Language Study for Medievalists

This seems like a fine time to study languages, and so in this post I would like to see whether I can help organize our little community in this way. If any of what’s below interests you, please send me an email and I’ll include you in future organizational efforts.

As I have mentioned in other contexts, I have come to think that for scholars coming into the field of medieval philosophy today, both Latin and Arabic should be thought of as obligatory. Add to that English, and we have the three essential languages for aspiring medievalists.  Let me take them in turn:


  • Tobias Hoffmann — who in fact inspired me to start thinking about this whole topic — reports that he has done some research on programs offering beginning online courses in modern standard Arabic, and is enthusiastic about The Moroccan Center for Arabic Studies, which is offering one-on-one online courses for $20 per class. Perhaps it would be possible, also, to join a group and save money (and make online friends)? No doubt there are other online opportunities of this sort, and if anyone can recommend something, please let me know.
  • MCAS teaches modern standard Arabic. That is not a bad starting point for classical Arabic philosophy, but one might instead prefer to begin (as I did back in 2010) with the study of classical Arabic itself. I found Thackston’s Introduction to be an excellent guide, but most people would want a tutor as well as just a textbook. MCAS says they are “not prepared” at the moment to offer such a course. Does anyone know of any such online opportunity? Is there anyone out there who would be interested in serving as a paid tutor for a group of medievalists interested in learning classical philosophical Arabic? Anyone interested in participating in such a group?
  • The difference between the two previous bulletpoints, to my mind, is not so much a difference in the language itself (Arabic has not changed so much), but rather a question of whether one wants to study Arabic as a living language, with a focus (at least in part) on conversation, or study it as a scholarly language, as one would study Latin or Greek. If readers have an opinion about this pedagogical question, I would be glad if they contributed a comment to this post.
  • The previous remarks have focused on those who have not yet studied Arabic. But what about those who have already acquired the fundamentals and need to improve? Given the specialized nature of what we do, the only way forward at this stage is probably informal reading groups. Is there anyone out there who would be interested in leading such a group? Or perhaps such a group already exists online? Anyone interested in participating?


  • I cannot see that there is much point in a specifically medieval introduction to Latin. So, if one is looking simply for an introduction to classical Latin, there are presumably many online opportunities. I happened to see, recently, an affordable online program based in Romania. Does anyone know of any other affordable options?
  • Again, for those who have had a first course in Latin and are looking to improve, the most sensible approach is simply to start reading the texts themselves, in a reading group. Is there anyone who would be interested in leading a medieval Latin reading group? Anyone interested in participating? Perhaps such a group already exists online?


  • Perhaps there won’t be any readers of this blog looking for an introductory course in English. But, just in case, does anyone know of any affordable programs?
  • There may well be readers who would like to improve their English. If you are interested in joining an online conversational group for non-fluent English speakers, let me know.

In sum, if any of these opportunities are of interest, send me an email. Let me know your name, where you live/work, what language you are interested in, and what your language level is. And if you have thoughts about language programs, or pedagogical matters, add a comment below.


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.







A Slow Medieval Course, with Christine de Pizan

Here’s a guest post on the medieval survey class from Scott Williams (UNC Asheville). Scott sent me an email with some of these thoughts, and I thought it was so interesting that I asked him to write it up in a form I could post.

I have been enjoying Bob’s series of posts on syllabi in Medieval Philosophy. When the call went out for these I was teaching a course called “Islamic Philosophy” and so I sent in that syllabus. I also teach a course called “Medieval Philosophy” that’s more general. I want to say two things about what I learned recently in teaching the Medieval Philosophy course.

First, in the past I taught this course by covering lots of authors from different times and traditions (Pagan Neo-Platonists, Christians, Jews, and Muslims). In Spring 2018 I tried an experiment – I slowed things way down. This decision was inspired in part by the book The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy that I had read with other faculty members in other departments. I developed a short list of authors, and students spent more time on those authors than they would have in a standard survey. When the course was over and I read the Course Evaluations, I found that students gave the course the highest scores that can be given in numerous categories. Students wrote that they really really appreciated the slow approach. They were tired of “whiplash” courses. In my judgement, these students came to understand the authors much more than past students had. They came to see how different parts of a philosopher’s texts fit together. It’s one thing for students to learn discrete facts about e.g., Al-Farabi on the moral virtues, it’s another thing for students to see how this moral theory fits into an overall model of the place of human beings in the cosmos and in political life. So, instead of having students read only Part 1 (as found in Philosophy in the Middle Ages) of Al-Farabi’s The Political Regime (also called The Principles of Existing Things), they read Part 1 and Part 2.

Here’s one way, among many ways, that slowing down the medieval philosophy course can look. There are many other authors/texts that can be used. (Note: I teach Maimonides in my Islamic Philosophy Course and in some semesters he’s in the general Medieval Phil. course.) This is but one suggestion:

Required Texts:

  1. Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy. Trans. Joel C. Relihan. Hackett, 2001.
  2. Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies and Other Writings. Trans. Ineke Hardy. Hackett, 2018.
  3. Al-Farabi, The Political Writings, Volume 2. Trans. Charles E. Butterworth. Cornell University Press, 2015.
  4. Thomas Aquinas, Treatise on Happiness, Treatise on Human Acts, Trans. Thomas Williams, commentary by Christina van Dyke and Thomas Williams. Hackett, 2016.
  5. John Marenbon, Medieval Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford Univ. Press, 2016
  6. Document on Moodle (includes Porphyry’s Isagoge. I am contemplating whether to have 2 weeks on Porphyry in the future; we’d likely read On Abstinence from Killing Animals. This contrasts nicely with Boethius’s Treatise Against Eutyches and Nestorius on the rationality condition for ‘persona’).


  • 1 1/2 weeks on Augustine, with 1 day on Porphyry
  • 2 1/2 weeks on Boethius (we read all of The Consolation of Philosophy, and, Treatise Against Eutyches and Nestorius (personhood is the main topic; in a forthcoming publication I argue that Boethius likely invents personhood as a distinct general category (it’s in Person: A History, ed. Antonia LoLordo (OUP))
  • 2 weeks on Christine de Pizan (read most of The Book of the City of Ladies, plus selections from other texts- see the powerpoint for references)
  • 3 weeks on Al-Farabi (we read all of The Political Regime, plus other texts)
  • 6 weeks on Aquinas (we read all of the Treatise on Happiness, Treatise on Human Acts with Commentary)


Second, in most standard surveys of Medieval Philosophy we find no women taught.  (I found no women in Bob’s earlier posted list of commonly taught authors, for example.) This is not good, and for several reasons. My attempt to address this was to spend a week on the early 15th c. philosopher Christine de Pizan. Many of my students loved reading her. And, her texts allowed me to address some of the social contexts of medieval (esp. scholastic) philosophers. The way I framed her The Book of the City of Ladies was that it is Christine’s “summa” in defense of the feminine sex against centuries and centuries of sexism. I had a very positive experience in teaching Christine and plan to continue to teach her in the future and more of her texts. (Hackett has recently published a new translation of Christine de Pizan; so we have a reasonably priced new text to assign.) (I gave a lecture to a general humanities course recently on Christine, and covered highlights of the sorts of things that I discussed in Medieval Philosophy. I’ve attached the powerpoint here.)

Peter Adamson has two podcasts on CdP, here and here.

I’m writing all this because Bob has been talking to/with those of us who teach Medieval Philosophy, and I thought I should say that we need to teach philosophers who happen to be women too. Not just because they are women, but because they have interesting and important things to say and that we need to learn. My students got more interested in medieval philosophy by reading e.g., Christine de Pizan. By keeping it a male-only affair, I believe we signal to our students that we professors are either ignorant of women philosophers or that we don’t believe they are important enough to teach.

Hopefully in a few years time we will find the most popular medieval philosophy textbook that is assigned in our survey courses to include philosophers like Christine de Pizan. It’s a good idea, and for many good reasons.

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.




The Medieval Survey Class pt. III: Individual Readings

Here are the results of our tabulation of the most popular readings in medieval philosophy, based on the 30 syllabi that we received. Syllabi of course vary in the amount of specific information they include about reading assignments, so in some cases we lacked details about the exact readings, and in a few cases we were able to extract no useful information at all.

There are obvious challenges in any attempt to sort readings into groups. In some cases, below, the groupings are fairly specific, whereas in other cases they are exceedingly broad. In some cases this distorts the overall counts, making a single “reading” look more popular just because several different works were lumped together in one category. We did the best we could, with the information we had. (Again, many thanks to Mark Boespflug for his help with this.)

Here, first, are the most popular readings overall, the number in parentheses being the number of syllabi on which a reading appeared:

  • Anselm, Proslogion (15)
  • Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy (15)
  • Avicenna, metaphysics [various readings] (14)
  • Aquinas, Treatise on Human Nature (ST 1a) (13)
  • Augustine, On Free Choice of the Will (12)
  • Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed (12)
  • Avicenna, soul [various readings] (11)
  • Aquinas, God’s Existence and Nature (ST 1a) (10)

I find two features of this list especially striking. The first is that non-Christian material is well represented. (I will write up a separate post about this later.) The second is that no fourteenth-century readings are on the list. Indeed, nothing from Scotus, Ockham, or Buridan even comes close. But this is not because these authors fail to appear on syllabi, but because there is nothing approaching a consensus regarding which works from these authors ought to be read.

Here, finally, is an alphabetical listing of every reading that appeared three or more times in our inventory.


  • Ethics (9)
  • Glosses on Porphyry (7)


  • Deliverance from Error (8)
  • Incoherence of the Philosophers discussion 17, on causality (6 ?)
  • Incoherence of the Philosophers discussion 1, on the eternity of the world (3 ?)
    • Syllabi did not always make it clear which reading from the Incoherence was being used


  • Proslogion (15) [including Gaunilo’s Reply]
  • On the Fall of the Devil (6)
  • Monologion (4)
  • On Freedom of Choice (4)


  • On Free Choice of the Will (12)
  • Confessions (9)
  • City of God (9)
  • Retractations I.9, re. On Free Choice of the Will (5)
  • On the Trinity (4)
    • I find it surprising that neither the De magistro nor the Contra academicos made a better showing here


  • Incoherence of the Incoherence (8)
    • It was hard to tell whether what was being assigned was the discussion of the eternity of the world or the discussion of causality, though since Hyman-Walsh-Williams print only the first, it seems likely most readings concern that topic
  • Decisive Treatise (7)


  • Metaphysics (14) [various readings]
  • Soul (11) [various readings]
    • It was particularly hard, based on the information we had, to sort these readings into better defined clusters


  • Consolation of Philosophy (15)
  • Commentary on Isagoge (6)
  • On the Trinity (4)
  • Contra Eutychen (3)


  • Sent. II., On the eternity of the world (5)


  • Quaest. meta II.1, Is it possible to comprehend the truth (4)
    • Various other readings of Buridan’s made it onto syllabi six more times


  • Wars of the Lord Bk. III, on God’s knowledge of future contingents (4)

Henry of Ghent

  • Summa art. 1, on skepticism (4)

Hildegard of Bingen

  • Scivias (3) [plus one more reading the Book of Divine Works]

Ibn Tufayl

  • Hayy ibn Yaqzan (3)

John Duns Scotus

  • Ordinatio I.3, on knowledge (4)
    • Scotus made it onto roughly 18 syllabi, but the readings were extremely varied

John of Salisbury

  • Metalogicon (3)

John Scottus Eriugena

  • On the Division of Nature (3)


  • Guide of the Perplexed (12)

Nicholas of Autrecourt

  • Letters (5)

Peter Damian

  • On Divine Omnipotence (3)


  • Isagoge (7)


  • On the Divine Names (3)

Siger of Brabant

  • Questions on the Eternity of the World (4)
    • It is interesting how well represented the eternity of the world debate is on these syllabi

Stephen Tempier

  • Condemnation of 1277 (5)

Thomas Aquinas

  • Summa theol., Treatise on Human Nature (13)
  • Summa theol., Five Ways and Divine Nature (10)
  • Summa theol., Treatise on Happiness and Action (7)
  • Summa theol., Treatise on Law (4)
  • On Being and Essence (8)
  • On the Eternity of the World (5)
  • On the Principles of Nature (3)
    • Quite a few other readings from ST, SCG, etc. etc. appear on syllabi, but we could not lump them into groups larger than 2
    • Aquinas’s virtue theory is hardly represented at all on these syllabi, perhaps because of the difficulty in finding the right thing to read

William Ockham

  • Summa logicae part I (3)
  • Treatise on Predestination (3)
    • Ockham made it onto roughly 19 syllabi, but the readings were extremely varied

The Medieval Survey Class pt. II: Textbooks

An obvious question about running a medieval survey class is whether or not to use a textbook. Of the 29 syllabi that we received, a bit more than half used some sort of published collection of readings. (I suspect the percentage would be higher if I could obtain a random collection of medieval syllabi from across all universities. Since here I’m talking mostly to experts in the field, it seems to me likely that my sample includes more folk with the expertise and enthusiasm to assemble their own set of readings.)

So what are people using? Here are the numbers:

  • Philosophy in the Middle Ages: The Christian, Islamic, and Jewish Traditions (3rd ed.) (Hyman, Walsh, and Williams): 10
  • Medieval Philosophy: Essential Readings with Commentary (Klima et al.): 3
  • Five Texts on the Mediaeval Problem of Universals (Spade):
  • Classical Arabic Philosophy (McGinnis and Reisman): 1
  • Basic Issues in Medieval Philosophy (2nd ed.) (Bosley and Tweedale): 1
  • Readings in Medieval Philosophy (Schoedinger): 1
  • The Longman Standard History of Medieval Philosophy (Kolak and Thomson): 1
  • Medieval Philosophy: An Introduction (Maurer): 1

(I should, at this point, thank Mark Boespflug for compiling these numbers. Mark is, in case you were wondering, writing a beautiful dissertation here in Boulder on the history of doxastic voluntarism.)

Obviously, the venerable Hyman and Walsh volume, from Hackett, has a dominant market share. That might be surprising if you’re thinking of the first or second edition, which always struck me as a rather dense and difficult set of texts. But if you look at the 3rd edition, you’ll find that Thomas Williams has done an amazing job of improving on the volume, adding material (often newly translated) that is both accessible and important. Williams is building, moreover, on the very solid foundation of non-Latin material that was the most striking feature of the original Hyman and Walsh volume. Twenty-five years ago, that heavy non-Latin influence struck me as idiosyncratic and mostly unhelpful. But I think it’s pretty obvious today that they were simply ahead of their time. (More on that theme in a later post.)

The only other general anthology to attract significant marketshare is the 2007 Blackwell volume edited by Gyula Klima, Fritz Allhoff, and Anand Jayprakash Vaidya. Again it’s not hard to see why this is a reasonable choice, if you look at the table of contents. As you would expect given the editors, this is a thoughtful attempt to pull together a wide range of important and accessible material. The most striking difference from the Hackett volume is that Islamic material has only a token presence here, and Jewish material no presence at all. Both the Blackwell and the Hackett volume, I might add, are priced very reasonably at around $50 in paperback.

Skipping over the two specialized anthologies on the list, we come to three less popular textbooks. Neither Kolak nor Thomson is an expert in the field, and their choice of readings is fairly amateurish. But when it comes to both the Bosley-Tweedale (Broadview) and the Schoedinger (OUP) volumes, the situation is quite different. These are both extremely erudite and creative collections of material, compiled by scholars with serious knowledge of the field. (I am sorry to see that Prof. Schoedinger has died in the 22 years since that volume was published.) If neither volume has managed to gain much traction in the field, this is perhaps because they are more admirable from a scholarly point of view than from a pedagogical point of view. So, for instance, though we may applaud Schoedinger’s inclusion of William of Sherwood in his anthology, how many of us would actually teach that material? And I cannot believe that anyone can successfully lead a group of undergraduates through the unrelentingly difficult readings on distinctions and universals that lie at the heart of the Bosley-Tweedale volume.

Returning to the theme of my previous post, it is not at all easy to come up with an anthology of medieval readings. (In contrast, an anthology in ancient or early modern is the easiest thing in the world.) It is not clear what topics deserve pride of place, and it is hard to find a path through this material that is genuinely accessible to students.

That brings me, finally, to the last item on the list, Maurer’s Introduction to medieval philosophy, first published back in 1962. This is of course not an anthology but a single-author narrative of the period. I mention it, though, because it is striking how few such attempts at synthesis there are, especially in recent years. John Marenbon attempted this, in two Routledge volumes, back in the 1980s, and a couple of years ago tried again in a “Very Short Introduction” for OUP. Anthony Kenny’s New History of Western Philosophy, also with OUP, contains an entire volume on the medieval period. Joseph Koterski has published an impressive Introduction to Medieval Philosophy (Blackwell). No doubt there are other things I don’t know or am not thinking of. But I think it’s safe to say there are far fewer attempts at this sort of thing than there are edited, multi-author anthologies/guides/companions to the field. Perhaps most of us don’t feel as if we can produce a coherent narrative.

Next time, detailed data on which texts we are actually assigning to our students.