Let’s get rid of “medieval” philosophy!

“Your views are medieval.” Let’s face it: we often use the term “medieval” in a pejorative sense; and calling a line of thought “medieval” might be a good way of chasing away students who would otherwise have been interested in that line of thought. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that, in order to keep what we call medieval philosophy, we should stop talking about “medieval” philosophy altogether.

While no way of slicing up periods is arbitrary, they all come with problems, as this blog post by Laura Sangha makes clear. So I don’t think that there ever will be a coherently or neatly justified periodisation of history, let alone of history of philosophy. But while other names of periods are equally problematic, none of them is as degrading. Outside academia, the term “medieval” is mainly used to describe exceptionally cruel actions or backward policies.  Often named “dark ages”, the years from, roughly, 500 to 1500 count as a period of religious indoctrination. This usage also shapes the perception in academic philosophy. Arguably, medieval philosophical thought is still seen as subordinate to theology. Historical surveys of philosophy often jump from ancient to early modern, and even specialists in history often make it sound as if the sole philosopher that existed in these thousand years had been Thomas Aquinas. This deplorable status has real-life consequences. Exceptions aside, there are very few jobs in medieval philosophy and a decreasing number of students interested in studying it.

You will rightly object that the problems described are not only owing to the name “medieval” and its cognates. I agree. First of all, the field of history of philosophy has not exactly been pampered in recent decades. Often people working on contemporary issues are asked to do a bit of history on the side or the study programmes are catered for in other fields of humanities (history, theology, languages). Secondly and perhaps more importantly, the dominant research traditions in medieval philosophy often continue to represent the field in an esoteric manner. As a student, the first thing you are likely to hear is that it is almost impossible to study medieval thought unless you read Latin (at least!), learn to read illegible manuscripts, understand outlandish theological questions (angels on a pinhead, anyone?), and know Aristotle by heart. Thirdly, most historical narratives depict medieval thought as a backward counterpoint to what is taken to be the later rise of science, enlightenment and secularisation. While the first of these three problems is beyond the control of medievalists alone, the second and third issue are to some degree in our own hands.

Therefore, we can and should present our field as more accessible. A great part of this will consist in strengthening continuities with other periods. Thus, medieval philosophy should always be seen as continuous with what is called ancient or modern or even contemporary thought. This way, we can rid ourselves not only of this embarrassment of a name (“Middle Ages”) but also of trying to indicate what is typically medieval. I’m inclined to think that, whenever we find something “typical” for that period, it will be also typical of other periods. In other words, there is nothing specifically medieval in medieval philosophy.

While there are already a number of laudable attempts to renew approaches in teaching (see e.g. Robert Pasnau’s survey of surveys), my worry is that the more esoteric strands in our field, both in terms of method and content, will be insinuated whenever we talk about “medieval” philosophy. The term “medieval” is a sticky one and won’t go away, but in combination with “philosophy” it will continue to sound like an oxymoron. What shall we say instead, though? I’d suggest that we talk about what we really do: most of us study a handful of themes or topics in certain periods of time. So why not say that you study the eleventh and twelfth centuries (in the Latin West or wherever) or the history of thought from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century? If a more philosophical specification is needed you might say that you study the history of, say, psychology, especially from the thirteenth to the seventeenth century. If you believe in the progress narrative, you might even use “pre-modern”. Or why not “post-ancient”?

By the way, if you are what is called a medievalist and you work on a certain topic, most of your work will be continuous with ancient or (early) modern philosophy. If there are jobs advertised in these areas, it’s not unlikely that they will be in your field. That might become more obvious if you call yourself a specialist in, say, the history of metaphysics from 400 to 500 AD or the history of ethics from 1300 to 1800. If this is the case, it would not seem illegitimate to apply for positions in such areas, too. – “Oh”, you might say, “won’t these periods sound outrageously long?” Then just remind people that the medieval period comprises at least a thousand years.


PS. I started this blog on 26 July 2018. So the blog is now over a year old. Let me take the opportunity to thank you all for reading, writing, and thinking along.

4 thoughts on “Let’s get rid of “medieval” philosophy!

  1. Interesting thoughts. I’d like your opinion on my recent Why Medieval Philosophy Matters (Bloomsbury). Does this sort of work help or hinder?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many thanks for your note. Although I’m not yet all the way through, I find your book really fascinating. It makes a compelling case for many crucial and yet largely ignored continuities and points of contact. Doing so with regard to the sciences, is one of the ways that I’d endorse particularly strongly, as I tend to think that the later developments aren’t intelligible without looking at medieval debates.

      I take the liberty to link to your book for curious readers: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/why-medieval-philosophy-matters-9781350094161/

      I’ll make more detailed reference to it in a paper forthcoming in a volume (partly) on why medieval philosophy matters, edited by Sara Uckelman


  2. Often when terms like “medieval philosophy” are used, there is a presupposition that it means Medieval European Philosophy. That kind of privileging of the Western tradition is perhaps always a little bad, but it’s especially bad when it comes to the medieval period since so much philosophy is taking place outside the “West”. I think that’s another reason to go with your suggestion of philosophy in the Latin west, philosophy in the early Islamic worlds, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

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