Scotus’ theory of contingency

  • John Duns Scotus
Part of the The New Synthese Historical Library book series (SYNL, volume 42)


As has already been noticed Scotus’ theory of contingency is the heart of Lectura I 39. This section will be a brief exposition of this theory in our own words and with the help of our own logical tools. As an extension to this we shall briefly discuss the most important consequences for anthropology, epistemology and the doctrine of God. Finally we present a brief description and evaluation of Scotus’ specific approach to the problem and his conceptual tools; some of the ‘obstacles’ of distinction I 39 will be indicated.


Contingent State Logical Formula Logical Possibility World Semantic Contingent Future 
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  1. 46.
    Shaded spaces are states of affairs which have been actualised, empty spaces are states of affairs which are possible but not actualised (empty spaces do not occur in the Parmenidian and Aristotelian model).Google Scholar
  2. 47.
    The drawing shows this by the absence of non-shaded alternative spaces (not actualised alternative possibilities) over against the shaded spaces (the possibilities which are actualised).Google Scholar
  3. 48.
    If p is a mutable state of affairs, the following logical formulae (among others) are valid within the modal theory of Aristotle: Parmenides and Aristotle share a, b and c; significantly different is only d (Parmenides) versus e (Aristotle).Google Scholar
  4. 49.
    Cf. Vos, KN,27 f., 260–262; Vos, `On the philosophy of the young Duns Scotus’, 213; Knuuttila, `Time and modality’, 166–170. Knuuttila characterises the Aristotelian theory of contingency and necessity as: “the statistical interpretation of modality” (op. cit., 166).Google Scholar
  5. 50.
    We distinguish between `Scotian’ and `Scotist’ as follows. `Scotian’ is used when it denotes (extrapolations of) Scotus’ theories and `Scotist’ is used to denote theories of followers of Scotus in medieval times.Google Scholar
  6. 51.
    Cf. Vos, `On the philosophy of the young Duns Scotus’, 213. In KN Vos uses the terms real or radical contingency, over against empty contingency; cf. KN 100, 101, 270, 274. Ifp is a mutable state of affairs, the following logical formulae (among others) are valid within Duns Scotus’ modal theory: With Parmenides Scotus only shares formula a, with Aristotle a and e.Google Scholar
  7. 52.
    Vos, KN,240–393 extensively treats the systematic repercussions of this theory in theology and philosophy.Google Scholar
  8. 53.
    Immediately after Lectura I 39 Scotus’ theory of contingency is given an important application. In distinction I 40 the question whether a chosen person can be damned (“Utrum praedestinatus posset damnari”) is confirmed. For being chosen or damned is a contingent matter of fact, just as persevering in sin. For the Reportatio examinata,see: A.B. Wolter, `God’s knowledge of future events’, 313–315.Google Scholar
  9. 54.
    Cf. A. Vos Jac.zn., Het is de Heer!, de opstanding voorstelbaar, Kampen 1990, 15–20.Google Scholar
  10. 55.
    Cf. Lectura I 39, §§ 49–50. As we continue our introduction, we will only use the first term used by Scotus: `possibilitas logica’, because this term expresses most accurately that it does not refer to a `potency’ (unlike the `potentia realis’ which will be discussed later. on but to a logical possibility. Cf. also: Lectura I 2, § 188, I 7, §§ 32–34.Google Scholar
  11. 56.
    Cf. Lectura I 39, § 50: “However,.this logical possibility is not one according to which the will has acts successively, but it has them at the same moment. For at the same moment the will has an act of willing, at the same and for the same moment it can have an opposite act of willing”. [“Haec autem possibilitas logica non est secundum quod voluntas habet actus successive, sed in eodem instanti• nam in Modem instanti in quo voluntas habet unum actum volendi, in eodem et pro eodenl pgtest habere oppositum actum volendi”].Google Scholar
  12. 57.
    Scotus does not reject the principle of non-contradiction, but retains formula a (in accordance with Parmenides and Aristotle), see footnotes 46, 48 and 51.Google Scholar
  13. 58.
    The `possibilitas logica’ also comprises the necessary states of affairs. All contingent possible states of affairs and all necessary possible states of affairs are called being (`ens’) by Scotus; thus `ens’ stands for all possible beings.Google Scholar
  14. 59.
    A state of affairs p is contingent if for the same moment Mp and M-p obtain. K. Jacobi’s definition of `contingent’ in contemporary possible worlds semantics is not correct: “Kontingent (wahr) =df wahr in dieser Welt and nicht in allen möglichen Welten.” (p. 4). Being true in the factual world, however, is not a condition for contingency (cf. our commentary, in which we distinguish between the level of factuality and possibility in the concept of contingency, a.o. §§ 18, 39). Cf. G.E. Hughes, M.J. Cresswell, An introduction to modal logic (1968’, 1972 revised reprint) London/New York 1982, 22 and 298; Vos, KN,244 and 285; De Libera, op. cit., 281.Google Scholar
  15. 60.
    According to Scotus p is a contingent state of affairs if: p and M-p. Cf. Ordinatio I 2, § 86: “To the second argument I say, that I do not call `contingent’ everything which is not-necessary or not-everlasting, but that thing of which the opposite may occur, when it occurs.” [“Ad secundum dico quod non voco hic contingens quodcumque non-necessarium vel non-sempitemum, sed cuius oppositurn posset fieri quando illud fit”.]Google Scholar
  16. 61.
    Cf. for `contingens’ and `possibilis’ our comments at Lectura I 39, § 18.Google Scholar
  17. 62.
    Cf. Lectura I 39, § 38.Google Scholar
  18. 63.
    Cf. L. Honnefelder, `Die Lehre von der doppelten ratitudo entis und ihre Bedeutung für die Metaphysik des Johannes Duns Scotus’, Deus et homo ad mentem I. Duns Scoti, Acta Tertii congressus scotistici internationalis, Vindebonae, 28 Sept. - 2 Oct. 1970,Rome 1972, (661–671) 667–671.Google Scholar
  19. 64.
    Cf. § 61. Besides, with respect to the aspect of factuality the human will is also a possible cause of contingent states of affairs.Google Scholar
  20. 65.
    For more information about technique and application of possible worlds semantics, see: Hughes, Cresswell, op. cit., 75 f.f.; A. Plantinga, The nature of necessity (1974’), Oxford 19893; M.J. Loux (ed.), The possible and the actual, Readings in the metaphysics of modality,Ithaca/London 1979; Vos, KN,240–244.Google Scholar
  21. 66.
    In any case in the so called S5-model, from which we depart here; in other models `impossible’ would be a relative concept. For this S5-model, see for instance: Hughes, Cresswell, op. cit., 49 f.Google Scholar
  22. 67.
    Cf. Lectura I 39, §§ 72 and 92, and our comments at these paragraphs.Google Scholar
  23. 68.
    Cf. our comments at §§ 44 and 62–66.Google Scholar
  24. 69.
    J.L. Ackrill, Aristotle’s Categories and De interpretatione,Translated with notes and glossary, Oxford (1963’) 1979, 52. (De interpretatione,9, 19a23).Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1994

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  • John Duns Scotus

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