Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 4. The Attitude to Scholasticism of Duns Scotus and of Ockham

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

§ 4. The Attitude to Scholasticism of Duns Scotus and of Ockham

But uniformity of opinion was not maintained completely or for long, and three English schoolmen are to be reckoned among the most (if not the most) important opponents of St. Thomas. These are Roger Bacon, Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. “Scotism” became the rival of “Thomism” in the schools. The effect of Duns Scotus’s work was to break up the harmony of faith and reason which had been asserted by St. Thomas, and which was of the essence of orthodox scholasticism. Scotus was not himself heretical in religious belief, nor did he assert an antagonism between faith and reason; but he was critical of all intellectual arguments in the domain of theology. The leading school had not attempted a justification by reason of such specifically Christian doctrines as those of the Trinity or the Incarnation (as Erigena, for instance, had done). These were accepted as mysteries of the faith, known by revelation only. But certain doctrines—such as the being of God, the immortality of the soul and the creation of the world out of nothing—were held to admit of rational proof, and thus to belong to belong to “natural theology.” The arguments for the latter doctrines are subjected to criticism by Scotus. He denied the validity of natural theology—except in so far as he recognised that a certain vision of God may be reached by reason, although it needs to be reinforced by revelation. In restricting the power of intellect, Scotus exalted the significance of will. Faith is a voluntary submission to authority, and its objective ground is the unconditional will of God.

At the hands of Ockham, who was a pupil of Duns Scotus, the separation between theology and philosophy, faith and reason, was made complete. He admitted that there are probable arguments for the existence of God, but maintained the general thesis that whatever transcends experience belongs to faith. In this way, he broke with Scotism as well as with Thomism on a fundamental question. He denied the real existence of ideas or universals and reverted to the doctrine known as nominalism, of which he became the greatest exponent. Entities are not to be postulated without necessity shown. The universal exists only as a conception in the individual mind; though it signifies, without change of meaning, any one of a number of things. The only reality is the individual, and all knowledge is derived from experience. Ockham, further, is remarkable for his political writings, in which he defended the independent power of the temporal sovereign against the claims of the pope. His philosophical doctrines had many followers and opponents; but he is the last of the great scholastics, for his criticisms struck at the root of the scholastic presuppositions.