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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


ABELARD

(1079 — 1142)

 

CHRISTIAN ARISTOTELIANISM (DIALECTICS)

Peter Abelard, the son of a knight, was born near Nantes and studied in Paris and later in Laon. He established schools of his own and came to be recognised as a brilliant but controversial dialectician. A liaison with Heloise led to his being castrated at the instigation of her uncle. Abelard continued to teach, and in 1125 became Abbot of St Gilas in Brittany. His theological writings were denounced by Bernard of Clairvaux at the Council of Sens in 1040 on the questionable grounds that his intellectualism was undermining the faith.

 

RELIGIOUS PHILOSOPHY

[1] [See 'Thus and Not.] Although a powerful dialectician Abelard recognised that human reason, in attempting to grapple with the mysteries of the faith has its limits, and that it should where necessary give way to authority [a]. He conventionally regarded God as the supreme good and as the omnipotent creator of the world. We can have no knowledge of God's essence, but we can suppose Him positively to possess all attributes to an infinite degree [b]. And we can infer that He exists from a recognition of the impermanence of the world as contrasted with the eternal, and from the dependence of the body on the mind [c]. As for the world, Abelard said that God created it necessarily from His own nature in accordance with pre-existing ideas or exemplary forms (formae exemplares) which are both in His mind and identical with the Divine Essence [d].

 

KNOWLEDGE/ LOGIC

[2] [See especially Dialectical Treatises.] Abelard made a major contribution to the theory of universals. Two positions in particular were current in his own day. (1) Realists held that 'universal' terms, such as, for example, 'man' (a genus) and 'rational' (a species), as in 'X is a man; X is rational', correspond to realities ('manness', rationality), which actually exist outside the mind. (2) Nominalists argued that universals are but words (or, at the most, concepts which exist solely in the mind — all things in the world being individual substances lacking any real shared universal features). Abelard rejected both realism and nominalism and said that, while the universal is a name (nomen) or term (sermo), it exists as a 'common nature' in individual things. We recognise a number of things as being alike in various respects. For example, different individuals — Socrates, Aristotle, etc. — are all human; This and that object are red. Such logical predicates refer to universal features or images of things which can be 'abstracted' and thus have some kind of 'mental' existence as adequate representations of the properties each thing possesses individually. These common representations the mind attends to while ignoring other accidental features of the individuals. However, for Abelard these 'mental' universals have essentially psychological and logical rather than metaphysical status [a].

Abelard's contribution to logic — which underlies his theory of universals — is also important. Building on the work of Aristotle and Boethius, he examined the syllogism and especially conditional propositions and the concept of implication [b]. He also studied signification. He said that signs are used primarily to refer to 'facts' in the world and thence to thoughts about them. It follows that propositions are true or false by virtue of their relation to their 'contents'. Abelard also allowed that we can talk of truth and falsity in a secondary sense as applicable to propositions themselves — a categorical proposition being true if both the subject term and predicate terms have the same referent. (This was to influence the later doctrine of the suppositio of terms) [c]. As for modalities, such as necessity, possibility, contingency, he said that these terms might be applied to propositions with reference to their meaning (sensus), but strictly modalities are de rebus — concerned with things. 'Contingency' can be defined as 'possibility' — which is 'non-necessity' [d]. But in a wider sense, especially when applied to future events, contingency means not necessary; and he seemed to believe that such propositions are indeterminately true in the sense that they could be true on some occasions but false on others. If Aristotle could be understood as making this claim, then he would not be in breach of the principle of bivalence [e].

 

ETHICS

[3] [See Know Thyself.] Abelard rejected the 'privation' view of evil as having no content [a]. He said that the rightness or wrongness of actions depended on the intentions of an agent [b]; and although an objective good is presupposed, he stressed individual certainty as the basis of moral judgement. As a result he saw no role for divine grace; morality was a matter for individual conscience [c].

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

The significance of Abelard lies primarily in his skill as a dialectician, both within philosophy itself and for explaining the faith to the unbeliever; and for his employment of reason while recognising its limits and the superiority of authority. Although he is not generally regarded as a particularly original thinker, his treatment of the problem of universals was a stimulus to subsequent thought, as was his emphasis on the role of intentions in ethics. There has been much dispute as to whether he was a 'moderate realist' or a 'conceptualist'. He was certainly criticized by Aquinas for regarding universals only as mental 'constructs', but it seems correct to regard him as having attempted to steer a middle path between realism and nominalism, and as holding universals to be real 'mental' concepts which yet relate to an extra-mental reality. Nevertheless it has been argued that in so far as his account of universals as genera and species, predicable of particular things, remained at the level of logic, he gave little if any consideration to the metaphysical and epistemological aspects of the problem. He was also criticized in his own day for his apparent subordination of the mysteries of faith to the demands of his dialectic. However, this accusation was probably unjustified. He himself protested both his orthodoxy and his acceptance of the supremacy of faith over (an intrinsically limited) reason; and it is arguable that his concern was not to question faith as such but rather to apply his dialectic to its theological and thus linguistic expression. As he wrote in a letter to Heloise in 1041 after his condemnation, "I shall never be a philosopher if this means to speak against St Paul; I should not wish to be Aristotle if this were to separate me from Christ" [Letter 17].

 

READING

Abelard: Dialectical Treatises; Scito te ipsum [or Ethica] (Know Thyself); Letters of Abelard and Eloise. Selections in R. McKeon, op. cit., vol. I, ch. 6, and P. Spade (trans. and ed.), Abelard's Ethics and Other Writings. There is a Penguin edition of the Letters.

Studies

J. Marenbon, The Philosophy of Peter Abelard.

J. Marenbon, 'Abelard', in J. J. E. Garcia (ed.), A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages.

J. G. Sikes, Peter Abailard.

Collection of Essays

J. E. Brower and K. Guilfoy (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Abelard.

 

CONNECTIONS

Abelard

 

Note: Abelard admired Plato greatly, but in the following connections the Platonic influence is given as through the mediation of Augustine's thought. At the same time, his philosophy is in many respects strongly Aristotlelian, even though only a limited selection of Aristotle's writings was available in his day.

 

[1a] Reason and faith/ authority

   Augustine

   Anselm

[1i]

[1a]

 

[1b] Knowledge of God; positive predication of qualities (supremely good, omnipotent)    Augustine [1g 3a]

 

[1c] God: proofs    Augustine [3a b]

 

[1d] World created by God necessarily; exemplary forms    Augustine [4b 4c]

 

[2a] Universals: abstracted as 'mental' from common natures in things

   Aristotle

   Boethius

   Anselm

Aquinas

Ockham

[16d e]

[1i]

[1d]

[6e]

[1e 3e]

 

[2b] Logic: syllogism; conditionals and implication

   Aristotle

Ockham

[1b]

[1a]

 

[2c] Signs and reference; truth and falsity and propositions; suppositio of terms

   Aristotle

Ockham

[2a]

[1a b]

 

[2d] Modal logic

   Aristotle

Ockham

[1c]

[1c]

 

[2e] Propositions about the future; principle of bivalence

   Aristotle

Ockham

[3b]

[1d]

 

[3a] Evil not privation

   Augustine

   Bonaventura

[5b]

[7d]

 

[3b] Intentions — test of right and wrong

   Chrysippus

   Augustine

   Bonaventura

   Aquinas

[6d]

[8c]

[7c]

[8b]

 

[3c] Moral judgement: individual certainty and conscience

   Augustine

   Bonaventura

[8a]

[7c]