Prelude: From the Scholastics to the Nineteenth Century

Xxxx Xxxxxx xxxxxxxxxx at
Fri Mar 9 09:54:01 MST 2001

Prelude: From the Scholastics to the Nineteenth Century

Universities date from the late 11th and 12th century and flowered
throughout Europe from the 13th. Instruction was dispensed unevenly, in
locally varied mixes, from the seven liberal arts of the trivium--rhetoric,
grammar and logic (dialectic)--and the quadrivium--arithmetic, music,
geometry and astronomy--which continued the classical tradition, and
professional faculties of medicine, law and theology. With the language of
scholars, Latin, a dead language, the key discipline of classical education,
rhetoric, had given way to grammar in medieval schools.

But the recovery of Greek learning in the original during the period of
feudal expansion, of Plato and Aristotle and his Arab commentators, set the
tone for the university as an institution with two functions which exist in
tension down to the present: the dissemination of existing knowledge and the
creation of new understanding. Logic replaced grammar as the key discipline,
but the quadrivium remained subordinate as had been the case in medieval
schools. Concerns of theologians about the secularization of knowledge
represented by the liberal arts were not new; however, these came to a head
during the 13th century as the empty labels of classical knowledge were
filled in from new-found texts and the disparities with church doctrine
became apparent. The reconciliation proposed by Thomas Aquinas eventually
became doctrine, but not until long after the Condemnations of the 13th

Scholastics either ignored the obvious contradictions between Platonic and
Aristotelian thought or sought to reconcile them in the spirit of the age
which continued to recognize an overarching truth to which all knowledge
finally belonged. But beginning in the 13th century our story is one of the
gradual rejection of the bulk of this long-term structure of knowledge
through the 18th century culminating in the late 20th century with the
questioning of the independence of the disciplines (which Aristotle had
advocated) and the absolute supremacy of logic based on the law of the
excluded middle.

The 14th century Scholastics found that Aristotle was not always right and
made important advances, particularly in logic and methodology, examining
such concepts as   space, time, and mass; force and energy; motion and
velocity; the "natural tendencies" of bodies; impenetrability; rarity and
density; and gravity and inertia ... Buridan's analysis of inductive
reasoning and the laws of nature ... Bradwardine's use of the mathematical
function, and ... numerous discussions of probability and of infinitesimals
(Sargent, 1982, 15).

But since they were working from the standpoint of metaphysics and ontology
rather than physical theory, relying on logic and eschewing measurement,
they did not question basic principles; however, without this reworking the
new world view based on mechanical and mathematical principles could not
have emerged two centuries later. This late scholastic natural philosophy
had promulgated a  new attitude toward nature. It is the first attempt at an
independent analysis of nature, one that is initially developed on a purely
philosophical level and results, to a certain extent, in a metaphysical and
epistemological rediscovery of nature, although not in a mathematical and
physical reformulation. This development occurs contemporaneously with the
incipient metamorphosis of
poetry and visual art that used to be regarded as the first harbinger of the
coming Renaissance; it is undoubtedly a component of
this process. ... From this standpoint, its achievements consist less in
transforming the content of the traditional view of nature than in
discovering new ways of conceptualizing and comprehending nature. In short,
what changes is the method of knowing  nature. The attempt is made for the
first time to find principles that permit a direct, individual, and
empirical perception and  understanding of nature, independent of authority
(Maier, 1982, 146-47).

It was on such a foundation that Baconian empiricism could rest.

Although remaining subordinate to Aristotle, the revival of Plato and the
Pythagoreans with their heritage of mathematical rationalism yielded "a
conception of scientific inquiry and of artistic composition as cognate arts
of the soluble" in which "theoretical analysis and rational design must
precede material analysis and construction" (Crombie, 1980, 235). Here were
foundations for Cartesianism; Descartes, drawing on Euclid in his search for
first principles and finding them in reason alone, formulated the dominant
model for 17th century science.

The Platonic ideals of the mathematical and technical arts were reflected in
successes in solving limited problems which supplied a workable model for
the understanding of nature and its mastery. Indicative of the intersecting,
overlapping interests of fields resulting from the revival of Greek and
Roman learning was the concern for precise anatomical description in both
medicine and the plastic arts and the concern with musical theory by
mathematicians. Perspective crept into the quadrivium during the scholastic
period. Leonardo studied both anatomy and optics. At the turn of the 17th
century, Kepler made the first major physiological discovery by isolating an
answerable question; he solved a fundamental
problem of vision, how the eye formed an image on the retina. In a similar
manner musical pitch was analyzed on the model of the resonating strings of
a lute later in the century. Galileo, mathematician, and lutanist and
draftsman, "was an exemplary man of virtù, the rational experimenter" in a
time when "the defining capacity of both art and science to solve specific
problems drew in operation upon the suggestive sources alike of the
analytical and the constructive imagination" (Crombie, 243, 1980). It should
be noted also that Galileo valued explicitly the objectivity of enquiry
furnishing results in concordance with real world experience.

Measurement was the key. Scholastics had not measured, but not because they
lacked the ability; it was rather a predisposition, a matter of theological
doctrine. Natural philosophy remained philosophy. But as of the 15th
century, from astronomical observation to the voyages of discovery,
practical success depended on accurate measurement (Landes, 1983, 103-13).
With time in the denominator the reality of the observable world became one
of change and "science" moved away from natural philosophy. And if the
natural world was knowable, by
extension, was not the world of man also?

Seventeenth century thinkers, faced with economic, religious and political
crises and the epistemological repercussions of contact with non-European
peoples, responded in the affirmative. One characteristic of much of this
work was its programmatic intentions; however once promulgated, in the
longer term it often supported ideals quite different from those intended by
the authors. Secondly, against the backdrop of material crisis in the world
and the collapse of the cosmological order post-Copernicus, intellectuals
sought to insure the truth claims of their analyses borrowing the attribute
of "disinterestedness" from the law--to be accomplished through a
"scientific" method, whether the dominant one of Cartesian clarity and
logical rigor based on deductive, "geometrical" arguments, or one of
Baconian experience and induction. Finally, works dealing with social,
political, or economic analysis were secular in outlook; religion was not
denied, but the social context could be adequately understood through its
human sources.

In his 1792 Rapport et projet de décret de l'organization générale de
l'instruction public to the French National Assembly outlining his plan for
the organization of public instruction, Condorcet proposed for each of the
Instituts three instructors in the moral or social sciences. Each of the
instructors was to deal with social issues from a particular methodological
perspective. The first would begin with the analysis of sensations and
ideas, particularly the generation of moral ideas, and then move to an
analysis of the implication of these ideas for the creation of political
structures, that is, he would
explore the psychological tradition. The second would discuss the elements
of commerce and political economy and their implication for legislation in
the new republic, that is, he would cover the economic tradition. Finally,
the third would deal with geography and "the philosophical history of
peoples," that is, with the way in which different communities develop
special customs and patterns of organization in response to the particular
environments in which they are placed (Olson, 1993, 194).

This was an accurate reflection of the historical development of three
separate traditions and forms a suggestive warp on which the three great
ideologies were loomed. These major analytical traditions and the
theoretical and methodological approaches which informed them were
established and nurtured in concrete studies with clear social agendas.

With the revival of Roman Law there developed a debate over the theoretical
or causal nature of law itself in the context of specific solutions to
contemporary social conditions. In a defence of absolutism and monarchy,
Hobbes (influenced by Euclidean geometry and concerned with the civil
disorders in Britain during the first half of the 17th century) argued that
since the law was an expression of natural reason which was in all men the
same, then law was subject to scientific, causal, analysis. This
"rationalist" Cartesianism of Hobbes and Spinoza (in the "psychological
tradition"), however, assumed that in an analysis of the state, its
individual components, citizens, had to be understandable independent of
their function. It thus subverted the ideology of orders and was
"transformed during the late seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries into
the chief buttress of radical social and political positions, including
secular socialism and individualistic feminism" (Olson, 1993, 2), but
eventually the definition of liberty as absence of interference became a
foundation stone for classical liberalism and later, modern conservatism.

The political arithmetic of James Petty (natural laws of human activity,
aggregate data, importance of labor as against land and therefore treatment
of human beings as commodities), had the aim of enabling government to
manage resources better for the larger welfare of its citizens with an eye
to distributive justice. But it also laid the foundations for the liberal
doctrines of political economy which argued limitations on the role of the
state to the simple protection of private property. Education in medicine
inclined Petty as well as Locke, Quesnay and Becher to view economics as the
active removal of impediments to a normally functioning society. The first
three, however, were trained in Cartesian anatomy;
Becher the cameralist was trained in the tradition of Paracelsus to value
experience and experiment. The tradition of 17th century German Cameralism
which linked paternal government with the (collectivist) interests of
society and tied well being to commerce culminated in inefficiency and

The line forming philosophical history espousing republicanism went back to
the work of James Harrington (Baconian empiricist who refuted Hobbes on
methodological grounds) in the 1650's. Montesquieu (l'Esprit des lois, 1749)
belongs to this ("sociological") tradition. Both natural history, in the
noble savage tradition, and naturalistic, historical interpretations of law
as science served as inspiration. Environmental determinism, Bodin's thesis
(1566 and 1576) that national variations could be studied comparatively in
order to discover universal principles, was
especially important, contributing by the end of the 18th century to the use
of this same philosophical history as justification for reactionary

Certainly during the 17th and 18th centuries the idea of a science of
society, as well as a notion of the variety of human social relations
independent of biological basis, became pervasive. The concept of structure
was established, borrowed from the physical and biological sciences, in
studies of the state beginning with Hobbes and in economic writings of the
Physiocrats and Adam Smith. Also the idea that human society changed and
developed out of conditions and causes inherent in society itself rather
than as acts of God or simple chance became well established.

The philosophers of the Enlightenment reevaluated the legacy of Descartes
and 17th century rationalism which had "identified science substantially
with physics and mathematics, correlatively privileging categories and
procedures of an abstract, systematizing, deductive, and nomological type".
They built on the work of Locke who proposed methods based on empirical
description, speculative hypotheses, analogy, and probability and set limits
on possible knowledge, and that of Newton who used heuristic hypotheses (his
Optiks included a set of programs for further research--the "Queries"),
defended descriptive science even in the absence of explanation, and valued
simplicity and inclusiveness. This "epistemological liberalization" refused
to privilege the mathematical method, pluralized cognitive strategies,
redirected interest towards
empirical and inductive construction of explanatory models and
factual-empirical description, and rehabilitated sense observation (Moravia,
1980, 147-8). The emphasis on comparative method and the rejection of
dualism and acceptance of the corollary of a self-motivated human whole,
infeasible according to the man-machine model with an external prime mover,
was realized in explicit discussions of the importance of the social
aspect--"environment", "esprit"--in Helvétius and the philosophers of the
Scottish Enlightenment beginning with Adam Ferguson.

During the Reformation and Counter-Reformation university faculties were
politicized and expected to toe the line on religious doctrine, Protestant
or Catholic, resulting in conservative policies with regard to new
knowledge. The foundation of the University of Halle by Lutherans in 1694,
marked a departure: Latin was abandoned as was religious orthodoxy in favor
of rational and objective inquiry. The formula was repeated at Göttingen in
1737 and in 1809 the University of Berlin established the model for the
modern research university with its emphasis on empirical and laboratory

>From the middle of the 16th century until about the middle of the 17th,
universities all over Europe enjoyed a boom; the large number of students
was accompanied by expansion, economic security and social prestige. It was
during this period that universities were initially founded in the colonies:
e.g., Santo Domingo 1538, Michoacàn (Mexico) 1540, Harvard 1636. There then
followed a period of stagnation and with it financial
difficulties. At the same time Enlightenment ideas and the creative
scholarship in the sciences, mathematics and history were being promoted in
the new academies of arts and sciences such as Berlin (1700), Göttingen
(1751) and Munich (1759)--the primary function of the university remained
teaching. Although the debate over the proper function of the professoriat,
and thus the university, as knowledge creating versus knowledge propagating
was periodically revived, legal restraints and corporate values mitigated
against the formation of professional disciplinary communities until the
late 18th century. These "can be traced in the emergence of self-conscious
schools, the propagation of specific research techniques, and the
proliferations of specialized journals" (Turner, 1975, 510); they were
international in scope and depended
on scholarly criteria to distinguish their members from the larger group of
practitioners of the discipline. For instance, in Germany, Lorenz Crell and
his Chemisches Journal (1778) were central to the formation of the chemical
community and although long an established university discipline, Germany's
first professional disciplinary community in mathematics coalesced around
the journal Archiv der reinen und angewandten Mathematik (1795). But
corporate, collegiate, values continued to outweigh disciplinary values;
local interests prevailed.

Most writers would have agreed that the demands of scholarship ought to take
second place to the more pressing needs to stimulate enrollment and funding,
to create a more competent system of state administration, and to improve
student life and morals (Turner, 1975, 516).

However, the emphasis on teaching as the dominant function did not
completely rule out original scholarship. Nevertheless, only with
professionalization was knowledge creation thrust to the forefront. It
grounded the very "criteria of a profession: institutional apparatus (an
association, a learned journal), standardized training in esoteric skills,
leading to certification and controlled access to practice, heightened
status, autonomy" (Novick, 1988, 48).

New expansions came along with the Humboldtian reforms after the Napoleonic
wars then again after 1860. The new university ideology regarded research,
and its regime of specialization and publication as presentation, as a duty
quite apart from the old pedagogical outlook which valued synthesis, breadth
and clarity. In 1862 the Morrill Act giving land grants to agricultural and
mechanical schools fueled the expansion in the United States. Universities
were secularized in Italy in 1870, in Spain in 1876, and in France in 1896.

Individual scholars, artists and literati had begun to gather together and
organize themselves into groups with interest in classical learning, new
vernacular literatures and scientific inquiry outside the universities from
the 15th century. Italy supplied the models with the Accademia Napoletana,
later Pontaniana, of 1433 and the Accademia Platonica founded in Florence in
1474 by Lorenzo de' Medici. The Accademia della Crusca (1583) was dedicated
to the purification and preservation of Florentine Italian and edited its
influential dictionary in 1612. Galileo was an early member of the
scientific Accademia dei Lincei founded in Rome in 1603, the name for which
referred to the lynx, and its fame as an intensely curious observer. The
Reale Accademia delle Scienze dates from 1757.

The natural-science oriented Royal Society was chartered in London in 1662
but its roots go back to a proposal by Bolton in 1616 or 1617. The National
Association for the Promotion of Social Science was established in 1857 and
through its sections developed practical relations between social studies
and public affairs. In France, the Académie française was formed originally
in 1635 with the goal of producing a dictionary. The Académie des
inscriptions et belles-lettres was founded by Colbert in 1663 for the study
of historical and archeological questions. The Académie des sciences was
founded in 1666, also by Colbert, for the study of mathematics and the
natural sciences. In 1795 the Académie des
sciences morales et politiques was created by the Convention to study
questions of philosophy, political economy, law and general history. Local
academies and societies proliferated throughout France but all were
suppressed in 1793 only to be reconstituted one by one under the umbrella of
the Institut de France founded in 1795. In Germany, Leibnitz prepared the
plan for the Societas Regia Scientiarum founded in 1700. In Russia, the
Académie Impériale des Sciences de Saint-Petersbourg was established in
1725. The American Philosophical Society founded by Franklin in Philadelphia
in 1727 encompassed all learning. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences
was founded in Boston in 1780 and an Academy of Natural Sciences was
established in Philadelphia in 1812. The Association of American Geologists,
1840, became the American Association for the Advancement of Science in
1848. Congress chartered the National Academy of Sciences in 1863 and in
1865 the American Social Science Association was organized in Boston.

Up through the mid-nineteenth century such organizations were characterized
by closed memberships consisting of scholars with wide interests. This set
them off from the newer, professional, organizations with open memberships
of scholars, mostly from academia, and lay members with narrow interests in
delimited fields of knowledge which were to become the norm.

Xxxx Xxxxx Xxxxxx
Ph.D Student
Department of Political Science
SUNY at Albany
Nelson A. Rockefeller College
135 Western Ave.; Milne 102
Albany, NY 12222

More information about the Marxism mailing list