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Around the beginning of the twelfth century the study of dialectic or logic achieved in Western Europe a pre-eminence within the fields of secular learning that it had never achieved before in the West and that it would never achieve again. Just what were the reasons for this intense interest in subjects which men in not a few other periods have thought were the driest dust of academic learning is not entirely clear. But in part it was no doubt due to the fact that of all the branches of ancient secular learning logic, and its cognate linguistic disciplines of grammar and rhetoric, managed in Western Europe best of all to preserve a continuity of tradition through the ‘dark ages’ of the seventh and eighth centuries. In fact, in the Latin West very little else did survive in any systematic form, and once the full panoply of Peripatetic science was restored in the thirteenth century, logic was forced to share equal honours with several other areas of study.
The tradition that was preserved was definitely Aristotelian, stemming from the Organon, passing through the great Greek commentators – Alexander, Ammonius, Porphyry, Themistius, Simplicius and others – acquiring in the process supplementa of Stoic origin, and making its way to the Western Middle Ages mainly via one remarkable figure: Boethius (ca. 480–524).
Of all the scholastic logicians writing while the old logic (logica vetus) was still virtually the whole of the logical curriculum in the schools, Abelard is generally conceded to have been the most profound and original. He himself was keenly aware of the subtlety required of the logician and in one place says it depends on a divinely bestowed talent, rather than anything that can be developed by mere practice. Abelard treats dialectic (= logic) as an ars sermocinalis, i.e., like grammar a linguistic science. Its peculiar subject matter is arguments as expressed in language, whose validity it tries to judge in a scientific way. This linguistically oriented conception of the subject means that dialectic will overlap to some extent with grammar. In the first section below I shall selectively explore this overlap; in the second section I shall consider some of Abelard's views on more purely logical topics.
For Abelard logic also had a close relation to physica, i.e., the sciences of nature, since in explaining the ‘uses of words’ the logician must investigate in a general way the ‘properties of things’ which the mind uses words to signify. This relationship leads to a concern with the psychology of signification, to be explored in the third section below, and with ontology, the topic of the fourth section. This discussion is necessarily very selective and must omit consideration of many of Abelard's philosophical insights on relevant topics.