Language Hacks

This is a participatory post. I am hoping to collect suggestions from readers about ways in which they are using technology to cope with foreign languages. The query is intended in the broadest sense, ranging over applications in vacation travel, international conferences, reading secondary literature, working with primary texts in Latin, and so on.

Here’s an example of what I have in mind. You’ll all know about Google Translate. But did you know that, from the web page, you can upload a document and quickly get it translated? (Alas, it does not seem to work with scanned pdfs.) Well, no doubt many of you did know about this. So how about some other examples of this sort of thing?

Since I’m hoping this query will be of interest to others in the community, please respond by leaving a reply to this post (below), rather than by emailing me.


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.

Research Tools, and a few queries

  • A new database has been launched: Premodern Philosophical and Scientific Hebrew Terminology in Context, or “PESHAT in Context” for short. This is part of a long-term project, organized by the Institute for Jewish Philosophy and Religion at the University of Hamburg and by the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Although it is not yet available for general access, the editors let me have an advance look, and it promises to be a remarkably useful tool for anyone interested either in Hebrew philosophy, or in the transmission of philosophical ideas across Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin. As part of the project, there will also be a regular series of colloquia etc., and a mailing list for those who want to stay abreast of the project. For more information, contact
  • The folk at the Aquinas Institute – the ones who keep publishing these big blue Latin-English volumes – are awfully excited about a new software system that has “revolutionized” their work: Trados Studio 2017. (See the breathless account here.) Really? Is this a big deal for folk like you and me? Does anyone know about this?
  • I happened to notice, over the summer, that the seventeenth and final volume has now appeared of the British Academy’s Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources. See a review here. This made me wonder: is this huge project of any use to the study of medieval philosophy? More generally, are there any medieval Latin dictionaries that are of any help to our field (other, of course, than something like the Thomas-Lexikon)?
  • Speaking of useful lexicons, I recently had the occasion to want a digital copy of Cappelli’s great Lexicon abbreviaturarum, the essential guide to Latin manuscript abbreviations. Philip Choi hunted it down here. (This is a German version, but it doesn’t matter. I might add, as well, that this little book can still readily be purchased in print.) This too made me wonder: is there now anything better than Cappelli out there? I seem to recall talk, some years back, of a fully electronic version of something like Cappelli, but I don’t know what came of it.

Final Spring Post

Before shutting down for the summer, here are three more conference announcements and some art:

  • The annual Berlin-Groningen-Toronto Colloquium in Late Medieval and Early Modern Philosophy is on the topic of “Activity, Spontaneity, and Agency” (Toronto, June 11, 2016)
  • The Toronto Colloquium in Medieval Philosophy has been scheduled for 23-24 September 2016, although I think nothing is on the web yet.
  • SIEPM XIV is coming. It will be in Porto Alegre Brazil, on July 24-28, 2017, on the topic of “Homo – Natura – Mundus: Human Beings and their Relationships.” European scholars do not need to be told about the importance of these international congresses, which are scheduled only every five years. But perhaps I might suggest to my North American colleagues that we make a better showing this time around, particularly since the Congress is making a rare appearance on this side of the Atlantic. To get on the program, you must submit an abstract this fall — see details here. If you’re from North America, that’s the only way you’ll get on the program, because, amazingly, none of the ten distinguished plenary speakers at this international congress hail from North America.

Now for the art:

  • My colleague David Boonin alerted me to this curious bit of graphic art, with Thomas and Albert right at the center. He saw it this week in New York, at an exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt Museum, though it was commissioned originally for a 2013 exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The artist is Francesco Franchi.

That’s all until next fall, unless people send me queries for other scholars. I’ve advertised this service before, and in the past no one has sent me anything, so maybe I should just give up on the idea. But the few times I have posted a query myself, I have gotten such useful information that it seems a pity others aren’t taking advantage. Perhaps people are afraid of submitting a query that will seem too embarrassingly elementary for the rarefied audience of this blog? Well, send it to me anyway, and I won’t post it unless it strikes me as worthy.

Philosophae in medias, pt. II

In my previous post on this topic, from several weeks ago, I promised to post some responses from other scholars.  Here is a first, from Peter Adamson:

My thanks to Bob for kindly inviting me to post something here on his blog. As some may know (especially if they have been in my presence for more than 10 minutes, since I have usually brought it up by then) I produce a podcast on the history of philosophy – you can find it at The slogan of the podcast is “without any gaps.” This means that I’m trying to cover whole history of philosophy and not only the heavy-hitters covered in most histories and also university courses (Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes). It’s amazing how little of the history of philosophy usually gets a look in. Whole philosophical traditions are routinely ignored – philosophy in the Islamic world, India and China. (I already covered the Islamic world on the podcast and recently launched a series of episodes on philosophy in India, co-authored with Jonardon Ganeri. I hope to tackle Africa and China further down the line.) But there may be no gap more striking, or more pernicious, than the one caused by the exclusion of women thinkers. This is especially so given the much-remarked-upon imbalance between women and men in the field today. Might part of the reason for this be the almost total absence of female authors on undergraduate reading lists?

It’s no good protesting that we can’t read, study and teach women thinkers because they didn’t exist. The early modern period features quite a few authors, and their works are readily available (for instance in M. Atherton (ed.), Women Philosophers of the Early Modern Period, from Hackett). Scholars of ancient and medieval philosophy have to dig a little deeper. Though we can name a whole raft of female ancient philosophers, a collection of their works (the most useful I know is M. E. Waith, A History of Women Philosophers, vol. 1) makes for problematic reading. The texts tend to be focused on what the ancients saw as “women’s issues” (especially family life), and there are issues of authenticity – some of these texts may actually have been written by men. The two most famous ancient women thinkers were Hypatia, for whom we have scarcely any philosophical writings and who is mostly known for her violent death, and Diotima from Plato’s Symposium, who may or may not have been a real person.

Things improve though, when we get to the medieval period. At least, they improve when we get to medieval Latin Christendom. When I did an episode of my podcast on women thinkers in the Islamic world, I was chagrined to find that there were effectively no medieval female thinkers who would qualify uncontroversially as philosophers. There were certainly important and influential intellectuals, especially among poets and religious scholars (e.g. collectors of hadith); but if there was also a female al-Farabi I wasn’t able to track her down. As I say, Latin Christendom serves us better. The first name that will probably leap to mind, and rightly so, is Hildegard of Bingen – one of the most fascinating figures I’ve covered in the medieval episodes. Two comparable figures from the thirteenth century are Hadewijch of (maybe) Brabant and Mechtild of Magdeburg, whom as it happens I’ve just covered in a podcast. Later on I’ll be reaching later figures like Marguerite Porete and Catherine of Siena. Such figures are often dismissed as mystics or spiritual writers rather than philosophers, and duly excluded from syllabi and sourcebooks on medieval philosophy.

But this is a mistake, and betrays too narrow an understanding of what philosophy was in the medieval period – according to which only scholastics deserve our attention. Actually, even with that rather impoverished mindset these figures remain relevant, since they critiqued scholastic philosophy and thus tell us something about its place in wider medieval society. Mechtild wrote that “learned tongues shall be taught by the unlearned mouth,” and Hildegard even criticized a theological thesis set forth by Gilbert of Poitiers, the hipster’s choice of twelfth-century thinkers. More philosophically interesting, though, is the way they set out (both implicitly and explicitly) an epistemology that can undergird their special claims to knowledge. Hildegard is a particularly good example, since her most famous works consist of the intense mystical visions for which she is known and meticulous, authoritative explanations of the meaning of these visions. To think of her as nothing but a mystic – or worse, a passive vessel for inspiration – is to ignore the latter aspect of her writings.

But how “mystical” or “spiritual” does someone need to be before they no longer qualify as a philosopher? Of course that isn’t a question that applies only to women. What about Eriugena, Bonaventure, or Meister Eckhart? The project of taking women philosophers seriously thus goes hand in hand with the project of taking seriously thinkers whose ideas aren’t so easy to translate into the language of analytic philosophy. A narrow conception of what counted as philosophy in the medieval period might leave all these figures out, which would be very much to the detriment of our understanding. For one thing, it is not so easy to disentangle the supposed philosophers from the supposed non-philosophers – think for instance of the relevance of Eriugena on predestination when looking at Anselm on freedom and grace, or the importance of Bonaventure’s illumination epistemology as a contrast to Aquinas. For another thing, historians of philosophy should welcome interesting ideas wherever they can be found. If you’re intrigued by the limitations of reason, the affective side of knowledge, or non-standard uses of language, then “mystical” thinkers, both female and male, offer some of the most challenging proposals to be found in the medieval period. A comparison here might be to the discussions of topics like the Trinity or transubstantiation in the more frequently studied scholastic thinkers. Historians of philosophy have learned that they ignore such “theological” issues at their peril, because so many proposals on topics like identity, mereology, universals and so on can be found in that context. And it’s this, in my view, that ultimately makes it unadvisable, perhaps even inexcusable, to ignore women medieval philosophers. We should read them not just (indeed, not even mostly) because they were women, but for the same reasons that we read their male contemporaries. And we should read them in the same way we ought to read those contemporaries – with an open and generous mind, which is attuned to philosophy wherever it may appear.

Philosophae in medias?

During this past summer’s NEH Institute in Boulder, one of the principal topics was the place of women in the history of philosophy. Nearly all the discussion, however, concerned women in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. So, I’ve been wondering, what about women philosophers in the Middle Ages? Is any good work being done? Is anyone teaching this material? What material is there, anyway?

The conversation in Boulder mirrored a larger conversation taking place across the profession. There is, for instance, the Feminist History of Philosophy blog. Andrew Janiak and colleagues at Duke have launched Project Vox, which “seeks to recover the lost voices of women who have been ignored in standard narratives of the history of modern philosophy. We aim to change those narratives, thereby changing what students around the world learn about philosophy’s history.” Janiak, together with Christia Mercer, has even gotten these issues into the Washington Post. But all of these discussions are focused on the post-medieval era.

The APA is collecting syllabi that model diversity and inclusiveness, but so far no one has submitted a syllabus for a medieval course that includes women philosophers.

Moreover, conferences abound, including:

So, again, I wonder, is anyone worrying about this stuff in the medieval period? If so, is anyone doing anything about it? Over the next week or two, I’ll post some responses to these questions that I’ve solicited from a couple of scholars who have been thinking about this. But if there’s anyone else out there who wants to share their thoughts, feel free to write up a comment or send a link to a syllabus.

Do we need an open-access book series?

(My apologies, in advance, for posting something as long as this has turned out to be. But my question takes a while to pose.)

I have been feeling, for some time now, a growing disconnect between the publishing options that are available to scholars and the state of technology we now possess to disseminate information.

When it comes to journals, the situation seems fairly good. There are a reasonable number of journals that publish medieval philosophy, and I have never heard anyone in the medieval community say that there is good work out there that cannot find a home in some journal or another. These journals are, for the most part, reasonably priced, and widely available to scholars everywhere. Moreover, if one looks at the broader scene in philosophy, there are clear signs that the open-access movement is making inroads. (By ‘open access’ I mean free to the world on the internet. See, in particular, Philosophers’ Imprint and Ergo. It is unfortunate that the new Journal of the APA is not open access. But perhaps that will change if APA members continue to complain.)

When it comes to book-length work, however, the situation is rather different. Here, too, I have never heard a scholar in our field complain that good work cannot get published. And there are certainly many excellent presses that contribute in essential ways to the growth of scholarship in our field. But it seems to me there is a growing gap in book publishing between the interests of publishers and the interests of scholars. Publishers must, if they are to stay in business, charge serious amounts of money for their books, and do everything in their power to impede the free electronic dissemination of those books. But this is not what scholars want. What we mainly want is that the work be made available to as many people as possible.

For centuries, these two interests were inseparably connected. But the internet, of course, has changed everything. And in the last few years we are beginning to see not just the technical capacity to spread information electronically, but a shift in reading habits that makes it the case, for many purposes, that electronic copies of books are just as good as the real thing. Indeed, I hesitate even to say that electronic books are not the real thing. (When it comes to journals, print copies are already a quaint curiosity.)

My query, then, is whether we need some sort of venue for publishing open-access book-length material in medieval philosophy. It seems to me that historians of philosophy in general, and perhaps especially medievalists, could particularly benefit from such a resource. For there are, in our field, a great many technical scholarly resources that are of immense value to a very small number of people. I am thinking of editions of texts, translations, extremely specialized studies, conference proceedings, and so on and so forth. The problem, as I say, is not so much that this material cannot find a publisher, but that the more obscure it is, the more expensive it naturally tends to be. So even while it remains possible to find a publisher willing to print some recondite medieval work for, say, $150, the question we should ask ourselves is whether this way of doing things is in the best interests of the field. Would it not be better, in many cases, to make this material freely available?

Of course, anyone can post anything on the web (as this blog shows so well!). But the trouble, of course, is that we all need our work to bear the imprimatur of a reputable publisher. We need that for our careers, and our work needs that, if other scholars are going to take it seriously. So in putting forth the idea of an open-access book series, I have in mind something that would, somehow, take on the prestige of a serious publishing venture. It would have to be selective in what it published, which means it would need to have the same sorts of refereeing procedures that publishing houses currently have. The advantage would not be that this is an easy way to get published; the advantage would be that this is a way of making work readily available to the whole world.

The project would require some support, since (as any publisher reading this is doubtless thinking) it is not easy to take a Word file and turn it into the beautiful published products that we take for granted. But it is another feature of the current state of technology that the production process has become much less difficult than it used to be. Moreover, I happen to have a certain amount of funding that could be used as a seed grant to begin this project.

What would this series publish? It is certainly not intended to compete with major academic presses when it comes to publishing original monographs. Scholars who need tenure, promotion, a better job, etc. will need, for the foreseeable future, to publish with the most reputable presses. But it seems to me there is a great deal of material that might be published in a series such as this. To begin with, there might be older material, not under copyright, that might be part of the series, such as

  • classic unpublished dissertations;
  • old editions (e.g., Jansen’s 3-volume edition of Olivi?);
  • old translations.

Then there might be new work that would be better served by open-access publishing, such as

  • English translations of monographs originally published in French, German, etc.;
  • conference proceedings;
  • new editions and translations of texts.

I’m posting this in the hopes of getting (a) general feedback about whether this is a good idea, and (b) specific ideas about work that might be part of the series, as well as (c) advice about the practicalities of making such a series happen. Feel free to respond either by commenting on this post, below, or by emailing me directly.


Routledge Major Works

The following query is from Christina Van Dyke (Calvin College):

I’m currently working on a Major Works in Medieval Philosophy four-volume series for Routledge. The main purpose of the Major Works series is to provide libraries that can’t necessarily afford access to relevant journals and books with a resource that will include central/influential/important papers in medieval philosophical scholarship from the past century. The volumes will be divided by topic into Metaphysics and Epistemology, Logic and Language, Moral and Political, and Philosophical Theology.

I’m thinking of the project as essentially a set of ‘mixtapes’ (or MP3 playlist, for the younguns). I’ve already combed through various resources and compiled a long list of potential articles… but I am only one person with personal prejudices and predilections, and I’d love some input from you guys. What article (or articles) would be on your ‘MUST INCLUDE’ list for your area of specialization? What pieces have been most influential in your own development? Which articles do you find yourself recommending to students again and again?

Please send any suggestions to And thanks in advance for any input! I’m looking for broad representation across the field and have roughly 400 pages per volume to work with.

Best wishes,


Query: formido oppositi?

Here, as promised earlier, is another query from me that I hope will encourage others to send me their own queries this summer:

Might anyone have information on the origins of the notion of ‘formido oppositi’ ?  Among Latin scholastic authors, it’s regularly said to be the defining feature of opinion, but where does this come from?

(The best way to respond, I might add, is to “leave a reply,” below.)

Query: Orthography?

As promised, here is a summer query of my own.  Please send me yours, and I’ll happily post them.

Along with Christophe Grellard, Zenon Kaluza, and Aurélien Robert, I am working on a new edition of Nicholas of Autrecourt’s Tractatus (aka the Exigit Ordo).  Because the work is known to survive in only one manuscript, we feel some temptation to preserve the manuscript’s orthography. But we hesitate, because it is not clear that this has significant value to scholars, and clearly there are attendant inconveniences. Hence, we solicit your advice.