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Learning from the Middle Ages

Posted on: November 28, 2021

Category: Theology

Learning from the Middle Ages

One of my friends on Facebook posted a fake book meme directed at anti-vaxxers. The book is entitled, “Freedom: How You Can Reject Modern Medicine and Die Like a Medieval Peasant.” I stress that it is a fake book even though, these days, you might wonder.

Aside from the jesting title, the fake book made me think about the Middle Ages and ask myself what can be learned from a time before the modern world. My go-to medieval person is Peter Abelard. He was brilliant, and he said some things that remain relevant for today.

Abelard wrote in Latin about problems we no longer have. A main topic was the problem of universals. How he handled this problem marks a turn in philosophy from supernatural to natural reasoning. Abelard lived from 1079 to 1142. It was an age when the church was powerful and supernatural beliefs were common and sometimes required.

Without getting into details, we can say that Abelard accomplished two things. One was to demonstrate that universals are not real things. The other was to describe universals as the impositions of language. What does he mean, and why are these insights significant?

First, universals were thought to be supernatural elements that explained why we can identify what is common among diverse things. For example, we can identify a variety of horses, but we know that every variety is a horse. There is something common to all horses. That common thing was called a universal. It was generally thought that universals existed supernaturally. They were independent of the things in which they were found, like horses. Another way to put it is that all particular horses contain the universal element of supernatural horse-ness. Abelard was among the first medieval philosophers who rejected this supernatural explanation about universals. He thought there was a natural explanation.

Abelard rejected the idea that there are supernatural universals, but he still needed to explain why, despite varieties, we know every horse is indeed a horse. His explanation relied on in voce or “in voice” analysis. He was not the only one to use this form of analysis, but for various reasons, including his famous love affair with Heloise, he is the most well-known. In voce means that even though every characteristic of a horse is distinct in each horse we see, we still notice common features. A universal is only a name used for the natural features we notice. It is our language, our voice, and not a supernatural thing, that imposes a universal name on a particular subject. To understand universals, we have to study language, not supernaturalism.

Today it is unlikely that we can see how this strange debate in the Middle Ages about universals was radical. How could anyone get into trouble for saying that a universal is not supernatural but natural? Nevertheless, when we think about it further, we can see why this debate proved to be so controversial. All we need to do is ask, what other things are not supernatural universals but merely our language? How about God? Or, maybe the incarnation? What about the Eucharist? We can see that the universal was central to the church because Christ has to be supernaturally real for the Eucharist to work. Any particular piece of bread is only a piece of bread if there is no supernatural reality. The Eucharist does not work without a real supernatural. Abelard had indeed opened a can of worms.

There was yet a more radical feature that Abelard unearthed. His in voce analysis held that the words we use create, in our minds, a certain kind of reality, but the reality in our minds may not correspond to anything real. To return to the example of a horse, we can create in our minds the idea of a unicorn. A unicorn is a horse, but it does not exist. Yet, we can carry on with conversations about unicorns to our heart’s content. The non-existence of unicorns does not stop us from endlessly talking about them. This is an example of how language “imposes” a universal idea upon our thoughts without necessitating the existence of universals. Language creates impressions of reality even when the impressions are fabrications. David Hume, a philosopher from the eighteenth century, really understood this point well.

If we return to our contemporary world where the pandemic has ignited resistance communities who thrive on pseudoscience, deception, and other falsifications, we can see that Abelard remains relevant. Abelard explains why pseudoscience thrives. It thrives because language is more attractive to human beings than reality. As long as what we create in our minds seems reasonable, we will not hesitate to impose this reason upon the world—even when the imposition is fake. In philosophy today, this deception is attributed to linguistic acts of coherence. Things can cohere, can make sense, in language even though they may not correspond to reality. For Abelard the difference between what we call coherence and correspondence was the difference between in voice (in voce) and in reality (in re).

The other excellent point gained from Abelard is that when it comes to judging reality, the real question is not what makes sense but what is ethical. Within our cultures, certain reasonings can cohere that do not correspond to reality. In Christianity, it is a coherent truth that the Eucharistic bread is the body of Christ even though, in reality, it's just bread. Yet, because the Eucharist is a powerful coherent truth in Christianity, it can encourage all kinds of arguments. Years ago, disagreements about the Eucharist could even start wars.

To Abelard, the truth about the Eucharist as much as about unicorns is not whether the Eucharist corresponds to reality. It is whether the practice of observing the Eucharist makes a difference to how we live. If rituals like the Eucharist do not harm others and help us to live with forgiveness, then the impression they make upon us is positive. That is the point. So far as Abelard is concerned, all the universals in the world serve no purpose if they serve to harm.

© David Galston

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