restricted access The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth: Robert Grosseteste on Universals (and the Posterior Analytics)
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The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth:
Robert Grosseteste on Universals (and the Posterior Analytics)

The reintroduction of aristotle's Analytics to the Latin West—in particular, the reintroduction of the Posterior Analytics—forever altered the course of medieval epistemological discussions.1 In the memorable words of Jonathan Barnes, "Aristotle's sweet Analytics ravished generations of European scholars and scientists. The Prior Analytics displayed the pure discipline of logic, well-formed, elegant, seductive; the Posterior Analytics beckoned to deeper mysteries, offering a sure path to scientific progress, clear and imperious in its injunctions, delicious in its rigor."2 Although the Analytics fell decidedly from grace in later centuries, the sophisticated account of human cognition developed in the Posterior Analytics appealed so strongly to thirteenth-century European scholars that it became one of the two central theories of knowledge advocated in the later Middle Ages.

Robert Grosseteste's Commentarius in Posteriorum Analyticorum Libro (hereafter, CPA), written in the 1220s, is most likely the first complete Latin commentary on the Posterior Analytics.3 As such, it offers us unique insight into the crucial period [End Page 153] in which the work was gaining an audience in the Latin West. The story of its later reception is well-known: as the thirteenth century wore on, Aristotle's account of human cognition was generally set in opposition to the Augustinian-influenced theory of divine illumination that was de rigueur in the early thirteenth century, with Franciscans such as Roger Bacon, Matthew of Aquasparta, and John Pecham championing increasingly complex illuminationist theories and many others, such as the Dominican Thomas Aquinas, advocating more empirical, Aristotelian positions.4 Although common consensus holds that this pattern of opposition was set already in Grosseteste's CPA, I will argue that the story of the Posterior Analytics's early reception is, in fact, quite different. In particular, I maintain that, rather than seeing himself as forced to choose between his earlier theory of divine illumination and the "new" Aristotelian epistemology, Grosseteste is perfectly content to blend and bring together the diverse elements of these systems and to present a consciously synthetic rather than adversarial picture of these differing accounts of human cognition.

1. Incorruptible Universals, Corruptible Particulars, and Necessary Truths

The question of whether a single account can coherently include the central claims of both these epistemological systems takes on especially sharp focus with respect to universals, the proper objects of human knowledge. In particular, Aristotle famously holds that universals do not exist independent from the individuals that instantiate them, whereas theories of divine illumination maintain that universals exist in the mind of God. This has obvious consequences for the objects of human intellective cognition: are they universals abstracted by the intellect from material particulars or God's ideas?

The apparent incompatibility of these two views is posed starkly for Grosseteste in CPA I.7 by a puzzle concerning Aristotle's claim that every demonstration is based on what is incorruptible (APo 75b22-23). The puzzle, as Grosseteste sees it, originates with the conjunction of the fact that the conclusions of successful demonstrative arguments are eternally necessary truths (such as "All human beings are mortal" and "All turtles are reptiles"5) with Aristotle's belief that universals do not exist apart from the particulars in which they inhere (as human being is found in Socrates the Athenian and turtle is found in Pedro the snapping turtle). How can the universals that are the subjects of these demonstrative arguments be incorruptible if the individuals who instantiate these universals are corruptible?6 [End Page 154]

Here Aristotelians appear to be faced with a genuine difficulty, whereas Augustinians can simply deny the problem. On standard theories of divine illumination, the proper referent of human being in "All human beings are mortal" is the universal that is eternally present in the divine essence. This universal is clearly unaffected by the perishing of Socrates. It would, in fact, be unaffected by the extinction of the entire human race, in the same way that it pre-existed the creation of individual human beings.7

In discussing this puzzle, then, it seems that Grosseteste must come down on one...