The Disorders of Philosophy in the Middle Ages


After the first flowering of philosophy in Greece in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., there is a long period of sterility and stagnation. This is not to say that the fifteen hundred years from the end of the fourth century B.C. to the eleventh century of the Christian era are totally devoid of substantive contributions to philosophical thought. The Stoics, Epicureans, and Neoplatonists of the Hellenistic period add to the stock of philosophical theories and arguments, as do some of the early fathers of the church, especially Saint Augustine. However, looking at what happened in procedural terms, we find no development of the philosophical enterprise as such, no refinement of method, no clarification of purpose, no sharpening of boundary lines, no clearer definition of philosophical objectives.

From the perspective of this survey of philosophy’s history — looking for self-understanding on the part of philosophy — the long period that follows Plato and Aristotle adds little or nothing. If anything, there is a loss of energy and clarity. Philosophy is done in a lower key and without the conscious effort at self-examination — the effort to philosophize about philosophy itself — that distinguishes the work of Plato and Aristotle.

Beginning in the middle or at the end of the eleventh century, and running to the end of the thirteenth or the middle of the fourteenth century, there is another brief period in which philosophy takes new steps forward, especially in the direction of ordering itself in relation to religion and theology. Unhappily, these gains also involve new disorders. Let us look first at the positive side of the picture.

We need not judge the validity of Christianity’s claim to possess, in the Old and New Testaments, the revealed word of God in order to see how the theological effort to understand revealed truth — the dogmas of the Christian faith — not only stimulated philosophical thought, but also relieved it of a burden.

I shall refer to philosophical thought that is stimulated and enlightened by the exigencies and intellectual demands of Christian faith as Christian philosophizing. The faithful refer, instead, to Christian philosophy and mean, by that term, philosophical thought carried on in the light of faith and elevated or rectified thereby.

In order not to beg the question bout the validity of this conception of a Christianized philosophy, inwardly transformed by the admixture of faith with reason, I shall use the phrase “Christian philosophizing” to call attention tot he fact that something happened to philosophy when it became involved in the effort to construct a rational system of dogmatic theology in order to explain, so far far as that is possible, the articles of Christian faith.

What happened was an extension of the scope of philosophical inquiry by the introduction of new questions — questions that did not occur to Plato and Aristotle, and probably could not have been formulated by them in the terms or with the precision to be found in Christian philosophizing. The most obvious example of this is the whole discussion of the freedom of the will, occasioned by the need to assess man’s responsibility for sin, both original and acquired, and complicated by the doctrines of divine grace, foreknowledge, and predestination.

Though Saint Augustine and later mediaeval thinkers find much to draw upon in the writings of Plato and Aristotle with regard to other philosophical problems, they develop their elaborate doctrine of free will almost from scratch. Plato and Aristotle appear to take man’s freedom of choice as an obvious fact of experience; they offer no analysis or defense of free will; it was not for them a problem, full of thorny issues, as it was for Christian philosophizing.

Recommended read: Mortimer J. Adler’s, The Great Ideas: A Lexicon of Western Thought

Another example involves the contrast between the treatment of time and eternity and the approach to the problem of the world’s having or not having a beginning, as these things are discussed in Plato’s Timaeus or Aristotle’s Physics, Book VIII, and as they are expounded in the theological doctrine of the world’s creation by God. While the last is strictly theological, ultimately based on the opening world of Genesis, it influences the philosophizing that is done within the framework or in the context of dogmatic theology. It leads Christian philosophizing to raise questions about the real distinction between essence and existence, about the difference between time and eternity, and about the causation of being or existence as compared with the causation of becoming, change, or motion. These questions do not appear in the corpus of Greek thought.

Still another example involves the refinement in later Christian philosophizing of the Aristotelian conception of substance and accident, essence and existence, matter and form, occasioned by the difficulties encountered in the theological employment of these conceptions to deal with the three great mysteries of the Christian faith — the mystery of the Trinity, the mystery of the Incarnation, and the mystery of the Eucharist.

Greek philosophers could not draw a sharp line between the domains of philosophy and religion. They could not separate questions that were answerable in the light of reason and experience from questions that were answerable only in the light of faith. In consequence, philosophy unwittingly assumed tasks it was not competent to discharge.

The burden persisted in the first phase of Christian philosophizing, during which men engaged in the fruitless effort to demonstrate the dogmas of the Christian faith as if they were philosophical conclusions. Instead of saying that the burden persisted, I should perhaps have said that it grew heavier and that the resulting distraction of philosophy from its own proper tasks became aggravated.

In addition, the excesses of rationalism on the part of philosophers such as Peter Abelard, who tried to bite off religious matters that they could not chew, generated a reaction on the part of theologians in the opposite direction. Abelard’s trying to prove the Trinity is an example of his extreme rationalism.

This resulted in the excess known as fideism, which, instead of telling philosophers to mind their own business, told them that they really had no business of their own to mind — that philosophy had no autonomy as a mode of inquiry, that all important questions were answered by faith, and that all others represented idle curiosity and the vanity of worldly learning.

These opposite excesses, together with their cause — the inappropriate burden that philosophy was still carrying on its back — provoked the effort, in the second phase of Christian philosophizing, to define the sphere of faith and reason and to straighten out the tangled involvement of philosophy with religion.

The work of Thomas Aquinas culminates this effort. Being both a philosopher and a dogmatic theologian, he carefully drew the line that both related philosophy to theology and also separated their domains.

The achievement of Aquinas, in thus relieving philosophy of the burden — the undue tasks and the distractions — of involvement in religious matters, deserves to rank with the contributions made by Plato and Aristotle to the formation and constitution of the philosophical enterprise.

Before I turn to the negative side of the picture, I must mention one other procedural gain that is made in the later Middle Ages. The universities of the thirteenth century, especially the faculties of Paris and Oxford, instituted public disputations of both philosophical and theological questions. In the Disputed Questions and Quodlibetal Questions of Aquinas, we have a one-sided record of debates in which he was himself involved, but that record nevertheless reveals a procedure in which philosophers confronted one another, joined issues, and entered into debate.

Problems are taken up in piecemeal fashion; questions are attacked one by one; objections are raised and answered. We have here, then, in these mediaeval disputations, a good procedural model for the conduct of philosophy as a public enterprise. The spirit of this procedure persists in somewhat altered form as late as the seventeenth century, in the philosophical correspondence in which both Leibniz and Spinoza engaged with critics or adversaries, and in the seven sets of objections and replies which Descartes appended to his Meditation on First Philosophy.

Some of the things that plagued philosophy in antiquity continued to plague it in the Middle Ages. Though not caused by philosophy’s relationship to theology, they were aggravated by it. I have two manifestations of this in mind.

One is the persistence of the illusion about episteme. This was aggravated by philosophy’s involvement with dogmatic theology. The latter, rightly or wrongly, made claims to certitude and finality, which had the effect of intensifying philosophy’s quest for a kind of perfection in knowledge that it could never attain.

If dogmas and dogmatism are proper anywhere, it is in the theological doctrines that claim to have their foundation in the revealed word of God. While philosophy, strictly speaking, could not claim to have any dogmas or dogmatic foundations, it tried to rival theology with a certitude and finality of its own by giving its principles and conclusions the high status of knowledge in the form of nous and episteme.

The other manifestation is the persistence of philosophical efforts to solve, without investigation, problems that belong to investigative science. This, too, was aggravated by philosophy’s involvement with dogmatic theology, which imbued philosophy with an undue confidence in its powers.

It should be noted here that the well-deserved respect accorded Aristotle during the later Middle Ages often turned into undue reverence and misplaced piety, in consequence of which many of the scientific errors committed by Aristotle acquired the status of unquestionable philosophical truths. When they were questioned by scientific investigators at the end of the Middle Ages, they were defended by specious philosophical reasoning that brought philosophy itself into disrepute.

Recommended read: Mortimer J. Adler’s, The Great Ideas: A Lexicon of Western Thought

Though Aquinas tried to convert theology from an absolute monarch into a constitutional ruler and to transform philosophy from a menial into a free and loyal subject, he nevertheless left the two in a hierarchical relationship of superior and inferior. And though Aquinas also tried to relieve philosophy of the questions that are answerable only by faith, he left to philosophy a number of theological questions, about God and the human soul, the answers to which he called “preambles to faith.”

This helps us to understand how it came about that, at the end of the Middle Ages, when such secular philosophers as Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza emancipated themselves from dogmatic theology, they still retained, in their role as metaphysicians, an absorbing predilection for theological problems, as witness Descartes’s Meditations, Leibniz’s Theodicy and Discourse on Metaphysics, and Spinoza’s Ethics [1]

In the later Middle Ages, influenced by the conception of philosophy as a body of knowledge having he character of episteme, which philosophy’s association with dogmatic theology intensified, philosophers, in dealing with the questions relegated to philosophical theology, tried to give their reasoning a demonstrative and rigorous appearance that it could not actually possess.

Thinking that they succeeded, they often went further and took over into philosophical theology matters with which reason, apart from faith, was even less competent to deal. They undid the good work of Aquinas by extending the bounds of philosophical theology to include much more than the few simple preambles to faith that he had placed on the philosophical side of the line that he drew to divide its domain from that of dogmatic theology.

This overexpanded philosophical theology — or, in some cases, religious apologetics — not only set much of subsequent Scholastic philosophy off on a wild-goose chase, it also helped to get modern philosophy off to a bad start. I have in mind the work of the three great philosophers of the seventeenth century, to whom I have already referred: Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza.

They were brought up and educated in a tradition of metaphysics and theology that was a heritage from the later Middle Ages and the decadent Scholasticism of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Though two of them were Christians, none was a Christian philosopher in the sense of accepting the guidance of faith through the subordination of philosophy to dogmatic theology. On the contrary, they represent the revolt of philosophy from theology.

Readers must carefully examine Descartes’s Principles of Philosophy, Spinoza’s Ethics, and Leibniz’s Monadology and Discourse on Metaphysics to see for themselves the style and manner of philosophizing, which I call system building. They will then, I hope, readily understand why I use that term in a wholly derogatory sense, especially if they bear in mind my central contention that philosophy, as a mode of inquiry, aims at knowledge in the form of testable doxa, not unquestionable episteme. They will realize that system building defeats or violates the procedures proper to philosophy, especially its being conducted as a public enterprise in which common questions are faced, issues are joined, and disputes can be adjudicated.

The philosophical system which is so private and special that it came to balled Cartesian, or Spinozist, or Leibnizian assumes the character of a great painting or poem, an individual artistic achievement calling for rejection or acceptance as an inviolate whole. There are, of course, Platonic, Aristotelian, Augustinian, and Thomistic doctrines in philosophy, but there is no system of Platonic, Aristotelian, or Augustinian philosophy in any comparable sense of that term/

There is some accuracy in speaking of a Thomistic system, but this should always be understood as referring to the system of theology which Aquinas presented in his Summa Theologica, not to a system of philosophical thought, for none can be found in or extracted from his writings.

We have here one clue to what is wrong with system building in philosophy, as well as an explanation of how it arose. Since dogmatic theology rests on the dogmas of religious faith, a system of dogmatic theology can be properly constructed by an orderly exposition and defense of these dogmas. It is the order and relationship of the dogmas, with which sacred theology begins, that give the dogmatic exposition of theology its systematic character. Clearly, I mean more here by “systematic” than thinking in an orderly and coherent way. I mean a monolithic structure, rising from a firm foundation in unchallengeable premises, such as dogmas are.

Even though they reacted against the Summa Theologica of Aquinas and other theological systems, the thinkers of the seventeenth century were greatly influenced by the model of system structure it offered. They were also influenced by another model of system structure — that of Euclid’s Elements — which was as inappropriate as the theological model for philosophers to try to imitate. Yet this is precisely what Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz tried to do, each in his own way.

Each laid down a few “unchallengeable” premises from which he thought he could erect, by the deductive elaboration of their consequences, the whole vast structure his thought. Each proceeded in an ostensibly deductive manner to “demonstrate” conclusions that, for him, had the certitude and finality of episteme.

Thus there came into being, for the first time in the history of philosophy, individual systems of thought, an event that caused drastic reactions and consequences in the centuries to follow. There are systems in mathematics, but there should be none in philosophy if philosophy is doxa, not episteme.


  1. When one examines the content, language, and style of argument of these works, there is good reason to say that they represent the end of the Middle Ages as well as the beginning of modern times. Return

Excerpted from The 4 Dimensions of Philosophy, by Mortimer J. Adler

Recommended read: Mortimer J. Adler’s, The Great Ideas: A Lexicon of Western Thought

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Mortimer Jerome Adler (1902 – 2001) was an American philosopher, educator, and popular author. As a philosopher he worked within the Aristotelian and Thomistic traditions. He worked for Columbia University, the University of Chicago, Encyclopædia Britannica, and Adler’s own Institute for Philosophical Research. Adler went on to found the Great Books of the Western World program and the Great Books Foundation. He founded and served as director of the Institute for Philosophical Research. He also served on the Board of Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica from its inception and became its chairmen. Spearheading the fifteenth edition of Britannica he was instrumental in the major reorganization of knowledge embodied in that edition. He founded the Paideia Program, a grade-school curriculum centered around guided reading and discussion of difficult works (as judged for each grade). With Max Weismann, he founded the Center for the Study of The Great Ideas. He also served along with Max Weisman on the Board of Directors of Jonathan Dolhenty’s Radical Academy.