Duns Scotus and William of Ockham: Realism, Nominalism, and Current Debates on Voluntarism


Dons Scotus is probably one of the more important philosophers you’ve never heard of (unless you’re an academic or specialist in the field of philosophy). Known as the  “the Subtle Doctor,” he left a mark on discussions of such disparate topics as the semantics of religious language, the problem of universals, divine illumination, and the nature of human freedom.

Scotus believed there are actual universals existing outside the mind and thereby can be called realist, and he opposed those who deny extra-mental universals and are called nominalists, and whose descendents in our time became the anti-realists of the postmodern turn. Of course there are gradations and battlelines to be drawn along the way in this sordid history. He also affirmed that natural law in the strict sense does not depend on God’s will. So from him we get all those thinkers who have reputiated the whole Augustinian tradition of Free Will. Of course he wasn’t alone in this, but he did bring much of this thought to a head and formulated the beginnings of a set of propositions, concepts, and thought that would shape the historical drift of philosophical speculation on Free Will and Universals up to our time.

Scotus quite self-consciously puts forward his understanding of freedom as an alternative to Aquinas’s. According to Aquinas, freedom comes in simply because the will is intellectual appetite rather than mere sense appetite. Intellectual appetite is aimed at objects as presented by the intellect and sense appetite at objects as presented by the senses. Sense appetite is not free because the senses provide only particulars as objects of appetite. But intellectual appetite is free because the intellect deals with universals, not particulars.

Aquinas held a eudaimonistic theory of ethics: the point of the moral life is happiness. That’s why Aquinas can understand the will as an intellectual appetite for happiness. Scotus rejects the idea that will is merely intellectual appetite, he is saying that there is something fundamentally wrong with eudaimonistic ethics. Morality is not tied to human flourishing at all. And just as Aquinas’s conception of the will was tailor-made to suit his eudaimonistic conception of morality, Scotus’s conception of the will is tailor-made to suit his anti-eudaimonistic conception of morality. It’s not merely that he thinks there can be no genuine freedom in mere intellectual appetite. It’s also that he rejects the idea that moral norms are intimately bound up with human nature and human happiness. So Scotus relegates concerns about happiness to the affectio commodi (affection advantage-profit) and assigns whatever is properly moral to the other affection, the affectio iustitiae (affection for justice).

There are many things we could reject in Scotus’s views on immortality, God, Christianity and other issues that are now dated and of little use for our current debates; yet, he is worthy of study for being one of those who decisively set the boundaries and earmarked many of the debates that would follow. I think he’ll be remembered because his thought affords us a view onto the division of philosophers into realists – who think there are real laws and universals – and nominalists – who think laws and universals are merely products of the mind – cuts across more familiar contrasts between rationalists and empiricists, naturalists and transcendentalists, and so affords a novel perspective on the philosophical tradition. In our time it is the battle between anti-realists of the social construction school of postmodernism, and those newer speculative realist positions that have cropped up recently across the Continental and Analytical spectrum.

William of Ockham: The Progenitor of the Anti-Realist Tradition

The enemy of Duns Scotus, is of course the other great philosopher of that era William of Ockham – nominalist and advocate of Free Will. In Ockham’s world of absolute singulars there could be nothing like the composition resulting from the formal intelligibilities of Scotistic realism. Scotus had proposed such Formalitates to insure an objective ground for the universal concepts produced by the intellect. Ockham saw only a latent Platonism here and restricted all such formal distinctions to the mind as it viewed the existing singular from various aspects. Whatever exists is singular, totally so, and any composition would result in a singular being composed of many singulars. Neither could there be any relations between such singulars seen as really distinct from the singular objects involved. Such relations would themselves be singulars, and there could be no end to such a process. It was another way for Ockham to dispense with any necessity in a created order and to insure that creation was totally dependent on both the absolute and ordinary power of God.

One need only read a few of his general propositions to understand why his enemies saw in him a dark course for the future of philosophy:

Article 2. That intuitive knowledge of a creature considered as such does not necessarily concern the creature’s existence or non-existence, nor does it look toward existence rather than non-existence.
Article 5. When predicating wisdom or existence of God, the predication is not about God Himself but only a certain concept (of God).
Article 10. That intelligence and will which are predicated of God are not God; just as no attribute is the same as the Divine Essence.
Article 30. That nothing is known or understood of any substance; science is only of concepts.
Article 38. That there is no relation of reason of God to creatures.
Article 41. That genus is not intrinsic to the thing of which it is the genus.
Article 54. That a proposition such as “God is wisdom, goodness, life” is not intelligible.1

Above we see those tendencies toward obscurantism, relativism, and the anti-realist gap between language/reality etc. hinted at in brief that would work themselves out across the next few hundred years as those who follow Scotus and Ockham would play out the battles into our time.

Against Universals

In the case of universal entities, Ockham’s nominalism is not based on his Razor, his principle of parsimony. That is, Ockham does not hold merely that there is no good reason for affirming universals, so that we should refrain from doing so in the absence of further evidence. No, he holds that theories of universals, or at least the theories he considers, are outright incoherent; they either are self-contradictory or at least violate certain other things we know are true in virtue of the three sources just cited. For Ockham, the only universal entities it makes sense to talk about are universal concepts, and derivative on them, universal terms in spoken and written language. Metaphysically, these “universal” concepts are singular entities like all others; they are “universal” only in the sense of being “predicable of many.”

With respect to the exact ontological status of such conceptual entities, however, Ockham changed his view over the course of his career. To begin with, he adopted what is known as the fictum-theory, a theory according to which universals have no “real” existence at all in the Aristotelian categories, but instead are purely “intentional objects” with a special mode of existence; they have only a kind of “thought”-reality. Eventually, however, Ockham came to think this intentional realm of “fictive” entities was not needed, and by the time of his Summa of Logic and the Quodlibets adopts instead a so called intellectio-theory, according to which a universal concept is just the act of thinking about several objects at once; metaphysically such an “act” is a singular quality of an individual mind, and is “universal” only in the sense of being a mental sign of several things at once and being predicable of them in mental propositions.2

For Ockham, as for Aristotle and Aquinas, I can choose the means to achieve my ultimate good. But in addition, for Ockham unlike Aristotle and Aquinas, I can choose whether to will that ultimate good. The natural orientation and tendency toward that good is built in; I cannot do anything about that. But I can choose whether or not to to act to achieve that good. I might choose, for example, to do nothing at all, and I might choose this knowing full well what I am doing. But more: I can choose to act knowingly directly against my ultimate good, to thwart it. I can choose evil as evil. (ibid.)

For Ockham, this is required if I am going to be morally responsible for my actions. If I could not help but will to act to achieve my ultimate good, then it would not be morally praiseworthy of me to do so; moral “sins of omission” would be impossible (although of course I could be mistaken in the means I adopt). By the same token, moral “sins of commission” would be impossible if I could not knowingly act against my ultimate good. But for Ockham these conclusions are not just required by theory; they are confirmed by experience. (ibid.)

Voluntarism in Duns Scotus and William of Ockham

Voluntarism is the theory that God or the ultimate nature of reality is to be conceived as some form of will (or conation). This theory is contrasted to intellectualism, which gives primacy to God’s reason. The voluntarism/intellectualism distinction was intimately tied to medieval and modern theories of natural law; if we grant that moral or physical laws issue from God, it next needs to be answered whether they issue from God’s will or God’s reason. 3

In medieval philosophy, voluntarism was championed by Avicebron, Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham. Intellectualism, on the other hand, is found in Averroes, Aquinas, and Eckhart. The opposing theories were applied to the human psychology, the nature of God, ethics, and the heaven. According to intellectualism, choices of the will result from that which the intellect recognizes as good; the will itself is determined. For voluntarism, by contrast, it is the will which determines which objects are good, and the will itself is indetermined.

Concerning the nature of heaven, intellectualists followed Aristotle’s lead by seeing the final state of happiness as a state of contemplation. Voluntarism, by contrast, maintains that final happiness is an activity, specifically that of love. The conceptions of theology itself were polarized between these two views. According to intellectualism, theology should be an essential speculative science; according to voluntarism, it is a practical science aimed at controlling life, but not necessarily aimed at comprehending philosophic truth. In the modern period Spinoza advocates intellectualism insofar as desire is an indication of imperfection, and the passions are a source of human bondage.

When all things are seen purely in rational relations, desire is stilled, the mind is freed from the passions and we experience the intellectual love of God, which is the ideal happiness. According to Leibniz, Spinoza’s interpretation of the world as rational and logical left no place for the individual, or for the conception of ends or purposes as a determining factor in reality. Voluntarism is seen in Leibniz’s view of the laws which govern monads (individual units of which all reality is composed) in so far as they are the laws of the conscious realization of ends.

In some passages Duns Scotus seems to endorse a thoroughgoing voluntarism, holding not merely that the moral law is established entirely by God’s will, but even that there is no reason why God wills in one way rather than another.  In other passages, however, Scotus insists that reason plays an important role in morality—that right reason is an essential element in the moral goodness of an action, and that moral truth is accessible to natural reason.

Sadly, surveying Scotus’s works one comes to the conclusion the conclusion dreaded by some interpreters— namely, that for Scotus the moral law is not accessible to natural reason (leading to obscurantist notions of God’s Will).  Scotus recognizes the existence of contingent truths that are immediate, that is, not derived from any logically prior truths.  Indeed, he insists that there must be such truths: “otherwise there would be an infinite regress in contingent truths, or else something contingent would follow from a necessary cause—either of which is impossible.”  Now we need to distinguish here between two sorts of immediate contingent truths.  I shall call them metaphysically immediate and epistemically immediate.  Metaphysically immediate contingent truths are those for which there is no further explanation at all; they are the sorts of truths we might be inclined to call “brute facts”—not merely brute relative to other facts, but absolutely brute, as we might say.  Scotus’s favorite examples of such truths are, not surprisingly, facts about the divine will.

Thus Scotus’s understanding of the role of reason in morality is explicitly tailored so as to go hand in hand with his voluntarism; there is no conflict at all between the two views.  Since God created us with the ability to regulate our actions in accordance with our own knowledge of the moral law, our actions are not fully morally good unless they involve an exercise of our own reason.  But since we cannot come to know discursively what God has freely and contingently willed concerning the moral law, God has granted us an immediate knowledge of the moral law.

Natural reason thus knows the moral law immediately and not by argument.  Right reason is the correct application of such knowledge to specific circumstances.  And action on the basis of a complete dictate of right reason is fully morally good.  In this way, any agent who makes proper use of reason can easily elicit morally good acts without ever having the slightest thought about God’s will, even though in fact it is God’s sovereign will that freely established the moral facts that the agent is correctly discerning and following.

Ultimately from William of Ockham’s thought would come all those traditions of voluntarism and utilitarian ethics.  Voluntary agents, free-will, along with notions of teleology (final causation) would encompass his thought. Although he is very suspicious of the notion of final causality (teleology) in general, he thinks it is quite appropriate for intelligent, voluntary agents such as human beings. Thus the frequent charge that Ockham severs ethics from metaphysics by denying teleology seems wrong. Nevertheless, while Ockham grants that human beings have a natural orientation, a tendency toward their own ultimate good, he does not think this restricts their choices. This erroneous notion of an innate telos toward the good, and free-will would be hotly debated for hundreds of years, and seems to be almost a violent aspect of current scientific and philosophical debates in our day.

Ockham’s greatest task he’d set himself as a defense, both philosophically and theologically, of the divine freedom and omnipotence of God. Those who oppose his philosophy would see in  Ockham someone who critically attacked the great theological systems of the earlier days and substituted for them a logical nominalism and philosophical fideism.*

Kant and Schopenhauer in later times: Rational and Irrational Will and Voluntarism

19th century voluntarism has its origin in Kant, particularly his doctrine of the “primacy of the practical over the pure reason.” Intellectually, humans are incapable of knowing ultimate reality, but this need not and must not interfere with the duty of acting as though the spiritual character of this reality were certain. Freedom cannot be demonstrated speculatively, but whenever a person acts under a motive supplied by reason, he is thereby exhibiting the practical efficiency of reason, and thus showing its reality in a practical sense. Following Kant, two distinct lines of voluntarism have proceeded which may be called rational and irrational voluntarism respectively. (ibid.)

For Fichte, the originator of rational voluntarism, the ethical is primary both in the sphere of conduct and in the sphere of knowledge. The whole nature of consciousness can be understood only from the point of view of ends which are set up by the self. The actual world, with all the activity that it has, is only to be understood as material for the activity of the practical reason, as the means through which the will achieves complete freedom and complete moral realization.

“The genius of love and the genius of hunger, those twin brothers, are the two moving forces behind all living things. All living things set themselves in motion to feed and to reproduce. Love and hunger share the same purpose. Life must never cease; life must be sustained and must create.”

– Turgenev, Little poems in prose, XXIII 

Schopenhauer’s irrational voluntarism asserts a more radical opposition between the will and intellect. For him, the will is by its very nature irrational. It manifests itself in various stages in the world of nature as physical, chemical, magnetic, and vital force, pre-eminently, however, in the animal kingdom in the form of “the will to live,” which means the tendency to assert itself in the struggle for means of existence and for reproduction of the species. This activity is all of it blind, so far as the individual agent is concerned, although the power and existence of the will are thereby asserted continually.


Nominalism is a metaphysical view in philosophy according to which general or abstract terms and predicates exist, while universals or abstract objects, which are sometimes thought to correspond to these terms, do not exist. There are at least two main versions of nominalism.

Fideism is an epistemological theory which maintains that faith is independent of reason, or that reason and faith are hostile to each other and faith is superior at arriving at particular truths (see natural theology). The word fideism comes from fides, the Latin word for faith, and literally means “faith-ism.”

  1. Recherches de Théologie Ancienne et Médiévale, vol. 7, pp. 353-380, J. Koch
  2. Spade, Paul Vincent and Panaccio, Claude, “William of Ockham”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.
  3. see: Voluntarism –


For a general introduction see: John Duns Scotus (1266–1308) and William of Ockham ( 1287–1347)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s