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18 Sep

The Great Scottish Debate: Duns Scotus and Eriugena

Stained glass depicting monks battling demons

Debates over national dividing lines can get heated. Consider the 17th century discussions over the two philosophers John Duns Scotus and John Scottus Eriugena.

In 1620, a book by the bishop of Ossory David RotheBrigida thaumaturga, was published in Paris. It was on the surface an account of the life of St Brigid of Kildare, but that life is used as a metaphor by Rothe for the medieval mission of the Irish to Europe and of the mission of clergy to Ireland (a Catholic country under Protestant rule). The latter required financial security for Irish seminary students, which was their due (according to Rothe) given the huge contribution the Irish had made to France in the past, scholastically and religiously, including the work of John Scottus Eriugena.

Not the type of thing that would have the writer called a “devil”, one might think, but that was not all Rothe wrote. The work also targets Scottish scholar Thomas Dempster who claimed a large number of Irish saints and scholars for Scotland. As the historian Liam Chambers points out, this claim undermined Rothe’s argument for French aid for the Irish and left the Irish Counter-Reformation without native saints. Roth systematically rebutts Dempster’s claims, even going so far as to say all described as “Scotia” or Scots in the Middle Ages are Irish.
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27 May

Who sharpened Occam’s Razor?

The back label on a bottle of "Occam's Razor" wine (c) David McLeish/Flickr  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The back label on a bottle of “Occam’s Razor” wine
(c) David McLeish/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Occam’s (or Ockham’s) Razor is a form of the principle of parsimony (broadly, that theories should be as simple as possible but not simpler.) It states: ‘Entities should not be multiplied without necessity.’ (In Latin, Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem.) However it seems that William of Occam never said it. As the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy reports:

Although the sentiment is certainly Ockham’s, that particular formulation is nowhere to be found in his texts. Moreover, as usually stated, it is a sentiment that virtually all philosophers, medieval or otherwise, would accept; no one wants a needlessly bloated ontology. The question, of course, is which entities are needed and which are not.

The other question is, who did originally say it? In 1918, William Thorburn published the result of his investigations into this question in Mind. The paper is available from Mind 27 (1918), 345-353; and on wikisource. That research suggested the origin lay with an Irish scholastic, John Punch.

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26 May

Tradition of Scotist Scholars

What kind of works in Philosophy did Scotus leave us? […] What is the current status of his works? The Opera omnia was first edited by my countryman of origin, Luke Wadding, who in the terrible seventeenth century departed Ireland and labored in Italy to edit Scotus and other Franciscan writers. Another Irishman, Maurice O’Fehily, living in Padua, Italy, had edited Scotus’s Commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle in 1497, and published the work in Venice. But then, these and some Englishmen were continuing a tradition of scholars who, like Scotus, had gone to Paris in the early fourteenth century, scholars who with John Duns Scotus refused to obey Philip the Fair and with Scotus, had to leave Paris and go back to Oxford in the early fourteenth century namely Ricardus Hibernensis, Odo Hibernensis and Thomas Anglicus.

From Duns Scotus: A Brief Introduction to his Life and Thought by Jeremiah Hackett in “Studies in Scottish Literature” (1991).
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