Science, Imagination, and Wonder: Impressions and Experiences

One of the main challenges for all who study the highly variegated output produced by Robert Grosseteste over the course of his lifetime is how, if at all, his works within highly disparate disciplines may be harmonized into a coherent whole. This challenge was embodied in practice from April 3rd through 6th, when scholars from a wide range of disciplines descended on Pembroke College, Oxford, for the conference ‘Science, Imagination, and Wonder: Robert Grosseteste and his Legacy’. In order to make this an occasion for mutually fruitful exchange across – rather than merely within – the boundaries segmenting academia, we needed to embody as a group what Grosseteste appears to have managed in his own capacious head: how to reconcile the humanities with the natural sciences, how to overcome inconsistencies between faith, reason, and observation, how to combine respect for and deep familiarity with past authorities with a willingness to reconsider and create, how to find common ground between aesthetic creativity and the academe.

From the point of view of the organisers, this ambition was fulfilled over the course of the four days of the conference. We were very lucky indeed to have four keynote lecturers whose expertise cross disciplinary boundaries, and who consequently were able to open lines of inquiry that broadened and inspired both scholarly discussion and more informal conversation and conviviality. Jim Al-Khalili’s own experience as a leading scientist enabled him to bring out with great clarity the astonishing richness of the studies of nature carried out within the Arabic cultural sphere in the middle ages; Simon Oliver’s combination of philosophical sophistication and profound theological understanding created an inspiring and illuminating account of how Grosseteste’s thinking on creation was firmly rooted in Scripture yet able to accommodate conceptual tools from a range of philosophical traditions; John Milbank widened the chronological scope of our discussions and provided tools for discussing both medieval and modern concepts of learning, science, and reason; and Suzanne Akbari impressively synthesised Grosseteste’s usage of central theological texts and showed with penetrating literary and philosophical analysis Grosseteste’s own theological sophistication as well as his role in the development of late medieval religious thought and expression. These four lectures functioned as points of reference and sources of inspiration for our conversations and provided the foundations for a wide and engaged participation in the question-and-answer sessions in which the contributions of individual papers to our shared aims could be brought out.

The ways in which the wide variety of approaches to one shared theme embodied in the individual papers was able to throw up new connections and insights suggests that Grosseteste’s own varied interests may have been a source of strength rather confusion for his work within individual disciplines. The many facets of Grosseteste’s thought, the harmonization of which for us may seem like a particularly challenging jigsaw puzzle, could equally well be thought of as what allowed Grosseteste to transcend the conventional limits of the disciplines in which he worked. Judging from the lively discussions in the individual sessions of the conference, the fact that we were all pushed beyond our own comfort zones, in a friendly and collegial environment, provided rich resources for penetrating deeper into our own individual research areas. This highlights one way in which medieval and modern science share a common foundation: the crucial importance of collaboration and community in the pursuit of learning. The dialectical methods of high medieval learning required genuine exchange and a constant challenging of shared principles. Scholastic disputations were not echo chambers; what brought knowledge and understanding forward was an engagement with opposing arguments in their strongest possible form. So too for contemporary academe; the meeting of academic disciplines at the conference proved profoundly fruitful. And the perspectives from without traditional academic milieus, here provided in particular by the wonderful artworks and aesthetic thought provided by the artistic contingent, showed how important it is for academia not to become self-enclosed. We would like to thank each and every participant at the conference for sharing so generously their expertise as well as their company, with a special gratitude to Robert Grosseteste himself for providing us with intellectual common ground on which to  meet, and Pembroke College for material common ground of friendly hospitality.

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