When I tell someone outside my subject that I work on medieval philosophy, the reply usually runs on these lines: “How interesting. But, tell me, was there philosophy in the Middle Ages?” Recently, professional analytic philosophers have started to pay a little more attention to the area (and this attitude is evident in some more general works, such as Anthony Kenny’s recent History of Western Philosophy). But to the larger public, even those with a strong interest in philosophy, the period remains the Dark Ages.
Look at almost any of the excellent books now on sale which are designed to introduce the subject outside the context of a university course: only one or two medieval thinkers will be given a passing mention. Even those which offer an historical view cover the years from about 250 to 1600 with, at best, a thin, apologetic chapter. There are two main consequences. The first of them is, at least, unfortunate: large amounts of fascinating, imaginative, technically assured philosophical speculation are ignored. But the second is, arguably, far more serious, indeed drastic. People are left unable properly to think about what philosophy is – what it can do, what sorts of questions it answers and how it relates to other sorts of activities and to wider cultural and social circumstances. Worse, they are not only deprived of the materials to think about these questions in a balanced way; they also tend to accept implicitly a one-sided view on these questions, based on inadequate evidence.
I added to my description of this second consequence as “drastic” the qualification “arguably”. Some might hold that thinking about what philosophy is need not, or even should not, be part of what philosophers do, and so there is little or no loss if people are prevented from such thinking. Many analytic philosophers seem implicitly to have this view, since they are usually content to go about the business of philosophising, without asking these sorts of second-order questions about it. They could rightly claim that in general performing an activity well does not require its practitioners to consider second-order questions about its nature. The best cooks need not theorise about the kitchen, but just prepare the best food. Even intellectual activities do not usually require such a self-reflective approach. Chemists, physicists or historians for the most part seem to do their work excellently without asking questions about the nature of scientific evidence or historical enquiry. But the case of philosophy is different. We call these second-order enquiries in the case of science or history “Philosophy of Science” or “Philosophy of History” because we consider them to be philosophical, and we expect them to be carried out primarily by philosophers, rather than by scientists and historians. The Philosophy of Philosophy will therefore be part of philosophy itself. Moreover, the Philosophy of Philosophy could not be justifiably left to a particular group of philosophers, while the others concentrated only on first-order philosophical questions, since there are no clear bounds between philosophical questions and philosophical questions about the nature of those questions, in the way that there are between, say, historical questions and philosophical questions about their nature. There is strong reason, then, to think that it is a weakness of analytical philosophy that it tends not to reflect on its own nature, and that it really is a drastic consequence for everyone interested in philosophy if their thinking about the nature of their subject is circumscribed or distorted.
Why, though, should I believe that this drastic, second consequence is brought about by the neglect of medieval philosophy? Many philosophers today would agree about the first consequence – that much valuable philosophical argument goes unnoticed; but they would probably be astonished to be told about the second one. Yet the argument for it is simple. Thinking about what philosophy is needs, as evidence, historical information about how philosophy has been practised. Medieval philosophy accounts for a substantial part of this evidence, and when it is left out, or minimised, the evidence will be both insufficient and distorted. So, unless medieval philosophy is given its due place in the history of philosophy, we shall not be able to think properly about the nature of philosophy.
Questions about the nature of philosophy are empirical ones. Obviously, the unsorted, unanalysed evidence does not simply yield the answers, but it is the basis on which attempts can be made to provide them. And, since philosophy is not a natural kind, but a human practice, the evidence is provided by how this practice has taken place through time, from its beginnings until now: that is to say, by the history of philosophy. The circularity involved – how can we investigate the history of philosophy in order to find out, and so before we know, what philosophy is? – is merely apparent. In order to investigate what gold is, we would study a sample of gold: our problem is not, some difficult cases aside, in identifying gold, but in grasping its nature. Similarly, in asking what philosophy is we aim to understand better the nature of a practice which we can, in most cases, distinguish from others. We identify philosophy through the tradition which gives this practice its name. The tradition began in Greece in the generation or two before Socrates, continued through Plato and Aristotle, the Hellenistic and Neoplatonic schools, the varieties of medieval philosophy (on which more below), philosophy in modern Europe and, later, America and the rest of the world. Those who belong to it need not, though they frequently do, actually label themselves “philosophers”. They tie themselves to the tradition by referring back to their predecessors, and so indirectly, or frequently directly, back to Plato and Aristotle; by continuing to discuss many of the same questions, and to use many of the same methods. Although the outline of the tradition is established, then, externally, by the explicit links between different writers, certain sorts of problems and methods, found frequently in these writers, are recognised as characteristically philosophical, though it is a matter of a family resemblance rather than a precisely defined class. For this reason, it would be possible to reject from the tradition thinkers who placed themselves within it, but failed to address philosophical questions or to use philosophical methods, as understood from looking at the tradition as a whole. Equally, work which is historically separate from the tradition – for example, thought in India or China – could be described as philosophy if its methods and interests fit within this family.
We need only look at some dates to see why, if the history of philosophy provides the evidence for thinking about the nature of philosophy, medieval philosophy needs to have a major role, not a bit part. Usually medieval philosophy is taken to cover the period from c.500 – c. 1500 – that is to say, a thousand years (at the least: some would say c. 250 – 1600, and I would argue for going up to 1700; but that is an argument for a different occasion). Since the earliest philosophy dates from c. 500 BCE and stretches up until now, a period of roughly 2,500 years, medieval philosophy occupies at least about 40% of the chronological span, and twice as much as the whole modern and contemporary period.
Of course, numbers of years alone are not important. There might, in principle, have been centuries or more without, or with little, philosophy. Perhaps the Middle Ages were a period when little philosophising was done. But the truth is the very reverse. As a whole, in the years from 500 to 1500, philosophy was pursued more widely, more vigorously and at a higher technical level than ever before or since. It was studied in four separate sub- traditions, each of which went back to the Platonic schools of late antiquity and a curriculum based on Plato and Aristotle. In Byzantium, there was Greek philosophy, some of it still pagan in the sixth century, Christian thereafter; Latin philosophy in Western Europe (with a small amount of work in the vernaculars); from the eighth century, philosophy written by Muslims, Christians and Jews in Arabic; and, from the thirteenth century onwards from the Jewish communities of southern Europe philosophy written in Hebrew. Medieval philosophy stretched geographically from Ireland to Uzbekistan. Although its pursuit was often challenged, philosophy had a high status in all of these sub-traditions, except perhaps the Byzantine one. The best minds were attracted to it, and many of the outstanding philosophers were leaders of their communities or given positions of prestige. In the Latin tradition, at least, philosophy came to have a secure institutional home in the arts and theology faculties of the universities. Although much has been lost, the amount of philosophical writing produced was large – much greater, century for century, than during antiquity and probably also than during the three or four centuries following. Especially in the Latin tradition and the universities from the thirteenth century onwards, but also among Arabic commentators on Aristotle and logicians, the level of technical sophistication was very high. Well-trained analytic philosophers today probably surpass it, but they are far less important than their medieval predecessors, and fewer proportionally, within our contemporary intellectual life.
Why, then, the usual neglect of medieval philosophy? To some extent, it is explained simply by the ignorance of many who write about philosophy; they are stuck with a mental picture of the period as a dark age of barbarism. To a much greater extent, though, the neglect is the result of a view which I have not yet discussed. Medieval philosophy is ignored, because it is considered not properly to be philosophy at all. Return to the sample snatch of dialogue I gave at the beginning of this piece. Often my interlocutors will continue by explaining why they doubted that there was such a thing as medieval philosophy. “Wasn’t it all religion and theology?” they ask. With hardly more finesse, introductory books will generally begin the few pages they consign to the period with some words about the dominance of faith in this time. (And for a more patrician, but no less bone-headed view, one has only to open Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy.) To put the point in a more reasoned way, in terms of the criteria I set out just above for identifying philosophy. The argument for neglecting medieval philosophy (or “philosophy” as its exponents would say) runs as follows.
Although in external, historical terms, many medieval thinkers seem to belong to the philosophical tradition stretching back to Aristotle, Plato and their predecessors, their work should be excluded from the tradition, because as a result of its relation to religious faith (Jewish, Christian or Muslim), either its methods or subject matter (or both) fall outside the required family-resemblance.
There are two ways to answer this charge. First, it can be pointed out that in each of the sub-traditions there is plenty of material which has absolutely nothing to do with religious faith of any kind. Much Byzantine philosophy consists of commentaries on Aristotle, in many cases closely based on commentaries by ancient pagan writers. The tradition of falsafa in Arabic philosophy, to which al-Farabi, Avicenna and Averroes belong, is a self-consciously philosophical tradition which was criticised for holding views contrary to Islamic doctrine. Some Jewish philosophers, writing in Hebrew, followed Averroes’s extreme Aristotelianism. In the Latin tradition, the Arts Faculties of the universities were officially dedicated to pursuing the knowledge open to natural reason, apart from revelation. Moreover, logic was energetically pursued, especially in Latin and Arabic, and always in its own terms, without any relation to faith.
But this first answer concedes too much. The second, more fitting answer is to point out that, when we look at the tradition of philosophy in order to judge what are the family-resemblances that characterise philosophical subjects and methods, we must look at the whole tradition. But, in that case, methods and types of subject-matter which are found during two fifths of the chronological span of the subject, and at a time when it was pursued with especial vigour, must be included within the family resemblance which characterises philosophy. If a connection with questions about religious faith characterises the tradition during this large part of it, then by that token it is part of what characterises philosophy, not as an essential, defining characteristic, but as an element in a family resemblance. (In fact, this characteristic is found even more widely than in medieval philosophy: it is typical of Neoplatonism, from about 300 CE, in the seventeenth century, and for much philosophy until the twentieth century.) The same is true of more specific examples of religious attitudes which are found in some medieval philosophy: that, for instance, the premises of a philosophical argument are sometimes taken from religious doctrine; or that thinkers sometimes consider themselves constrained not to accept certain conclusions, if they believe, because of their faith, they are false. The widespread presence of such attitudes in the tradition means that they too should be considered as part of the family-resemblance which makes up what is characteristically philosophical. That is to say, the very characteristics of medieval philosophy which led to its extrusion from the tradition should be recognised as distinctive features of philosophy, not indeed shared by all philosophising, but found in many examples of it. And this has one very important implication.
All philosophers, professional and amateur, have some underlying conception and narrative of their discipline, even when, as so often, they are implicit and unexplored. The most common such conception today, at least among those in the broadly analytic tradition, sees philosophy in terms of the untrammelled use of reason, which destroys superstition, prejudices and merely customary practices, sweeps away doubtful beliefs and bolsters natural science in gaining knowledge about the universe. It is often connected too with liberal, anti-traditional politics, which aspire to a state in which everyone receives what reason dictates as their due. Philosophy is seen as enlightenment. A narrative is constructed, with the English empiricists and Kant at its centre, extended back to include Descartes and, as honorary ancestors, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle (all considered in a very partial way), and forward to twentieth and twenty-first century Anglophone philosophy. When medieval philosophy is restored to its place, such an understanding and story of philosophy in general becomes impossible. Certainly, it is open to envisage one strand of philosophy in this light, to favour it and see oneself as belonging to it – but not to identify it with philosophy itself. And this is a great gain. Philosophy is a stranger, more multifarious, more disquieting thing than most of its analytic followers take it to be.
What everyone should know about medieval philosophy turns out, then, to be able to be expressed in just two words: it existed. But this simple acknowledgement has the power to change our whole understanding of philosophy