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Where is Medieval Philosophy going?

Alain de Libera


Serge Haroche
Traduction de Liz Libbrecht

Texte intégral

1In the West, the Middle Ages correspond to a long, thousand-year period which today is perceived paradoxically. The collective imaginary sees it as an obscure and violent era, starting with the turmoil and collapse of Antiquity that has been oversimplified as “the Barbarian invasions”, and ending with the advent of the Renaissance of the modern world. Negative images abound, from idle kings dragged in oxcarts, or serfs slaving under the yoke of brutal and uneducated feudal lords, to the ravages of the Hundred Years War and the major plagues that wiped out over half of the populations of towns and the countryside. The Middle Ages are also seen as a period dominated by two conquering and antagonistic religious faiths: Christianity in the West, building cathedrals and pushing ever further eastwards to evangelize the pagans beyond its borders, and Islam in the Orient, bypassing the continent via the south and driving the Arab conquerors as far as Poitiers.

2But behind these oversimplified images, the period was characterized by complexity, cultural ferment, questions, and reflection on Humans and their relationship with God and Nature that laid the foundations on which the modern vision of the world was built. During this period four traditions encountered, confronted and mutually enriched one another: the Greco-Byzantine, Latin, Jewish, and Arab-Muslim traditions. The highly complex relationships between them often exceeded religious conflicts. Ancient Greek culture and the thinking of Aristotle and Plato were transmitted to the West by the Arabs of the Orient, both Christian and Muslim, via North Africa and Spain. There was also the Greco-Latin route, which went via Byzantium and the monasteries. Jewish intellectuals, present in both the Christian and Muslim worlds, participated in this transmission of values and knowledge, adding their own analyses. The texts that punctuate these two routes dealt with a wide diversity of fundamental questions on logic and argumentation, the problem of universals, the structure and knowledge of reality, and the theories of judgement and of personal identity. These rich and diverse texts laid the first foundations of ontology, the philosophy of language, psychology, the philosophy of mind, and the theory of knowledge.

3Even those who have not really studied in depth this rich period of conflict and dispute are familiar with certain episodes. One of the most famous concerned the thesis of “dual truth” that sought to reconcile reason, embodied in Aristotle’s thinking, and the revelations of the faith contained in the sacred texts. The names of Averroes, Siger de Brabant and Thomas Aquinas come to mind, without us always knowing what exactly each of these thinkers really contributed to the debate. Can two contrasting truths coexist, cohabit dare I say, without introducing an inadmissible contradiction into the thinking? The subject is vast yet surprisingly modern, whether one thinks of the countless seminars and conferences devoted to relations between science and religion, which often seem to accredit the idea that two truths, that of scientific rationality and that of religious faith, can actually coexist in each of them; or whether one thinks, on the contrary, of the head-on collision of religious fundamentalists who challenge all “dual truth” by refuting the theory of evolution or the cosmology of the Big Bang.

4This notion of dual truth was moreover transposed into the 20th century in a totally different field: physics. Physicist Niels Bohr, who was not a medievalist, liked to say that “the opposite of a profound truth is always another profound truth” – implying with a touch of humour that only trivial truths refuse contradiction. He was of course referring to his famous principle of complementarity, whereby the notions of wave and particle, which the conventional mind considers as two totally incompatible concepts, coexist in a coherent view of nature. Forgive me for this digression by the physicist that I am; it is meant simply to remind us that the reflection of one of the 20th century’s great scientists drew profoundly on philosophy. I do not think that Bohr was directly influenced by Averroes but he certainly was by an intellectual current rooted way back in the distant medieval past.

5Alain de Libera has become an archaeologist of this evolution of philosophical thinking spanning the thousand years of the Middle Ages, by following an approach that in certain respects is reminiscent of Michel Foucault’s. He has studied the history of logic, of the philosophy of language, of metaphysics and of the philosophy of mind. His research and publications concern the theory of signification and of reference, of abstraction, of the states of things, of properties and of universals, as well as the semantics of propositions. In metaphysics he has also studied the theory of the analogy of being, division and the system of categories, the distinction of substances and of accidents, the theory of relations and relatives, and the genesis and structure of medieval metaphysical corpuses. In the philosophy of mind, it is the medieval tradition of De anima, the union of body and soul, and the distinction between mind and soul that was of particular interest to him. He has also explored the subject of thought, the theory of intentional species, and the theory of ideas and of representation.

6As Alain de Libera likes to point out, his research has led him to bring medieval sources and modern philosophy and psychology closer together. For example, he sees a prelude to the thinking of Descartes, and even to certain psychoanalytical theories, in the way in which medieval philosophers analysed the “thinking and acting subject”. Alain de Libera has translated and commented on works of Thomas Aquinas, Averroes, and Meister Eckhart, and published several books on Latin Averroism and Rhenan mysticism. He has edited several founding texts on 13th-century logic.

7Alain de Libera, in this brief introduction I have merely skimmed over the work of the great specialist on the history of medieval philosophy that you are. I will conclude with a few words on your academic career. After starting as a teacher of psychopedagogy at the École normale des instituteurs de Quimper, you were appointed to the Centre national de la recherche scientifique as a research associate, and then as a researcher at the Centre d’études des religions du Livre, one of the laboratories of the École pratique des hautes études (EPHE). You were then elected as senior researcher to the 5th Section (Religious Science) of the EPHE, to the Laboratoire d’Histoire des théologies chrétiennes dans l’Occident médiéval. Finally, you were appointed at the University of Geneva, in 1997, to the Chair of Medieval Philosophy. It is to occupy a Chair with the same name that you are joining the Collège de France today. Your lectures will plunge your audiences into a rich and complex past and without a doubt will enlighten them on the genesis of contemporary thinking. I am pleased to hand the floor to you now, so that you may present your inaugural lecture entitled Where is Medieval Philosophy going?

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