Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Fifteenth-Century Shift

Another philosophical shift, though much more pernicious than Levering's. From Zenon Kaluza, "Late Medieval Philosophy 1350-1500" in Medieval Philosophy, ed. Marenbon, p. 443:

"... Indeed, strange to say, round about the year 1400 philosophers decided that they would no longer do philosophy on their own account and no longer take any personal responsibility for their philosophical positions. Rather, they spent the whole of the fifteenth century fighting among themselves, with prescriptions and prohibitions as their weapons, not in order to impose on everybody their own thought, but that of their distant models: Thomas Aquinas, Albert the Great, Duns Scotus, Giles of Rome and Buridan. Universities passed statutes to remove undesirables and to close themselves to new ideas. None of these decisions rose above the level of factional in-fighting.

This upholding of traditions and the related and unceasing conflicts (especially in the German universities) were institutional rather than doctrinal in their basis. Historians describe them by the German word Wegenstreit. Sometimes by their violence and length these conflicts turned universities into a battleground where scholars fought to re-establish one of the old schools, whether realist or nominalist. The courses in these universities were limited to the revival of the thought of one or another great master of the past. Likewise, the practice of teaching centered on the great names of the past. In England, Wyclif was attacked in the name of St. Thomas. In Paris, a predominantly Thomist realism became the established doctrine by the last quarter of the century. In Germany, the choice of doctrine was regulated by the statutes of the different universities. Since this return to old scholasticism was the first of a series of such deliberate returns, it is certainly right to call it the first neoscholasticism. In Italy alone this type of institutional conflict had no place: there philosophers at once followed the English tradition of 1300-50 and the Parisian traditions of Averroism and Buridanism, as well as the traditions of Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus.


Brandon said...

To some extent I wonder if the problem scholastic philosophy in general had was that it had so much brilliance so early; if you start with the geniuses of the thirteenth century, how do you move up from there? So perhaps people play it safe by sticking to the genius who makes more sense to them, through thick and thin. And perhaps we still haven't quite shaken it.

Cammie Novara said...

"Rather, they spent the whole of the fifteenth century fighting among themselves, with prescriptions and prohibitions as their weapons, not in order to impose on everybody their own thought, but that of their distant models" I really have to let my Facebook group know about that! There's a really animated debate that I thought would be of interest on evolution vs. intelligent design going on at

Matt said...
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Matt said...

I wonder if the following essay suggests that the shift was not merely a bunch of in-fighting. In other words, the recognition that the great monuments of scholastic thought had *already* been produced perhaps allowed for new sorts of intellectual activity:

And this essay by Marco Forlivesi, which is one of the best attempts (imho) to make sense of the transition from the 14th to the 15th and later centuries, links this "looking back" to what the humanists were doing at the same time. Maybe it will be useful to some readers here.

http:// marcoforlivesi/ mf2005ie.pdf

(In case the link doesn't work, many of Forlivesi's essays are here:

I love this blog.

Ocham said...

An interesting idea, and no doubt true.

Re the factionalising and infighting: there is a story that this led to blows and bloodsheed (the 18th century philosopher Thomas Reid mentions this, for example). Is this a myth? If not, when did it happen. None of my histories of the universities mentions any such events up to the 14th century.

There was a lot of fighting due to excessive drinking, but none related to academic issues. Perhaps the story relates to the 15th century?

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...
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Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...


I meant THIS link:

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

Well, having sparked such a vigorous discussion, I will respond. ;) The content of the weblink I provided concerns what I think is a strange link between Anselm's ontological argument and Scotus' modal argument (SMA). I realize Scotus rejected Anselm's argument, so I am curious what you make of the link I see.

In any case, the questions I have are, 1) what do you make of SMA?

I would also love to know 2) what you, i.e. Scotus (and vice versa), think about the concept that in some cases possibility entails existence, even necessary existence. I think it's a fascinating line of inquiry and I'm inclined to say it works. Hence, this post: I would describe God's existence in SMA as "possible^3", a form of possibility which I think entails existence.

Specifically, I wonder 3) if you gentlement have read James Ross's _Philosophical Theology_, as it includes a sustained examination and analytic 'upgrading' of SMA. As well, 4) have you read John Zeis's antinomic refutation of Ross's argument and, therefore, of all modal arguments?

I can send you a copy of Zeis's essay by email and, if needed, can scan pertinent sections of Ross's book for sending.


Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

And this post has related considerations: