Dialectics in the Middle Ages

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From the patristic period to the end of the 12th century, dialectics was synonymous with logic and considered one of the liberal arts of the trivium. The central problem was the validity of using rational dialectics in the domain of divine revelation, a domain that can be entered only by supernatural faith. Certain ecclesiastical writers, such as tatian and tertullian, rejected dialectics as the father of heresy. Others, notably St. augustine, approved the use of dialectics in Christian doctrine as a means to a deeper appreciation of revelation and as a means of recognizing and refuting heresy (Ordine 2.3; Civ. 8.10). This controversy reached its peak in the 11th and 12th centuries. In the 11th century the tension was between dialecticians and grammarians in the Eucharistic controversy, and in the 12th century, between dialecticians and the monks in the Trinitarian controversies. By 1200 the legitimacy of using dialectics in theology was assured, thus opening the way to the full development of the scholastic method in quaestiones disputatae, quodlibetales, summae and commentaries, in which new scholastic syntheses were achieved. The excessive, futile use of dialectics, both in philosophy and in theology, finally led to its decline during the late period of medieval scholasticism.

Growth. Before the end of classical antiquity bo ethius had translated the major logical works of Aristotle, commented on several of them and composed logical treatises of his own. These works described a theory of reasoning, called logic that was included in early medieval education. cassiodorus and St. isidore of seville transmitted the essentials of dialectics in their discussion of the seven liberal arts. In the Carolingian revival of learning, masters such as alcuin and rabanus maurus stressed the importance of both dialectics and grammar, even though their own works were devoid of originality. Both grammarians and dialecticians applied their art to theological questions. Thus gottschalk of orbais, a grammarian, successfully discussed problems of predestination and free will, while john scotus eriugena, the dialectician, was condemned for his refutation of Gottschalk. ratramnus of corbie, a dialectician, successfully criticized the views of Macarius Scotus in his De anima and De quantitate animae (see M. Manitius, Geschichte der lateinischen Literatur des Mittelalters, 1:414417). Despite Erigena's great genius, his De divisione naturae was not wholly conformable to orthodox teaching. The tentative efforts of these thinkers indicate the great difficulty of trying to give a rational explanation of the world. Toward the end of the tenth century, Gerbert, later sylvester ii, emphasized the importance of definition and classification in his De rationali et de ratione uti; this was a prelude to the development of dialectics in the 11th century.

Professional Dialecticians. In the 11th century professional dialecticians such as Anselm of Besata (Milan), known as the Peripatetic (fl. c. 1048) and berengarius of tours appeared, who were frequently imprudent in their application of dialectics to the doctrine of the Eucharist. Berengarius, believing the Eucharistic treatise of Ratramnus of Corbie to be the work of John Scotus Erigena, defended it with dialectical acumen against the doctrine of St. paschasius radbertus. Berengarius, insisting on the Augustinian distinction between sacramentum and res, declared that the external, visible sacrament of the altar is not the real Body and Blood of Christ, but only a symbol. lanfranc the grammarian, refusing to limit the meaning of the word sacrament to the external, visible materials, reproached Berengarius for denying the Real Presence of the true Body and Blood of Christ: "By seeking refuge in dialectics you have abandoned the holy writers." Berengarius's view, as understood by his contemporaries, was condemned by many synods between 1050 and his formal profession of faith at the Council of Rome in 1059 (Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 690).

The case of Berengarius was only one example of the use of dialectics in the 11th century. But the numerous condemnations of his Eucharistic doctrine gave strength to vociferous antidialecticians, who feared the use of dialectics in matters of faith. St. peter damian violently opposed the use of dialectics in the sacred sciences, as did manegold of lautenbach and gerard of csanÁd, who insisted that "philosophy is only the handmaid of theology."

Early Scholasticism. At the Abbey of Bec, Lanfranc's disciple, St. anselm of canterbury, achieved the first successful synthesis of dialectics and faith: "I do not seek to understand in order to believe, but I believe in order to understand" (Proslog. 1.227). The spirit motivating Anselm's dialectics is aptly expressed in the rule, fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding). Although Anselm refused to subordinate, as some dialecticians had done, Holy Scripture to dialectics, he took sides against the adversaries of dialectics, insisting on the need to strive toward rational understanding of what one believes. For this reason Anselm tried to find "necessary reasons" within faith for the truths of belief. He opened the way to a fruitful collaboration between faith and rational investigation.

Pure dialectics and applied dialectics were cultivated to an intense degree by the scholares, or schoolmen, of the early 12th century (see scholasticism, 1). Already St. ivo of chartres had collected the legislative texts of the Church and used dialectics to harmonize divergent provisions of the law (see ivo of chartres, collection of). At the cathedral school of Laon, the first collections of sentences were made by Anselm, Ralph and their students (see sentences and summae). These orderly, systematic collections of reconciled patristic texts were accomplished by the careful use of dialectics, defining terms, distinguishing aspects and reasoning from sound principles. The use of dialectics in the cathedral schools of the early 12th century initiated the scholastic meth od. This use of dialectics, however, did not displace the Bible, the Fathers of the Church, or the humanities. The schools of the 12th century, despite certain excesses, tried to cultivate a harmony between dialectics and Christian humanism.

Between 1115 and 1140 Peter abelard made a strong effort to increase the role of dialectics in its pure form of scientific logic and in its applied form in theology (see logic, history of; universals). He firmly believed in the ability of reason to clarify even the profoundest mysteries of faith. The list of pro and con texts dealing with 158 theological problems, which were collected by Abelard and his school in Sic et non, indicates the kind of problem commonly discussed by the dialecticians. Abelard's boldness in applying dialectics to the Trinity aroused the hostility of St. bernard of clairvaux, wil liam of saint-thierry and other Cistercians against dialectics and scholasticism: "God cannot be imprisoned in a syllogism." Although Abelard was condemned in 1121 and in 1140 for his misuse of dialectics in Trinitarian doctrine, and although gilbert de la porrÉe, Bishop of Poitiers, was condemned in 1147 for a similar misuse, dialectics became an essential feature in scholastic education. gratian used it in the compilation of the Decretum (before 1140); peter lombard used it to compile his Sentences (c. 1150); peter of poitiers used it in his commentaries and Peter Helias used it in grammar in the second half of the 12th century. The use of dialectics in theology was still opposed by gerhoh of reichersberg, so that in 1164 Alexander III forbade "all figures of speech and inordinate questions (indisciplinatas ) in theology." Although the Canons Regular of Saint-Victor had been founded early in the century to bridge the chasm that had developed between the scholares (schoolmen) and claustrales (monks), walter of saint-victor asserted (c. 1170) that every dialectician was a heretic. Nevertheless, the schools of Paris flourished under ste phen langton, peter cantor, simon of tournai and philip the chancellor, who not only studied dialectics, but developed the scholastic commentaries and the scholastic disputation.

Maturity. Dialectics, in the sense of logic, reached its full maturity in the 13th century. Although the new books of Aristotle's logic (logica nova ) and Arabic treatises and commentaries in logic were translated by the end of the 12th century, time was needed to assimilate the new learning. With the new learning came the distinction between logic in the broad sense of the entire Organon of aristotle and dialectics in the narrow sense of tentative and probable reasoning. The new Aristotelian books, particularly the Posterior Analytics, helped the schoolmen understand the meaning of science (scientia ) as the knowledge of a stated truth through principles that are demonstratively causes of that stated truth. The schoolmen could then distinguish between demonstrative (scientific) reasoning, probable (dialectical) reasoning, and sophistical (false) reasoning. The schoolmen of the 13th century, although desirous of true demonstrations, did not underestimate the value of dialectical arguments. But, for them, it was important to distinguish between the two.

Scholastic Disputations. The new Aristotelian learning, culminating in the development of dialectics in the earlier period, contributed to the perfecting of scholastic quaestiones disputatae in medieval universities. In every faculty, masters were obliged to hold scholastic disputations on fixed days of the academic year. The rules of this technique were learned in the faculty of arts; the art was acquired in the same faculty through disputations de sophismatibus. In the lower faculty of arts it was important for the student to recognize false or sophistical arguments and to distinguish logical terms in proper form. The rigid form of scholastic disputations prevented the one objecting (obiiciens ) from straying afield and forced the one responding (respondens ) to answer to the point. This dialectic between student objectors and a bachelor respondent was resolved by the determination of the master who presided over the disputation. Under the stimulus of scholastic disputations, the art of dialectics reached a new high, unparalleled in history. The schoolmen of the 13th century did not dispute for the sake of disputing, but for the sake of reaching truths with certitude. By the middle of the century, courageous masters in theology were willing to hold special disputations, during Advent and Lent, called de quolibet. In these, anyone could pose any question for discussion by the group; the master was bound to respond to difficulties and to resolve the problem.

Scholastic Summae and Commentaries. The form of the disputation was so much a part of scholastic education that when the great commentaries and summae were written in the 13th century, they naturally took the form of dialectical debate. An outstanding example of this is the Summa theologiae of St. thomas aquinas, each article of which is like a finished version of a disputed question. However, not every question is resolved by a demonstration in the Aristotelian sense; many questions are resolved dialectically, in the strict sense of the term. This is also true of the great commentaries on the Sentences, such as those by St. Thomas Aquinas, St. bonaventure, richard fishacre, St. albert the great and richard of middleton. In the Summa contra gentiles, St. Thomas presented one argument after the other in proof of a Catholic truth without designating those that are demonstrative and those that are only persuasive, or dialectical.

Thus, by the end of the 13th century, the word dialectics was used in three senses: (1) the use of reason to investigate even revealed truths; (2) the logical art of disputing questions in all faculties of the university; and (3) the restricted sense of a probable, or persuasive, argument.

Decline. Some historians consider the decay of dialectics to begin with John duns scotus or, at least, with william of ockham. Others, considering Scotus and Ockham as belonging to the full bloom of scholastic dialectics, believe that the decline should be dated after 1350. Actually, the decline of scholasticism was a result of many factors, of which the subtleties of Scotus and the nominalism of Ockham are only symptomatic. By 1300 dialectics in the Middle Ages had lost its Biblical, patristic and humanist moorings. Scholastics, preferring to dispute subtle questions rather than to comment on the Bible, made dialectics an end in itself, divorced even from patristic sources. Neither Scotus nor Ockham wrote commentaries on Scripture. Secular masters in particular were conspicuous for their reluctance to comment on Scripture, preferring instead the subtleties of dialectics. This is evident both from the dearth of such commentaries by seculars and from the controversy between the University of Oxford and the Dominicans in the early 14th century. Most important of all was the influence of the calculationes, or "letter calculus," that developed in the faculty of arts at Oxford. The enthusiasm of philosophers and sophistae for the calculationes was normal, even though humanists, such as Giovanni Pico and Luis vives, were horrified. Before the middle of the century, however, the calculationes were freely employed in commentaries on the Sentences.

The arid sterility of such dialectics ultimately provoked two reactions, namely, the humanist revival in philosophy and the Biblical and patristic revival in theology. It was largely responsible also for the preference of rhet oric over dialectics as a pedagogical method among the followers of Peter ramus.

See Also: dialectics; faith and reason; methodology (philosophy).

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[p. michaud-quantin/

j. a. weisheipl]