- The Philosophy of Peter Abelard by John Marenbon
Peter Abelard (1079–1142) has long provoked conflicting responses from readers. Even in his own lifetime opinions varied from the adulation of loyal disciples to a chorus of hostility from St. Bernard and others. Inevitably these debates have colored subsequent perception of Abelard’s achievement. It was only through the pioneering efforts of Victor Cousin that Abelard’s writings on logic, as distinct from those on theology and scriptural exegesis, first began to see the light of day. As John Marenbon documents in a fascinating appendix to a magisterial volume, Cousin’s emphasis on Abelard as a dialectician tended to reinforce existing stereotypes about him as a critical rather than as a constructive thinker.
Marenbon sets out to counter such perceptions. His book is structured in three separate sections: a historical survey of Abelard’s life and writings on logic and theology; [End Page 621] an analysis of his ideas on substance, language, epistemology and universals; and a study of the ethical foundations of his thought. This tripartite structure shapes his analysis in profound ways. The initial section has the merit of synthesizing recent research (including my own) about our understanding of the chronological evolution of Abelard’s writings with lucidity and perspicacity. The real originality of this book, however, emerges in its second section with the chapter ‘Logic, philosophy and exegesis.’ Here Marenbon presents a succinct account of the ontological framework inherited by Abelard through Aristotle’s Categories and Porphyry’s introduction to it, the Isagoge, as well as Abelard’s response to it. Marenbon’s comment (109) that nominalists did not think that there was no thing which was not a particular, but instead expounded the Isagoge and Categories as having to do with words rather than things sets the tone for his analysis of Abelard’s ontology, presented as being much more subtle than a naive rejection of universal things. His thesis is that this ontology combines three separate principles: nominalism, ‘strong naturalism’ (defined as Aristotle’s belief that every member of a given natural kind has the same basic structure of genera, species and differentiae), and a strict view of the separateness of particular things.
To a modern eye, these principles might seem to be mutually exclusive. Marenbon shows how Abelard constructs an ontology taking its point of departure from the particularity of things, and so transforms Porphyry’s hierarchy of being into one which is based on individuals. Unlike earlier scholars, (notably Jean Jolivet, author of a brilliant study of Abelard’s semantics and its implications for theology), Marenbon is able to profit from a far deeper awareness of the evolution of Abelard’s thinking about specific logical problems. He is thus able to describe, sometimes in minute detail, how Abelard wrestled with intellectual inconsistencies inherited from the differing strands in his own tradition. Thus he shows how, after the Dialectica and early glosses on Porphyry and Aristotle, Abelard moves away from a simplistic semantics of denomination, by which words denote corresponding forms, and starts to interpret certain accidents (like whiteness) as not having a separate reality. This evolution in Abelard’s semantic thought is mainly known only through passages revised in his Christian Theology. Marenbon suggests that Abelard may have been influenced here by transferring ideas about the three divine persons as differing in attribute to the ordinary world.
One difficulty with the structure Marenbon has chosen is that the reader sometimes has to keep backtracking in Abelard’s career. Thus while he provides an outstanding exegesis of Abelard’s theory of cognition (making full use of the long neglected De intellectibus), developed in the 1120s, he then backtracks to the issue of universals. The evolution of Abelard’s thinking on this topic is related, however, to that in other domains. While Marenbon avoids historicizing interpretations (having assigned historical analysis to the first part of his book), it does seem that the evolution of Abelard’s thought was influenced by a desire to distance himself from the categories of thought of his various teachers.