Grosseteste at Georgetown

A post by Neil Lewis on the recent conference he organised at Georgetown on The Philosophies of Robert Grosseteste and Richard Rufus of Cornwall.

Vir excellentissimus in scientia – a man of the greatest prominence in knowledge. So Richard Rufus of Cornwall (fl. 1231-1259) describes Grosseteste in his Scriptum on Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Rufus was the first to use Grosseteste’s philosophical writings, and, as is indicated by this quotation, held Grosseteste in the highest regard. Thanks to the work of the Richard Rufus of Cornwall Project and the Ordered Universe Project these two thinkers are now receiving more attention than ever before, and therefore I thought it high time to bring together experts on their philosophical views. So it was that in March of 2016 eleven scholars, old friends and new, met at Georgetown University under the sponsorship of the Center for Medieval Philosophy, ably aided by Sandra Strachan-Vieira, to present their work on these thinkers.

Luigi Campi (Turin) started us off with an account of Grosseteste’s influence, not on the first, but on the last major medieval thinker to be influenced by Grosseteste, John Wyclif, focusing on his views on soteriology. I (Georgetown) considered Grosseteste’s use of ideas from the light metaphysics in his commentary on Aristotle’s Physics to fill lacunae he found in Aristotle’s account in Physics 1, and touched on the relation of Grosseteste’s account to debates over issues raised by Physics 1 in the first part of the thirteenth century.

Scott MacDonald (Cornell) examined Grosseteste’s account of scientia in his commentary on the Posterior Analytics. Exploring Grosseteste’s motivations for introducing the notion of mental vision in this account, he argued that Grosseteste was concerned to provide an account of what a cognitive state as such is, something Aristotle does not address – yet another lacuna in Aristotle Grosseteste thought needed to be filled.

20140320_105531Yael Kedar (Haifa) argued that in Grosseteste’s conception of a universal form, light, underlying all physical reality, and in Roger Bacon’s account of the physical world in terms of the multiplication of species, we find the first appearance of a modern conception of scientific laws. With these thinkers, she argued, we must give up the oft-repeated idea that explanation in terms of laws and in terms of natures is incompatible.

With Bacon in the picture, Jeremiah Hackett (South Carolina) took up the question of who might have been the iuvenis Ioannes – Roger Bacon’s young student and assistant. The answer, he argued – suprisingly, but plausibly to my mind – is that he was probably no other than Peter John Olivi, an extremely creative, important, and highly controversal Franciscan thinker of the late thirteenth century.

Setting the stage for the next day’s proceedings, Rega Wood (Indiana), director of the Richard Rufus of Cornwall Project, took us on a tour of works attributed to Rufus, the manuscript sources, and historiography.

Fortified by the best of southern American cuisine at the restaurant Vidalia the night before, we commenced the next morning with the first of two sessions on the thought of Richard Rufus of Cornwall. One of the most important students of Aristotle’s natural philosophy and metaphysics in the first half of the thireenth century and an important theologian at Oxford, Rufus is only now starting to receive the attention he deserves, thanks in large part to the researches of our contributors and to the efforts of the Richard Rufus of Cornwall Project.

R. James Long (Fairfield) started us off with a paper discussing Rufus’ later dissatisfaction in his Oxford commentary on the Sentences with ideas proposed on magic, light and others issues by the Dominican thinker, Richard Fishacre, in his own influential commentary on the Sentences (currently being edited by Prof. Long et al.), a work composed at Oxford in the 1240s.

Rufus is at his most subtle and complex in his large commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, the Scriptum super Metaphysicam, and the remainder of the morning was devoted to two issues in this and related works. Santiago Melo Arias (Stanford) explored the notions of entity (ens) and being (esse) and Rufus’ account of how the metaphysician and logician differ in their approaches to these notions. Rega Wood returned with an overview of Rufus’ complex and original views on the problem of universals, pointing out a number of areas and puzzles in need of further research.

The afternoon session turned to the nature of the mind. Chris Martin (Auckland) took us through Rufus’ complex and well-worked out theory of sensory perception, with a focus on the role played by the idea of so-called ‘spiritual being.’ Jennifer Ottman (Washington, D.C.) explored the influence of Rufus’ commentary on Aristotle’s De anima on the commentary by Adam of Buckfield, himself a prolific Oxford Aristotle commentator, as well as on other commentaries on De anima that she has explored in the manuscript sources. Employing as a case study the way these commentators explained Aristotle’s reference to earlier thinkers as holding that the intellect is like a straight line and circle, she illustrated the enormously creative set of explanations of these remarks gradually assembled by the commentators.

Finally, Timothy Noone (Catholic University of America) explored a disagreement over the nature of the intellect between the two Franciscans, Rufus and Bonaventure. He noted how Rufus attempted the ostensibly implausible task of unifying an Augustinian theory of intellectual knowledge with the Aristotelian approach of Averroes. Despite Bonaventure’s objections, Rufus continued in this attempt and also continued to defend, again in the face of Bonaventure’s objections, the view that even in someone who is not understanding, a part of his soul, the agent intellect, is still thinking the intelligibles. And with that thought in mind we ended an extremely productive and stimulating conference, our agent intellects perhaps still cogitating away unbeknownst to us!

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