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19.12.17 Knox et al (eds.), Medieval Thought Experiments

19.12.17 Knox et al (eds.), Medieval Thought Experiments

This collection of essays, which began as a conference held at New College, Oxford, in April 2015, is an ambitious contribution to the body of work that explores the way medieval thinkers understood their own literary practices. The ambition of this work is signaled by its coverage of different languages and literary traditions, but even more clearly in its attempt to open up a heretofore unexplored genre of theoretical self-reflection: the thought experiment. Jonathan Morton explains the concept in his introduction to the volume: "broadly understood, a thought experiment is a hypothetical scenario whose existence may or may not be achievable in reality and whose description aims to convince its audience of a particular scientific or philosophical principle" (3).

We are perhaps more accustomed to thought experiments as a feature of modern philosophy and science, especially from those works at the border of these fields at the beginning of what we call the "scientific revolution," typical of such figures as Francis Bacon, René Descartes, and Galileo Galilei. It is also a concept of particular importance to contemporary analytic philosophy. As the essays in this volume show, however, such thought experiments are another example of the persistence of medieval thought at the heart of modernity. The fact that we do not readily associate thought experiments with Middle Ages is a matter of disciplinary assumptions; these essays amply demonstrate that the native soil of medieval thought experiments is not necessarily scientific or philosophical writings per se, but scientifically and philosophically minded poetry. As the most succinct articulation of the subtitle--likewise from Morton's introduction--puts it, "we intend the 'poetry' of this collection's title to be taken in a particularly broad sense to refer to the fashioning (poiesis) of imagined, hypothetical situations, often using stylized language, in ways that aim to generate certain kinds of experiences not generally available in an extra-textual existence" (10). If these passages do not make it already clear, Morton's introduction does an excellent job explaining what thought experiments are as well as the particular importance medieval poetry has in their articulation, and it makes a case for giving them a prominent place in current considerations about the understandings of fictionality in the Middle Ages.

The twelve essays in the volume that follow are not arranged chronologically nor by national literary traditions, neither are they subject to any other imposed structuring device. Instead, essays are arranged in a way that allows internal arguments from one essay to resonate with the next. The exceptions to this strategy are the essays that bookend the volume by John Marenbon and Vincent Gillespie, which aim more widely than any individual works by respectively covering thought experiments in general and medieval poetic theory under the influence of Aristotelianism (I'll have more to say about Gillespie's essay later).

Marenbon's "Thought Experiments with Unbelief in the Long Middle Ages" is an important, if surprising and even strange, opening to the volume. Using the example of thought experiments that deal with "unbelief," he distinguishes between thought experiments in the "strict sense," briefly sketched, imagined scenarios that work to prove particular conclusions, and in the "loose sense," those more detailed scenarios replete with story and character; and Marenbon suggests that the editors encourage the use of thought experiment in an even looser sense, sometimes subsuming whole genres under the term. The overview of thought experiments by a philosopher like Marenbon is incredibly insightful, and yet the essay concludes with Marenbon arguing that only thought experiments in the strict sense have any utility, and a minor one at that, and the looser version of though experiments--including the looser sense used in all the subsequent essays--does little more than add confusion to our understanding of the term "experiment." The editors are to be commended for including an essay so skeptical of their entire enterprise in the volume, and I wanted to single it out explicitly because of the challenge it poses to the rest of the essays, but Marenbon's concern is unfounded. As the essays in the rest of the volume show, and as thought experiments themselves attest, literary works produce their own kinds of truth, and their own means of enlightenment, that need not be beholden to the strictures of philosophical investigation, including the sometimes overly strict strictures of analytic philosophy. Thought experiments may not have much utility to analytic philosophy, as Marenbon claims, but that would not prevent them from providing insights to literary studies.

I will cover the remaining essays more succinctly. Marco Nievergelt traces the influence on Guillaume Deguileville's Pèlerinage de vie humaine of the "flying man" thought experiment derived from Avicenna's commentaries on Aristotle and finds that--despite Deguileville's own intentions--it discloses a thinking self that is "ineluctably embodied, radically hylomorphic, and remains unable to transcend its own cognitive limitations" (64). Mishtooni Bose focuses on William Langland's sole use of the word "experience" in that widely known thought experiment, the argument of the four daughters of God, in order to understand the Incarnation as its own kind of experiment in which God learns about his creation in a way that resembles Langland's revisionary poetics. Alice Lamy brings attention to the little studied Placides e Timéo, a thirteenth-century prose dialogue between a master and pupil about divine cosmology and the creation of the world; she emphasizes the work's understanding of our limitations as a knowing subject--especially in regards to the importance of divine light to vision and in the work of the imagination in the practice of naming things and determining their etymology--and shows how imagination can help us transcend the limits of speculative knowledge to provide a new kind of affective and intellectual experience. Jane Griffiths reads Geoffrey Chaucer's House of Fame as an experiment in which Chaucer uses poetry to understand his own writing process, exploring the way rhetorical treatises claim memory is used in the course of invention, and finding that "memory's anarchic associations cannot fully be controlled" (123). Turning to devotional material, specifically Cistercian hand mnemonics (complete with excellent pictures of examples), Anselm of Canterbury, and a variety of Cistercian texts from Aelred to Stephen of Sawley--all of which are taken to be extended thought experiments--Julia Bourke looks at the way these works induce emotions, like the fear and love of God or the joy associated with the Virgin Mary, and argues that these works are elaborate versions of the rarely recorded everyday monastic meditative practices that substantially relied on mnemonic techniques. Gustav Zamore tracks the changes in Bonaventure's understanding of synderesis--the soul's or intellect's power to understand the principles of natural law--in relation to the ineffability topos as a means of recasting St Francis's stigmata in order to answer criticism directed toward the Franciscan order in the 1250s. Petrarch's real or imagined ascension of Mont Ventoux occupies Francesca Southerden, who reads Petrarch's discussion for the first time as a thought experiment that deals with the aspiration toward a state of moral and spiritual perfection, one that can be found in Augustine's Confessions, and one that ironically is only disclosed through rambling or digressions. Co-editor Philip Knox tackles Boethius's influence on Jean de Meun's portion of the Roman de la Rose, specifically the way that "the man divided in two" complicates the relationship between sexual desire and man's inherent striving after "the good." Gabrielle Lyons makes a case for understanding a great many French fabliaux--here represented in texts by Jean Bodel, Henri de Valenciennes, and Rutebeuf--as thought experiments that test the utility of scholastic exegetical techniques without being beholden to the confines imposed by the analysis of sacred texts. Daniel Reeve, the third co-editor, discusses the way Hue de Rotelande's romance, Ipomedon, parodies Alan of Lille's De planctu Naturae, and the way both works share a concern with the capacity of sign-systems to capture reality, a concern that calls into question the purpose of romance as a genre and its capacity to produce forms of knowledge.

Finally, the collection ends with Gillespie's "Ethice Subponitur? The Imaginative Syllogism and the Idea of the Poetic." As the references in the introduction make clear, Gillespie's work on secular literature (as distinct from his work on devotional material, for which he is perhaps more widely known) is deeply influential on the project as a whole, and all three editors studied at Oxford where Gillespie is the J. R. R. Tolkien Professor of English Literature and Language, so it seems fitting that he be given the last word. In this essay, Gillespie returns to his earlier work--derived from readings of the accessus, those introductions to literary texts--that placed poetry under the umbrella of ethical philosophy. Here, drawing on concepts and terminology originally found in Arabic commentaries on Aristotle's Poetics and from there distributed throughout the Latin philosophical tradition, Gillespie focuses on poetry's capacity to stimulate the imagination, to produce visions and emotions that are amoral and pre-ethical in their nature; in short, Gillespie finds that the Arabic commentary tradition has long known that poetry serves its own ends.

I have spent the most time on the first and last essays in this collection because they each, in their own way, challenge the presuppositions of the collection as a whole. Gillespie affirms what concerns Marenbon: the poetic will always exceed philosophy's attempt to contain it. At the end of this collection, though, we understand that as the good news. As Gillespie discusses, and as the other essays show, the poetic can be used for philosophical ends, but it will always do more as well; it will always produce further exploration, or in the terms of this collection, further experimentation. The essays contained in this collection provide rich accounts of their individual concerns; each one provides important and useful insights into, say, Piers Plowman or the Roman de la Rose, but each one also shows that more can be said, that the "thought experiment" continues and is fully capable of catalyzing more material. Far from exhausting its topic, Medieval Thought Experiments shows us that more can be done with "thought experiments," that the relationship between medieval literature and medieval philosophy is a productive area that continues to produce compelling work.

And it is under that strength that I will register a small final quibble. The "European" of the title not only applies to its contents but also to its contributors. While some of the writers have now ended up in the United States, this work is largely a product of scholars working in England and the continent. There are a great number of American scholars, however, who work on the intersection of medieval literature and medieval philosophy: Andrew Cole, Jessica Rosenfeld, Kellie Robertson, and Vance Smith in English, to name only the most obvious ones; Sarah Kay, though Oxford-trained, would be the most prominent figure in French. I mention this because these American critics also tend to engage in the modern continental philosophy at the same time as medieval thought; that combination of medieval literature, medieval philosophy, and modern continental philosophy could have been an interesting addition to this volume, especially given the prominence of the "thought experiment" for the analytic philosophical tradition. This collection does not ignore the modern continental tradition altogether (the essays by Southerden, Knox, and Reeve explicitly engage with it to differing extents), but a more robust treatment could have been salutary. Of course, that could also be the work of a future collection, one inspired by the excellent essays found here.