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Late Middle Ages

[The following material includes parts of a lecture delivered by TA Robert Parks in 1998.]


John Duns Scotus: Life and Works (including a Ciccarelli Life Story)
John Duns Scotus: Some Key Terms
William of Ockham (including a Ciccarelli Life Story)
Martin Luther (1483-1546) and the Reformation
Late Medieval Issues: Authority and Reason
Late Medieval Issues: God Language [including material from Parks]
Late Medieval Issues: Intelect and Will [including material from Parks]
Late Medieval Issues: Universals—The Problem [including material from Parks]
Late Medieval Issues: Universals—Ciccarelli Creation: Four Tales of Glory
Late Medieval Issues: Universals—What is at Stake? [including material from Parks]

John Duns Scotus (1265-1308)

These notes derive from Loye Ashton, whose lectured on Scotus in the 1995 recension of this class.

1. Life

To see a picture of Scotus, click here.

Born in Scotland, c.1265, William became a Franciscan friar in his teens, and was ordained on March 17, 1291.

He lectured on Peter Lombard’s (c.1097-1160, also known as the "Master of the Sentences") Four Books of Sentences at Oxford about 1300 and at Paris from 1302 to 1303.

He was banished in 1303 for not taking the side of King Philip the Fair against Pope Boniface VIII in a quarrel over the taxation of church property to fund the wars against England. He returned from exile to Paris in 1304 to become regent master of theology in 1305. He was transferred to the Franciscan house in Cologne in 1307, and died in 1308.

His difficult writing style earned him the title "the Subtle Doctor"; Renaissance humanists and Protestant Reformers derided the opacity of his works.

2. Works

Ordinatio, known in earlier editions as the Commentaria Oxoniensia (Oxford Commentary—on the Four Sentences of Peter Lombard), was begun at oxford and developed during his teaching on the continent. The final editing of the work was interrupted by his death.

Quaestiones Quodlibetales, written while regent master in Paris, reflects his most mature thinking. It is less extensive in scope than Ordinatio.

Tractatus de Primo Principio, one of his last works, was a short compendium on natural theology drawing heavily on Ordinatio.

Other works include commentaries on Aristotle’s Metaphysics and Categories.

Some Key Terms in Duns Scotus

Haecceity: the "thisness" of a thing.

Contraction: the principle whereby universal properties exist only through their particulars.

God: infinite being, apparent to us as infinite love.

Univocity of Being: the affirmation that there is only one kind of being in everything real, though infinite in the case of God and finite in the case of creatures.

Three Orders of Truth: Scotus distinguished three realms of truth, each characterized by a distinctive kind of knowledge:

  • The truth of the order of principles pertains to knowledge of relations between meaningful terms.
  • The truth of the order of experience pertains to knowledge occasioned by the senses.
  • The truth of the order of self-awareness pertains to the infallible knowledge of one’s own thinking and acting (e.g. I know that I think even if I am wrong in my thinking, and I know that I perceive, even if I am deceived in my perception).

Primacy of the Will: Scotus emphasized freedom and the will (for both human beings and God). This has consequences for

  1. the understanding of the contingency of the world and creatio ex nihilo;
  2. interpreting the love as preeminent characteristic of God (since an infinite and free being can be known through activity more surely than through the reasoning powers of finite creatures); and
  3. later philosophical trends such as Nietzsche’s will to power, Schopenhauer’s will to live, and existentialism’s will as self-affirmation in the face of absurdity.

William of Ockham (c.1285-c.1347)

1. Life

c.1285: Born, probably in Ockham near London

c.1309-15: Theological studies at Oxford; joins Franciscan order before going to Oxford

c.1315-23: Teaches at Oxford, but never gains a chair due to opposition at the university. Completes various philosophical and theological works

1324: Called before Pope in Avignon on heresy charges

1326: Censured for statements on eucharist, divine relations, limits to knowledge. Involved in controversy between Pope and Franciscans over monastic poverty. Denies legitimacy of Pope, is excommunicated

1327: Flees to Munich under protection of Holy Roman Emperor Louis of Bavaria; continues to publish polemical works: against various popes, defending Emperor and independent temporal authority, defending Franciscan poverty

1347: Dies in Munich, perhaps of plague.

2. Works

1317-27: Various philosophical and theological works: Commentaries on the Sentences and on Aristotle's logical works; Summa logicae (principal work, on logic); Quodlibeta; Summulae Physicorum (unfinished); De Sacramento Altaris (on the eucharist)

after 1324: Various polemical and political writings: concerned with church/state relations, papal power, monastic poverty, questions of law: Opus Nonaginta Dierum; Dialogus; Breviloquium; Treatises against various popes.

3. Ciccarelli Life Stories

Biographical Sources

Scanty information about early life and schooling, including date of birth. Adams gives 1347 as the date of his death, not 1349, and the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church supports this.

Early Life

c.1285: Born, probably in village of Ockham near London. Joined Franciscan order, probably at an early age

Oxford, non-political writings

c.1309-15: Studies in theology at Oxford about this period

c.1315-23: Lectures at Oxford. Opposition there keeps him from chair.

Probably lectured on Bible from about 1315-17, on the Sentences from about 1317-19, and as a Baccalaureus Formatus from 1319-23. He fulfilled all requirements for a theology degree, but never occupied a chair in theology, and so was called Inceptor. This seems to be due to opposition on the part of John Lutterell, former chancellor of Oxford, an "overzealous Thomist" (according to Boehner, a scholar who has edited various of Ockham's works) who was deposed by a majority at the University and then made Ockham his "victim." Lutterell goes to Pope at Avignon with list of Ockham's writings he alleges are heretical.

Meanwhile, during this period, Ockham completes his non-political works. Dating of these is not settled. This includes:

  • c.1317-23: Commentaries on the Sentences - the first book entitled Ordinatio, edited and revised by Ockham himself; the other 3 books entitled Reportatio, not edited or revised by Ockham.
  • c. 1321-23: Commentaries on Aristotle's logical treatises and on Porphyry's introduction to the Categories.
  • c. 1323-29: Summa Logicae - his principal work on logic
  • before 1324: the Quodlibeta
  • Summulae Physicorum, an unfinished "Aristotelian" work on nature
  • De Sacramento Altaris - includes his controversial views on transubstantiation

Avignon: Heresy Charges, Controversy (1324-1327)

1324: Ockham is called before Pope John XXII to answer the heresy charges.

1326: Ockham "censured" (for 51 propositions) by papal commission but not condemned. According to Leff, these propositions include statements on:

  • eucharistic doctrine
  • his simplification of intra-Divine and Divine/creaturely relations
  • his limitation of the area of evidential knowledge

While in Avignon, and at the request of the General of his order, Ockham became involved in a controversy between the Pope and Franciscans over their views on monastic poverty. Ockham determined (and set down in writing) that John XXII is not the true Pope because he contradicts Scripture and earlier papal pronouncements.

Excommunication, Munich

Ockham is excommunicated in 1326, and flees to Munich, under the protection of Louis of Bavaria (Holy Roman Emperor, but not recognized by the Pope).

From Munich he acts as a polemicist and publicist: he continues write against John XXII and his successors and in support of the Holy Roman Emperor, argues for independent temporal authority, and defends Franciscan poverty. Leff discusses the major works from this period:

  • Opus Nonaginta Dierum - defends Franciscan poverty against papal "plenitude of power", declares heretical John XXII's denial of the Franciscan view of Christ's purely spiritual mission. Claims that anything asserted by the pope that was renounced by Christ is a false assertion in the sense that it is outside papal power. Distinctions between divine/natural law and human law, and between just and licit acts.
  • Dialogus - discusses three levels of natural law, and the relationship of temporal and spiritual power.
  • Breviloquium - theory of political authority based on the origins of the Roman Empire.
  • Tractates against John XXII and Benedict XII
  • Allegationes de Potestate Imperiali - against Benedict XII
  • De Imperatorum et Pontificum Potestate - against Clement VI
  • c. 1347: dies in Munich, perhaps of the plague.

Sources for this Report

Adams, Marilyn McCord. William of Ockham, 2 vols. Publication of the Medieval Studies Series, ed. Ralph McInerny, no. 26. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987.

Baudry, Leon. Guillaume d'Occam; sa vie, ses oeuvres, ses idTes sociales et politiques. Etudes de philosophie medievale, no. 39. Paris: J. Vrin, 1949.

Leff, Gordon. William of Ockham: the Metamorphosis of Scholastic Discourse. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1975.

Late Medieval Issues: Authority and Reason

Many issues were discussed in late medieval philosophy, of which only a few are covered here. Without doubt, however, one of the most important is the question of quthority and reason.

1. The Point of the Question

At stake in this question was (and is) the justification of belief in traditional teaching of the church: is reason or authority of tradition (and bible and church hierarchy) the leading factor in furnishing that justification?

The problem of authority versus reason: concerns the relative weight autonomous reason and religious authority (ecclesiastical, biblical, or traditional) should be given in deciding philosophical questions.

2. History of the Question

In the Middle Ages, an important factor shaping the question of authority and reason was the givenness of ecclesial authority: the living tradition of the church was taken for granted, and everyone participated, more or less inevitably. Thus, reason was thought of by default as the interpreter rather than the creator of tradition. The question of justification here shows up in terms of a question about the sufficiency of reason to explain every aspect of tradition satisfactorily; reason’s failure in some respect did not reflect poorly on the reliability of tradition’s authority. Moreover, in practice reason did rather well. Consider, for example, Anselm’s and Thomas’s arguments confirming belief in the existence of God; or Peter Lombard’s Four Sentences, a rational exposition of canon law, which was regarded as a high-quality theological handbook and was much discussed because he had done such a good job of showing how canon law is reasonable.

In the high middle ages and through the late medieval period there was internal tension around this question. This is famously symbolized in the debates between the Dominicans and Franciscans. The contrast between the two orders is easy to caricature but there is some truth to it. The Dominicans looked to Thomas Aquinas, and argued, roughly speaking, (1) that reason was both wholly consonant with traditional authority; (2) that a great deal of traditional teaching could be derived from a rational natural theology, without deference to special revelation; and (3) that reason above all produced and supported faith. The Franciscans, by contrast (Bonaventure, Scotus, Ockham) looked to Augustine as warrant for their affirmation that will was an indispensable and prominent support to reason in the cultivation of faith. For example, Scotus insisted that reason needs to be qualified by loving action, and Ockham urges that reason cannot show how things ought to be, for they are fundamentally contingent on the divine will. While both groups would say that God is known to us as holy love, will was the distinctive characteristic of God (and active faith for human beings) for Franciscans as opposed to God’s mind (and knowing God the corresponding goal for human beings) for Dominicans.

As a transitional figure, Scotus is indicative of a growing tension between reason and authority. By noting the discrepancies between faith and reason, and by noting the limits of reason, Scotus tries to set theology free from being determined by philosophy. But by separating theology from philosophy, he also sets reason free. The child that grew up in the Middle Ages under the control, tutelage, and guidance of theologians is now liberated. And that stubborn child, now grown up, will not go away. Suddenly authority and not reason is in danger of being toppled. This is the historical root of the problem of authority versus reason. It is a problem that becomes poignant by the late Middle Ages and which they bequeath the ages that follow.

The question became sharper as time went on. It reached a crisis in the Reformation, during and after which there was a serious struggle embodied in ecclesial groups. The reason for this is simply that the Reformation embodies a vast question about the trsutworthiness of ecclesiastical authority. Note, however, that the shift was not so much to reliance on autonomous reason but rather to another form of authority, biblical authority. This was to prove an unstable perspective because the hermeneutical complexities of centralizing biblical authority implied a coninuing reliance on Church tradition as arbiter of debates. The results of this are well-known: the splitting of Protestant denominations in part over theological disputes that appeals to the bible proved unable to resolve; and the development of biblical criticism by means of which reason is given a larger foothold and ecclesiastical authority minimized in the process of biblical interpretation.

The issue was more or less settled, albeit temporarily, by the time of the Enlightenment, which saw the outright rejection of arguments from authority in ever-wider circles of people. The process leading to the relatively definitive Enlightenment solution was crucial for the rise of the natural sciences in the seventeenth century and also for the self-consciousness of some churches as appropriately realistic rather than credulous and superstitious in their religious outlook.

The importance of traditional "wisdom" (rather than "authority") is only recently becoming recognized by some philosophers as an indispensable component in the rational interpretation of reality. Arguments from authority are still out of court in many cases (but see the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and fundamentalist churches for counter examples!). But tradition is recognized as a crucial element in bringing focus to acts of inquiry in a plural religious and ethical setting. The philosophy of science has even detected the functioning of traditions of inquiry within the natural and social sciences—and not as impurities in the scientific method but as essential to establishing the research programs by which science achieves progressive knowledge about the world. Theology seems far more dependent on traditions of inquiry and thus far more a vista of conflicting opinions.

3. Skepticism

Close associated with this issue is another concerning what is traditionally called skepticism. The issue is whether human beings can achieve infallible knowledge. It was assumed that divine illumination could bring this about but the question was whether human beings out of their own reason were able to procure infallible knowledge. Bonaventure (1221-1259) took the skeptical line on this question, affirming that only divine illumination could cause human beings to know infallibly. Scotus disagreed.

Skepticism (as Scotus attacked it in Bonaventure): the view that human beings cannot know any infallible truths without the aid of divine illumination.

Late Medieval Issues: God Language [including material from Parks]

The debate over language about God centers on whether the language we use for God applies analogically or univocally. Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus represent the different positions.

1. Analogical God language

Thomas Aquinas argued that there are basically three ways of talking about God and the world. (This was already mentioned in the lecture on Thomas.)

Univocal: This means that we can say the same thing in the same way about God and the world. If I say that someone is good and that God is good, I mean that the basic concept of goodness is the same when applied to God or persons. There may be a huge difference of degree or some other kind of difference. At the very least, however, I mean that I am applying the same concept.

Criticism: Thomas thought that this view just does not do justice to the fact that God’s wisdom is not our wisdom. God is simply not wise in the way that we are wise. It also seems open to the criticism that it expresses a pantheistic relation between God and the world.

Equivocal: The second alternative is to talk about God and the world equivocally. This means that there is no relation between what I say about God and what I say about the world. God is completely and wholly other.

Criticism: But if this is the case then we can’t have any knowledge of God from creatures. Also, it implies that, as wholly other, God’s revelation "wrecks" creation and reason every time it comes.

Analogical: The alternative that Thomas prefers is the analogical. By this he means that what I say of God is something like what I say of the world. Analogical language, according to Aquinas, implies both similarity and difference.

For example, we might say that the goodness of a person is to the being of that person as the goodness of God is to the being of God. We understand our own goodness in relation to our being and that allows to understand the goodness of God in relation to God’s being.

2. Duns Scotus and the univocal concept of being

Against Aquinas, Scotus insists that:

  • unless there is some univocal concept that applies to both God and creatures, there is no possibility of any knowledge of God on our part. There is no means by which we can legitimately move from knowledge of creatures to knowledge of God.
  • Even the use of analogy implies a univocal concept which grounds the analogy. Otherwise, the analogy tells us nothing. Take the above example: if we know nothing of God’s being, how does the analogy tell us anything about God? The analogy itself implies a univocal ground.

Scotus thinks the best univocal concept is that of being. He tries to find the most abstract concept of being so that it can be applied to both God and creatures. Being, in the sense that it is the opposite of nothing or non-being, can be applied to both God and creatures. (See above for a formal definition of univocity of being.)

It might be thought that affirming the univocity of being necessarily leads to a pantheistic view of God. Scotus denies this. He says that God and creatures are not totally different conceptually, but in actuality you have only either finite being or infinite being. You never actually have being as such, you only have either infinite or finite being—and infinite being is totally different than finite being.

Late Medieval Issues: Intellect and Will [including material from Parks]

Another important debate in the Middle Ages centered on the question of the primacy of the will or the intellect. Again, this contrast is embodied in the differences between Thomas and Scotus.

  • In both God and humans Thomas emphasizes the role of the intellect.
  • In both God and humans Scotus emphasizes the role of the will.

On the relation between God and creation, Scotus clearly emphasizes the primacy of God’s will. Scotus insists that the only reason we can find for the creation of things is God’s will. Moreover, things are the way they are because of God’s will. We cannot go behind God’s free choice to create and look for necessary reasons determining that choice. Things are the way they are because God willed them to be that way. For Scotus, this shows the radical contingency of creation – it is wholly dependent on the will of God.

For Aquinas, the essences of things are ideas in the mind of God. In some sense, external law is a reflection of the "mind" of God.

These differing emphases can also be seen in their views of the beatific vision. Whereas for Thomas the focus of the beatific vision is on knowing God, for Scotus the emphasis is on loving God. For Aquinas it is the intellect and for Scotus the will plays the principal part in uniting the person to God.

Late Medieval Issues: Universals and Particulars [including material from Parks]

1. The Problem Defined

The question of the metaphysical status of universals was an issue of profound concern throughout the medieval period. It is a problem with ancient origins and continuing relevance.

Universal: a general quality appearing to us as the property of a concrete thing.

The problem of universals: concerns how to understand ontologically the universal concepts by which we know concrete, individual things.

As the result of rational reflection, we are faced with the problem of trying to understand the kind of being possessed by universals (properties, characteristics, accidents, attributes) of particular things. What kind of being are we to attribute to a universal? Does it have independent being? Or is it merely the name we give to a property of many things, a property that has no being in itself? Here are some examples of universals from which the dimensions of the problem can be better understood.

  • universal concept of "being red" (a property of some visible objects). We have a concept of redness which we apply to many different things. What is that redness? You’ll never find just redness will you? No, you always find redness in a particular thing. Yet we have a general concept of redness by which we judge the colors of things to determine whether they are, in fact, red.
  • universal concept of "being just" (a property of some social situations). How about the concept of being just (one that was near and dear to Plato). We can look at particular situations and view them as just or unjust. Where do we find this justice by which we judge particular situations? We never see this justice apart from the particular situations in which we either find it or wish we found it. What is the ontological status of this concept which functions so much in our life? Is justice real? Is it real apart from any particular instance of justice? What is the relation between justice and instances of justice?
  • universal concept of "conforming to the law of gravity" (a property of all massive objects)
  • universal concept of "being human" (a property of a living creature)
  • universal concept of "sin" (a property of actions). Is there such a thing as sin or just sinful acts? What status does our concept of sin have? Is sin something real apart from our particular sinful acts? How does Sin relate to sins?
  • universal concept of "being the church" (a property of some social groups)
  • universal concept of "being the presence of Christ" (a property of experiences)

This is the problem before us. We only ever encounter particular things, like a particular human being. But our knowledge of things uses general concepts. I can identify a particular human because I have a general idea of what it means to be a human? Is that idea real? How does it relate to the particulars?

2. History of the Problem

This problem derives from the debates between Aristotle and Plato over the nature of form—did the forms have independent being of their own, or were they to be found only in things, and thus abstractable from them? This was a key source of the medieval interest in this question. Of course, Aristotle probably misrepresents Plato in some ways as having a mystical Pythagorean belief in a realm of being populated with forms whereas some scholars (e.g. Robert Brumbaugh) now argue that (roughly) Plato actually thought of the forms as aspects of a single form: the form of the Good. In any event, it was Aristotle’s interpretation of Plato that dominated the medieval debate.

The late medieval debate can be described in terms of a sharp contrast between a Platonic-style view (we’ll call it extreme realism), a series of Aristotelian-style views (we’ll call these, for the sake of simplicity, by a single name: medieval realism), and another view approximately Democritian in origins (we’ll call it extreme nominalism). Here are some formal definitions.

Extreme realism: the view that universals have the highest form of being; they exist independently of particulars, outside of human minds, in a rational realm of forms.

Medieval realism: the view that both universal properties and particulars have the power of being; universal properties (regardless of how they are undertood ontologically) are known in our world only through particulars.

Extreme nominalism: the view that only particulars have the power of being; universal properties exist in name only.

  • The roughly Platonic-style view (extreme realism) saw universals having independent being and even perhaps a distinguished realm of existence fitting their importance. Note this this view, a form of realism, we now tend to describe as idealism; this is just one more indication of how shifty the terms realism and idealism have been in the history of philosophy.
  • The roughly Aristotelian-style views (medieval realism) collectively held that universals are abstractions from particular objects, that both the objects and the universals have a kind of being, but that universals appear only in and through objects. The many fine debates within this position turn on articulating the kind of being that universals have and how that being relates to the expression of universals in concrete objects.
  • On the opposite end of the spectrum from extreme realism was a newer view, found neither in Plato nor in Aristotle, nor even in any of their caricatures: extreme nominalism. Its closest ancient antecedent may be the view of the atomist, Democritus. Extreme nominalism held that universals are nothing other than convenient names that we give to characteristics of objects that seem similar to us; our naming these abstractions does not give them independent being. There is no extramental basis for using the same general term.

Few if any medieval philosophers defended extreme nominalism. Extreme realism was just as unpopular among serious thinkers. Nevertheless, the terms of the debate are marked out helpfully by the contrast. The rejection of the two extremes focused the debate around how to articulate the ontological status and metaphysical relationship of universals and particulars within the class of views we are calling medieval realism. (Note that medieval realism has been defined vaguely here so as to include all of the interesting positions in the universals debate.)

Within the scope of medieval realism, the possibilities can be presented as a three-way debate between Thomas’s (1225-1274) form of medieval realism and two newer views: what we shall call the moderate realism of Duns Scotus (c.1265-1308) and the conceptualism of William of Ockham (c.1285-c.1347). These three views, being species of medieval realism, are distinguishable with reference to their views of the ontological status of universals. The first asserts that universals have independent being in the mind of God (thus running the range of medieval realist views almost all the way out to extreme realism) whereas the latter two grant at most dependent being to universals. Or, cutting the pie differently, the first two clearly grant universals power of being whereas the last grants universals at best a weak kind of power of being (thus running the range of medieval realist views almost all the way out to extreme nominalism).

On behalf of the first view, Thomas Aquinas argued:

  • Universals have independent, intelligible reality as "Ideas" in the mind of God, though they are not ontologically distinct from God.
  • Universals "exist" in the sensible world only in things and not apart from them.
  • Human beings, using the abstracting/comparing functions of reason, discover identical, common "form" in different material things. this is how we come to have imperfect, approximate knowledge of universals.
  • True universals cannot be known "in themselves" by human beings in this life (cf. Thomas’s idea of the beatific vision).

The second position is that of Duns Scotus (moderate realism). Scotus viewed universals in the following way (formal definitions are given above for the terms used here):

  • Universals exist as universals only in the human mind.
  • Universals are not just figments of our imagination but are grounded in reality, in what Scotus calls essence or common nature.
  • Basically, the individual and the universal are two different aspects of this common nature. The common nature in itself is neither universal nor individual, but has the capacity to be both.
  • The common nature becomes singular in individual things through "contraction". The "individuating feature" of a particular thing, its haecceity or "thisness", contracts the common nature to singularity.
  • The common nature becomes universal through the abstraction of the human intellect.

The third position is the conceptualism of William Ockham. Ockham is often characterized as a nominalist, but most scholars agree that it is more accurate to call him a conceptualist, or at least a precursor of what was later to be called conceptualism (in David Hume, for example).

  • Ockham rejects Scotus's notion of common nature and argues instead that universals exist only as concepts in people’s minds.
  • The basis for the universal concept is the resemblance which individuals bear to one another. The conceptualist begins with the fact of generality in language and recurrence/resemblance in sense experience and asks how we come to form and use general ideas and words. When a concept resembles a set of individuals, just as they resemble one another, that concept can act as a natural sign for those individuals.
  • Because only individual, concrete things exist in the basic sense, universals have no objective grounding in nature. Universals are real as concepts, however, so they have a kind of derivative being as an abstract entity in human minds (and perhaps cultures; cf. the new field of inquiry called memetics).

The following diagram illustrates the sweep of positions from extreme realism to extreme nominalism. To read the diagram from left to right is both to move roughly from early to late and from a lofty view of the ontological status of universals to a lowly one in which much more stress was placed on the ontological primacy of individuals. This historic transformation in philosophy (perhaps most decisively symbolized in the change from Scotus to Ockham) is sometimes regarded as a movement from via antiqua to via moderna.




of Plato(?!)

Thomas Aquinas

John Duns Scotus
(moderate realism)

William of Ockham

Humpty Dumpty(?!)

Earlier (1225-1274) (1265-1308) (1285-1347) Later
Lofty ontology of universals;
individuals less important
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Modest ontology of universals;
individuals more important

Ciccarelli Creation: Four Tales of Glory

Extreme realism: (Aristotle's caricature of Plato, perhaps)

There was once a young athlete who yearned to achieve Glory at his first Olympic trials. He exerted himself to the utmost, and took the highest honors at every game in which he participated. But as he stood before the crowds, receiving their accolades, his brow draped with the olive branch, he felt a vague sense of disappointment. Somehow, true Glory seemed to have eluded him, though he had certainly reached the height of what most of his acquaintances would call glory. He could not understand his sense of disappointment until he happened into conversation with a wise woman. This woman told him that physical prowess, no matter how great, would never lead to true Glory. True Glory belonged to another realm, not the everyday realm of this world, where things were subject to change and decay, but an eternal realm where dwell Glory, Beauty, Truth, Goodness in eternal and unchanging splendor. The glory he experienced before his fellow athletes, before the great crowds at the Olympic games, was a mere shadow of this true Glory. She then asked him if he wanted to strive toward true Glory. Eagerly, he said he did. She then told him a great secret: before he was born, his soul had known this eternal world of Forms, and now, with great effort, he could remember something of this splendor. He must now, however, train his mind instead of his body, concentrating on mathematics and philosophy. Finally, if he were successful, he could advance toward the highest form of knowledge and perhaps even a vision of the Forms, including Glory itself.

Medieval realism: (Aquinas, perhaps)

The old man stared at the waterfall sheeting endlessly over black rock. It is a blessing that I can still find the strength in these old limbs to carry me to this spot. Other scenes that he had observed over his lifetime came to mind: a sky on the verge of night, the surmounting habit of an ancient oak, the frenzy of the ocean in the clutch of a storm. They are all glorious, he thought. He sat near the place where the water pooled at the bottom of the cataract and pondered this manifestation of glory. Long ago, at the schools, he had learned much about the world, and over the years had often returned to this wisdom. From the beginning, the teaching went, God had glory in mind; it was just one of the many ideas that partook of the divine essence, and these were the "seeds" of Creation. In the Creation, the divine essence was actualized in matter, and this was the world, all things that exist, plants, creatures, people. The idea of glory still was, as part of the divine essence, above the realm of existence or created things, mysterious, apprehended directly in itself by angels. But we cannot know glory this way, the old man muttered, recalling the insistence of the master on this point. We humans know things, like this waterfall, or a field of lilies yet undisturbed by human passage. And we use our reason to discover what it is to be glorious. We take from these experiences of waterfall or lily the quality that makes them glorious; this quality is something real, something common in things. The old man rested his hands on his knee, and took in the waters before him. Perhaps we don’t know the essence of glory as do the angels, but to know glory at all is a gift. And it comforted the old man to think that his knowledge of glory was related to the glory of God.

Conceptualism: (Hume, perhaps, and Ockham as a precursor)

"What is glory?" the woman exclaimed, in response to my question. "Why, it’s your idea of glory. It’s in your head." She thought carefully a minute, and then pointed to her child playing over by the fence. "Take Anne, there." And then she sighed. "I don’t know why her hair won’t stay braided. Anyway, if you could see inside her head, you would understand about glory. Let me try to explain. . . ."

"She’s a thoughtful child. Too quiet, I’ve sometimes said, but that’s neither here nor there. Now, Anne has habits. Maybe your child does, too. She has her little habitual ways of talking, and of carrying herself, and pulling on her earlobe, and that everlasting twisting of her hair. Well, just imagine now, inside her head, she’s doing all that pondering and wondering. Sometimes that’s like a habit, too." The woman caught the expression on my face. "No, I haven’t forgotten about glory, I’m coming to it."

"Let’s say she sees something, and tells me about it. Maybe the young Whitney boy winning all the races at the county fair and exulting in the attention, you know how he does. And I say, ‘My, isn’t he just taking the glory!’ And then she sees something else, like a picture of those Roman armies marching through the city, thousands of them, after a great war, and hears it described as glorious. Now those two aren’t exactly the same, are they? But close enough in resembling that we’d call them both by the same name, glory."

"This happens again and again. Then, by and by, she gets in the habit of thinking that way, of matching certain kinds of scenes or situations, or what have you, with that word, "glory," because she can compare them to what she remembers folks calling by that name. And she doesn’t forget much, I’ll warrant. Many’s the time I wish she would. By the same token, that habit helps her sort out what is sordid and ugly and petty from the things she would call glorious. And pretty soon, Anne builds her own notion of glory. It’s her own idea, all right, but as you can see it’s pretty much the same as my idea or your idea, because of the way she got it in her head. Close enough so we understand her and can all talk to one another. And that’s good enough to my mind."

Pure Nominalism (Humpty Dumpty, perhaps)

Alice and Humpty Dumpty are talking about the days of the year when one might get "un-birthday" presents. Humpty Dumpty speaks, looking at a page on which Alice has written a simple subtraction problem: 365-1 = 364:

". . . As I was saying, that seems to be done right--though I haven’t time to look it over thoroughly just now--and that shows that there are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents--"

"Certainly," said Alice.

"And only one for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for you!"

"I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’" Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don’t--till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ "

"But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’," Alice objected.

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master--that’s all."

What is at Stake in the Problem of Universals?

There are a number of issues at stake in the problem of universals. There is an intellectual puzzle here, of course, and that can be enough for some people to get excited about the problem of universals. But there are other implications, too, and these demonstrate that the problem of universals remains important even today.

1. Metaphysical Theology

The focus of efforts in metaphysical theology was on coming to understand the universal or general; that’s how human reason can know about God's existence and nature, the character of human beings and the world, etc. Thus, metaphysical theology tended to assume that universals are ontologically preeminent. The lowering of the status of universals in the ontological mix causes theology to shift either toward a more empirical approach (focusing on experience) or toward a more positivist approach (focusing on faith and revelation).

2. Ethics and Politics

There is a great deal hinging on the ontological status of individual concrete things: is the ontological status of individuals to be subordinated to that of universals? Our answer to this question affects how we approach a number of ethical and political issues. For example, a higher valuation of individuals in the ontological scheme of things implies that individual rights can have a claim against even supposedly divinely ordained institutions. It also implies that democratic organization of individuals would be a more appropriate form of political organization than ecclesiastical Christendom because the former does better justice to the importance of the individual.

3. Scientific Inquiry

Also at stake is new understanding of scientific inquiry. If individuals are more important in the ontological mix then it is less feasible to try rationally to discern the laws of nature without specific reference to the elements of nature. This leads to cutting back on scientific speculation and looking instead for regularities in nature that can be tested against individual realities through experimentation. Just as the pauper can decry the monarch, so the individual fact can challenge a scientific theory.

4. Religious Pluralism

Is there a "higher religious truth" to which all religions point, participate in, or embody? Or is religious truth just a concept or name that different individuals within one group might come to agree on? In this case, wouldn’t one religion’s truth be different than another’s? How we answer the question of universals will profoundly affect our conception of the issue of religious pluralism, interreligious dialogue, and conflicting religious truth claims.

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