The Questions Asked the Answers Given: Langland, the Answers Given: Langland, Scotus, and Ockham
Unlike most medieval dream vision poetry that juxtaposes cognitive and spiritual insights to show that revelation supersedes human reason, PPl uses this juxtaposition as means of “discovering and promoting the mind’s distinct abilities” (195). Strong suggests that Will’s quest for Dowel is underpinned by Franciscan epistemological concerns about intuitive and abstractive cognition. After briefly summarizing the differing, yet complementary, approaches of Scotus and Ockham with regard to universals and particulars and the acquisition of knowledge through experience, Strong first considers the dialogue of Will with the friars in B.8. Here, the former espouses an Ockhamist position by showing his “reluctance to advocate [the friars’] specific epistemology,” which is indebted to Scotus, whereby they claim that both Dowel and Do-Yvele live among them (262). Like Ockham, the nominalist, Will, as yet, rejects the “moderate realist” compromise propounded by Scotus that resolves the conundrum of the universal and the particular. By instructing Will to recognize Dowel as a “discernible object [of enquiry],” Strong suggests that this debate goes beyond reflecting the issues discussed by important Franciscan thinkers by expounding for him the four principles (B.8.52-56) that are the very basis of the proper Franciscan exercise of the intellect: “to avoid speculation, to learn his cognitive abilities, to recognize his connection to creation, and to realize that the intellect is a gift of God” (264). Strong’s next example is drawn from B.10, the advice of Study, and he suggests that the “ocular references that underscore . . . the limitations of [her] knowledge” highlight the fact that her realm is that of scientia, of the observation of tangible things (264). As such, then, Study’s discourse both distinguishes her from and prepares the way for Scripture’s musings, which concern sapientia later in the same passus. This distinction emphasizes that the knowledge of its own limitations is a virtuous exercise of the intellect and also a good preparation for the acceptance of truths “that are higher than those that can be proven demonstrably,” both sound principles of the Franciscan attitude to academic study (265). Francis himself considered an understanding of the distinction between sapientia and scientia as essential for a student who was to go on to understand that “the source of Theology’s knowledge lies in love” (265). Will’s encounter with Imagynatyf in B.11 and B.12 forms the basis of Strong’s most detailed example, for it is in this meeting that Will is instructed in detail, first in an inner dream and then in Iamgynatyf’s discourse on Kind Wit, about those truths so readily embodied by Study. Along Ockhamist, “abstractive” lines, Will learns to apprehend universal truths about the Creator and Creation from observing the peacocks, and eventually, Imagynatyf “expresses the nuanced complexities involved in using the mind to know spiritual truth,” and the ultimate limitation of such Kind Wit in the face of God’s omnipotence and eternity, although he does go on to align Kind Wit with “Clergy as well with Christ” (270). Thus, Strong concludes, the iteration of the question of how to find Dowel is not an attempt by L to portray the knowledge of God as something “vague, mysterious [that] continually eludes and transcends” human understanding. Rather, the question underscores Franciscan epistemologies that exalt the mind’s ability “recognize that simple objects of this world denote a higher truth” (271, 272).
Chaucer Review 38 (2004): 255-75