The trivium at Bec and its bearing on Anselm’s program of faith seeking understanding, 3

Read part 2 here.

3 Intellectus in the Boethian Works of the Logica Vetus

The prominence of the subject-object dichotomy for our own understanding of the faith/understanding relation provides perhaps the greatest obstacle to correctly approaching the text of Anselm’s Proslogion. The main features of this dichotomy are 1) that the world of objects is conceived of after the fashion of a domain of objects in model theory, typically the minimal set of things necessary for the maintenance of some sufficiently canonical activity (usually given by the hard sciences); and 2) that anything outside of this basic ‘furniture of the world’ is thought of as added to it by the activity of subjects. Broadly, everything that is must be either a mere entity, the paradigmatic cases of which tend to be artefacts; or a thinking thing, or something pertaining to the activity of such a being. Particularly, meanings must either be platonic objects or mental constructions of some sort.

In contrast, earlier Medieval logic generally takes meanings to be neither objects nor impositions of subjects: meanings are something had by entities;[1] and because of this, we may by an appropriate transference ascribe that meaning to a term referring to the entity. Boethius makes the point as follows:

‘Whenever one thing partakes of another, this participation is given in the name as well as in the thing. For instance, a certain man, because he partakes of justice, draws near [to justice] really, and hence draws his name near as well: he is called just.’[2]

The same point can be made not only with respect to a thing and its name, but also with respect to a thing and its concept. In the De Grammatico, there is a point where the teacher admonishes the student saying:

‘When it is asserted that every man can be understood to be man without literacy, and no literate can be understood to be literate without literacy, doesn’t this mean that being a man does not require literacy, and being a literate requires literacy?’[3]

The above passages manifest two aspects of early Medieval thinking more generally. First, the Medieval analysis, unlike our own, bridges the gap between talk of the meaning of terms and the talk of meaning one finds, for example, in questions about the ‘meaning of life’.[4] Second, it denies thought the character of spontaneity. So, for instance, if Anselm can be truly described as fidelis/faithful, then i) our ability to call him such is a consequence of his being such, and ii) he is faithful by having faith, conceived as the principle of his faithfulness. Similarly, if Anselm understands something, he understands by understanding, i.e. whatever underlying principle it is that grants understanding to a subject. Such attitudes are ‘subjective’ merely the sense in that they are intentions of a subject subordinated to an intended ideal: it does not mean they are empty intentions, nor that the intention becomes subordinated to the intending by its being enacted.[5]

If we are faithful to this general pattern, we will conclude that for Anselm, the sense of understanding given in ‘x understands’ will be unpacked as ‘x has understanding’, just as Anselm unpacks ‘x is white’ as ‘x has whiteness’, and ‘x is grammatical’ as ‘x knows grammar’.[6] More generally, a paronymous term – and, correspondingly, the being of what it names – will yield its substantive corollary in its definition upon analysis, and in this sense is reducible to it.[7]

A passage from Boethius’ longer commentary on Porphyry’s Isagoge proves illuminating on this point. Where Porphyry states his intention to bypass questions concerning the ontological status of genus and species,[8] Boethius comments:

‘The first of these [questions] is of this sort: Whatever the mind understands it either receives by a core meaning (intellectu) constituted in the nature of things and explicates to itself by a reason, in the case of that which is; or it portrays to itself in an empty imagining, in the case of what is not. Therefore, we ask, concerning the meaning (intellectus) of genus and others like it, whether we so understand species and genus as those things that are, and from which we grasp a true meaning (intellectum), or whether we are deceiving ourselves, when we form for ourselves things that are not with hollowed out imaginings.’[9]

In the above passage, Boethius is attempting to sustain two contrasts: the first, between what is and what isn’t; the second, between intellectus and imaginatio. Implicit alongside these two contrasts are several others: those between the inner and the outer, the true and the merely apparent, and the full and the empty. Each first member of the above dichotomies is parallel with every other, as is each second member. So intellectus in the above passage must correspond to what is, as opposed to what is not; and as what is fully true as opposed to what is empty and apparent. The contrast between the faculties of intellect and imagination partially fulfils this role, but only because of what those faculties themselves are oriented towards. Imagination takes its bearings from the changing realm of sensible things: hence what it imagines need not be when it imagines it; in some cases, it need not be at all. Hence, it is possible for an imagination to be empty, hollow, unfulfilled. Understanding, by contrast, is oriented toward an essential, stable core in material natures. Hence, to highlight the primacy of this dichotomy, upon which that between the faculties depends, I have translated intellectus in the above passage as ‘meaning’.[10]

The same sense comes through in Boethius’ commentary on the Peri Hermenias. Commenting on the passage at the beginning of the work explaining the relations between writing, speech, concepts, and things, he writes:

‘There are three things from which every debate and disputation is composed: the matters at hand (res), the meanings (intellectus), and the spoken words (voces). The matters (res) are what we grasp by measure of mind and distinguish by understanding (intellectu). The meanings (intellectus) are that by which we come to know the matters themselves. Spoken words are that by which we signify what we grasp of the meaning.’[11]

Translated thus, this passage can be disengaged from the metaphysics of representational realism[12] within which it is typically ensconced. The scope of res used here is broader than that typically ascribed to ‘object’: it refers to anything that can be talked about as the subject of an inquiry. These subjects grant a sense (intellectus1) to minds (intellectus2) which achieve a state of understanding (intellectus3) in grasping the sense. These meanings do not mediate between the mind and world of objects: rather, the matters themselves are meaningful; and, since meaning is, qua meaning, granted to minds, these matters are meaningful for understanding subjects. Hence, though we do speak of ‘what we have in mind’ (id quod intellectu capimus), such a designation is opaque if it fails to note that what we grasp is the meaning of the matter at hand, and that what we do in speaking is constitute this meaning (constituere intellectum) for another.[13]

[1] See Henry 1974, 88: ‘Hence it here appears that for Boethius one could speak of things being asserted in a certain fashion (e.g. denominatively, paronymously). Hence the whole sentence with which we are now concerned is perfectly coherent with the Boethian pattern, and the modern compulsion to insert quotation marks around ‘grammatico’/‘literate’ thereby removed.’

[2] BC 167D-168A:

Atque ideo quotiescunque aliqua res alia participat, ipsa participatio sicut rem ita quoque nomen adipiscitur, ut quidam homo, quia iustitia participat et rem quoque inde trahit et nomen, dicitur enim iustus.

[3] DG V = Henry 1974, 52 (alt.):

Qui dicit: omnis homo potest intelligi homo sine grammatica; et nullus Grammaticus potest intelligi grammaticus sine grammatica, nonne hoc significat quia esse hominis non indiget grammatica, et esse grammatici indiget grammatica?

[4] Hence, in no way can Anselm’s project be construed, a la Wittgenstein, as giving a linguistic analysis of the meaning of the term ‘God’. Cf. Gasper 2004, 107-143.

This attitude towards names remains standard even for Aquinas. cf. Archambault 2014, 185-90.

[5] Boethius makes the point forcefully in the case of the relation between arguing and argument at BDT 1174C:

Non vero idem est argumentum et argumentatio: nam vis sententiae ratioque ea quae clauditur oratio cum aliquid probatur ambiguum, argumentum vocatur; ipsa vero argumenti elocutio, argumentatio dicitur. Quo fit ut argumentum quidem virtus, et mens argumentationis sit atque sententia; argumentatio vero, argumenti per orationem explicatio.


An argument is not the same thing as argumentation: for both the ground of a judgment and the reason contained in a speech when something uncertain is proven are called ‘arguments’; while the actual speaking of the argument is called an ‘argumentation’. By this, it happens that an argument is in a way the power and principle as well as the meaning of an argumentation; while an argumentation is the explication of an argument through speech.

[6] These examples are used by Anselm in DG XIV. Here, knowing is regarded as a way of having, the appropriate one for things like grammar.

[7] So the primary sense of intellectum in fides quaerens intellectum cannot, pace Bencivenga, be identified with the state of satisfaction achieved by the subject who understands (though normally, nothing prevents this from being present as well—as, for instance, in VA I, xix), but rather is what the intellect has when it is in this state. See Bencivenga 1993, 33.

[8] BCP 82AB:

Mox de generibus et speciebus illud quidem, sive subsistant, sive in solis nudis intellectibus posita sint, sive subsistentia corporalia sint an incorporalia, et utrum separata a sensibilibus an in sensibilibus posita: et circa haec consistentia dicere recusabo.

I translate Porphyry’s passage as follows:

Now concerning genera and species: I won’t say 1) whether they subsist [in the realm of nature] or 2) are placed in separated ideas, unobscured [i.e. by admixture with matter]; or 1a) if subsisting, whether corporeal or incorporeal; or 2a) if separate, whether set [forth] in sensibilia or from them; and [I won’t speak] about how such things belong together.

Note that when translated thus, the notion that universals exist only in the mind of a human subject is not even mentioned as an option. The main options laid out in the first clause are that genera and species are 1) natural/physical or 2) supernatural/metaphysical, i.e. existing apart from the realm of earthly things.

[9] BCP 64, 82BC:

Quarum prima [harum quaestionum] est huiusmodi: Omne quod intelligit animus, aut id quod est, in rerum natura constitutum intellectu concipit et sibimet ratione describit; aut id quod non est, vacua sibi imaginatione depingit. Ergo intellectus generis et caeterorum cuiusmodi sit quaeritur: utrumne ita intelligamus species et genera ut ea quae sunt et ex quibus verum capimus intellectum, an nosmetipsos eludimus cum ea quae non sunt nobis cassa imaginatione formamus.

[10] This translation is not entirely novel, even in Anselm scholarship. See Holopainen 2007, 18, 21.

[11] BDIL 297B:

Tria sunt ex quibus omnis collocutio disputatioque perficitur: res, intellectus, voces. Res sunt quas animi ratione percipimus, intellectuque discernimus. Intellectus vero quibus res ipsas addiscimus. Voces quibus id quod intellectu capimus, significamus.

[12] Representational realism is typically regarded as a position in the philosophy of mind. What I call the metaphysics of representational realism, though, is the understanding of being presupposed in that position, the dominant traits of which are 1) the treatment of the distinction between mind and world, the mental and the physical as a distinction between two distinct spheres of reality (or, if ‘reality’ has already been co-opted to refer to one half of the dichotomy, the reader may choose another term ad placitum), and 2) the corresponding search for a medium by which this chasm is to be traversed, typically found in the idea.

[13] See BDIL 429C-431C, where the phrase is used throughout. Anselm uses it at DG XIV.

Part 4.


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