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Journal of the History of Philosophy 44.2 (2006) 319-321
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Ann Moss offers an exciting and informative history of humanism from Johannes Balbus (d. 1298) through Melanchthon, who completed the "turn" from scholastic to humanistic Latin. She marshals considerable evidence from lexicography and letters that scholastics and humanists cultivated two idioms of Latin that created "two different mind-sets" (115, 188, 231, 256), two "orders of truth-values" (128), and "two Latin speech communities that talked past one another" (90, 179, 274). While her main thesis that the "two linguistic universes" were "incommensurable" (6, "Coda," 273–80) is questionable, it is a useful heuristic device to highlight differences between the two traditions. Moss illustrates many of her claims by controversies surrounding the legend of St. Ann, mother of Mary. Whether she is misled by the rhetoric of those heated debates on religious folklore, or whether they support her claim of "incommensurability" (with all of its hoary consequences for linguistic relativism) must be decided by the reader.
The book has three parts: Part I, WORDS, chapters 2, 3, and 4, traces the development of dictionaries and classical Latin phrase books after the style of Valla's Elegantia. These materials soon replaced scholastic texts for instruction in Latin and became resources for humanist literary interpretation and composition. Moss finds here nothing but disagreement between humanists and scholastics: "Their different vocabularies, their different phraseology, their different horizons of cultural reference, and their different methods of composition and discourse management will be brought into sharp relief when they engage in conflict about what is truth" (86). Part II, ARGUMENTS, chapters 5 and 6, explores debates at Paris, Leipzig, and elsewhere between humanists and scholastics over the nature of language. Moss's conclusion on Vives is typical: "In Vives's view the language of scholastic logic is a totally artificial construction producing its own self-invented conundrums, and consequently it cannot be an instrument for discovering truth. Truth and falsehood, so Vives contends, are formulated in language, or more precisely in languages, commonly used and in the ordinary grammar of those languages. Dialectic then discovers what is true or false or plausible in this common speech ('vulgaris sermo')" (114). With Vives, as later with Melanchthon, "common speech" is that of approved Latin authors: "With 'correctly' regulated language come correctly regulated modes of speech, rhetoric correctly understood, [End Page 319] and correct analysis of signification procedures" (250, emphasis added). Chapter 7 introduces the role of common places (loci communes) in humanist dialectic—a topic on which Professor Moss has written luminously. Part III explores the relation of truth to fiction in composition, reading, and autobiographical narrative. Despite her claims that Melanchthon "demolished altogether the exegetical model" of scriptural interpretation crafted by (medieval) "illiterates," his insistence on the primacy of the literal meaning of scripture is strikingly similar to Aquinas's (249–50). Moss comes closest to saying what she means by "renaissance truth" in three places: (1) where she elucidates Vives's Veritas fucata (208–12), (2) where she outlines Melanchthon's theory of scriptural interpretation (155), and (3) where she comments on debates about the "truth" of the St. Anne legend (passim). For Moss, "renaissance truth" is apparently whatever is expressed in the classical Latin idiom and declared to be true by canonized humanist hermeneuts. Nowhere do we find anything like a gloss on the predicate '(X) is true' where 'X' is a sentence used by an ordinary person.
Both humanists and scholastics shared a compositional view of language. Just as words are combinations of consonants and vowels, sentences are composed of significative and co-significative (scholastic: categorematic and syncategorematic) words. Narratives are, in turn, composed of sentences, both simple and compound. For both, words have no meaning in isolation but only in the context of sentences that are the bearers of truth or falsity. In view of this it is remarkable that Moss moves from "Words" to...