Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 397
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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 604
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. Porphyry seems to assent to this solution in arguing that by participation in the species, many humans are one. Other philosophers are of different opinions, and Abelard begins to formulate his own solution by finding one opinion from among these that seems to him to be closest to the truth, namely, the suggestion that individual things are different from each other not only in their forms, but also in their essences. He concludes that things cannot be universals because they are not predicated of many.
In retrospect, there seems to be no question but that much early medieval interpretation of Aristotle was substantially influenced by Neoplatonic doctrines. Abelard, like many others, was working toward the empirical stress upon the unique individual, which came to be recognized as more accurate Aristotelian doctrine. In working on the problem of the status of universals, Abelard attempted to reconcile the Platonic suggestion that universals subsist independently of things with the Aristotelian view, which stressed the individual as primary and the universal as a function of the status of things, existing only in things.
Some philosophers maintain that the universal is merely a collection of many individual things, but this is too weak a status to assign to universals, in Abelard’s view. He saw that, although a collection of humans is called a species, when the universal human is predicated of each individual, it is not the whole collection of humans that is predicated. A universal must be something other than a collection taken as a whole.
Abelard was trying to mediate between what he considered to be two extreme views, to work out a modified position that would give sufficient status to universals without making them in some sense more real than individuals. Being theologically oriented, he could not do away with universals or make them simply a product of language because they are present in God’s understanding and important to God’s way of knowing. On the other hand, like all those who became interested in Aristotle in the later Middle Ages, Abelard wanted to correct what he felt had been errors in previous ideas concerning universals and to stress the primacy of individuals and their status.
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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 imposition or a common conception? Abelard came to the conclusion that it is caused by both, but he regarded the common cause in accordance with the nature of things as having a greater force. There is, then, a source for universal conception in the things themselves from which the understanding forms its conceptions, although some universals result merely from the formation of common conceptions. The conception of universals is formed by abstraction.
Having come this far, Abelard believed that his analysis had provided the ground necessary to propose a solution to the question about universals and their status, the question Porphyry had originally raised. Universals signify things truly existent; they are not merely empty opinions. Nevertheless, in a certain sense, they exist in the understanding alone. Again, if one divides things into either corporeal or incorporeal and asks where in this division universals belong, the answer must be that they belong to both divisions. Universals in a sense signify corporeal things in that they are imposed according to the nature of things; yet in another sense, they signify incorporeal things, with respect to the manner in which they signify.
Universals are said to subsist in sensible things; that is, they signify an intrinsic substance existing in a thing that is sensible by its exterior form. However, although they signify this substance that subsists actually in the sensible thing, at the same time, they demonstrate the same substance as naturally separated from the sensible thing. Some universals are sensible with respect to the nature of things, and the same universal may be nonsensible with respect to the mode of signifying. Universals refer to sensible things, but they refer to them in an incorporeal manner. They signify both sensible things and at the same time that common conception that is ascribed primarily to the divine mind.
Singular words involve no such doubt as to their meaning. As things are discrete in themselves, so they are signified by singular words discretely, and the understanding of them refers to definite things. Universals do not have this easy reference, which is what makes them so difficult to understand. There is no definite thing, as is the case with singular words, with which they agree. Nevertheless, the multitude of things themselves is the cause of the universality of the nouns that are used to refer to them, because only that which contains many is universal. Yet the thing itself does not have the universality that the thing confers upon the word.
In some sense such a solution as Abelard has proposed—a moderate realism—could be accused of not being definite. What he did was to reject extreme solutions and to set the limits of the question and the mode in which the question ought to be asked. Only an extreme position is likely to be clear; any solution that attempts to hold to a moderate view is always in danger of slipping over to one of the extremes and will suffer from appearing to hold both extreme positions at once.
Yet the value in Abelard’s analysis is the raising of the problems, the cast given to the question, and the elucidation of the difficulties involved in any solution. The subtle analysis is illuminating in its own right, and understanding it gives us an appreciation both of Abelard and of the tradition that set his problems for him.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 392
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.