Scientia formalitatum. The Emergence of a New Discipline in the Renaissance

Parole chiave: Scotism, Renaissance philosophy, history of metaphysics, scholastic metaphysics, scholastic traditions, formal distinction


The Formalist tradition in late-scholastic philosophy has gone unnoticed in standard historiography. This article’s overall objective is to add the Formalist tradition to what we know about Renaissance philosophy. I first show how the Formalist tradition was born out of some innovative considerations of hierarchies of distinctions in the wake of the Franciscan John Duns Scotus’s teaching on the formal distinction in the beginning of the fourteenth century (especially Francis of Meyronnes’s model of four distinctions and Petrus Thomae’s more elaborate doctrine of seven kinds of distinctions). I then trace how Formalist literature developed from being an exclusively Franciscan affair to becoming a much more widespread phenomenon. Thus, from the decades up to 1500 and onwards, authors from various late-scholastic schools (Thomism, Lullism, Averroism, and others) produced Formalist literature, i.e., treatises on multiple kinds of distinctions. I highlight particularly how one Franciscan philosopher of the sixteenth century, Jean Du Douet, proposed to view the Formalist preoccupation with distinctions as a discipline in its own right, a proper scientia formalitatum. I finally argue that while this proposal met with dismissive reactions, Du Douet’s idea does in fact reflect the role Formalism played in the scholastic curriculum in the late sixteenth century, at least in Franciscan milieus.