The Medieval Survey Class, Final Post

Previously, I summarized the first half of my survey course from this past fall. Here’s an annotated summary of the second half of the course. (Readings and syllabus are available on the web here.)

Weeks 9 and 10. Talking about God.

I spent three class periods on this material, spending the first day on selections from Maimonides’ Guide, the second day on Aquinas on analogy (ST 1a Q13), and the third day on Scotus on univocity (Ordinatio I.3.1, using the selection in the old Hackett volume by Wolter).

It’s really quite easy to pull together a manageable selection of writings from Maimonides, and there are a lot of accessible topics there to be discussed — not just the negative theology, but also the esotericism, and various further issues that arise in the course of his discussion. So this struck me as an unqualified success.

The material in Aquinas makes for quite a natural companion to the Maimonides reading, and of course his theory of analogy has as strong a claim to the canon as anything he wrote.

The reading from Scotus is, however, just brutally difficult, even though Wolter helpfully abridges the original text. (John van den Bercken has a new translation of the whole of Ordinatio I.3 (Fordham UP), which I didn’t use only because I wanted the abridgement!) I included the reading because the doctrine of univocity seemed to me extremely important, and to be something that students ought to be able to get a grip on, having read Maimonides and Aquinas. But the problem is not the doctrine itself, but trying to cope with Scotus’s arguments for the doctrine, which lie at the outer limits of intelligibility. So if you put this on the syllabus, you are in effect asking students to read something that you can be sure they will not understand. Perhaps teachers ought not to do that!

Weeks 10-11. Freedom and Foreknowledge.

We began by focusing on the problem of divine foreknowledge:

  • Boethius, Consolation end of IV and all of V
  • Gersonides, Wars of the Lord Bk. III excerpts
  • Crescas, Light of the Lord treatise 2 excerpts

For some reason I had never previously used Boethius in a survey class — perhaps just because I have previously tended to regard late antiquity as not properly medieval. But the students just loved this text (particularly after the Scotus reading!), and of course there is no end of things to talk about. Someone who wanted to take the go-slow approach to the survey course couldn’t do much better than work slowly through the Consolation. (I am unsure, however, of what translation is best for philosophical purposes. I used Relihan’s Hackett translation, but with no confidence that this was the best choice. It was, however, clearly better than some translations I consulted, which absolutely mangled the philosophical content.)

Gersonides and Crescas are of course much later, but they make for a nice contrast with Boethius, because whereas medieval Christian authors tend to try to adhere to a broadly Boethian account, these two Jewish authors take radically different positions. Roughly, Gersonides’s approach is to limit divine knowledge to events that are not the product of free human choice. Crescas’ approach is to curtail human freedom. Both readings are relatively accessible. If I do this again, however, I’ll need to be better prepared to defend Gersonides. The students reduced his position to complete nonsense in about 3 minutes, and I was unable to defend him.

Week 12. Libertarian Freedom

Although Scotus is often impossibly difficult, his writings on free will tend to be somewhat more accessible, particularly in the new and very clear translations by Thomas Williams. We looked at the well-known discussion from Questions on the Metaphysics IX.15, and then at the rather technical discussion about divine foreknowledge at Reportatio IA dist. 39-40. Probably the second of these readings was more than the students really needed, and surely it was more than they wanted.

Week 13-14. Metaphysics

It’s a particular sorrow of mine that it is so hard to know how to convey, in the classroom, the riches of later medieval metaphysics. Even if one is content with the comparatively muted pleasures of Aquinas’s metaphysics, it is hard to know what to assign other than the De principiis naturae, which is not much more than juvenalia, and the De ente et essentia, which is, for all its fame, rather obscure. And I do not think the long and difficult discussions of universals and individuation found in Spade’s popular Five Texts are effective at capturing what is most interesting about later medieval metaphysics.

The texts I am most fond of teaching are the ones I used in this class. First, we looked at Book I of Ockham’s Summula philosophiae naturalis, which offers a systematic treatment of matter and form. There seems to be no agreement, among teachers today, about which work of Ockham’s to teach, but it seems to me this is one of the most promising choices. Ockham clearly labored over this text, and hoped it would be a work of the same significance as his Summa logicae. I am not sure why it has not received more attention. I have made an abridged translation, although, after assigning all of it to my students, I now think it could stand to be abridged further. Although parts are reasonably accessible, other parts are extremely hard and long-winded.

Second, we spent a day on the arguments in Autrecourt’s Tractatus for eternalism — that is, for the thesis that nothing comes into or goes out of existence. Again, I’ve made my own translation of this. (Indeed, I’m working on a new translation of the whole work.) What’s fun about this text is that it’s wholly and refreshingly un-Aristotelian. And although it’s difficult, I think the difficulty is manageable.

Third, we spent a day on Buridan’s views on identity over time, again using my own translations. This is not at all difficult. And, again, part of the fun is that the view is very unlike what one would expect from an Aristotelian. In addition, there’s a real puzzle over just how to understand Buridan’s view. Does he think that almost nothing remains the same over time? That’s my reading, but others think he’s instead offering an account of exactly why many things do remain the same over time.

Week 15. Epistemology

Finally, we spent a day on Autrecourt’s well-known skeptical letters, and another day on Buridan’s increasingly well-known discussion of certainty (including moral certainty) in Questions on Metaphysics II.1. At this point, I fear, the students just wanted to be done with obscure medieval texts, but I do think these two short readings work quite well in a survey course.

Final Exam. Obligationes

Rather than give the students a conventional final, I assigned them the task of mastering the medieval rules of Obligatio, following the very clear discussion of the genre in Mikko Yrjonsuuri’s 2000 paper in Theoria. (Actually, there’s a critical mistake in the formalization of the rules on p. 212, but in the version on the course web page I fix the mistake.) Each student had to pass a one-on-one series of questions. I prepared these disputations in advance, and you can see them here, but I am sure others could do a better job than I have at coming up with ingenious sets of questions. In any event, though, it was a pretty fun exercise.








2 comments on “The Medieval Survey Class, Final Post

  1. Daniel Kokotajlo says:

    Obligationes are amazing! Me & two friends played a half-dozen rounds with each other. I want to get good at it and develop it into a parlor game. 🙂 Thank you for doing this research & writing it up!

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