ND   JMC : History of Medieval Philosophy / by Maurice De Wulf

145. Roscelin. -- ROSCELIN, a monk of Compiègne, flourished towards the end of the eleventh century. He had relations with St. Anselm, Lanfranc and Ives of Chartres. Summoned to a council at Soissons (1093) on a charge of Tritheism, he repudiated the doctrine imputed to him: but apparently only in order to escape excommunication, for he afterwards reasserted his earlier theories. We next find him successively in England, in Rome, and back again in France.

Roscelin's role in the history of medieval thought has been somewhat exaggerated owing to his being regarded as the first to propound the doctrine of Nominalism. His contemporary, Otto of Freising, says of him: "Qui primus nostris temporibus sententiam vocum instituit".{1} In reality he is less remarkable for his Nominalism in philosophy than for his Tritheism in theology (161).

A letter addressed to Abelard is the only writing of Roscelin we possess,{2} and we are obliged to judge of his teaching from a few scattered texts preserved in the works of St. Anselm, Abelard and John of Salisbury. Genera and species are only words, voces. So say the texts; but what does this mean?

One thing is certain: Roscelin figures in them as a demolisher of realism. That is his principal role: and it is a purely negative one. Hence he maintained, as St. Anselm tells us, that the colour of the horse does not exist independently of the horse that supports it; as such, it is not in the objective order, any more than wisdom exists as such outside the mind that is wise. These applications, criticized by St. Anselm (De Fide Trin., 2), show pretty clearly that Roscelin's main concern was to insist emphatically on the reality of the individual.{3}

Did he go farther than this? Did he take up the more extreme attitude commonly ascribed to him, of even denying to the intellect the power of forming universal representations, and of thus reducing the latter to mere sounds, mere breathings of the voice (flatus vocis, verba)? Let us bear in mind that, like all his contemporaries, Roscelin had his attention fixed on Porphyry's question, and that his language ought to be interpreted according to the exigencies of the problem in its proper historical setting. Unwilling to make things of the Universals, he makes a mental product of them. Between the two alternatives he sought no middle course, because Porphyry and Boëthius had indicated none. But what is the nature or value of the mental product called the universal? Does the Sententia Vocum of Roscelin mean to assert that those "words" themselves, in their common or universal form, had no universal conceptions corresponding to them? There is nothing in the sources to authorize our giving any such precise and complex interpretation to the Sententia Vocum; and everything inclines us to believe that the monk of Compiègne never troubled himself about the question. The expression Ars sophistica vocalis, found in certain eleventh-century documents, is only another name for the science of logic or dialectic and leaves the ontological problem of the Universals untouched. According to a very plausible explanation of Adlhoch,{4} Roscelin reduced the controversy to a question of philology or rather of elementary phonetics: voces and flatus vocis, or words in their universal forms, are mere emissions of sound, forms of letters and syllables. All Roscelin's texts assume a plausible meaning if we take him to understand by the universal what we nowadays call the universale in voce as distinct from the universale in mente and the universale in re. If we are to take Nominalism in the exact sense in which it is understood at the present day, the teaching of Roscelin is only pseudo-Nominalism.{5} Or rather, the medieval world understood the term in the negative and relative sense of anti-realism. And in this anti-realism there was nothing to be rejected by the moderate realism of the thirteenth century.

{1} We learn from an anonymous eleventh-century chronicle that Roscelin had for master and precursor a certain JOHN. This latter, identified by some with John Scotus Eriugena (v. Revue Thomiste, July, 1897, art, by MANDONNET), by others with JOHN THE DEAF, or JOHN THE PHYSICIAN, of Chartres, a disciple of Fulbert (CLERVAL, op. cit., pp. 122 sqq.), is a personage as yet practically unknown. The Liber Miraculorum Sancte Fidis, compiled about the beginning of the eleventh century by Bernard of Angers, mentions a certain Johannes Scottigena, a contemporary of the author, and whom it clearly distinguishes from Eriugena (v. Revue internat. enseignement, 1903, p. 193; Nos maitres, Un Jean Scot inconnu, by A. THOMAS).

{2} HAURÉAU connects the name of Roscelin with a recently discovered text, Sententia de Universalibus sec. mag. R. (Notices et extr., etc., Paris, 1892, v., p. 224) but this is a mere conjecture. Anyhow the text in question admits the ideal validity of Universals, and, therefore, the existence of universal concepts. (Cf. v., p. 326.)

{3} The example of the house, mentioned by Abelard, may be understood in the same sense. Roscelin employs it merely as an analogy to illustrate his teaching that species have no objective existence (Abelard, De Div is. et Defin., p. 471, Cousin's edition). As for the texts in John of Salisbury (Metalog., ii., p. 17, and Polycrat., vii., p. 12), they offer no explanation of the meaning of voces.

{4} ADLHOCH, Roscelin u. S. Anselm (Philos. Jahrh., Bd. xx., H. 4, 1907).

{5} "Vocalistischer Pseudo-Nominalist" (ADLHOCH, op. cit.).

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