Today marks the beginning of another series of lectures from the Great Courses catalog. This time we will be tackling Reason & Faith: Philosophy in the Middle Ages as narrated by professor Thomas Williams. The course focuses on how religious minds of the medieval period reacted to and contributed toward an understanding of philosophy as a means of understanding the world. Forming the whole of twenty-four (24) lectures, if you have difficulty in discerning what set of notes is associated with each lecture series, since I have multiple lecture notes all headed under the ‘Notes’ label, please also take note of each post’s accompanying labels in which I have the name of the course as a label.
After a brief introduction to why prof. Williams decided to specialize in medieval philosophy, he moves onto describing several different modus operand for medieval philosophers; his first point is the Constructive use of philosophy: medieval thinkers would use this form of reasoning when attempting to build proofs for the nature of God, argue for the immortality of the soul, or in any defense of Christian precepts—this often was based on Aristotelian constructions on physicality and presence; the second way medieval philosophers used philosophic reasoning Williams calls the ‘Taxonomic’ use of philosophy: here, this involved using philosophic doctrines about the scope and nature of human knowledge to distinguish between Christian doctrines which can be distinguished by reason alone and those which can be known only by faith; the third philosophic usage was the ‘Defensive’ use, which, of course, focused on defending Christian beliefs against secular objections but also attempts to prove aspects of Christian dogma as self-contradictory.
Christian thinkers during the Middle Ages were keenly aware of any and all difficulties in reconciling religion with reason but, as Williams remarks, they didn’t find refuge in claims of divine mystery and the unknowability of God; rather, they set out to methodically and pensively reconcile the human condition with their articles of faith. To this end, they even were not afraid to associate with pagan and non-Christian material, re-appropriating it for use in Christian providence.
Medieval philosophy, however, was hardly monolithic. Over the thousand-year period which comprises the medieval period, it would change and be practiced by varying hands in a multitude of ways. Some of these changes are, but not limited to: Plato dominating over Aristotle, the desire to construct grand visions of reality as a whole, the favoring of highly technical solutions to narrowly defined problems.
In terms of the course’s focus, the emphasizes will be on Christian doctrines as, although there was important work being done in the Islamic and Jewish traditions, each developed in a parallel fashion, so it is hard to do a comparative analysis. Professor Williams, focusing on European philosophy proper, decides as such to focus on Christianity due to its predominance in the European heartland.
To this end, Saint Augustine illustrates a number of features of early medieval philosophy. Heavily influenced by Platonism, which was the dominant philosophic outlook in his lifetime and well into the 12th century, Augustine would have, likely, considered the Reason part of ‘reason and faith’ to mean Platonism. Augustine took from Platonism a general outlook; he was concerned more with elaborating a vision than articulating exact reasons in support of a thesis (a typical approach of early medieval philosophy). About a century later, Boethius, would operate in much of the same tradition, though technically minded and providing more argumentative support for Augustinian theses. After Boethius’s death in 525 or 526, there was little philosophic thought for a long while as the main intellectual push then was in the writing of history and theology. When philosophy made a comeback in the 11th century, there was a shift away from the holistic, visionary articulation of philosophy to the formulation of developing careful argument: logic, in other words, would come to predominate how to protect Christian doctrine. Ansem, who defended Augustinian views, used a series of concise and careful arguments, wholly different from Augustinian him self’s preferred mode of thought.
During the 12th century, Peter Abelard conceived a project of reformulating Christian doctrine in a rationally coherent way. In the late 12th and early 13th centuries, the focus on careful argument received another boost with the introduction of Aristotle’s complete works. In the late 14th century, the Aristotelian tradition would lose its predominance: some returned to Platonism, quasi-mystical formulations, or rejected the idea that philosophic argument, by itself, could establish much of anything. The unified conversation was broken up.