Home > History, History of Religion and Culture, Philosophy > Medieval Philosophy and the Classical Tradition: In Islam, Judaism and Christianity

Medieval Philosophy and the Classical Tradition: In Islam, Judaism and Christianity

Routledge | 2002 | ISBN: 0700714693 | PDF | 328 pages

An initial chapter on the history of Islamic philosophy sets the stage for sixteen articles on issues across the three traditions. The goal is to see the Islamic tradition in its own richness and complexity as the context of most Jewish intellectual work.

The goal of the present volume is to serve as a prolegomenon to the writing of a balanced history of medieval philosophy, one that more accurately represents the philosophy of this period. This introduction supplies a historiographical treatment of the limited role that Islamic and Jewish philosophy have come to play in the standard academic histories written over the last two centuries. In short, my claim is that what we call the standard histories of medieval philosophy are in fact little more than histories of Christian  philosophy. I will argue for a balanced type of historiography, one which is fair to each of the three great monotheistic traditions. The fact that members of each of the three great monotheistic traditions studied and made use of the Classical philosophical heritage will serve as the focal point. Often the members of one tradition studied the same Classical texts, worked on similar issues, and read the works of members of other traditions. This is one reason why an adequate history of medieval philosophy should cover each of these three traditions together with their intellectual relations. This history has not yet been written, yet needs to be written.

Neglect in the Standard Histories

From the nineteenth century to the present important histories of philosophy when treating the Middle Ages focus on the history of Christian philosophy. Detailed accounts have been offered of significant Christian thinkers and issues in order to sketch the history of the philosophy in the West that existed after the Classical philosophy of the ancients and before modern philosophy. Within this context, historians have discussed Islamic and Jewish philosophy in the standard histories almost solely for the purpose of giving the Christian intellectual background. As I will indicate, this is the case both in standard academic histories of philosophy and in the classic histories devoted to the philosophy of the Middle Ages, including works by Hegel, Ritter, Stöckl, de Wulf, Geyer, Gilson, Kretzmann, and Marenbon.

The approach to medieval philosophy common since the nineteenth century has its own history and raison d’etre. Martin Bernal’s point in the first volume of Black Athena concerning the narrow, parochial approach taken to the study of the Classics since the nineteenth century, can be extended to the study of Islamic and Jewish philosophy during the same period. In the eighteenth century scholars provided a more balanced coverage of diverse philosophical traditions in the standard histories than we have become accustomed to. For example, Jacob Brucker discussed many of the great Islamic and Jewish philosophers in his vast history of philosophy, his Historia Critica Philosophiae (1742–1744). He does this in a work where he attempts to cover the history of the significant philosophical traditions that have existed throughout the world. The breadth of this history is astounding when considered from the standpoint of present-day historiography. For example, Brucker includes lengthy treatises on Chinese, Japanese, Polynesian, North American, Ethiopian, and Druid philosophical traditions, all traditions that do not appear for the most part in the classic histories of philosophy written in the nineteenth and twentieth century’s.

Therefore, when Brucker covers Jewish and Islamic philosophy, he merely grants the type of attention that he thinks is due to any of the major philosophical traditions. For this reason, he devotes over 400 pages to Jewish philosophy and 238 pages to Islamic philosophy. He treats the former at the end of his treatment of Classical Roman philosophy and the latter just before treating Latin scholastic philosophy (Brucker 1766–1767, 2:653–1072, 3:3–240, respectively). What is interesting about these treatments is that Brucker attempts to do justice to thinkers like Rāzī, Ghazali, and Gersonides who did not have a major direct influence on the philosophy of the Latin scholastics (Brucker 1766–1767, 3:76–80, 93–95, 2:853–855, respectively). In doing so, he discusses many individuals who would be omitted from the standard histories of philosophy written in the nineteenth and twentieth century’s. I do not mean to suggest that Brucker is not interested in those who would influence the Latins. For example, he singles Maimonides out for special consideration at the end of his treatment of Jewish philosophy and devotes a lengthy section to Averroes and his followers (Brucker 1766–1767, 2:857–861, 3:97–113, respectively). But this is not the sole guiding principle behind the construction of this part of his history.

Of course, Brucker’s history would not pass muster as an academic history today. One reason for this is that he follows the practice of constructing a précis of the philosophy of an individual person or tradition, that is, he states the conclusions in summary fashion of specific positions point by point. For instance, after discussing the philosophy of individual Islamic thinkers, Brucker summarizes the metaphysics, physics, and moral philosophy of the Islamic philosophical tradition in hundreds of theses (Brucker 1766– 1767, 3:156–199, 211–239). What is striking about this method is the lack of attention paid to the philosophical argumentation that supports the conclusions. Brucker does not take his reader through the logic of significant philosophical positions. He also does not cite the primary texts that support the theses that he offers. Given what Brucker has supplied, the reader is unable to compare his reconstruction of the philosophical tradition with the philosophical texts themselves.

Yet when considered in light of the historiography since his day, what Brucker has achieved is a balanced history of medieval philosophy. He has managed to devote substantial attention to the philosophy of each of the three great monotheistic traditions within a single history of philosophy. This is no mean achievement. One might criticize this part of his project by arguing that three separate treatises do not amount to a history of philosophy. But Brucker has done more than supply separate treatises of different philosophical traditions. For example, the accounts of Classical Greek and Roman philosophy prepare the reader for the treatment of Jewish Hellenistic philosophy.

Certainly, Brucker does not have the level of technical skill or knowledge of original texts evident in David Winston’s article on early Jewish philosophy in the recent Routledge History of Jewish Philosophy, but he does discuss many of the same issues (Frank and Leaman 1997, 38–61). For example, when considering in what way it is fair to speak of Jewish philosophy after the Babylonian captivity, Brucker explains that Jewish intellectuals adapted Classical philosophical concepts in order to clarify Scripture and carry out the Jewish wisdom tradition (Brucker 1766–1767, 2:653–661, 685–697). From this perspective, it makes sense first to discuss Classical philosophy and then to consider Jewish philosophy. The treatment of Classical philosophy prepares the reader for the discussion of Jewish Hellenistic thought and provides helpful background for the treatment of Islamic philosophy in the following volume.

I noted that Brucker does more than merely prepare readers for Latin Scholasticism in his treatment of Islamic and Jewish philosophy. For example, he does not discuss Jewish philosophy only in order to prepare his reader to grasp Bonaventure and Aquinas. What is important for the historiography of philosophy is that he presents the history of Jewish and Islamic philosophy for their own sakes. In this philosophical project, these traditions deserve fair and balanced treatment like any other significant philosophical traditions. For this reason, Brucker treats the major figures and themes deemed important within the tradition. He wrote the history of the philosophy of the three great monothesistic traditions within a general history of philosophy, a type of historiography that would not continue into the nineteenth and twentieth century’s, because he believed that we can and ought to be clear about philosophical traditions apart from our own. Representing the Enlightenment ideal of rationality, Brucker believed that rationality is not culture bound. Through painstaking effort, we can and should clarify the history of the many philosophical traditions that have flourished around the globe.

In contrast, Hegel can be held to represent all those historians in the nineteenth and twentieth century’s who limit discussion of Islamic and Jewish philosophy during the Latin Middle Ages to those figures who influenced the Latin scholastics. For example, in his Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Philosophie (1833–1836), Hegel limits his consideration of medieval Jewish philosophy to twelve pages(!) on the philosophy of Philo and the Kabbalah and less than a page on Maimonides (Hegel 1965, 19:18–29, 131–132, respectively). The footnotes to Brucker indicate Hegel’s dependence on that work, yet the contrast is striking. An incredible number of thinkers are omitted who were formerly thought to have played a significant role in the history of philosophy. Hegel singles out those Jewish philosophers for consideration whom he considers important on account of the influence that they had on European philosophy and jettisons the remainder from the history of philosophy. In other words, Philo and Maimonides remain part of the canon because of the influence they had on Latin medieval philosophy. Furthermore, the Kabbalah remains significant because of the history of its influence on the European philosophy of the Renaissance and modern period.

Hegel devotes ten and a half pages to Islamic philosophy. He includes a number of quotations from Maimonides in order to present this philosophical tradition. For example, a passage from the Guide of the Perplexed is used to sketch the role played by Syrian Christians in the transmission of Classical philosophy to Muslim intellectuals (Hegel 1965, 19:122–123). Hegel is intrigued that Islamic thinkers borrowed a range of Classical philosophical terms and issues from Christians. One conclusion that he draws tells us something about the place that he grants Islamic philosophy within the history of philosophy. He concludes that Islamic philosophy does not mark a real step in the development of philosophy.3 Whatever philosophical success the Muslims achieved was  due to the philosophical labor of the Classical authors that they read. For this reason Hegel singles out as worthy of mention the commentaries on the works of Aristotle written by Muslims. Islamic thinkers achieved a certain level of philosophical skill to the degree that they made sense of the philosophy of Aristotle and the Neo-platonists (Hegel 1965, 19:129–131). In order to indicate this achievement, Hegel notes in a single paragraph that Kindī, Farabi, Avicenna, Ghazali, and Averroes wrote such commentaries.

That is the extent of his discussion of this topic. The reason for this list is given in the following paragraph, which is the last paragraph in this treatment of Islamic philosophy. Hegel states that this philosophy is of historical interest because it was through these individuals that the West learned about Aristotle. Therefore it is not necessary to clarify the thought of the Islamic philosophers, they are only important because they were a conduit of Classical philosophy to the West. Islamic philosophy is no longer of interest for its own sake.

Hegel gets much of the blame for limiting the history of philosophy to that of Europe, but he was not alone. A more ambitious history was written by Heinrich Ritter in twelve substantial volumes, his Geschichte der Philosophie (1829–1853). Ritter more accurately describes his approach to the philosophy of the Middle Ages as Christian philosophy. Christian philosophy here refers to the European philosophy of the Middle Ages and is included within the title of the volumes that cover this period, Geschichte der christlichen Philosophie. Therefore when Ritter treats Islamic philosophy within a section of a work on Christian philosophy, he makes no claim to offer a balanced history of the philosophy of this period. He is honest about devoting attention to the major Islamic thinkers who were influential on the Latins.4 Furthermore, by devoting over two hundred pages to this topic, Ritter goes into considerable more detail than Hegel. He discusses many of the actual arguments.

This is the picture that would appear in the first detailed comprehensive history of medieval philosophy published in three thick volumes by Albert Stöckl, his Geschichte der Philosophie des Mittelalters (1864–1866).5 In almost three hundred pages on Islamic and Jewish philosophy, he supplied readers with the intellectual background needed in order to understand Bonaventure, Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham (Stöckl 1864–1866, 2:13–305). Like Ritter and unlike Hegel, Stöckl has studied many of these texts. If one wants to consider key Islamic and Jewish intellectuals in this light, Ritter and Stöckl are helpful guides. Both devoted more attention to these individuals than would those writing similar standard histories in the twentieth century. For example, Stöckl devotes thirty-five pages to Avicenna, fifty-seven pages to Averroes, and thirty-four pages to Maimonides (Stöckl 1864–1866, 2:23–58, 67–124, 265–299, respectively). He carefully explains many arguments and supplies long quotations from the primary works. Yet Stöckl’s perspective limits the value of his history for understanding Islamic and Jewish philosophy. First, like the author’s of other standard histories of the period, he does not present the full range of significant Islamic or Jewish authors and texts. Since he is interested only in the influence that Islamic and Jewish intellectuals had on Latin medievals, he limits his discussion to those authors and texts read in the Latin West.

Secondly, he bases his presentations on the Latin translations of these authors. While these translations are necessary for understanding the Latin reception, they are less helpful for understanding the views of the authors’ studied from within their own historical context. At times the nuance of original texts is lost, a tendency that is increased by relying on Latin medieval interpretations. Therefore, in writing the history of the Latin medieval reception of Islamic and Jewish philosophy, Stöckl does not write a balanced history of Islamic or Jewish philosophy.

When Stöckl explains that Christians in the Middle Ages participated in a spiritual crusade to recapture Classical philosophy from the Muslims, it becomes clear why he does not devote serious attention to other Islamic and Jewish thinkers (Stöckl 1864–1866, 2:135). Once he has supplied the philosophical context for the Latin scholastics, there is no further reason to discuss Islamic and Jewish philosophy.6 In other words, once the Latin’s have recaptured Classical philosophy, any history of Islamic and Jewish philosophy beyond this point does not belong to the history of medieval philosophy. This view of medieval philosophy limits the philosophy of the Middle Ages to that of the Christian West. If Stöckl, and other historians active since his day, are to be more accurate, they, like Ritter, should title their works “History of Christian philosophy in the Middle Ages.”

The twentieth century is no different. The first edition of de Wulf’s history of medieval philosophy appeared in 1900 under the title Histoire de la Philosophie Médiévale. This work which would appear in six editions was one of the most important histories of medieval philosophy published in the twentieth century. In the first edition, Wulf treats Islamic and Jewish philosophy under the heading “La philosophic asiatique” just before considering the philosophy of the thirteenth century as the golden age of medieval thought (Wulf 1900, 228–234). In the sixth edition published in three volumes between 1934–1947, Wulf places this discussion as an appendix at the end of the first volume. In each case Islamic and Jewish philosophy are tangential to de Wulf’s story.

The second important history of medieval philosophy in the twentieth century was a volume of the important Ueberweg history of philosophy. This history has been one of the most important academic histories of philosophy. The medieval volume by Bernhard Geyer more accurately displays its content in its title, Die Patristische und Scholastische Philosophie (1928). He writes the history of the philosophy of the church fathers and Latin scholastics. The heading that appears on the first page of the text covers both types of philosophy: “The philosophy of the Christian time.” This faithfully indicates the focus of the work as a whole. Like the historians of the nineteenth and twentieth century’s, Geyer considers Islamic and Jewish philosophy in order to sketch the context of Latin philosophy, but at least he is honest about not writing a balanced history of medieval philosophy (Geyer 1928). He devotes fifty-five pages to Islamic and Jewish philosophy with the emphasis on those figures who would influence Latin scholasticism (Geyer 1928, 287–342).

The third great history of the twentieth century is Gilson’s History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (1955). Again, Gilson indicates by his title that his history is limited to medieval Latin philosophy. He devotes fifty pages to Islamic and Jewish philosophy, again in order to sketch the context of the Latin scholastics (Gilson 1955, 181–231).

It is important to note that a new direction in the historiography of medieval philosophy is represented by the Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy (1967) edited by A.H. Armstrong. The remarkable feature of this history is the care that is taken in order to show how members of each of the three great monotheistic traditions put Classical philosophy to use in their philosophical and theological projects. For the most part, the Jewish and Islamic intellectuals included are those who have appeared in the standard histories of the last two centuries, but something is different about this history. For example, Henry Chadwick treats Philo and early Christian thought in order to establish the Jewish and Christian use of Neo-platonism (Armstrong 1967, 137–157). Philo is not treated only to prepare the way for the presentation of Christian thought.

This difference becomes most apparent in the last section of the book, Richard Walzer’s treatment of early Islamic philosophy. The introduction to this section makes it clear that he is concerned to introduce Islamic philosophy out of an interest in this tradition—without ignoring the point that it would influence Latin philosophy. His focus is on the history of the development of philosophy under Islam. One reason that Walzer gives for why this study is important is for students of Islam. If a person is going to devote serious attention to Islam, then he or she needs to understand Islamic philosophy (Armstrong 1967, 644). This is a new goal in a standard history of philosophy and it marks an important precedent in relation to the earlier histories considered. It represents an important attempt to rethink what it means to write the history of medieval philosophy.

Another reason that Walzer gives for this study is that Islamic philosophy represents the continuation of the Classical philosophical tradition. It makes sense to study the Islamic use of Classical philosophy on account of the enormous philological, exegetical, and philosophical labor spent on this philosophy. Walzer notes that translations of philosophical, mathematical, and scientific texts had never been carried out before on such a grand scale.7 This is a period of exceptional intellectual activity. Walzer offers clear statements of the philosophy of Kindī, Rāzī, and Farabi, the sort that one finds in substantial histories of Islamic philosophy, but not normally in histories of medieval philosophy. Since this volume is a history of early medieval philosophy, Walzer only provides a sketch of later Islamic philosophy, but, since this work appeared as a sequel to W.K.C. Guthrie’s excellent six volume history of ancient philosophy, the implication is that Cambridge would publish a fuller picture of later Islamic and Jewish philosophy in a further sequel in what was becoming the most detailed history of philosophy in the English language.

The next installment of the Cambridge history appeared in 1982, The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy, edited by Norman Kretzmann, Anthony Kenny, and Jan Pinborg. The editors chose not to include Islamic and Jewish philosophy in this history. Concerning this omission, Kretzmann notes Walzer’s comment in the introduction to his treatment of Islamic philosophy that the time was not yet right for a history of Islamic philosophy in the Middle Ages (Kretzmann 1982, 2). It is interesting that Kretzmann uses Walzer as an authority for not discussing Islamic philosophy in a book published fifteen years later. Had research not been carried out on Islamic philosophy during those years? Was this the consensus of historians in the early 1980s?

Furthermore, Walzer did write the history of early Islamic philosophy and he includes six clear and cogent reasons for why we should both study and write this history. One of the reasons that he gives is the traditional one, to understand the conceptual history of European philosophy (Armstrong 1967, 645–646). Omitting Jewish and Islamic philosophy from the Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy, which is the period when this influence was most striking, misrepresents the history of this philosophy. More than any other standard history of medieval philosophy, this Cambridge volume is not a history of medieval thought, but a history of Christian philosophy. At least Hegel, Ritter, and the other historians discussed above discussed Jewish and Muslim authors in order to clarify the philosophy of the Latins. The Cambridge volume marks a low point in this regard in the historiography of Western philosophy. Furthermore, the argument given in defense of this approach is weak. If we were to take Walzer’s reservation seriously, we should be cautious about writing a history of Latin medieval philosophy itself. Large numbers of Latin medieval manuscripts of philosophical significance have never appeared in printed editions and fewer still have appeared in translation.8 But no scholar argues that we should refrain from writing the history of Latin medieval philosophy until these texts have been published and examined.

The long-standing pattern of viewing Islamic and Jewish philosophy almost solely as background for the study of the philosophy of the Latins, a pattern that places limits on the authors, versions, and texts commonly studied, is no longer serviceable for the history of medieval philosophy even though it continues to be used. For example, this pattern appears in John Marenbon’s otherwise excellent Routledge History of Medieval Philosophy, published in 1998. While articles are included on Islamic and Jewish philosophy, the chief purpose is to provide the context of Latin medieval thought (Marenbon 1998, 29–95). But there is something different here that needs to be recognized. Jean Jolivet and Colette Sirat discuss figures and themes left out of the standard histories of the past (Marenbon 1998, 29–48, 65–95). Within a few pages in what is otherwise a standard history of Latin philosophy, Jolivet and Sirat sketch more faithful accounts of the philosophy of each tradition. But there is little that they can do in the short space allotted to these two traditions.

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