In Defense of Scholasticism
THE SOURCE: “Toward a Cultural History of Scholastic Disputation” by Alex J. Novikoff, in The American Historical Review, April 2012.
“Scholasticism” has long been a synonym for the worst kind of pedantry. “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” is the classic brush off directed toward this medieval school of thought. (It probably makes light of Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas’s inquiries into the nature of angels in Summa Theologica.) But Rhodes College historian Alex J. Novikoff argues that Scholasticism and its formal debate technique, disputation, were crucial to the Western intellectual tradition.
One normally associates rhetorical rigor with the philosophers of ancient Greece, who hashed out their arguments in the agora, a public meeting ground. The discipline continued in Rome’s forums, but with the demise of the Roman Empire, dialogue moved inward, becoming a meditative practice. That changed in the 11th century with Anselm of Bec, an Italian-born monk who taught in a Norman monastery; he found himself drawn into using reasoned dialogues with his students as a method of instruction. The logic-heavy form of dialogue he pioneered became the “polemical genre of choice” for thinkers in the 12th century. Around the same time, renewed interest in Roman law, which used a question-and-answer approach to arrive at decisions, further whetted the scholarly appetite for dialectic study.
To read the rest of this article, please consider becoming a WQ subscriber, which allows online access to the current WQ issue as well as archive content. Other access options are below.
Research, browse, and discover more than 35 years of articles, essays, and reviews by preeminent scholars and writers. Our searchable archive of back issues is free for WQ subscribers.