Scholastic Philosophy

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The system of philosophical thought traditionally taught within the Christian schools. This article treats of the notion of scholastic philosophy, various misconceptions concerning it, and the manuals and schools in which it is taught.

Notion. Scholastic philosophy is characterized by its emphasis on system. It is a synthesis that attempts to organize all the questions philosophy asks and to present the answers in a strictly logical format. This systematization most frequently uses the Aristotelian concept of science (scientia ) as its internal principle of organization. The scholastic philosopher attempts to explain things in terms of their causes with the aid of definition, division, and demonstration.

The content of scholastic philosophy comprises several sciences: logic, philosophy of nature (including psychology), ethics, and metaphysics (a part of which is natural theology). It explains human knowledge by a system of moderate realism, teaching that outside the mind there exist real things possessing a common nature to which man's universal ideas correspond. All knowledge begins with sense data, but the intellectual knowledge developed from such data differs essentially from simple sense knowledge. This doctrine separates scholastic philosophy from most modern and contemporary philosophies.

Perhaps the most striking characteristic of scholastic philosophy is its methodbasically the logic of aristotle as augmented and refined by later scholastic philosophers. The method, when abused, results in a rigid formalism, insisting upon the mechanics of science rather than on an intellectual grasp of reality. Properly used as a technique of organization for either teaching or research, scholastic method has often produced splendid results. (see scholastic method.)

Misconceptions. The popular misconceptions about scholastic philosophy have arisen out of its character as the philosophy of the Christian schools. In common usage "scholastic philosophy" connotes an arid verbalism, a closed system of thought perpetuated by rote memorization. Yet the technical vocabulary of scholastic philosophy is a necessary instrument of its precision. Behind this abstract terminology lies an intense effort to gain insight into the nature of reality by induction from the facts of experience. While the system is traditional, it is subject to constant criticism and reevaluation, and is open to new development in all directions.

Scholastic philosophy has been identified with medieval philosophy. This is warranted only in the sense that it reached maturity during the 13th century, when the great scholastic syntheses were achieved. But the philosophical origins of scholastic philosophy go back to Plato, Aristotle, the Neoplatonists, and St. Augustine, as well as to Arabian and Jewish thinkers. Scholastic philosophy has been continually developed since the Middle Ages, even within Protestant circles, though it has generally suffered from the isolation of Catholic thought since the Reformation. In fact, scholastic philosophy claims to represent the tradition of Western philosophy, preserving what is best in every age.

Confusion of scholastic philosophy and Catholic theology has resulted in the recurring criticism that scholastic philosophy uses authority as its first criterion and is no more than a method for rationalizing predetermined conclusions dictated by ecclesiastical authority. Such is not the spirit, at least, of scholastic philosophy. Its basic commitment is to the facts of reality, objectively observed. Its attitude is that, in philosophy, reason must be convinced by evidence. This is expressed in St. Thomas Aquinas's famous dictum that, in philosophy, authority is the weakest of arguments.

Since the Reformation, scholastic philosophy has flourished mostly in Catholic seminaries, where emphasis has been on the philosophical notions necessary for scientific theology, giving a pragmatic cast to scholastic philosophy and obscuring its proper function of exploring the concrete realities of the universe. The tendency to separate scholastic philosophy clearly from theology, and to respect it as an autonomous discipline, is growing.

Manuals and Schools. Any system of philosophy taught in schools produces capsule formulations of its entire doctrine for the use of students. Such are the scholastic manuals, which have, like all manuals, the advantage of conciseness and the disadvantage that the student may study words and not realities. Intended to cover a vast amount of material economically, manuals condense the matter into little more than a logical outline. Moreover, if the authors use similar books as their sources, the result is a condensation of other condensations. For the student to acquire true philosophical insights from such an arid presentation requires a teacher of genius. Nonetheless, if readings in original source materials are introduced into the course in scholastic philosophy, manuals can provide a framework for the organization of the student's knowledge.

Various schools of thought have grown up within scholastic philosophy. Although these share many common doctrines and methods, they differ somewhat in content (see thomism; scotism; suarezianism; augustinianism; ockhamism). For the history of scholastic philosophy, see scholasticism.

See Also: christian philosophy.

Bibliography: Manuals. r. p. phillips, Modern Thomistic Philosophy, 2 v. (New York 193435). h. grenier, Thomistic Philosophy, tr. j. p. o'hanley, 3 v. (Charlottetown, Canada 194849). d. j. mercier, A Manual of Modern Scholastic Philosophy, tr. t. l. and s. a. parker, 2 v. (St. Louis 1928). Literature. j. collins, "The Problem of the Philosophia Perennis," Thought 28 (195354) 571597. j. f. anderson, "Is Scholastic Philosophy Philosophical?" Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 10 (194950) 251259; g. w. cunningham's reply, ibid. 260261; remarks, 262. g. f. mclean, ed., Teaching Thomism Today (Washington 1964). American Catholic Philosophical Association. Proceedings of the Annual Meeting 32 (1958); 30 (1956); 12 (1936).

[w. h. crilly]

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Scholastic Philosophy

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Scholastic Philosophy