Learning from medievalists. A response to Robert Pasnau

In a recent blog post, Robert Pasnau makes a strong case for designing a canonical survey in medieval philosophy. He rightly points out that there is a striking shortage of specialists in medieval philosophy in philosophy departments:

“As things are, it seems to me that our colleagues in other fields have been persuaded that there’s a lot of interesting material in the medieval period. But they have not yet been persuaded that the study of medieval philosophy is obligatory, or that it’s obligatory for even a large department to have a specialist in the field. And no wonder this is so, given that we ourselves have failed to articulate a well-defined course of study that strikes us as having canonical status.”

If this is correct, the lack of jobs for medievalists is at least partly due to the lack of a medieval canon. While I agree that the lack of jobs is problematic, I am not entirely convinced by the reasons provided. Could we really expect the number of hires to go up, if we had more agreement on a set of canonical texts? Of course, Robert Pasnau’s reasoning is not that simplistic. The idea is that presenting a set of good canonical texts could persuade our colleagues that we have an obligation to study and teach those texts. As he points out, such a set of texts would be canonical in that they are united by a “shared narrative”; but unlike early modernists, for instance, medievalists have “failed” to produce such a narrative.

Is it really true that we failed to produce such a narrative? I am not sure. Firstly, I don’t think that canons can be designed at will; rather they evolve in conjunction with larger ideologies. Secondly, looking at histories of philosophy, there is an ample set of narratives surrounding the supposed rise and decline of “scholastic synthesis”. This and other narratives are embedded in a larger story about the dominance of theology in the Middle Ages and the subsequent secularisation and scientific revolution. Of course, all these narratives are rightly contested, but they clearly form the basis of a canon that is still pervasive in our surveys. In this grand narrative, medieval thought is seen as theological rather than philosophical. Accordingly, I think that the shortage of jobs for medievalists is not due to the lack but to the dominance of the canon. What separates medieval and early modern studies is not that only the latter has a set of canonical texts. Rather it’s the fact that only early modern philosophy is seen as bound up with the rise of science.

What to do? I think Robert Pasnau is right that we should think carefully about texts that we want to make available and teach in our courses. But rather than introducing these texts as part of a new canon, it might be more persuasive to use them to challenge the existing narratives about medieval thought and the rest of philosophy. In this regard, it’s perhaps crucial to stress the continuities between the medieval and other periods when thinking about selections of texts:* One way to do this would be to challenge the supposed conjunction of early modernity and science by encouraging people to study more medieval natural philosophy – a field that seems enormously fruitful but largely understudied. The same goes for late scholasticism and the relation of discussions inside and outside the schools in the 16th and 17th centuries. The list of possible moves to look for continuities could be extended, but the central point is this: rather than designing a competing canon for medieval philosophy, we should convince our colleagues that their stories are not intelligible without invoking the medieval discussions.


* It is worth noting that Robert Pasnau has contributed to this endeavour himself more than once, for instance, in his Metaphysical Themes 1274-1671, his works on Aquinas and his Theories of Cognition in the Later Middle Ages as well as in his translations for the Cambridge Translations Series.

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