Home Page         Papers by Peirce         Peirce-Related Papers

To Bottom of Page

The Realism of John Duns Scotus in the Philosophy of Charles Peirce
By Ronald Jeffrey Grace

Berkeley, California
15 December 2000

I. Introduction

This paper will explore the realism of John Duns Scotus as it relates to the philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce credited his particular brand of realism to Scotus, and it is the opinion of many Peirce scholars that understanding the realism of Peirce goes quite a long way in unlocking the philosophy of Peirce. The following text relies upon the work of John F. Boler, Charles Peirce and Scholastic Realism, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1963)

II. Realism Defined

According to Boler’s account , Peirce offered several definitions of realism at several points in his philosophy, one of which is: “General principles are really operative in nature. That is the doctrine of scholastic realism.” (MS:309). Scholastic realism, of which Duns Scotus’ realism is a version, held that only individual things can be said to actually exist. However, there seems to be a nature, or intelligible structure, to things that aren’t simply reducible to the individual thing. This can be illustrated by the following example:

A carpenter makes a chair. What makes the chair a “chair” isn’t exhausted by that individual chair, for the carpenter can make another chair. There are also lots of other chairs that are similar to this one chair but which also contain differences. It’s still recognized as being a chair, however, in spite of the differences. The scholastics therefore concluded that there must be some nature, some intelligible structure, within things that exist within the thing as well as within the mind of the carpenter, and within the mind of the viewers, those who recognize and use a chair. Within the world, we do not find, however, instances of these structures just existing on their own. These natures or structures are always found “inside” some thing, instantiated, and we only know of them as abstractions from some thing.

So the problems for the scholastics were: 1) how is it that these universals are substantiated? 2) What is the status of these structures or natures “in themselves”? And 3) what exactly happens in the act of abstraction?

Scotus wanted to oppose his position over against two extreme positions that were developed early on in the history of the problem of universals. The two extreme positions regarding the reality of universals were 1) the structures exist only in the mind and are therefore unreal (nominalism) and 2) the structures existed in the things themselves.

Scotus approaches this issue by first noting that anything which exists outside the mind also exists within the mind simply by being known. The opposite is not true, however. Something that exists within the mind doesn’t thereby necessarily exist outside the mind. Something which exists outside the mind is a real being (ens reale) while something that exists only in the mind is a being of reason (ens rationis).

Now the important distinction in the issue at hand is not the distinction between what is real and what is mental, but rather the concepts that refer to what is real and what is mental. You can have a concept about something which really exists as well as a concept about something that is simply a figment of the imagination. The reality of a concept can be twofold, its own reality in itself (I have a certain concept in my mind) and the reality of what the concept refers to i.e., a dream which is unreal, or a tree, which is real.

Note that both concepts (one of a tree and one of a dream) are real, but that one has a real object while the other has an unreal object.

This leads to the further distinction between “first intentional” concepts and “second intentional” concepts. First intentional concepts have real things as their objects, while second intentional concepts have first intentional concepts as the object. The objects of second intentional concepts therefore have entia rationis for their objects, even though those objects could themselves have entia reales for their objects.

So to see how this might make sense, take the science of biology as an example. It would be considered a real science in that it studies objects which are real. Grammar, however, isn’t a real science in the sense that its object of study is the way we talk about things, not things themselves. The biologist says “this is an animal and this is a plant” and is thereby referring to real things. The grammarian, however, is talking about subjects and predicates. The biologist is using subjects and predicates, but he is using them to refer to real things that exist independently of what he can say or know of them, whereas the grammarian is talking about subjects and predicates, about how we talk about things.

So when we say “this is an animal and this is a plant,” we are talking about things even though we are using subject and predicate to do so. If universality only exists in our concepts, second intentions, entia rationis, does this mean that everything else that exists apart from our mind is therefore individual, non-universal? Scotus didn’t think so, for this would have made our conceptions of the real world nonsense.

III. Scotus’ Solution

The first thing to examine is Scotus’ distinction between two uses of the term “universal.” The first sense is the logical or predicative sense and can be said to be a creation of the mind. It isn’t necessarily a fiction, though, because it’s based on the second sense of the universal which is the Common Nature. There is a real commonness in nature. The nature of something therefore undergoes two different processes: 1) the logical, universalization in the mind and, 2) the principle of individualization. Universalization is therefore a product of the mind, but it is based upon a commonness found in the nature of something itself. Scotus calls this principle of individuation “haecceity” and its operation “contraction.” So how does this work?

For the statement “Kenan is a man” to be true, there must be a principle by which something is “in” Kenan that makes the statement true. There also has to be a principle by which Kenan is the unique individual that he is. The first principle is Common Nature and the second is haecceity. The first gives Kenan a nature shared by other men (manhood) and the second gives Kenan his uniqueness, his individuation. To resolve the dilemma posed of having both a common nature and uniqueness, Scotus introduced the concept of formal distinction. Within an existent individual, the common nature and the haecceity are really one and the same thing, and the distinction made between the common and the unique natures is a formal distinction.

What, exactly, is the status of this “formal distinction”? “Aha!” you say. That, indeed, is the question. The answer to this question is answered in many ways by Scotistic scholars. This is due to the fact that there aren’t any explicit definitions of the formal distinction within Scotus himself. In efforts to reconstruct a definition, some Scotistic scholars have arrived at a definition which is implicit in the writings of Scotus: A formal distinction is more than a logical distinction and real in some sense. It is related to the mind, yet it is also in things themselves, real. With this distinction, Scotus wants to preserve the common nature as real as well as the uniqueness of the individual, the haecceity. If the common nature and haecceity are only logical distinctions, then they are less than real and Scotus rejects this conclusion. Therefore, the formal distinction is more than a logical distinction, but it isn’t a distinction amongst supposits.

Thomists usually reject this as simply being contradictory, for something can’t be both real and not-real at the same time. So how do Scotus and his followers resolve this dilemma? “The peculiarity of the formal distinction is that it is somehow relative to the mind, that is, the terms (the formalities), are conceivable as distinct.” (Boler, pg.55) (Underlined text added). What has really ensued amongst Scotistic scholars is an interpretive attempt at determining how to explain the formal distinction.

Boler terms the formalities as “metaphysical realities” to accentuate Scotus’ desire to affirm that these formalities, which are ideas, are nevertheless objective ideas, ideas that are neither physical parts of the object nor conventional names. Scotus is thus interpreted as a scholastic working towards something like an objective idealism.

What Scotus finally ends up with is a new addition to the scholastic distinctions, or modalities of being. The first two, the logical mode and the real mode, are accepted by Thomistic scholars, but the third, the metaphysical, is not. So what we end up with is the following: the second scholastic distinction of the real was divided by Scotus into the physically real and the metaphysically real.

Scotus wants to accomplish two things with the metaphysical distinction. With common nature, he wants to assert that something is real in Kenan, “man” which is there before intelligence sees or grasps it, thus is an objective reality. This reality is less than a unity, however, so the mind must represent it by creating a sign that thereby makes up for the lack of reality it had. Scotus thereby maintains a realism that provides a way of making sense of things that exist apart from the mind. He also wants to preserve individuality, Kenan’s uniqueness, and he does this by saying that all natures, all universals “contract” into the individual existent known as Kenan and thereby become unique to Kenan. Boler maintains that this thereby makes Scotus’ realism a moderate realism.

IV. Peirce

Before going into detail about where and how Peirce and Scotus differ, we will first look at where Peirce agreed with Scotus.

…Peirce and Scotus agree that nature or law must be an intelligibility that is real and objective. Scotus defined a formality as what can be correctly conceived of an object but is real before the operation of the intellect. Peirce’s definition of reality seems to me to be nearly a pragmatic reformulation of Scotus’ realitas or formalitas: reality is what would be thought in the ultimate opinion of the community (Boler, pg. 128).

For Peirce, reality is described with three categories, firstness, secondness, and thirdness. Firstness is roughly equivalent to quality, secondness to event, and thirdness to law (of nature). Thirdness is paradigmatically found in the action of a sign: “A sign stands for something to the idea which it produces or modifies” (Arthur Burkes, Charles Hartshorne, and Paul Weiss, editors, Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, (8 Vols.; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1931-58), Vol. I paragraph 339.)

It is in Peirce’s category of thirdness that we find Scotus’ formal distinction. He finally settles on “mediation” as the proper technical term for thirdness (Boler, pg. 123).

“I use [thirdness] as the name of that element of the phenomenon which is predominate wherever Mediation is predominant, and which reaches its fullness in Representation. Continuity represents Thirdness almost to perfection.” (Collected Papers, Vol. 3 para. 422, and vol. 4 para. 3).

To briefly address what role continuity plays in Peirce’s philosophy: Peirce held that every predicate is simply a specification of a collection of possible objects. The collection of possible objects is continuous, in that the collection contains not only actually existent objects, but also a continuous range of possible cases between any two objects. Therefore, to individuate one object is just a simple form, or fragment, of the larger, higher process of relatives. An individual is but a fragment of a system within the larger system, the larger process of possibility, which is continuous. This is a significant departure from Scotus, who held that individuation was a contraction of the generals.

Charles Peirce rejects this contraction and thereby articulates a stronger realism than Scotus. For Peirce, the individual is not real, in the sense that generals are real. The individual is a process, an action that embodies generalities. The real “things” are the generalities. An individual human is but a fragment within humanity, or the human system. Peirce retains Scotus’ metaphysical distinction, but completely rejects his individuation. :

“The individual man, since his separate existence is manifested only by ignorance and error, so far as he is anything apart from his fellows, and from what he and they are to be, is only a negation. This is man, ‘proud man, most ignorant of what he’s most assured: His glassy essence.’” (C.S. Peirce, "Some Consequences of Four Incapacities", from Peirce on Signs, edited by James Hoopes, (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991, pg. 84).

Peirce therefore has transformed the question “are generals real?” into the question “are there real continua?” There is, however, a formal resemblance to the questions addressed by Scotus:

“The schoolmen maintained that a nature cannot be identified with any actual individual or collection of individuals. Peirce wants to show that the reality of a continuum cannot be reduced to any actuality or collection of actualities.” (Boler, pg. 127).

V. Conclusion

In light of this, it seems appropriate to ask the question “In what sense can Peirce be identified as someone influenced by the philosophy of Scotus?” It certainly doesn’t seem possible to maintain that Peirce developed Scotus’ philosophy from its conclusions. It’s probably more accurate to say that he adopted a position that Scotus developed, the formal distinction, and then built something new from there. He is therefore “Scotistic” in the sense that he adopted a Scotistic framework but managed to work out a philosophy that might have made Scotus a bit uncomfortable.

It’s really hard to say what Scotus would think of Peirce’s work, however, for Peirce himself points out that he is working with tools that simply weren’t available to Scotus, new developments in logic being one. When all is said and done, however, I’m sure Scotus might have been fascinated by such a supreme elucidation of the possible as we find in Charles Sanders Peirce.

END OF:  RONALD JEFFREY GRACE, "The Realism of John Duns Scotus in the Philosophy of Charles Peirce"


Do you think the author has it wrong? If so and you want to contribute a critical comment or commentary, brief or extended, concerning the above paper or its subject-matter, or concerning previous commentary on it, it will be incorporated into this webpage as perspicuously as possible and itself become subject thereby to further critical response, thus contributing to Arisbe as a matrix for dialogue. Your contribution could also be of the nature of a corroboration of the author, of course, or be related to it or to some other response to it in some other relevant way.

The URL of this page is:

This paper was last modified November 13, 2002

Queries, comments, and suggestions regarding the website to:

top of page