Philosophy Pages

    Dictionary    Study Guide  Logic   F A Q s
  History Timeline Philosophers   Locke

Origins of Scholasticism

Anselm's Ontological Argument

Life and Works
. . Ontological Argument
Internet Sources

The end of the "Dark Ages" in the philosophical tradition is clearly marked by the work of Anselm of Canterbury. Explicitly rejecting the anti-intellectual spirit of preceding centuries, Anselm devoted great care to his cultivation of the Augustinian theology of "faith seeking understanding." In the process, Anselm initiated an entirely new way of demonstrating the existence of god.

Reflecting on the text of Psalm 14 ("Fools say in their hearts, 'There is no god.'") in his Proslogion, Anselm proposed a proof of divine reality that has come to be known as the Ontological Argument. The argument takes the Psalmist quite literally by supposing that in virtue of the content of the concept of god there is a contradiction involved in the denial of god's existence.

Anselm supposes that in order to affirm or deny anything about god, we must first form in our minds the appropriate concept, namely the concept of "that than which nothing greater can be conceived" (in Latin, "aliquid quod maius non cogitari potest"). Having done so, we have in mind the idea of god. But of course nothing about reality usually follows from what we have in mind, since we often think about things that do not (or even cannot) actually exist. In the case of this special concept, however, Anselm argued that what we can think of must in fact exist independently of our thinking of it.

Suppose the alternative: if that than which nothing greater can be conceived existed only in my mind and not in reality, then I could easily think of something else which would in fact be greater than this (namely, the same thing existing in reality as well as in my mind), so that what I originally contemplated turns out not in fact to be that than which nothing greater can be conceived. Since this is a contradiction, only a fool would believe it. So that than which nothing greater can be conceived (that is, god) must exist in reality as well as in the mind.

Something certainly seems fishy about this argument. It is extraordinary to suppose that merely thinking about something makes it so. But it turns out to be difficult to specify precisely what the problem is with Anselm's reasoning here.

Objections and Reformulations

Early objections (like those of the monk Gaunilo) focussed on the notion of conceivability at work here, proposing a similarly absurd argument for the reality of the most perfect conceivable island. But Anselm's claim is that only the concept of god unites all of the perfections under the umbrella of absolute unsurpassibility. What is more, Anselm supposed that existence is an essential feature of god's nature, and many philosophers have pointed out that existence is not a feature that could properly be included in the essence of any object. But the restatement of the argument in Proslogion 3 seems to suggest that it is necessary, not merely contingent, existence that must be predicated of the deity, and this version may avoid the conceivability issue altogether.

Perhaps the real difficulty with this argument has less to do with conceivability than with the idea of perfection in general, with its attendant notion of unsurpassability. "The person taller than whom no other person is now living" must truly exist in reality as well as in our minds (provided that there is at least one living person), but it is not clear that "the person taller than whom no other person can ever live" exists as a coherent concept even in the understanding, much less in reality. In similar fashion, it may be that there is no concept corresponding to the words, "that than which nothing greater can be conceived," giving the ontological argument no foundation.

Despite all of these difficulties, Anselm's effort has continued to find sympathetic supporters for nearly a millenium. Remember that within the Augustinian approach, the demonstration is not really intended as a proof that will persuade unbelievers to convert. Rather, it occurs within the context of prayerful meditation, as one element in the believer's ongoing pursuit of faith seeking understanding.

Scholastic Philosophy

Anselm's patient and rational approach to philosophical issues and his willingness to engage in debate with other thinkers who disagreed with the positions he defended were greatly influential on western culture. They helped give rise to the development of scholasticism, a process of intergenerational cooperation engendered by shared appeal to a common tradition of rational argumentation.

No everyone participated happily in this process, of course; Christian anti-inellectualism continued to flourish, as is clear in the writings of Peter Damian during the eleventh century. Damian condemned the use of dialectic for both secular and theological purposes, and argued that since human reason is so insignificant in comparison with the power of faith, the untrained and ignorant are bound to be wiser than the educated and thoughtful.

Many Christian thinkers disagreed, however, and their efforts to comprehend those who had gone before and to develop an intellectual tradition within the church were well served by the Book of Sentences (Libri Quatuor Sententiarum) (1158) compiled by Peter Lombard. An appropriate textbook for an era during which few copies of any book could be made generally available for student use, the Sentences simply quoted the opinions of earlier philosophers with respect to a variety of questions. Rarely commenting on these ancient materials, Lombard simply reported the conflicting views of the authorities issue by issue, leaving adjudication between them to the active participation of the reader. This helped to foster a framework of debate in which the basic positions could be clearly defined and new arguments in their criticism or defense easily developed.

The Problem of Universals

One of the issues that most plagued scholastic philosophers during this period was the problem of universals. What is the ontological status of the species to which many things commonly belong? Realists, following in the tradition of Plato, maintained that each universal is an entity in its own right, existing independently of the individual things that happen to participate in it. Nominalists, on the other hand, pursuing a view nearer that of Aristotle, held that only particular things exist, since the universal is nothing more than a name that applies to certain individual substances.

The difficulties with each position are clear. Nominalism seems to suggest that whether or not two things share a feature depends solely upon our accidental decision whether or not to call them by the same name. Realism, on the other hand, introduces a whole range of special abstract entities for the simple purpose of accounting for similarities that particular things exhibit. In the medieval spirit of disputation, each side found it easier to attack its opponents' views than to defend its own. But the most brilliant disputant of the twelfth century invented a third alternative that avoided the difficulties of both extremes.

French logician Peter Abelard proposed that we ground the genuine similarities among individual things without reifying their universal features, by predicating general terms in conformity with concepts abstracted from experience. This view, which came to be known as conceptualism, denies the reality of universals as separate entities yet secures the objectivity of our application of general terms. Although only individual things and their particular features truly exist, we effectively employ our shared concepts as universals. This resolution of the traditional problem of universals gained wide acceptance for several centuries, until doubts about the objectivity and reality of such mental entities as concepts came under serious question.

. . . . .
History of Philosophy
Previous Next

Creative Commons License
The Philosophy Pages by Garth Kemerling are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at

©1997, 2011 Garth Kemerling.
Last modified 12 November 2011.
Questions, comments, and suggestions may be sent to:
the Contact Page.