DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-B078-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 23, 2024, from

Article Summary

Medieval philosophy is the philosophy of Western Europe from about ad 400–1400, roughly the period between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance. Medieval philosophers are the historical successors of the philosophers of antiquity, but they are in fact only tenuously connected with them. Until about 1125, medieval thinkers had access to only a few texts of ancient Greek philosophy (most importantly a portion of Aristotle’s logic). This limitation accounts for the special attention medieval philosophers give to logic and philosophy of language. They gained some acquaintance with other Greek philosophical forms (particularly those of later Platonism) indirectly through the writings of Latin authors such as Augustine and Boethius. These Christian thinkers left an enduring legacy of Platonistic metaphysical and theological speculation. Beginning about 1125, the influx into Western Europe of the first Latin translations of the remaining works of Aristotle transformed medieval thought dramatically. The philosophical discussions and disputes of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries record later medieval thinkers’ sustained efforts to understand the new Aristotelian material and assimilate it into a unified philosophical system.

The most significant extra-philosophical influence on medieval philosophy throughout its thousand-year history is Christianity. Christian institutions sustain medieval intellectual life, and Christianity’s texts and ideas provide rich subject matter for philosophical reflection. Although most of the greatest thinkers of the period were highly trained theologians, their work addresses perennial philosophical issues and takes a genuinely philosophical approach to understanding the world. Even their discussion of specifically theological issues is typically philosophical, permeated with philosophical ideas, rigorous argument and sophisticated logical and conceptual analysis. The enterprise of philosophical theology is one of medieval philosophy’s greatest achievements.

The way in which medieval philosophy develops in dialogue with the texts of ancient philosophy and the early Christian tradition (including patristic philosophy) is displayed in its two distinctive pedagogical and literary forms, the textual commentary and the disputation. In explicit commentaries on texts such as the works of Aristotle, Boethius’ theological treatises and Peter Lombard’s classic theological textbook, the Sentences, medieval thinkers wrestled anew with the traditions that had come down to them. By contrast, the disputation – the form of discourse characteristic of the university environment of the later Middle Ages – focuses not on particular texts but on specific philosophical or theological issues. It thereby allows medieval philosophers to gather together relevant passages and arguments scattered throughout the authoritative literature and to adjudicate their competing claims in a systematic way. These dialectical forms of thought and interchange encourage the development of powerful tools of interpretation, analysis and argument ideally suited to philosophical inquiry. It is the highly technical nature of these academic (or scholastic) modes of thought, however, that provoked the hostilities of the Renaissance humanists whose attacks brought the period of medieval philosophy to an end.

Citing this article:
MacDonald, Scott and Norman Kretzmann. Medieval philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-B078-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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