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Crisis of Conflicting Worldviews and Duns Scotus

Beginning from the mid-twelfth century, a new scientific approach to reality came into vogue in the Latin world. It was spurred by the rediscovery of Aristotle’s major works, especially his Physics, Metaphysics, Ethics, and the full corpus of his logical writings translated from Arabic and transmitted by his commentators and interpreters, signally Avicenna, Alfarabi, and Averroes. This Aristotelian scientific outlook was integrated into the purview of the philosophical culture that was current in Western Europe. The work of Albert the Great, followed up by Thomas Aquinas, among others, aimed at forging this synthesis, which took place especially at the universities of Paris, Oxford, and Cologne, where a wider range of subjects was brought into mutual interaction under the roof of the faculty of the arts (artes) alongside that of theology. This structure differed significantly from the situation that prevailed at universities based on specialization in jurisprudence (Bologna) or medicine (Scuola Medica Salernitana). Ludger Honnefelder maintains that this accentuated interdisciplinarity fostered new methods of thinking in which different sciences and their diverse methods were allowed to coexist and interact rather than being strictly confined and regulated by a unitary conception of knowing in which theology, statically conceived, was at the top of the hierarchy.

An enormous upheaval was provoked by the new wave of secular science convoyed by Aristotle’s works coming into circulation—in spite of a 1230 interdiction against using them as textbooks. This sea change was the original arena of confrontation between a (Greek-Arabic) scientific worldview based on observation and logical deduction versus a knowledge grounded in (Judeo-Christian) revelation and the authority of theological doctrine derived from a canonical book (the Bible) and promulgated through an ecclesiastical magisterium.

During the Patristic period, theology had been proclaimed as the “true philosophy” by Christian authors from Justin Martyr through Clement


Ludger Honnefelder, Woher kommen wir? Ursprünge der Moderne im Denken des Mittelalters (Berlin: Berlin University Press, 2008).

of Alexandria and Origen to Augustine. This assertion of hegemony continued into the early Middle Ages. But with the rediscovery of Aristotle’s scientific works, the relation between philosophy and theology changed profoundly. The two approaches to the highest knowledge became mutually independent and able to challenge one another reciprocally. Aristotle exploited human reason as the appropriate means to know the causes and principles of things (Metaphysics I, 1-2). Rather than a single authoritative Word or discourse of revelation that knows all in one, a plurality of sciences in this new perspective was necessary for knowing differentiated fields of objects. Adumbrated here already is the tension between a religious appeal to an all-unifying Wisdom and the demands of specialized disciplinary knowledge.

Albertus Magnus, in extensive commentaries on Aristotle’s works, took over and developed the new model of a network of sciences operating each with their different methods. He deemed them to be compatible with still another, different type of science based on theology and revelation. Honnefelder characterizes this model as an encyclopedia of different disciplines rather than just an encyclopedia of contents brought under a unitary notion and structure of knowing such as was previously the aim and ideal of scholars in the Latin Middle Ages. Different approaches and methods were required to penetrate different kinds of reality, which could no longer be treated simply as a monolith. Thomas Aquinas pursued this line of thinking with ingenuity. Through articulation of their differences, he aimed to bring the two cultures—Christian revelation and secular science—into fruitful cross-pollination. Following the lead of his teacher Albert, Thomas refused to support either the banning of rational scientific inquiry by ecclesiastical authority or the attempt to keep the two paradigms of knowing separate so as to avoid all confrontation and even communication between them.

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