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Friday, January 21, 2011

Medieval Philosophy, Part II

Aquinas confounding Averroes
As promised, here’s the continuation of the January 7, 2011 post on medieval philosophy.

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When we enter the period of later medieval philosophy, we enter the period of scholasticism, and of philosophy as an academic discipline. It now becomes possible to talk about people (or rather men) who were professional philosophers, a phenomenon not seen since the Classical period. The reappearance of such beings comes hand in hand with the rise of universities. Thus, I will discuss the rise of the university, the activities that took place within it, and the career and course of studies of the late medieval philosopher.

Peter Abelard.

As an entryway into the subject, it might help to have a look at the career of Peter Abelard (1079-1142), a figure who stands at the very cusp of medieval scholasticism. Like other students of the time, Peter studied the seven liberal arts, the trivium (grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy), under masters in the Paris schools. At this time, the University of Paris did not yet exist, except as a collection of schools, many of them loosely associated with the cathedral of Notre Dame. Abelard was a very precocious student, and a brilliant mind. He learned logic from William of Champeaux, with whom he had a very public disagreement on the nature of universals. I know I promised not to get too technical, but the so-called “problem of universals” was a major pastime of medieval philosophers, so I think I owe at least a brief explanation.

The problem turned around whether a general term, like “table”, stood for some kind of ideal (or real) table — existing either in the mind, or in some transcendent realm, or in the mind of God — of which the particular tables we see around us are merely less real reflections; or whether all the tables we see around us are each perfectly real and individual existences, which we lasso together as a matter of custom under the linguistic term “table”, for convenience’s sake. The first position, associated with Plato, came to be referred to as realism. The second position came to be referred to as nominalism. The debate continued throughout the Middle Ages (in a later generation, thinkers like Duns Scotus came to be associated with realism, while William of Ockham was very much a nominalist), and indeed into the modern period. Nowadays, nominalism is more or less the mainstream position, but this does not mean there is unanimity on the matter.

I’m sure that at the moment many of you are shrugging your shoulders inwardly and asking “Who cares?” But to the medievals it mattered. For example, take the phrase, “God exists de divinitate” (“by divinity”). Realism would seem to imply that something else — a real existing thing called “divinity” — was the cause of God’s existence, which contradicted the accepted theology that God was a necessary and self-caused being.

William of Champeaux was a realist, while his student, Peter Abelard, was a nominalist. With characteristic arrogance, Peter publicly humiliated William and set up his own rival school, attracting students away from his old master. Later, Peter turned from logic to theology, and began teaching the subject in 1113. (I will not discuss Peter’s ill-starred liaison with Heloise, as the story is familiar, and has little bearing on the subject at hand.)

Abelard wrote a work called Scito Teipsum (“Know Thyself”), which was one of the few lasting contributions to moral philosophy to come out of the Middle Ages (the other one being Aquinas’ Summa Theologica). The work stressed the almost overriding contribution of the moral agent’s intentions to the moral value of his actions; the quality of one’s will was more important than the rightness of one’s action.

However, for our purposes it was another of Abelard’s works that would have an influence on later scholastic philosophy — Sic et Non (“Yes and No”). In this work, he gathered together a large number of passages and opinions, mostly from the Fathers of the Church, and juxtaposed them in ways that made them seem contradictory. Some have thought that in doing this Abelard was trying to ridicule the authorities of doctrine. However, it is more likely that he wrote the work as an invitation to scholars to sort out and reconcile these contradictions. As we will see, the juxtaposition of opposing opinions on an issue, along with the attempt to resolve the contradiction, would become the hallmark of scholastic method.

The Rise of the Universities.

At some point in the twelfth century, the concentrations of separate schools in certain centres became incorporated by charters granted by local bishops or Church officials. Such corporate structures were run by their own statutes and regulations and were characterized by division into separate faculties. There developed an ordered course of studies and a series of degrees was established to mark a student’s progress.

The earliest universities were located in such places as Paris, Bologna, Montpellier, and Salerno (and Oxford a little later). Bologna was known for its law faculty, Montpellier and Salerno were known for their medical faculties, and Paris was a known for its theology faculty. A university would have an Arts faculty, but the Law, Medicine, and Theology faculties were considered the “higher” faculties (though ironically, it was the Arts faculty and its members that actually governed the universities). We will focus on the University of Paris, because it was in those universities with a strong theological orientation that philosophical speculation was most robust. Again, this is another indication of medieval philosophy’s God-centredness.

At the beginning, the universities were run by secular officials (i.e. people not associated with any of the religious orders), but over time they came to be dominated by members of the mendicant orders, mainly Dominicans and Franciscans. St. Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican, while Duns Scotus and William of Ockham were Franciscans. This process began at Paris during a strike by the secular Masters in 1229-1230. The friars continued teaching and took on many of the secular students who were locked out. Over time, as the mendicant orders became more popular, many secular Masters converted to them. The process was accelerated by the fact that Masters belonging to a given order tended to pass their Chairs (i.e. professorships) on to fellow members of their orders. Thus, by 1254, secular Masters held only three out of fifteen Chairs in the Theology faculty. There was much tension between the mendicants and the seculars.

The Student’s Career.

In more or less its final form, the career of a student in the Arts faculty went something like this:

1.   Undergraduate. At the age of fourteen or fifteen a student entered the university, where he spent four years as an undergraduate (much like today). For the first two years he attended readings, which were similar to modern lectures. All teaching was based around authoritative texts, and undergraduates would listen to such texts being read, with varying degrees of commentary added by the readers. (This made sense in an age when students could not be expected to possess their own copies of books.) In the next two years of undergraduate studies, the attending of readings continued, while added to this, students were also expected to take part in disputations — which I shall explain shortly. After the four years, assuming that he had displayed the required proficiency, the student determined, i.e. he became a Bachelor. The determination was marked by participation in a dispute in the presence of his Master, the university Chancellor, and other worthies.

2.   Bachelor. The student then spent a period (three years at Oxford, but variable at Paris) as a Bachelor, during which time he continued to attend readings and take part in disputes, but now in more advanced subjects, such as Aristotle’s natural philosophy and metaphysics. He would also begin to give his own “cursory” readings (i.e. reading texts with very little commentary). After this time, he would reach inception as a Master.

3.   Master. As an Arts Master, the student was now licensed to teach. In Paris, there was a regency system, meaning that a student had the same teacher for all subjects throughout his education (the regency system was still in place in many Scottish universities until a century ago). Thus, the Master taught all subjects, giving readings and conducting disputations.

One had to spend at least two years as an Arts Master, before he could go on to study theology. I won’t go into the details of the theologian’s career, except to say that it had various stages, culminating in inception as a Regent Master after fifteen or so years. Unfortunately, inception as a Regent Master depended on there being a vacant Chair available, otherwise one remained what was called an “Inceptor”. William of Ockham was known as “the Venerable Inceptor” because there never ended up being a vacant Chair for him to occupy. However, it was generally expected that a Master would only occupy a Chair for a couple of years and then pass it on to someone else. Often a Master would then move on to a high position in the Church or government.


Disputations were an extremely important part of the philosopher’s activities. They were of two kinds: “ordinary” and “quodlibetal”. Ordinary disputations were regularly conducted by Masters as part of their teaching duties, to instruct undergraduates and Bachelors. They took place in two sessions. In the first session, two students, an objector and a responder, debated opposing sides of a topic or question assigned by the Master, while the Master acted as referee. In the second session, the Master would “sum up” and give his own opinion on the issue.

Quodlibetal disputations were open to all faculties of the university and questions or topics to be discussed were posed by members of the audience. Objectors and responders might be students, but often they were Masters. The Chancellor and officials of the university would also be present. Quodlibetal disputations were much more infrequent, held a couple of times a year. Many of the medieval philosophical works that have come down to us represent notes or summaries of such disputations, either taken down by attendees, or else “worked up” by participants afterwards.

It is important to note that the tradition of disputation is central to academic philosophy even to this day. Papers are delivered, and the audience has the opportunity to “grill” the author before an audience. Or else, the paper is submitted to a journal, and readers and anonymous referees have the opportunity to offer criticism. Much of this goes on in other academic disciplines as well, but philosophers are a notoriously disputatious lot. There are many stories — not all of them apocryphal, unfortunately — of philosophers being publicly humiliated by members of an academic audience after delivering a paper. Thus, the tradition of the disputation survives. One recent philosopher noted this tendency, publishing a paper entitled “Philosophy as Blood Sport”.

Philosophical Literary Forms.

Medieval philosophical literary forms in some ways reflected the educational process. Indeed, many surviving works are little more than students’ notes of readings and disputations. Broadly speaking, there were three main types of works: sententiae, quaestiones, and summae.

Sententiae (“sentences”) were comments by some authority, on some text, usually Scripture. The most famous of these was the Sentences of Peter Lombard (c. 1100-1160). These were comments on the Bible, which came to be the theological textbook of the Middle Ages. (As a matter of fact, the book I referred to earlier, which was presented to Richard of Gloucester, was Duns Scotus’ commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences.) Sententiae did not have to be merely comments on the Bible. For example, there were many people who wrote sentences or commentaries on Aristotle’s works. The main idea behind sententiae is that they were observations or comments on some authoritative text, and followed that text fairly closely.

Quaestiones (“questions”) can be understood if we look back to Peter Abelard’s Sic et Non (“Yes and No”). Sometimes texts could give rise to contradictions, as could the opposing opinions of authorities on such texts, and it was the job of the quaestio to resolve these seeming contradictions. So, a question would be posed, the opposing authorities would be juxtaposed, and the author would give his proposed resolution of the question. Quaestiones bear a similar structure to the medieval disputation in their pro and con structure, arguing opposing sides of a question before coming to some kind of resolution.

Summae are best understood as quaestiones arranged in some systematic order, so that they covered a larger area of intellectual ground. Indeed, the ultimate summa is St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, which covers just about all the intellectual ground, from the existence and nature of God, to metaphysics, to ethics, to death and the Resurrection. No history of medieval philosophy can get away without discussion of Aquinas, so to him we now turn.

Thomas Aquinas (1224-1279).

Aquinas was the seventh and youngest son of a nobleman, the Count of Aquino. He was born in the town of Roccasecca, near Naples. He attended the University of Naples, where he became acquainted with the Dominicans and, much to the chagrin of his family, he decided to join their Order. His family had him kidnapped away from them and imprisoned, but he stubbornly refused to give up his plan of joining the Dominicans, so his family eventually relented.

Thomas moved to the University of Paris, where he studied under the greatest philosopher of the period, Albert the Great (c. 1193/1206-1280) — a.k.a. “Albertus Magnus”. Albert was a follower of the doctrines of Aristotle. If you’ll remember, I earlier said that Aristotle was a fairly marginal figure in the ancient world, and after the disintegration of the Roman Empire, most of his works became unavailable. In Thomas’ time, this situation was changing. Many of Aristotle’s works were becoming available in western Europe through Moorish and Byzantine channels, in Latin translations from Greek or Arabic. In addition, many commentaries on Aristotle by Arabic authors were also becoming available.

Thomas was therefore steeped in the new Aristotelian philosophy, and it influenced all aspects of his thought. However, Aristotle was still a controversial figure, as many of his positions were in tension with Christian doctrine. In 1277, a list was drawn up of 219 Aristotelian theses which were prohibited from being taught at the University of Paris. Ultimately however, Aristotelianism came to dominate medieval philosophy, due in no small part to Aquinas, whose system of thought would end up being the official philosophy of the Catholic Church to this day. In many ways Aquinas had Christianized Aristotle, making him compatible with Church doctrine.

Although he wrote many works, he is most famous for his Summa Theologica, which he began writing in 1267. It is a massive work, its authoritative Latin version comprising some twenty-eight or so volumes. It is an awe-inspiring thought, to envision Thomas, sitting in his magisterial chair, dictating the Summa to the various scribes and students seated before him, waiting on his every word. Apparently he did not write the work from beginning to end, but would rather simultaneously dictate various parts to different scribes. The Summa was never finished. One day, Thomas had a mystical vision, and could not be brought to write any more. He is reported to have said: “I can do no more; such things have been revealed to me that all I have written seems as straw, and I now await the end of my life.” He became known in the Church as “Doctor Angelicus” (“the Angelic Doctor”), but perhaps more apt is his other nickname, “Doctor Universalis” (“the Universal Doctor”), for the breadth and depth of his learning.

One of the most famous parts of the Summa Theologica comes in the First Part, Question Two, Article Three, which deals with the question, “Whether God Exists?” This is where Thomas lays out his so-called “Five Ways”, five arguments for the existence of God. They are:

1.   The Argument from Motion. There is motion. If something is moved, it must be moved by something else that is greater. And this thing cannot be moved by itself, but must be moved by something else greater than it. And so on. But this cannot go on indefinitely. THEREFORE, there must be a First Mover, more powerful than anything else. That First Mover is God. It’s important to note that Aquinas means “motion” in a more extended sense, as “movement from one state of being to another” (i.e. from cold to hot), not just physical motion from one place to another.

2.   The Argument from Efficient Cause. Every effect has an efficient cause, which must be greater than it. And that cause must in turn have an efficient cause that is greater than it. And so on. But this cannot go on indefinitely. THEREFORE, there must be a First Cause, which is greater than all the effects that flow from it. That First Cause is God.

3.   The Argument from Necessary Being. There are things which exist contingently, and contain the possibility of not existing. This means that all such things have not existed at some time. But not all things can be contingent in this way, for then there would have been a time when nothing existed. But something cannot come from nothing. THEREFORE, there must be something which is not contingent, but which exists necessarily, from eternity to eternity. That thing is God.

4.   The Argument from Perfection. There are degrees of perfection in the world. Some things are said to be good, while other things are said to be bad. But such judgments of goodness can only be made relative to some standard of perfect goodness. THEREFORE, there must exist something that is perfectly good. That thing is God.

5.   The Argument from Final Ends. All things, even unintelligent things, act for some end. Every thing has some end or purpose to which it tends. But a thing that lacks knowledge cannot be said to move towards an end, unless there is some mind or intelligence which directs it. Therefore, some intelligent being exists which directs all things to their proper ends. That being is God.

We might note in passing that the First, Second, and Fourth Ways depend for their argumentative force on the medieval abhorrence of infinite regress — it simply cannot be the case, for example, that the chain of causality extends back in time indefinitely. By modern standards, these arguments are weak, because there is nothing logically wrong with infinite regress. Nonetheless, the structure of Thomas’ argument has its modern parallel in cosmology’s “Big Bang Theory”.

To give a taste of how Thomas’ Five Ways are all laid out in a medieval philosophical text, we begin with the statement of the question: “Whether God exists?” Then we proceed to two different “Objections”, arguing that God does not exist. We then are given a statement of the opposite position, arguing that God does exist (the “argument” here is one from authority, and consists of a biblical quotation from Exodus). Then we are given Aquinas’ own position, laying out his five ways. The whole is rounded off by “Replies” to the two “Objections” with which the article began.

This sort of quaestio format would make frequent use of certain technical scholastic phrases. The problem would be stated using the form queritur (“It is asked whether…”). The contrary position would be introduced using the phrase videtur quod (“It seems that…”). Opposing views are introduced by the phrase sed contra (“But against this…”). The author’s own solution to the problem would begin with the phrase respondeo dicendum (“I respond that it ought to be said that…”).

In principle, there is no limit to the number of possible Objections, and Replies to those Objections, that could be given on any question. It was a badge of honour for Duns Scotus to have the reputation of being extremely thorough in this regard. By the later fourteenth century, the questio structure had become very complicated indeed. There was still the opening Question, with statements of the opposing views. There could be arguments, with objections, followed by replies, followed by replies to the replies, and so on, in a sort of nested structure. After pages and pages of this back and forth, the author would state his solution to the whole question in one sentence. It was all laid out with an air of relentless precision, authority, and utter finality.

On the whole, medieval philosophical texts look very dry and formal to modern eyes, even for a trained philosopher like myself.

The Demise of Medieval Philosophy.

Scholasticism continued on even into the period we call the Renaissance, particularly in certain places, like the Spanish universities. But two trends contributed to the demise of the medieval scholastic tradition.

The first was a turn to religious mysticism. People simply got tired of the theologians and their logic-chopping, and they desired a more direct relationship to God, one based on feeling rather than on reason. Scholasticism fell into disrepute. Unfortunately, the very rigour and formality that was the hallmark of medieval philosophy made it largely inaccessible to the layperson. Some (i.e. me) would say that philosophy today is going through a similar process.

But perhaps more importantly, insofar as scholasticism took for granted an Aristotelian approach to natural philosophy, the advent of the modern sciences began to reveal the shortcomings of that philosophy. Aristotelianism was incompatible with the findings of experimental science. And much of the natural world could be explained without appeal to any God at all. Nature did not work by purpose. Thinking back on William of Ockham’s question of whether an angel could move through a vacuum, not only did it become possible to actually create vacuums, but it also became intellectually possible to question the existence of angels, and ultimately even of God Himself. And so we take our leave of medieval philosophy.

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