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Philosophy Then

Philosophy for the Young, Medieval Style

Peter Adamson on battles over the trivium and quadrivium.

Around the world, teenagers are taking philosophy classes. For instance, French students take a philosophy exam at the end of their secondary education, and in 2008, Federal law in Brazil made the discipline compulsory for high school students. Forward thinking though such measures may be, they are also quite literally medieval. The forerunners of today’s French students at the early University of Paris, as well as their contemporaries in cities such as Bologna and Oxford, studied the ‘liberal arts’. You might know that these arts included three linguistic disciplines – the trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic (logical discussion) – and four mathematical topics called the quadrivium, namely arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. But you’ll probably be surprised to learn how young students at these Universities were. The beginning scholars were all of fourteen years old.

Most of these kids had no intention of becoming philosophers. Many just wanted a basic education in literacy and numeracy which would allow them to find work as clerks. Those who stayed on for higher studies would specialize in law, medicine, or theology. Yet a lot of philosophical material was covered in the medieval university curriculum. The trivium involved studying logic, philosophy of language, and epistemology, because their textbook for dialectic was the Organon (‘Instrument’) of Aristotle – so called because the works he devoted to these subjects were together seen as the indispensable tool for pursuit of philosophy and the sciences. In these ‘logical’ works Aristotle covered a wide range of issues, including the nature of knowledge and the way that language captures the world.

Questions about language arose especially in the discipline of grammar. Here the basic goal was to get the young scholars reading and writing Latin; but at Paris a group of masters initiated the school of thought known as ‘speculative grammar’, which posited that the metaphysical structure of the world mirrors language: in other words, grammatical distinctions reflect ‘modes of being’ possessed by things in the world. A simple example might be that nouns pick out substances, and adjectives pick out accidental properties of those substances.

But it was dialectic, or logic, that most obviously led to philosophical reflection, albeit sometimes in surprising ways. In the fourteenth century a group at Oxford known as the Calculators began to model motion and other physical processes using mathematics. This was often in the context of writing about logic, because such models could be used to resolve paradoxical or sophistical arguments about change and motion (such as Zeno’s), and the schoolmen were deeply interested in paradoxes and sophisms, since the study of good argument technique among other things involved analyzing bad arguments to see where they have gone wrong. Logicians also devoted great energy to resolving the Liar Paradox: seen in a phrase like ‘What I am saying now is false’, which seems to be true if it is false and false if it is true. The art of avoiding self-contradiction reached its highest level of sophistication in a university activity called ‘Obligations’ – a question and answer game in which one player laid logical traps to trick the other into refuting himself.

The masters and their students did not restrict their attention to logic and language, though. A wide range of Aristotle’s works were taught, including his writings on ethics and, most contentiously, his natural philosophy. Contentious, because Aristotle embraced the thesis that the universe is eternal, which was an unacceptable doctrine for medieval Christians. Here the masters were in a bind. By profession they were exegetes of Aristotle, but their faith required them to assert that the universe was created in time. One solution was to admit that natural philosophy has intrinsic limits. Since, as the name implies, it considers only natural causes, it takes no account of the possibility of divine, supernatural causation, which is what was involved in the creation of the world.

It’s a clever solution, as it would allow the masters to continue teaching and studying Aristotle while admitting that his conclusions were provisional and could be revised from a theological standpoint. But that stance was anathema to the Aristotelian theologian Thomas Aquinas, who wanted a perfect fit between philosophy and theology. Aquinas therefore insisted that (following the Jewish thinker Maimonides) there are no decisive rational arguments either for or against the eternal existence of the universe.

When we remember how young and impressionable the students were, we may more easily understand the decision of church authorities in 1277 to condemn a range of doctrines being discussed at the University of Paris: it was akin to modern-day political influence being brought to bear on high school curricula. But the condemnation sought to eliminate even discussion of the condemned theses, never mind their endorsement. The fear was in part that these young students would not appreciate the subtle distinction between entertaining a notion found in Aristotle for the sake of interpretive work, and actually embracing dangerous Aristotelian teachings as true.

It’s pleasing to note that today’s French school system gives teenagers more credit. After all, the study of philosophy encourages an appreciation of exactly this sort of subtle distinction, and calls for flexibility of mind and a willingness to evaluate an opponent’s thesis fairly rather than insisting dogmatically on one’s own views. These habits of mind don’t seem to be in abundant supply among the adults of 2018. So maybe we should take our cue from the medievals and invest our hopes in the next generation, by giving them the chance to study philosophy.

And by the way, teaching them Latin wouldn’t hurt either.

© Prof. Peter Adamson 2018

Peter Adamson is the author of A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Vols 1, 2 & 3, available from OUP. They’re based on his popular History of Philosophy podcast.

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