Him? The answer is: the Bible and its authoritative interpreters. But in that case it is necessary to have a critical edition of the Bible, both the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament. The serious deficiencies of the Vulgate were more and more exposed to the light of linguistic scholarship, and those deficiencies were a major spur to the studies of the classical languages, Hebrew and Greek, no less than Latin, studies which were so central to the programme of the humanists.

I am not setting at Scotus's door the responsibility for these great changes as Europe moved into the age of Renaissance humanism and the Protestant Reformation. But I have no doubt that he was a major contributor to the developments that took place in that direction. Of course, once a writer's ideas are in the public domain they are available to be appropriated by all sorts of people with all sorts of perspectives and motivations. As a result, those ideas can work themselves out in history and emerge in forms which would appal their progenitors. Scotus may indeed, as has been argued persuasively, have had a significant influence on Calvin,1 but we should not conclude that Scotus was any kind of pre-Calvin Calvinist.

The doctrine that God has an infinite will gives rise to a question concerning constraints on our ability to learn of our obligations. It may be argued that, as implied earlier, if God has an infinite will then he could reveal to us any one of an infinite number of sets of commandments, even a set incompatible with the Decalogue, and consequently the only way we could learn how we ought to live is by consideration of the revealed law. The doctrine that we cannot by the exercise of our unaided reason work out how we ought to live is commonly ascribed to Scotus. But in fact that doctrine was never taught by Scotus himself, who on the contrary speaks at length about the rational basis of the Decalogue.

It is appropriate to present here a sample of the evidence regarding Scotus's view on the rationality of morality. There are many suitable passages. The one selected has been chosen because of its ready accessibility.2

Scotus asks whether all the precepts of the Decalogue belong to the Law of Nature, and begins his reply by offering reasons for saying ‘no’. The first reason is this: Precepts of the Law of Nature, whether practical principles known from their terms to be true or whether deduced from those principles, are necessarily true. Not even God can grant us dispensation from such precepts because God cannot make false what is necessarily true. Yet God granted dispensation from the prohibitions on killing and theft. Therefore those commandments do not belong to the Law of Nature. The second reason is this: Paul the Apostle declares: ‘I did not know sin except through the Law. For I would not have known [the sinfulness of] covetousness if the Law had not said: “Thou shalt not covet”. ‘But if something is known to be required or prohibited by the Law of Nature, it can be known even if not written. Hence ‘Thou shalt not covet’ does not belong to the Law of Nature. But if the precepts of the Decalogue do not belong to the Law of Nature then their bindingness can only be due to the fact that they are commanded by God, from which it follows that the value of a life lived in accordance with the Decalogue is an object of divine will. The value is held in existence by an act of divine will. Hence in order to know how we ought to live we must determine God's will by a study of Scripture.

This is however not Scotus's view of the relation between the Decalogue and the Law of Nature. His starting point is that there are two ways in which precepts can belong to the Law of Nature. One of them is as set out earlier, that is, they belong either as first practical principles known from their terms or as conclusions following necessarily from such principles. Precepts of either kind are said to belong in the strictest sense (strictissime) to the Law of Nature. Being necessary truths, God cannot grant us dispensation from them. The commandments from the fourth (‘Honour your father and your mother’) to the tenth do not belong to the Law in the strictest sense, for disobedience of them is compatible with the agent's attainment of the ultimate end, beatitude.

On the other hand the first two commandments on the first table of the Law, ‘You shall have no gods other than me’ and ‘You shall not take the name of your God in vain’, are otherwise placed in relation to God's will. Scotus declares: ‘They belong to the Law of Nature, taking “Law of Nature” strictly… And in consequence God could not give dispensation from them in such a way that a person would be able to do the opposite to one or the other prohibition.’ Scotus expresses doubt about the third commandment: ‘Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.’ On one interpretation, though not on another, it does perhaps belong to the Law of Nature in the strict sense of the phrase. But in any case Scotus is unequivocal about the first two commandments of the Decalogue—their existence is not a product of the divine will. God is infinitely lovable, and it is this fact about Him and not the fact of our having been commanded that is the ground of our obligation to love Him. Our loving Him has therefore a value antecedent to an act of the divine will, and the value is therefore neither brought into existence nor sustained in existence by an act of that same will. Put negatively, God cannot, absolutely cannot, command us to hate Him. Scotus interprets the first two commandments as following necessarily from the requirement that we love God.

Scotus does however note a second way in which things can belong to the Law of Nature, namely by being very much consonant (multum consona) with it, even though they do not follow necessarily from first practical principles which are known from their terms and which are known necessarily by every intellect. Scotus comments: ‘In respect of this second way, it is certain that all the commandments of the second table also belong to the Law of Nature, since their rightness is very consonant indeed (valde consonat) with those necessarily known first practical principles.’ It is because the commandments of the second table do not belong in the strict sense to the Law of Nature that God can grant a dispensation from them.

As regards the argument that the commandments of the Decalogue cannot belong to the Law of Nature since Paul the Apostle affirmed that it was only when he learned the law prohibiting covetousness that he learned of the sinfulness of covetousness, Scotus's reply is as follows: ‘Even if it were possible to conclude that some act of covetousness were against the Law of Nature, nevertheless the fact that covetousness is against the Law of Nature was not known to corrupt men, and hence it was necessary to explain, whether by means of the law that was handed down or by other means, that acts of covetousness are prohibited by commandments of the second table. And it has been conceded that as regards such commandments, they are not known in themselves.’

I conclude that Scotus believes that we can after all by the exercise of our reason, and without relying solely on religious authoritative texts, learn something about how we ought to live. To this extent he teaches that there is a rational basis to morality, and to this extent the attribution of moral irrationalism to him is false.

Nevertheless we must acknowledge that the commandments on the second table, though ‘very consonant’ with the Law of Nature, do not follow necessarily from it. God could therefore have promulgated different commandments from the ones He did promulgate for us, and perhaps has in fact promulgated different Decalogues, even for beings like us, in other worlds—though these other Decalogues could not contain the negations of the first two commandments. I say that Scotus recognised this as a possibility, even though he also thought that God would not, though He could, promulgate commandments which were not consonant with the nature of those who were to live by them. The underlying metaphysical point remains, that God, being infinitely free, could produce an infinite variety of codes of conduct, and even if we know to whom a given code is directed we are unable to deduce what it will contain, beyond the fact that it cannot contain either the commandment that God not be loved or any necessary implicate of that commandment. In this respect we are as little able to learn about God by a consideration of the moral universe as we are by a consideration of the perceptual.

I shall now focus more precisely on the issue of Scotus's voluntarism, and shall begin by deploying the formal objective distinction (distinctio formalis a parte ret). In Lecture Two we observed Scotus arguing that it is precisely that distinction that has to be made between intellect and will, for though the two mental powers are not different realities in the one mind, the distinction that we draw between them is grounded in reality—to use Scotus's technical term, they are different formalities. That is, mind can take different forms, one in so far as it is a wilier, and another in so far as it is an understander. Since the two powers are formally, and not merely logically, distinct they are sufficiently different for it to be appropriate to ask which of them has primacy. As a first step towards answering this question let us consider two positions at opposite ends of a spectrum. One is extreme intellectualism and the other extreme voluntarism.

The intellectualist position first. According to it will by itself is blind, and requires a judgment of intellect if an act of will is to occur. Thus intellect presents will with an object, a plan of action, and will wills that plan into reality. A corollary of the doctrine that will is blind is that it can do nothing by itself, and requires direction from intellect if it is to act. We are not to think here of a blind act of will as an act which is somehow performed though not directed to any particular goal. The intellectualist would say that on the contrary a will that wills blindly is a will that wills nothing. To will nothing is not to will at all. Hence blind willing is not one form of willing among others; it is instead not any form of willing.

But the fact, if it be one, that will can do nothing by itself, does not imply that will plays no role in action. We can still say that the cause of an act, the reason why we go in one direction rather than in another, and why we go anywhere rather than nowhere, is that will has been directed by intellect. It is possible to construct a concept of freedom which is compatible with this version of events. Thus to say that an act is freely performed is to say that a will wills it under the direction of intellect. The will itself is free, and the cause of the freely willed act is the intellect's directive.

It is not entirely fanciful to suppose that some philosophers have held this position. St Thomas Aquinas speaks in terms very similar to the ones I have just employed. For example, he tells us that so far as what is at issue is the subject of freedom, that is, what has freedom as an attribute, the root of freedom is will, but so far as what is at issue is the cause of freedom, then the root of freedom is reason.3 On Scotus's interpretation of this position, it is saying that the free activity of will is fully accounted for by events on the side of intellect, and in Scotus's view this cannot be correct; it involves a misappropriation of the term ‘freedom’.

In effect what is being called ‘freedom’ is determinism under another name. It is determinism by intellect. But intellectual determinism is not the less determinism for being of the intellectual variety. In brief, how can will be free if it is bound to do whatever it is told to by intellect? It is not even vicariously free, owing such freedom as it has to being under the direction of a free faculty, for no-one supposes the faculty of intellect itself to be free. If freedom is to be located anywhere it must be in will and not in intellect. I am not saying that Aquinas is committed to the version of intellectualism just outlined, though there is no doubt that he leaves himself open to being understood in the way Scotus understands him. And according to that understanding of the matter one might almost speak of the will as totally appropriated by intellect. Will has been fully intellectualised, left with nothing to do beyond what it is told.

However, if the doctrine at the intellectualist extremity of the spectrum is unacceptable, then the doctrine at the opposite, the voluntarist, extremity seems no less so. For extreme voluntarism declares that will acts freely to the extent that it is not responding to the deliverances of reason. This position is no more acceptable than its extreme opposite, for it is contrary to experience. We observe as a matter of course that people do act in ways sanctioned by reason, at any rate sanctioned by their reason, and their acting in a rational way is not reckoned as evidence of unfreedom. In particular it is not regarded as evidence of intellectual determinism.

Clearly what is required is a position between the two extremes, and Scotus is the very voice of moderation on this matter. His commitment to a compromise position is already implicit in his metaphysical doctrine of the formal distinction between will and intellect, according to which the two faculties are not distinct realities in the mind but on the contrary have an irrefragible unity of being. In that sense, will and intellect are the same reality, for it is one and the same mind that wills and understands. Since not even God can separate the two powers in reality, Scotus leaves himself no logical room to argue that will can act as if intellect does not exist.

Closely related to this doctrine is the dictum that nothing is willed that is not previously known—Nihil volitum quin praecognitum. We cannot will without willing something. There is thus in the mind of the wilier a concept of what is willed, a plan of action, something formed by an act of intellect, that is to be put into effect by means of an act of will. Scotus is explicit on the closeness of willing and understanding. Speaking about the necessary relation between the two, he writes: ‘On account of that necessary relation an act of will cannot be caused by the faculty of will unless an act of understanding has already been caused by the intellect.’4

That an act of will cannot occur without a prior exercise of intellect, and cannot occur without due account being taken by will of the content of the intellectual act, does not however imply that the act of will is fully determined by that prior intellectual act. There are degrees of influence that fall short of full determination, and it is such a limited influence that is at issue in this context. Scotus's phrase is pondus et inclinatio.5 The deliverances of intellect carry weight with will and incline it; but not more than that. No such deliverance can carry so much weight that will finds it irresistible. When the weight is irresistible will is simply not engaged at all, because for will to be engaged is for it to act as will, and an act of will is a free act. In this context to speak of will as free is to say that it has the power to produce opposite effects. Thus whatever it does now it could in these very same circumstances have done otherwise.

Scotus does not baulk at the idea of will being coerced, relatively speaking, as happens when right reason informs a person that if he does not perform an act of a kind that he would not otherwise be inclined to perform there might be a much worse outcome than if he does perform the act. So he performs it, an act which is in a relative sense forced, and he performs it, as Scotus puts it, secundum rectam rationem—in accordance with right reason. But in this case will is free. The agent could, in those very circumstances, have acted otherwise. But being a reasonable person, he went in the direction dictated by right reason.

I am not concerned here to argue for the claim that we do have the power to produce opposite effects. I merely say that if we do not then, at least on Scotus's view of the matter, we are not free agents. In particular an extreme intellectualist account of will, according to which acts of will are fully determined by the deliverances of intellect, would not be, on Scotus's reckoning, an account of free will at all. Consequently, if we have a free will we must be able to stand sufficiently far back from any directive of our intellect to be able to reject it. Even if we do not reject it, and would be judged crazy if we did, the possibility of rejecting it remains open to us, right up to the moment we act. And even when performing the act thus sanctioned by intellect the possibility of curtailing the act, however crazy it would be to do so, remains open to us. That a particular possibility in our power is a crazy one for us to actualise, is no doubt going to be our reason or part of our reason for not actualising it. But that is not to say that we cannot actualise it; it is simply our reason why we will not. That is what it is for intellect to have pondus et inclinatio, to carry weight and to dispose, in its relation to will. As just noted, to say it is impossible for us to reject the judgment of intellect is to deny our freedom.

We might however wonder whether the judgment of intellect really can carry weight with will if will does not itself include an intellectual component. For surely weighing up the judgment of intellect is itself an intellectual act, and hence if will can perform such an act is it not itself an intellectual power? And here we cannot ignore Scotus's teaching that will and intellect are the same reality, both being identical with mind. But if will and intellect are one then has will not thereby been intellectualised? And in that case since intellect is not free neither is will, for on this hypothesis there is nothing more to will than intellect. That is, to attribute properties of intellect to will is to imply intellectual determinism.

On the other hand, if will does not have an intellectual component then why should judgments of intellect make any difference to it? And if they make no difference then surely our freely willed acts would be random. But, as noted earlier, experience teaches us that our acts, especially those we regard as free, do not appear to be random. And in all his philosophising Scotus never loses sight of the deliverances of experience.

These are difficult questions, and ones I think that Scotus has in view when he applies his concept of the formal objective distinction to his account of the relation between will and intellect. The two powers are not in all respects identical—they are after all two powers, not one, each power having the metaphysical status of a formality of mind. And this distinction between them is sufficient to allow will freedom of manoeuvre in its dealings with intellect and with all other powers of mind.

The human mind has distinct forms, of a wilier, a thinker, a recollecter, an imaginer, somewhat as we might say that a single literary work has the form of a historical novel, a love story, a political tract, and a social satire. There is nothing odd in the idea that a single work could be all these things at once, that is, that it could simultaneously have all these forms, and I think it is helpful to use this kind of literary model to make sense of Scotus's idea that mind has a number of different forms or ‘formalities’. This might be understood in a purely functional way. That is, it could be taken to mean no more than that mind is able to perform acts of various kinds, such as thinking and willing. But it is plain that Scotus means something metaphysical, and not merely functional, by his talk about formalities. It is because mind has certain forms—this being a metaphysical fact about it—that it is able to perform acts of these various sorts. Its having these forms is not simply its being able to perform the acts. The various forms that mind has, its powers of will and intellect, that make the different sorts of act possible, are its ‘formalities’.

William Ockham, the greatest Franciscan thinker of the generation following Scotus, rejected Scotus's concept of formalities, removing them with the aid of his Razor, which is a methodological principle rather than, as it is normally represented, a metaphysical one. Ockham saw neither need for formalities, nor in the last analysis any sense in them. It is easy to see how the argument between the two philosophers is bound to go. Ockham declares that mind is able to will and to understand, and that its being able to do these things is all that is meant by the powers of mind. If it is suggested that there is some feature that mind must have in virtue of which it is able to perform these different sorts of act, Ockham will want to know why we need to take this extra step. What are these features? We do not, after all, experience them in any shape or form. What we are aware of, all that we are aware of that is relevant in this context, is that we do in fact perform acts of will and of understanding.

Scotus's reply to this position must be that nothing can function as it does without its having certain features that permit it to function in that way. It may be obvious what the features are in virtue of which it can perform its characteristic acts, it may not be, but whether or not we know what the features are is irrelevant to the fact that the thing must have them. This is as true of human minds as it is of human bodies and of all other sorts of bodies. The human mind is able to will and to understand. It must be in virtue of features of mind that it is able to perform acts of these two varieties. The relevant features, which we call the powers of will and intellect, have the metaphysical status of ‘formalities’. This is the term Scotus uses to signify whatever it is that something has in virtue of which it is able to perform its characteristic acts. We do not need to have experienced a formality to know that it exists.

These metaphysical facts about will and intellect enable Scotus to conclude that the real identity of the two powers in the one human mind prevents our free acts from being random, and the formal distinctness of the powers ensures that our free acts are not wholly determined by intellect. Will determines itself, though always in the light of a judgment of intellect.

To adapt a common phrase: ‘Intellect proposes but will disposes’. The last word lies with will, and will is no slave of intellect, even though it is sometimes driven very hard by it. That a directive of intellect can never simply be ignored is acknowledged by Scotus when he writes: ‘It is difficult for will not to be inclined towards the final judgment of practical reason, but it is not impossible.’6 This is voluntarism only in so far as it acknowledges that will is a self-determining power, but anyone who believes in a free will is, in that sense and to that extent, a voluntarist. But this minimal kind of voluntarism falls very far short of the kind that has been attributed to Scotus, according to which will is free to will in total disregard of intellect. This is not just a matter of will being able to override or overrule intellect, but of simply ignoring it. Scotus did not believe this possible. In so far as this extreme voluntarism is taught in the name of Scotus, and is part of Scotism, Scotus is no Scotist.

In the previous lecture I spoke about voluntarism and intellectualism on the one hand and nominalism and realism on the other. Voluntarism and intellectualism are doctrines within the philosophy of mind, and concern especially the question of which of the mental faculties has primacy. Nominalism and intellectualism are metaphysical doctrines concerning the mode of existence of given objects. We observed that voluntarists tend towards nominalism, and intellectualists towards realism. A question was then posed as to how Scotus could be a voluntarist and a realist at the same time. Having posed it I warned against using slogans as an alternative to thought. The technical terms deployed in this area had to be investigated. We have, since then, investigated, and are now half way to an answer to the question of how Scotus can be both a voluntarist and a realist. What we have unearthed is the fact that his voluntarism is minimal; it could indeed be described as the maximal sort of intellectualism compatible with the doctrine of free will. I hope to argue elsewhere that Scotus's realism is as minimal as his voluntarism.

We should not lose sight of the fact that realism and nominalism are doctrines on a spectrum, as also are the doctrines of intellectualism and voluntarism. I believe that Scotus performs the wonderfully skilful feat of standing in dynamic equilibrium right on the centre point of each spectrum. Indeed I have now produced arguments for concluding, at least tentatively, that these two spectra are so closely related that it would be difficult logically speaking to be at the centre of one without being at the centre of the other.

Yet if Scotus is a centrist, how can he ascribe primacy to will over intellect? Should he not give them equal weight? The answer is ‘no’. Part of the reason for this answer lies outside philosophy, and inside the kind of theology we associate especially with Franciscans. Typically, Franciscans subscribe to the doctrine of the primacy of love. Love is superior to knowledge and, especially, love of God is superior to knowledge of Him. If per impossibile we could love God without knowing Him and know God without loving Him, it would be better to love God than to know Him. This has immediate implications for the primacy of will, since love is located in will and not in intellect. If the highest act of which we are capable is an act of will then will has primacy over intellect.

Some might baulk at the idea that love is located in will, for if the doctrine has any meaning at all it must be that we exercise a measure of voluntary control over our acts of love. Yet it is not difficult to defend the claim. Love is necessarily directed to an object. Remove the object and the act ceases. If therefore we judge that our love for a given object is illicit, that the object is in some way unfitted for an emotional stance of that form, then the love can be removed by the act, which is subject to our will, of averting our gaze from the object If on the contrary we judge that an object is worthy of our love, then the love can be induced or intensified by the act, which is subject to our will, of focusing our attention upon the object. In the first case as a result of an act of will we ceased to love, and in the second case as a result of such an act we came to love. On this basis there seems adequate grounds for speaking of love as subject to voluntary control, or, to use another idiom, to speak of will as the place of love.

Yet this premiss may not be sufficient to bear the weight of the conclusion that will, rather than intellect, has primacy among the powers of mind. Let us return to the principle: Nihil volitum quin praecognitum, and consider it in light of the argument that it is intellect that causes acts of will and not will that causes acts of intellect. The cause has primacy in relation to the effect, and therefore intellect, and not will, has primacy in the human mind. We must accept, in line with Scotus's teaching, that intellectual acts cause acts of will in the sense that nothing can be willed without the intellect having first conceived the plan that is then willed. And it surely follows that intellect does after all have primacy. Nevertheless, before accepting this conclusion it is necessary to ask whether it is possible for will to cause acts of intellect.

In his approach to this question Scotus points to a parallel between intellect and vision. The field of vision forms a conical pyramid from the eye. At the base of the cone are many things which are seen with decreasing degrees of distinctness. The object seen most distinctly is the one on which the axis of the pyramid falls. This is the situation according to nature, but by an exercise of will that situation can change, for without moving our eye, and without any change in the position of the objects within the field of vision we can, by an act of will, focus our attention elsewhere than upon the object upon which the axis of the pyramid falls, and as a result we see a peripheral object more distinctly than we had done.

It is Scotus's contention that objects of intellect stand in much the same relation to will as do objects of vision. He asks: Quomodo voluntas regit intellectum?—‘In what way does will govern intellect?’, and begins his reply by noting that for any perfect and distinct object of an act of intellect there can be many indistinct and imperfect ones—exactly as with visual acts. Amongst the objects not at the point of focus of intellect there may be one which pleases will in some way. Will may also take pleasure in the very act of intellect of which that is the object. And this pleasure that will takes in the object or in the act can lead to the object being strengthened and intensified. It is common experience that an idea at the edge of our thinking attracts our attention, as a result of which we proceed to investigate the idea more closely, and proceed to do so by an act of will. In that sense it is appropriate to speak of an act of intellect as the effect of an act of will. Hence though intellect is a cause of acts of will, it does not follow that intellect has primacy, for it could be argued that since will is the cause of acts of intellect, will must have primacy. I conclude that if causal efficacy is a proof of primacy then intellect and will each have primacy over the other, which seems absurd. It follows, in line with Scotus's own words, that causal antecedence is not a proof of primacy.

However, in light of the slogan Nihil volitum quin praecognitum, a doubt may yet be raised against Scotus's doctrine that will has primacy. Let us grant that will cannot do anything except in the light of a prior act of intellect. Intellect on the other hand can certainly act without a prior act of will. It seems to follows that the two powers, of will and intellect, are not after all on the same level, for will is dependent upon intellect, and intellect is not dependent upon will. Since what is dependent cannot have primacy over what it depends on, it follows that will cannot have primacy over intellect. Scotus mentions this argument but is not impressed by it. The question at issue is whether what is dependent can have primacy over that upon which it depends.

Scotus offers as a counter example the relation between means and ends.7 As regards a means—end relation, the end is of course dependent upon the means. If we cannot employ the means then their end will not be achieved. Yet it is plain that even though the end is dependent for its existence upon the means, within the means-end relation it is the end, rather than the means, that has primacy, for the means are for the sake of the end, and not vice versa. Hence the fact that something is dependent does not imply that it does not have primacy over what it is dependent on.

Scotus leaves it to us to recognise that even if in one respect the end is dependent upon the means, in two other respects the dependency relation goes in the opposite direction. First there is a dependency of existence. For if the means were adopted only in order to produce the end aimed at, then the means would not exist if it were not for the end. In that sense the existence of the means depends upon the existence of the end, and not vice versa. Secondly there is a dependency of value. For the value of the means depends upon the value of the end—something in which we find no value becomes vested by us with value when we see in the thing the possibility of using it as a means to an end that we seek to realise.

It is really the primacy of value that Scotus has in mind when discussing the primacy of will. Here again we meet the idea that love of God has greater value than has knowledge of Him. Yet love is located in will as knowledge is located in intellect. On that basis, the conclusion Scotus draws, that will has primacy, is irresistible.

Nothing is more basic to Scotus's system than the doctrine of the freedom of will. Yet the question whether will is free was a topic of intense debate in the Middle Ages. The chief grounds for doubting our freedom were thought to be provided by the doctrines of divine prescience and human predestination. These doctrines jointly appear to imply that what we do and what our state will be are matters not in our hands, but in God's. In Lecture Four I shall investigate this line of attack on the doctrine of free will, and shall base my discussion on the writings of a fifteenth-century Scottish philosopher who demonstrably worked in the shadow of Scotus.

  • 1.

    T. F. Torrance, The Hermeneutics of John Calvin.

  • 2.

    See Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality, Selected and translated with an Introduction by Allan B. Wolter, O.F.M., pp. 268–87. The passage is Ordinatio III, suppl. dist. 37.

  • 3.

    Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 1a2ae, 17, 1 ad 2.

  • 4.

    ‘… volitio est effectus posterior intellectione naturaliter, et intellectio phantasmate vel phantasiatione, et propter ilium ordinem necessarium, non potest causari volitio a voluntate, nisi prius causetur ab intellectu intellectio.’ Opus Oxoniense, II, d. 25, quaestio unica, n. 19, in Scotus, Opera Omnia, ed. Wadding, vol. XIII, p. 212b.

  • 5.

    Scotus first uses the phrase in the course of an argument to the effect that the will is necessitated: ‘Impressio facta ab objecto in voluntate est pondus, et inclinatio; sed omne pondus inclinans necessitat inclinatum suum, nisi inclinatum renitatur, sed non renitatur, nisi per actum, etc’ Collationes XVI, n. 3, in Scotus, Opera Omnia, ed. Wadding, vol. V, p. 209b. But he rejects the argument: ‘sed impressum in voluntate est tantum inclinans, ideo voluntas nunquam necessitatur ab obiecto’, ibid., p. 210b.

  • 6.

    ‘Difficile est voluntatem non inclinari ad id, quod est dictatum a ratione practica ultimatim, non tamen est impossible.’ Reportata Parisiensia II, d. 39, q. 2, n. 5, in Scotus, Opera Omnia, ed. Wadding, vol. XXIII, p. 205a. Scotus is here contrasting free will with practical reason. The passage just quoted is preceded by the assertion: ‘intellectus practicus est, qui necessario assentit agibilibus, voluntas autem libere.’

  • 7.

    Opus Oxoniense, IV, d. 49, q. ex lat., n. 189, in Scotus, Opera Omnia, ed. Wadding, vol. XXI, p. 155.