Nicholas or Nicolaus of Autrecourt (in French: Nicholas d'Autrécourt) (c. 1295 – 1369) was a French medieval philosopher, theologian, and an extreme representative of the new movement of critical thought which arose among European philosophers during the fourteenth century. Though he is credited with developing skepticism to extreme logical conclusions, he was critical of the ancient skeptics and did not hold that all truth was unknowable. He simply asserted that any genuine certitude must be based on the principle of non-contradiction; nothing could be considered absolutely true if its contradiction could be true at the same time. This reduced the realm of certainty to mathematics, logic and certain immediate sensual perceptions. His arguments did not begin with the universal theological doctrine of divine omnipotence, but used philosophical logic as a starting point. He did not believe that the existence of one thing can be inferred with certainty from the existence of another, therefore there was no absolute philosophical certainty that God was, or was not, the efficient cause of existence. Nicholas did admit faith and revelation as sources of absolute certainty in theological and metaphysical matters. He also allowed that a person could form empirical hypotheses, based on experience, which had a relative probability of being true, and that this probability increased as repeated experience produced additional evidence of the statement being true.
Nicholas did not deny any church doctrine, but in 1340 he was put on trial for false teachings on the allegation that 66 of his propositions, culled from his letters and his lectures, were erroneous. In 1346 he was ordered to recant a number of his propositions and to burn his writings, and he was barred from advancement in the faculty of theology. His trial and censure is considered one of the major events in the history of fourteenth-century Paris. He carried out his sentence, and served as canon and later dean of the cathedral at Metz until his death in 1369.
Very little is known about the personal life of Nicholas and the few available details come mostly from church documents and the record of his trial. His birth is placed between 1295 and 1298, in Autrécourt in the diocese of Verdun. A record from between 1333-1336 shows that he served as prior at the Collège de Sorbonne. a papal letter, dated 1338, in which Pope Benedict XII confers upon him the function of canon at Metz Cathedral, refers to him as a master of arts and bachelor of theology and civil law. A letter from Pope Benedict XII to the Bishop of Paris, dated November 21, 1340, summoning Nicholas and several others to Avignon to respond to allegations of false teaching, indicates that he was a licentiatus in theology, meaning that he had fulfilled the formal requirements for the theology degree.
The investigation was postponed by the pope’s death, but resumed after the coronation of Pope Clement VI in May of 1342. The pope assigned a commission, under the leadership of Cardinal William Curti, to evaluate the opinions of Nicholas of Autrecourt, and he was invited to defend himself in the presence of the pope. The commission summarized the false teachings of Nicholas in four lists, containing a total of 66 propositions or articles. After the hearing, Nicholas’ writings were declared to contain many false and dangerous statements, and were ordered burned. Nicholas himself was required to publicly recant several of his statements, both at the palace of Cardinal Curti in Avignon in 1346, and at the University of Paris in November 1347. Nicholas was also barred from ascending to the magisterial rank in the theological faculty. These public ceremonies were a warning to other scholars of the punishment they would receive if they were to promote any of the same teachings.
After the trial in 1347, Nicholas took up his position as canon in the cathedral at Metz, where he later became dean and served until his death on July 16 or 17, 1369.
Few of the writings of Nicholas exist today. The Collège de Sorbonne preserved two of nine letters which he wrote to Bernard of Arezzo in 1135 and 1336, while they, then theology students, were discussing the validity of Aristotle’s principle of non-contradiction (as presented in Book IV of the Metaphysics) in preparation for their inaugural lectures on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. Fragments from the other seven letters are included in the notes of Nicholas’s trial. There is also a letter written to him by master Giles (possibly Giles of Feno), and a partial response to it. While Nicholas was studying theology, he supported himself financially by teaching in the arts faculty and consequently wrote an independent treatise, Exigit ordo (also called Tractatus universalis, or Universal Treatise), on natural philosophy, metaphysics, ethics, psychology and epistemology. Nicholas also wrote a report on a theological disputation in which he served as respondent to the objections.
Nicholas attacked the Aristotelian idea that we can infer a cause by studying its effects. He contended that there was no logical reason to assume that there was a particular, undeniable relationship between a cause and an effect. All evident knowledge must be reducible to the principle of non-contradiction. In order for an inference about a cause and effect to be absolutely true, the cause and the effect would have to be identical. In this sense, only certain logical and mathematical propositions could be considered to be evident, or absolutely and undeniably true. In his fifth letter to Bernard Arezzo, Nicholas asserts that God may well be the sole efficient cause, since we do not know with certainty that there is any efficient cause other than God. However, it cannot be proved with certainty that God is the sole efficient cause, because we cannot infer the existence of one thing from the existence of another, different, thing. Nicholas differed from other philosophers of his time because he chose to approach the question of causality on a philosophical level, rather than starting with the assumption of the divine omnipotence of God.
This position led historians to characterize Nicholas as an extreme medieval skeptic. However, Nicholas defended the reliability of sense perceptions and criticized the ancient skeptics for declaring that reality was unknowable. In response to Bernard Arezzo, who had argued that the intellect is not certain even of the existence of things of which it has an intuitive cognition, he pointed out the ridiculousness of such a stance, saying, “… you do not know what things exist in your immediate surroundings, such as whether you have a head, a beard, hair and the like.”
Nicholas maintained that immediate cognition, whether of an external object or an internal action, was certain and evident. A perception could not be other than what it was. He distinguished, however, between perception and judgment. A wrong judgment, based on experience, could be made if the appearance of an object failed to inform us of the true properties of that object. A veridical judgment could only be made based on a clear appearance (apparentiae clarae) of the object, in other words, when the object was perceived in “full light” and its properties were correctly represented to the viewer.
The condition that all evident knowledge must be reducible to the principle of non-contradiction severely limited the scope of what could be known with certainty. However, Nicholas allowed that it was possible to form conjectural hypotheses, based on evidence and experience, which might probably be true. Though these hypotheses could never be proved with certainty, the repeated experience of the same sequence of events would increase the probability that a hypothesis was true. Nicholas even asserted that his propositions, when compared with Aristotle’s ideas, were more probable.
Nicholas also admitted faith and revelation as sources of certitude, and did not deny the significance of theological and metaphysical statements. Nor did he deny any church doctrine; during his defense at his trial, he said that wherever the philosophy which he suggested as “probable” conflicted with the teachings of the church, it was untrue. Nicholas simply challenged, on philosophical grounds, the Aristotelian ideas which had come to dominate the Scholastics during the thirteenth century.
Nicholas suggested an atomistic hypothesis to explain the corruption of material substances. When one thing appeared to change into another or disappear, it simply meant that the combination of atoms making up that thing had changed in quantity or composition, but the atoms themselves were never destroyed. He maintained the hypothesis of human immortality by explaining that in the act of knowing, the human mind entered into a union with the object of knowledge. As all things were eternal, the soul would continue to exist in a relationship with those things. He supported the Christian doctrine of reward and punishment in the afterlife by suggesting that evil minds would form a union with evil objects, while noble minds would form a union with objects of goodness.
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