Medieval Philosophy

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edit index Medieval Philosophy

Philosophy at the center
of the liberal arts

The Philosophy of the era now known as the Middle Ages (the period roughly extending from the fall of the Roman Empire to the Renaissance) is a widely varied period in the history of philosophical thought. However, one defining feature which distinguishes this period, in the western world, is the degree to which competing or contradictory philosophical views and systems were brought into dialogue with each other.

Logic and God

Medieval philosophy was greatly concerned with the nature of God, and the application of Aristotle's logic and thought to every area of life. If God exists at all, surely He is the most important feature of the universe, and therefore worthy of study. One continuing interest in this time was to prove the existence of God, through logic alone, if possible.

One early effort was the Cosmological Argument, conventionally attributed to Thomas Aquinas. The argument roughly, is that everything that exists has a cause. Therefore, there must be an uncaused first cause, and this is God. Aquinas also adapted this argument to prove the goodness of God. Everything has some goodness, and the cause of each thing is better than the thing caused. Therefore, the first cause is the best possible thing. Similar arguments are used to prove God's power and uniqueness.

Another important argument proof of the existence of God was the Ontological Argument. Basically, it says that God has all possible good features. Existence is good, and therefore God has it, and therefore exists.

The application of Aristotelian logic proceeded by having the student memorize a rather large set of syllogisms. The memorization proceeded from diagrams, or learning a key sentence, with the first letter of each word reminding the student of the names of the syllogisms. Each syllogism had a name, for example "Modus Ponens" had the form of "If A is true, then B is true. A is true, therefore B is true."

Most university students of logic memorized Aristotle's 19 syllogisms of two subjects, permitting them to validly connect a subject and object. A few geniuses developed systems with three subjects, or described a way of elaborating the rules of three subjects.

As well as Aquinas, other important names from the medieval period include Duns Scotus and Peter Abelard. From the Neoplatonic (John Scotus Eriugena, St. Anselm) figures who dominated the early middle ages, to the Peripatetic debates of the 12th and 13th century, to the Nominalist and Voluntarist conflicts of the 14th and 15th, it is hard to find a similar period in the history of recorded thought so populated with figures who believed their ideas could be reconciled, given enough debate and inquiry. In fact, this belief is the very essence of the philosophical mode of inquiry most closely associated with the Medieval Period, Scholastic philosophy.

The Thirteenth Century (sometimes referred to as the greatest of centuries) saw and explosion of renowned philosophical figures: Alexander of Hales, St. Bonaventure, Bl. Albertus Magnus, St. Thomas Aquinas, Godfrey of Fontaines, Henry of Ghent, Giles of Rome, and Duns Scotus. Eventually, as rebirth spread across Europe, new ideas shook philosophy, too.

See Christian Philosophy, Islamic Philosophy, Jewish Philosophy, Scholasticism

External Links

Recomended Reading

  • Medieval Philosophy, Armand Maurer, Pontifical Institute for Mediaeval Studies Press.
  • Medieval Philosophy, Frederick Copelston, S.J.
  • Readings in Medieval Philosophy, Edited by Andrew B. Schoedinger, Oxford University Press. "The most comprehensive collection of its kind, this unique anthology presents fifty-four readings--many of them not widely available--by the most important and influential Christian, Jewish, and Muslim philosophers of the Middle Ages."

Some content adapted from the Wikinfo article "Medieval_philosophy" under the GNU Free Documentation License.
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[ last updated: 1:02am EDT - Wed, Apr 04 2007 ]
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M.R.M. Parrott