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

404. Nicholas of Autrecourt. -- This restless and erratic philosopher was the soul of the anti-scholastic movement at Paris about the middle of the fourteenth century. In 1340, when he was master of arts and had not yet got beyond bachelorship in theology, he was summoned, with six other students of theology,{1} by Pope Benedict XII., before the Roman tribunal, to answer for several doctrinal errors. He was the only one of the crowd severely censured: a fact which points to the leading part he must have taken in fomenting the agitation. Only six years afterwards the Curia condemned a collection of propositions from his teaching, deprived him of his mastership in arts and vetoed his promotion to degrees in theology. This condemnation was prior to the May of 1346, and it was on the 20th of this month that Clement VI. sent to the University of Paris the letter already referred to (380). Nicholas retracted in 1347.{2}

We learn from the condemnations that Nicholas wrote nine letters to one of his opponents, BERNARD OF AREZZO, and a pamphlet of which we know only the opening words: Exigit ordo executionis. Among the propositions examined at the Roman court there are many which show clearly that their presumptuous author wanted to impose them on the University. He gave it to be understood that he was inspired by God and had a mission to regenerate science.{3} The sophistical tactics of the Ockamist logician are plainly manifest in the manner of his discussion with his adversary. He himself describes the method adopted, in one of the documents of his trial: "When master Bernard and myself," he says, "engaged in a discussion, we agreed on a universally accepted first principle which was to serve as a guide to us in the interchange of our arguments, namely, the principle of contradiction, formulated by Aristotle in Book IV. of the Metaphysics".{4} Presupposing this, Nicholas proceeded to advance, by the aid of abundant dialectic quibbling, a long series of anti-scholastic theories. We find these jumbled together pell-mell in the documents relating to his condemnation, but we can piece together the logical chain that connects a number of them, from a reply made to the first two letters of Nicholas.{5} He was answered not by Bernard -- who does not seem to have been strong in philosophy -- but by a certain master named Giles. The reasoning of Nicholas seems to have run in this wise: Since the principle of contradiction is the only principle that is certain and evident in itself, no truth can be certain unless it can be reduced to this primordial dictate of the mind. Certitude can have no degrees: it either exists or does not exist.{6} But in order that a truth be capable of reduction to the principle of contradiction, the antecedent and consequent, or, in ultimate analysis, the subject and predicate, of the certain proposition embodying it, must be identical. This consideration Nicholas pushed so far as to grasp the intellect in the vice of subjectivism: declaring it unlawful to pass from the knowledge of one thing to the knowledge of another thing, under the pretext that the thing which is ex hypothesi another cannot be identical with itself, and that, therefore, the judgment which attributes a predicate to a subject different from this predicate, cannot be reduced to the principle of contradiction.{7} Whence it follows that the principle of causality is worthless{8} and that the observation of our psychic acts does not warrant us in asserting the existence of faculties.{9} The existence of an external world, too, is indemonstrable:{10} to argue from the presence of phenomena to the presence of a permanent reality underlying them would be to infer one thing from another: a procedure condemned by logic.{11} From this he passes on to discount Aristotle, asserting boldly that there are barely a few things certain in all his philosophy.{12} Human knowledge, for Nicholas, is reduced to a small bundle of intuitive cognitions, sensible and intellectual, without any order or any bond of logical connection. He would make a clean sweep of the abstractions of Aristotle and Averroës and keep in close, direct contact with singular phenomena.{13}

This peculiar phenomenism, with its Ockamist reminiscences, is the most obvious element in the sophistical elaborations of Autrecourt. Elsewhere he shows, by other logical artifices, that it is practically the same to say: God exists, or, God does not exist;{14} that God and the creature "non sunt aliquid";{15} that the acts of the soul are eternal,{16} that all will attain in the end to the satisfaction of all their desires.{17} But perhaps those are mere whims or displays of dialectic prowess. What is more important to note is the fact that Nicholas denies substantial changes in Nature and explains the generation and corruption of things in accordance with the atomist theory by the agglutination and disintegration of atomic particles.{18} Finally, he is just as clearly anti-scholastic in his teaching about the Deity: a holy and inviolable necessity has obliged the Almighty to realize the order of the cosmos from all eternity;{19} and all activities in the universe are due to the immediate action of the First Cause. This latter point recalls the teaching of Bradwardine.{20} The applications of those principles to sin and to human conduct in general concern theology rather than philosophy.{21}


{2} Chartul., ii., p. 505.

{3} Ibid., pp. 581, 581.

{4} "Quando magister Bernardus predictus et ego debuissemus disputare, concordavimus ad invicem disputando conferre de primo consensu omnium principio, posito a philosopho IIIIo Metaphisice, quod est 'Impossibile est aliquid eidem rei inesse et non inesse,' loquendo de gradu evidentie qui est in lumine naturali strictissimus. Istis suppositis dixi in predictis epistolis, eo (sic) quod tales conclusiones nec implicite continebant contradictionem nec explicite." Later he reduces this first principle to the principle of identity: "Item, quod hoc est primum principium et non aliud si aliquid est, aliquid est". -- P. 583 (53).

{5} Published by HAURÉAU (op. cit., 407), p. 332.

{6} Chartul., ii., p. 576 (9).

{7} "Ex his infertis talem conclusionem: quod ex eo quod una res est cognita non potest evidenter, evidentia reductibili in certitudinem primi principii, inferri quod alia res sit" (HAURÉAU, op. cit., p. 333. Cf. Chartul., ii., p. 576 (5, 6, 7)).

{8} Chartul. , p. 576 (5); 577. "Hec consequentia: a est et prius non fuit, igitur alia res ab a est, non est evidens evidentia deducta ex primo principio." Cf. pp. 578 (29) and 580 (2). The argument is well developed by Giles, p. 334.

{9} "Iste consequentiae non sunt evidentes: actus intelligendi est; ergo intellectus est. Actus volendi est: igitur voluntas est" (p. 578 (30)).

{10} "Quod in lumine naturali intellectus viatoris non potest habere notitiam evidentie de existentia rerum, evidentia reducta seu reductibili ad evidentiam seu certitudinem primi principii" (p. 583).

{11} "Ex his conamini probare quod Aristoteles non habuit evidentem notitiam de aliqua substantia, et cet., quia de tali vel habuisset notitiam ante omnem discursum, quod non potest esse, quia non apparent intuitive et etiam rustici scirent tales substantias esse, nec per discursum, inferendo ex perceptis esse ante omnem discursum, nam probatum est quod ex una re non potest evidenter inferri alia. Item, demonstrato ligno vel lapide, arguitur sic: cum omnibus apparentibus ante omnem discursum, potest esse per aliquam potentiam, puta divinam, quod substantia non sit ibi, igitur in lumine naturali non infertur evidenter quod substantia sit ibi" (p. 333). Yet Nicholas admits the existence of the soul: "Item dixi epistola secunda ad Bernardum quod de substantia materiali alia ab anima nostra non habemus certitudinem evidentie" (Chartul., p. 577 (10)). His not very clear statement about Aristotle is examined by Giles, who sums up Nicholas's second letter before replying to it: "Aristoteles nunquam habuit notitiam evidentiae de aliqua substantia alia ab anima sua, intelligendo per substantiam quamdam rem aliam ab objectis quinque sensuum exteriorum, et a formalibus experientiis nostris" (p. 333).

{12} Chartul., p. 334.

{13} "Quod de rebus per apparentia naturalia nulla certitudo potest haberi; illa tamen modica potest in brevi haberi tempore, si homines convertunt intellectum suum ad res et non ad intellectum Aristotelis et commentatoris." -- P. 580 (1).

{14} "Item, quod propositiones: Deus est, Deus non est, penitus idem significant, licet alio modo." -- P. 580 (3). Cf. p. 578 (33): "Item dixi in quadam disputatione quod contradictoria ad invicem idem significant

{15} P. 578 (32). This thesis is expressly reproduced in the prohibition of 1340 by the Arts Faculty: "Item quod nullus asseret sine distinctione vel expositione quod Socrates et Plato, vel Deus et creatura nichil sunt" (Chartul., ii., p. 506).

{16} P. 582 (45) and (47).

{17} P. 583.

{18} P. 581 (37). "In rebus naturalibus non est nisi motus localis, scilicet congregationis et disgregationis, ita quod quando ad talem motum sequitur congregatio corporum athomalium naturalium, colliguntur ad invicem et sortiuntur naturam unius suppositi, dicitur generatio; quando segregantur, dicitur corruptio; et quando per motum localem athomalia sunt cum aliquo supposito, que fiunt talia, quod nec adventus illorum facere videtur ad motum suppositi vel ad id quod dicitur operatio naturalis ejus, tunc dicitur alteratio."

{19} Chartul., ii., p. 581 (39).

{20} Ibid., p. 577 (14).

{21} Chartul., p. 584 (58) and (59).

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