The historical context of Abelard's Sic et Non (c. 1121) is the emergence of western philosophy from the Dark Ages. It was a period of economic expansion in agriculture and the founding of Benedictine, Carthusian, Augustinian and Cistertian monasteries.
The religious authorities organised learning institutions which had the double goal of assimilating the classical cultural material and forming the clerics to spread it. The evolution in thinking introduced dialectics to replace memorising. The first scholastics were focused on arranging and understanding the immense amount of classical data and its interpretation by the Church theologians.
In the 12th. century, monastic theology, which emphasised copying, repetition and memory, formally ended with Bernard of Clairvaux. He was a contemporary and opponent of Abelard, who represented the new scholastic theology, which relied on dialectics for text analysis. The Church reference for theological study is "fides quaerens intellectum" (faith seeks understanding). Bernard emphasised the faith element; Abelard stressed understanding through reason. They became opponents, especially since Bernard could not agree to the critical examination of religious teachings which he saw as a relativisation of absolute of truths. Abelard first studied philosophy then applied the results to theology, a word which he himself introduced to describe his approach. He was a first scholastic.
Bernard was a contributer to the condemnation of certain of Abelard's teachings at the Synod of Sens (1140). His argument was that Abelard reduced faith to opinion, detached from Revelation. He also objected to his opponent's stance on ethics which considered the intention of the subject as the only source for defining the goodness or evil of moral acts, thus abandoning objective moral values. (In contemporary terms Abelard would be a religious pre-existentialist, similar to Kirkegaard or Unamuno.)
Abelard was primarily a logician and he brought a new methodology to the study of religious truths: dialectics, which practises methodical doubt. It was a refexion on language.
Abelard's addressed the question of Universals which deals with the nature of ideas. Plato and Aristotle had already disagreed on this subject, but most ancient texts had been lost by the Middle Ages. He had read The Isagoge by Porphyry, an introduction to Aristotle's "Categories", translated into Latin by Boethius. In it Porphyry questions the existence of concepts and what might be their nature: is the Universal a thing or a sound/word?
In the introduction to Aristotle's Categories Porphyry writes:
“Do species and genera exist in nature as real things, or do they exist only as thoughts in our minds. If they exist outside of us, are they corporeal or non-corporeal? separated from sensible objects or in the objects themselves?"
On this theme there are three opposing views: realism, nominalism and coceptualism
- The realist view of Anselm and Guillaume de Champeaux, Abelard's teacher, sustained that only Universals exist by themselves and individual things are accidental to them. This argument maintains that Universals were conceived by divine understanding. The essence is common to all things and things are singularised in different forms from this common matter.
Anselm counters realism claiming that it is contrary to the physical nature of things which are singular, as is the essence. He also contends that realism leads to contradictions: 'animality' is a universal but is individualised both in humanity (rational) and in horses (not rational).
- Nominalism contends that only singular individuals exist. Universals only exist in the mind. Roscelin de Compiègne affirms that the universal is only a sound. Abelard favours nominalism but disagrees with that extreme view.
- Conceptualism is Abelard's viewpoint. Only individual things exist and universality is simply words. Abelard makes a distinction between vox (natural sound) and sermo (meaning of words which signify universality): if roses did not exist the sound could exist but would the phrase 'there are no more roses' have meaning?
On Ethics or Know Thyself Abelard agrees with monastic mystics in introspection. What is important is not so much the action but the intention or motivation, so that the outward behaviour is morally indifferent:
"It is not what is done but the spirit in which it is done, that's what God judges."
The word 'theology' was Greek where it had mythical poetical, philosophical and political meanings. It was only adopted by Christians much later because of its pagan origins. Abelard is the first to use 'theology' in the contemporary meaning of the term. For him it became a dialectic. It was not enough to explain Scripture, it had to be argued out through reason. In Sic et Non he gathers many contradictory sayings from the Bible or the Patristic Era. His aim is to show that the 158 authoritative issues exposed should not be adopted without criticism but evaluated through opinions and reasoning. Instead of offering a solution to conflicting positions Abelard allowed the contradictions to stand, supposedly to encourage thinking. However, his opponents viewed this lack of resolution as a heretical inclination.
Sic et Non (c.1121) was composed to respond to the European theological schools' need for concordance among the Patristic texts. Abelard introduces his work with a Prologue underlining the need to organise the Patrustic texts because of:
"... the huge quantity of things that have been said,"
Thus is why the quoted texts are set out so that a diversity of opinions are presented following the firmula of the title: Sic, in favour, and Non, against. He uses the language arts of grammar, rhetoric and dialectics to resolve the contradictions in the texts., emphasising the theory of differing semantics:
"... the same words have been used with different meanings by different authors."
The body of the book covers 150 questions which regroup different texts from the Patristic Age. It is structured in three parts: faith, sacraments, charity. He includes a historical approach warning against apocryphal writings, verifying who authored texts and questions on whether the author is expressing his own or another's opinion. Abelard adds some of his own opinions, too, on morality and intentionality, as he says of extracts from Augustine of Hippo:
"... they must be judged more according to the intention of the speaker than the nature of what was said."
The 158 questions are argued through using dialectics with indifference as to their importance at the time despite being for the use of his students in class.
Abelard tends to pay little attention to the mystical, allegorical or moral Scriptural interpretations embraced by Bernard. On the other hand, he respects the full authority of the canonical writings and, despite his dialectical, critical approach, he remained a believer, saying that even if there were still difficulties:
"... we must believe that it’s because we lack the Grace to understand them."
Abelard is recognised as the founder of nominalism for claiming that a universal is a name (nomen) or a significant word (sermo). He discusses universals in two parts: discarding realism and offering a semantic solution.
Realists explain the similarity between singularities by saying, for example, that Plato and Aristotle are humans, yet they are different individuals. Humanity is a universal shared by both.
Abelard's solution is that universal words, like 'humanity', are applied to individuals when, in fact, there is no shared universal. He also applied this to God. Before creating roses God's conception of a rose is empty. Were the divinity to mention the word 'rose', in those circumstances no one would know what God was referring to.
Abelard's philosophy of language underlines that language on its own cannot demonstrate the truth of things. This lies in the physical.
The classical Greeks used dialectics in debates, in evaluation of definitions and in classifications. In the Middle Ages European scholastics used debates in logic to ascertain truth through contradictory argumentation. Sic et Non is not only the title of Abelard's book but also his methodology.
"It is by doubting that we come to investigate, and by investigating that we recognize the truth."
In his Prologue to Sic et Non, Abelard states that he has gathered religious texts that at first appear contradictory and so encourage questioning. This will oblige first time readers to search for truth and will lead them to more accuracy in their search. The key to wisdom is to ask questions frequently. He cites Aristotle's advice:
"It is not without doubt difficult to find a solution to these problems if you have not repeatedly examined them. Doubting each specific point is not useless."
Abelard advised his students to proceed from the study of words to that of proposition and thus learn about argument. He proposes that the study of words begin with initial naming. New items are allotted a sound to nominate the thing. However the use of the word in no way implies that the speaker understands the nature of the item. The nomination is a sound, not an analysis of the thing named. Meaning is the subjective information generated in the mind when someone hears a word.
Abelard claimed that the central point in argument is entailment (inferencia). This is a test of the logic of an argument:
When A is true B is true
When A is true, B is true or false
When B is false then A is false
When B is true A is true or false
A. Jim rides a bike to school every morning.
B. Jim can ride a bike.
B. Jim goes to school every morning.
A. Jim rides a bike to school every morning.
B. Jim is good at riding bikes.
Propositions should be relevant and necessary and conclusion is required for the next statement. Entailment is also only achieved completely if it is couched in logical form.