Scholasticism

Scholasticism
   Term used as a generic label for the various forms of philosophy and theology developed in western European univer-sities from the late 11th or early 12th century. All of these "scholas-tic" systems of thought were broadly Aristotelian. They accepted Aristotelian logic and Aristotelian terminology as standard practice in debating intellectual questions. Aside from their broad agreement on the status of Aristotle as a methodological guide, however, these schools did not share a common set of doctrines on broad philosoph-ical and theological issues. From almost the beginning, there were many "scholasticisms." The term really meant little more than "the philosophy taught in the schools"—that is, in the universities. The founders of scholasticism, such as the theologian Peter Lombard (ca. 1100-1160) and the philosopher Pierre Abélard (1079-1142), ac-cepted Aristotelian logic as their guide to rational discourse, but they knew only a limited number of Aristotelian works at first hand.
   In the early years of the 13th century, however, as almost the whole corpus of the Aristotelian writings known today was translated into Latin (mostly from Arabic rather than directly from Greek), Aristo-tle became an overwhelming presence not just in logic but also in vir-tually every philosophical subject, including natural science and even Christian theology. On many disputed questions, philosophers and theologians soon found that they did not agree on just what his writings meant. The 13th century, when Aristotle's works were newly discovered, was the golden age of scholastic philosophy and theol-ogy, distinguished by the careers of such figures as Albertus Magnus (1206-1280) and Thomas Aquinas (1224/5-1274). The great task was to assimilate the new Aristotelian learning and to define its rela-tionship to philosophical and theological doctrines such as God's cre-ation of the world out of nothing and the immortality of the human soul. On both these and other doctrines, Christian thinkers had to contend with a radically secular way of interpreting Aristotle associ-ated with the Arabic commentator and philosopher Ibn Rushd (in Latin, Averroës, 1126-1198), whose understanding of Aristotle de-nied the philosophical validity of belief in both the creation of the world and the immortality of the individual soul.
   Even in its greatest century, scholasticism was divided into con-tending schools, sometimes defined by the authority of a leading fig-ure (for example, Thomism, based on the thought of Thomas Aquinas) and sometimes defined by the tradition of a particular university or by the prevailing opinion within a religious order (Aquinas among the Dominicans and Bonaventura [1221-1274] among the Franciscans). These divisions continued to multiply in the following generations, so that scholastic philosophy came to be divided into a great num-ber of contending schools or traditions, a point used against it by its critics among the humanists of the Renaissance but admitted by leading scholastic thinkers as well. From the greatest figure of late 13th-century scholasticism, John Duns Scotus (ca. 1270-1308), stemmed an influential tradition known as Scotism, which criticized Aquinas as excessively rationalistic and became dominant at many uni-versities. It was still influential in the 16th century. Another powerful school of thought was known as Nominalism, which had its roots in philosophical and theological controversies of the earlier Middle Ages but in its late medieval formulations looked upon the English Francis-can William of Ockham (ca. 1285-1347) as its founding authority.
   Though potentially radical in its implications for theology, Nomi-nalism produced few challenges to Catholic orthodoxy. It was, how-ever, critical of the older forms of scholasticism associated with Al-bertus Magnus, Aquinas, and Duns Scotus. Followers of these older schools of thought came to be known as the via antiqua, while sev-eral academic traditions that arose out of the criticism of the "realist" views of the older schools on the question of universal ideas came to be known as the via moderna, "the modern way." Especially in Ger-many and at Paris, there were sharp divisions between the Antiqui and the Moderni. Some German universities (Erfurt, for example) were fully committed to the via moderna during the 14th and 15th centuries, while others (such as Cologne and Louvain) became just as firmly committed to the via antiqua. At a few German universities, the faculty of arts was formally divided into two sections, one fol-lowing the via antiqua and the other, the via moderna. In practice, the division often narrowed down to the choice of different sequences of textbooks for the study of arts subjects, especially dialectic.
   Although some modern historians have argued that the via antiqua was more open to humanistic influences and others have viewed the via moderna as more receptive, there is no convincing evidence that the problems faced by humanists who wanted to reform the faculties of arts were significantly different because of the "way" that pre-vailed locally. In 15th-century Paris, the king for a time intervened to forbid use of "modern" textbooks and to give a monopoly to follow-ers of the via antiqua, but this effort proved unworkable, and the via moderna not only survived but was probably the more influential tra-dition in the study of logic at Paris by the end of the 15th century. Al-though the humanists wanted to reform the arts faculties of universi-ties in order to give more attention to their own favorite subjects, thus decreasing the time students were required to devote to dialectic and natural philosophy, most of them had no intention of abolishing all scholastic studies. They wanted better-written and less abstruse text-books to be used and eventually succeeded in getting rid of old text-books and substituting books more congenial to their ideas of good education. Yet they neither destroyed nor wanted to destroy scholas-ticism in general. Even the Protestant Reformation did not lastingly break the hold of scholasticism on the academic world. Martin Luther set out to drive scholasticism and all forms of Aristotelian philosophy out of his own university at Wittenberg, but the alterna-tive set of textbooks and subjects put forward to replace Aristotle was not very successful. By the 1530s, under the leadership of Luther's close associate Philipp Melanchthon, both Aristotle and some parts of traditional scholasticism were gradually and quietly reintroduced in the Wittenberg faculty of liberal arts, though not in theology. Scholasticism, somewhat reformed under the influence of human-ism, remained dominant in all European universities until the late 17th century, when the rise of the new quantitative approach to natu-ral science and the intellectual collapse of Aristotelian metaphysics and natural philosophy began the gradual demolition of scholasticism as the dominant intellectual tradition of European higher education. Even then, in conservative Roman Catholic countries like Spain, Por-tugal, and Italy, the revival of the Thomist tradition and its close al-liance with post-Tridentine Catholic theology preserved a scholastic intellectual tradition that remained powerful into the 20th century. In general, scholasticism has come to be regarded as a significant philo-sophical tradition of the past which might still have valuable insights, more in some fields such as moral philosophy and metaphysics and less—much less — in others, such as natural science.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.


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