33: Medieval Philosophy
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There are various means of deciding what is true. Not all give the same
answer. Therefore, a society must put more faith in one approach than
another. The order in which various approaches are accepted determines the
pattern of thought of the society. Shifts in the order provide us with the
basic paradigm of the history of philosophy in the west.
|Ancient||Early Middle Ages||High Middle Ages||Modern Era|
2. The Ancient or Rationalist Period.
The ancients preferred reason and logic above observation and experience,
because the senses can easily be deceived, and they lacked the equipment to
enhance the senses, make precise observations, and record the data. They also
noted that, although one can deduce various laws governing triangles,
spheres, circles, and the like, such things do not exists in nature and so
are outside of human experience. That is, there can be no triangle in nature
found with exactly180 interior degrees, any more than one can find a
precisely straight line.
In there use of reason, they preferred demonstrative logic, the
demonstration of derivations from known principles. The basic operation in
demonstrative logic is the syllogism. The syllogism consists of
a. The major premise: Socrates is a
man, which simply states that Socrates belongs to a category of
object which we call "man."
b. The minor premise: all men are
mortal. All categories are defined by their characteristics, some
of which are essential and some of which are accidental. The
accidental characteristics of the category of "man" include such things as
height, IQ, skin color, number of arms and legs (if less than three), and
so forth. Essential characteristics are such things as bipedal, mammal,
and rational. The minor premise simply specifies one if the essential
characteristics of the category "man."
c. The conclusion: Socrates is
mortal. The major premise is based upon the observation that
"Socrates" displays the necessary essential characteristics to place him
in the category of "man." If so, then Socrates has all of the essential
characteristics of the category.
A note: the categories are usually referred to as
There is a problem with this. If no perfect example of a member of a
universal exists in the world of experience, how can people be able to judge
what fits into a universal and what does not? In short, how do people learn
about universals if not through experience? Plato said that universals have a
real existence independent of human beings and that the individual soul
"experiences" these universals, of "forms" in the special realm in which the
soul resides before birth. The individual is then born with a "memory" of
these forms. In short, Plato argued that people are born with innate patterns
of thought. Although Aristotle tried to demonstrate that the concepts of the
universals could be derived from experience, generally speaking, Platonism
dominated the Greek and Roman worlds. But the rationalist system could not
explain the fall of Rome or the mysteries of the Christian faith and was
supplanted by philosophies that could.
4. The Age of Faith
Saint Augustine of Hippo in the City of God indicated the
limits of human experience and of human imagination. The only enduring
principle was the will of god and the only way of knowing this was faith and
revealed wisdom. He was not really concerned with the nature of universals or
the bases of reason. He stated that reason is better than experience only
because even animals can experience.
Augustine's preference for faith over reasons and experience led to a
rejection of attempting to discover the nature of the universe. The basic
message of scripture, the primary authority, was that human minds cannot
comprehend god's plan. Consider the Book of Job. When Job asked
God why both the evil and the just must suffer, God answered him with the
blast of Where were you when I created the whale?
The knowledge revealed by God -- the inspired words of the scriptures, the
fathers of the church, the decrees of church councils, and some papal
edicts-- collectively formed the canon. Nothing could be true if it
conflicted with this base of wisdom. Only the word of God could be
5. The Break-up of Augustinian thought
Boethius (480-524) had translated some of Aristotle's manual on
logic, and Anselm (1034-1109) began to use logic to try to
learn about God and God's plan.
Peter Abelard (1079-1142) wrote sic et non (yes
and no), in which he demonstrated that the canon was full of contradictions.
If the canon cannot be relied upon, then we must rely upon reason. The senses
can be fooled, so experience is fallible and must always be tested against
6. The High Middle Ages
The translation of all of Aristotle's manual of logic into Latin stimulated
the application of logic to all matters in all fields. A long discussion
ensued as to the proper use of logic. Some held that logic should be
followed wherever it led one, while others -- primarily Franciscans --
countered that logic cannot be accepted as true if it weakened or
contradicted the faith.
Interestingly enough, some Franciscans attacked the logicians by attacking
Aristotle. By showing that Aristotle's observations of nature were wrong,
they inferred that his logic might also be wrong. In this process of
investigating natural phenomena, they laid the basis for modern science.
The real debate, however, was over the nature of the universal. The Realists
said that it was real thing, independent of human will, and the Nominalists
said that the universal was merely a name ("nomen") that people gave to a
category of experience. In modern terms, we would argue about whether
universals are objectively real or only social
This is not a silly matter. Here are a couple of examples to think about.
1. Who or what defines what constitutes a "human being"? L. Frank Baum posed
this question in The Wizard of Oz, with the Tin Woodsman. The Woodsman
had cut off all his limbs, as well as his head and body, in a series of
accidents, and they had been replaced with artificial limbs. At what point
did he stop being human? The Woodsman says that it was when he lost his
"heart," his capacity to feel human emotions, and they could not replace it.
The Wizard tells him, however, that the capacity to feel human emotions does
not lie in the heart, or in any other single part of the body. Do we make up
a list of requirements that qualifies a living thing as a human being, or are
human beings human no matter what we say or think?
2.2 + 2 = 4 Are the laws of mathematics merely social constructs? Can we
change them if we want?
3.Or, to make it more specific, the value of pi is accepted as 3.141159+. If
we had a vote, and everyone agreed to make it 3.0, what would the value of pi
If the Realists are right, then categories of truth, such as beauty and
justice, are independent of human will and we cannot shape our world, only
discover it. If the Nominalists are right, then people can decide what is
just and what is not, and there are no such things as eternal principles.
"All men are created equal" is a Realist statement, since the world at the
time of The Declaration of Independence generally accepted the idea
that there existed an hereditary nobility who were better and deserved more
than everyone else.
6. The Break-up of the Realist-Nominalist Debate
The traditional categories of the Realists could not absorb the flood of new
information that came with the era of discovery in the period 1500-1900. To
what category does the duckbilled platypus belong? It has scales, so it's a
fish, but it has feathers, so it's a bird, but it gives birth to its young
alive and has hair, so it's a mammal.
The Nominalists were confronted with things of which there was no previous
experience on which to base the construction of the necessary new categories,
while the Realists needed more information to determine whether these things
represented newly-discovered categories and, if so, what the essential characteristics of those categories were. The debate was largely abandoned
and Europeans began the long task of collecting, describing, and measuring
things. Linnaeus and others worked at categorizing the living world, and
attempting to establish the relationship between different groups. It was not
until Darwin that Realism reasserted itself in the natural sciences with his
assertion that new categories of living creatures arose through the process
of evolution. This meant that the categories that the naturalists has
established were physical phenomena and not simply commonly-held principles
used for the purposes of cataloguing.
Conclusion: the basic concerns of medieval philosophers regarding the
nature of reality have not been resolved. We simply ignore the basic
questions they raised and chuckle to ourselves that they spent their time
disputing about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.
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