DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-B078-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved November 30, 2023, from

3. Historical development

The full flowering of the philosophical tradition that grows from these beginnings occurs in the period from 1100 to 1400. Two developments are particularly important for understanding the rapid growth and flourishing of intellectual culture in these centuries. The first is the influx into the West of a large and previously unknown body of philosophical material newly translated into Latin from Greek and Arabic sources. The second is the emergence and growth of the great medieval universities.

Recovery of texts. Medieval philosophers before Peter Abelard had access to only a few texts of ancient Greek philosophy: those comprising ‘the old logic’ (Aristotle’s Categories and De interpretatione and Porphyry’s Isagōgē) and a small part of Plato’s Timaeus. Abelard’s generation witnessed with great enthusiasm the appearance in the Latin West of the remainder of Aristotle’s logical works (‘the new logic’: the Prior and Posterior Analytics, the Topics and the Sophistical Refutations) (see Language, medieval theories of; Logic, medieval). Over the next hundred years, most of Aristotle’s natural philosophy (most importantly the Physics and On the Soul) and the Metaphysics and Ethics became available for the first time. Not all of these Aristotelian texts were greeted with the same enthusiasm, nor did medieval philosophers find them all equally congenial or accessible (even in Latin translation). However, it is impossible to overstate the impact that the full Aristotelian corpus eventually had on medieval philosophy. The new texts became the subject of increasingly sophisticated and penetrating scholarly commentary; they were incorporated into the heart of the university curriculum, and over time the ideas and doctrines medieval philosophers found in them were woven into the very fabric of medieval thought. Having never before encountered a philosophical system of such breadth and sophistication, philosophers in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries understandably thought it appropriate to speak of Aristotle simply as ‘the Philosopher’.

As medieval thinkers were rediscovering Aristotle they were also acquiring for the first time in Latin translation the works of important Jewish philosophers such as Avencebrol (see Ibn Gabirol) and Maimonides, and Islamic philosophers such as Avicenna (see Ibn Sina) and Averroes (see Ibn Rushd). Some of their works were commentaries on Aristotle (Averroes became known simply as ‘the Commentator’) whereas some (such as Avicenna’s Metaphysics and De anima) were quasi-independent treatises presenting a Neoplatonized Aristotelianism (see Aristotelianism in Islamic philosophy). Medieval philosophers of this period turned eagerly to these texts for help in understanding the new Aristotle, and they were significantly influenced by them. Averroes’s interpretation of Aristotle’s On the Soul, for example, sparked enormous controversy about the nature of intellect, and Avicenna’s metaphysical views helped shape the famous later medieval debates about universals and about the nature of the distinction between essence and existence.

Rise of the universities. As abbot of the monastery at Bec in the 1080s, Anselm of Canterbury addressed his philosophical and theological writings to his monks. By contrast, the great philosophical minds of the next generations, thinkers such as Abelard, Gilbert of Poitiers and Thierry of Chartres, would spend significant parts of their careers in the schools at Paris and Chartres and address a good deal of their work to academic audiences. The growth of these schools and others like them at centres such as Oxford, Bologna and Salerno signals a steady and rapid increase in the vitality of intellectual life in Western Europe. By the middle of the thirteenth century, the universities at Paris and Oxford were the leading centres of European philosophical activity. Virtually all the great philosophers from 1250 to 1350, including Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, studied and taught in the schools at one or both of these centres. It is partly for this reason that early modern philosophers (who were typically not associated with universities) refer to their medieval predecessors in general as ‘the schoolmen’.

The migration of philosophical activity to the universities meant not only the centralization of this activity but also its transformation into an increasingly formal and technical academic enterprise. Philosophical education was gradually expanded and standardized, philosophers themselves became highly trained academic specialists and philosophical literature came to presuppose in its audience both familiarity with the standard texts and issues of the university curriculum and facility with the technical apparatus (particularly the technical logical tools) of the discipline. These features of later medieval philosophy make it genuinely scholastic, that is, a product of the academic environment of the schools.

The philosophical disciplines narrowly construed – logic, natural philosophy, metaphysics and ethics – occupied the centre of the curriculum leading to the basic university degrees, the degrees of Bachelor and Master of Arts. Most of the great philosophers of this period, however, went beyond the arts curriculum to pursue advanced work in theology. The requirements for the degree of Master of Theology included study of the Bible, the Church Fathers and (beginning perhaps in the 1220s) Peter Lombard’s Sentences (which was complete by 1158). Designed specifically for pedagogical purposes, the Sentences is rich in quotation and paraphrase from authoritative theological sources, surveying respected opinion on issues central to the Christian understanding of the world. From about 1250, all candidates for the degree of Master of Theology were required to lecture and produce a commentary on Lombard’s text. This requirement offered a formal occasion for scholars nearing their intellectual maturity to develop and present their own positions on a wide variety of philosophical and theological issues guided (often only quite loosely) by the structure of Lombard’s presentation.

By virtue of its historical circumstances, medieval philosophical method had from its beginnings consisted largely in commentary on a well defined and fairly small body of authoritative texts and reflection on a canonical set of issues raised by them. Philosophers in the era of the universities took for granted a much larger and more varied intellectual inheritance, but their approach to philosophical issues remained conditioned by an established textual tradition, and they continued to articulate their philosophical views in explicit dialogue with it. Formal commentary on standard texts flourished both as a pedagogical tool and as a literary form. However, other philosophical forms, including the disputation – the most distinctive philosophical form of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries – were essentially dialectical. In the university environment, the disputation became a technical tool ideally suited to the pressing task of gathering together, organizing and adjudicating the various claims of a complex tradition of texts and positions.

A disputation identifies a specific philosophical or theological issue for discussion and provides the structure for an informed and reasoned judgment about it. In its basic form, a disputation presents, in order: (1) a succinct statement of the issue to be addressed, typically in the form of a question admitting of a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer; (2) two sets of preliminary arguments, one supporting an affirmative and the other a negative answer to the question; (3) a resolution or determination of the question, in which the master sets out and defends his own position, typically by drawing relevant distinctions, explaining subtle or potentially confusing points, or elaborating the underlying theoretical basis for his answer; and (4) a set of replies specifically addressing the preliminary arguments in disagreement with the master’s stated views. A disputation’s two sets of preliminary arguments allow for the gathering together of the most important relevant passages and arguments scattered throughout the authoritative literature. With the arguments on both sides of the question in hand, the master is then ideally positioned to deal with both the conceptual issues raised by the question and the hermeneutical problems presented by the historical tradition. Academic philosophers held disputations in their classrooms and at large university convocations, and they used the form for the literary expression of their ideas. Aquinas’ Summa theologiae, the individual articles of which are pedagogically simplified disputations, is perhaps the most familiar example of its systematic use as a literary device. The prevalence of the disputational form in later medieval philosophy accounts for its being thought of as embodying ‘the scholastic method’ (see Language, medieval theories of; Logic, medieval).

(On the early Middle Ages (circa 600–1100), see Carolingian renaissance; Damian, P.; Encyclopedists, medieval; Eriugena, J.S.; Gerbert of Aurillac; John of Damascus.)

(On the twelfth-century philosophers, see Abelard, P.; Anselm of Canterbury; Bernard of Clairvaux; Bernard of Tours; Chartres, School of; Clarembald of Arras; Gerard of Cremona; Gilbert of Poitiers; Hildegard of Bingen; Hugh of St Victor; Isaac of Stella; John of Salisbury; Lombard, P.; Richard of St Victor; Roscelin of Compiègne; Thierry of Chartres; William of Champeaux; William of Conches.)

(On the thirteenth-century philosophers, see Albert the Great; Alexander of Hales; Aquinas, T.; Averroism; Bacon, R.; Boethius of Dacia; Bonaventure; David of Dinant; Grosseteste, R.; Henry of Ghent; Joachim of Fiore; John of La Rochelle; Kilwardby, R.; Neckham, A.; Olivi, P.J.; Pecham, J.; Peter of Spain; Philip the Chancellor; Pseudo-Grosseteste; Richard Rufus of Cornwall; Siger of Brabant; Thomas of York; Ulrich of Strasbourg; William of Auvergne; William of Auxerre; William of Sherwood.)

(On the fourteenth-century philosophers, see Albert of Saxony; Alighieri, Dante; Aureol, P.; Bradwardine, T.; Brinkley, R.; Brito, R.; Buridan, J.; Burley, W.; Chatton, W.; Crathorn, W.; Dietrich of Freiberg; Duns Scotus, J.; Durandus of St Pourçain; Francis of Meyronnes; Gerard of Odo; Giles of Rome; Godfrey of Fontaines; Gregory of Rimini; Henry of Harclay; Hervaeus Natalis; Heytesbury, W.; Holcot, R.; James of Viterbo; John of Jandun; John of Mirecourt; John of Paris; Kilvington, R.; Llull, R.; Marsilius of Inghen; Marsilius of Padua; Marston, R.; Matthew of Aquasparta; Meister Eckhart; Nicholas of Autrecourt; Oresme, N.; Oxford Calculators; Peter of Auvergne; Richard of Middleton; Suso, H.; Tauler, J.; Vital du Four; William of Ockham; Wodeham, A.; Wyclif, J.)

(On the fifteenth-century philosophers, see Ailly, Pierre d’; Denys the Carthusian; Gerson, J.; Hus, J.; Nicholas of Cusa; Paul of Venice; Thomas à Kempis.)

Citing this article:
MacDonald, Scott and Norman Kretzmann. Historical development. Medieval philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-B078-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2023 Routledge.

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