Nicolas of Autrecourt (c. 1300–after 1350)

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(c. 1300after 1350)

Nicolas of Autrecourt, also called Nicolaus de Ultracuria, was a leading anti-Aristotelian philosopher of the fourteenth century. The condemnation of extreme Aristotelianism at Paris in 1277 was probably responsible for the critical tendencies in many fourteenth-century philosophers and theologians. An extreme form of this critical tendency is to be found in the writings and lectures of Nicolas of Autrecourt. He was at the Sorbonne as early as 1328, lectured on the Sentences at Paris, and in 1340 was summoned by the Roman Curia to answer charges of heresy and error. His trial was interrupted when Pope Benedict XII died, and was resumed under Pope Clement VI by Cardinal Curty. In 1346 the trial was concluded, Nicolas was forced to recant many of his published statements, his works were publicly burned, and he was declared unworthy of advancement and unworthy to continue teaching. We last hear of him as a deacon at the cathedral of Metz in 1350.

His literary remains consist of (1) two complete letters to the Franciscan Bernard of Arezzo, a reply to a certain Giles (whose letter to Nicolas is also extant), and the fragments of seven other letters to Bernard of Arezzo; (2) a theological discussion concerning the increase of cognitive powers; and (3) the "universal tractate of Master Nicolas of Autrecourt for seeing whether the statements of the Peripatetics are demonstrative" (usually called Exigit Ordo Executionis from its incipit ), which survives in a single manuscript that breaks off toward the end.

The continuing research on fourteenth-century thought will probably show that many other Schoolmen of the period expressed doctrines similar to those of Nicolas. In fact, similar doctrines have already been found in Robert Holkot and John of Mirecourt on epistemological issues, and in Henry of Harclay, Gerard Odo, and some others on atomism and the constitution of the continuum. Nevertheless, there is some reason to attribute to Nicolas a considerable measure of originality and of persistent thought. For one thing, his contemporary John of Mirecourt attributes to Nicolas the proof that causal connections cannot be demonstrated. This may mean merely that Mirecourt was making an acknowledgement to a colleague and was unaware that similar doctrines were taught at Oxford. But there must be some significance in the fact that Nicolas was singled out for attack by the decrees of the Paris faculty in 1339 and 1340 and was one of those summoned to the Curia in 1340.

The main historical origin of Nicolas's skeptical and critical views about the extent of natural knowledge was undoubtedly the prominence given to the article of the Creed "I believe in one God, Father Omnipotent, Maker of heaven and earth, " after the condemnation of 1277. As the theologians of the fourteenth century interpreted this article, it meant that God can accomplish anything the doing of which involves no logical contradiction. Now, the miracles of the Old Testament and New Testament are incompatible with the doctrines of Aristotle and his strict interpreters, especially Averroes, in ways that touch directly on the point. Whereas Aristotle denies the possibility of accidents without substrata, the Eucharist involves the supernatural existence of the accidents of bread and wine after the substance no longer exists (that is, after the substance of bread and wine has been converted into the body and blood of Christ when the priest consecrates the Host). Again, whereas Aristotle had held that effects inevitably arise from their causes unless there is some natural impediment, the episode of the three Israelites who were not consumed in the fiery furnace involves the miraculous interruption of the natural effects of causes where there is no impediment. Consideration of these and like cases led theologians to the following result: The common course of nature can, without logical absurdity, be interrupted by divine power. Hence, the relation of causes and effects or of substances and their accidents is not logically necessitated.

Certitude, Substance, and Cause

Nicolas of Autrecourt must have begun his reflections from the consideration of the theological doctrine just mentioned. He maintained that, excepting the certitude of faith, there is but one kind of certitude and this certitude depends on the principle of contradiction: Contradictories cannot be simultaneously true. Nothing is prior to this principle and it is the ultimate basis of all certitude. This certitude is absolute and no power can alter it. It has no degrees and all certitude is reducible to it. Thus, all reasoning by syllogism depends on the principle of contradiction. In every implication (consequentia ) that is reducible to the principle of contradiction either immediately or by a number of intermediate steps, the consequent of the implication and the antecedent (or a part of the antecedent) are really identical. Otherwise it would not be evident that the antecedent is inconsistent with the denial of the consequent. From all this Nicolas derives the following result: From the fact that one thing is known to exist it cannot be inferred with an evidence reducible to that of the principle of contradiction that another thing exists. Neither the existence nor the nonexistence of one thing can be evidently inferred from the existence or nonexistence of any other thing.

The consequences of this discovery, Nicolas thought, were enough to destroy the whole intellectual enterprise of the Schools. Not only is it impossible that the existence of effects entails the existence of causes, but there is no way to have any evident knowledge of any substance other than one's own soul starting from the objects of sensation or of inner experience. Things apparent to the senses are not substances, and therefore substance cannot be evidently inferred from sensibly appearing objects. Hence the existence of material substances or of other spiritual creatures cannot be inferred with certitude from the evidence of the senses. But this is not all. In one sense of "probable," there is not even a probability that there are any substances. For, in the sense in which the probable is what happens frequently, we can say, for example: When I in the past put my hand toward a fire, it was warmed; it is now probable that if I put my hand toward a fire, it will be warmed. But since there has never been (and could never be) a conjunction in my experience between any appearance and a substance, there is no appearance that renders the existence of a substance so much as probable in this sense of the word.

Some of Nicolas's critics urged that substance is deducible from appearances and that causes are deducible from their effects. But he replied that all such deductions depend upon descriptions of appearances and effects that, implicitly or explicitly, contain reference to substances or causes. The deductions from such descriptions are perfectly valid, but nothing in experience or in our stock of self-evident propositions provides the slightest evidence that anything corresponds to such descriptions. In a word, every attempt to prove the existence of substances or causes from appearances or effects begs the question. This point was made in other philosophical writings both before and after Nicolas. The Muslim theologian Mohammad al-Ghazālī, in his Tahāfut al-Falāsifah (Incoherence of the Philosophers; see Averroes' Tahafut al-Tahafut, edited and translated by Simon van den Bergh, London, 1954, pp. 329333), pointed out that logically guaranteed inferences concerning causes depend on the description and definitions of terms and so, in a sense, are mainly verbal arguments. Nicolas could not have had access to this work because the relevant sections were not translated until sometime later. David Hume's negative critique of belief in causation and belief in substance parallels that of Nicolas very closely, but Hume had no possible access to the writings of Nicolas because these were not discovered until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the Bibliothèque Nationale and the Bodleian Library.

Critique of Aristotle

The purpose of Nicolas's critique of Aristotle and his followers is set forth in the prologue to his Exigit Ordo Executionis. He tells us that he read the works of Aristotle and his commentator Averroes and discovered that the demonstrations of their doctrines were defective, that arguments for the opposite of these doctrines can be found that are more plausible than arguments for them. (The word plausible here is intended to translate the Latin word probabilis because, in this usage, it does not mean "frequent" but "plausible.") Moreover, men have spent their entire lives studying Aristotle to no avail while neglecting the good of the community. Men would live better lives and contribute to the common good, in matters religious and moral, if only they knew that very little certitude about things can be learned from natural appearances and that what little can be learned can be obtained in a short while, provided men attend to things rather than the treatises of Aristotle and Averroes. In a word, the intellectual culture of Nicolas's age is condemned as largely vain; and the purpose of his criticism is simply to show this in detail. This is not to say that Nicolas is opposed to empirical investigation, but it would be a mistake to see in his attack on Aristotle an interest in empirical investigation such as we find in the promoters of natural science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The criticism of Aristotle as set forth in the Exigit has an aspect not indicated in his controversy with Bernard of Arezzo. In the letters to Bernard he declared that nothing that is said about infrasensible reality is even probable. In another sense of probability, introduced in the Exigit (but one of the accepted senses of the term in the Middle Ages and derived, in fact, from Aristotle), a proposition or opinion is probable if there are arguments in its favor that, although inconclusive, would be approved by an impartial judge. In this sense, a proposition or opinion has a probability that varies as our information increases. Accordingly, Nicolas begins with a conception that is accepted by his adversaries: The principle that the Good exists in our minds as a kind of measure for evaluating things. According to this, we may assume that the things in the universe are so arranged that whatever is good exists and whatever is bad does not exist. Since there is no way of demonstrating that things exist in a certain arrangement, we are obliged to depend on the principle of the Good in order to determine what is probably the case. Following this principle we can suppose that (1) all things in the universe are mutually connected so that one thing exists for the sake of another (like Aristotle's view that all things are ordered to one ultimate end, that is, God; cf. Aristotle, Metaphysics 1075a15ff.); (2) there is systematic subordination of all things to a single end so that nothing exists that does not somehow contribute to the good of the entire universe; (3) the universe, so conceived, must be at all times equally perfect.


From the above, Nicolas concludes that any particular thing that now exists has always existed and will always exist. For whatever now exists, exists for the good of the whole, and because this whole is always and everywhere equally perfect, all its parts must always exist. Hence, on the principle of the Good, every ultimate entity in the universe is eternal.

The eternity of things is obviously incompatible with Aristotle's thought, in which the generation and corruption of substances and their accidents is an essential feature. Here Nicolas is content to show that all the Aristotelian arguments to prove the occurrence of generation, corruption, or other kinds of change are inconclusive. For example, we cannot prove conclusively that sensible qualities cease to exist. The only method of proving this is to argue that a quality ceases to exist because it no longer appears to us, and this is obviously inconclusive. Hence, Nicolas argues, the atomic theory in its most radical form is more plausible than Aristotle's nonatomistic theory of change. The appearance of change can be accounted for in terms of the aggregation and separation of atomic particles.

There is much of interest in the finer details of Nicolas's atomism, particularly in his defense of indivisible minima as the ultimate constituents of the continuum, his defense of the vacuum, and his theory of motion. But here he is by no means original. His theory of the nature of motion, for example, is taken over from William of Ockham, and his views about indivisibles owe much to other fourteenth-century Scholastics. Moreover, there are radical deficiencies in his views on these subjects. Nicolas also adopted the radical Ockhamist thesis that relations are reducible to their terms, so that there are no extracognitive referents to our relational concepts. The denial of extracognitive relations is mistaken, and this part of Nicolas's speculations suffers from this error.

The Exigit also develops a theory of knowledge in terms of which whatever appears to be the case is the case, that is, that the objects of cognition are all in some way real. Nicolas also develops a positive theory of causation, and there is a related theory of eternal recurrence. Whether he derived this from Stoic sources is not clear.

Influence and Importance

The skeptical and critical views, as well as Nicolas's probabilistic defense of atomism, produced some responses among his contemporaries and successors. Albert of Saxony, Jean Buridan, and others replied to his critical views on causation and substance, and Thomas of Strasbourg discussed his atomism. Many references to his views on the nature of propositions occur in later fourteenth-century theologians. Moreover, although Nicolas's views were formally condemned by the Curia in 1346, at the end of the century Cardinal Pierre d'Ailly not only adopted many of these views but also wrote that "many things were condemned against [Nicolas] because of envy which were later publicly stated in the schools."

The importance of Nicolas of Autrecourt in the history of thought can best be summarized as follows: He was a radical representative of an increasing tendency in fourteenth-century thought to reject the idea that any of the principles of natural theology admit of demonstration, and he thus contributed to the decline of the authority of Aristotle. Although some of his reflections are both important and valid, they seem not to have had any direct effect on the development of philosophy in early modern times. From one point of view, he and some of his contemporaries achieved a clarity about the nature of beliefs in causation and substance that was neither equaled nor surpassed until the eighteenth century in the writings of Hume.

See also Ailly, Pierre d'; Albert of Saxony; al-Ghazālī, Muhammad; Aristotelianism; Aristotle; Atomism; Averroes; Buridan, John; Henry of Harclay; Holkot, Robert; Hume, David; John of Mirecourt; Medieval Philosophy; William of Ockham.


Editions of Nicolas of Autrecourt's writings are found in J. Lappe's "Nicolaus von Autrecourt," in Beiträge zur Geschichte der Philosophie des Mittelalters 6 (2) (Münster, 1908), and J. Reginald O'Donnell's "Nicholas of Autrecourt," in Medieval Studies 1 (1939): 179280, which contains an edition of the Exigit.

A study of Nicolas's work is found in Lappe's article. Other studies have been made by P. Vignaux, "Nicolas d'Autrecourt," in Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, Vol. XI (Paris, 1931); J. Reginald O'Donnell, "The Philosophy of Nicholas of Autrecourt and His Appraisal of Aristotle," in Medieval Studies 4 (1942): 97125; J. R. Weinberg, Nicolaus of Autrecourt (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press for University of Cincinnati, 1948); Mario del Pra, Nicola di Autrecourt (Milan: Fratelli Bocca, 1951); and V. Zoubov, "Nicolas iz Otrekura i Drevnegrecheskie Atomisti," in Trudi Instituta Istorii Estestvoznaniia i Tekhniki (SSSR Akademiia Nauk) 10 (1956): 338383.

Julius R. Weinberg (1967)

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Nicolas of Autrecourt (c. 1300–after 1350)

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