A Philosophical History of Psychology, Cognition, and Consciousness: The Challenge to Authority and the Franciscans. (Bonaventura, Duns Scotus, Roger Bacon William of Ockham)

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The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were times of troubles. Some historians have called this period a time of crisis. A little ice age, a series of famines and plagues were not the least of our troubles, reducing the population of Europe to less than half its previous levels. Popular revolts and internecine conflicts between nobles and the monarchy were common in the wake of the Western Schism in the Roman Catholic Church and the decline of the Holy Roman Empire, the hundred years war(1337-1449) and the Magna Carta. Shakespeare captured the spirit of the post Magna Carta times in a speech by a monarch of the period, Richard II(Act 3 Scene 2):

“No matter where. Of comfort no man speak. Lets talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs, Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth Lets choose executors, and talk of wills And yet not so- for what can we bequeath, Save our deposed bodies to the ground And tell stories of the death of kings- How some have been deposed, some slain in war Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed All murdered–for within the hollow crown That rounds the mortal temples of a King Keeps death his court.

Ones man’s crisis is another man’s transformation and applying these terms to long periods of time is more an art than a science. The seeds of the above discord were sown in the thirteenth century where we can see the more sensitive nerves of our culture inflamed with infections caused by the search for political and social stability. The search appeared to have come to an end with the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215: a document that ensured the protection of a limited set of rights for the barons and the poor as well as subsuming the ruler’s authority under the laws of the time.

Roger Bacon(ca 1215-1292), a Franciscan thinker, was in many respects a symbol or an omen of the new order of freedom and the rise of Science unleashed by the Magna Carta in England. He could well have been one of the rebellious barons dissatisfied with the degree of implementation of the “Great Charter” given his attacks on authority figures. Kenny in his work “A New History of Western Philosophy”(vol 2)(p80) points out that Bacon claimed that there are two necessary conditions of scientific research: a study of the languages of Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic, and a knowledge of mathematics. His definition of science was in terms of the methods of induction and experimentation and for him, the field of knowledge was dualistic and bipolar: either deductive and rational(which he associated with authority) or experiential(reality tested practice) and experimental. It is the latter of these poles that takes us beyond authoritative theories of Philosophers like Aristotle. He does not, however, given his claim relating to the necessary conditions of scientific activity, appeal in the way modern scientists were to do later to the role of mathematics in scientific investigation. The category of the quantitative was to play a greater controlling role than the category of the qualitative. Bacon was more Aristotelian in his approach in spite of his authority complex. It can be argued that Bacon, in fact, was a pioneer of qualitative experimentation in which the Aristotelian ideas of principle and substance are still in a limited fashion, operating. M Schramm(1998) claims that Bacon was the source of the view that takes laws of nature to be important(of the kind presumably that one finds much later in Newton’s “Principia Mathematica”). The context in which Bacon conducted his research was neatly formulated by Brett in his “History of Psychology”(Chapter 9 The Challenge to Authority):

“During the first three-quarters of the thirteenth-century scholarship was estimated more highly than originality. The work of interpreting Aristotle absorbed the energies of the great writers, and for a time little or no attention was paid to nature. Here was a flaw which gave an opportunity for both criticism and reconstruction. The times were not favourable to either procedure, but efforts were made in both directions. The problems of mind and matter could be regarded as problems of nature and opposition to traditionalism naturally presents itself as an appeal to two great sources of knowledge, experience and experiment. From this point of view mysticism and natural science may be regarded as aspects of one tendency, for mysticism is based on an idea of experience, and science on the idea of experience. Mysticism is represented in various degrees by Bonaventura, Gerson and Echart: Roger Bacon and Vitelo are the most prominent in the sphere of science: while Duns Scotus, Ockham and others represent the development of thought in more strictly theological circles. Brett also points out in a footnote that both mysticism and science represent in their different ways challenges to authority. It should also be recalled that Roger Bacon, the Oxford scholar and the Cambridge scholar Newton shared an interest in alchemy. Bacon’s principal focus in Science was, however in the field of Optics where he combined an interest in Alhazen with a dynamic view of nature: a view of a world in which things interacted untouched by our intellectual ideas of them. It is in this view that we see a clear movement away from Aristotle and a movement toward a world view defined as a totality of facts subject to laws discovered inductively and experimentally. This view combined with his interest in the black art of alchemy may have caused the clerical authorities to imprison Bacon for heresy towards the end of his life.

St Bonaventura(1221-74) was the authority in charge of the Franciscan order. He took issue with many of Bacon’s thoughts being himself influenced by St Augustine and St Anselm. He was not a pure Platonist, however, claiming that the future of theological reflection lies on a path between the works of Plato and Aristotle. He was a devout pious man who found himself in an environment which was beginning to distrust systems and definitions. In him, we find the connection that theology is less connected to knowledge and theory and more related to practical reason and the will. His work was very traditional and he tended in spite of his views on the future of reflection to merely reproduce many of the ideas of earlier Neoplatonism, a less than surprising fact considering that he was an authority figure himself.

The next generation of Franciscans was led by Duns Scotus, “Doctor subtlety”. According to Kenny(vol 2 p86) Scotus was critical of both Aquinian and Aristotelian ideas relating to the so-called analogous application of predicates such as “Good” to God, maintaining, on the contrary, that the meaning of “NN is good” and “God is good” is essentially the same. Scotus, however, agrees with both Aquinas and Aristotle that there is a sense in which God is an infinite being. According to Russell Scotus was a “moderate realist” and a Pelagian(p458 “History of Western Philosophy”), claiming that we know our own actions without needing proof for them. On a theoretical plain, Scotus proposed a very early principle of individuation which claims that there is no difference between being and its essence which breaks with an established Platonic view that identical twins, for example, are identical in being human and their different locations in space have no essential significance. According to Scotus being in different spaces is sufficient to regard the twins as different beings. In passing we can perhaps note that Aristotle would have regarded both of these positions as possible, the twins being qualitatively different(different persons) but in terms of their humanity substantially the same. Modern scholars, like Bertrand Russell in the light of the aforementioned reflection attribute to Scotus a rejection of the idea of substance.

Scotus’ theological doctrines, however, were more tied up with his conviction that faith is a moral rather than a theoretical matter: concerned with the good related to action rather than the true related to Knowledge. This, in turn, connected Scotus’ excursions into the realm of philosophical psychology and his reflections here for some psychologists heralded one of the first accounts of the relation between consciousness and attention. He, unlike them, however, places his reflections in a concrete practical context. Brett characterizes Scotus’ position thus:

“The treatment of the will as basis for right action is more satisfactory. Scotus makes a genuine attempt to explain the actual relation between knowledge and purpose. The cognitive part comes first: we have the idea before we consciously use it as means to an end. But there are two kinds of thinking(cogitatio): first thoughts are merely events, the appearance in the soul of ideas, among which one is clearer than the others. This is the material upon which the will acts: its function is to retain the indistinct thoughts directing itself to them, and controlling their relations to the central power of thought.”

Brett points out the originality of these thoughts in contradistinction to Russell’s earlier comments relating to the lack of originality in the scholastic tradition. There is also in the above quote an echo of Descartes later reflections on the clarity and distinctness of ideas.

The last of the Franciscans, and the last of the scholastics, was William of Ockham(1300-47) who could also be regarded as an original mind in that he embraced scientific knowledge and logic at the expense of metaphysics. He attacked Aristotle’s system of ten categories and replaced them by two and he used the Aquinian terminology of “first intention” and “second intention” in original and useful ways. He was among the first to give a linguistic account of the world believing amongst other things that names were mental acts of an individual. Concepts in our minds, on the other hand, form a language system that is universal and is expressed by all the languages of the world. For him, everything in the world was particular existences and universals only existed in the mind in the form of natural and conventional “signs”–the former being the thoughts of the mind and the latter being the words we use to express these thoughts. Linguistic terms of the first intention refer to nonlinguistic items(particular existences) in the world and terms of the second intention relate linguistic terms to each other. Ockham disagrees with Scotus over the issue of substance because, as Hamlyn points out on page 120:

“Ockham believes there exist only substances and sensible qualities of them: and nothing in the facts of language or of thought, which relies on natural signs, really suggests otherwise.”

This form of substantive empiricism rests on a basis of intuitive cognition of particulars and perhaps calls into question the basis of the existence of “signs” that dwell n the mind in a fashion reminiscent of “modern” logical empiricism(Quine). Quine, we may recall evoked “stimulus meanings” and “observation sentences” and claimed that they in some mysterious way were connected in a web with theoretical statements.

Aristotle has by this time all but disappeared in these successive waves of challenges to Authority launched by the Franciscans, who dominated much of the thirteenth century and some of the fourteenth century. The “reinterpretation” of Aristotle did however, establish itself in the University of Oxford in particular and to some extent in Paris but it also has to be pointed out that the universities themselves were schismatic, containing both religious and secular scholars, containing both Franciscans and Dominicans. The Dominicans were slower than the Franciscans to accommodate their reflections to growing secular concerns. In this respect, the Franciscans appear to have won the day with a combination of naturalism and mysticism.

As we approach the Renaissance we see an increasing emphasis on logic and science to the exclusion of the more systematic theorising of Aristotle. Our opening remarks relating to Richard II(1367-1400) talked of the death of Kings and it is almost certain that Shakespeare saw this to be symbolic of wounded authority and greater processes at work. The Holy Roman Empire lasted for a thousand years until 1806 but the nature of its authority was a markedly different and diminished affair at the end of this largely Franciscan period.

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