We can get into incredibly long, and detailed discussions about stuff that seemingly have no bearing on our lives or what we’re doing. It can be about stars, about the universe, about people, and sometimes even about writers. Although, the discussions about writing and writers tend to be short because I just can’t light the same love for books and writing in Mark as I feel.
But we were talking about science, and in particular how the scientific method was a good model with which to view the world. Our argument was that if we now are at the top of a long and winding staircase, if you excuse the clumsy simile, for scientific thinking – what was it like at the bottom of those stairs? My answer? A movement in early medieval Europe called Scholasticism.
Not so much a philosophy or a theology as a method of learning, scholasticism places a strong emphasis on dialectical reasoning to extend knowledge by inference, and to resolve contradictions. Scholastic thought is also known for rigorous conceptual analysis and the careful drawing of distinctions. In the classroom and in writing, it often takes the form of explicit disputation: a topic drawn from the tradition is broached in the form of a question, opponents’ responses are given, a counter-proposal is argued and opponent’s arguments rebutted. Because of its emphasis on rigorous dialectical method, scholasticism was eventually applied to many other fields of study.
This really got its start in the parish schools and the first Universities of Europe in the middle ages when the priests and clerics stumbled upon a new fun game that would grow into this movement called Scholasticism. The term even means “of the schools”.
Before Charlemagne’s policy to build a school in every abbey in his empire, there were no advanced learning centres as such. If there was any education the nobility sent for tutors that came to live with the students in the castles and palaces of Europe. The rest of the population didn’t receive an education at all.
By building those first learning centres, Charlemagne set in motion the process that would create this Scholasticism, and it started a process of competition and conflict. In order to attract students, and money, the learning centres had to be good. And to appear to be good there had to be a certain degree of status, prestige and one-upmanship.
Obviously one had to achieve a certain amount of fame before the nobility sent its boys there. And with the boys came money, power, and influence. So there was an incentive to be really combative.
“How many angels can dance on the head of a pin” is probably one of the most famous questions that the Scholastics occupied themselves with, and they build a process of the methods for reasoning to arrive at an answer. To answer the questions they posed, they read a specific work and then everything associated with the work – from ancient texts to papal letters, they unwittingly invented critical thinking.
The angels and pins question might seem a silly question to us, but it had a purpose. All the formal logic, the intense philology, and the arguments and debates and conflict, were meant to reconcile facts with a predefined dogma. That was the problem with Scholasticism, it was a deductive system, rather than an inductive one.
It marshalled arguments to arrive at a predefined conclusion based on dogma. It took a precept from the church authorities and the antique philosophers and, rather than use the arguments themselves to find a conclusion, they changed the facts to suit the answer. By this, it was the opposite of what we know as the scientific method.
You can build a steam engine or a cathedral with the same basic tools, and Scholasticism legitimized the tools that scientific knowledge would come to use. Tool use doesn’t need to change even if your intention in using the tools change. The hammer of formal logic can be used to knead facts to suit a premise, and it can be used to arrive at a conclusion by examining facts. By focusing on logic and reason and intellectual rigour, Scholasticism unwittingly introduced those into the intellectual life, and that lead to the Renaissance.
By the time of the high and late Renaissance, people were moving on because the conflict driven nature of intellectual life between different universities, between faculties and faculty members, and between students undermined the movement of Scholasticism. With the emergence of people like Copernicus and Galileo and Kepler, as well as the philosophers, Scholasticism had turned itself into empiricism.
You already had, from the very beginning, the conflict between the schools themselves. You also had the jostling for status and importance within the schools; between teachers and clerics and students. Couple that with the intellectual rigour required to be respected, it was almost inevitable that the limits of Scholasticism would be reached eventually, and you had to think of something else.
The new strain of Scholasticism, proto-Empiricism if you will, found that the old guard didn’t defend and preserve their centre. Often the old guard resorted to physical violence and torture, but not to debate. The rigour and thoroughness was abandoned for crude oppression, but not for intellectual refutation.
When the proto-Empiricists brought powerful rewards, not least when the new ways opened the way to the Americas and to Asia, the age of Scholasticism gave way to the Enlightenment. Though conflict, reason and logic defined both strands, only the empiricists remained by the time of Newton and Kepler.
Now we’re here at the top of the stairs that I mentioned at the start of all this. Or maybe I should say that we’re on a platform, and that the stairs continue upwards because I don’t think that we’ve learned everything yet.
Mark wants to disagree with me that monks and clerics had anything to do with his precious science and its methods, but I really think that I’m probably right. The inner core of the scientific method, where the outside has been warped beyond all recognition, is still the same as what those monks and clerics did in the thirteenth century.
There’s nothing wrong with that, and there’s no shame in it. What is a shame is that the clerics and the priests calcified into preserving the old model. That’s probably one reason why they are increasingly irrelevant in today’s world. The scientific method is far more instructive and useful, and brings too high rewards, for anyone to want to preserve the idea that you can massage the facts to reach a specific determined conclusion.