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Adelard's Questions and Ockham's Razor:
Connections between Medieval Philosophy and Modern Science

(Released November 2008)

  by Carolyn Scearce  


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Science, as a word in the medieval vocabulary, seems alien as read from a strictly modern context. For the Medieval mind, science served as any body of knowledge that could be systematized. Subjects we would not consider science today fell under its auspices, including, most notably, theology. Theology interwove itself through medieval culture and learning, and was not perceived as a truly separate discipline from philosophy or the study of natural phenomena. The field of learning that most nearly resembled modern science was natural philosophy. Natural philosophers sought explanations and causation for substances and actions occurring in the natural world. However, it would be wrong to look for direct synonymy between medieval natural philosophy and modern science.

vast medieval laboratory
Hienrich Khunrath, Amphitheater of Eternal Wisdom, depiction of a medieval alchemist's lab

Medieval natural philosophers did not engage in the sort of systematic programs of research in which modern scientists participate. They addressed whatever large ranging philosophical questions or trivial pursuits happened to engage their individual attentions. They focused their attention on a range of subjects that do not always directly correspond to modern scientific disciplines. Their interests in astronomy, physics, botany, agriculture, medicine, and mathematics may be roughly comparable to modern subjects, but subjects such as astrology and alchemy evoke a greater sense of dissidence. Astrology is a subject now entirely outside of the realm of accepted modern science. After the middle ages, alchemy engendered and was eventually replaced by chemistry as a scientific discipline. The seemingly haphazard approach, the apparently eccentric interests of the Middle Ages, can conceal the avaricious intellectual curiosity and keen analytical approach exhibited by medieval scholarship, particularly in the high Middle Ages. Though the age started in the decline of an empire, and ended in the wake of a devastating plague, the Middle Ages was no fallow time in the development of human thought.

The natural philosophy, theology, and culture of the middle ages contributed to the formation of the modern sciences. However, it is not always a direct contribution. Throughout the passage of history, ideas may experience radical transformations. This does not negate their place in the history of knowledge. Few intellectual revolutions are so radical that they truly deconstruct all the pieces of the material on which the preceding paradigms were formed. Other ideas wane in one generation only to be reborn in an altered but still recognizable form in another generation. The most substantial contribution that medieval philosophy made to modern science is not the legacy of individual ideas, or even the introduction of new disciplines. Instead, medieval philosophers laid down much of the intellectual foundation, and articulated important assumptions on which the edifice of modern science is built.

ancient astronomy lab
Arab astronomers at work, as depicted in a medieval manuscript

Before approaching the intellectual contribution of the Middle Ages, it is necessary to provide some overview of the historical context in which these ideas were formed. For this reason, the essay that follows will briefly outline the history of the Middle Ages and highlight a few important historical figures; it will look at some intellectual trends and conclude by examining some of the connections that exist between medieval philosophy and modern science.

Go To The Early Middle Ages

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