Professor Thomas Williams

Nominated Fellow

Nominated Fellow, September - December 2020

Thomas Williams is Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Florida and Canon Theologian at the Cathedral Church of St Peter in St Petersburg, Florida. He earned a B.A. in Philosophy from Vanderbilt University in 1988 and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame in 1994. Dr Williams's research interests are in medieval philosophy and theology (especially Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and Duns Scotus) and the philosophy of religion. His recent work includes a translation of Augustine’s Confessions (Hackett, 2019), The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 2018), and John Duns Scotus: Selected Writings on Ethics (Oxford University Press, 2017).

Despite the acknowledged importance of John Duns Scotus (1265/66-1308) as one of the three great thinkers of the High Middle Ages in the Latin West, there is no systematic book-length treatment of his ethics. In part because of the disarray in which Scotus’s texts have come down to us, and in part because of a disproportionate scholarly fascination with Scotus’s arguably radical view about the relationship between morality and the divine will, the content and significance of his ethics as a whole have received only spotty attention. With the recent completion of critical editions of Scotus’s works, however, the time is right for a full-scale exposition and reevaluation of Scotus’s ethical theory, which I am proposing to offer in a book with the working title John Duns Scotus: Ethics in Transition.

My work on this project during my time at IASH will focus on two chapters. The first, on moral motivation and the genesis of human action, looks at Scotus’s account of the intellect, will, choice, pleasure, and enjoyment. I examine Scotus’s gradual move away from Anselm’s view of the two affections of the will and argue that Scotus’s final account is an attempt to preserve some connection between the will and happiness—some “naturalness” on the part of the will—without compromising the will’s freedom to determine itself. The second, on the metaphysics of goodness and rightness, argues that Scotus is squarely within the mainstream of 12th- and 13th-century thinking about the metaphysics of goodness when he argues that moral goodness is not the same as the “transcendental” goodness that all things have in virtue of their being. He develops the tradition in distinctive ways, however, by arguing that moral goodness is not a unitary feature; it arises from the suitability of the act to its agent and the suitability of the act’s object, circumstances, and other features to the act itself. Scotus also develops the tradition by elaborating a fine-grained taxonomy of goodness, badness, and indifference. In order for an act to be morally good, the agent must make, and act upon, a correct judgment that all the relevant features of the act are indeed suitable. Rightness requires something quite different: the act must conform to a correct practical principle. And because the correctness of most practical principles is determined by the divine will, the rightness of most actions likewise depends on the divine will. The radically different approaches Scotus takes to goodness and rightness threatens the coherence of his ethical views. It is here that we see most clearly his status as a transitional figure in the history of ethics, developing the tradition in new directions in light of his emphasis on divine and human freedom but still holding on to elements of the tradition that do not sit well with those commitments.