January 1, 1200 - Scholasticism

By Tait Tavolacci

As Muslim and European contact increased during the Crusades, Christian scholars began to visit Muslim libraries, which contained Greek and Latin manuscripts written by the likes of Aristotle and Plato. Europeans had suddenly gained access to a whole new body of knowledge: science, philosophy, law, and mathematics, and as a result, universities began appearing all over Europe. Amidst this new growth of learning, Christian scholars were becoming extremely interested in the ideas of the Greek philosophers of ancient times. They began to form a new approach to learning: applying Aristotle’s logical approach to finding the truth, while still keeping faith with the Bible. Thus, scholasticism was born.

Today, we know scholasticism as a medieval method of critical thought that combined logic, semantics (the linguistic and philosophical study of meaning in language), and metaphysics, which deals with abstract concepts such as being, knowing, identity, time, and space. The Christian thinkers who sought to resolve philosophical problems using this method of learning and teaching were working against a background of strict religious dogma, often making it difficult to prove new theories. The problems they were trying to solve involved faith, reason, will, intellect, realism, and the probability of the existence of God. Scholasticism was used in medieval universities and cathedrals from the 1200s to the early 1700s.

There are six main characteristics of scholasticism: acceptance of the prevailing Catholic orthodoxy, acceptance of Aristotle as a greater thinker than Plato, recognition that Aristotle and Plato disagreed about the notion of universals (what qualities, features, or attributes particular things share), dialectical thinking and syllogistic reasoning, acceptance of the distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘revealed’ theology, and a tendency to dispute everything at great length and in great detail. Dialectical thinking involves the exchange of an argument (thesis) and a counter argument (antithesis) to arrive at a conclusion (synthesis). Syllogistic reasoning is a form of deductive reasoning where one arrives at a specific conclusion by examining two other premises or ideas. This method of argument is what produced so many highly detailed and complex writings from this time; scholars would not rest until an argument had been definitively proved true.

There were two ways of teaching scholasticism, and both were used throughout medieval universities and cathedrals. The first was “lectio,” which was the simple reading of a text by a teacher, who expounded on certain words and ideas but did not permit questions. The second, more involved method was “disputatio,” where the question to be disputed was either announced beforehand or proposed to the teacher without preparation. The teacher would respond to the question by citing texts such as the Bible. The students would rebut the response, and the argument went back and forth, with someone taking notes to summarize the argument.

The Scholastic Method was to thoroughly and critically read a book by a renowned scholar or author (such as the Bible or the texts of someone like Plato) and reference other related documents and note any disagreements. An argument would then be formed after this examination. The two sides of the argument would be found to be in agreement through philological analysis (examination of words for multiple meanings) and through logical analysis. These two sides would be combined into “questionae,” which referenced any number of sources to discover the pros and cons of a particular general question. Finally, it would become a “summae,” a complete summary of all questions. The most famous example of a summae is the Summa Theologica, written by St. Thomas Aquinas between 1265 and 1273, and intended to be the sum of all known learning as explained by the philosophy of Aristotle and the theological dicta of the church.

Some of the most famous figures of scholasticism are St. Albertus Magnus, St. Bonaventure, and St. Thomas Aquinas. Albertus Magnus was a Dominican bishop and philosopher who was a teacher of Thomas Aquinas and an advocate for Aristotelianism at the University of Paris. He deemed the study of nature a legitimate science within the Christian tradition. Bonaventure was the leading theologian and minister general of the Franciscan order. He wrote several works on the spiritual life, all of which demonstrate a deep understanding of the Scripture and the ancient philosophers, particularly Aristotle. He integrated his study of theology with the Franciscan mode of life by turning the pursuit of truth into a form of divine worship; his personal conception of truth was that it was a road to the love of God. St. Thomas Aquinas, the most well-known of the three, was an Italian Dominican theologian known as the foremost medieval scholastic. He developed conclusions from Aristotelian premises in the metaphysics of personality, creation, and Providence (the protective care of God or nature as a spiritual power). All three of these men utilized the scholastic method to combine philosophy with theology to reach a higher understanding of how the beliefs of the church fit into the world they knew.

Although the conclusions reached by those who practiced scholasticism are not essential to our view of the world today, they caused such methods of argument as dialectical and syllogistic reasoning to be widespread in its use, and it represents the deep connections that scholars were learning to make between philosophy and theology, which previously were two very different fields of knowledge. The writings that exist from that time provide us with insight into the minds of the greatest scholars of the medieval world.


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