Jacques Maritain Center

Decay of Scholasticism

1. Ockham and the Terminists. WILLIAM OCKHAM, 1280-1347, 'the Venerable Master,'* 'the Invincible Doctor,' of the Order of St. Francis, born at Ockham in Surrey, studied at Merton College, Oxford; heard Duns Scotus in the University of Paris, seems himself to have taught at Oxford: was certainly lecturing in Paris 1320-1323; then quitted his chair to turn ecclesiastical Radical at the court of Louis of Bavaria, and write bitter things against Pope John XXII. Ockham reopened the question on Universal Ideas, which had been closed for a hundred years. It is wrong to call Ockham a Nominalist; that is to say, he by no means denied the existence of Universal Ideas in the mind. What he did deny was that they stood for an thing specifically common to a multitude of individuals: he argued that they stood for all the individuals to whom they were applicable. He says: 'What is predicated [generically] of many things differing in species is not aught that is of the being of the things predicated, but is one idea in the mind, naturally signifying all the things of which it is predicated.' To judge of this, let us revert to the familiar logical distinction between the 'extension' of an idea, or what Mill calls the 'denotation' of a name, and the 'comprehension' of the idea, or 'connotation' of the name. Extension and denotation take in the individuals to which the idea or name is applicable. Comprehension and connotation take in the notes constituent of the idea, or what is commonly called the 'meaning,' of the name in predication. Ockham was too acute to be blind to this distinction. We must not understand him as setting aside comprehension and connotation entirely. What he does commit himself to in the passage quoted is the assertion that only in denotation does our predication extend itself to things outside the mind of the speaker, namely, to the individuals spoken of. What is said of those individuals, in other words, the comprehension or connotation, 'is not aught that is of the being of the things,' it is 'one idea in the mind.' That is to say, Ockham was a Conceptualist. Thus 'men are animals,' meant to him, 'John, Robert, etc., are animals.' But why call them 'animals'? It is a class-name, a convenient label for the lot. But does the label tell us anything? does it connote or mean anything? Yes, says Ockbam, it connotes an idea in my mind, an idea of animality resolvable into notes, such as life and sensibility, which again are my ideas. To St. Thomas, and Realists of all shades, this is not enough. It would convert all our predication, and consequently all our science, into an imposing of our own ideas upon objects of nature. To the comprehension of a Universal Idea, they say, there must be something in rerum natura answering. That something, Moderate Realists say, is made up of certain attributes, existing separately in every member of the class, yet in each typical of the whole class.

Ockham's doctrine is known as Terminism. His numerous followers are known as Terminists. They were powerful in the Schools to the end of the fifteenth century. Terminism is not Nominalism: for terminus in Ockham is not what we call a term or name; it is the universal concept itself, considered as a sign of many things (signum plurium), namely, of all the individuals to which it applies. Terminism means Conceptualism. Though a Conceptualist, however, Ockham was not an Idealist. His Dualism was as distinct as that of the other Schoolmen. He held that we have an intuitive knowledge of individual things; that the first thing known is the individual, a thing existing in real truth outside the mind.

Ockham was a great enemy of formalism, or the multiplication of distinctions, so much affected by Scotus. His saying, 'It is idle to do by many things what may be done by fewer' (frustra fit per plura, quod potest fieri per pauciora),'* has gone down to posterity in the form, 'Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity' (entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem), known in the schools as 'Ockham's razor.' Ockham followed Scotus in diminishing the number of religious truths that can be proved by reason, so throwing more burden upon faith. The danger to religion in this process is that, carried to extremity, it would argue that faith points one way and reason another. This was the position of the later Averroists, though not perhaps of Averroes himself, that a thing may be true in theology but false in philosophy -- the position known as that of the 'two truths.' The main position of Averroes, that of the unity of the intellect, Ockham abhorred, as he abhorred every vestige of the universal in rerum natura. In the Bodleian Library is a quaint old book, printed in 1487, the Quodlibeta (we should say the 'Miscellanies') of William Ockham. These are some of the questions: 'Whether it can be proved by reason that there is only one God?' [answer -- 'No, if by "God" you understand "that which is nobler and better than anything else."'] 'Whether an angel can move locally.' Whether one angel can converse with another.' Whether an angel can move through vacuum' [answer -- 'Yes']. 'Whether it can be shown evidently that the intellectual soul is the form of the body' [answer -- 'No,' against St. Thomas]. 'Whether it can be shown evidently that there is not numerically one intellect for all men' [answer -- 'Yes,' against Averroes]. 'Whether the exterior act has a goodness or malice of its own' [answer -- No'].

Ockham's worst error in philosophy was his making moral distinctions dependent upon the will of God. If this principle is pushed to the length of saying that the sole reason why anything is right or wrong, fair or good, reasonable or unreasonable, true or false, is because God has so willed it to be, it involves the ruin of Ethics, indeed of all philosophy.

Ockham in his later life was lamentably disobedient to the authority which he had vowed to obey. But his philosophical writing is shrewd and suggestive. As there were Thomists and Scotists and Averroists, so there were also Ockhamites (Terminists), to the downfall of Scholasticism.

2. Two Knight-errants of Scholasticism. Raymund Lully, 1235-1315, 'the Enlightened Doctor,' also a Franciscan, but of a very different type from Ockham, was stoned to death by Moors at Tunis, and but for his extraordinary writings might have merited the honours of canonisation. His ruling passion in life was the conversion of Moors and the putting down of Averroism. Taking an opposite line to Duns Scotus and Ockham, and agreeing so far with Scotus Eriugena, he maintained that all the truths of religion are demonstrable by reason, even its mysteries. This assertion, however, he counterbalanced by another, that intellectual knowledge, if not exactly of all things, at least of all things best worth knowing, presupposes faith; and as knowledge mounts, faith mounts with it, above it, apart from it, as oil ever rises above water, to use his favourite comparison. We must not press this statement too far, for Raymund can scarcely have denied all knowledge to men destitute of faith. These two paradoxical statements of Raymund must be taken together, if the author is to be fairly judged. Both may be, indeed both are, absurd, yet not so absurd as either would be in isolation from the other. We have here an excellent instance of the injustice that may be perpetrated by quotation. One should rummage an author through to find whether sayings that offend us may not be counteracted and explained, or limited, by other sayings, or whether they do really indicate the main unqualified drift of the writer's thought.

Raymund's notion of the essential presupposition of faith to knowledge may be accounted for in this way. He wrote as a Catholic. Now, in matters touching religion, a Catholic always argues with prepossessions in favour of faith interwoven with his rational first principles. A confirmed unbeliever has similar prepossessions in favour of unbelief. Thus, though both appeal to reason, they may reason for eternity and never will agree.

To facilitate that philosophic deduction in which he was so earnest a believer, Raymund invented a 'calculating machine.' Letters and geometrical figures, revolved and combined together, represented the various elements of Scholasticism; and the combinations thus produced suggested syllogisms. Such a machine may co-ordinate ideas, but it does not give them; and the very coordinations are apt to be fortuitous and arbitrary.

In his view of the interpenetration of faith and and science Lully had followers, among others the celebrated Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, 1401-1464. Nicholas Chrypffs was born at Kues, or Cusa, near Treves. An opponent of papal power at the Council of Basle, he became afterwards its most ardent champion and most efficient minister. Nicholas V created him Cardinal and Bishop of Brixen. In an active life he found time for philosophy. His great work is entitled Of Learned Ignorance (De docta ignorantia), an expression borrowed of St. Bonaventure. He dwells on our inability to understand God and the essences of things. We cannot understand those essences, because we cannot understand Him who contains them all. Our highest learning is the avowal of this ignorance. Cusa writes of God much as modern writers have written of the Absolute. God is coincidentia oppositorum, inasmuch as in Him all contradictions are reconciled. God is complicatio omnium, as in Him the multitude of things is brought to a higher unity. What is implicit in God, becomes explicit in the universe. God created primordial matter, but as that cannot exist by itself (as St. Thomas also teaches), God must be considered the form of all things (denied by St. Thomas, Contra Gentiles, i. 26). To save himself from pantheism, which he disavows, Cusa explains that God is in the creature as the prototype of its reality. Then He must be the form exemplar, not the form constituent.

Cusa's 'learned ignorance' may be regarded either in respect of God, or in respect of the things of this universe. In the latter respect, so far as physical science goes, the best physicists now echo his words. The generalisations of physical science are not final, absolute, adequate; they are provisional colligations of facts already discovered, put together under a formula which seems most likely to lead to discovery of further facts. They are working hypotheses, not unfounded in the past, full of promise for the future. But in the future they may be discarded, and other colligations, tying together new discoveries, will help the inquirer to still further research. Even to the end of time, the ultimate nature of things seems likely to remain a mystery. Who shall finally say what is electricity, or what is life ? To say that God is the union of opposites, sanely understood, as we must suppose Cusa to have meant it, does not mean that such opposites as sweet and bitter are formally in God, else they would remain opposite, and be incompatible; but that they are in Him eminently, as in their exemplar and efficient cause. Though God is absolutely one, no sooner does He begin to be copied by creatures, placed by Him outside Himself, than plurality sets in. God is one, but virtually manifold. He is complete actuality in Himself, but in His creatures He is capable of infinite potential expansion, this expansion of Him in creation ever falling infinitely short of that great, all-perfect Exemplar, which is God Himself. All this should be borne in mind in reading Nicholas of Cusa.

In his earlier writings St. Thomas delighted in insisting, as Cusa does, on the negative character of our knowledge of God. He has a chapter (Contra Gentiles, i. 14) 'that in order to a knowledge of God we must use the method of negative differentiation (via remotionis),' i.e. telling what God is not. 'By such negations He will be further and further distinguished from everything besides Himself, and then there will be a proper notion of His substance, when He shall be known as distinct from all; still it will not be a perfect knowledge, for He will not be known for what He is in Himself.' Again, 'we cannot take in of God what He is, but what He is not, and how other beings are related to Him' (Ib., i. 30). Again (iii. 49) he quotes pseudo-Dionysius as saying: 'We are united with God as with the Unknown'; and explains, 'which comes about in this way, that we know of God what He is not, but what He is remains absolutely unknown (penitus incognitum).' In later life St. Thomas wrote more cautiously on this subject. He says in the Summa Theologiae (p. 1, q. 13, art. 2): 'Of the names that are predicated of God absolutely and affirmatively, as 'good,''wise,' and the like, some have said that all such names are invented rather to remove something from God than to posit anything in Him. But this account is unsatisfactory. And therefore we must say otherwise, that such lines do signify the divine substance, but fail to represent it perfectly.'*

Later Schoolmen complete this teaching by observing that while names that connote imperfection, as 'earth,' 'dull,' 'animal,' in no way apply to God; names significant of pure perfection, as 'wise,' 'just,' do apply to Him, and that after a more excellent fashion than they apply to any creature. God is wise, but not under the limitations of human wisdom. He is just with such justice as befits the Supreme Being, and so of the rest. If St. Thomas, Cardinal Cusa, or other Schoolmen, sometimes are reluctant to allow our having positive knowledge of God, what they wish to deny is our having adequate and univocal knowledge of Him. We know Him only through imperfect analogies.

Cusa deserves to count among the Schoolmen. He was a dualist, although at times verging on pantheism. He was observant of Catholic orthodoxy. He held to matter and form. After him we may mention one who has been called 'the last of the Schoolmen,' Gabriel Biel, 1425-1495. His Collectorium, well known and often edited, contains nothing original, but is justly considered one of the most methodical and faithful expositions of the 'terminism' of William Ockham. In Ockham and Terminism, and worse still, in Compendiums of Terminism, Scholasticism pined away. Humanism and the Renaissance, Neo-Platonism, Averroism, Cartesianism, and finally Physical Science, reigned in her stead.

<< ======= >>