In his literary satire, In Praise of Folly, Erasmus famously ridiculed the temper of medieval scholasticism: "Could there be several sonships in Christ? Is the proposition possible that God the Father hates the Son? Might God not also have taken the form of an ass or a pumpkin? In what manner would the pumpkin have preached and wrought miracles, and how would it have been crucified?" These are questions that strike us today, not least because Erasmus remorselessly mocked them, as pointless and absurd. And our universities, thankfully, no longer compel us to pursue these intellectual dead ends.
But perhaps we should not be so complacent. Scholasticism had started out as a valiant effort to apply reason in a rigorous way to the doctrines of the Church. Reason would be, as the schoolmen said, the handmaiden to theology, and that would be the key to unlocking not only the secrets of heaven, but those of earth as well. Of course, as we now know, that is where the medieval scholastics went wrong. Reasoning about "this-worldly", finite things required a different method, and the schoolmen had not yet worked out the methodology of science; as Francis Bacon was later to point out, this rested on the inductive method, which proceeds from the observation of specific instances to the elaboration of general laws and uniformities. The schoolmen however, were still reasoning from within a theological straitjacket, their logic comprising a series of deductions from premises sanctioned by the Church, and the rigidity of their approach would often lead to intellectual sterility.
The method, scope and limits of science: a posthumous translation of Francis Bacon's 1605 treatise, "Of the Advancement and Proficiency of Learning"
But if scholasticism is characterised by a kind of mental rigidity, can we be sure that our universities are entirely free from its stifling grip? Consider, to take one example from many, the book Beginning Theory — an Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory by Peter Barry, which has virtually become a set text for any humanities or literature undergraduate course in a British university today. Five rules, Barry affirms, are to be borne in mind for critical thinking about literature: "politics is pervasive, language is constitutive, truth is provisional, meaning is contingent, human nature is a myth." The scarcely acknowledged philosophical presumption is pure Nietzsche: man creates his own values and is consumed by his will to power; therefore the task of theory, whether Marxist, feminist, structuralist, post-structuralist, post-modern, lesbian-gay, post-colonial, narratological or ecocritical, is to "deconstruct" the dominant normative liberal humanist "Eurocentric" narrative and expose the power relation at the heart of it — invariably the unassuageable compulsion to oppress some marginalised group. Thus whatever you might think of, for example, Jane Austen, the defining novel is always Mansfield Park. Why? Because as that exemplary exponent of post-colonial theory Edward Said ("carefully", as Barry says, "foregrounding the background") has observed, the estate of Mansfield Park in England, portrayed as a model of order and civilisation, is supposed to be maintained by its owner Sir Thomas Bertram's slave plantation in Antigua. From this esoteric fact alone a whole indictment is constructed: of Jane Austen, of Georgian England, and of the canon of English literature itself which dares to include amongst its distinguished luminaries this alleged slave-ownership-endorsing authoress.
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