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History of Science Notre Dame cathedral, Paris - 14th century

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LibraryThing: Science in Ancient Mesopotamia Week 8: 14th-century Science

The Condemnations of 1277

Edward Grant, ed. and trans., Sourcebook in Medieval Science (Harvard, 1974), pp. 47-48.
Word count

Scroll to the bottom of this page for a longer-than-usual background section.
Read it carefully: the background section will put the concisely-worded condemnations into an intelligible historical context.


These are some of the statements condemned in Paris in 1277:

34. That the First Cause could not make several worlds.
49. That God could not move the heavens [that is, the universe as a whole] with rectilinear motion.
52. That that which is self-determined, as God, either always acts or never acts; and that many things are eternal.
87. That the world is eternal as to all the species contained in it; and that time is eternal, as are motion, matter, agent and recipient; and because the world (is derived) from the infinite power of God, it is impossible that there be novelty in an effect without novelty in the cause. [In other words, nothing truly new can occur.]
92. That celestial bodies are moved by an internal principle, which is soul; and that they are moved by a soul and by an appetitive power just as an animal; for just as an animal is moved by desire, so is the sky.
111. That no form coming from outside can become one with matter.
141. That God cannot make an accident exist without a subject.
143. That from the different (zodiacal) signs of the sky diverse conditions are assigned in men, both with respect to spiritual gifts and temporal things.
162. That our will is subject to the power of the celestial bodies.
185. That it is not true that something could be made from nothing....


Background, or: What in the world was going on with these condemnations?

Aristotle's writings were assimilated into the core curriculum of medieval universities in the 13th century. Among the principal guides to Aristotle used by Latin scholars were the commentaries on Aristotle by Ibn Rushd (known in the Latin west as Averröes, or often as simply "The Commentator"). Averröes taught several conclusions contrary to the Christian doctrine, including these examples:

  1. The natural order is necessary and determined; it could not be otherwise than it is. (This view is often called "necessitarianism" or "determinism." The opposite view, that the natural order could be other than it is, is "contingency.")
  2. The universe must be eternal. (In contrast to a "contingent" position, where the universe might be either eternal or have a first moment in which it came into existence.)
  3. Miracles cannot occur. (In contrast to a "contingent" position where miracles might occur.)
  4. The Prime Mover (or First Cause) is remote, only apprehending general causes, and does not know particulars ("particulars" are individual things, events or persons).
  5. "Monopsychism," which means that there is an immortality only of a collective soul, not of individual persons. After death, an individual's soul is absorbed back into the collective soul and its particular characteristics, memories and attributes are lost.

As medieval Christians encountered Aristotle (as interpreted by Averröes), they recognized that views like these posed a serious challenge to orthodox doctrine. Could "Aristotle" be modified enough to become compatible with Christianity? If so, how?

One of the most notable attempts to deny "the Commentator's" conclusions as the "demonstrations of reason" (that is, as the authoritative conclusions of science and reason) occurred in 1277 when Stephen Tempier, Bishop of Paris, condemned 219 propositions (excerpted above). Thereafter, at least in Paris, no scholar could teach necessitarianism (compare points #1-3 above) or that a perfect causal understanding, such as that of the deity, would lack knowledge of (or interest in) particulars (points #4-5). In other words, the condemnations encouraged natural philosophers to find holes in the reasoning of Aristotle and/or Averröes, in order to transform Aristotelian science into something new.

Scholars therefore set themselves the task of critiquing the philosophy of Aristotle, as represented by Averröes, in order to reconcile natural philosophy with Christian doctrines (e.g., that nature is contingent, and could have been made other than it is; that miracles can occur without violating the necessity of natural law; that God knows individual persons; and that believers may have eternal life as individuals and not just as a collective consciousness). The result was a distinctively medieval Christian Aristotelianism that neither Aristotle nor Ibn Rushd would have recognized.

Because of the vigor of this ensuing critique of Aristotle by medieval natural philosophers, in the early 20th century Pierre Duhem referred to the 1277 Condemnations as the "birth certificate of modern science."

Lindberg wisely cautions that the "Scientific Revolution" had many causes ("to claim a simple causal connection [between the Condmenations and the Scientific Revolution] would be extremely reckless"; p. 244; see Lindberg's discussion of the condemnations on pp. 238-244). Yet even if the Condemnations themselves were not the sole "cause" of modern science, historians do strongly emphasize the significance of the subsequent medieval critique of Aristotelian natural philosophy for the origin of the Scientific Revolution. This is because a general shift in thinking did indeed take place by the end of the first decades of the 14th century. Whether the Paris Condemnations of 1277 were the actual cause of the late medieval critique of Aristotelian natural philosophy is improbable, but they do constitute an interesting and notable event that exemplifies this ongoing shift, which went on to characterize much of the inquiry of the "Scientific Revolution" (as is particularly evident in the work of Pascal, Gassendi, Robert Boyle, and Isaac Newton, for example).

So what was the late medieval critique of Aristotle, and how is it reflected in the Condemnations? In the 14th century, Aristotle was still read carefully and still profoundly respected, of course, but his ideas were rigorously critiqued as no longer necessarily true. 14th-century natural philosophers, including William Ockham and Jean Buridan, regularly cited the doctrine of divine omnipotence (that God is bound by no necessity but may choose to do whatever he wants, so long as it does not involve a contradiction) as they carried out a thorough reformulation of physics and cosmology within a contingent perspective, insisting that God might have created a universe other than Aristotle understood it to be. Historians of late medieval science such as A.C. Crombie, Earnest A. Moody, Francis Oakley, William J. Courtenay and Margaret Osler regard this 14th-century emphasis on divine omnipotence and the contingency of nature as the foundation of both logical thought experiments and empirical investigations in early modern science. (Cf. our previous discussion of this theme with respect to Basil and Augustine.)

In the list above are a few selected condemnations to help you understand the root of these developments in the late 13th century. As you reflect on them, consider how they correspond to the five examples of Averroism noted above. Also consider their ramifications for scientific methodology, and the ways in which they might open the door for counter-factual thought experiments or empirical investigations.

For example, Condemnation #34 (see above) targets Aristotle's argument that it is impossible for multiple worlds to exist (where "world" is defined either as an Earth-like planet or as the universe as a whole). What are the ramifications for natural science of a theological critique of this alleged impossibility? That is, what would happen if physicists were to revise Aristotle's cosmology in order to allow for the possibility that an Almighty deity might have created other worlds, if he had wanted to?

Similarly, what might be the effects of denying (condemning) statement #92? Hint: Jean Buridan, Nicole Oresme and others explored in detail how the planets might be carried by impetus, an "impressed incorporeal motive force" as Philoponos put it around 600 AD.

In general, then, the condemnations of 1277 reflect an ongoing transformation whereby, in contrast to the necessitarian cosmos of Aristotle, the medieval cosmos became contingent. Concomitantly, scientific methods accordingly began to shift from necessary deductive arguments to hypothetical thought experiments and empirical investigation. In the excerpts you will read as additional parts of this week's source readings, you will see other examples of this shift as, for example, Oresme considered the possibility whether, contrary to Aristotle, the Earth might turn in motion around its axis.

Source Quiz study questions

  1. T or F? According to the Averroist interpretation of Aristotle, the natural order is determined and necessary.
  2. T or F? According to the Averroist interpretation of Aristotle, the universe is contingent.
  3. T or F? The Condemnation of 1277 prohibited university professors across Europe from teaching 219 propositions.
  4. T or F? Duhem regarded the Condemnation of 1277 as the death-knell of medieval science.
  5. T or F? After the Condemnation of 1277, medieval scientists accepted the authority of Aristotle in all matters of natural science.
  6. T or F? Many medieval scientists used the doctrine of divine omnipotence to argue for the contingency of nature.
  7. T or F? In 1277, Bishop Tempier condemned the thesis that there might be a plurality of worlds.

Do you have a great quote for this page? Let me know! (If used, a new quote is worth 1 point extra credit)

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HSCI 3013. History of Science to 17th centuryCreative Commons license
Kerry Magruder, Instructor, 2004
Brent Purkaple, TA

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