Grover Furr

title.none: Keiper, Bode, and Utz, eds., Nominalism and Literary Discourse (Furr)

identifier.other: baj9928.9904.003 99.04.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Grover Furr, Montclair State University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Keiper, Hugo, Christoph Bode, and Richard J. Utz, eds. Nominalism and Literary Discourse, New Perspectives. Critical Studies, Vol 10. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1997. Pp. vi, 370. $41.00. ISBN: 9-042-00278-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.04.03

Keiper, Hugo, Christoph Bode, and Richard J. Utz, eds. Nominalism and Literary Discourse, New Perspectives. Critical Studies, Vol 10. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1997. Pp. vi, 370. $41.00. ISBN: 9-042-00278-6.

Reviewed by:

Grover Furr
Montclair State University

The growth of interest in the intellectual history of the Late Middle Ages in Europe has brought forth a host of studies which examine whether changes in Medieval scholastic philosophy, and especially the influential school of Nominalism, may have contributed towards long-recognized changes in literary technique at this period. This volume can be most usefully situated within this debate, though some of its contributions go far beyond the Medieval period to assess Nominalism's influence, if any, upon later writers and, in one case, the writings of the philosopher John Locke.

This is a very useful volume for anyone who is interested in this current of scholarship. It certainly represents the most up-to-date survey of the scholarship on the "paradigm" -- the term used by several contributors to this collection -- of nominalist influence on literature. The essays included in it give an exhaustively complete bibliography of scholarship -- both articles and books -- which deal centrally with the influence of Nominalism on literature generally and Medieval literature especially. As will be noted below, it includes several articles which afford an "overview" of the entire controversy, give bibliographical guidance, and attempt a critical assessment of the issue itself and much of the previously published scholarship on it. Finally, several essays try to assess areas which future scholarship on this question should address.

The topic is a worthy one, and it is undeniably handy to have all these essay published in one volume. The inspiration for this collection was a workshop held in Graz in 1994. Although three of the articles (those by Bode, Carroll, and Siemon) in it have already been published in an earlier form (in The European Legacy, 2.2, for 1997), while the contributions by Keiper and Hudson draw upon previously published materials as well, the other nine of the total of fourteen essays are published here for the first time.

Since the express purpose of this volume is to give an overview of the state of research on the "paradigm" of Nominalist influence, I will confine this review to some descriptive and critical comments on the individual essays themselves.

Hugo Keiper's long introductory essay, "A Literary 'Debate over Universals'? New Perspectives on the Relationships between Nominalism, Realism, and Literary Discourse", is basically a thoughtful and reasonably complete overview. I found the sections on the debate in the late Middle Ages (section 5) and on methodological issues (section 4) most informative. Section 6, Keiper's own suggestion for a new theoretical approach, I found more problematic, since less concerned with the question -- which to me, at least, seems the most central one -- of whether the influence of Nominalist philosophy on a given literary work can be convincingly demonstrated. Section 7, an overview of the issues as they are raised by scholars of Medieval literature, is clear and helpful, at least to page 65, after which a theoretical discussion, influenced by postmodern considerations, seeks to create a space for a more general kind of "influence" than would be satisfying to many. The concluding section usefully provides the author's abstracts of the rest of the articles in the collection.

Gerald Seaman's essay, "Signs of a New Literary Paradigm: The 'Christian' Figures of Chretien de Troyes," represents an interesting attempt to push the influence of philosophical Nominalism not forward (as some of the later contributors do), but backward, to the time of Abelard and Chretien. Though his outline of Abelard's ideas seems to be an informed one, and his reading of Chretien's work demonstrates a detailed knowledge, I don't find the case for Chretien's direct knowledge of Nominalism a compelling one. For example, the "nominalist wrinkle in the poetics of exclusion" in Cliges (p. 98) seems to me to be rather the trope of translatio studii, like the similar trope of translatio imperii, both long familiar to Medievalists. Again, I feel that Seaman has failed to demonstrate convincingly the truth of his concluding remarks: "In this new paradigm, authorship was informed by a nominalist theory of universals."

William J. Courtenay is acknowledged as one of the world's greatest living experts in late Medieval philosophy and, specifically, on William of Ockham and the Nominalists, and his contribution to this volume, though short, is extremely useful. First, he provides, in several long footnotes, an excellent bibliography of articles and books discussing the influence of Nominalism on Middle English literature (pp. 111-113). Second, and more substantively, Courtenay summarizes "the new developments that have taken place in the understanding of the distinction of absolute and ordained power" during the past decade. Basically, scholars have begun to recognize that the "canonist" interpretation of God's potentia absoluta -- a concept developed more to legitimate the Pope's granting dispensations from church law, rather than centering on God's power to disrupt the laws of the universe at will -- is the most influential, and at the same time had less far-reaching implications for matters such as human free will. (Courtenay's very helpful summary is found on pages 120-1.)

Richard J. Utz is perhaps the foremost exponent of the "paradigm" of Nominalist influence upon late Medieval English literature. His own book [[1]] and the collection of essays which he edited in 1995 [[2]], are among the leading causes of the revival of interest by literary scholars in the influence of Nominalism. In "'As Writ Myn Auctor Called Lollius: Divine and Authorial Omnipotence in Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde", he uses the old scholarly debate over the identity of "Lollius" to push forward the argument, made in more detail in his German-language book (and therefore, alas, too little familiar to students of Chaucer) that Nominalism freed Chaucer from analogy, from a dependence upon strict allegory. He gives a good survey of the scholarship on this subject, including of German-language scholarship, and credits Sheila Delany -- as do several other contributors -- for having limned the basic implications of Nominalist influence two decades ago. Never pressing his case beyond what can be convincingly demonstrated, Utz gives us a model of a nuanced and convincing affirmation of Nominalist influence on Chaucer.

William H. Watts, "Chaucer's Clerks and the Value of Philosophy," while praising Utz's work, is ultimately skeptical of any effort to assert Nominalist influence upon Chaucer simply because Chaucer clearly read one writer who was also a Nominalist philosopher (Robert Holcot), while citing Thomas Bradwardine, an opponent of Nominalism and mentioning Ralph Strode, probably a Nominalist himself, as a friend. Watts' final paragraph (p. 155) is a model of responsible caution, but he inevitably renders a Scotch verdict upon the question of Nominalist influence in Chaucer's works.

In his essay "Literary Nominalism and Medieval Sign Theory: Problems and Perspectives," Stephen Penn is even more skeptical and, for the most part, usefully so. Penn analyses a number of studies, and points out the questionable methodology -- mainly, assertion without firm evidence -- employed by many scholars who are eager to assert an influence of Nominalism upon literature, and wants "a properly historical form of criticism" (p. 187) as opposed to a mainly theoretical (and, often postmodernist) approach, with concomitant neglect of primary source evidence. The concluding paragraph of this part of his essay (p. 182) is succinct and to the point. In the final section, Penn clearly explains the connection between philosophical Realism, reasoning by analogy, and allegorical method, a connection taken as a starting point by many writers on this topic, but not often so clearly explained. Like Utz, he praises Sheila Delany's earlier work. His skeptical conclusion (pp. 188-9) is especially valuable.

The next several essays exemplify the difficulties of actually proving Nominalist influence on specific literary works. William F. Munson's "Self, Action, and Sign in the Towneley and York Plays on the Baptism of Christ and in Ockhamist Salvation Theology" certainly shows close knowledge of the play in question, and a diligent study -- if mainly from secondary sources -- of Ockham's philosophy. But can the two really be brought together? Did the author of the play know Ockham? How was this influence historically mediated? To my mind, Munson fails to establish his case.

Similarly, Ullrich Langer cannot establish a connection between philosophical Nominalism and Rabelais in "Charity and the Singular: The Object of Love in Rabelais". Nor can William C. Carroll in "Semiotic Slippage: Identity and Authority in the English Renaissance", James R. Siemon in "Sign, Cause or General Habit? Towards an 'Historicist Ontology' of Character on the Early Modern Stage," or Andreas Mahler in "Don Quixote, Hamlet, Foucault -- Language, 'Literature', and the Losses of Analogism." As Carroll states (p. 227), there is a "general shift from realism to nominalism in the early modern period" -- but "nominalism" here (no capital "N") stands for a general shift away from the allegorical and the abstract, from the "reality of universals", towards "individualism" in its various meanings. In this very general sense, of course, "we are all Nominalists" since the Renaissance. But by the same token we are no longer speaking of Nominalism, but of a more general change in taste and outlook of which Nominalism itself may be only one aspect. Susanne Fendler recognizes as much in her contribution, "The Emancipation of the Sign: The Changing Significance of Beauty in Some English Renaissance Romances". She is careful to find a "nominalist" influence only in the general abandonment of realism, rather than in any specific influence from the works of Nominalist philosophers. It is "the discovery and discussion of individuality" (p. 269).

Nicholas Hudson is able to clearly demonstrate the influence of Nominalism upon the works of John Locke in "John Locke and the Tradition of Nominalism," and he is meticulous in doing so, for he recognizes that "[v]irtually every philosopher was a 'nominalist', insofar as he rejected belief in the real existence of universals." (p. 283). His essay is a model of a careful textual analysis. However, it is no surprise that, a philosopher himself, Locke would have acquainted himself with the primary sources, the works of Nominalist philosophers. Showing direct influence in this case is naturally quite a different task from doing so in the case of literary works.

The volume concludes with Christoph Bode's fine, short essay "A Modern Debate over Universals? Critical Theory vs. 'Essentialism'." The first part of his essay (pp. 300-310) is a very clear, very informative contrast of readings of the "battle" between proponents of Nominalism and those of Realism. Although in his final pages Bode turns the tables and gives a "realist" reading of this philosophical battle, to contrast to the "Whig" reading [[3]] that sets Nominalism as the essential precursor of science, and Realism the mode of thought of elitism and backwardness -- indeed, though he seems to dispense with historical reality altogether and make the question a purely discursive one in true postmodernist fashion -- Bode's essay, and the German-language resources he cites in it, provide a reasoned, thoughtful conclusion to this volume.

I highly recommend this book to those interested in the general intellectual ferment of late Medieval England.


[[1]] Richard J. Utz, Literarischer Nominalismus im Spaetmittelalter. Eine Untersuchung zu Sprache, Charackterzeichnung und Struktur in Geoffrey Chaucers Troilus and Criseyde. Regensburger Arbeiten zur Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Bd. 31. Frankfurt am Main, Bern, New York, Paris: Peter Lang, 1990.

[[2]] Richard J. Utz, ed. Literary Nominalism and the Theory of Rereading Late Medieval Texts: A New Research Paradigm. Medieval Studies: Volume 5. Lewiston, New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1995.

[[3]] The reference is no doubt to Herbert Butterfield's book The Whig Interpretation of History, 1931.