Jacques Maritain Center

Origin of Scholasticism

'HE is in the schools,' at Oxford, means that a man is undergoing written examinations in a building known as the 'Examination Schools,' conspicuous at the east end of High Street. Oral disputation, more or less in syllogistic form, used to be part of the examination -- in the Middle Ages it was the whole. The men at Oxford, Paris, Cologne, and other medieval universities, who took part in those examinations, first as examinees, afterwards in their turn as Masters and Doctors, were known as 'Schoolmen,' or 'Scholastics,' and the philosophy which was the staple of their examinations was the 'scholastic philosophy,'* or 'Scholasticism,' as we shall call it. Scholasticism is not quite dead at the present day: it is still the philosophy most countenanced by authority in the schools of the Catholic Church. Nor is it possible to assign a precise date for its origin. Like the mediaeval universities which harboured it, it grew gradually from obscure beginnings. It will be convenient, however, to fix its rise in the eleventh century, and to call St. Anselm (1033-1109) the first scholastic, as he has also been called the last of the Fathers. The thirteenth century was the golden age of Scholasticism. For two centuries following it gradually declined: the Renaissance found it decadent; the latter half of the sixteenth century saw a splendid revival in Spain, but that was short-lived. Baconian physical science set in, and the Cartesian philosophy, and all the while Scholasticism was dying: at the end of the eighteenth century, the era of Kant and the French Revolution, Scholasticism was dead. It has had something of a resurrection since.

Now to the question with which Scholasticism started. Porphyry, the Neo-Platonist, in his Isagoge wrote: 'Now concerning genera and species, whether they be substances or mere concepts of the mind; and if substances, whether they be corporeal or incorporeal, and whether they exist apart from sensible things or in and about sensible things, all this I will decline to say.' This sentence set the intellectual world of the eleventh century ablaze. It was the celebrated question of Universals. Universal Ideas, or General Concepts, characterise a class of things. Sometimes this class is a species (man, fish), sometimes a genus (animal). There was ocular evidence of the existence of this fish and that fish, this man John, and that man Paul. But what was fish simply, man, animal? A mere name, and no more? So the Nominalists were said to teach; but it may be doubted whether there ever were any Nominalists, at least in the Middle Ages. * If General Names are mere names, and have no meaning, then all human speech, carried on as it is by General Names, is gibberish. Even the chattering of apes is scarcely that. General Names must point to some object: what is that object? Porphyry suggests, though he does not affirm it, 'a mere concept of the mind.' That affirmation was actually made by many. They are known as Conceptualists. The philosophers, misnamed Nominalists, were really Conceptualists. There is this objection to Conceptualism, that if the object of the Universal is a mere concept of the mind, then human speech has a meaning, to be sure, it is not mere gibberish, but it does not attain to anything outside of the mind of the speaker. To say then that 'owls are night-birds' is not to affirm a fact of Natural History, but a fact of human thought. Ancient Conceptualism comes very near to modern Idealism.

The Realists held that there was something objective, something outside our minds, answering to these Universal Ideas. They who took this view differed among themselves, some holding the object of a Universal Idea to be itself universal and one, others holding it to be particular and multiplied with the multiplication of individuals. The former are called Ultra-Realists: they might also be called Platonic Realists. The latter are called Moderate Realists: we might call them Aristotelian Realists. To take an example: to the Ultra-Realist there is one ideal, universal, undying Humanity, found entire in Peter, the same entire in Paul, the same in James, the same in every man. To the Moderate Realist, Humanity is indeed something outside of the perceiving mind, but it exists only in individual living men, and is differentiated in each, one humanity in Peter, another humanity in Paul, and so forth. To the Moderate Realist, everything that exists is individual. To the Ultra-Realist, the truest and highest realities are ideal and universal. Moderate Realism is undoubtedly true, but the difficulty grows upon you as you think of it, as every one well knows who has felt the fascination of Plato. The early Realists inclined to Ultra-Realism. So did St. Anselm; so did a very different man, the pantheist John Scotus Erigena (800-877). * A doughty Realist was William of Champeaux, bishop of Châlons (1070-1120), who, however, in the end was entirely driven out of his position by his disciple Abélard. Realism was opposed by Roscelin, a monk of Comiège, who was teaching in 1087; also by Abélard. Peter Abélard (1079-1142), philosopher and theologian, the most brilliant thinker of his age, ran through a romantic and chequered career, the reverses of which he has recounted in his Historia Calamitatum. As a theologian, he encountered the vehement opposition of St. Bernard. We are only concerned with him as a philosopher. He clearly marked off philosophy as a distinct study from theology. He endeavoured to base on grounds of reason certain mysteries of faith which were commonly thought to be established by revelation alone. In this, his tendency was the very opposite of that followed later by Duns Scotus. Abélard's theory of Universals, carefully considered, is not far removed from Moderate Realism. Altogether, Abélard and his disciple, Gilbert de la Porrée, bishop of Poitiers (1076-1154), as philosophers, in which capacity alone they enter into our purview, effected much for the advance of Scholasticism. They had in their hands at least some portion of the Organon, or logical works, of Aristotle. By the end of the twelfth century the whole of the Organon was in the hands of Western scholars, in a Latin translation. Almost without exception, the Schoolmen were very slightly acquainted with Greek. The texts of the Greek philosophers slumbered in the libraries of Constantinople: the men of the West, whose spirit of ardent inquiry would have turned them to good account, had them not, and could not have read them. East and West, in those days, though both Christian, were poles asunder in everything but their common faith. All the disputations in the Schools went on in Latin. All the works of the Schoolmen are written in Latin. Latin was the universal language, that gave to European students of those days the privileges of cosmopolitans. Scholastic Latin is a very curious language. It is not simply bad Latin: it is no jargon: it has its rules and its terminology, all very exactly observed. The Schoolmen indeed were masters of language; and in this respect compare very favourably with most modern philosophers. One peculiarity of scholastic Latin is the grafting of Greek idioms upon the Latin stock. This arose from the Latin translations of Aristotle; works very literally executed, and, to say the truth, very obscurely, and even inaccurately. Considering the badness of their translations, it is a standing wonder how near the Schoolmen came to the mind of their great Master.

By the end of the twelfth century, Moderate Realism was triumphant in the Schools. Throughout the great age of Scholasticism, the thirteenth century, the age of St. Thomas, its supremacy was unchallenged, and the scholastic intellect busied itself with other questions. Consequently it is a wrong definition to lay down that scholastic philosophy is the study of the nature of genera and species.

Robert Pulleyn may be mentioned as the earliest known scholastic lecturer in the nascent University of Oxford, early in the twelfth century. Another Englishman, John of Salisbury (1120-1180), friend of St. Thomas à Becket, and ultimately bishop of Chartres, more of a literary man than Schoolmen generally were, was at once a philosopher himself and the historian of the philosophy of his age. His best known works are the Polycraticus and the Metalogicus. While upholding Moderate Realism, he warned his readers not to consume all their philosophic leisure upon Universals. He argued the sterility of logic when separated from the more concrete sciences, a very necessary theory to point out in his age, when some were taking formal logic, others grammar, for the acme of all science. John was a politician too, and commented on Plutarch. His contemporary Alan de Lille (1128-1202), surnamed 'the universal Doctor,' held similar views. Alan and John together represent the furthest advance of scholasticism in the twelfth century.

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