Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 2. English Contributions to Medieval Philosophy

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XIV. The Beginnings of English Philosophy

§ 2. English Contributions to Medieval Philosophy

From the end of the eighth century, when Alcuin of York was summoned to the court of Charles the Great, down to the middle of the fourteenth century, there was an almost constant succession of scholars of British birth among the writers who contributed to the development of philosophy in Europe. The most important names in the succession are Johannes Scotus Erigena, John of Salisbury, Alexander of Hales, Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, Johannes Duns Scotus, William of Ockham and Thomas Bradwardine. An account of the English scholastics has been given in the first volume of this work. Here it must suffice to characterise in general terms the movement of which they formed part, and some of the directions in which their ideas exercised an influence on later science and speculation.

The philosophy of the Middle Ages was, above all things, an attempt at the systematisation of knowledge. The instrument for this synthesis was found in the logical conceptions and method of Aristotle. Its material consisted of the existing records of ancient philosophy and science, what was learned from contemporary experience and the teachings of the church. In the heterogeneous mass of material thus brought together, a pre-eminent position was assigned to religious doctrine. Philosophy came to be regarded as ancillary to theology; and the claims of theology were based upon ecclesiastical authority. This feature became characteristic of the scholastic method, and a frequent ground of objection to it in its decline. Connected with this was another and a more favourable feature. In accepting and interpreting theological doctrine, the thought of the period recognised the independent value of the facts of the spiritual life. What the Scriptures and the fathers taught was confirmed by inner experience. In the laborious erudition and dialectical subleties of the schoolmen, there is seldom wanting a strain of this deeper thought, which attains its full development in medieval mysticism. Thus, in the words of a recent historian,

  • it dawned upon men that the spiritual world is just as much a reality as the material world, and that in the former is man’s true home. The way was prepared for a more thorough investigation of spirit and matter than was possible to antiquity. Above all things, however, a sphere of experience was won for human life which was, in the strictest sense, its own property, into which no external powers could penetrate.