Today is the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas. And since the via positiva was already well occupied, I thought I'd commemorate by telling you a few reasons why I'm a fan of Thomas's archnemesis, the infamous Franciscan, John Duns Scotus.
If you're a big-time Thomist (or even just moderately aware of general Christian intellectual history), you'll know that Scotus tried hard to undo all that Aquinas, and his small army of scribes, slaved away to construct. It was Scotus's mission in life, after all, not only to trounce the Dominicans intellectually, but also to dance on their graves, and the graves of all those whom he was able to lead astray through his proto-Kantian, mind-over-reality contortions of the truth.
Apparently this is more or less what the Radical Orthodoxy folks will tell you. And presumably it's what St. Francis had in mind for his confreres while dabbling in rule-writing and talking with the birds.
I'm not really as bitter as all that. (Although, accounting for the short shrift given to Scotus in most non-hyper-specialized discussions, such sarcasm might not be too wide of the mark.) In fact, I see the tensions between Thomas and Scotus not as destructive but as incredibly productive. At least for me. And so I really do mean to celebrate the feast of the Doctor Angelicus by recalling also his most Subtle colleague.
While it's popular to reduce the Thomist-Scotist kerfuffle to the transcendence versus immanence of God, as with most disputes that are sorted out only over the course of thousands and thousands of pages, it's not that simple. Not only does Scotus present a thoroughly non-Thomistic idea of God as existent (i.e., the analogy versus univocity dispute), he also operates on a whole different playing field when it comes to the wedding of logic and metaphysics, and the construction of a definitive ontology responding to both. As Thomas Williams suggests, Scotus's theory of univocity is not one opposed to analogy, but to the total unintelligibility of terms. As such, it doesn't de facto imply that any positive predication of terms to God should conflate his infinite being merely to one type amongst others.
More than just "counterbalancing" Thomistic metaphysics, though, Scotus's most significant contribution is arguably his foray into counter-Enlightenment realism—almost four-hundred years before the Enlightenment. (Admittedly, one can argue that Scotus was actually a cause of the Enlightenment, and perhaps in some ways that's true. However, I think it's clear, not of the Enlightenment as it turned out, but at most of some of its more salutary principles.) The idea that Scotus is proto-Kantian might carry some water, if all one means is that Scotus emphasized the role of the mind in grasping reality. Of course, Kant hardly stopped there, and Scotus didn't go much further. (Some of his students, on the other hand, are another story.)
Still, to say that Scotus engaged Enlightenment ideals from the realist perspective should mean something. Where Kant walked over a cliff in asserting the mind's active, productive character in relation to an existing world, Scotus tiptoed along another chasm—I suspect remaining safe—in wrestling with the active, productive character of being on the constitution of the mind, itself. His concern for logic and semantics is postured not to prop up an ontology upon them, but to provide a "minimum viable product" for simply doing metaphysics.
If Aquinas got it right, Scotus, I think, was trying to figure out why. If Scotus got it wrong, I believe Thomas would have been the first to have realized the great merit and worthiness of his efforts.