The Renaissance and Seventeenth-Century Rationalism

By G. H.R. Parkinson | Go to book overview
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The philosophy of the Italian Renaissance

Jill Kraye


Two movements exerted a profound influence on the philosophy of the Italian Renaissance: scholasticism and humanism, both of which began to take root in northern Italy around 1300. Differing from one another in terms of methods and aims as greatly as the scientific-and humanities-based cultures of our own times, scholasticism and humanism each fostered a distinctive approach to philosophy.

The centres of scholasticism were the universities, where philosophy teaching was based on the Aristotelian corpus, in particular the works of logic and natural philosophy. In Italian universities the study of philosophy was propaedeutic to medicine rather than, as in Oxford and Paris, theology. This encouraged an atmosphere in which philosophy could operate as an autonomous discipline, guided solely by rational criteria. Scholastic philosophers consistently defended their right to explain natural phenomena according to the laws of nature without recourse to theological arguments. 1 But although theological faculties were absent in the universities, religious authorities had enough power within society at large to challenge thinkers whose single-minded pursuit of natural explanations was perceived to move beyond the territory of philosophy and into the sacred domain of faith. Aristotelian philosophers who dared, for instance, to argue that the soul was material and hence mortal were quickly forced to recant by the ecclesiastical authorities. 2

On the equally sensitive subject of the eternity of the world, most scholastics limited themselves to pointing out the opposition between the Peripatetic hypothesis that the world was eternal and the ‘truth of


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