Why medieval logicians aren’t ‘medieval’

‘Medieval’ is so often used as a pejorative, particularly in contemporary culture. One only need to hang around with #twitterstorians and #medievaltwitter to hear the collective teeth grinding whenever ‘medieval’ gets used by, e.g., modern journalists in this way.

Well, it’s time to grind my teeth a bit, but hopefully in a way that is at least a bit productive.

One of the thing that surprised me most when I began working in medieval logic was how interesting all of it was and how little anyone knew about it; why did it take until the 1950s that people started looking seriously at medieval logical texts? Why are their developments still not routinely integrated into modern logical pedagogy and research? The more I read about the history of logic and the history of philosophy, the more I saw that the consequences of the Renaissance and Humanist backlash against “Scholastic philosophy” were still perpetuating on to today. Scholastics weren’t interested in anything other than wrangling about angels on pinheads. Their motives are outdated, their methods are too abstruse. They don’t have anything to tell us today.

And thus we get 500 years of ignorance of medieval logic.

Unfortunately, this negative view of Scholasticism and its methods still abounds. Recently I was reading Steven Nadler’s “Who was the first modern philosopher?”, and in the midst of what is an otherwise very interesting and well-written piece, I came across this:

By contrast, it is more difficult to find such affinity between contemporary thought and medieval Scholastic theories and methods.

Huh, I thought, That’s surprising. I am routinely astounded by the amount of affinity between contemporary logical thought and medieval Scholastic logical theories and methods. I wonder what Nadler is referring to, or what he is classifying as “Scholastic theories and methods”?. A little bit later on, I read:

In terms of its method, the New Philosophy (for this is how contemporaries often referred to it) was generally characterized by a reliance on reason and empirical evidence rather than devotion to religious or ancient authority to determine what is and what is not philosophically and scientifically acceptable.

Huh, I thought, What about the after effects of the 1277 condemnations, wherein the Arts Masters began to investigate Aristotelian mechanics in a wholly secular fashion, without any reference to God and God’s capacities?. And then I read:

The modern philosophers, unlike their Scholastic predecessors and less progressive contemporaries, regarded terrestrial and celestial phenomena as constituted by one and the same kind of matter and governed by a single set of laws.

Huh, I thought again, What about that treatise I translated and analysed in my dissertation, where the anonymous author went to great pains to explain how Aristotelian syllogistics can cover both created and divine matter, to show how the so-called paralogisms of the trinity were in fact simply invalid. That sure sounds like someone regarding terrestrial and celestial phenomena as being governed by the same set of rules and reasons (even if maybe metaphyiscally they are distinct).

Now, Nadler hasn’t set out in his piece to give an account of the character of medieval philosophy; he’s trying to answer a question about “modern” philosophy. Nevertheless, throwaway remarks about how “medieval” medieval philosophy was — which is what the comments above amount to — are problematic. They are problematic because they range from misleading to outright wrong — or, if this is a correct view of medieval philosophy, then the appropriate conclusion to draw is that logic from the late 11th to the end of the 14th centuries was not “medieval”.

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One Response to Why medieval logicians aren’t ‘medieval’

  1. A kindred spirit! I, too, share the same frustration with contemporary ignorance of medieval logic. I had a similar experience when listening to the Elucidations Podcast from the University of Chicago. One episode featured an interview with Jennifer Frey on Aquinas, and the hosts seemed astounded that there could be anything of interest or relevance to be found in his work today. That a present day analytic philosopher could learn from the scholastic method of Aquinas seemed to be surprising to them. But as Frey and yourself put it, it essentially boils down to ignorance and prejudice and the stigma of all things medieval.


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