Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Medieval philosophy



Medieval philosophy

Medieval philosophy is the philosophy of Western Europe from about ad 400–1400, roughly the period between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance. Medieval philosophers are the historical successors of the philosophers of antiquity, but they are in fact only tenuously connected with them. Until about 1125, medieval thinkers had access to only a few texts of ancient Greek philosophy (most importantly a portion of Aristotle’s logic). This limitation accounts for the special attention medieval philosophers give to logic and philosophy of language. They gained some acquaintance with other Greek philosophical forms (particularly those of later Platonism) indirectly through the writings of Latin authors such as Augustine and Boethius. These Christian thinkers left an enduring legacy of Platonistic metaphysical and theological speculation. Beginning about 1125, the influx into Western Europe of the first Latin translations of the remaining works of Aristotle transformed medieval thought dramatically. The philosophical discussions and disputes of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries record later medieval thinkers’ sustained efforts to understand the new Aristotelian material and assimilate it into a unified philosophical system.

The most significant extra-philosophical influence on medieval philosophy throughout its thousand-year history is Christianity. Christian institutions sustain medieval intellectual life, and Christianity’s texts and ideas provide rich subject matter for philosophical reflection. Although most of the greatest thinkers of the period were highly trained theologians, their work addresses perennial philosophical issues and takes a genuinely philosophical approach to understanding the world. Even their discussion of specifically theological issues is typically philosophical, permeated with philosophical ideas, rigorous argument and sophisticated logical and conceptual analysis. The enterprise of philosophical theology is one of medieval philosophy’s greatest achievements.

The way in which medieval philosophy develops in dialogue with the texts of ancient philosophy and the early Christian tradition (including patristic philosophy) is displayed in its two distinctive pedagogical and literary forms, the textual commentary and the disputation. In explicit commentaries on texts such as the works of Aristotle, Boethius’ theological treatises and Peter Lombard’s classic theological textbook, the Sentences, medieval thinkers wrestled anew with the traditions that had come down to them. By contrast, the disputation – the form of discourse characteristic of the university environment of the later Middle Ages – focuses not on particular texts but on specific philosophical or theological issues. It thereby allows medieval philosophers to gather together relevant passages and arguments scattered throughout the authoritative literature and to adjudicate their competing claims in a systematic way. These dialectical forms of thought and interchange encourage the development of powerful tools of interpretation, analysis and argument ideally suited to philosophical inquiry. It is the highly technical nature of these academic (or scholastic) modes of thought, however, that provoked the hostilities of the Renaissance humanists whose attacks brought the period of medieval philosophy to an end.

1 Historical and geographical boundaries

The terms ‘medieval’ and ‘Middle Ages’ derive from the Latin expression medium aevum (the middle age), coined by Renaissance humanists to refer to the period separating the golden age of classical Greece and Rome from what they saw as the rebirth of classical ideals in their own day. The humanists were writing from the perspective of the intellectual culture of Western Europe, and insofar as their conception of a middle age corresponds to an identifiable historical period, it corresponds to a period in the history of the Latin West. The historical boundaries of medieval intellectual culture in Western Europe are marked fairly clearly: on the one end by the disintegration of the cultural structures of Roman civilization (Alaric sacked Rome in ad 410), and on the other end by the dramatic cultural revolution perpetrated by the humanists themselves (in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries). There is some justification, therefore, for taking ‘medieval philosophy’ as designating primarily the philosophy of the Latin West from about ad 400–1400.

There were, of course, significant non-Latin philosophical developments in Europe and the Mediterranean world in this same period, in the Greek-speaking Byzantine empire, for example, and in Arabic-speaking Islamic and Jewish cultures in the Near East, northern Africa and Spain. None of these philosophical traditions, however, was radically cut off from the philosophical heritage of the ancient world in the way the Latin-speaking West was by the collapse of the Roman Empire. For that reason, those traditions are best treated separately from that of western Europe. Accordingly, they are dealt with in this article only to the extent to which they influence developments in medieval philosophy in the Latin West.

(See Byzantine philosophy; Hellenistic philosophy; Humanism, Renaissance; Islamic philosophy; Jewish philosophy; Medieval philosophy, Russian; Renaissance philosophy.)

2 Beginnings

The general character of medieval philosophy in the West is determined to a significant extent by historical events associated with the collapse of Roman civilization. The overrunning of Western Europe by invading Goths, Huns and Vandals brought in its wake not only the military and political defeat of the Roman Empire but also the disintegration of the shared institutions and culture that had sustained philosophical activity in late antiquity. Boethius, a Roman patrician by birth and a high-ranking official in the Ostrogothic king’s administration, is an eloquent witness to the general decline of intellectual vitality in his own day. He announces his intention to translate into Latin and write Latin commentaries on all the works of Plato and Aristotle, and he gives as his reason the fear that, lacking this sort of remedial aid, his own Latin-speaking and increasingly ill-trained contemporaries will soon lose access altogether to the philosophical legacy of ancient Greece. Boethius’ assessment of the situation appears to have been particularly astute, for in fact in the six centuries following his death (until the mid-twelfth century), philosophers in the West depended almost entirely on Boethius himself for what little access they had to the primary texts of Greek philosophy. Moreover, since he had barely begun to carry out his plan when his execution for treason put an end to his work, Boethius’ fears were substantially realized. Having translated only Aristotle’s treatises on logic together with Porphyry’s introduction to Aristotle’s Categories (see Aristotle; Porphyry) and having completed commentaries on only some of the texts he translated, Boethius left subsequent generations of medieval thinkers without direct knowledge of most of Aristotle’s thought, including the natural philosophy, metaphysics and ethics, and with no texts of Plato (though a small portion of the Timaeus had been translated and commented on by Calcidius in the fourth century). Medieval philosophy was therefore significantly shaped by what was lost to it. It took root in an environment devoid of the social and educational structures of antiquity, lacking the Greek language and cut off from the rich resources of a large portion of classical thought. Not surprisingly, the gradual reclamation of ancient thought over the course of the Middle Ages had a significant impact on the development of the medieval philosophical tradition.

Medieval philosophy, however, was also shaped by what was left to it and, in particular, by two pieces of the cultural legacy of late antiquity that survived the collapse of Roman civilization. The first of these is the Latin language, which remained the exclusive language of intellectual discourse in Western Europe throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Latin provided medieval thinkers with access to some important ancient resources, including Cicero, Seneca, Macrobius, Calcidius, the Latin Church Fathers (see Patristic philosophy), Augustine and Boethius. These Latin sources gave early medieval thinkers a general, if not deep, acquaintance with classical ideas. Augustine is far and away the most significant of these Latin sources. His thought, and in particular his philosophical approach to Christianity and his Christianized Neoplatonist philosophical outlook, profoundly affect every period and virtually every area of medieval philosophy (see §5).

The second significant piece of late antiquity to survive into the Middle Ages is Christianity. Christianity had grown in importance in the late Roman Empire and, with the demise of the empire’s social structures, the Church remained until the twelfth century virtually the only institution capable of supporting intellectual culture. It sustained formal education in schools associated with its monasteries, churches and cathedrals, and provided for the preservation of ancient texts, both sacred and secular, in its libraries and scriptoriums. Medieval philosophers received at least some of their formal training in ecclesiastical institutions and most were themselves officially attached to the Church in some way, as monks, friars, priests or clerks. In the later Middle Ages, the study of theology was open only to men who had acquired an arts degree, and the degree of Master of Theology constituted the highest level of academic achievement. Consequently, most of the great philosophical minds of the period would have thought of themselves primarily as theologians. Moreover, in addition to providing the institutional basis for medieval philosophy, Christianity was an important stimulus to philosophical activity. Its ideas and doctrines constituted a rich source of philosophical subject matter. Medieval philosophy, therefore, took root in an intellectual world sustained by the Church and permeated with Christianity’s texts and ideas (see §5).

(See Aristotelianism, medieval; Augustine; Augustinianism; Boethius, A.M.S.; Clement of Alexandria; Liber de causis; Marius Victorinus; Nemesius; Origen; Patristic philosophy; Platonism, medieval; Pseudo-Dionysius; Stoicism; Tertullian, Q.S.F.; Themistius; Translators)

3 Historical development

The full flowering of the philosophical tradition that grows from these beginnings occurs in the period from 1100 to 1400. Two developments are particularly important for understanding the rapid growth and flourishing of intellectual culture in these centuries. The first is the influx into the West of a large and previously unknown body of philosophical material newly translated into Latin from Greek and Arabic sources. The second is the emergence and growth of the great medieval universities.

Recovery of texts. Medieval philosophers before Peter Abelard had access to only a few texts of ancient Greek philosophy: those comprising ‘the old logic’ (Aristotle’s Categories and De interpretatione and Porphyry’s Isagōgē) and a small part of Plato’s Timaeus. Abelard’s generation witnessed with great enthusiasm the appearance in the Latin West of the remainder of Aristotle’s logical works (‘the new logic’: the Prior and Posterior Analytics, the Topics and the Sophistical Refutations) (see Language, medieval theories of; Logic, medieval). Over the next hundred years, most of Aristotle’s natural philosophy (most importantly the Physics and On the Soul) and the Metaphysics and Ethics became available for the first time. Not all of these Aristotelian texts were greeted with the same enthusiasm, nor did medieval philosophers find them all equally congenial or accessible (even in Latin translation). However, it is impossible to overstate the impact that the full Aristotelian corpus eventually had on medieval philosophy. The new texts became the subject of increasingly sophisticated and penetrating scholarly commentary; they were incorporated into the heart of the university curriculum, and over time the ideas and doctrines medieval philosophers found in them were woven into the very fabric of medieval thought. Having never before encountered a philosophical system of such breadth and sophistication, philosophers in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries understandably thought it appropriate to speak of Aristotle simply as ‘the Philosopher’.

As medieval thinkers were rediscovering Aristotle they were also acquiring for the first time in Latin translation the works of important Jewish philosophers such as Avencebrol (see Ibn Gabirol) and Maimonides, and Islamic philosophers such as Avicenna (see Ibn Sina) and Averroes (see Ibn Rushd). Some of their works were commentaries on Aristotle (Averroes became known simply as ‘the Commentator’) whereas some (such as Avicenna’s Metaphysics and De anima) were quasi-independent treatises presenting a Neoplatonized Aristotelianism (see Aristotelianism in Islamic philosophy). Medieval philosophers of this period turned eagerly to these texts for help in understanding the new Aristotle, and they were significantly influenced by them. Averroes’s interpretation of Aristotle’s On the Soul, for example, sparked enormous controversy about the nature of intellect, and Avicenna’s metaphysical views helped shape the famous later medieval debates about universals and about the nature of the distinction between essence and existence.

Rise of the universities. As abbot of the monastery at Bec in the 1080s, Anselm of Canterbury addressed his philosophical and theological writings to his monks. By contrast, the great philosophical minds of the next generations, thinkers such as Abelard, Gilbert of Poitiers and Thierry of Chartres, would spend significant parts of their careers in the schools at Paris and Chartres and address a good deal of their work to academic audiences. The growth of these schools and others like them at centres such as Oxford, Bologna and Salerno signals a steady and rapid increase in the vitality of intellectual life in Western Europe. By the middle of the thirteenth century, the universities at Paris and Oxford were the leading centres of European philosophical activity. Virtually all the great philosophers from 1250 to 1350, including Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, studied and taught in the schools at one or both of these centres. It is partly for this reason that early modern philosophers (who were typically not associated with universities) refer to their medieval predecessors in general as ‘the schoolmen’.

The migration of philosophical activity to the universities meant not only the centralization of this activity but also its transformation into an increasingly formal and technical academic enterprise. Philosophical education was gradually expanded and standardized, philosophers themselves became highly trained academic specialists and philosophical literature came to presuppose in its audience both familiarity with the standard texts and issues of the university curriculum and facility with the technical apparatus (particularly the technical logical tools) of the discipline. These features of later medieval philosophy make it genuinely scholastic, that is, a product of the academic environment of the schools.

The philosophical disciplines narrowly construed – logic, natural philosophy, metaphysics and ethics – occupied the centre of the curriculum leading to the basic university degrees, the degrees of Bachelor and Master of Arts. Most of the great philosophers of this period, however, went beyond the arts curriculum to pursue advanced work in theology. The requirements for the degree of Master of Theology included study of the Bible, the Church Fathers and (beginning perhaps in the 1220s) Peter Lombard’s Sentences (which was complete by 1158). Designed specifically for pedagogical purposes, the Sentences is rich in quotation and paraphrase from authoritative theological sources, surveying respected opinion on issues central to the Christian understanding of the world. From about 1250, all candidates for the degree of Master of Theology were required to lecture and produce a commentary on Lombard’s text. This requirement offered a formal occasion for scholars nearing their intellectual maturity to develop and present their own positions on a wide variety of philosophical and theological issues guided (often only quite loosely) by the structure of Lombard’s presentation.

By virtue of its historical circumstances, medieval philosophical method had from its beginnings consisted largely in commentary on a well defined and fairly small body of authoritative texts and reflection on a canonical set of issues raised by them. Philosophers in the era of the universities took for granted a much larger and more varied intellectual inheritance, but their approach to philosophical issues remained conditioned by an established textual tradition, and they continued to articulate their philosophical views in explicit dialogue with it. Formal commentary on standard texts flourished both as a pedagogical tool and as a literary form. However, other philosophical forms, including the disputation – the most distinctive philosophical form of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries – were essentially dialectical. In the university environment, the disputation became a technical tool ideally suited to the pressing task of gathering together, organizing and adjudicating the various claims of a complex tradition of texts and positions.

A disputation identifies a specific philosophical or theological issue for discussion and provides the structure for an informed and reasoned judgment about it. In its basic form, a disputation presents, in order: (1) a succinct statement of the issue to be addressed, typically in the form of a question admitting of a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer; (2) two sets of preliminary arguments, one supporting an affirmative and the other a negative answer to the question; (3) a resolution or determination of the question, in which the master sets out and defends his own position, typically by drawing relevant distinctions, explaining subtle or potentially confusing points, or elaborating the underlying theoretical basis for his answer; and (4) a set of replies specifically addressing the preliminary arguments in disagreement with the master’s stated views. A disputation’s two sets of preliminary arguments allow for the gathering together of the most important relevant passages and arguments scattered throughout the authoritative literature. With the arguments on both sides of the question in hand, the master is then ideally positioned to deal with both the conceptual issues raised by the question and the hermeneutical problems presented by the historical tradition. Academic philosophers held disputations in their classrooms and at large university convocations, and they used the form for the literary expression of their ideas. Aquinas’ Summa theologiae, the individual articles of which are pedagogically simplified disputations, is perhaps the most familiar example of its systematic use as a literary device. The prevalence of the disputational form in later medieval philosophy accounts for its being thought of as embodying ‘the scholastic method’ (see Language, medieval theories of; Logic, medieval).

(On the early Middle Ages (circa 600–1100), see Carolingian renaissance; Damian, P.; Encyclopedists, medieval; Eriugena, J.S.; Gerbert of Aurillac; John of Damascus.)

(On the twelfth-century philosophers, see Abelard, P.; Anselm of Canterbury; Bernard of Clairvaux; Bernard of Tours; Chartres, School of; Clarembald of Arras; Gerard of Cremona; Gilbert of Poitiers; Hildegard of Bingen; Hugh of St Victor; Isaac of Stella; John of Salisbury; Lombard, P.; Richard of St Victor; Roscelin of Compiègne; Thierry of Chartres; William of Champeaux; William of Conches.)

(On the thirteenth-century philosophers, see Albert the Great; Alexander of Hales; Aquinas, T.; Averroism; Bacon, R.; Boethius of Dacia; Bonaventure; David of Dinant; Grosseteste, R.; Henry of Ghent; Joachim of Fiore; John of La Rochelle; Kilwardby, R.; Neckham, A.; Olivi, P.J.; Pecham, J.; Peter of Spain; Philip the Chancellor; Pseudo-Grosseteste; Richard Rufus of Cornwall; Siger of Brabant; Thomas of York; Ulrich of Strasbourg; William of Auvergne; William of Auxerre; William of Sherwood.)

(On the fourteenth-century philosophers, see Albert of Saxony; Alighieri, Dante; Aureol, P.; Bradwardine, T.; Brinkley, R.; Brito, R.; Buridan, J.; Burley, W.; Chatton, W.; Crathorn, W.; Dietrich of Freiberg; Duns Scotus, J.; Durandus of St Pourçain; Francis of Meyronnes; Gerard of Odo; Giles of Rome; Godfrey of Fontaines; Gregory of Rimini; Henry of Harclay; Hervaeus Natalis; Heytesbury, W.; Holcot, R.; James of Viterbo; John of Jandun; John of Mirecourt; John of Paris; Kilvington, R.; Llull, R.; Marsilius of Inghen; Marsilius of Padua; Marston, R.; Matthew of Aquasparta; Meister Eckhart; Nicholas of Autrecourt; Oresme, N.; Oxford Calculators; Peter of Auvergne; Richard of Middleton; Suso, H.; Tauler, J.; Vital du Four; William of Ockham; Wodeham, A.; Wyclif, J.)

(On the fifteenth-century philosophers, see Ailly, Pierre d’; Denys the Carthusian; Gerson, J.; Hus, J.; Nicholas of Cusa; Paul of Venice; Thomas à Kempis.)

4 Doctrinal characteristics

At the most basic level, medieval philosophers share a common view of the world that underlies and supports the various specific developments that constitute medieval philosophy’s rich detail.

Metaphysics. The common metaphysical ground of medieval philosophy holds that at the most general level reality can be divided into substances and accidents. Substances – Socrates and Browny the donkey are the stock examples – are independent existents and therefore ontologically fundamental. Corporeal substances (and perhaps also certain incorporeal substances) are constituted from matter and form (see Substance). Matter, which in itself is utterly devoid of structure, is the substrate for form (see Matter). Form provides a substance’s structure or organization, thereby making a substance the kind of thing it is. Socrates’ soul, for example, is the form that gives structure to Socrates’ matter, constituting it as the living flesh and blood of a human body and making Socrates a particular human being. Accidents – Socrates’ height, for example, or Browny’s colour – are also a kind of form, but they take as their substrate not matter as such but a substance: Socrates or Browny. Accidents depend for their existence on substances and account for substances’ ontologically derivative characteristics.

Medieval philosophers recognized matter and form, the fundamental constituents of corporeal substances, as fundamental explanatory principles. A thing’s matter (or material cause) and its form (or formal cause) provide basic explanations of the thing’s nature and behaviour. To these two principles they added two others, the agent (or efficient) cause and the end (or final cause). The agent cause is whatever initiates motion or change; the final cause is the goal or good toward which a particular activity, process, or change is directed.

Medieval philosophers disagreed about extensions and qualifications of this fundamental metaphysical view of the world. They debated, for example, whether incorporeal substances are like corporeal substances in being composed ultimately of matter and form, or whether they are subsistent immaterial forms. They also debated whether substances such as Socrates have just one substantial form (Socrates’ rational soul) or many (one form constituting Socrates’ body, another making him a living body with certain capacities for motion and cognition (an animal), and another making him a rational animal (a human being)). However, they never doubted the basic correctness of the metaphysical framework of substance and accidents, form and matter, nor are they in any doubt about whether the analytical tools that framework provides are applicable to philosophical problems generally.

(See Aristotelianism, medieval; Augustinianism; Eternity of the world, medieval views of; Platonism, medieval.)

Psychology and epistemology. Medieval philosophers understood the nature of human beings in terms of the metaphysics of form and matter, identifying the human rational soul, the seat of the capacities specific to human beings, with form. All medieval philosophers, therefore, held broadly dualist positions according to which the soul and body are fundamentally distinct. But only some were also substance dualists (or dualists in the Cartesian sense), holding in addition that the soul and body are themselves substances.

Medieval philosophers devote very little attention to what modern philosophers would recognize as the central questions of epistemology (see Epistemology, history of). Until very late in the period, they show little concern for sceptical worries and are not primarily interested in stating the necessary and sufficient conditions for the truth of the claim that some person knows a given proposition. For the most part they assume that we have knowledge of various sorts and focus instead on developing an account of the cognitive mechanisms by which we acquire it. They are especially interested in how we are able to acquire knowledge of universals and necessary truths – objects or truths that are immaterial, eternal and unchanging – given that the world around us is populated with particular material objects subject to change. The answers medieval philosophers give to this question vary considerably, ranging from Platonistic accounts that appeal to our direct intellectual vision (with the aid of divine illumination) of independently existing immutable entities (such as ideas in the divine mind) to naturalistic accounts that appeal to cognitive capacities wholly contained in the human intellect itself that abstract universals from the data provided by sense perception (see Universals).

(See Aristotelianism, medieval; Augustinianism; Platonism, medieval.)

Ethics. Medieval philosophers share a generically Greek framework of ethical theory, extended and modified to accommodate Christianity. Its main features include an objectivist theory of value, a eudaimonistic account of the human good and a focus on the virtues as central to moral evaluation (see Eudaimonia; Areté; Virtues and vices). According to the metaphysics of goodness inherited by medieval philosophers from Greek thought, there is a necessary connection between goodness and being. Things are good to the extent to which they have being. Evil or badness is not a positive ontological feature of things but a privation or lack of being in some relevant respect. The ultimate human good or goal of human existence is happiness or beatitude, the perfection of which most medieval philosophers identified as supernatural union with God after this life. The ultimate human good is attained both through the cultivation of the moral virtues and through divine grace in the form of supernaturally infused states and dispositions such as faith, hope and charity, the so-called theological virtues (see Theological virtues).

Within this framework, medieval philosophers debated whether human beatitude is essentially an affective state (a kind of love for God) or a cognitive state (a kind of knowledge or vision of God), and whether the virtues are strictly necessary for the attainment of beatitude. They also debated whether the rightness or wrongness of some actions depends solely on God’s will. Contrary to caricatures of medieval ethics, no one unequivocally endorsed a divine command theory according to which the moral rightness (or wrongness) of all acts consists solely in their being approved (or disapproved) by God (see Voluntarism).

(See Aristotelianism, medieval; Augustinianism; Platonism, medieval.)

Logic and language. Medieval philosophers devote enormous attention – perhaps more attention than philosophers of any period in the history of philosophy apart from the twentieth century – to logic and philosophy of language. This phenomenon is explained primarily by the uniquely important role played by Aristotle’s logic in the development of medieval thought. Until the early twelfth century, medieval philosophers’ knowledge of Greek philosophy was restricted to a few texts of Aristotelian logic and, by default, those texts largely set the agenda for philosophical discussion. It is a passage from Porphyry’s Isagōgē, for example, that enticed first Boethius and, following him, a long line of commentators to take up the philosophical problem of universals (see Universals). The texts of the old logic, which remained a central part of the philosophy curriculum in the later Middle Ages, were eventually supplemented by the remaining treatises of Aristotle’s logic, among which the Topics and the Sophistical Refutations in particular sparked intense interest in the forms of philosophical argument and the nature of meaning.

(See Aristotelianism, medieval; Language, medieval theories of; Logic, medieval.)

Natural philosophy. Medieval philosophers believed that a complete account of reality must include an account of the fundamental constituents and principles of the natural realm. Their earliest reflections on these matters were inspired primarily by two ancient accounts of the origins and nature of the universe, the biblical story of creation (in Genesis) and Plato’s story of the Demiurge’s fashioning of the world (in the Timaeus) (see Plato). The confluence of these ancient sources produced a medieval tradition of speculative cosmological thought paradigmatically expressed in discussions of the six days of creation. This topic in particular gave medieval philosophers opportunity to reflect on the nature of the contents of the universe and the principles governing the created realm.

From the late twelfth century, medieval philosophy is profoundly affected by the new Aristotelian natural philosophy and the new scientific treatises by Islamic philosophers. Aristotle’s Physics in particular received enormous attention, and medieval philosophers developed sophisticated tools of logical, conceptual and mathematical analysis to deal with problems raised by Aristotle’s discussions of motion, change, continuity and infinity. Scientific treatises by Islamic thinkers such as Alkindi (see al-Kindi), Alpetragius, Avicenna (see Ibn Sina) and Alhasen provided the material and impetus for significant developments in astronomy, medicine, mathematics and optics.

(See Aristotelianism, medieval; Eternity of the world, medieval views of; Language, medieval theories of; Natural philosophy, medieval; Oxford Calculators; Platonism, medieval.)

5 Philosophical theology

Christianity is not in itself a philosophical doctrine, but it profoundly influences the medieval philosophical world-view both from within philosophy and from outside it. On the one hand, Christian texts and doctrine provided rich subject matter for philosophical reflection, and the nature and central claims of Christianity forced medieval intellectuals to work out a comprehensive account of reality and to deal explicitly with deep issues about the aims and methods of the philosophical enterprise. In these ways, Christianity was taken up into philosophy, adding to its content and altering its structure and methods. On the other hand, Christianity imposed external constraints on medieval philosophy. At various times these constraints took institutional form in the official proscription of texts, the condemnation of philosophical positions and the censure of individuals.

Augustine laid the foundation for medieval Christian philosophical theology in two respects. First, he provided a theoretical rationale both for Christian intellectuals engaging in philosophical activity generally and for their taking Christian doctrine in particular as a subject of philosophical investigation. According to Augustine, Christian belief is not opposed to philosophy’s pursuit of truth but is an invaluable supplement and aid to philosophy. With revealed truth in hand, Christian philosophers are able to salvage what is true and useful in pagan philosophy while repudiating what is false. Moreover, Augustine argued that Christianity can be strengthened and enriched by philosophy. Christian philosophers should begin by believing (on the authority of the Bible and the church) what Christianity professes and seek (by the use of reason) to acquire understanding of what they initially believed on authority. In seeking understanding, philosophers rely on that aspect of themselves – namely, reason – in virtue of which they most resemble God; and in gaining understanding, they strengthen the basis for Christian belief. The Augustinian method of belief seeking understanding is taken for granted by the vast majority of philosophers in the Middle Ages.

Second, Augustine’s writings provide a wealth of rich and compelling examples of philosophical reflection on topics ranging from the nature of evil and sin to the nature of the Trinity. Boethius stands with Augustine in this respect as an important model for later thinkers. He composed several short theological treatises that consciously attempt to bring the tools of Aristotelian logic to bear on issues associated with doctrines of the Christian creed. Inspired by the philosophical analysis and argumentation prominent in these writings, medieval philosophers enthusiastically took up, developed and extended the enterprise of philosophical theology.

With the emergence of academic structure in the new European schools and universities of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, theology became the paramount academic discipline in a formal curriculum of higher education. However, the fact that great thinkers of the later Middle Ages typically studied philosophy as preparatory for the higher calling of theology should not be taken to imply that in becoming theologians they left philosophy behind. As a simple matter of fact, later medieval theologians continued throughout their careers to address fundamental philosophical issues in fundamentally philosophical ways. And it is clear why this should be so: those who took up the study of theology were among the most gifted and highly trained philosophical minds of their day, and they brought to theology acute philosophical sensitivities, interests and skills. Moreover, insofar as they viewed Christianity as offering the basic framework for a comprehensive account of the world, they were naturally attracted to the broadly philosophical task of building on that framework, understanding its ramifications and resolving its difficulties.

Despite the dominance of the Augustinian view of the relation between Christianity and philosophy, religiously motivated resistance to philosophy in general and to the use of philosophical methods for understanding Christianity in particular emerges in different forms throughout the Middle Ages. In the twelfth century, some influential clerics saw the flourishing study of logic at Paris as a dangerous influence on theology and used ecclesiastical means to attack Peter Abelard and Gilbert of Poitiers. In the thirteenth century the new Aristotelian natural philosophy prompted another period of sustained ecclesiastical reaction. In 1210 and 1215 ecclesiastical authorities proscribed the teaching of Aristotle’s natural philosophy at Paris, and in 1277 the Bishop of Paris issued a condemnation of 219 articles covering a wide range of theological and philosophical topics. The condemnation seems largely to have been a reaction to the work of radical Averroistic interpreters of Aristotle. It is unclear how effective these actions were in suppressing the movements and doctrines they targeted.

(See Aristotelianism, medieval; Augustinianism; Averroism; Illumination; Natural theology.)

6 Scholarship in medieval philosophy

Contemporary study of medieval philosophy faces special obstacles. First, a large body of medieval philosophical and theological literature has survived in European libraries, but because many of these collections have not yet been fully catalogued, scholars do not yet have a complete picture of what primary source materials exist. Second, the primary sources themselves – in the form of handwritten texts and early printed editions – can typically be deciphered and read only by those with specialized paleographical skills. Only a very small portion of the known extant material has ever been published in modern editions of a sort that any reader of Latin could easily use. Third, an even smaller portion of the extant material has been translated into English (or any other modern language) or subjected to the sort of scholarly commentary and analysis that might open it up to a wider philosophical audience. For these reasons, scholarship in medieval philosophy is still in its early stages and remains a considerable distance from attaining the sort of authoritative and comprehensive view of its field now possessed by philosophical scholars of other historical periods with respect to their fields. For the foreseeable future, its progress will depend not only on the sort of philosophical and historical analysis constitutive of all scholarship in the history of philosophy but also on the sort of textual archeology necessary for recovering medieval philosophy’s primary texts.

How to cite this article:
MacDONALD, SCOTT and NORMAN KRETZMANN (1998). Medieval philosophy. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved January 16, 2022, from

Please note, this site uses web standards that your browser does not support.
See help for further information.

Back to Top