Nicholas of Autrecourt Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: A philosopher whose thinking reflected the intellectual themes of his time, Nicholas contributed to the end of High Scholastic thought by proposing a form of radical nominalism which was critical of the Aristotelian notions of substance and causation. Far ahead of its time, Nicholas’ thought anticipated some of the discoveries of David Hume, later rationalists, and later empiricists.

Early Life

Nicholas was born about 1300 in Autrecourt, in the French diocese of Verdun. This region was also the birthplace of two other iconoclastic contemporaries, James of Metz and John of Mirecourt. Of Nicholas’ early youth, little is known, though he apparently proved himself a bright boy, matriculating at the University of Paris and living as a Fellow of the Sorbonne between 1320 and 1327.

During the time Nicholas was a student, the University of Paris was, intellectually, an especially exhilarating place. Change was in the air. By the fourteenth century, the seams of the much-patched fabric of Scholastic synthesis had begun to unravel rapidly because the internal oppositions between Christian theology and Aristotelian metaphysics and Aristotelian logic were becoming more and more obvious.

The criticism of Scholasticism which resulted from the need to resolve these oppositions was not, however, an entirely new creation. It was an outgrowth of the logical methods of Scholasticism itself. Thus when John of Ockham personally carried his nominalistic philosophy to France to answer the charge of heretical and erroneous opinions before the papal commission at Avignon in 1324, he was greeted by the professors of the University of Paris as a fellow laborer. It is impossible to discount the influence of both the rise of nominalism and the Parisian intellectual atmosphere on Nicholas’ intellectual development, even though Nicholas’ philosophy cannot, in any proper sense, be considered a form of Ockhamism.

Shortly after completing his studies in 1327, Nicholas received his licentiate in theology and the degrees of master of arts and bachelor of theology and laws. Appropriately equipped, he embarked upon an academic career at his alma mater. His tenure at the University of Paris, which lasted from 1327 to 1340, represents the period of his greatest accomplishment.

Life’s Work

It was during his tenure as an academic that Nicholas wrote the controversial works which helped shape the intellectual scene of the fourteenth century. Unfortunately, the fragmentary nature of the surviving corpus makes it impossible to describe the full scope of his thought. Of Nicholas’ commentaries on the writings of Aristotle and Peter Lombard, all that survives comes from the replies of Jean Buridan in his commentaries on Aristotle’s Physica (c. 335-323 b.c.e.; Physics) and Metaphysica (c. 335-323 b.c.e.; Metaphysics) and those of Thomas of Strassburg in his commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sententiarum libri IV (1148-1151; four books of sentences). The only surviving Nicholatian texts are two complete letters and fragments of five others written to Bernard of Arezzo, an almost complete letter to Egidius, an answer to a theological question, and a philosophical treatise entitled Exigit ordo executionis. All were written before 1340, the Exigit ordo executionis apparently being the last. Only the two complete letters have been translated into English in their entirety. It is on the basis of this motley collection of works that any reconstruction of the main themes of Nicholas’ philosophy proceeds.

Nicholas’ philosophical starting point is the logical principle of noncontradiction: A thing cannot be and not be something at the same time. All arguments formed to arrive at truth which do not follow from the principle of noncontradiction are merely probable. Only deductive arguments which presuppose this principle are absolutely certain.

Nicholas distinguishes two kinds of certainty which characterize different forms of experience: the certainty of faith and the certainty of evidence. The certainty of faith is guaranteed by God’s grace, is subjective, and is thus beyond the criticism of philosophers. One who has it finds it supernaturally indubitable, and nothing more can be said; it is its own proof. The second variety of certainty is the proper province of philosophers. It is called the certainty of evidence and is characterized by admitting no degrees. Either the evidence produces certainty or it does not. Nicholas does maintain that the certainty of evidence comes in two varieties: the certainty of evidence about simple things and the certainty of evidence about complex things. By the former, Nicholas means the certainty of inner perception or experience; by the latter, he means the certainty of propositions. The principle of noncontradiction can be used to test both varieties.

In some of his writings, Nicholas provides demonstrations as to how the criterion of noncontradiction can be applied to simple and complex judgments. In the case of perception (simple certainty), he argues the impossibility of separating judgments of existence associated with perception from the perceptions themselves. In other words, to perceive a color and to be aware that one is perceiving a color are inseparable acts. To maintain that one perceives a color and that one is not, at the same time, conscious of perceiving a color is a contradiction. From this Nicholas draws the inference that everyone perceives his or her own existence. To maintain that the perception of existence is possible without a consciousness of that existence is a contradiction; to maintain this is to assert that there can be a perception without something doing the perceiving.

In the case of complex things (or propositions), Nicholas provides a number of analogous arguments which show that the certainty of propositions, too, depends upon the principle of noncontradiction. If it were possible to be certain about a proposition which was not dependent upon the principle of noncontradiction, then this act would be tantamount to saying that one could be certain about a proposition which could be either true or false, or—more subtly—that one could be certain about a proposition which...

(The entire section is 2588 words.)