1. Abelard’s Developing Thought
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11 c h a p t e r o n e h Abelard’s Developing Thought A philosopher’s own present is always a period of time—a philosophical career which may span many decades. Few thinkers, even the steadiest and most consistent ones, retain entirely the same ideas and interests throughout their lives, and many change their views radically. Is it, then, one of the tasks of historians of philosophy to trace how their chosen thinkers developed philosophically from their earliest to their latest works? Recent work on Abelard implies both positive and negative answers to this question. From 1980 onwards, Constant Mews has tried to establish a detailed chronology of Abelard’s works and to show how Abelard’s thinking changed over the years;1 my own book The Philosophy of Peter Abelard (1997) relies at various points on positing a development in Abelard ’s views and takes a view about the general way in which his interests developed. By contrast, the leading specialists whose background is a purely philosophical one have had little to say about Abelardian chronology or the development of his ideas.2 A student approaching this author through either of two gateways much used in the anglophone philosophical community—the Cambridge 12   a b e l a r d ’ s p r e s e n t Companion and the article in the Stanford Encyclopedia dedicated to him—would receive, for the most part, the impression of a single, unchanging body of thought.3 Although the ‘development sceptics’—those who avoid any attempt to trace a chronological development in Abelard’s thinking— do not usually put their case explicitly, two sorts of reasons seem to lie behind their attitude. It is no coincidence that their background is usually strongly philosophical. There is a general tendency for such scholars, especially the anglophone ones, to concentrate on the relevance of their chosen author’s ideas to contemporary debates and to consider, at least implicitly, that looking at an author’s development is a sidetrack, a task for the biographer or intellectual historian but not for them. To this doubt about the desirability of developmental study, they add one about whether it is even possible in Abelard’s case. In order to trace a development, a firm chronology is needed, but for ancient and medieval authors there are often no clear indications of the date or even the order of the texts. Interpretations of Aristotle illustrate the problem clearly. Since Jaeger in the 1920s, scholars have produced hypotheses about the chronology of Aristotle’s works and, very often, discussed his thought in terms of its development. Many still do, but others find the whole enterprise dubious. They point out that, for the most part, the ordering of the works is based on assumptions about which positions are the more mature, or on an overall view about the direction of his thinking (that, for example, he moved from an early dependence on Plato to a more empirical approach), which are not based on any solid evidence . Moreover, the very nature of the Aristotelian works that have survived, it can be argued, makes it impossible to put them into a chronological order: they are working drafts, subject to various authorial revisions perhaps over the course of many years.4 It may well seem that an author like Abelard raises the same sort of problems . Indeed, the leading development sceptic among Abelard specialists , Peter King, claims that he does: ‘The dates of composition and even the number of Abelard’s writings remain largely obscure and a matter of controversy among scholars. One reason for this is that Abelard constantly revised and rewrote, so that several distinct Abelard’s Developing Thought  13 versions of a given work might be in circulation; another reason is that several of his writings might represent “teaching notes” constantly evolving in courses and seminars. Hence it is not clear that “date of composition” is a well-defined notion when applied to the body of Abelard’s work that we now possess.’5 My previous book on Abelard, as already mentioned, is developmentalist in its method. Given the development sceptics’ arguments , is it not time to give up such an approach? The present chapter is an attempt to provide a reasoned answer to this question. Investigators of the truth must steer a course between the two extremes of complete credulity, which allows them to form an abundance of beliefs, many of which will, however, be false, and...