(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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 is this work upon which Abelard comments. Abelard’s treatment of the problem of the status of universals really ended the argument in its all-absorbing attraction; from then on it was only one among a series of problems. Abelard, however, was condemned by his church because his doctrines seemed to lead to paganism.

Definition, division, and classification are the central logical problems to be considered first. Essential definition is the main issue, and consequently all these logical problems basically involve metaphysical issues. In Porphyry’s mind, and Abelard’s as well, logical division is division according to real structures actually present in nature. How are the creatures of the natural order divided? This question concerns the way of things as much as it does the ways of logical procedure, for in the medieval mind, the two are to be worked on until they become the same. The mind adjusts its classifications to the divisions it finds in nature. Logical investigation is ontological inquiry, and through it the structure of the world is grasped.


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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 in form....

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Words as Universals

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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 found is that the understanding of universals differs and is to be distinguished from the understanding of particulars.

Abelard turned to theology and considered the question of universals as concerning the operation of God’s mind. God must have universal conceptions in his mind as a necessary part of his creative function. Human beings, however, do not need such universal patterns. Universal conceptions exist in God’s mind, but not in people’s, and this is one measure of their difference. Humans have certain intrinsic forms that do not come to them through the senses, such as rationality and mortality. (Aristotle had also realized that not all knowledge could be formed from the senses and the apprehension of individuals.)

What, then, is responsible for the common reference of universal words? Is it caused by a common cause of...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

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 against the history, religion, and philosophy of the twelfth century. The work contains a good summary of Abelard’s views on metaphysics and religion.

Luscombe, David Edward. The School of Abelard: The Influence of Abelard’s Thought in the Early Scholastic Period. Cambridge, London: Cambridge University Press, 1969. This study shows how Abelard influenced Western philosophy. Includes an extensive bibliography of works by and about Abelard.

Marenbon, John. The Philosophy of Peter Abelard. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. A good account of Abelard’s thought and his contributions to the history of philosophy.

Rinser, Luise. Abelard’s Love. Translated by Jean M. Snook. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998. Focuses on Abelard’s relation to Héloïse.

Sikes, Jeffrey Garrett. Peter Abelard. Cambridge, London: Cambridge University Press, 1932. An older but still useful biography that pays special attention to Abelard’s views on religious and philosophical matters.

Starnes, Kathleen M. Peter Abelard, His Place in History. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1981. A helpful study that offers important insights about the development of Abelard’s thought and its significance in Western philosophy.

Worthington, Marjorie. The Immortal Lovers: Heloise and Abelard. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., 1960. A popular, well-written biography of the two lovers. Good on twelfth century background.