Anselm’s empirical method

Making (Up) the Truth With Anselm, part 3

With the theological question of truth having been broached from the starting points of both faith and reason, Anselm sets about answering it by following much the same experiential and practical method he had explicitly pursued in the Monologion and which I have argued he similarly takes for granted in the Proslogion, namely to “inquire as to what truth is by examining the various things in which we say there is truth” (quaeramus per rerum diversitates in quibus veritatem dicimus esse, quid sit veritas).[1] God as the Supreme Truth may be the cause of the truth of all other things, but what we mean by truth, including the Supreme Truth, is and must be taken from and informed by those truths which have been not only made by God but also actually experienced by us. As the Teacher describes it to the Student later in the dialogue, the method is that of beginning with those notions of truth which are more familiar “in order to lead you from the more familiar to the less familiar” (ut te a notioribus ad ignotiora perducerem—ch. 9). Similar to his two previous works, accordingly, Anselm initiates his inquiry, not with a theoretical account of the possibility or meaning of truth determined or defined prior to all experienced actuality, but with our pre-theoretical, lived encounters with those things which our language has already, even if imprecisely, identified as true.

[1] Marlyn McCord Adams describes Anselm’s method as one of “proceed[ing] pedagogically, from ‘the better known to the more unknown,’ from ‘the truth of signification about which everyone speaks’ to ‘truth in the essence of things,’ which ‘few consider.’ At the same time, Anselm moves from what is commonly said—by reviewing ‘the diversity of things in which we say truth exists’—to the deeper underlying philosophical truth of the matter not betrayed by surface usage.” Adams, “Saint Anselm’s Theory of Truth,” 359, emphasis original. In a similar vein, Noone refers to Anselm’s method as an “inductive process,” beginning with the truth of creation, and particularly the truth of signification, and culminating in the Highest Truth of God. Noone, “Truth, Creation, and Intelligibility in Anselm, Grosseteste, and Bonaventure,” 107. Following Noone, though further connecting Anselm’s simultaneously fideistic and rationalist impulses in On Truth with its empirical method, Cooper writes: “This juxtaposition of theological and philosophical elements in the purpose of De veritate, and thus also in its starting-points, is reflected in the methodology Anselm employs in the dialogue: he uses an inductive procedure, grounded upon common opinion, and arrives at conclusions by means of dialectic, but he also appeals to Scripture.” Cooper, Two Medieval Accounts of Truth, 46.


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