Scholasticism, from the Latin word scholasticus ("that which belongs to the school) was a method of learning taught by the academics (or schoolmen) of medieval universities circa 1100 - 1500 C.E. Scholasticism originally began as a reconciliation of the philosophy of the ancient classical philosophers with medieval Christian theology. It was not a philosophy or theology in itself, but a tool and method for learning which emphasized dialectical reasoning. The primary purpose of scholasticism was to find the answer to a question or resolve a contradiction. It is most well known in its application in medieval theology, but was eventually applied to classical philosophy and many other fields of study.

Scholastic theology is distinct from Patristic theology and from positive theology. The schoolmen themselves distinguished between theologia speculativa sive scholastica and theologia positiva. It combined religious doctrine, study of the ideas of the Church fathers, and philosophical and logical analysis based on Aristotle and his commentators, and to some extent on themes from Plato. Prominent scholastics included Thomas Aquinas, Jean Buridan, Duns Scotus, and William Ockham. Scholasticism dominated European philosophy from the time of Peter Abelard to that of Francisco Suárez, when it was replaced by Renaissance humanism, rationalism, and empiricism. There have been several revivals, including neo-scholasticism.

Origin of the Term “Scholastic”

In early Christian schools, especially after the beginning of the sixth century, it was customary to call the head of the school magister scholae, capiscola, or scholasticus. With time, scholasticus became the title for the head of a school. The curriculum of the early Christian schools was the study of the seven liberal arts, including dialectic, the only branch of philosophy under systematic study at that time. Dialectic, which was usually taught by the scholasticus, became the prevailing method and system of philosophy throughout the Middle Ages. As a result, the name "Scholastic" came to be associated with the dialectical teaching of the masters of the schools. At the height of Scholastic philosophy, during the thirteenth century, the curriculum of seven liberal arts had been replaced with the studia generalia, or universities, but the philosophers of the thirteenth century were known as "Scholastics," a designation which continued until the end of the medieval period. A philosopher or theologian who adopts the method or the system of the medieval Scholastics is said to be a Scholastic.


The Patristic Era

The period extending from the beginning of Christianity through the time of St. Augustine is known as the Patristic era of philosophy and theology. The early Fathers of the Church developed a Christian philosophy based on Platonic principles, using reason to support revelation, and relying on spiritual intuition rather than logical proof to establish the truths which became the doctrine of the Church. The Patristic era ended in the fifth century, and between the fifth and ninth centuries, there were a number of thinkers-including Claudianus Mamertus, Boethius, Cassiodorus, St. Isidore of Seville, and Venerable Bede-who carried on Patristic traditions along Platonic lines.

The Scholastic Period

In the ninth century, the Carolingian revival of learning gave a new direction to Christian thought. The masters of the schools began to include discussions of psychology, metaphysics, cosmology, and ethics in their teaching of dialectic, giving rise to the Christian rationalism which characterizes Scholastic philosophy. The first original thinker in the Scholastic era was John the Scot (Johannes Scottus Eriugena). During the eleventh and twelfth centuries conflict arose between rationalists such as Roscelin, Abelard, and Peter Lombard, and Christian mystics such as St. Anselm, St. Peter Damian, St. Bernard, and the Victorines, who felt that they were threatening the Christian faith. Gradually the rationalists reconciled their methods with the orthodoxy of the Church and accommodated reverence for the mysteries of faith. Eclectics, like John of Salisbury, and Platonists, like the members of the School of Chartres, brought the Scholastic movement to a greater degree of toleration. By the end of the twelfth century, rationalism was dominant in the Christian universities, but coexisted with mysticism.

After the capture of Constantinople in 1204, the works of Arabian, Jewish and Greek philosophers were introduced into the Christian schools through Latin translations. Aristotle was now known not only as a logician, but as a metaphysician and a psychologist. The Arabian translations and commentaries on Aristotle were tinged with pantheism, fatalism and other Neo-platonic errors, and this gave rise to a new wave of conflict within the universities. Pantheists like David of Dinant and Averroists like Siger of Brabant alarmed the Church authorities and threatened to entirely discredit Aristotelianism, which was found to lack the element of mysticism. The University of Paris became a center for philosophical debate. The Church imposed strict disciplinary measures in an attempt to control the danger which they felt was undermining the Catholic faith. New access to translations from Greek revealed that the original teachings of Aristotle did not necessarily imply the errors attributed to him by students of the Arabian commentators. St. Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas succeeded in establishing the authority of Aristotelianism, and St. Bonaventura demonstrated that it was not incompatible with Christian mysticism. The study of Aristotle also opened up new possibilities for the natural sciences, as demonstrated by the work of Roger Bacon. During the high scholastic period (1250 - 1350), scholasticism moved beyond theology into the philosophy of nature, psychology, epistemology and philosophy of science. In Spain, the scholastics also made important contributions to economic theory, which would influence the later development of the Austrian school. However, all scholastics were bound by Church doctrine and certain questions of faith could never be addressed without risking trialand even execution for heresy.

During the fourteenth century, the energies of the Scholastics became increasingly absorbed in theological debates between the Franciscans, who followed the tradition of St. Augustine, and Dominicans, who followed Thomas Aquinas. Duns Scotus criticized the Dominicans and developed a new form of Scholasticism, Scotism, which gave primacy to the will over the intellect. In the Christian universities, a renewal of interest in Averroism, the cultivation of excessive formalism, the development of artificial terminology, the extended discussion of subtle aspects of theological questions, and neglect of the study of history and nature undermined the creative power of Scholasticism. William Ockham's Nominalism and Durandus's attempt to "simplify" Scholastic philosophy only fueled the debates further.

The development of scientific discovery and the humanism of the 1400s and 1500s, pushed scholastics into the background, though there was a revival in Spain at the School of Salamanca under the Jesuit teachers, Toletus, Vasquez, and Francisco Suárez.

Scholasticism came to be viewed as rigid, formalistic, outdated and an improper method of doing philosophy. During the catholic scholastic revival in the late 1800s and early 1900s, certain scholastics, notably Thomas Aquinas, and their respective schools of thought were revisited. Scholasticism is often referenced in discussions of theology or metaphysics.

Scholastic Method

Scholastic philosophy combined logic, metaphysics and semantics into one discipline, and is recognized to have contributed significantly to modern understanding of logic.

The scholastics would choose a book by a renowned scholar, called auctor, as a subject of investigation, for example, the Bible. Common auctores included Aristotle ("The Philosopher") and commentaries by Averroes ("The Commentator"); Boethius and his Consolation of Philosophy; Saint Augustine; Plato (Timaeus dialogue); Peter Lombard (Sentences of Peter Lombard); and the Bible. By reading the book thoroughly and critically, the scholars learned to appreciate the theories of the auctor. Then other documents related to the source document would be referenced, such as Church councils, papal letters, ancient texts or commentaries. The points of disagreement and contention among these multiple sources would be written down as individual sentences or snippets of text called sententiae. For example, the Bible contains apparent contradictions for Christians, such as the laws regarding what foods are kosher, and these contradictions have been examined by scholars ancient and contemporary, so a scholastic would gather all the arguments about the contradictions, looking at them from all angles with an open mind.

Once the sources and points of disagreement had been laid out, dialectic was used to reconcile the two sides of an argument so that they would be found to be in agreement. This was done using two methods, philological analysis and logical analysis. Words would be examined and it would be argued they could have more than one meaning, and that the author could have intended the word to mean something else. The ambiguous meaning of words could be used to find common ground between two otherwise contradictory statements. Logical analysis relied on the rules of formal logic to show that contradictions did not exist objectively, but were subjective to the reader.

Scholastics developed two different genres of literature. Quæstiones or "questions" applied the scholastic method to a particular question. Any number of sources could be referenced to illustrate the answer to the question. The second genre was a summa, encompassing all the conceivable questions about Christianity and cross-referencing them with related questions. The most famous summa is the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, summarizing the total of Roman Catholic theology.

Scholastic Training

Scholastic schools had two methods of teaching, the lectio and the disputatio. The lectio was a simple reading of a text by a teacher who would expound on certain words or ideas, but no questions were allowed. The disputatio was at the heart of the scholastic method. There were two types of disputatio. The first was the "ordinary," in which the question to be disputed was announced beforehand. The second was the quodlibetal in which the students would propose a question to the teacher without any prior preparation, and the teacher would respond, citing authoritative texts such as the Bible to prove his position. Students would then rebut the response and the debate would continue back and forth. During the exercise notes would be taken, and the teacher would then summarize the arguments from the notes and present his final position the next day, answering all the rebuttals.


  • Early scholastics (1000 - 1250):
    • Anselm of Canterbury
    • Peter Abélard
    • Solomon Ibn Gabirol
    • Peter Lombard
    • Gilbert de la Porrée
  • High scholastics (1250 - 1350):
    • Robert Grosseteste
    • Roger Bacon
    • Albertus Magnus
    • Thomas Aquinas
    • Boetius of Dacia
    • Duns Scotus
    • Radulphus Brito
    • William of Ockham
    • Jean Buridan
    • Nicolas Oresme
    • Marsilius of Padua
  • Late scholastics (1350- 1650):
    • Gregory of Rimini
    • Francisco de Vitoria
    • Francisco Suárez
    • Leonardus Lessius

Key anti-scholastics


  • Dawson, Christopher. Religion and the Rise of Western Culture. Image; Image Books ed edition, 1991. ISBN 0385421109
  • Kretzmann, Norman (Editor), Anthony Kenny (Editor), Jan Pinborg (Editor), and Eleonore Stump (Editor). The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy: From the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Disintegration of Scholasticism, 1100-1600. Cambridge University Press; New Ed edition, 1988. ISBN 0521369339
  • Pieper, Josef. Guide to Thomas Aquinas. Ignatius Press, 1991. ISBN 0898703190
  • Pieper, Josef, Richard Winston (Translator), and Clara Winston (Translator). Scholasticism: Personalities and Problems of Medieval Philosophy. St. Augustine's Press; 2r.e. edition, 2001. ISBN 1587317508

External links

All links retrieved November 2, 2019.

  • Catholic Encyclopedia entry
  • The genius of the scholastics and the orbit of Aristotle Article on the influence of scholasticism on later thought.
  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Medieval Philosophy entry

General Philosophy Sources