Jacques Maritain Center : A History of Western Philosophy Vol. II / by Ralph McInerny

The Fourteenth Century

Chapter I


This volume of our history ends by juxtaposing chapters on two thinkers who represent, respectively, what came to be called the old way (via antiqua) and the modern way (via moderna) of doing philosophy. Duns Scotus, for all his differences from the great thinkers of the thirteenth century, is nonetheless in basic continuity with them. William of Ockham, on the other hand, represents a rupture with the old and the beginning of something new, a modern way whose fundamental characteristic is nominalism. Scotus is, however, something of a bridge between the new and the old, not because Ockham was a Scotist, but rather because Scotus, though often criticized by William, provided the later Franciscan with some of the formulas for his own thought. As will become clear, however, these formulas tend to take on a quite different meaning in the hands of Ockham.

When we view the thirteenth century as a whole, we see it as a time when Christian thinkers, confronted with an amazing array of new sources which threatened the very foundations of traditional thought, won through in a variety of ways to a new and larger synthesis. But great intellectual achievements cannot be simply passed on to others; guidance they may offer, but each must reenact the achievement in his own mind if it is to be his in any significant way. We recall Roger Bacon's criticism of the thirteenth-century attitude toward the writings of Aristotle. The attitude he lamented soon came to characterize those who grouped themselves around the doctrines of the great thinkers of the thirteenth century. Thomism, for example, became a possession of the Dominican Order, and adherence to its contents a matter of orthodoxy. Josef Pieper has pointed to the striking fact that Aquinas seems to have had no immediate notable disciples; subsequently he was to have legions of them, but the question can be raised whether their attitude toward his writings was in all cases a matter of personal philosophizing or theologizing. And yet it is in such a dissident Dominican as Durandus that one senses the seeds of the via moderna, the foreshadowing of nominalism. Since we have concentrated on the major thinkers, such transitional discussions as the present one have been taken as occasion for generalizations to which the reader may respond as he will. What I would like to do now is to indulge myself in a significant generalization about what happens to philosophy as we move from the thirteenth to the fourteenth century, a generalization which points to a paradox.

It is often noted that the great thinkers of the thirteenth century are theologians by profession, and of course the same must be said of those of the fourteenth century. What strikes me as the great achievement of the thirteenth century, and I have Aquinas particularly in mind, is the establishment of a clear distinction between faith and reason in the terms required by the influx of Aristotle. That is, the distinction clearly becomes one between theology and philosophy. It is no doubt the case that Aquinas was a theologian, but this did not prevent him from granting an autonomy and scope to philosophy which followed on philosophical positions with respect to the nature of the world and the capacity of man's intellect. In Aquinas' vision of philosophy there is a complementarity between the mind and being. The world is intelligible and man can understand it, and the great divisions of philosophy that Aristotle had recognized indicate the range and possibilities of philosophical thought. What has impressed most historians about Aquinas is the fact that while his faith provided him with the context of his thinking, that context required him to admit that belief is not a prerequisite for understanding the world. Rather, even for the believer philosophical thought is a prerequisite for that "understanding" of revelation that is theology. The general point I wish to make about the thirteenth century is that, contrary to what might have been expected and contrary to the judgment of some historians, in that era faith, rather than restricting the range of natural reason, came to function as a kind of motivation for asserting man's natural capacity to understand himself and the world in which he finds himself. It is one of the ironies of the history of philosophy that whenever philosophy sets out to separate itself from a religious context, its scope, its vision of its range, becomes drastically limited. More to the present point -- and this is the paradox to which I referred earlier -- in the via moderna of the fourteenth century there is a devaluation of philosophy which is a function of the devaluation of reality that nominalism requires.

Already in Scotus we find the beginnings of skepticism as to the natural capacities of human reason. To be sure, his doubts are expressed when he is discussing the need for revelation and the importance of religious faith. Nevertheless, Scotus seems to see as a danger what Aquinas clearly regarded as a strength of philosophy as it was developed by Aristotle, namely, the assumptions that reality is intelligible, that it delivers itself up to man according to the canons of science in the Aristotelian sense, that there are necessary truths which express the real order. For Ockham the world is a world of individuals that happen to have been created by God; a completely contingent world is incapable of delivering up objects for necessary judgments. If having science, really knowing, is knowing what cannot be otherwise, then it is difficult to see how we can have knowledge, in the required sense, of a world which could have been otherwise, could indeed not have been at all. The only evidential knowledge for Ockham will be immediate judgments of present fact. To judge that Socrates is seated when we see him sitting there carries its evidence on its face, and of course Socrates cannot both be seated and not seated. But anything like a universal necessary empirical judgment is excluded by Ockham. The consequences of such doubts about philosophy have their ramification for theology, which ceases to be a science for Ockham; he ends in a fideistic stance where nothing counts for or against what the Christian believes.

The via moderna does not involve any turning away from Christian faith, but the reasonableness of faith and the intelligibility of what is believed are called into question at the same time that philosophy as it was understood in the thirteenth century is rejected. At the present time, it seems fair to say, English language philosophers feel more affinity with such men as Ockham than with the men of the thirteenth century. To no small degree this interest is due to the judgment that the terminist logic which Ockham espouses foreshadows some recent developments in logic, but it is also true that commentators on Ockham tend to find similarities to Hume and to the logical atomism of the early twentieth century. That philosophers of the twentieth century should feel this compatibility with the via moderna of the fourteenth century may tell us something quite important about both. What is at issue here is not simply logic but the philosophy of logic, and under the latter must be grouped various epistemological and ontological views or attitudes. Far more than notation is involved when such judgments as "Every man is animal" become expressed by "(x) Fx. D . Cx." Ultimately, for many, such a symbolic formulation comes to express a vision of the world and of human knowledge, a vision according to which everything is itself and nothing more, where the similarity of things is reduced to their otherness, and the paradigm of knowledge is sought in such judgments as "Socrates is seated now." Such a vision is an advance only if it adequately represents reality. If we are now turning away from this desert horizon by noticing that such a vision is an inadequate account of how we speak, we have still a long way to go, and the direction, of course, is not backward to the thirteenth century, but ahead to new expressions of the intelligibility of being and of man as capax Dei because he is first capax entis.

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