Context (World Philosophers and Their Works)
One of the most colorful and fascinating figures of the Middle Ages was Peter Abelard. Many who know little about the technicalities of medieval logic still know about his life and loves. Some mystery and much romance surround the events of his life, and beneath this fascination the fact that Abelard was undoubtedly one of the more skilled philosophers of the era is sometimes forgotten. For one thing, much less of his work has been translated than that of others from the same period who are, consequently, now better known. Furthermore, his particular doctrines have not gained the fame that came to others. No matter how important Glosses on Porphyry may be in a medieval setting, the idea of practicing philosophy through such commentary is not a currently accepted form. However, few were more responsible than Porphyry for the problems that dominated the Middle Ages, and Abelard’s glosses concern crucial issues.
This work belongs to the branch of philosophy that Abelard, following the Roman philosopher Boethius, called “rational” (the other divisions being the “speculative” and the “moral”). It corresponds most nearly to what is called logic, although it comprehends a wider area of problems than formal logic does. Porphyry prepared an introduction for the Categories (in Organon, second Athenian period, 335-323 b.c.e.; English translation, 1812) of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, and it...
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Universals (World Philosophers and Their Works)
The prominent controversy regarding the status of universals is raised through logical inquiry, which has metaphysical overtones. Deciding whether universals are real is a necessary step before deciding about genus and species. People make divisions according to genus and species, but one cannot be content to do this as a logical convenience. The question is whether such division represents anything real, when it is obvious that every individual thing is singular and not universal, representative of the species but never the species itself. Abelard asks: Do universals apply to things or only to words, once one has been forced to study universals through the study of genus and species?
Abelard must first define a universal. Then, after quoting Aristotle and Porphyry, he refines his own definition: That is universal that is formed to be predicated of many. The question of the ontological status of universals has been raised by a logical question and formulated in logical terms. Abelard begins by supposing that things as well as words are included within this definition.
If things as well as words are called universal, how can the universal definition be applied to things also? Abelard begins to deal with this question by considering the views of those who have formulated this problem. Many, he says, solve this issue by asserting that in different things, there is present a substance that is essentially the same although the various things differ...
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Words as Universals (World Philosophers and Their Works)
Abelard, however, could not go along with those who called single individuals predicated of many things universals, on the ground that the many things agreed with the individuals in certain respects. Neither a collection taken together, then, nor an individual thing could be called a universal; consequently, Abelard believed that universals belong to words alone. There are universal words and there are particular words. If this is so, what had to be done was to inquire carefully into the property of universal words. What is the common cause by which the universal word is imposed and what is the conception of the common likeness of things? More important, is the word called common because of a common cause (or respect) in which the things agree, because of a common conception, or because of both at once? These questions, Abelard found by his examination of other doctrines, form the heart of the issue concerning universals. Dealing with these questions is the only way to attempt to reach a solution.
In order to deal with the issues, Abelard argued, one must first be clear about the process of understanding itself. (This is typically Aristotelian.) When one understands the relation between the mind and the objects that it seeks to understand and how it comes to form that understanding, then one will learn the status of the universal. In other words, the universal is to be understood primarily as a part of the process of understanding itself. What Abelard...
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Bibliography (World Philosophers and Their Works)
Abelard, Peter. Abelard and Heloise: The Story of His Misfortunes and the Personal Letters. Translated by Betty Radice. London: Folio Society, 1977. Peter Abelard’s account of his life and his and Héloïse’s letters are available in many translations. This work provides primary information about Abelard’s life from his birth until about 1132.
Bowden, John. Who’s Who in Theology: From the First Century to the Present. New York: Crossroad, 1992. Provides helpful information on Abelard and his thought and discusses other thinkers who helped form the context for Abelard’s reflections.
Clanchy, M. T. Abelard: A Medieval Life. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1997. This historical work interprets Abelard’s life, thought, and historical circumstances in accessible ways.
Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Medieval Philosophy. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962. A leading historian of Western philosophy emphasizes Abelard’s contribution to controversies about metaphysics and the theory of knowledge.
Grane, Leif. Peter Abelard: Philosophy and Christianity in the Middle Ages. Translated by Frederick Crowley and Christine Crowley. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1970. An excellent survey of Abelard’s life set...
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