The changes in philosophy from the 12th to 13th century was marked. No one could have predicted them.


In a large way, the 13th-century emphasis on philosophy was how one responded to, debated, and interacted with, the new and previously unavailable works of Aristotle. Up until the middle of the 12thcentury, after all, very few philosophical texts had made their way to the Latin West.


As little? Plato, just a small part of one dialog; the Platonism which had previously been used had been secondhand Platonism. Aristotle has it a bit better; thinkers had his categories, or his theory of terms and words along with his theory of proposition and statements. Then we have Boethius who, alongside his own Logic texts, translated many of Plato’s works into Latin, though these did not circulate very well. Taken together, these texts amount to what would become known as “the old logic”.


So, what is then this “new logic”? It is the collected corpus of Aristotle’s logical works (including the ‘Categories’ and ‘Theory of terms’): this is known as the Organon (Greek for “instrument”). Why it is named so it because according to Aristotle, logic was the tool in which one used in carrying out philosophical reasoning. But, there are some additional texts which make up the New Logic, these are: “Prior Analytics” where he explains the theory of the syllogism. In any case, this text did not make much of a fuss since the Latin West already had secondhand sources on the syllogism. Then we have the “Posterior Analytics”, where Aristotle presents his theory of scientific demonstration; this, though, is better described as what is described in the modern sense of epistemology, or, what makes a thing justified or true. This text as well did not make waves since it was so new that people had no clue what to do with it. It would never gain traction, though, except with the hardcore Aristotelian types. Finally, we have “The Sophistical Refutations”, the work in which Abelard had seen in his lifetime. Here in this text was a hodgepodge of logical mistakes one could make in arguing; the medieval Latin West loved it since it gave them something to systematize.


From this love of systematizing spawned a whole “cottage industry” concerning Aristotle. The study of language and logic thus informed much of the middle ages in terms of critical thinking. Plato is interested in what is important whereas Aristotle was interested in everything; Plato is dramatic and mildly mystical whereas Aristotle is earthly and realistic. To the medieval mind excited by encyclopedic knowledge, Aristotle’s everything-oriented logic was enthralling.


Three of these texts were translated in Abelard’s lifetime by a man named James of Venice (who lived in Constantinople). This was the first wave. The next wave brings the remainder of Aristotle’s works: scientific, ethical, political, and metaphysical. Along with this second wave came extensive commentary by Muslim thinkers; since these Muslim philosophers were divided into Platonists and Aristotelian, the Platonists had their say first in the West.


At the same time as this recovery of Aristotle, the first universities were beginning in the West. The specific shape/function of these universities would determine how Aristotle gets assimilated.


At this time, the monastic schools were waning but the cathedral schools remained strong. Because of the strength of the cathedral schools, some of which even invited international students to study, eventually developed into the first universities. What distinguished the universities from other kinds of schools was that a university had a charter, an official document from the church or the king which granted it this status along with some basic statutes or instructions by which it was governed.


The most prestigious university in the 13th century was the University of Paris, which got its charter in 1215 (though the statutes were in existence years before). Universities were divided into “Faculties” or today what we would call “departments” or “colleges”. Initially, students would enter as participants in the Arts faculty. Entering at 14 or 15, students would spend about six years training here before they became a bachelor, hence, the Bachelor of Arts degree today. This was essentially a low-level teaching assistant. After one put their time into this occupation, one could be a Master, a teacher in their own right, rather than merely an assistant to one. One had to teach as Master in the faculty of Art for at least two years. Why one had to wait two years was because the Arts faculty was a preparatory faculty for the higher faculty. Naturally, many wanted to move up to the higher faculty as fast as possible. These higher faculties were Law, Medicine, and Theology. Just as today, different universities were known for its different strengths, and Paris was known for its theology. Once a student was in Paris’s faculty of theology (if that was their goal), then they would have about eight more years of study before they became a “doctor” on that subject.


Aristotle’s works first made their appearance at the University of Paris in the Arts faculty. This made for a dynamic comparison because, at this time, Platonist in the theology faculty became up stranded by the exciting new theory being talked about in the Arts faculty, that lesser faculty which trained people. Naturally, a rivalry between the faculties emerges; many theologians scorn the Aristotelian texts while the Arts masters lecture on the new material and became empowered by students growing interested.


In 1210, this rivalry escalates to the point where a ban is placed on reading (publicly lecturing on them) Aristotle’s works. They were considered theologically dangerous though people tended to ignore the condemnations since the bans very existence needed to be widely and continuously brought up. But, the Arts masters, in true professor fashion, disobeyed and kept on teaching. By the 1250s, people were lecturing on whatever bits of Aristotle was available. The prohibitions were a hopeless cause.


So, the question becomes this: why does Aristotle make such a splash?


Several. One, Aristotle’s works are extremely wide-ranging and appeal to the systematic medieval mind. Second, his works are systematic; Aristotle offers a small but strong set of arguments which can be deployed across a wide range of material, this means that once one absorbs Aristotle’s arguments, one can tame, in turn, a great deal of other material within Aristotle’s own method. Three, Aristotle is analytically rigorous. Whereas previously, neo-platonic works relied on the grandeur of the overarching vision to move people, Aristotelian thinkers relied on argument, so seeing passion, argument, and logic together moved many medieval people. An additional thing which appealed to the medieval mind was Aristotle’s “hierarchy of the sciences”. This was his belief in which some sciences or disciplines were subordinate to other sciences or disciplines; so, one can use an axiom in one discipline whereas in others it needs to be proved. All of this is then tuned to the first principal, metaphysics (what Aristotle called “theology”).


Despite all this popularity, though, there were deep problems with Aristotle’s theory. Mainly, that it contrasted with Christianity; one such example was in that where Aristotle believed in an infinite, timeless universe, Christians believed in a created universe; Aristotle believed that a God-figure didn’t care about us whereas Christians believed that God did care for us. Love, knowledge, the human itself… many things between Christianity and Aristotle clashed.


Among the reactions to Aristotle were three types of people: Those who ignore the anti-Christian sentiment and saw only the attraction (largely confined to the Arts faculty), those who didn’t feel any attraction but were very alert to the anti-Christian sentiment (largely in the theology faculty), and a third centrist view (exemplified by Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas). It would be Aquinas who would bridge the gap between Aristotelian and Christian thinking.

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