scholasticism, philosophy and theology of Western Christendom in the Middle Ages. Virtually all medieval philosophers of any significance were theologians, and their philosophy is generally embodied in their theological writings. There were numerous scholastic philosophies in the Middle Ages, but basic to all scholastic thought was the conjunction of faith and reason. For the greatest of the scholastics, this meant the use of reason to deepen the understanding of what is believed on faith and ultimately to give a rational content to faith. It was in the course of applying reason to faith that medieval thinkers developed and taught important philosophical ideas not directly related to theology.

Influences on Scholasticism

The greatest of earlier Christian philosophers had been St. Augustine, who saw in Plato (or in Neoplatonism) a system congenial with Christianity. This influence combined with that of the Pseudo-Dionysius (see Dionysius the Areopagite, Saint) to color the speculations of Western thinkers with Neoplatonic ideas. Much knowledge of ancient philosophy came to the early scholastics through the writings of Boethius. John Scotus Erigena continued the tradition of Neoplatonism in the 9th cent., adding to it certain mystical notions of his own.

Early Scholasticism

The beginning of scholasticism can be identified in the methods used by civil and canon lawyers of the 11th and 12th cent. to reconcile seemingly contradictory statements. St. Anselm in the late 11th cent. took as his life's motto "fides quaerens intelligentiam" [faith seeking understanding], and sought to use reason to illuminate the content of belief. An example of this is his famous ontological proof of the existence of God, based on the assertion that the highest being of which our minds can conceive must exist in reality.

The most important philosophical problem in the 12th cent. was the question of the universal (see realism). Opposing both the extreme nominalism of Roscelin and the realism of William of Champeaux, Peter Abelard taught a moderate doctrine; he recognized the universal as a symbol to which human beings have attached a commonly agreed significance, based on the similarity they perceive in different objects. Abelard's emphasis on the powers of reason, which he exaggerated in his early years, led to his condemnation by Bernard of Clairvaux. John of Salisbury, an English scholar noted for his humanistic studies, was representative of the important work done at the noted school at Chartres.

Hugh of St. Victor, a German scholar and mystic, urged the study of every branch of learning. His treatise On Sacraments was the first summa, an important medieval literary genre. The summae were comprehensive, intricately arranged works on theology and philosophy; they were characterized by their wide scope and vast learning. The Book of Sentences, however, assembled by Peter Lombard in the early 12th cent., was to become the classical source book for medieval thinkers. It was a compilation of sources from the church fathers, especially St. Augustine, and in subsequent years virtually every great medieval thinker wrote a commentary on the Sentences.

The Golden Age

The 13th cent. is generally regarded as the golden age of medieval philosophy. It was marked by two important developments: the growth of universities, especially at Paris and Oxford (see colleges and universities), and the introduction of Aristotle into the West. Until then, only the early works of Aristotle had been known to Western scholars, and those in poor translations; between 1120 and 1220 virtually the whole body of Aristotle's work was rendered into Latin, mainly from Arabic translations. The impact on Western thinkers of this vast body of systematic thought and organized research and analysis was enormous. Also important was the influence of Avicenna and Averroës, the two Arabic commentators whose interpretations of Aristotle were translated as well.

The Univ. of Paris became a leading center for the study of Aristotle and attracted scholars from all over Europe; the Dominicans and Franciscans, popular new religious orders, played a leading role in the expansion of the universities and the development of scholasticism. It was in the universities that the two traditional forms of scholastic literature were developed: the question (a thesis that is posed and defended against objections) and the commentary. Although Aristotle's work was of central significance in the development of scholasticism, it did not make its way without difficulties. In 1210 and 1215 papal authority prohibited the teaching of some of Aristotle's works at the Univ. of Paris, although by 1240 the ban was no longer enforced.

The first Western Aristotelian was Albertus Magnus, who was an important student of the natural sciences as well. But the leading figure in the movement to "Christianize Aristotle" was St. Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican and one of the greatest intellectual figures of the Middle Ages. He produced a vast body of philosophical work, which was remarkably precise, detailed, and organized. Denying any basic conflict between faith and reason, Aquinas sought to demonstrate that reason could lead man to many of the great spiritual truths and could help him to understand those truths that he accepted on faith. He combated secular interpretations of Aristotle, especially "Latin Averroism," the doctrines of Siger de Brabant. In particular, Aquinas attacked the Averroist teaching that denied the immortality of the individual soul.

Aquinas himself was vigorously opposed by the Franciscans, led by St. Bonaventure. Bonaventure, rooted in an older theological tradition, feared the excesses of reason in its contact with faith and almost succeeded in having Aquinas' teachings condemned at Paris. Another opponent of Aquinas was Duns Scotus, who developed a new scholastic synthesis. He argued that natural reason is limited in its ability to penetrate matters of faith, thus separating philosophy and theology.

Continuation of the Scholastic Tradition

William of Occam, another Franciscan, is generally regarded as the last of the great medieval philosophers. By firmly separating philosophy and theology and insisting that there is no rational ground for faith, he brought an end to that synthesis of faith and reason that characterized the greatest scholastic thought. After the 15th cent. the reputation of medieval philosophy declined. But the break between medieval philosophy and Renaissance thought was mainly in the area of metaphysics; scholastic tradition and methods continued to be followed in politics and law—in canon law, civil law, and common law and, later, in the development of international law.

In the late 15th cent. the Dominicans began a Thomistic revival; its brilliant leader was the reformer Cajetan. There was also a living Scotist tradition, and every Catholic university had Thomists and Scotists in its theological faculty. After the 18th cent. the secularization of the universities resulted in the suppression of the theological faculties, and the old tradition was broken. The Scotists always suffered from the very bad state of the text of Duns Scotus' works, and in the 20th cent. the Franciscan order undertook a complete and authoritative edition of them.


Contemporary interest in scholasticism, particularly among the neoscholastics, began as a concerted effort toward the end of the 19th cent. at the Univ. of Louvain. Impetus was given to the movement by the papal encyclical of Leo XIII, Aeterni Patris (1879), which called upon Roman Catholics to renew the study of the scholastics, especially St. Thomas Aquinas. Neoscholastics are not unanimous in their approach, but do generally agree that their philosophical study must not proceed in a manner that is neglectful of their Christian faith. Among the foremost neoscholastics have been the Frenchmen Jacques Maritain and Étienne Gilson.


See E. Panofsky, Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism (1951, repr. 1963); J. Pieper, Scholasticism (tr. 1960, repr. 1964); J. R. Weinberg, A Short History of Medieval Philosophy (1964); J. Pelikan, The Growth of Medieval Theology (1978).

Scholasticism was the dominant form of theology and philosophy in the Latin West in the Middle Ages, particularly in the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries. It was both a method and a system which aimed to reconcile the Christian theology of the Church Fathers with the Greek philosophy of Aristotle and his commentators.

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. In the Renaissance, the deductive and a priori methods of scholasticism were superseded by the inductive reasoning of modern science, while its theological basis was challenged by humanism.

The word Scholasticism is derived from the Latin word scholasticus, the Latinized form of the Greek σχολαστικός (scholastikos, “scholastic”), literally "devoting one's leisure to learning, learned man, scholar", from σχολείον scholeion, “school”.


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). 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. Irish scholars had a considerable presence in the Frankish court, where they were renowned for their learning. Among them was Johannes Scotus Eriugena, one of the founders of scholasticism. Eriugena was the most significant Irish intellectual of the early monastic period, and an outstanding philosopher in terms of originality. 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.

The other three founders of scholasticism were the 11th century scholars Peter Abelard, Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury and Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury. 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. 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. As these Europeans encountered Islamic philosophy, they opened a wealth of Arab knowledge of mathematics and astronomy.

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. Powerful Norman kings gathered men of knowledge from Italy and other areas into their courts as a sign of their prestige. 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. 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


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 auctor. 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



  • Clagett, Marshall (1982). "William of Moerbeke: Translator of Archimedes". Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 126 (5): 356–366.
  • Gallatin, Harlie Kay Medieval Intellectual Life and Christianity. .
  • Gracia, J. G.; Noone, T. B. (2003). A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages. London: Blackwell.
  • Hyman, J.; Walsh, J. J. (1973). Philosophy in the Middle Ages. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.
  • Kretzmann, N.; Stump, E. (2001). The Cambridge Companion to Augustine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert A Greek-English Lexicon. Perseus. .
  • Lindberg, David C. (1978). Science in the Middle Ages. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • MacManus, Seumas Tudor Ireland: Crown, Community, and the Conflict of Cultures, 1470-1603. Great Britain: Longman. ISBN 0582493412.
  • Maurer, Armand A. (1982). Medieval Philosophy. 2nd edition, Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.
  • McGavin, John J. (2000). Chaucer and Dissimilarity: Literary Comparisons in Chaucer and Other Late-Medieval Writing. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.
  • Schoedinger, Andrew B. (1996). Readings in Medieval Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Toman, Rolf The Art of Gothic: Architecture, Sculpture, Painting. Tandem Verlag GmbH.

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