The 1277 Parisian Condemnation: A Catalyst for Nominalism

U of ParisEdward Grant notes the significance of the 1277 condemnation of certain Thomistic (among other) principles:

The Condemnation of 219 articles in theology and natural philosophy by the bishop of Paris in 1277 points to a signifiant development in the history of medieval philosophy generally, but especially natural philosophy. Whatever may have induced bishop Stephen Tempier and his advisers to promulgate the condemnation, the most significant outcome was an emphasis on the reality and importance of God’s absolute power (potentia Dei absoluta) to do whatever He pleases short of bringing about a logical contradiction. (“The Effect of the Condemnation of 1277,” in Kretzmann, et al, The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy, p. 537)

Grant quotes from the Latin manuscript demonstrating its emphasis on God’s absolute power as it condemned the notion, “That the absolutely impossible cannot be done by God or another agent, if ‘impossible’ is understood according to nature.” This is clearly a precursor to the philosophy of William of Ockham. Later, many scholars directly referred to the articles of the Condemnation in their writings: Richard of Middleton, John Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham – to name a few. The Condemnation was usually invoked in writing to justify the concept of God’s absolute power in numerous hypothetical propositions.  “The novel supernatural alternatives considered in the aftermath of the Condemnation conditioned scholastics to contemplate physical possibilities outside the ken of Aristotelian natural philsophy, and frequently in direct conflict with it.” (Ibid., p. 538.) One of the articles also condemned the Aristotelian idea that God could not move the world in a rectilinear motion due to the fact that this would leave behind a vacuum of nothingness.  This condemnation led to the idea that if God may interrupt nature with a vacuum in the heavens he may do the same on earth.  This understandably led to questions about God’s wrath and the idea that he might annihilate parts of his good creation without cause. Grant concludes by explaining the consequences of these actions: 

As a consequence of the Condemnation of 1277, God’s absolute power became a convenient vehicle for the introduction of subtle, imaginative questions which generated novel replies.  Although the speculative responses did not replace, or cause the overthrow of, the Aristotelian world view, they did challenge some of its fundamental principles and assumptions.  For some four centuries many were made aware that things might be quite otherwise than had been dreamt of in Aristotle’s philosophy. (Ibid., p. 539)

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