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  By Movement / School > Medieval > Scholasticism

Scholasticism is a Medieval school of philosophy (or, perhaps more accurately, a method of learning) taught by the academics of medieval universities and cathedrals in the period from the 12th to 16th Century. It combined Logic, Metaphysics and semantics into one discipline, and is generally recognised to have developed our understanding of Logic significantly.

The term "scholastic" is derived from the Latin word "scholasticus" and the Greek "scholastikos" (meaning literally "devoting one's leisure to learning" or "scholar") and the Greek "scholeion" (meaning "school"). The term "schoolmen" is also commonly used to describe scholastics.

Scholasticism is best known for its application in medieval Christian theology, especially in attempts to reconcile the philosophy of the ancient classical philosophers (particularly Aristotle) with Christian theology. However, in the High Scholastic period of the 14th Century, it moved beyond theology, and had applications in many other fields of study including Epistemology, Philosophy of Science, philosophy of nature, psychology and even economic theory.

Essentially, Scholasticism is a tool and method for learning which places emphasis on dialectical reasoning (the exchange of argument, or thesis, and counter argument, or antithesis, in pursuit of a conclusion, or synthesis), directed at answering questions or resolving contradictions. In medieval Europe, dialectics (or logic) was one of the three original liberal arts (the "trivium"), in addition to rhetoric and grammar.

There are perhaps six main characteristics of Scholasticism:

  • An acceptance of the prevailing Catholic orthodoxy.
  • Within this orthodoxy, an acceptance of Aristotle as a greater thinker than Plato.
  • The recognition that Aristotle and Plato disagreed about the notion of universals, and that this was a vital question to resolve.
  • Giving prominence to dialectical thinking and syllogistic reasoning.
  • An acceptance of the distinction between "natural" and "revealed" theology.
  • A tendency to dispute everything at great length and in minute detail, often involving word-play.

The Scholastic method is to thoroughly and critically read a book by a renowned scholar or author (e.g. The Bible, texts of Plato or St. Augustine, etc), reference any other related documents and commentaries on it, and note down any disagreements and points of contention. The two sides of an argument would be made whole (found to be in agreement and not contradictory) through philological analysis (the examination of words for multiple meanings or ambiguities), and through logical analysis (using the rules of formal logic to show that contradictions did not exist but were merely subjective to the reader).

These would then be combined into "questionae" (referencing any number of sources to divine the pros and cons of a particular general question), and then into "summae" (complete summaries of all questions, such as St. Thomas Aquinas' famous "Summa Theologica", which claimed to represent the sum total of Christian theology at the time).

Scholastic schools had two methods of teaching: the "lectio" (the simple reading of a text by a teacher, who would expound on certain words and ideas, but no questions were permitted); and the "disputatio" (where either the question to be disputed was announced beforehand, or students proposed a question to the teacher without prior preparation, and the teacher would respond, citing authoritative texts such as the Bible to prove his position, and the students would rebut the response, and the argument would go back and forth, with someone taking notes to summarize the argument).

Scholasticism was concurrent with movements in early Islamic philosophy, some of which presaged and influenced European Scholasticism. From the 8th Century, the Mutazilite School of Islam pursued a rational theology known as Kalam to defend their principles against the more orthodox Ash'ari School, and can be seen as an early form of Scholasticism. Later, the Islamic philosophical schools of Avicennism and Averroism exerted great influence on Scholasticism. There were also similar developments in medieval Jewish philosophy (especially the work of Maimonides).

St. Anselm of Canterbury is sometimes misleadingly referred to as the "Father of Scholasticism", although his approach was not really in keeping with the Scholastic method. Probably a better example of Early Scholasticism is the work of Peter Abelard and Peter Lombard (c. 1100 - 1160), particularly the latter's "Sentences", a collection of opinions on the Church Fathers and other authorities. Other early Scholastics include Hugh of St. Victor (1078 - 1151), Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 - 1153), Hildegard of Bingen (1098 - 1179), Alain de Lille (c. 1128 - 1202) and Joachim of Fiore (c. 1135 - 1202).

The Franciscan and Dominican orders of the 13th Century saw some of the most intense scholastic theologizing of High Scholasticism, producing such theologians and philosophers as Albertus Magnus, St. Thomas Aquinas, Alexander of Hales (died 1245) and St. Bonaventure (1221 - 1274). This period also saw a flourishing of mystical theology, such as Mechthild of Magdeburg (1210 - 1285) and Angela of Foligno (1248 - 1309), and early natural philosophy (or "science") at the hands of such men as Roger Bacon and Robert Grosseteste (c. 1175 - 1253).

Late Scholasticism (14th Century onwards) became more complex and subtle in its distinctions and arguments, including the nominalist or voluntarist theologies of men like William of Ockham. Also notable during the Late Scholasticism period are John Duns Scotus, Meister Eckhart (1260 - 1328), Marsilius of Padua (1270 - 1342), John Wycliffe (c. 1320 - 1384), Julian of Norwich (1342 - 1413), Geert Groote (1340 - 1384), Catherine of Siena (1347 - 1380), Jean Gerson (1363 - 1429), Jan Hus (c. 1369 - 1415) and Thomas a Kempis (1380 - 1471).

Thomism and Scotism are specific off-shoots of Scholasticism, following the philosophies of St. Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus respecitively.

Scholasticism was eclipsed by the Humanism of the 15th and 16th Centuries, and it came to be viewed as a rigid, formalistic and outdated way of conducting philosophy. It was briefly revived in the Spanish School of Salamanca in the 16th Century, and in the Catholic Scholastic revival (Neo-Scholasticism) of the late 19th and early 20th Century, although with a somewhat narrower focus on certain scholastics and their respective schools of thought, most notably St. Thomas Aquinas.

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