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.





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

  1. Eric Hagedorn says:

    Thanks for this post, Bob, and for the whole series. I hope this starts a precedent of medievalists thinking in concert about how to structure and teach undergrad and grad survey of the field.

    A few scattered thoughts below.
    – I like many of the selections here, most of which are already on my own syllabus. The main difference is your beginning with Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine, which strikes me as an inspired choice, one I’ll probably adopt next semester either in lieu of or as a companion to Book 1 of On Free Choice.

    – One significant difference between our courses is that my students are significantly less prepared than yours; my course is a required 200-level for our majors, so I mostly have sophomores and juniors, some of whom have only taken one or two philosophy courses prior to taking medieval (although most of them do know at least a bit about Catholicism and/or generic Christianity; they can often reconstruct the story of Lucifer’s fall on their own, for instance, which is worth a lot when teaching the relevant bit of Scotus). Given that I try to pull them through many of the same readings as on your syllabus, I find it necessary to present significantly shorter and even more curated selections than you assign.

    – The only recommendation I have is that if you’re committed to teaching Avicenna on the soul, I’ve found the selection from al-Farabi’s On the Intellect in the Hackett anthology to be a useful propaedeutic, as it introduces some of the technical terms of Aristotelian psychology (e.g., active intellect and possible intellect) in a way that seems to me more accessible than Avicenna’s texts. Once they already have the general Aristotelian model for sensation and intellection, then they can better work through the more specified claims in the Avicenna reading. (I also pair Farabi’s On the Intellect with the early parts of his Principles of Existing Things, in order to locate the psychology within the broader emanationist metaphysics, but that seems tangential to your aims.)

    – I also appreciate the choice to structure the course topically rather than chronologically. The half-dozen or so times I’ve taught medieval survey I’ve always done it chronologically, but each new semester I strongly consider tearing the syllabus up and starting over on a topical model. I refrain from doing so each time because my syllabus as is tries to tell an overarching just-so-story roughly akin to the standard myth of Modern Philosophy, with a rationalist Neo-Platonic metaphysics being developed in both the Arabic and Christian traditions and then being challenged from within each tradition by al-Ghazali’s Incoherence and Tempier’s Condemnations, respectively. The story helps the course to have a certain kind of internal coherence, although it does make it difficult to compare what multiple authors have to say on any one single topic. Next semester I may try out a split format: mostly chronological, but with a few “topic weeks” interspersed: e.g., teach chronologically through Augustine and Boethius, and then go on a tangent on the Freedom and Foreknowledge problem, bringing in, say, Gersonides, Ockham and maybe even Molina. Then chronological up to Aquinas, and then a tangent week or two on ethical theory that brings in Abelard and Scotus, etc.

  2. ZVT says:

    This is really helpful, thank you! I fully concur with the usefulness of a heavily annotated text. I did something like that for a few of the readings last year, and it made a big difference.

  3. DW says:

    Have you considered using Hypothesis for annotation? Anything that you can convert to html (and Acrobat can do that for you) and post to your course web page can be annotated by you and your students – and done either publicly or privately.

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