scholasticism in global context

In The Sound of Two Hands Clapping, Georges B.J. Dreyfus describes Tibetan monasteries as homes for “scholasticism,” using a word originally coined to describe a form of Catholic thought and practice that was most influential in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries–later to be mocked and repudiated by both Protestants and Catholic Humanists. As Dreyfus notes, this word has also been used to describe specific traditions in Islam, and more recently in Hinduism and Buddhism. In his book, he explores strong parallels in Judaism.

It could be that scholasticism is an option within any heavily organized and sustained tradition of thought, whether we classify it as a religion or as something else.

One core component is a belief in argument–not just discussion and disagreement, but contentious, often competitive pro/con debate. Debates in Tibetan monasteries are high-pressure, competitive affairs conducted before active audiences. The same was true in medieval universities, where students paid the lecturers individually and enjoyed competitive showdowns. King and Arling write that Abelard’s “quick wit, sharp tongue, perfect memory and boundless arrogance made him unbeatable in debate—he was said by supporter and detractor alike never to have lost an argument.” Dreyfus recalls the Jewish practice of havruta, learning in pairs, and emphasizes that these pairs debate each other.

In scholastic traditions, debate is not seen as a temporary necessity while we sort out important topics once and for all. Instead, it is a form of religious practice, comparable to meditation or ritual and something like an end in itself.

Martin Luther hated it for just that reason. Luther was a formidable debater, but he was trying to defeat heresy. He would have been deeply disappointed to learn that people are still debating theology centuries later. In contrast, I think that Tibetan monks work to keep the debate going. They see it as a good way of life.

Debating what is actually said in the most revered texts of any tradition is risky. While arguing about such texts, it is hard to avoid arguing with them. Therefore, an interesting pattern in scholasticism is a tendency to argue about the previous commentators. According to Dreyfus, “Tibetans emphasize less the inspirational words of the founder (the sutras) and more the study of their content as summarized by the great Indian treatises.” In theory, “the authority of the Indian commentaries is extremely important; practically, they are used in Tibetan education relatively rarely by teachers and students.” Instead, Tibetan monks memorize and debate Tibetan commentaries on the Indian summaries of the sutras that are attributed to the Buddha. My sense is that Catholic commentaries on Aristotle, Jewish Talmudic study, and Islamic jurisprudence have a similar flavor.

Again, this style drove Luther crazy. The truth was in the original Word of God (sola scriptura) not in pedantic commentaries. Erasmus opposed scholasticism for a different but compatible reason. For him, the ancient texts–including but not limited to the Bible–made better literature than the ponderous tomes of the scholastics. The classics had style and form. However, if you want to keep on debating forever, then it makes sense to focus on the commentaries and let them accumulate, layer upon layer.

Another common feature is a focus on law–not necessarily in the literal sense of state-enforced rules and punishments, but at least the question of what counts as the right action in all kinds of circumstances; call it casuistry, jurisprudence, or applied ethics. I’m guessing this is a fruitful focus because we can invent new ethical questions endlessly. Besides, if the real purpose of the debate is self-improvement, then good behavior makes an ideal topic.

Social stratification often emerges in these traditions, to the point where the scholastic authorities can be quasi-hereditary. Yet the traditions offer stories about talented teachers who came up from nowhere. That is the point of the opening story of the Platform Sutra, when an illiterate monk grasps the point that the educated ones have missed and becomes a great authority. (This is my example, not Dreyfus’, and it might not be germane.) Jean Gerson, who became the most senior scholar in Paris, was born as one of twelve children of pious peasants. Of course, meritocratic anecdotes serve as great justifications for hierarchical systems.

I share this generic definition of scholasticism without a value-judgment. I am not sure how much I admire these traditions or resonate to them. Presumably, they are best assessed as parts of much larger social orders that offer other options as well. In any case, it seems valuable to recognize a form of life that recurs so widely.

See also: Foucault’s spiritual exercises; does focusing philosophy on how to live broaden or narrow it?; Hannah Arendt and philosophy as a way of life; avoiding the labels of East and West; Owen Flanagan, The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized; is everyone religious?; etc.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.