The Medieval Survey Class pt. II: Textbooks

An obvious question about running a medieval survey class is whether or not to use a textbook. Of the 29 syllabi that we received, a bit more than half used some sort of published collection of readings. (I suspect the percentage would be higher if I could obtain a random collection of medieval syllabi from across all universities. Since here I’m talking mostly to experts in the field, it seems to me likely that my sample includes more folk with the expertise and enthusiasm to assemble their own set of readings.)

So what are people using? Here are the numbers:

  • Philosophy in the Middle Ages: The Christian, Islamic, and Jewish Traditions (3rd ed.) (Hyman, Walsh, and Williams): 10
  • Medieval Philosophy: Essential Readings with Commentary (Klima et al.): 3
  • Five Texts on the Mediaeval Problem of Universals (Spade):
  • Classical Arabic Philosophy (McGinnis and Reisman): 1
  • Basic Issues in Medieval Philosophy (2nd ed.) (Bosley and Tweedale): 1
  • Readings in Medieval Philosophy (Schoedinger): 1
  • The Longman Standard History of Medieval Philosophy (Kolak and Thomson): 1
  • Medieval Philosophy: An Introduction (Maurer): 1

(I should, at this point, thank Mark Boespflug for compiling these numbers. Mark is, in case you were wondering, writing a beautiful dissertation here in Boulder on the history of doxastic voluntarism.)

Obviously, the venerable Hyman and Walsh volume, from Hackett, has a dominant market share. That might be surprising if you’re thinking of the first or second edition, which always struck me as a rather dense and difficult set of texts. But if you look at the 3rd edition, you’ll find that Thomas Williams has done an amazing job of improving on the volume, adding material (often newly translated) that is both accessible and important. Williams is building, moreover, on the very solid foundation of non-Latin material that was the most striking feature of the original Hyman and Walsh volume. Twenty-five years ago, that heavy non-Latin influence struck me as idiosyncratic and mostly unhelpful. But I think it’s pretty obvious today that they were simply ahead of their time. (More on that theme in a later post.)

The only other general anthology to attract significant marketshare is the 2007 Blackwell volume edited by Gyula Klima, Fritz Allhoff, and Anand Jayprakash Vaidya. Again it’s not hard to see why this is a reasonable choice, if you look at the table of contents. As you would expect given the editors, this is a thoughtful attempt to pull together a wide range of important and accessible material. The most striking difference from the Hackett volume is that Islamic material has only a token presence here, and Jewish material no presence at all. Both the Blackwell and the Hackett volume, I might add, are priced very reasonably at around $50 in paperback.

Skipping over the two specialized anthologies on the list, we come to three less popular textbooks. Neither Kolak nor Thomson is an expert in the field, and their choice of readings is fairly amateurish. But when it comes to both the Bosley-Tweedale (Broadview) and the Schoedinger (OUP) volumes, the situation is quite different. These are both extremely erudite and creative collections of material, compiled by scholars with serious knowledge of the field. (I am sorry to see that Prof. Schoedinger has died in the 22 years since that volume was published.) If neither volume has managed to gain much traction in the field, this is perhaps because they are more admirable from a scholarly point of view than from a pedagogical point of view. So, for instance, though we may applaud Schoedinger’s inclusion of William of Sherwood in his anthology, how many of us would actually teach that material? And I cannot believe that anyone can successfully lead a group of undergraduates through the unrelentingly difficult readings on distinctions and universals that lie at the heart of the Bosley-Tweedale volume.

Returning to the theme of my previous post, it is not at all easy to come up with an anthology of medieval readings. (In contrast, an anthology in ancient or early modern is the easiest thing in the world.) It is not clear what topics deserve pride of place, and it is hard to find a path through this material that is genuinely accessible to students.

That brings me, finally, to the last item on the list, Maurer’s Introduction to medieval philosophy, first published back in 1962. This is of course not an anthology but a single-author narrative of the period. I mention it, though, because it is striking how few such attempts at synthesis there are, especially in recent years. John Marenbon attempted this, in two Routledge volumes, back in the 1980s, and a couple of years ago tried again in a “Very Short Introduction” for OUP. Anthony Kenny’s New History of Western Philosophy, also with OUP, contains an entire volume on the medieval period. Joseph Koterski has published an impressive Introduction to Medieval Philosophy (Blackwell). No doubt there are other things I don’t know or am not thinking of. But I think it’s safe to say there are far fewer attempts at this sort of thing than there are edited, multi-author anthologies/guides/companions to the field. Perhaps most of us don’t feel as if we can produce a coherent narrative.

Next time, detailed data on which texts we are actually assigning to our students.


Philosophy Jesters in the NYC area?

Not an opportunity that comes along just every day.  This via Stephen Grimm at Fordham:

From: Joseph Biehl <>
Date: Thu, Aug 23, 2018 at 12:53 PM
Subject: Looking for medieval philosophers with a sense of humor
To: Stephen Grimm <>

Hi Stephen,

I hope this finds you well. I somehow managed to convince the organizers of the Fort Tryon Medieval Festival (Sunday, September 30th) that it would be a great idea to have a tent where philosophers could engage with festival goers on topics of interest to medieval philosophers. Since it is very likely that costumes would be required, it promises to be an entertaining event. I would appreciate it if you could send this along to your colleagues, or let me know who you think would be interested in that sort of thing.



Joseph S. Biehl, PhD

Founder & Executive Director

Gotham Philosophical Society and

Young Philosophers of New York

The Medieval Survey Class: An Opinionated Prologue

For the first time in six years, I’m teaching a medieval philosophy survey class, and I’ve become a bit obsessed with the question of how best to do it. Over the next month or so I’ll be writing a series of posts on the subject.

Part of my obsession comes from the feeling that this is an extremely important and unsettled question in our field. That it’s unsettled will become clear over the course of my series of posts. That it’s important is obvious, in one way, inasmuch as we think it’s important to teach any class well. But it also seems to me important for a reason that’s less obvious and perhaps might be questioned. For it seems to me of value to the field to have some kind of shared core curriculum that we teach our students, and that, ultimately, we expect scholars in other areas of philosophy to have some grasp of.

As things are, there certainly is no such common core. Perhaps the only text from medieval philosophy that philosophically educated folk can be expected to know about is Anselm’s ontological argument. Beyond that, there’s just a whole lot of more or less obscure stuff, from among which we pick and choose in making up the curriculum for a medieval survey. (And perhaps we don’t even pick the ontological argument, on the grounds that this will get covered in a philosophy of religion class.)

It may be quixotic to think that anything like a shared consensus will emerge over some canonical group of texts. But the more interesting question is whether I might be quite misguided in supposing that such a thing would be desirable. For there is certainly room to wonder whether, instead of bemoaning the lack of a canonical core, we should instead celebrate the splendid freedom that allows us to teach a huge variety of material without feeling any pressure to cover the supposedly greatest hits. And if you are suspicious about the cultural and political pressures that, in other domains, have created our rigid canons of great books, then you might think that the last thing we should be doing is trying to impose such a canon on medieval philosophy.

So there’s a thought one might have. Yet although I see the force of it, I don’t think it’s of such force as to undermine the original thought that it would be desirable for we the experts to coalesce at least a bit around those works that we regard as most important to teach from within our field. To the extent we have political worries about a canon, then those worries should inform the choices we make, so that, in particular, we give a healthy weight to non-Christian material, and take seriously the question of whether any women should get into the curriculum. To the extent we’re worried about our autonomy, well, that seems misguided, inasmuch as we as individuals can of course always make whatever modifications we feel like making, semester by semester.

Weighing against those concerns about the canon are various reasons it would be desirable for the field to coalesce around some sort of common curriculum. Let me mention three.

First, I think it makes a contribution to philosophy as a whole, and indeed to our larger culture as a whole, to develop a shared narrative about the period. If the history of medieval philosophy is simply 500 different texts, and 50 different authors, then no one other than our hearty band of scholars will be able to find it comprehensible, and to learn from it in anything more than a scattershot sort of way. It’s just too much to comprehend. An intelligible narrative about the period, running through a manageable set of canonical texts, would allow educated people to comprehend medieval philosophy in the way that, as things are, is simply not possible for even highly educated people.

Second, following from the first, to the extent we care about promoting the value of medieval philosophy, the development of a shared narrative would be the best way to make that case. As things are, it seems to me that our colleagues in other fields have been persuaded that there’s a lot of interesting material in the medieval period. But they have not yet been persuaded that the study of medieval philosophy is obligatory, or that it’s obligatory for even a large department to have a specialist in the field. And no wonder this is so, given that we ourselves have failed to articulate a well-defined course of study that strikes us as having canonical status.

Third, shifting to the perspective of the undergraduates taking our survey classes, I think we have not served those students well, not because we are not exposing them to a shared canon of texts, but because we often do not do a good job giving them a story about the period, and a set of texts, that is genuinely interesting, or even, often enough, intelligible. Looking back over my own previous attempts to teach surveys of medieval philosophy, I find that I have often tried to get students interested in texts that are outrageously obscure and difficult. Of course, that can be a problem for any historical period. But, at least, if you are trying to lead students through Kant, there is a sense of doing something that fits into a larger narrative and a shared intellectual heritage. How can we justify making students suffer through Henry of Ghent? I don’t mean to stipulate that we can’t. Still, to the extent we think the road through medieval philosophy must go through some very difficult material, we need to do a much better job as a field figuring out what that road is, and what the highlights should be. As we all know, there are marvelous sights to be seen along the way. But I am sure that I am not the only one who has often not been a very good tour guide. By working harder at developing a common core for the period, uniting genuinely accessible texts linked together by an intelligible narrative, we would be producing a curriculum that would be better for our students, and that even non-experts could pick up and enjoy teaching.

One final thought. Might it be that medieval philosophy just doesn’t lend itself to the sort of narrative and canon I am urging us to find? This, I think, is a very naive thought. The reason we think of “early modern” philosophy, say, as having such a well-defined narrative and canon is that scholars have imposed this structure on the period. There is nothing about the 17th and 18th century that makes it specially intelligible in this way, and nothing about medieval philosophy, other than its size and scope, that makes it inherently unintelligible. We have just failed to do the job. And though I can well understand that there will be those who resist the sorts of distortions and oversimplifications and prejudices that such a narrative requires, I think we should accept that this is what historians do, and it is what we must do, if we want the material we love to have any influence on the wider culture.

Obviously, this has now become the sort of rant I try to avoid on this blog. So let me reassure anyone who’s made it this far that future posts will confine themselves to presenting the data I’ve collected. Next up: which textbooks are people using?

Syllabi (still) wanted

My summer travels are just about concluded, and I thought I’d take the occasion to put out another call for syllabi pertaining to medieval philosophy. The previous call brought in around 20 responses, and we’ve put together some interesting data based on that material. But it would be good to get more exemplars, so if you’ve got a syllabus for a medieval class, and didn’t previously send it to us, we’d appreciate getting it within the next week or two. As before, send it to Mark Boespflug.