Scholastic Dialectic

Latin scholasticism actually evinced more concern with fine points of philosophical argument than any broad philosophical tendency prior to modern analytic philosophy. Many authors followed a pattern in which some assertion would be introduced, followed by arguments for and against the assertion, followed by replies of each side to the arguments of the other, thus simulating a formal debate. Only then would the author conclude with “I say…” and give his own reasons. This resembles what happens when people play chess against themselves, still trying to win every time they turn the board around. It promotes a kind of intellectual honesty and thoroughness.

In the 2nd century BCE, the skeptical Platonist Carneades had bewildered the Romans by arguing both sides of a question with equal vigor. Latin scholastics did take a position by the end of their discourses, but scholars have sometimes wondered if all of these conclusions should be taken at face value, because sometimes earlier arguments for an opposed point of view seem stronger. For some authors, making a strong case for an argument and then appearing to reject it may have been a way to preserve controversial arguments for posterity.

This was a particular historical form, broadly influenced by both Platonic and Aristotelian dialectic. Various conventions in the use of natural language were developed to promote unambiguous interpretations of logical meaning. The style in which arguments were presented can sometimes seem imposing due to its complex semi-formal character, particularly in authors like Aquinas, but the spirit of debate was quite lively.

I have noted that the Arabic tradition had tended to downplay the role of dialectic and practical judgment in Aristotle, in favor of stricter deductive “science”. The Latin tradition absorbed this reverence for deductive science, while re-establishing a strong role for a kind of dialectic.