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Aristotelianism, medieval

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-B008-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved January 18, 2018, from

Article Summary

Although there are many possible definitions, ‘medieval Aristotelianism’ is here taken to mean explicit receptions of Aristotle’s texts or teachings by Latin-speaking writers from about ad 500 to about ad 1450. This roundabout, material definition avoids several common mistakes. First, it does not assert that there was a unified Aristotelian doctrine across the centuries. There was no such unity, and much of the engagement with Aristotle during the Middle Ages took the form of controversies over what was and was not Aristotelian. Second, the definition does not attempt to distinguish beforehand between philosophical and theological receptions of Aristotle. If it is important to pay attention to the varying and sometimes difficult relations of Aristotelian thought to Christian theology, it is just as important not to project an autonomous discipline of philosophy along contemporary lines back into medieval texts.

The most important fact about the medieval reception of Aristotle is in many ways the most elementary: Aristotle wrote in Greek, a language unavailable to most educated Europeans from 500 to 1450. Aristotle’s fate in medieval Europe was largely determined by his fate in Latin. Early on, Boethius undertook to translate Aristotle and to write Latin commentaries upon him in order to show the agreement of Aristotle with Plato, and also presumably to make Aristotle available to readers increasingly unable to construe Greek. He was able to finish translations only of the logical works, and to write commentaries on a few of them and some related treatises. Even this small selection from Aristotle was not received entire in the early Middle Ages. Of the surviving pieces, only the translations of the Categories and De interpretatione were widely studied before the twelfth century, though not in the same way or for the same purposes. Before the twelfth century, Aristotelian teaching meant what could be reconstructed or imagined from a slim selection of the Organon and paraphrases or mentions by other authors.

The cultural reinvigoration of the twelfth century was due in large part to new translations of Greek and Arabic works, including works of Aristotle. Some translators worked directly from the Greek, among whom the best known is James of Venice. Other translators based themselves on intermediary Arabic translations; the best known of these is Gerard of Cremona. Although the translations from Greek were often the more fluent, translations from the Arabic predominated because they were accompanied by expositions and applications of the Aristotelian texts. To have a Latin Aristotle was not enough; Latin readers also needed help in understanding him and in connecting him with other authors or bodies of knowledge. Hence they relied on explanations or uses of Aristotle in Islamic authors, chiefly Avicenna.

The thirteenth century witnesses some of the most important and energetic efforts at understanding Aristotle, together with reactions against him. The reactions begin early in the century and continue throughout it. The teaching of Aristotelian books was condemned or restricted at Paris in 1210, 1215 and 1231, and lists of propositions inspired by certain interpretations of Aristotle were condemned at Paris and Oxford in 1270 and 1277. However, interest in Aristotle continued to grow, fuelled first by the translation of Averroes’ detailed commentaries, then by new translations from Greek. At the same time, some of the most powerful Christian theologians were engaged in large-scale efforts to appropriate Aristotle in ways that would be both intelligible and congenial to Christian readers. Albert the Great composed comprehensive paraphrases of the whole Aristotelian corpus, while his pupil Thomas Aquinas undertook to expound central Aristotelian texts so as to make them clear, coherent, and mostly concordant with Christianity.

Very different projects predominate in the fourteenth century. For John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, the texts of Aristotle serve as distant ground against which to elaborate philosophical and theological teachings often radically anti-Peripatetic. If they are fully conversant with Aristotle, if they speak technical languages indebted to him, they are in no way constrained by what they take his teaching to be. Other fourteenth-century projects include the application of procedures of mathematical reasoning to problems outstanding in Aristotelian physics, the elaboration of Averroistic positions, and the rehabilitation of Albert’s Peripateticism as both faithful and true to reality. By the end of the Middle Ages, then, there is anything but consensus about how Aristotle is to be interpreted or judged. There is instead the active rivalry of a number of schools, each dependent in some way on Aristotle and some claiming to be his unique interpreters.

Citing this article:
Jordan, Mark D.. Aristotelianism, medieval, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-B008-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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