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Revising Philosophy: The Late Middle Ages

Revising Philosophy: The Late Middle Ages


Representative Philosophers. With the advent of the fourteenth century came a deepening of philosophical acumen. Three representative figures stand out: John Duns Scotus (circa 1266–1308), William of Ockham (circa 1285–1347), and Meister Eckhart (circa 1260–1328). All were members of religious orders and influenced philosophical thought well beyond the Middle Ages.

Duns Scotus. The American founder of modern Pragmatism, Charles Sanders Peirce, formed the belief that Duns Scotus was one of the most accomplished of all philosophical thinkers, and the modern German philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote part of his doctoral dissertation on him. Duns Scotus placed great importance on the notion of the human will. He believed that the human ability to make decisions is not compromised by factors such as one’s temperament, one’s environment, or one’s genes. Thus, he was a strong advocate of the notion of freedom of choice, which in the ethical realm coincides with the use of reason. He held that it is a mistake to think that choice is based on some kind of blind drive or unconscious urge. Perhaps, the most fundamental change that Duns Scotus brought about was in the way people think of reality. Prior to Duns Scotus, philosophers saw the whole world as a finely differentiated hierarchy of structures: mineral, vegetable, animal, human, angel, and God. Each had a higher degree of being (reality). A human was more real than those structures below him or her in the hierarchy and less real than those above. For Duns Scotus being had one and the same meaning wherever it was found, whether in vegetable, animal, human, angel, or God. There were no different kinds of being.

There is just being, the opposite of which is nothing. To say that something is, that it has being, is to name a predicate that can be attached to any subject whatsoever. For Duns Scotus the most innate and fundamental concept is that of “what is,” being. Without this primary, or primitive, notion, one would not be able to distinguish reality from illusion, what is real from what does not exist. What Duns Scotus meant is that all humans have an innate grasp of being as being. Because of this position, Duns Scotus was not able to formulate a proof for God’s existence that proceeds from the sensible world to the necessity of a first cause of motion. In his view, such a move would lead only to a first worldly cause. Rather, he built his proof for God’s existence on the basis of the innate notion of finite and infinite being, arguing that infinite being (God) is a necessary condition for the existence of a finite world.

William of Ockham. A logician of the first rank, William of Ockham was an intelligent critic of Duns Scotus and all other earlier philosophers. Ockham had reservations about Scotus’s new notion of being, and argued that being is not some common nature in things. Rather, it is a name predicated, or spoken of, real individual things. Thus, Ockham rejected Duns Scotus’s conceptual argument for God’s existence. Ockham held that humans are finite, limited beings; by experience they can grasp the fact that there is some causality at work in the world, but they cannot go on to prove that this causality is either finite or infinite. On the issue of existence and essence, he followed Duns Scotus, but he emphasized that the Latin words esse (to be, being), a verb, and essentia (essence), a noun, signify the same thing. Neither word names some kind of super being. Given these assumptions, it is not surprising that Ockham had distinctive views on the nature of knowledge, essences, and universals. As he said, “No universal exists outside the mind of the knower.” Ockham’s theory of signs is important. A word is a sign of (refers to) an actual individual thing; it does not refer to a nature or essence. The universal, form, or essence is simply a mental construct by means of which one can classify the actually existing individual things. Like Duns Scotus, Ockham emphasized the notion of freedom of choice. Ockham distinguished between God’s absolute power (say, to create multiple worlds) and God’s ordained power (the fact that he created this world). Ockham also dealt with the problem Boethius posed of how humans can have free will if God has foreknowledge of all future events.

Heresy Charges. In 1324 John Lutterell, chancellor of Oxford, accused Ockham of heresy in his theological teaching. Ockham later fulminated with words such as: “against the errors of this pseudo-pope ’I have set my face like the hard rock,’ so that neither lies nor slurs nor persecution of whatever sort… nor the multitude, however great, of those who believe or favor or even defend him will ever at any time be able to prevent me from attacking and refuting his errors as long as I have hand, paper, pen and ink” What Ockham was claiming was a common teaching among medieval theologians: the task of defining Christian truth was not just the job of pope and bishops alone; the masters of the schools, especially the theologians, had a necessary role in this task. Heresy was a serious charge that could have led to imprisonment or even death. As was the custom, Ockham took his case to the highest court in Christendom, the papal court at Avignon, in the south of France. For four years, he led a scholarly life there and waited while theological and legal experts debated his case, but in May 1328 he and his colleagues decided it was best to leave Avignon by night. Later that year he was excommunicated. Still professing himself a devout Catholic he spent the last seventeen years of his life in the Franciscan friary at Munich.

Nominalism. Ockham had a major impact on the philosophy of the later Middle Ages, as well as the Renaissance and Reformation era. His philosophy was one of the bases for a movement known as the Modern Way (Via moderna) to distinguish it from the older way of Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and others. Though he provoked major debates among his contemporaries, Ockham succeeded in forcing philosophers to be more rigorous in their methods and use of language. His name came to be associated with the movement known as Nominalism, based on the premise that names do not designate universal structures; they simply refer directly to individual things. The opposite to Nominalism is Realism—based on the idea that there are objective, universal structures in nature. The debate between the Nominalists and the Realists was the major philosophical issue of the later Middle Ages. Indeed, Duns Scotus and Ockham were part of a larger debate in the universities. Ockham’s positions were rejected by Walter Chatton, Adam Wodeham, and Robert Holcot. Duns Scotus’s were supported by Henry of Harclay and William of Alnwick. Among the philosophers who contributed to the emergence of Nominalism is Jean Buridan, who taught at Paris in the first half of the fourteenth century and was a professional teacher of philosophy rather than a theologian (like Duns Scotus and Ockham). His ideas gained currency in the late Middle Ages through his students Albert of Saxony and Marsilius of Inghen.

Meister Eckhart. Eckhart is a good example of a university-trained philosopher who ended his career as a preacher and teacher. A member of the Dominican order, he lectured at Paris in 1294–1298, and in 1302–1303, contemporary with Duns Scotus, he held the Dominican chair at Paris. Later, he taught at both Strasbourg and Cologne. Eckhart was unusual in his time because he wrote his university lectures in the technical Latin of university schools, but he wrote his speeches, sermons, and informal talks in Middle High German. He displayed his creative genius in transforming the technical terminology of philosophy in Latin into a new technical terminology of a vernacular language. Since philosophy continued to be written in Latin until Immanuel Kant in the eighteenth century, Eckhart was certainly ahead of his time. In his philosophy Eckhart united Aristotelianism and Neoplatonism while also drawing on such diverse sources as Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus, Bonaventure, and Moses Maimonides. One of Eckhart’s concerns was whether God was primarily being or intellect, and he concluded that in God, thought had priority over being. Another of his questions raised the issue of whether being and understanding were the same in God, and he decided that God is pure understanding, not being or existence. Eckhart limited being to creatures, and treated God’s knowledge as the cause of being. In this idea one finds the seeds of German Idealism, and indeed, nineteenth-century German Idealists such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel proudly referred to Eckhart as a predecessor.

Interpreting the Bible and Preaching. Eckhart is particularly important for his philosophical interpretation of important books of scripture: Exodus, The Book of Wisdom, The Gospel of John. He was also a master rhetorician, and his sermons are notable for his ability to communicate complex philosophy and theology to a popular audience. In stressing the freedom of the children of God, following St. Paul, Eckhart was interpreted by the heretical Free Spirit movement as preaching a message of “do whatever you are inclined to do, since after all the just person is God.” It was such teaching which led to his being accused of heresy in 1325–1326. He attempted to defend himself in public debate, and then went before the papal court in Avignon, and at the same time William of Ockham was also defending himself against the charge of heresy. Selections of Eckhart’s works were posthumously condemned by the Pope in 1328, but Eckhart had claimed that his statements were capable of orthodox interpretation. Modem scholars have concluded that the papal commission’s random selection of Eckhart’s statements took them out of context and led to serious misunderstanding of his complex philosophical and theological positions. Eckhart’s works were considered dangerous for centuries. In the fifteenth century even a sympathetic reader, Nicholas of Cusa, wrote “Reader Beware” in the margin of an Eckhart text.

The End of an Era. Like many other institutions, medieval philosophy was deeply affected by the advent of the Black Death in 1347. Ockham may have been a victim of this disease, and many other scholars died as well. After the plague abated, new intellectual fashions appeared. One of these was Italian Humanism, which came to dominate thought in the Renaissance. It opposed the medieval emphasis on logic and by the sixteenth century had elevated grammar, history, and poetry in the university curriculum. Yet, the methods of medieval philosophy continued into the Renaissance, and even as late as the eighteenth century Scholastic methods dominated German universities. The Logical Analysis movement of the twentieth century looked to Scotus and Ockham as models, while the continental European philosophers looked to Eckhart and other medieval thinkers for models of how to formuean philosophical questions.


Marilyn McCord Adams, William Ockham, 2 volumes (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989).

E. P. Bos, ed., John Duns Scotus: Renewal of Philosophy, Amsterdam & Atlanta: Rodolpi, 1998);

Edmund Colledge and Bernard McGinn, trans., Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense (New York: Paulist Press, 1998);

Richard Cross, Duns Scotus (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Amy Hollywood, The Soul as Virgin Bride: Mechthild of Magdeburg, Marguerite Porete and Meister Eckhart (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999).

Alain de Libera, Le Probleme de I’etre chez Maitre Eckhart (Geneva: Revue de theologie et de philosophie, 1980).

Armand A. Maurer, The Philosophy of William of Ockham in the Light of Its Principles (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1999).

Bernard McGinn, Meister Eckhart (New York Continuum Press, 2001).

McGinn, Frank Tobin, and Elvira Borgstadt, eds., Meister Eckhart, Teacher and Preacher (New York: Paulist Press, 1986).

Paul Vincent Spade, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Ockham (New York Cambridge University Press, 1999).

Allan B. Wolter, The Philosophical Theology of John Duns Scotus, edited by Marilyn McCord Adams (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990).

Emilie Zum Brunn and Alain de Libera, Maitre Eckhart: Metaphysique du verbe et theologie negative (Paris: Beauchesne, 1984).

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