Constant J. Mews

title.none: Grant, God and Reason (Constant J. Mews )

identifier.other: baj9928.0209.011 02.09.11

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Constant J. Mews , Monash University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Grant, Edward. God and Reason in the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pp. ix, 397. $64.95 0-521-80279-2. ISBN: $22.95 0-521-00337-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.09.11

Grant, Edward. God and Reason in the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pp. ix, 397. $64.95 0-521-80279-2. ISBN: $22.95 0-521-00337-7.

Reviewed by:

Constant J. Mews
Monash University

The title of this book introduces some very big ideas. The monograph, available in both hardback and paperback, appears to sell itself as an all-encompassing survey of two great themes of medieval thought, nothing less than God and reason. The title may attract readers eager to find an accessible and reliable introduction to the complex relationship between theological reflection and intellectual inquiry in the medieval period. The author is a distinguished authority on the history of medieval science, with many books to his credit: Much Ado About Nothing: Theories of Space and Vacuum from the Middle Ages to the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge, 1981), Mathematics and Its Applications to Science and Natural Philosophy in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1987), Planets, Stars and Orbs: The Medieval Cosmos, 1200-1687 (Cambridge, 1994) and The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional, and Intellectual Contexts (Cambridge, 1996). These titles may help give some idea of the particular angle at which Grant approaches those larger themes of God and reason: he is unashamedly concerned to trace back the roots of modern scientific thought to the medieval period, and to argue that with scholasticism, rational enquiry begins to develop independently from theological reflection. In a final chapter, "The Assault on the Middle Ages," he examines the polemical claims generated in the seventeenth century about the unscientific ways of thinking in the earlier period, to show how unjust they were in neglecting what he sees as genuinely rational curiosity about the natural world within an Aristotelian mental framework.

There is no doubt that Grant has much to say about the specifics of physical scientific theory in the fourteenth century, the period he knows best, as well as about scientific argument within theological writing. His awareness of Aristotelian traditions of natural science, as well as of fourteenth-century critiques of Aristotelian physics provides a valuable corrective to those who naively assume that scholastics were always more interested in logical and theological conundrums than in the natural world. My difficulty lies with the deeper assumptions that underpin his understanding of reason as a purely human quality in the medieval period. Ratio is often better translated as "order," indeed a cosmic order that underpins creation. The book is particularly weak in dealing with medieval cosmology prior to 1200. The chapter titles demonstrate the clear direction he gives to his argument that medieval thought was struggling to emancipate itself as rational: "The Emergence of a Transformed Europe in the Twelfth Century," "Reason Asserts Itself: The Challenge to Authority in the Early Middle Ages to 1200" and "Reason Takes Hold: Aristotle and the Medieval University." This then moves into three chapters on "Reason in Action": one on logic in the Faculty of Arts, a second on Natural Philosophy in the Faculty of Arts and a third on Theology in the Faculty of Theology.

This is a very Whig vision of medieval intellectual history, not unlike that of Victor Cousin in the early nineteenth century. Where Cousin admired scholasticism for its emphasis on dialectic as a discipline, Grant focuses on medieval (more specifically fourteenth-century) natural science or physica as the embodiment of rational enquiry, operating independently from any theological base. This is a perspective that considers the subject matter of theology per se as off limits. We get little sense in God and Reason of those fundamental debates in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, continued in the fourteenth, about whether God could act in any other way than he does or about the nature of divine omnipotence except as illustrations of "the firm, unqualified belief in the rule of logic" (p. 228). What matters for Grant is simply the extent to which medieval thinkers might employ reason within theological discussion, not the conclusions of such arguments. He confesses that he finds many of the theological questions debated in the medieval period bizarre, but admires the commitment to reason by which they seem to be underpinned.

There is undoubted value to emphasizing that discussion of the natural world was as integral a part of the curriculum as understanding of language. Grant argues that medieval science was based on "experimental arguments" rather than on experimental practice. Yet what we have here is a modern emphasis on the primacy of experience, projected back onto a world view centred around primacy of the notion of love of transcendent wisdom, or philosophia. This wisdom manifests itself through both scripture and the natural world. A monograph that presents itself as surveying such a wide canvas as God and Reason does need to do some justice to the breadth of the medieval curriculum, in theory at least designed to lead students to the path of wisdom. Not only is relatively little provided about the tradition of study of Plato's Timaeus, but there is nothing on the disciplines of grammar and rhetoric, both integrally related to logica (which Grant translates simply as logic, when it often refers not just to dialectic, but to the study of language in general). The chapter titled "Reason takes hold: Aristotle and the medieval university" does effectively imply that before new texts of Aristotle were introduced, unreason prevailed, without seriously considering the continuous thread of Aristotelian reflection in the Latin West since the time of Boethius. There is a revealing aside in the conclusion to the chapter "Logic in the Faculty of Arts" (p. 146) that suggests much about the underpinning concerns of the author: "By comparison to the Middle Ages, logic as a formal subject of study in the modern university is of little consequence. Students are certainly not required to take it and most shun it as too difficult and demanding." The category of 'the Middle Ages' is being used as a very generalized stick to beat what is imagined to be "the modern world."

Just as debatable are the claims made about the relationship between theology and natural philosophy in the medieval period. He argues that they are radically separate domains, taught in separate faculties of the university, and that when theological claims intruded into natural philosophy, this was "solely intended to elucidate this or that question in natural philosophy." Theology itself, however, he sees as "utterly dependent on natural philosophy" (p. 206). One cannot help but ask how this helps clarify those twelfth-century thinkers like William of Conches, writing without any institutional separation between Arts and Theology within a university structure. He argues that of 310 questions about natural philosophy, discussed by Buridan, Albert of Saxony, Themon Judaeus and Nicole Oresme, only 29% mention God and the faith, and that of these 93 questions, 53 do so in a cursory manner. To attempt to "save" medieval thought by extracting all those questions that do not talk about God except in a cursory manner, betrays a profound discomfort with the conceptual framework underpinning all medieval discussion, whether it be about language or the natural world. Grant does provide some helpful presentations, often buttressed with extensive translated extracts, about infinity and movement. What seems missing is an awareness of how these discussions connect to an overall understanding of wisdom.

The final chapter, "The Assault on the Middle Ages" provides a helpful, though not unfamiliar, survey of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century commentary on medieval science, presented so as to refute the generalizations made about an earlier period of European intellectual history. The chapter helps explain why that idealized generalization, "the Middle Ages," is so central to the book's title. He reacts against what he sees as the desire of "The Modern World" to break from its Latin past. The achievements of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, and Newton are presented as the legacy of "many faceless scholastic logicians, natural philosophers, and theologians, in the manner I have described in this study" (p. 364). Whether such an analysis does justice to either group of thinkers is open to question. The Latin phase of European thought does not need to be justified simply as the cradle of the values of modernity.