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Scholasticism is derived from the Latin word scholasticus (Greek: σχολαστικός)[1], which means "that [which] belongs to the school", and was a method of learning taught by the academics (or school people) of medieval universities circa 1100–1500. Scholasticism originally started to reconcile the philosophy of the ancient classical philosophers with medieval Christian theology. Scholasticism is not a philosophy or theology in itself but a tool and method for learning which places emphasis on dialectical reasoning. The primary purpose of scholasticism is to find the answer to a question or to resolve a contradiction. It is most well-known for its application in medieval theology, but was eventually applied to classical philosophy and many other fields of study.

The main figures of scholasticism were Peter Abelard, Albertus Magnus, Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, Bonaventure and, above all, Thomas Aquinas, whose Summa Theologiae is an ambitious synthesis of Greek philosophy and Christian doctrine. Echoing the increasing influence of Aristotle above Plato in the 13th century, the deductive and a priori aspects of scholastic reasoning were to some extent displaced by the inductive reasoning of modern science.


Early scholasticism

The first significant renewal of learning in the West came with the Carolingian Renaissance of the Early Middle Ages. Charlemagne, advised by Peter of Pisa and Alcuin of York, attracted the scholars of England and Ireland, and by decree in AD 787 established schools in every abbey in his empire. These schools, from which the name scholasticism is derived, became centres of medieval learning.

The period of early scholasticism coincided with the growth of early Islamic philosophy (in the works of Alkindus, Alfarabi, Avicenna, Algazel and Averroes) and Jewish philosophy (especially in the case of Maimonides and Gersonides. From the 8th Century, the Mutazilite school of Islam, compelled to defend their principles against the more orthodox Ash'ari school, looked for support in philosophy. They were among the first to pursue a rational theology, Ilm-al-Kalam, which can be seen as a form of scholasticism. Later, the philosophical schools of Avicennism and Averroism exerted great influence on scholasticism (see Islamic contributions to Medieval Europe).

During this period, knowledge of the Greek language had vanished in the west except in Ireland, where it was widely dispersed in the monastic schools.[2] Irish scholars had a considerable presence in the Frankish court, where they were renowned for their learning.[3] Among them was Johannes Scotus Eriugena, one of the founders of scholasticism.[4] Eriugena was the most significant Irish intellectual of the early monastic period, and an outstanding philosopher in terms of originality.[3] He had considerable familiarity with the Greek language, and translated many works into Latin, affording access to the Cappadocian Fathers and the Greek theological tradition.[3]

The other three founders of scholasticism were the 11th century scholars Peter Abelard, Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury and Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury.[4] Anselm is sometimes misleadingly called the "Father of scholasticism", owing to the prominence accorded to reason in his theology. Rather than establish a position by appeal to authority, he used argument to demonstrate why what he believed on authority must be so.

The period also saw the beginning of the 'discovery' of many Greek works which had been lost to the Latin West. As early as the 10th century, scholars in Spain had begun to gather translated texts, and in the latter half of that century began transmitting them to the rest of Europe.[5] After the Reconquista of the 12th century, however, Spain opened even further for Christian scholars, who were now able to work in 'friendly' religious territory.[6] As these Europeans encountered Islamic philosophy, they opened a wealth of Arab knowledge of mathematics and astronomy.[7]

At the same time Anselm of Laon systematised the production of the gloss on Scripture, followed by the rise to prominence of dialectic (the middle subject of the medieval trivium) in the work of Abelard, and the production by Peter Lombard of a collection of Sentences or opinions of the Church Fathers and other authorities.

High scholasticism

The 13th and early 14th centuries are generally seen as the high period of scholasticism. The early 13th century witnessed the culmination of the recovery of Greek philosophy. Schools of translation grew up in Italy and Sicily, and eventually in the rest of Europe. Scholars such as Adelard of Bath travelled to Sicily and the Arab world, translating works on astronomy and mathematics, including the first complete translation of Euclid’s Elements.[8] Powerful Norman kings gathered men of knowledge from Italy and other areas into their courts as a sign of their prestige.[9] William of Moerbeke's translations and editions of Greek philosophical texts in the middle half of the thirteenth century helped in forming a clearer picture of Greek philosophy, and particularly of Aristotle, than was given by the Arabic versions they had previously relied on, and which had distorted or obscured the relation between Platonic and Aristotelian systems of philosophy.[10] His work formed the basis of the major commentaries that followed.

The universities developed in the large cities of Europe during this period, and rival clerical orders within the church began to battle for political and intellectual control over these centers of educational life. The two main orders founded in this period were the Franciscans and the Dominicans. The Franciscans were founded by Francis of Assisi in 1209. Their leader in the middle of the century was Bonaventure, a traditionalist who defended the theology of Augustine and the philosophy of Plato, incorporating only a little of Aristotle in with the more neoplatonist elements. Following Anselm, Bonaventure supposed that reason can only discover truth when philosophy is illuminated by religious faith. Other important Franciscan writers were Duns Scotus, Peter Auriol and William of Ockham.

By contrast, the Dominican order, founded by St Dominic in 1215 placed more emphasis on the use of reason and made extensive use of the new Aristotelian sources derived from the East, and Moorish Spain. The great representatives of Dominican thinking in this period were Albertus Magnus and (especially) Thomas Aquinas, whose artful synthesis of Greek rationalism and Christian doctrine eventually came to define Catholic philosophy. Aquinas placed more emphasis on reason and argumentation, and was one of the first to use the new translation of Aristotle's metaphysical and epistemological writing. This was a significant departure from the Neoplatonic and Augustinian thinking that had dominated much of early scholasticism. Aquinas showed how it was possible to incorporate much of the philosophy of Aristotle without falling into the "errors" of the Commentator Averroes.

Late scholasticism

Lutheran scholasticism


Scholastic method

The scholastics would choose a book (say, the Bible) by a renowned scholar, auctor (author), as a subject for investigation. By reading it thoroughly and critically, the disciples learned to appreciate the theories of the author. Other documents related to the book would be referenced, such as Church councils, papal letters and anything else written on the subject, be it ancient or contemporary. The points of disagreement and contention between multiple sources would be written down in individual sentences or snippets of text, known as sententiae.

Once the sources and points of disagreement had been laid out through a series of dialectics, the two sides of an argument would be made whole so that they would be found to be in agreement and not contradictory. This was done in two ways.

The first was through philological analysis. Words were examined and argued to have multiple meanings. It was also considered that the auctor might have intended a certain word to mean something different. Ambiguity could be used to find common ground between two otherwise contradictory statements.

The second was through logical analysis, which relied on the rules of formal logic to show that contradictions did not exist but were subjective to the reader.

Scholastic instruction

Scholastic schools had two methods of teaching. The first was the lectio: a teacher would read a text, expounding on certain words and ideas, but no questions were permitted; it was a simple reading of a text: instructors explained, and students listened in silence.

The second was the disputatio, which goes right to the heart of scholasticism. There were two types of disputationes: the first was the "ordinary" type, whereby the question to be disputed was announced beforehand; the second was the quodlibetal, whereby the students proposed a question to the teacher without prior preparation. The teacher advanced a response, citing authoritative texts such as the Bible to prove his position. Students then rebutted the response, and the quodlibetal went back and forth. Someone took notes on what was said, allowing the teacher to summarise all arguments and present his final position the following day, riposting all rebuttals.

See also


  1. The word Scholasticism is derived from the Latin word scholasticus, the Latinized form of the Greek σχολαστικός (scholastikos), an adjective derived from σχολή (scholē), "school". Online Etymology Dictionary; H.G. Liddell & R. Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon
  2. MacManus, p 215
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 "John Scottus Eriugena". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University. 2004-10-17. Retrieved 2008-07-21. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 Toman, p 10: "Abelard himself was… together with John Scotus Erigena (9th century), and Lanfranc and Anselm of Canterbury (both 11th century), one of the founders of scholasticism."
  5. Lindberg (1978), p. 60–61.
  6. Lindberg (1978), p. 62–65; Palencia, p. 270.
  7. Watt
  8. Clagett (1982), p. 356.
  9. Lindberg (1978), p. 70-72.
  10. Fryde


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