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.


One comment on “The Medieval Survey Class pt. V: Beyond Christianity

  1. ccohoe says:

    Where does Greek fit in? I ask for two reasons. First, it’s quite useful for those working on the reception of Aristotle, Plotinus, Alexander of Aphrodisias in the Islamic world and beyond (e.g. the sort of work Peter Adamson has done). Second, there’s philosophy in the Byzantine world, which is beginning to be studied more. It’s in Greek, is obviously medieval chronologically, and certainly plays a role in the story of philosophy. It’s the source of our most important manuscripts for Plato and Aristotle and exchanges with Byzantine figures are key to Renaissance developments. That being said, perhaps most medieval graduate programs aren’t equipped to prepare students for working in this area and more attention to these thinkers may have to come more from those with a background in Ancient Philosophy, Patristics, Eastern Theology etc.. I do think it’s good that some projects on the Aristotelian commentary tradition have moved towards including more Byzantine thinkers (e.g. ).
    On the practical side,my personal impression is that Greek would definitely be less useful than Arabic for medieval job seekers, since I think it’s still hard for candidates with a primary specialization in medieval to have a good chance at Ancient positions, as many search committees searching in AOS: Ancient Greek and Roman are looking for someone specializing in Plato or Aristotle, or at least in figures that are Hellenistic or earlier.

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