Georgetown on my mind (and heart)

Throughout his career, Robert Grosseteste emphasised the unity of the human person, the impossibility of separating mind from heart except conceptually. Our capacities to see the truth of things as they are, our aspectus, and for loving things for what they are, which Robert called our affectus, must both be developed and perfected, Robert said; and the one cannot be developed in isolation from the other. This fundamental strand of Robert’s thinking was recently the theme of a conference organised under the august auspices of Georgetown University by Neil Lewis, a member of the Ordered Universe core team, and Sandra Strachan-Vieira. The participants comprised a good mix of Ordered Universe stalwarts and new acquaintances (for most of us), ranging from grad students to established professors, and the papers offered detailed analyses of Grosseteste’s thought as well as studies of comparable sources written both before and after Grosseteste’s time.

A rain-drenched Georgetown may have failed to offer its visitors its finest aspect, but we did not let that affect us; the welcoming surroundings and gracious and generous hosts more than made up for the weather. Brett Smith set the tone for the conference as a whole with his clear and clarifying presentation of the role of aspectus and affectus, the perception of truth and the love of the good, in central works by Grosseteste. Giles Gasper then added depth and breadth to this fundamental picture by showing with great nuance and eloquence how the same dichotomy played an equally central role in the monastic theology of Anselm of Cantebury. Yours truly added to the monastic backdrop by trying to bring out the richness of the same conceptual scheme in the writings of Isaac of Stella.

After the main focus of the conference and the background for the conceptual scheme had been presented, a series of papers ensued that subtly brought out the intricacies and precision of philosophical language and argument both in Grosseteste and his contemporaries. Nicola Poloni showed with great skill the development in Grosseteste’s metaphysics of matter and causation, and Neil Lewis situated Grosseteste’s views on aspectus and affectus within its contemporary context by demonstrating and explaining how these concepts were used by Richard Rufus and Richard Fishacre. Tim Farrant then showed how these concepts allowed Alexander Neckam to connect his natural and zoological studies to a fundamental moral preoccupation animating his works. Kathy Bader brought this part of the conference to a close with a fascinating run-through of the astronomers of the Severn Valley in the early twelfth century, and in particular how the translations of Arabic astronomical texts into Latin influenced and enriched the study of the stars and the computation of time. The day was brought to a close with a public lecture on Grosseteste, the Ordered Universe project, and how the artistic collaborations to which this project has given rise. The lecture was given jointly by Giles Gasper and Tom Mcleish, two of the three Principal Investigators of the project, and Ross Ashton, a projection artist who together with sound artist Karen Monid has created wonderful displays of light and sound partly inspired by Grosseteste’s writings.

While the papers of the first day in the main focused on philosophical and theological concerns, the second day continued with a stronger emphasis on the scientific study of nature. It started Nader El-Bizri’s deeply engrossing account of Alhazen’s theory of human perception, emphasising the deep connection between vision of truth and embodied experience in a way that offers an illuminating parallel to Grosseteste’s view. Tom McLeish then used the pairing of aspectus and affectus to discuss the creative processes undergirding modern scientific research, providing a fascinating and engaging glimpse of how human beings do science. Hannah Smithson then presented her dizzyingly complex and penetrating analysis of Grosseteste’s theory of colour vision, using her experience from cutting-edge psychology of perception to bring out the complexities and sophistication of Grosseteste’s thinking. Joshua Harvey gave an equally inspiring account of Grosseteste’s thinking on sound perception, using the technology of Schlieren imaging to visualise Grosseteste’s account and show its intellectual power and its limitations. Luke Fidler then rounded off the presentation of papers with a glorious discussion of the aspectus/affectus pairing in material culture and the visual arts, and in particular the apperception of sculpture in the high middle ages.

The final afternoon of the conference was devoted to a group reading of Grosseteste’s treatise on the generation of sounds. We were deeply privileged to number among the participants not only Ordered Universe core member Cecilia Panti, but also Joe Goering and Frank Mantello into the group. Our discussions of the text greatly deepened our understanding both of its philological and its philosophical and scientific aspects; and it was impossible to remain unaffected by the presence of no less than four of the world authorities on Grosseteste’s writings in Panti, Lewis, Goering and Mantello. It was a fitting and profoundly inspiring end to a wonderful conference.

We are deeply grateful to Neil and Sandra for their hard work in making this conference a great experience for all participants. And there is an argument to be made that the combination of scholarship and companionship that a successful conference brings confirms Grosseteste’s central point about the interdependence of aspectus and affectus. The challenges of the mind are more easily tackled in the company of good colleagues and friends; in the end we left seeing things more clearly because we all put our heart in it.

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