Scholastic philosophy: meaning and historical importance

Scholastic philosophy was a theological-philosophical current that predominated in medieval thought. Its purpose was the integration between faith and reason.

Last update: February 28, 2022

Scholastic philosophy is a medieval philosophical and theological current that focused on integrate reason with religious faith, but placing a greater preponderance on the latter. Its beginnings date back to the 9th century and it was the predominant doctrine of thought in Western culture until the 16th century.

One of the most significant contributions of scholastic philosophy to the history of thought was its teaching method, which is still preserved today, but with some modern and contemporary variants. Below we detail the characteristics of this intellectual movement and its historical importance.

What is scholastic philosophy?

The word scholasticism is derived from the Latin term scholasticus, which means “scholar” or “scholar”. And also from the Greek scholastikoswhich means “dedicate free time to learning”.

It was the predominant theological-philosophical current of medieval thought and was based on the integration between faith and reason. However, in it there was always a clear subordination of reason to faith.

The beginnings of scholastic philosophy are recorded from the 9th century and represented an attempt to harmonize Christian theology and classical philosophy (especially that of Aristotle and Plato). However, other philosophical currents were also included in his training, such as the Arab and Judaic ones.

Its main exponents include Anselm of Canterbury (considered the father of scholasticism), Peter Abelard, Alexander of Hales, Albert the Great, John Duns Scotus, William of Ockham and Thomas Aquinas.

Reason was always subservient to faith in scholastic philosophy.


Given the periodic extension of this movement and the variety of positions that emerged, scholastic philosophy is usually divided into three stages:

  1. From the beginning of the 9th century to the end of the 12th century: characterized by the controversial discussion around universals; which provokes an opposition between the explanations and interpretations of a realistic, nominalist and conceptualist nature.
  2. From the twelfth century to the end of the thirteenth century: represents the apogee of scholasticism and is characterized by the entry of Aristotle’s texts into the philosophical discussion. Likewise, philosophy begins to be distinguished from theology.
  3. XIV century: begins the period of decline of scholastic philosophy. In this case, the thought of this current derived, on the one hand, towards a mysticism; on the other, to the study of the natural sciences. In addition, new currents arose that broke the harmony between faith and reason.

Characteristics of scholastic philosophy

The essential characteristics of the scholastic philosophy can be summarized as follows:

  • The main purpose of scholasticism was to integrate the knowledge that was held separately through reason and Christian revelations.
  • All thought had to submit to the principle of authority and teaching could be limited to the reiteration of classical texts, especially the Bible (main source of knowledge). However, scholasticism encouraged reasoning and speculation, by requiring a structured scheme of discourse that was capable of exposing itself to refutations and preparing defenses.
  • In this sense, scholastic philosophy promoted a teaching method based on dialectical reasoning, that is, on the exchange of arguments and counter-arguments in search of a conclusion or synthesis. The goal was to answer questions or resolve contradictions.
  • Each subject to study was treated with great care and dedication through reading of classic texts and public discussion.
  • He moved away from empirical approaches and the scientific method. That is why it is said that scholasticism developed framed in rigid thought structures.

For Christianity, the scholastic philosophy was a tool to understand the faith. This philosophical current was overshadowed by Humanism of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and came to be seen as a rigid, formalistic and obsolete way of doing philosophy.

Thomas Aquinas was one of the most notorious representatives of this current.

Historical importance of scholasticism

Despite the criticism surrounding scholastic philosophy, it is pertinent to recognize that this school of thought was a key piece for the emergence of the modern academy.

In other words, what we know today as school, we owe it to this intellectual movement. Especially due to the rigorous methods of reading, exposition and opposition of texts that are still in force in the institutions.

For its part, scholasticism allowed for the clear distinction in reason (philosophy) and faith (theology), which later influenced Renaissance thought. In addition, the separation between these two notions indirectly promoted the split between the State and the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

In short, the essence of the scholastic philosophy is the conciliation between the knowledge generated through reason and the precepts established by the holy scriptures and the Christian Church.

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