State of the Art: Dominik Perler

This installment of the State of the Art series is from Dominik Perler (Humboldt University, Berlin):

Thanks for inviting me to contribute to this series of posts on current research in medieval philosophy. Over the past several years, I have been quite busy with university politics and research management. But of course, what I am really interested in is doing research, not simply organizing, monitoring and evaluating it. After all, as Boethius of Dacia famously said in De summo bono, engaging in philosophical activity is the highest good. So I am glad that I am now on leave for a year and that I have more time to pursue my research projects. Right now I am working on three projects, going back and forth between them:

  1. What is a human person? What accounts for the identity of a person? And what are the distinctive features of a person? It has often been argued that these questions are distinctively modern questions, raised by Locke and his followers. Medieval authors only had a theological interest when talking about persons (e.g. in Trinitarian or Christological discussions) and neglected to examine the specific nature of a human person – or so the traditional story goes. I intend to revise this story by examining a number of sources, ranging from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, which explicitly discuss the nature and the activities of a human person. My aim is to show that medieval authors focused on three dimensions of a person, which they took to be constitutive: the metaphysical dimension (a person is a substance of a certain type), the psychological dimension (a person has the ability to reflect upon herself), and the practical dimension (a person is able to act and is not just acted upon). The crucial question is, of course, how each of these three dimensions was defined and how all of them were supposed to fit together. This is exactly the question I want to discuss in the book on which I am presently working. My aim is to show that medieval authors considered the metaphysical dimension to be fundamental; various accounts of this dimension gave rise to various accounts of the other two dimensions. Thus I start with an analysis of a variety of theories of substance and then look at the consequences those theories had on attempts to explain reflection and action. Franciscan authors (e.g. Peter John Olivi, Richard of Mediavilla, Roger Marston, William Ockham) play a special role in my story, since these authors paid particular attention to the psychological and practical dimensions. The book is still in its initial stage, but I hope that I will make some progress this year.
  2. My second project deals with theories of cognition. Like many of my colleagues, I used to look at Aristotelian texts, in particular at commentaries on the De anima, when analyzing these theories. But recently, I have become more and more interested in theological texts, in which medieval authors also tackled problems of cognition. What kind of cognition did Adam have before the fall? How does a soul that is separated from the body cognize material things? And how can an angel have cognitive access to material things? It is fascinating to see how many authors, ranging form Peter Lombard to Suárez, examined these questions at great length. I look at their discussions not simply because they are funny and entertaining (the details provided about Adam’s private life are indeed funny), but because they are remarkable from a methodological point of view. In many medieval texts, Adam or angels have the same function as some modern thought experiments: they show how cognition in an ideal case works. Analyzing ideal cases makes it possible to detect the basic structure of cognition that can also be found in the normal case; and it makes clear what is missing in the normal case. Given this methodological function, I am working on a number of papers (e.g. on Aquinas, Matthew of Aquasparta, Ockham, Suárez) that are intended to show how seemingly strange scenarios enabled medieval authors to spell out the structure of cognition. More generally, my aim is to assess the methodological value of theological cases in epistemological debates.
  3. For many years, I have also been working on early modern philosophy, and like many of my colleagues I have become convinced that there was no such thing as a “scientific revolution” or a radical break with medieval philosophy. Rather, we can see a transformation, as well as a partial continuation, of scholastic ideas in the early modern context. I am particularly interested in the transformation of metaphysical What happened to the idea that substances are the basic building blocks of reality? How was the internal structure of substances explained? And what kind of causal power was ascribed to substances? When dealing with these questions, I have been working on Suárez (or to be more modest, on some parts of Suárez’ corpus – reading his work is like exploring an entire continent). It seems to me that it is in his work that we find some key ideas that became influential in the early modern period, for instance the idea that there are more fundamental entities than substances, or the idea that efficient causality is the most basic form of causality. I wrote a couple of papers (e.g. on Suárez’ way of dealing with faculties, habits, qualities and other entities inside a substance) and I want to do more work on him and on other early modern Aristotelians, because I think that we need to turn to these authors if we want to understand how seemingly old ideas gave rise to new theories in the early modern period. Quite often we find not just old wine in new bottles, but also new wine in old bottles.

These are my projects. Now all I need is time and patience to carry them out – and, of course, also constant exchange with colleagues. After all, studying medieval philosophy is a cooperative activity.

This entry was posted in People.

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