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Plato and Aristotle played key roles in the development of medieval scholasticism. The scholastics sought to understand how the intellectual heritage of Plato and Aristotle could be reconciled with Christian teachings. Much emphasis was placed on rote learning. To be well versed in science, religion, and academia depended largely on recall of scholastic “facts” and the capacity to reason about them using syllogisms.


The French mathematician, natural scientist, and philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) became concerned with the scholastic view of knowledge based on tradition and authority. He found it unacceptable, and he was not alone. In the time of Descartes, science was reborn with figures such as Nicolaus Copernicus (14731543), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), and Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), who made important discoveries in astronomy. These discoveries threatened the scholastic world picture and scholastic claims to knowledge. Some intellectuals became radical skeptics. Not only did they reject scholastic knowledge claims, but they also questioned whether knowledge could be had at all.

Descartes thought knowledge was attainable if religion left the new sciences alone. The conflict between science and religion had to be resolved. Aristotle had spent his life seeking knowledge in a wide variety of disciplines, but he too could be questioned. The scholastics were impressed by Aristotelian logic. It allowed them to reason in rule-governed ways. Aristotelian logic, however, was largely applied to reasoning with known scholastic “facts” and to support the idea that Aristotelean final causes fit with God’s plan for the universe.

A new logic—a new method—was needed that would allow for building of scientific knowledge. Descartes would concentrate on how things happen in nature without concern for final causes, because he could not understand God’s plan for the universe with sufficient certainty.

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