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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The term “Ramism” is used to designate the intellec-
tual trends, in part philosophical and in part pedagogi-
cal, associated with the work of Pierre de la Ramée,
better known as Petrus Ramus, or Peter Ramus
(1515-72). Ramism was a mixture of scholasticism and
humanism which spread in the sixteenth and seven-
teenth centuries through northern Europe and the
British colonies in North America. Avowedly anti-
Aristotelian, it drives toward simplification of all
knowledge through a kind of noetic bookeeping, anti-
iconographic and diagrammatic in form, implemented
by the new art of typography. Its confident rationalism
allies Ramism with the Cartesianism and Encyclo-
which followed it.

1. Ramus' Career. Ramus was a polymath at the
University of Paris, where he came as a boy from his
native Picard village of Cuts (Oise), and where he
received his master of arts degree, taught, became
principal of the Collège de Presles, and in 1551 was
named Regius Professor of Eloquence and Philosophy.
Around 1562 he embraced the Protestant Reformation.
Following a sojourn in Germany and Switzerland in
1568-70, he returned to the University of Paris, where
he was murdered August 26, 1572, in the third day
of the St. Bartholomew's Massacre.

Ramus was widely erudite, patient in working
through difficult subjects, and seriously committed to
the intellectual life and even more to educational re-
form, though his original contributions to knowledge
were slight. His published works range over dialectic
(logic), rhetoric, grammar (Latin, Greek, and even
French), Aristotelian physics and metaphysics (both of
which he ridicules), arithmetic, algebra, and geometry,
and include also a few Latin translations from the
Greek, classical commentaries, some of which bear on
legal and military science, as well as academic orations
and prefaces and remonstrances and letters, and a
posthumously published systematization of Christian
doctrine. His works add up to around sixty titles and
those of his academic associate and lieutenant Omer
Talon or Audomarus Talaeus (ca. 1510-62) to some
thirteen more. Talon did the initial work on the Ramist
reform of rhetoric, under Ramus' supervision. Nearly
800 extant editions of works of the two men have been
identified—or, if the various works in collected editions
are counted separately, over 1100, of which some 450
are editions of the works on logic and rhetoric.

2. Ramus' Significance. Ramus' significance and
influence hinge on his reorganization of dialectic or
logic, to which a reorganization of rhetoric was tied.
Ramus had been educated at the University of Paris
at a time when the highly formalized, scientific logic


of the Middle Ages was falling into desuetude, in great
part because of the attraction of the studia human-
the studies centered on the human “lifeworld,”
rather than on exact science, which lie at the center
of the Renaissance. Logic (or dialectic—the terms were
for the most part synonymous, though careful thinkers
could distinguish them, as explained below) should be
something close to common sense, accessible to all, not
a skill for specialists. This attitude was common
throughout the humanist tradition and is found in
Rudolph Agricola (Roelof Huusman, 1444-85), with
whose work to a degree Ramus' work connects.

Ramus' logic rejects the works in the Aristotelian
Organon, substituting as an approach to his subject
Agricola's Ciceronian division of dialectic into inven-
tion (inventio) and judgment (iudicium), and using this
division as a means of annexing some areas of instruc-
tion previously assigned to rhetoric. The classic
Ciceronian rhetoric had been divided into five “parts”:
invention (inventio, discovery of “arguments”), judg-
ment or arrangement (iudicium or dispositio, assem-
blage or composition of the material discovered), style
(elocutio), memory (memoria), and delivery (pronun-
). Maintaining that rhetorical invention and
composition were needless duplications, Ramus excised
these “parts” from his (and Talon's) treatment of
rhetoric, relegating them to dialectic only. He also
dropped memory from rhetoric, giving as his reason
that if one followed the “natural” or methodical order
demanded by logic in the development of thought,
memory was hardly a problem. This left rhetoric with
style and delivery. Style meant the use of tropes and
figures and became in effect the whole of rhetoric, for
delivery was given only token treatment. Since delivery
meant oral presentation, it was in fact losing relevance
in a world more addicted to writing than Cicero's
world had been and recently coming under the sway
of print, although this quite real reason for the atrophy
of delivery, and the liquidation of memory, was seldom
if ever adverted to.

Some earlier thinkers had distinguished various
logics in terms of degrees of logical necessity in their
procedures. Scientific logic, such as that in mathe-
matics, proceeded to necessary or inevitable conclu-
sions. Other kinds of logic dealt rather with proba-
bilities: dialectic was concerned with arguing for the
more probable of two opposed positions, as in a formal
debate; rhetoric was concerned with argumentation
probable enough to conduce to action; poetry was
concerned with verisimilitude. As a kind of sub-
probability or reverse probability at the bottom of this
scale lay sophistry, concerned with specious argumen-
tation, falsehood proposed as truth. Ramus jettisoned
all such attention to probabilities and, assigning the
discovery of all arguments and their arrangement to
the one sole “art” which he styled indifferently dialec-
tic or logic, maintained adamantly that logic was logic,
the same in poetry as in mathematics.

The new Ramist arrangement made up in forth-
rightness and simplicity for what it lacked in accuracy
and suppleness, and this gave it its appeal. Once
dialectic or logic was divided into invention and judg-
ment, each of these was itself subdivided into two parts.
Invention thus split into invention of “artificial” argu-
ments (intrinsic or analytic arguments such as causes
and effects, subjects, adjuncts, disparates, contraries,
etc.) and invention of “inartificial” arguments (extrinsic
arguments, such as testimony, less cogent than the
artificial). These “parts” or headings are basically the
loci or topoi (topics or “places” or commonplaces)
treated by Aristotle in his Topics and Rhetoric, by
Boethius, and by countless others. They constitute
“seats” (sedes) or areas—“headings” they could be
styled today—where one might find arguments to
prove a point. Judgment or arrangement was likewise
dichotomized into axiomatic judgment (enunciations)
and dianoetic judgment (reasoning processes).

Each of these subdivisions was further divided,
always into two parts, and the resulting subdivisions
again dichotomized and subdichotomized until all pos-
sibility of further division was exhausted. The bipartite
division employed here was itself accounted for in
Ramist dialectic: it was, in fact, “method,” one of the
two types of reasoning processes, of which the other
was syllogism. Syllogism handled shorter structures of
thought, method all longer structures, whether scien-
tific treatises (including those on dialectic itself), class-
room teaching, orations (including sermons), letters,
narrations, and poetry. Method in any and all subjects
or genres ideally moved always from the general to
the “particular.” Deviations from method, proceeding
from the particular to the general (“cryptic” method),
were advisable or tolerable only when the audience
was recalcitrant or ignorant or otherwise ill-prepared.

Although Aristotle, Galen, and others had discussed
methodos in senses more or less related to the modern
term “method,” the textbook association of method and
logic which Descartes learned in school and trans-
mitted to subsequent generations of thinkers is trace-
able directly to Ramus and his contemporaries Johann
Sturm and Philipp Melanchthon. Between the years
1543 and 1547 all three introduced sections on method
into their textbooks on dialectic or logic. (Melanchthon
had done a bit with method slightly earlier.)

Ramist method differed from Sturm's and Melanch-
thon's most effectively in its attractive diagrammatic
simplicity. From classical antiquity, in academic tradi-
tion the oration or public address had served as the


chief paradigm for all prose composition, often even
for letter-writing. Ramist method provided as an alter-
native to this old oral organization of thought and
expression a design more adapted to print (and to
writing, too, although until print, writing had failed
to modify many of the basically oral structures of
primitive human culture). The typical product of
Ramist method would be the modern encyclopedia

All the curriculum subjects, not merely dialectic or
logic, could be methodized and were, if not by Ramus
then by his followers. Indeed, to the Ramist mind,
classroom teaching, which was both highly analytic and
polemically colored, thus became somehow the
paradigm for all thought and expression. By extension,
the entire universe of learning and indeed the entire
physical universe, which the arts mirror or picture,
becomes susceptible of neat diagrammatic analysis in
dichotomized outline form. In his edition of some of
Ramus' works entitled Professio regia (1576), Ramus'
disciple Johann Thomas Freige (Freigius) so analyzes
Cicero's career—the first dichotomy is life/death
(vita/mors)—and another disciple, Theodor Zwinger
the Elder (1533-88), in his Methodus apodemica (1577)
produces a dichotomized logical analysis of the
Verrocchio equestrian statue of Bartolommeo Colleoni
in Venice (diagrammed in terms of intrinsic causes and
extrinsic causes, and so on).

The impetus to diagrammatic treatment of this sort
is of course old. Diagrams such as the Tree of Porphyry
can be found in the pretypographical manuscript tra-
dition. But elaborate outlines of the sort that spread
through thousands of pages of Ramist-inspired works
on all subjects are extremely difficult to reproduce
accurately in manuscript. On a printing press they
were no more difficult to run than were pages of ordi-
nary text. Hence it is understandable that after the
development of typography they flood the world of
learning. Insofar as its model of knowledge and of
actuality is one which is eminently adaptable to print,
Ramism is thus a post-Gutenberg phenomenon.

Ramist method is also a memory system of a special
sort. Before print made massive indexing feasible by
locking words into exactly the same places in thousands
of copies of a given book, even in cultures with writing,
knowledge had to be organized to implement
mnemonic recall, and heavily symbolic or allegorical
figures such as Athena and her owl, Zeus and his
thunderbolts, Mercury and his wand and winged
sandals, are noetically functional as well as aesthet-
ically pleasing. From the remotest antiquity through
the Renaissance, knowledge was commonly stored for
recall by being associated with such mythological or
otherwise iconographic figures, which, in various
memory systems, running from Cicero to Giordano
Bruno, are deployed in the imagination in set spatial
patterns to expedite retrieval of the knowledge associ-
ated with them. Ramism adapts this tradition. It retains
the practice of deploying material in spatial patterns
to expedite recall, but eliminates all iconography, sub-
stituting for statues of Athena, Zeus, and the like mere
printed words connected to one another by lines in
an extremely simple binary pattern forming the
dichotomized Ramist charts of “methodized” noetic
material. These correspond exactly to the “flow charts”
with which a computer is programmed today. This
Ramist substitution of lettered words for iconographic
figures Frances Yates styles “inner iconoclasm” (p. 235).

From another point of view, the Ramist dichot-
omized charts and the mode of thought which bred
them show connections with the medieval logic which
Ramists and humanists generally in principle detested.
It is now known that by comparison with Aristotelian
logic medieval logic was highly quantified in very
advanced ways. The quantifying heritage finds a new
but bizarre outlet in the Ramist charting of knowledge,
now under the encouragement of print, which removed
words more than ever from their natural habitat in
the oral world and made them maneuverable items in

3. Range of Ramus' Influence. Ramism penetrated
chiefly Germany, the British Isles, Switzerland and
Alsace, France, the Low Countries, and to some degree
Scandinavia, as well as the British Colonies in North
America, particularly New England. In all these places
it tended to be most favored where Calvinism was
favored, not so much because of Ramus' late-espoused
Protestantism as because of the temper of his thought,
which admirably suited the rising bourgeoisie from
which Calvinism drew so many of its recruits. The
noniconographic and neat structures which Ramism
imposed on knowledge appealed to those who liked
to keep account books straight and who also hated all
“idols.” In New England, Ramist modes of organizing
and expounding knowledge are evident in Increase
Mather, Cotton Mather, Samuel Johnson, John Eliot
(who translated Ramus' Dialectic into Algonquian), and
others. Significantly, Ramism exercised its greatest ap-
peal at the pre-university level of education, although
it left its often unacknowledged mark on many a uni-
versity mind.

4. Effects of Ramism. Ramism affected virtually all
knowledge with the possible exception of medicine,
which vigorously resisted Ramus' anti-Aristotelianism.
Making a great deal of clarity and distinctness and of
analysis of all sorts—the term “logical analysis” was
recognized in the sixteenth century as a charac-
teristically Ramist term—Ramism considered branches


of knowledge to be totally separated from one another
in themselves, however united in use. In the lower
curriculum ranges it encouraged schematization of
Latin and Greek grammar—and often of vernacular
grammar, even though this was not taught in school.
Because it placed a high premium on logic, regardless
of what kind of expression was involved, Ramism dis-
couraged ornateness of expression and encouraged a
“plain style.” This was not the “low style” of classical
and medieval rhetoric but rather an expository mode
of expression, highly cerebral and analytic, developed
out of habits of composing in or while writing (instead
of using writing to “put down” what was orally
composed), quite impossible in an oral culture, a style
of the sort which Thomas Sprat reports the Royal
Society encouraged in the immediately post-Ramist age
of the late seventeenth century, as near “mathematical”
expression as possible.

In philosophy Ramism encouraged a systematization
which went far beyond medieval achievements or even
ambitions. It encouraged a corresponding systematiza-
tion in theology, where Johannes Piscator (1546-1625)
undertook to do a logical analysis of every book of
the Bible, clearly separating what it really “argued”
from the rhetorical finery with which its logical ma-
chinery was purportedly draped.

The main thrust of Ramus' reform of learning was
not toward what later became modern science. That
is, it was not toward experimental observation con-
joined with the application of mathematics to physics.
Ramus' reform drove toward simplified analytic order
in presentation of subject matter and toward an
empiricism in teaching methods which skirted abstruse
details. However, the practical drive which produced
Ramist simplification and empiricism did also open new
intellectual horizons. It encouraged giving studious
attention to matters previously regarded as beneath
formal academic concern. Ramus himself, although he
took for granted with virtually all his contemporaries
that Latin would remain the dominant language of the
intellectual world, was interested also in the vernacular
and published a French grammar in reformed spelling.
Close, if sometimes ambiguous, connections exist be-
tween Ramism and the manual arts and crafts of the
bourgeois world where Ramism had so much appeal.
At a deeper level, the Ramist tendency to dissociate
thought from the human context of discourse and make
it into a kind of thing—a tendency derivative from
but not entirely continuous with the quantification in
medieval logic—favored the growing tendency to view
the universe as basically an aggregate of neutral objects
rather than as something vaguely animistic.

Ramus' work belongs in part to the enlarging world
of humanism. Renaissance humanism extended aca
demic interest to new areas and fostered a juncture
of academic learning and artisan know-how, as can be
seen in the development of printing. But Ramism did
not share equally all humanist enthusiasms. The
imaginative interest in the human which marked much
in the Renaissance and which eventually helped gener-
ate the modern fields of cultural history, sociology,
anthropology, and psychology, and much else, is weak
in the Ramist milieu. The resonances of human life
were not congenial to this anti-iconographic, diagram-
matic, encyclopedic cast of mind, which produced
singularly few poets.

Ramus himself engaged in endless controversies, at
least seven of which broke into printed exchanges,
sometimes running over several years. His followers
were equally contentious, and out of the learned world
of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries some 500
persons have been listed as Ramists, anti-Ramists, and
semi-Ramists or syncretists, who undertook to
harmonize Ramist and Aristotelian or other competing


The most extensive treatment of Ramus and Ramism is
to be found in Walter J. Ong, Ramus, Method, and the Decay
of Dialogue
(Cambridge, Mass., 1958), which contains an
exhaustive bibliography. The same author's Ramus and
Talon Inventory
(Cambridge, Mass., 1958) locates in quan-
tity copies of editions of these authors' works, catalogues
the Ramist controversies, and gives a list of hundreds of
Ramists, anti-Ramists, and semi-Ramists or syncretists; this
work is being enlarged by the author to include new discov-
eries. I. M. Bochenski, A History of Formal Logic (Notre Dame,
Ind., 1961), and Wilhelm Risse, Die Logik der Neuzeit, Vol. I,
(Stuttgart, 1964), situate Ramus' logic in the history of the
science. The Art of Memory, by Frances A. Yates (Chicago,
1966), places Ramism in the history of mnemonics and
discusses the Bruno-Dicson-Perkins dispute omitted by Ong
from his catalogue of Ramist controversies. R. Hooykaas,
Humanisme, science, et réforme: Pierre de la Ramée (Leiden,
1958), treats Ramus and the artisan-technology world. W.
S. Howell's Logic and Rhetoric in England, 1500-1700
(Princeton, 1956) situates Ramus' work in one of the major
national traditions. The history of method is discussed in
Neal W. Gilbert, Renaissance Concepts of Method (New
York, 1960). Petrus Ramus en de Wiskunde, by J. J. Verdonk
(Assen, 1966), exhaustively studies Ramus' place in the
history of mathematics. See also Ong, “Peter Ramus and
the Naming of Methodism,” Journal of the History of Ideas,
14 (1953), 235-48; idem, “Ramist Classroom Procedure and
the Nature of Reality,” Studies in English Literature, 1
(1961), 31-47; and idem, “Ramist Method and the Commer-
cial Mind,” Studies in the Renaissance, 8 (1961), 155-72.


[See also Iconography; Necessity; Platonism;Renaissance
Humanism; Rhetoric.