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History of Philosophy
Fourth Period of Scholasticism: Birth of Ockam to taking of Constantinople (1300-1453)
by Turner, William (S.T.D.)

[1] To the list of sources given, p. 240, add Prantl, Geschichte der Logik (4 Bde. Leipzig, 1855-1870). Consult especially Vol. III, pp. 319 ff., and Vol. IV.
The causes of the decay of Scholastic philosophy were both internal and external. The internal causes are to be found in the condition of Scholastic philosophy at the beginning of the fourteenth century. The great work of Christian syncretism had been completed by the masters of the preceding period: revelation and science had been harmonized; contribution had been levied on the pagan philosophies of Greece and Arabia, and whatever truth these philosophies had possessed had been utilized to form the basis of a rational exposition of Christian revelation. The efforts of Roger Bacon and of Albert the Great to reform scientific method had failed: the sciences were not cultivated. There was therefore no source of development, and nothing was left for the later Scholastics except to dispute as to the meaning of principles, to comment on the text of this master or of that, and to subtilize to such an extent that Scholasticism soon became a synonym for captious quibbling. The great Thomistic principle that in philosophy the argument from authority is the weakest of all arguments was forgotten: Aristotle, St. Thomas, or Scotus became the criterion of truth, and as Solomon, whose youthful wisdom had astonished the world, profaned his old age by the worship of idols, the philosophy of the schools, in the days of its decadence, turned from the service of truth to prostrate itself before the shrine of a master. [2] Dialectic, which in the thirteenth century had been regarded as the instrument of knowledge, now became an object of study for the sake of display; and to this fault of method was added a fault of style -- an uncouthness and barbarity of terminology which bewilder the modern reader. The religious orders, which had given to Scholasticism its ablest masters, now devoted all their attention to fomenting the Thomistic and Scotistic controversy, thus frittering away on matters of trifling importance the gifts which should have been devoted to the more serious task of meeting the difficulties that sprang up on every side as the modern era approached.
[2] Cf. Ozanam, Dante, etc., English trans., p. 94; Revue Néo-Scol., Nov. 1903.
The external causes of the decay of Scholasticism were, in the first place, the political conditions of the time. The fourteenth century was a period of strife between the secular and the spiritual power, of rebellion of princes, bishops, and priests against the authority of the Holy See, and of contests between rival claimants for the chair of Peter. Religion seemed to lose its restraining power, and moral depravity, sorcery, and occult science corrupted that true sense of the superiority of things spiritual which characterized the thirteenth century. The universities, too, which had contributed so much to the success of Scholasticism and had received so much from it in return, now began to bring discredit on the Scholastic system. At Paris, the course of study for the degrees in theology was shortened, and academic honors were distributed with more freedom than discretion, mere youths (impuberes et imberbes) being, through favor, awarded the title of master. Add to this that everywhere throughout Europe institutions [3] inferior to the great universities were accorded the right to confer degrees which had hitherto been the monopoly of Paris and Oxford.
[3] Cf. Chartul., II, vii and 547.
In the general relaxation of the spirit of serious study, there appeared a phase of Scholastic philosophy which may be said to have been inspired by the principle commonly known as "Ockam's razor": "Entia non sunt multiplicanda sine necessitate." In a spirit of protest against the extreme formalism of the Scotists, who multiplied metaphysical entities to an alarming degree, the new philosophy aimed at simplicity. Soon, however, it carried the process of simplification to the extent of discarding as useless all serious metaphysical and psychological speculation; it substituted dialectic for metaphysics, advocated nominalism, and ended in something dangerously near to sensism and scepticism.

The chief representative of this phase of Scholasticism is William of Ockam. Before his time, however, the tendencies which resulted in his philosophy appeared in the doctrines of Durandus and Aureolus.


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