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The Cambridge History of Medieval Philosophy (review)
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Reviewed by
Robert Pasnau, editor. The Cambridge History of Medieval Philosophy. Edited in association with Christina van Dyke. 2 volumes. Cambridge-New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. xx + 1220. Cloth, $265.00.

This two-volume set replaces not one but two predecessors, The Cambridge History of Early Medieval Philosophy and The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy. The editor, Robert Pasnau, declares that there is now “some consensus” that medieval philosophy’s beginnings are “understood as a project of independent philosophical inquiry” in the eighth century (1)—removing Augustine and Boethius from the canon with no further explanation or justification. It is “less easy to say when it ends,” but most of the studies venture no later than the mid-fourteenth century. Hence these volumes are for the most part a sequel only to the more recent of its predecessors, Norman Kretzmann’s The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy, with which it shares some contributors and even some material, much of Appendix B and some of Appendix C taken from the earlier edition. It differs from its predecessor in two striking ways. First, while Kretzmann took his History to be a manifesto for treating medieval philosophy as analytic philosophy avant la lettre, Pasnau is carefully agnostic about the status of medieval philosophy as philosophy in comparison with modern debates. Second, Pasnau is far more aggressively inclusive, trying to give as much weight as he can to the diverse religious traditions (Judaism, Christianity both Catholic and Orthodox, Islam) and the languages in which they were pursued (Greek, Latin, Arabic, Hebrew). This recognition of multicultural medieval philosophy is one of the best features of the new History, though it keeps it from being a success: there is simply too much material, and too much that is imperfectly assimilated, to get between covers separated by just short of 800 pages.

Some fifty-nine contemporary scholars contributed to this volume, in fifty-six thematic studies. The number is not quite right: one of the contributors, M. W. F. Stone, plagiarized the bulk of his contributions, which will be replaced in the forthcoming paperback version and future editions of the hardcover version (a fact Cambridge University Press should do rather more to publicize). The individual studies are organized under nine headings: Fundamentals, Logic and Language, Natural Philosophy, Soul and Knowledge, Will and Desire, Ethics, Political Philosophy, Metaphysics, and Theology. As with any anthology, the quality varies with the individual contributions, but overall the standard is quite high. Again, the cast of contributors, Stone aside, is excellent, a veritable who’s-who of contemporary [End Page 612] medieval scholarship—to its credit, one that has more of an international cast than many another Cambridge History. Yet the contributors are hamstrung by the format and the goals, logical and admirable as they are.

Consider an example taken more or less at random: Mark Smith’s chapter on perception (ch. 24). The topic is central to philosophy of mind and to epistemology; the author is a well-respected expert in the area; what could go wrong? In a nutshell, the insistence that he cover the topic in a nutshell: eleven and a half printed pages to cover multiple philosophical traditions over a six-century span. Comprehensiveness is laudable, but not when it leads to superficiality. To his credit, Smith does what he can within these limitations, and better than many other contributors, who merely gesture at the Islamic tradition and then revert to talking in comfortable ways about the Latin Christian West; Smith discusses what he calls the “Greco-Latin” and the “Greco-Arabic” interpretive streams, and how they combined to create something he calls “scholastic perceptual theory” (an abstract schema he discusses largely in terms of Roger Bacon, with a few notes to Witelo and Peckham). That is as well as can be done in the space available, but it is hardly more than a suggestion of the complexity of the topic, or the many different approaches that were taken to it—even from Alhazen to Bacon, much less in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. What about Aureol and Olivi? What about the debates over the species in medio? What about...