The Medieval Survey Class pt. V: Beyond Christianity


There is a familiar older narrative of medieval philosophy as Christian philosophy. Viewed from that perspective, it is natural to think of the period as running back to its origins in Augustine and forward to its supposed acme in Thomas Aquinas. Although few scholars today conceive of the field that way, the effects of this approach linger in the way we hold onto Augustine (and Boethius) as medieval authors (rather than as figures from late antiquity), and in the way we are still struggling to arrive at a coherent narrative of medieval philosophy after Aquinas.

The effects also linger in the language training we insist on. Of course, there is Latin. But what (aside from English) comes after that? I still remember, as an undergraduate at Penn, holding in my hands for the first time a copy of the old printed Jobs for Philosophers. (Perhaps I should have inserted a trigger warning before now, to let folk know I would be mentioning this old source of so much trauma.) Having already formed the intention to study medieval philosophy, I looked to see what sort of jobs might be available, and found an ad from Catholic University of America, in which they specified that candidates were expected to know Latin, German, and French. This being my first acquaintance with the job market, it naturally imprinted itself upon me, and I have more or less ever since then regarded this as the ideal language training.

It is surely time to say, though, that this is no longer what graduate students in the field should be learning. Even if Latin, for most, is still the most important thing, I think it is now time to tell students that, if they have the ability to do anything beyond Latin, the next language should be Arabic. And I might go further and say that, for students who have not previously had the opportunity to study French or German, it is better not even to take those up, but to put their energies into better Latin and better Arabic. This is a departure from what I have always told my students, but I think it is time to recognize that this is what the current scholarly situation demands.

Back to the Curriculum

My sense of the growing centrality of Arabic corresponds to the broad consensus of scholars in the field that Arabic material belongs on the survey-course curriculum. Of the 30 syllabi we looked at, 24 included Islamic sources, and 15 included Jewish sources. Although I’ve got only my own changing perspective over the years to go on, I feel fairly sure that this reflects a dramatic change in the field’s orientation over the last few decades.  (For those who are shaky on the relation between Arabic and Jewish philosophy, the basic story is that most earlier medieval Jewish philosophy is in Arabic: Isaac Israeli, Ibn Gabirol, Sa‘adia Gaon, Ibn Daud, Ibn Kammūna, Maimonides. After Maimonides, Hebrew becomes the principal language.)

Of course, the challenge of learning Arabic makes it hard for most of us to work on this material at a high level. But it is quite easy to include Arabic (and, more broadly, non-Christian) material into the curriculum. I mentioned in my previous post that Ghazali’s Rescuer from Error is a great text to teach. I just finished a day on Maimonides, which was also great fun. If anything, I would say that there is more accessible material in the Jewish and Muslim traditions than there is in the Christian tradition. For an expert discussion of these issues, see Peter Adamson’s post from last month in the APA Blog. I also wrote a post on this topic a few years back, for this blog, and those old links (including a link to some useful syllabi) are still live.

On the Job Market

There are of course lots of good reasons to include Arabic (and other non-Christian) material in our classes, and you don’t need me to tell you what they are. But there’s one particular issue that might have escaped your attention, which is that the job market is dramatically changing with regard to these issues. Last year there were at least as many jobs focused on medieval Islamic philosophy as there were jobs in medieval Christian philosophy. And the ads that have come out this fall make it clear that this was no fluke. The job at Loyola Marymount, for instance, although it seems to be aimed at an AOS in late medieval Latin/Christian philosophy, explicitly REQUIRES an AOC in “Medieval Arabic Philosophy.” Or consider this AOS at San Jose State University: “History of Philosophy (any historical period). The department welcomes candidates who pursue cross-tradition engagement in doing history of philosophy.” Or this one, from the New College of Florida: “History of philosophy, with expertise in early modern European philosophy and at least one non-European philosophical tradition.” I think we can be fairly confident that, as philosophy departments slowly move to shed their traditionally Eurocentric focus, that we’ll see a lot more of this sort of thing. And that’s great news not just for philosophy in general, but for our field in particular, because it just so happens that we’re working on the one era in which “Western” philosophy was richly engaged with non-European traditions. We need to seize this opportunity with both hands.


The Medieval Survey Class pt. IV: A Progress Report on PHIL 4030/5020

As I’ve mentioned before in this thread, I’m teaching a medieval survey class this fall — that’s why I’m making such a fuss over these issues. I thought some might be interested in a halfway report on what I’ve been up to, and how it’s been going.

The class, I should say, is somewhat challenging in its enrollment, with 12 undergraduates and 14 graduate students enrolled. Moreover, the undergraduate population itself contains a tricky mix of some very smart philosophy majors who know nothing of the Middle Ages or even Christianity, and  some very smart conservative Catholics with a limited background in philosophy.

But that’s my problem. What you’ll be interested in is what I’m teaching. So here’s the first half of the syllabus, with some annotations.

Week One. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, selections from bks. I-II.

Judging from my survey of what people teach, this is an unusual choice, and I myself don’t recall ever teaching it before. But I think it’s a really good way to begin a class. If medieval Christians were themselves to construct a survey course such as this, I think this is likely the text they would start with. (It is, in effect, what Peter Lombard starts with!) It’s got what would become the standard medieval theory of signs, and what would become the canonical statement of Augustine’s ethics of using and enjoying. Plus there’s Augustine’s famous discussion of how Christians should treat pagan philosophy like the spoils of the Egyptians, which can be the occasion for a broader discussion of the place of philosophy in the Middle Ages.

Week Two. Al-Ghazali, The Rescuer from Error

I can’t imagine teaching a medieval survey and not teaching this text. And although it certainly didn’t need to come in the second week, it seemed to pair nicely with Augustine in terms of topics, inasmuch as it represents an Islamic attempt to think through the place of philosophy within the medieval context. The prose is accessible, the epistemology is great, and it’s fun to talk about Sufism.

Week Three. Avicenna, selections on the soul from al-Shifa’

Here I used the McGinnis-Reisman excerpts, in their Hackett anthology. This was, I have to say, really hard. I did it because I couldn’t leave Avicenna out, and because I knew it would be fun to talk about the flying man argument (which is found in two different versions in the selections they translate), and because I wanted to talk about Avicenna’s views about the internal senses, which is also contained here, in some detail. I am prepared to make very grandiose claims for the importance of the latter, inasmuch as it seems to me to be — arguably! — the foundational text in the history of cognitive theory. (So I told my students, at any rate.) But the problem is that many stretches of this reading are just flatly incomprehensible to anyone but experts. And since I work very hard to find ways to compel my students to do the reading, it’s a serious drag when a whole week is devoted to material they simply cannot understand. I don’t know what I’ll do about this, in the future. Perhaps I’ll do more to cut the reading down to its most essential bits.

Week Four. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theol. 1a qq. 75-76

If you’re going to do just a bit of Aquinas on human nature, I think this is the bit to do. It contains the arguments for the soul as not a body, and as immaterial and imperishable, and also the arguments for the soul as unified with the body, and for the rejection of the plurality of substantial forms. And more. But, as it played out in class, I’m not sure it actually went that well. Perhaps the problem is that, as you will have noticed, I’d been jumping around so much from one kind of thing to another that I hadn’t really laid any sort of foundation for diving into Aquinas. On paper, I had thought that the Avicenna reading would do that for me. But it was too hard, so didn’t serve that purpose, and the stuff in Avicenna that I talked about didn’t help with this material from Aquinas. I’ve taught this material on human nature countless times, but never felt so challenged to make it intelligible — I think because it contains so many presuppositions that the students really needed to have on board in advance.  I’ll need to rethink this next time.

Week Five. Peter Abelard, Ethics

Another work I can’t imagine leaving out. Super accessible prose, with no technical language. The view defended is interesting, and lends itself readily to discussion with any audience. Did you know that Abelard’s arch rival, Bernard of Clairvaux, is credited with some version of the (seemingly anti-Abelardian) saying “Hell is full of good intentions?” Well, you probably did know it. But I didn’t until my student Roman Dougherty told me.

Week Six. John Duns Scotus, ethical selections

When I read through Thomas Williams’ new translation of Scotus’ ethical works (which largely overlaps with Wolter’s old volume, but is a vast improvement), I made various notes to the effect of “this is obligatory in an undergraduate survey!!” In the end, what I decided to select was

  • Ordinatio II.6.2 on the dual affections of will (the fullest statement of his anti-eudaimonism)
  • Ordinatio III.34, a very interesting general discussion of virtue theory, aimed at the question of how we individuate the virtues. Scotus thinks our ordinary taxonomy of the four cardinal and three theological gives us only “mid-level genera,” and that the true dispositions are much more fine-grained and situationally defined.
  • Ordinatio III.37, where Scotus takes up the question of which principles from the decalogue have the necessity of natural law (only those of the first table) and which are in some sense contingent (all the rest). This is the fundamental text for questions about whether Scotus is some kind of divine command theorist.

The first and third of these, it seems to me, should be absolute classics of medieval philosophy. And although this is Scotus we’re talking about, the material is not horribly difficult. Just ordinarily difficult. This is the first time I’d taught these texts, and I was pleased with how the class seemed to go.

Week Seven. Proofs of God’s Existence

I don’t have a lot of patience for this stuff, so we went really quickly, covering all of the following:

  • Anselm, Monologion chs. 1-4
  • Aquinas’s Five Ways
  • Proslogion chs. 1-5 plus exchange with Gaunilo

Of course we didn’t really cover all of that, but I have a fondness for the argument from perfect goodness in Monologion ch. 1, so we spent an undue amount of time on that, then I gestured broadly toward the five ways, and then we banged our head against the ontological argument for a while.

Week Eight. Aquinas, Summa theol. 1a qq. 3-10

I think this stuff on the divine nature — simplicity, goodness, omnipresence, eternality, etc. — is just sensationally fun to teach. It really shows Aquinas at his systematic best, and it’s much easier to get a grip on (I now realize!) than the above material on human nature.

So that’s how far I’ve gotten — 7 more weeks to go.

Let me just mention one more feature of the class. For the first time, I’m experimenting with annotating the readings, and I feel as if this has been very helpful to the students. My quick and dirty method of annotation is to add notes to pdf documents, like here. (All the readings are available on the course web page.) But what I’m working toward is my own proprietary method of presenting texts, in which I turn the whole document on its side and then run the text down the middle, with comments on either side in the margins. See here for an example. It was, at first, a rather time-consuming process, because the formatting can’t be done in Word. (I ended up teaching myself how to do it in Adobe InDesign.) But I’m hoping that students will find it worthwhile, and of course once one begins doing this, one can keep building up the annotations from semester to semester.

Please feel free to use for your own purposes any of the works that I’ve formatted in this way. And if you and your students find them helpful, I’d be very glad to know about it. It will encourage me to do more. I’m starting to suspect that if our texts are going to get any traction with students, they will require some kind of annotation of this sort, going well beyond the bounds of what ordinarily gets done in published translations.




A Few Jobs

Here are some career opportunities that you may not have encountered in the usual places:

  • José Filipe Silva is advertising a 15-month postdoc for the Rationality in Perception project at Helsinki. The application deadline is October 31, 2018.
  • The University of Saint Thomas (Houston) is advertising THREE tenure-track positions, all of which require “facility with the Latin texts of Thomas Aquinas.” Weirdly, these positions are not advertised on The deadline is November 5, 2018.
  • The one-year Solmsen Fellowships at Wisconsin-Madison are being advertised. These are aimed at “scholars working in the humanities on European history, literature, philosophy, politics, religion, art and culture in the classical, medieval, and/or early modern periods before 1700.” Application deadline is November 1, 2018.