Jacques Maritain Center : History of Philosophy / by William Turner


Roscelin to Alexander of Hales (1050-1200)

The Problem of Universals. In the Isagoge of Porphyry, translated by Boethius, which until the thirteenth century was the common text-book of logic in the schools, the following passage occurs:

Mox de generibus et speciebus, illud quidem sive subsistant, sive in solis nudis intellectibus posita sint, sive subsistentia corporalia sint an incorporalia, et utrum separata a sensibilihus an in sensibilibus posita et circa haec consistentia, dicere reeusabo: altissimum enim negotium est hujusmodi et majoris egens inquisitionis.{1}
This passage, which thrust the problem of universals on the philosophers of the Middle Ages, proposes three questions: (1) Do the universals (generic and specific concepts) exist in the world of reality, or are they merely things of the mind (nuda intellecta)? (2) If they do exist outside the mind, are they corporeal or incorporeal? (3) Do they exist in concrete sensible things or outside them? The dicere recusabo of Porphyry was a direct challenge to the schoolmen. Boethius in one of his commentaries had asserted the objective reality of universals, although in another commentary he had spoken as if he held that they are merely things of the mind.{2} The early schoolmen were, therefore, thrown upon their own resources. Not having yet developed an adequate system of psychology, they were obliged to be content with an imperfect, and what may be called a provisional, solution of Porphyry's questions. Little by little, however, the problem of universals suggested questions of psychology and metaphysics, so that while it is incorrect to represent all Scholastic philosophy as centering around the problem of universals, it is true that it was this problem that occasioned the growth from the primitive form of Scholasticism to the Scholasticism of the age of perfection, although there were, as we shall see, other factors which contributed to this development.

The answers to Porphyry's questions are generally classed under three heads: nominalism, conceptualism, and realism. Nominalism maintains that there is no universality either of concept or of objective reality, -- the only universality being that of the name. Conceptualism concedes the universality of the idea, but denies that there is a universality of things corresponding to the universality of the mental representation. Realism, in its exaggerated form, maintains that the universal as such exists outside the mind, -- in other words, that there are objective realities which, independently of our minds, possess universality; realism, in its moderate form, known as Aristotelian, or Thomistic, realism, while it grants that there is in things an objective, potentially universal reality, contends that the formal aspect of universality is conferred by the mind, and that consequently the universal in the full panoply of its universality exists in the mind alone, having, however, a fundamentum in re. The formula which came to be the recognized watchword of the nominalist and conceptualist is universalia post rem; the formula of exaggerated realism is universalia ante rem. Moderate realism, in the spirit of true synthesis, maintained universalia ante rem (the types of things existing in the mind of God), universalia post rem (concepts existing in the human mind), and universalia in re (the potentially universal essences existing in things).

In the first period of Scholastic philosophy Erigena and Fredegis advocated the exaggerated form of realism. The reason of this is not far to seek. The doctrine accorded with the pantheistic spirit of Erigena's philosophy; it offered the most obvious solution of certain dogmatic problems, such as that concerning the transmission of original sin; and its assumption of the perfect correspondence of mental representations with external things commended it to the uncritical spirit of an age of beginnings. It was for lack of a developed system of psychology that the age demanded a categorical answer to the question, Do universals exist outside the mind? When, therefore, Eric and others deny the objective existence of universals, they are to be classed not as nominalists or conceptualists, but merely as anti-realists, for, though they endeavor to find a positive answer to the question, How do universals exist? their solution of the problem is to be considered in its negative rather than in its positive aspect. Nominalism and conceptualism did not appear until the second period of Scholastic philosophy, and even then the treatment of the problem of universals was dialectical rather than psychological.{3}

It cannot be denied that some of the problems discussed by the later schoolmen were of a frivolous character; it is, however, a serious mistake to describe the problem of universals as a barren dispute, a controversy about over-refined subtleties. The denial of the universal means sensism, and leads incidentally to the denial of the abstractive power of the human mind. Moreover, the universal has its ethical as well as its psychological aspect, and the denial of the universal means ultimately the destruction of moral ideas and the subversion of the stability of moral principles. Consequently, the schoolmen are to be admired, not blamed, for attaching so much importance to the problem of universals. It is interesting to note that it was this problem that developed the Scholastic method, brought out the element of rationalism latent in Scholasticism, and led, as has been remarked, to the growth of Scholastic psychology and metaphysics.


Besides the anti-realists, Eric, Remi, etc., there were, before the days of Roscelin, dialecticians who opposed the prevailing spirit of realism. Du Boulay{4} mentions a certain "Joannes qui eamdem artem sophisticam vocalem esse disseruit." The authors of L'Histoire littéraire de la France speak of the same teacher as Joannes Sophista. Oudin and Kaulich believe that Du Boulay refers to Erigena. It is more probable that the Joannes referred to is John the Deaf, otherwise called John the Physician.

Herman, abbot of Tournai, writing in the first half of the twelfth century, says that in 1100 Raimbert of Lille and many others taught dialectic nominalistically. It is impossible that the school of Roscelin could have grown to such dimensions within half a century of its birth. Consequently, Roscelin must have had predecessors in the teaching of nominalism; he was not the founder of the system but rather its first great expounder and defender.

{1} Cf. Migne, Patr. Lat., Vol. LXIX, col. 82.

{2} Cf. Migne, Patr. Lat., loc. cit.; De Wulf, op. cit., p. 170.

{3} Cf. Arckiv f. Gesch. der Phil., Bd IX (1896), Heft 4.

{4} Historia Universitatis Parisiensis, I, 443.

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