Anselm's debate with gaunilo

Gaunilo, monk of Marmoutier, is known almost exclusively for his attempted refutation of Anselm’s ontological argument around 1079. Indeed, both his counter-example about the alleged island which is more excellent than all others and Anselm’s rebuttal thereof have nowadays become standard items for courses in medieval philosophy. Over the past decade or so, which has witnessed a revival of interest in the ontological argument, Gaunilo has been either lauded for his brilliancy or disparaged for his mediocrity. Thus, R. W. Southern judges that, “in words which are as trenchant as, and in some details strikingly similar to, those of Kant,” Gaunilo pointed out the main difficulty in accepting Anselm’s argument.1 By contrast, the most Charles Hartshorne can say on Gaunilo’s behalf is that he is “a clever, but essentially commonplace mind.”2 Those who praise Gaunilo tend to do so because he “wisely” discerned the illegitimacy of inferring a factual statement from an a priori description. Those who speak derogatorily of his achievement tend to side with Anselm’s two criticisms: (1) that he misunderstood the phrase “aliquid quo nihil maius cogitari potest”—replacing it by “maius omnibus”—and (2) that his definition of “understanding” is inconsistent with his having maintained that what is unreal can be understood.3 Now, if Gaunilo did commit himself to two blatantly inconsistent statements within a few lines of each other, as the second criticism maintains, then to call him a clever mind would itself be an overstatement.
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