Scholastic Philosophy: Meaning and Historical Importance

Scholastic philosophy was a theological-philosophical current that predominated in medieval thought. Its aim was the integration of faith and reason.
Scholastic Philosophy: Meaning and Historical Importance

Written by Editorial Team

Last update: 21 February, 2023

Scholastic philosophy is a medieval philosophical and theological current that focused on integrating reason with religious faith, but placing a greater preponderance on the latter. Its beginnings date back to the ninth century and it was the predominant doctrine of thought in Western culture until the sixteenth 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. The following are the characteristics of this intellectual movement and its historical importance.

What is scholastic philosophy?

The word scholastic is derived from the Latin scholasticus, meaning “scholar” or “scholastic”. And also from the Greek scholastikos, which means “to devote one’s free time to learning”.

It was the predominant theological-philosophical current of medieval thought and was based on the integration of 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 ninth century and represented an attempt at harmonization between Christian theology and classical philosophy (especially that of Aristotle and Plato). However, its formation also included other philosophical currents, such as Arabic and Judaic.

Among its main exponents are 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.

A church.
Reason was always subordinated 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 ninth century to the end of the twelfth century: Characterized by the controversial discussion regarding universals, and leading to an opposition between realist, nominalist and conceptualist explanations and interpretations.
  2. From the twelfth century to the end of the thirteenth century: This represents the high point of scholasticism and is characterized by the entry of Aristotle’s texts into the philosophical discussion. Also, philosophy begins to be distinguished from theology.
  3. 14th century: The period of decline of scholastic philosophy begins. In this case, the thought of this current derived – on the one hand, towards mysticism, and, on the other, to the study of the natural sciences. In addition, new currents emerged that broke the harmony between faith and reason.

Characteristics of scholastic philosophy

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

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

For Christianity, scholastic philosophy was a tool for understanding the faith. This philosophical current was eclipsed by the Humanism of the 15th and 16th centuries, and came to be seen as a rigid, formalistic and obsolete way of doing philosophy.

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

The historical importance of scholasticism

Despite the criticisms of scholastic philosophy, it’s good to recognize that this school of thought was a key element in the emergence of modern academia.

What we know today as a school, we owe to this intellectual movement. Especially for the rigorous methods of reading, exposition, and contrast of texts that are still in force in educational establishments.

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

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

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

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