What makes medieval philosophy medieval?

We begin with some standard answers to the question “What is Medieval Philosophy?”

Taking philosophy as primary, ‘Medieval philosophy’ is a name for philosophy as it was done in that period following late antiquity and stretching until the dawn of the modern period.

Taking Medieval as primary, ‘Medieval philosophy’ names an aspect of Medieval civilization, and less generally, a component medieval intellectual life. In this case, philosophy is taken to be the highest knowledge the mind is capable of attaining apart from the grace of revelation.

The oddity of putting these two terms together should strike us more strangely than it does. ‘Philosophy’ is, presumably, a name for an intellectual discipline; ‘Medieval’, an adjective specifying a time period. The matchup between the subject of predication and what is predicated of it should come across as a category mistake. It sounds strange, for instance, to describe Thomas Aquinas or William of Ockham as ‘doing’ Medieval philosophy. Philosophy isn’t the kind of thing that can be Medieval.

As an intellectual discipline, as a discipline preoccupied with getting ‘the right answers’ to the questions it poses – answers to questions supposed to be perennial – philosophy aims to have nothing to do with time. Even if philosophy is in fact always done from a given temporal standpoint, ideally, insofar as it aims to be a scientia, it would prefer that this weren’t the case. This helps to explain the neglect of the history of philosophy by a great many mainstream philosophers. To study philosophy qua medieval is not to study philosophy at all, but rather, the history of philosophy, now construed as something distinct from philosophy itself. Philosophy, it is said, thinks about and attempts to answer philosophical questions; but the study of medieval ‘philosophy,’ like any branch of history of philosophy, surreptitiously substitutes the study of thinkers for the study of the questions they are concerned with.

Medieval philosophy, then, can also be taken to be a subdiscipline of the history of philosophy – i.e. that part of philosophy which studies the Medieval Period. Its object of study can be construed as a certain set of thinkers from this time period; or perhaps the content of their thought; or perhaps a common body of doctrines held over that period. Medieval philosophy names a subdiscipline of history, more particularly a subdiscipline of intellectual history.

This definition fails for a reason that attacks the very concept of history as a science. The object of a science must, by virtue of its nature, be present to the mind of one who knows it. While the content of history is ex hypothesi absent, no longer present. If one insists, on the other hand, that it is only the content of the thought of thinkers that is studied, then the grouping of philosophers under the heading ‘medieval’ should seem quite accidental.

From here, I’d like to suggest a concept of Medieval Philosophy that has been little explored, and arises by a peculiar instance of metonymy. If the epithet ‘Medieval’ refers to a time period, what it signifies is something quite different, a distinctive aspect of that time period. On the basis of such – not carvings that we make as part of some ‘conceptual scheme’, but differences that come to the fore in the matter itself – we come to regard, for instance, the distinction between ancient, medieval, and modern philosophy as more natural than that between, say, philosophy before and after the year 923.

One distinctive aspect of medieval Philosophy is its humility. In the Medieval period, philosophy is the ancilla theologiae, and, for the most part, gladly subordinates its aims to those of theology. This same humility shows up in the characteristically Medieval posture towards authority. A philosophical position could scarcely be justified without being attributed to Aristotle, Augustine, Dionysius, or another major figure. Novelty was frowned upon, if only because philosophy itself was animated by the operative presumption that those who came before us knew better than we did.

What is called Medieval philosophy today, a presumed sub-discipline of the history of philosophy, also furnishes us with an interesting sociological phenomenon: Medieval scholarship is often itself characteristically medieval in the above described sense. In a way that isn’t duplicated either in contemporary or other historical areas of philosophy, those who work on certain figures in Medieval philosophy often hold a certain allegiance to those figures.

‘Medieval philosophy’ thus seems to signify a way of doing philosophy, present both in the genre’s primary figures and texts and in much secondary scholarship discussing its sources. It is on account of the presence of this distinctive mode that the name is taken to apply to that historical age which most exemplified this philosophical style; conversely, the waxing and waning of this style provide the period with its relative chronological boundaries. Because the point at which this style ceases to dominate is not exact, neither are the chronological boundaries of the period governed by it. And because the waning of this mode of philosophizing takes place at different times in different places, so, too shall the medieval period be more or less expansive in different locations: medieval philosophy continues to be vibrant, for instance, in Spain and Germany while it’s influence is waning in France and England.


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