Medieval Philosophy A Brief Introduction
Medieval philosophy is enjoying a sort of “renaissance.” • Historians have challenged the entire notion of “the middle ages.” • For philosophers, this is no longer a period of “book reports” • Postmodern sensibilities, both among secular and religious philosophers, have given us a new appreciation for the ideas, arguments, and problems presented in a period that was once more or less “skipped” in “history of philosophy” classes.
Faith and Reason. • In one sense this is conceived in terms of a relationship between knowledge revealed (especially within the monotheistic traditions) and knowledge attained via human reasoning (e.g., in Aristotle). • But within the medieval philosophical tradition this often takes the form of trying to understand the relationship between faith and reason (and the limits of each). • Thus conceived, theology deals with what is reasonable to believe is beyond reason(?).
What is medieval philosophy? • From (?) Augustine (354-430) • To (?) Descartes (1596-1650) • The Patristic Period (e.g., Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, Augustine) • “Dark Ages” to Carolingian Renaissance (e.g., John Scottus Eriugena) • The Early Medieval Period (e.g., Anselm, Abelard) • High Scholasticism (e.g., Aquinas, Avicenna, Averroes) • Late Scholasticism (e.g., Ockham)
The thirteenth century was a particularly prolific and productive period. • Two developments in the latter half of the twelfth century led to this. • First, was the rise of the university. • Second, was contact with Muslim scholars (via the Crusades, et al) that led to encounters with previously unavailable texts (especially those of Aristotle) and with a community of scholars who are already working on the problems (and solutions) presented by Aristotle.
Aristotle 384-322 BCE
Background Controversy The Eleatic school held that the world was essentially unknowable by humans. This led to the Sophists movement, that Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle all opposed. Eleatics followed Parmenides idea that the world is composed of one unchanging thing. (monism)Also influenced by Zeno’s paradoxes. Tortoise and Achilles. An arrow in flight is really at rest.
Plato’s response seems to have been to posit a world of Ideal (unchanging) forms. Aristotle’s Metaphysics concerns itself with what exists (ontology) and the extent to which we can have knowledge (episteme) of what exists.
Aristotle’s approach tends towards Empiricism: • If we think of the cosmos as a box filled with substances. • Once we describe all the substances; when we explain everything in the box, we’re done, because there is no box. • So he rejects both the idea that we can’t know anything about the world and that there are actually two realms, one more real than the other (Plato’s dualism).
Definition vs. Description • A description sort of marks things off by pointing to their characteristics. • The mug is white, smooth, hard, etc. • But a definition would say say something about the essence of the thing: what is its real nature? • A mug is a vessel used for drinking warm beverages. • But if you did this with me (i.e., a person), how would you proceed? • Felder is a . . . Person, living thing, body, teacher, man???? • The idea is to get to the essential quality.
To be or not to be: What “is” is. Two sentences: The mug is white. Venus is the morning star. In the first sentence we learn that mug has a particular property. We can think of it as an intersection of two sets; mugs and white things. The second tells us that “morning star” and “Venus” are different names for the same thing. Aristotle thought thinking about the verb “to be” with greater clarity might help us understand existence.
Genera and differentia If we would define things in this way, we could, by considering the genera, get at what things are.
For Aristotle., the “vesselness” in the mug, or the “foodness” in the pizza, are actually in those objects and not just a way we talk about them.
But when we think about the world, we have to acknowledge that the only things that are real are individual substances: this mug, this desk, this tree, this Steve Felder, etc. Aristotle considered this “thisness.” • Thisness resides in “particulars” (also “substance,” those things we can access through direct personal experience.) • But knowledge (episteme) comes to us through our knowledge of universals (things that are in a number of different substances; e.g., whiteness, hardness, heaviness, etc.). (Otherwise, we wouldn’t have knowledge, but only sense perceptions.) • For Aristotle these universals inhere “in” the object and are not merely relative to the observer (contra the Eleatics). • If we say Socrates is “honorable,” we are saying the honor is “in” him. • In normal language we construct sentences with a subject and predicate. • “The mug is white” tell us something about the mug; “Venus is the morning star” does not.
Substance (itself) Quality Quantity Relation Time Place Position State Activity Passivity What kinds of things can be “in” a substance? The Categories To gain real knowledge (science, episteme) we need to get beyond these categories to claims that tell us not only what is “in” a substance, but what it is.
In this case genus and species can help. • What kind of thing is Felder? • Human (species) • Animal (genus) • Living thing (?) • The less general, the more substantial. • The more general classifications depend on the individual substances (not the other way around).
But are universals real? • I think this is a problem for Aristotle, but he improves on Plato. • Aristotle thought that Plato was wrong, for example, to see Beauty as a substance instead of as a quality that inheres in things.
Change • How and why do things change?
There are two kinds of change: • A substance changes some aspect of its character. • Felder gets a sunburn. • The mug develops a crack. • For Aristotle, this means that some or other of its categories is transformed. • In the second case, something comes to be out of nothing. • One day there was no statue, a month later there is. • What kind of change has occurred here? • Aristotle wants us to recognize that the statue is matter. • But matter is NOT a substance, or even something more basic than a substance, it is simply the thing out of which substances come (a mug, a vase, and desk, etc.). Matter is amorophous and characterless (for Aristotle). • The basic things (substances) in the world come about as a combination of Form and Matter.
Aristotle developed this into his idea that substances are characterized as having purpose (design?). They are “for” something. • The form is internal in the acorn. • The form is external in the sculpture. • (In a way, for Aristotle., the more natural expressions of form are the more basic.)
WHY do things change? • Because he believes substance is basic, not matter, he wants to have an explanation for the “why” of change that functions at the substance level. • Also, while we tend to locate causal explanations prior to the change, Aristotle, teleologically minded as he is, locates it after the change: • “I got off the couch and got into my car in order to go to the movies.” • When we move in this way to consider substances and their various transformations, Aristotle tends to locate the causes of the change in the nature of the substance. (Why does the acorn become an oak? Why does Felder get a sunburn?)
In The Physics he had listed four types of causes: • Material Cause • Efficient Cause • Formal Cause • Final Cause • It seems to me the final cause in The Physics is most closely related to the nature of the substance in The Metaphysics. • But when you try to apply this to a variety of substances, you have to wonder if any of this is real, and if so what? What is real about my mug? It’s clearly the result of the second kind of transformation, so is it real by virtue of its form or its matter?
Aristotle seems to suggest that the key to understanding the place of things in the world is in terms of what is Potential in them, and what is Actual. • You could think of matter as 100% potential. • You could think of God as 100% actual (or not?). • But in general substances are a mixture of potential and actual.
The medieval system of thought was thoroughly engaged with these issues, as well as with those that had been raised by Plato (and the “Neoplatonists”). Though “modern” philosophers would tend to draw sharp distinctions between their approach to philosophy and the “medieval” approach, the philosophers of the medieval laid an important foundation for all subsequent western philosophy. The key component of this foundation was a fundamental structuring of the relationship between language, thought, and reality. The most important tenet of this structure was the idea that words, as the fundamental units of language, express our thoughts, as concepts, and that these concepts are meaningful because they conform to objects (reality). The reason the words expressing our concepts are true of the things we conceive is because those “things” are informed by the same forms that inform our minds. This brings up the problem of universals.
Consider these billiard balls: I can say they are distinct instances of the same shape. But what does it mean to say this “same shape” exists in these separate substances? Furthermore, in what sense does this “shape” inform the mind of those who are considering it? Just because I’m thinking of spheres does not mean my mind has become spherical. For Plato the answer seems to have been that all these “balls” are exemplars of the Form of a “ball” that exists in some Ideal realm. My mind/soul recognizes it. (Think of a song on multiple iPods, or multiple copies of the same book.) The same applies to Plato’s ethics, etc.: “the good.” But for Aristotle, the human mind could “abstract” from particular instances to form such universal concepts.
For Augustine, and many other philosophers after him, these Ideal Forms are not abstractions, but the creative Ideas of God. For Augustine, seeing these Ideals as an expression of the mind of God had implications that were ontological, epistemological, and ethical. • But an obvious problem emerges at this point. • How can their be a plurality of divine “Ideas” alongside a unity of divine “essence”? • This philosophy presupposes a divine unity, but such a unity seems implicit in the concept of God. If “God” refers to an absolutely perfect being, this being must be absolutely simple. • For thing composed of multiple parts those things must be either accidental or essential. • If they are accidental, the thing is changeable (like Felder’s sunburn), but a thing that is changeable can become more or less perfect, and then the thing would not be absolutely perfect. • If they are essential, that means they are parts without which it could not exists, and they would make God’s existence dependent on those parts.
So God must be absolutely simple. But if God is absolutely simple (in these terms), how can He (sic) have a plurality of ideas? If they are the archetypes of creation, they cannot be creatures, yet they cannot be the creator either. In general, the scholastic solution was to, in one way or another, argue that the multiplicity of ideas is really the infinite multiplicity of the ways in which God conceives of the infinite perfection of His own essence as imitable by the limited perfection of any finite, created essence. “But the multiplicity of the ways of conceiving of something does not have to imply any multiplicity of the things conceived.” (Klima, 15) (Felder can be conceived as a husband, father, professor, surfer, writer, etc.)
They were also interested in understanding the epistemological role of these ideas. For Augustine, God provides access to the divine Ideas for those who have been regenerated. But if this turns out to be a supernatural gift, how is it possible for the unregenerate to know anything? For Aquinas and Duns Scotus (et al) the solutions was to make this natural faculty only nominally a divine gift. For this approach, Aristotle was especially useful. But some of Aristotelians argued that if the human intellect was capable of receiving all material forms, it could not have a material form itself. But if this is the case, then is there some kind of “Intellect” in which all humans participate? Aquinas challenged this view because it seemed to undermine belief in the afterlife (there would be no individual mind). But wasn’t belief in the afterlife an article of faith, not a subject of philosophy? For Aquinas if reason led to a conflict with an established truth of religion, an error must have been made in the reasoning process, because there cannot be a conflict between truths.
Aquinas’ “unity of substantial forms.” • A substance can have only one substantial form to account for all its essential characteristics. • Think of all the essential characteristics of the substance Felder—human, living, body, rational, etc.—and understand that these are distinct conceptually, but are not really distinct in Felder himself. • But Aquinas also argued for distinction between essential predicates (that form the essence of a thing) and the predicate “exists” which is not part of its essence. Only God (with his absolute simplicity and perfection) has a unity of essence and existence. • This is Aquinas’ notion of the real distinction of essence and existence.
We can now understand the point of Ockham’s Razor: “entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity.” • William of Ockham (ca 1288-1348) • The assumption of universals leads to many inconsistencies. • An alternative explanation of universality that doesn’t require them, should be preferred. • Already for a thousand years most philosophers had tended to not take Plato’s ideal forms too literally. • In his earliest writings on this Ockham characterized them as ficta—the universal thought content of our universal thoughts. • His ultimate solution seems to be a kind of nominalism, arguing that there aren’t really universals, but only individual instances mapped conceptually using universal terms. • He radicalized Aristotle’s abstraction according to the principle of ‘indifference.’ (Conceptual distinctions are made when it is not a matter of indifference.)