In Duns Scotus, Metaphysician, Allan B. Wolter and William A. Frank set out to "give direct access to [Scotus's] basic thought . . . through a critical study of his philosophical treatment of God" (p. vii). This study takes the form of commentary on a series of texts and translations from the works of Scotus. After a short (and perhaps unduly compressed) chapter laying out some of what we know about Scotus's life and writings, Wolter and Frank offer a brief introduction to the discipline of metaphysics as Scotus understood it. Scotus held that metaphysics is the science of the transcendentals, which are "a family of concepts . . . [that] capture the intelligibility of reality prior to its division into the categories" (p. 37). This science reaches its culmination in the philosophical knowledge of God.
In the third chapter, Wolter and Frank carefully lay out Scotus's proof for the existence of God as it appears in his Reportatio examinata and show how its complexities are integrated into a single extended argument with a "clearly articulated architecture" (p. 79). Scotus begins by establishing the existence of a first efficient cause. In doing so he relies on the difficult notion of essentially ordered causes, a notion that the authors explain quite effectively. He then argues that this first efficient cause must also be first in the order of eminence (that is, in "the objective order of a hierarchy of value that obtains among the nature of things" [p. 85]) and in the order of final causality. Scotus then must show that there is only one kind of being that enjoys this "triple primacy"; next, that a being of this kind is infinite in perfection; and finally, that there can be only one such being.
The fourth chapter discusses Scotus's theory of knowledge, emphasizing how Scotus's criticism of the views of Henry of Ghent served as the point of departure for his own theory of knowledge. They first consider Scotus's views about our knowledge of God. Scotus is especially significant, the authors contend, because he did more than simply reject a Neoplatonic theory of illumination in favor of an Aristotelian theory of abstraction. "By showing that this required some theory of univocity . . . [h]e was . . . able to explain that the way we construct notions of God was not significantly different from the way that Aristotle had constructed his notions of matter and form and of the substantial underpinnings of phenomena" (p. 137). In particular, the authors offer an extended discussion of the way in which we construct the notion of "infinite being," which Scotus regarded as a simple concept that is proper to God. After this discussion of our knowledge of God, the authors take up more general questions in Scotus's theory of knowledge. They first lay out Scotus's complex position regarding the adequate object of the intellect and then set forth his refutation of skepticism and his views about the ways in which the human intellect can attain certainty through its natural powers.
The final chapter treats two heterogeneous issues. The authors first present a brief account of Scotus's theory of individuation. They claim that "in raising these questions on individuation, he was less concerned with the problem of the metaphysical composition of matter than with . . . the objective nature of our intellectual knowledge" (p. 196). The phrase "metaphysical composition of matter" is puzzling, since Scotus's theory of individuation is meant to apply even to immaterial substances, as is evidenced by his distinctive position on the individuation of angels. In any event, the authors do not actually show how the theory bears on the epistemological concerns that they claim motivated it. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the will that covers both the metaphysical doctrine of the will as a power that acts contingently and the moral doctrine of the will as the locus of moral responsibility.
As an introduction to certain aspects of Scotus's thought, this book has some genuine value. It brings together in one volume a number of important texts and translations that have until now been available only in disparate collections; it also adds a few new texts. The commentary offers useful background information and will be helpful to those who are encountering Scotus for the first time. But for similar reasons, the book has little to offer specialists. There is very little, either in the translations or in the commentary, that Frank and (especially) Wolter have not already done elsewhere. Readers who come to this book looking for new light on Scotus will be disappointed.
Moreover, as my summary of the contents will have made clear, the title is somewhat misleading, since little of the commentary is concerned with metaphysics in any of the usual senses. Readers who know what Scotus means by 'metaphysics' will wonder why there is so little discussion of the transcendentals. Those who look for metaphysics in a more general Aristotelian sense will be disappointed to find how little the authors have to say about the categories and such fundamental metaphysical notions as form and matter, actuality and potentiality. And readers with a more modern sense of 'metaphysics' in mind will find only an extremely brief discussion of universals and individuation, and another brief discussion of modality, that speak to their concerns. The book is in fact primarily devoted to what would nowadays be called philosophical theology or philosophy of religion. Scotus certainly regarded such issues as belonging, at least in part, to metaphysics; but I still think it fair to complain that the title promises something other than what the book delivers.
It is especially unfortunate that the translations should be so sloppy. Serious mistakes are fortunately rare, although the translation of "salve [sic] cuiuscumque reverentia" as "for the sake of all that is holy" (p. 14) rather than as "with all due deference to whoever [might hold the opposite view]" is striking. But there are a great many petty inaccuracies, unwarranted additions, and inexplicable omissions, the cumulative effect of which is to weaken the translations considerably. Sometimes the mistakes produce a muddled English version of an argument that was perfectly clear in the Latin. For example, in one passage (p. 25) the minor premise of a syllogism is omitted from the English, so that when Scotus goes on to offer a proof of the minor premise, he is arguing for a claim that he never actually makes in the English version. The result is somewhat mystifying. On that same page, the translation reads "principles are grasped immediately once the terms are apprehended through the medium of the senses" where the Latin simply says "principia statim sciuntur apprehensis terminis." "Through the medium of the senses" corresponds to nothing in the Latin; and it turns Scotus's statement from a philosophical commonplace into a highly controversial claim, one that Scotus himself would surely have rejected. After all, it is the intellect that grasps terms; the senses can only tell us whether those terms refer to anything in extramental reality. Such mistakes abound in the translations; readers should be advised to rely on the Latin as much as possible.