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

174. Abelard's Phllosophy. -- Between philosophy and theology Abelard established a system of theoretical relations, scholastic in its spirit. Man cannot demonstrate (comprehendere) mysteries, nor obtain that experimental knowledge of them which he has about the things around him (cognoscere seu manifestare). At most he can reach an approximate knowledge of them by images and analogies (intelligere seu credere).{1}

But no sooner had he laid down these principles than he erred in applying them: The existence of the Blessed Trinity is accessible to reason. The Greeks, he observed, had intuitions about the Blessed Trinity, as we know from the Platonic teaching about God, the nous and the world-soul (Neo-Platonic influence); and he himself fell into Sabellian views which led to his condemnation.

Abelard did much to secure the general recognition of an autonomous value for philosophy; much that survived his errors and excesses. Many were induced by his influence to advocate the cultivation of philosophy for its own sake, without at the same time committing themselves to his rationalism.

To Abelard rightly belongs the honour of inaugurating a didactic method which had been tentatively broached by various authors in the early years of the twelfth century{2} and which was destined to meet with a remarkable measure of success in scholasticism. In the Sic et Non he gathered together, for the help of beginners (teneres lectores), various texts from the Fathers, relating to a given question and embodying divergent views about the latter. It was an exposition of the pros and cons, drawn from authority.{3} Abelard undertook a similar task in his Dialectica, laying this time profane as well as sacred authors under contribution. But he confines himself to the mere exposition of both sides of each question, without making any attempt at a systematic solution of the questions themselves. The method was adopted by the summists and canonists of the twelfth century, and was perfected by Alexander of Hales.{4}

In metaphysics Abelard gathered up and transmitted the main principles embodied in the teachings of Boëthius; he accepted the theory of the world-soul and gave currency to an erroneous interpretation of the theory of matter and form. But it was to the Universals problem that he devoted his most earnest and prolonged attention. By the natural bent of his disposition he was a demolisher of systems. He criticized the doubts and hesitations of Roscelin who would not dare to locate the objects of our universal concepts in individual things: and on the other hand he dealt the finishing blow to extreme realism by the ridicule he heaped on the theories of William of Champeaux (165). His bold assertions and criticisms arrested the attention of contemporary scholastics, while he exposed the latent vices of the realist formulas and showed how they led logically to pantheism. And now for Abelard's own doctrine on the Universals question. Not only does he insist on the fact that the individual being alone has substantial existence, but he explicitly teaches that we possess abstract and universal concepts: by abstraction we represent to ourselves elements common to different things and conceive these elements as distributively realizable in an indefinite multitude of individuals of the same species.{5} Hence Abelard is not a nominalist. Is he a conceptualist? According to some he is. But does he really regard the universal concept as a mere subjective form of the mind, having no correspondence with any external reality (136)? His writings contain no evidence of any such restriction. Nay, on the contrary, Abelard teaches that the universal exists in the individual, for he holds that it exists there alone.{6} Had he justified more explicitly the real validity of concepts when he had established their ideal validity; had he shown that the similarity of individual essences is the basis, the foundation of the process of universalization; he would have won for himself the honour of reaching Aristotle's own solution of the problem proposed by Porphyry. Abelard had grasped the right solution of it in his own thought; his theory marks a decided step in the direction of Thomism; of him and his supporters John of Salisbury was justified in saying: "Amici mei sunt".{7} His immediate successors had only to give clearer expression to Abelard's thought in order to dissipate the apparent antinomy between the individual of the sense-world and the universal of the understanding.

In a secondary, indirect way, Abelard is a psychologist and a moralist. He fixed the attention of his contemporaries on the soul, its power of abstraction and its function in the genesis of knowledge. His moral teaching is propounded in the traditional theological framework; but there are signs of a tendency towards purely rational solutions in the Scito Te Ipsum, with its constant reference of ethical problems to the bar of individual consciousness: a notion that holds a central place in his ethical system. He showed a predilection for studies on sin, freedom and grace.

Abelard's influence on scholasticism was profound; he may be regarded as the originator of new and fruitful lines of thought and speculation. John of Salisbury writes of him: "Peripateticus Palatinus . . . multos reliquit, et adhuc quidem aliquos habet professionis hujus sectatores et testes". Gilbert de la Porrée was among those influenced by his metaphysics.

{1} Terminology established by KAISER. Cf. HEITZ, op. cit.

{2} Notably by Adelard of Bath. Cf. WILLNER, op. cit., p. 40.

{3} Prosper of Aquitaine and Tajus, a Spaniard (seventh century), had already made collections of texts from the Fathers, but not of contradictory views.

{4} M. Picavet calls this the scholastic method; Endres more properly the scholastic Lehrmethode. It is evidently a method of teaching, and not the only one (209).

{5} See texts in DE REMUSAT, Abélard, i., p. 495.

{6} "Neque enim substantia specierum diversa est ab essentia individuorum, nec res ita sicut vocabula diversas esse contingit. . . . Cum videlicet nec ipsae species habeant nisi per individua subsistere, etc." (Dialect., p. 204 in the Ouvr. inéd. d'Abélard).

{7} Metal., ii., 17.

<< ======= >>